betaATL: act 2
The post-cyberized world from Rahl's constricted, quiet perch.
Where’s act 1?
Act 1 of beta All That’s Left, a “novel” in progress, has been out for a while now under the name Real Work You Deserve. At 14,000 words I believe it’s (warm) novelette length, comprising a thorough introduction, from Kay’s perspective, into the expanding world that we then find ourselves in when Rahl takes the perspective reins. The opening 6000 or so words can be listened to as audio in my main newsletter from Jan 11, 2021, and its full length is included as the final story in my short story collection, Transitional Times Transitional Body.
I will most certainly rewrite act 1 when I get to the end of this initial manuscript. As preparation for sending this betaATL edition newsletter, I had my computer’s speech function read all of act 2 out loud to me. It has a number of glaring errors, but I would rather share what I think of my own errors alongside what beta readers had to say themselves, in the next betaATL drop containing act 3. You into that?
If you are not a willing beta reader of this WIP, my apologies. I don’t seem to have a way for existing subscribers to opt out of new sections within my overall newsletter. Anyway, yer ole cyborg here is looking into Patreon for tiered offerings, free and otherwise.
And to my willing beta readers, a reminder that any ole thing could get dropped or rewritten. There are descriptions in this of Braga’s size, for instance, that will be changing in future iterations, among other things still being hammered out and tempered. I welcome any feedback or suggestions that come to mind as you read.
Thank you so much. ;-;
Rahl did not join the Surveyor pilot in the same fashion as Kay. Rahl had come to the pilot voluntarily from another Ellison program on the production farm where they already had employment. The farm grew exclusively for the Elly tower and Rahl lived in its on-site workers’ quarters outside the tower’s main ring. They had come there from a contract farmhand position at another, bigger farm that was part of a water management and grow service provider. At the point of reaching Elly’s production farm, Rahl was someone doing the work of experienced engineers and stewards and logistics managers. Yet their employer considered them as voluntary production line staff or non-essential operations worker or or or or—simply someone who need not meet and speak directly with the top tier managers—some one who could be relied upon to receive instruction and put it into production. Rahl felt it was as autonomous as one of their station could be, depending on how you looked at it, given the circumstances.
It was only a handful of days ago that one of Rahl’s handlers had gossiped, Peñafiel had finally cleared her rehab and the next stage of the pilot could begin. Rahl sipped their exquisite, nutrient-dense fruit juice in silence and looked back at their handler with brows raised in one of those ‘oh you don’t say’ expressions. Yup, Rahl’s handler continued. Their team had just today received instructions to prepare their charge for the first official meet-and-greet. Rahl nodded, feigning a willingness for ‘the next step’ and wondered why the entire pilot’s progression seemed to hinge on a single person, and what this meet-and-greet was going to entail. They were more than ready to be released from this so-called training and rehabilitation facility, to see the night sky, to look at the direction of the sun and feel its searing heat, to wear the humidity of outside, and orient the sounds of a wind blowing. The substitute weather in here—its perfumed light events and sedative breezes—was not reassuring to the changing sensations of Rahl’s freshly prosthetized how can they tell what is a normal sensation from before if they’re drugged or whatever all the time?
Yet Rahl was well accustomed to the calculated routines of facility living. Every morning here, for example, a stylized closet bar would be laid out with their attire for morning activities. In the afternoon, a fresh outfit. So many specialized outfits, always presented one at a time and never just left to hang in a more traditional closet or meager hook. Not even their sleepwear. No, it was not reassuring, going to bed at night and hoping for something comfortable to wear in the morning, but Rahl quickly had to have faith that they would be provided for anew, because what choice was there? The handlers, of course, made each new outfit a point of conversation. What do you think of the colors? The fit? Yeah, they should’ve made the cuff larger, used 60% linen instead of half, made the rib knit tighter—and other aficionado quibbles of which Rahl could barely be bothered barely knew how to respond???
So on this morning when Rahl arose from their warm bed in its private little room, and took note of what lay on the bar, they knew something was about to change. For one, the outfit was 100% natural fibers. Rahl guessed linen or one of Elly’s genetically coaxed hybrid performance blends. Hand-stitched, maybe commissioned—artisanal, the handlers liked to say. Otherwise it appeared to be a matching leisurewear set in tasteful grey. Rahl stood appraising the material between thumb and fingertips when the door signaled it was about to open. In popped their main handler, who looked at the outfit and then to Rahl with an expression of great relish—guess what day it isss, she chimed. I’ll be back in twenty, she winked, and rushed off, trailing a great waft of spiced floral fragrance behind her. Rahl got dressed.
This morning’s destination space was a greenhouse garden, intimate and impeccably tended. Rahl wondered who all took care of it. There was actual sunlight. Butterflies flew and danced on the air and billowy canopy trees. There was food laid out over there and a small stage setup over there, and four different groupings of chairs numbered to accommodate a surveyor and all of their handlers. Rahl watched in awe as three other groups moved from the entrance to their designated seating. Somewhere a bird cawed (a catbird?). In the midst of one handler group Rahl saw a dense, broad person, with lustrous redtone, deeply melanated skin, who seemed at once brooding and skittish. Rahl saw someone in their matching meet & greet attire with a lighter golden complexion. They seemed entirely chummy with their handler group—making sudden and too-intense, bad boundaries-style lusty eye contact and seemed to consider themself the center of attention, by how much they carried on and angled and arched and stretched their body. And Rahl saw someone whose skin had a bizarre pallor and blotchy, mottled patches and weirdly striated sections. This person seemed sullen, angry, looking around with a clenched jaw, and who walked so slowly and deliberately Rahl wondered if they were in pain or what kind of pain they were in.
“You must be Miss Peñafiel!” a voice exclaimed just as Rahl thought the same.
“Suli!” a handler chided. Their group all seemed in good, carefree spirits.
“Whaaat?” Suli laughed.
“Just wait, ok? Dr. Orne isn’t even here yet, you know this has to be official.”
Rahl looked across the small gulf of humid lush green sunroom and unexpectedly straight into the sullen person’s eyes, who seemed to let them look back, to find something on offer to whomever could perceive. Then Rahl looked away, mind emptying from the lingering contact and the intuitive awareness they had something to share. Rahl observed the first person share a similar look with Peñafiel, even more acquainted. All will be revealed, Rahl reassured themself.
“Good morning!” The voice of the robot progeny NAT rang out, capturing everyone’s attention to the approaching footfalls of Dr. Orne. She had swapped her usual high-collar attire to what struck Rahl as a salaciously-low open neckline. The doctor took up a languid pose against her speaking podium and launched in.
“Cyborgs. When I was first entering into my field that’s what they called it—our area of concern. Cybernetic Organisms. Cybernetics originally a field of study for getting Americans on the moon and into outer space. Adapt the human animal to the environments of space. But, we never got that far—the achievement never seized, never realized. Fallen short due to lack of imagination. Men ruled the world and that’s why it’s in shambles now.
“Nearly a decade ago, before I stepped into the position of the burgeoning R&D department that would become the Elly Wellness division, I worked in resource management for Energy Landscape. I was surrounded by food and water supply executives, heads of state, corporate infrastructure lords—all men. All fixated on the problems, never the causes.
“The Surveyor pilot is going to do something never before conceived or attempted—reclamation and rehabilitation and reclassification of environmental health factors and hazards based on entirely reimagined human frameworks. Putting people at the center of rehabilitative wellness care, rather than continuing to cordon them off in environmental bubbles. We are about to step out, using technology to integrate ourselves with our environments and adjust—not bend—the natural world to our will. It’s time to think beyond the confines of a man’s world and act on the potential of our women-led dreams.”
Rahl was stunned. One of the person Suli’s handlers started clapping.
“Today!” the doctor continued. The clapping ceased immediately. “Today is a conception date. Our preliminary, primary unit meets today.”
Rahl realized with certainty that Dr. Orne had yet to address any of them personally or even acknowledge their presence.
“Surveyors!” And suddenly their vision was pierced by the vacant, endless stare of Dr. Orne’s dilated pupils. “Today marks the next stage of your training. We are releasing you from the confines of tightly monitored scheduling, your care aids’ constant presence, your solitary isolation. Consider this your graduation ceremony; a communing with your new comrades. These are the people you will be assigned to for your debut survey. We hope that you will get to know one another as well as we do each of you.”
There was gleeful laughter and applause from the handlers. Who is laughing, Rahl thought. They watched the brooding skittish one look around, eyes darting from person to place. The one Suli was clapping. And the one Miss Peñafiel was staring deadpan into Dr. Orne’s direction, otherwise motionless. On cue, a fine mist befitting their tropical greenhouse location began to gently cascade down from the concealed ceiling and side jets. Rahl frowned inwardly seeing their celebratory food and drink uncovered. The handlers were cooing. Dr. Orne was leaving her podium wearing a leisured smile, joking with the NAT maybe? The mist fell down. A handler urged Rahl to go forth. Mingle. Imbibe. It’s a celebration! We did it! the one said. Rahl wondered, did what, and took themself out towards the open center where the others approached.
“You guys are hot. We’re gonna have fun. What’s your names?”
“What’s yours?” the tired angry maybe Miss Peñafiel retorted.
“Lucius Sulya Agassi, or just Suli.”
“And where are you from, Suli?” maybe Miss Peñafiel continued. They were not being friendly. Suli laughed in the silence; Rahl wondered if in ignorance or playing it off or just not caring.
“I’m from here, from the original 5-Points Township municipal coalition that turned into Elly.”
“Oh I don’t like people from Elly,” Peñafiel responded cooly. Rahl perked a brow—an unrestrained reaction and noticed the bigger person glance at it in turn.
“Oh, I know,” Suli’s pert response. Rahl fully raised their brow, the whole thing, and stepped in.
“I’m Rahl. Like ‘doll’. I’m a border crosser—that’s all you need to know.” Rahl smiled amicably at the three of them, then extended their open palm, first at Suli, who quickly gripped it and restated their own name, maybe even with a wink? Rahl wasn’t sure. Locking eyes with Suli was not pleasant. An intense, pleading void. Like me. A person who cared greatly about status. Rahl pivoted to the big person, adjusted up to meet their rich brown eyes, translucent like stained glass, and who peered back down from behind an internal wall far away.
“Braga. I’m from the original city here. ‘He’ or my name if you gonna talk about me, I’d appreciate that.” Braga held Rahl’s gaze while holding their grip and added, “Nice to meet you,” in a slow, sincere cadence. Rahl nodded back.
“A pleasure. I’m not ‘he’ or ‘she’ and I’m both ‘she’ and ‘he’—so please use ‘they’ for me.” Braga and Rahl’s hands unclasped. Suli started in towards Braga, like now they were gonna exchange pleasantries, but Braga fully ignored it because he had turned to watch how Rahl now approached the fourth of their little unit, who was already arm extended and wearing a half smile.
“Kay. She. I like border crossers,” she said, showing her teeth in a grin.
“Nice to meet you, Kay.” Rahl, distracted by her grin and by their hand in hers, noticed how her forearm looked so strange for some reason, mottled like there was some extremely old layer of pencil or dirt or—it looked like varicose veins but in specific patterns—Rahl ripped their gaze back to Kay’s face. “Miss… Peñafiel, yes? That’s how my… team referred to you.” Beside Rahl, Braga stepped into their conversation space with arms folded. Rahl noticed Suli remained in place, looked back at their own team, gestured something, then finally took a periphery position between Braga and Rahl themself. Kay glanced at Suli before answering.
“Yeah, I dunno. They just started that trend themselves,” she looked away from their convo to glance around at the various teams pretending to socialize and not observe. Rahl turned to Suli.
“I noticed, when you arrived, Suli, that one of your team addressed you by your given name.” Rahl wanted to connect them all in conversation. Suli eagerly positioned their body closer into the circle of bodies.
“Well I asked them to, to be honest. I wasn’t comfortable with the formal address. Made me feel too much like a research subject.” Suli’s manner of speaking was rapid, casual in a way meant to be ingratiating/charming. Rahl found themself chuckling. “Whaa-et?” Suli demanded.
“That is what I think I am, Suli. Tell me, how are we to refer to you?” Rahl said, glancing towards Kay and Braga and back to Suli.
“What do you mean?” They looked clueless, demanding to be let in on the understanding. “Ohhhh. Mostly ‘he’,” Suli smirked. Then his lips pursed into a half-lidded seductive expression, “And you’ll know if that changes.”
Braga laughed, blowing breath between closed lips. “Okay.”
Rahl looked between the three of them, looked past them at the parameter of this warm lush greenhouse, looked at their handlers mingling and flirting, looked at another pump of mist cascading down through the sultry air, the food, their special outfits, the food again, then said, giving a stern nod toward each of them, “I hope we all get along and help each other during our times together.”
“Definitely,” Suli immediately added.
“I’m down for that,” Braga murmured, holding eye contact.
“We’ll see,” said Kay, who again offered her palm to shake on. She pulled Rahl close to her when they took it, confronting Rahl once again with the peculiarities of her epidermis, who was unsure how immediately to respond to this particular form of interaction, other than nodding and maneuvering themself back into their own personal space.
This is a shitshow, Rahl thought, settling their breath and looking around again. They were hungry but loathe to eat of the dusted food and drink. The mists always do something here. The Elly people love them but no one has ever bothered to articulate what they are made of or…anything besides casual dismissals—it’s for mood, you’ll feel better, this will help you sleep, give you an appetite and so on. Rahl watched Suli bound up to the table, grab a plate, begin sampling and chatting it up with his team, who were all also eating and drinking without hesitation.
“I see you watching,” came Braga’s low-volume voice from the side.
“I’m still not comfortable with—not used to this selection of food. This presentation. Everything is already prepared.”
“Yeah,” Braga nodded. “You didn’t make it yourself. I’m used to doing everything with my own two hands.”
“Yes, so you know.”
“Well I’m hungry,” Kay interjected on her way past the two of them. “I’m back from the dead, reincarnated! That’s why they call me Miss around here. Sike nah it’s not,” she low key smiled, trading a warm look with Braga, then a quick one with Rahl.
They began to think. I’m surprised that our handlers would eat the very same food that we would eat. Is this some show of breaking bread? Rahl approached the feast table attempting to mask a survival-born body hesitation as mere quandary of choice—there is SO much food here at once, so many fruits and nuts, herbs, vegetables, eggs, grains—so much of it they’ve had to grow and hand over in their time before coming here. Suddenly Rahl registered the undulating vibrational tempo of Dr. Orne’s NAT diamond against the back of their head. Then Dr. Orne herself eclipsed Rahl’s line of sight.
“Rahl,” she said fondly, rolling the ‘R’ of their name against her teeth in some attempt to display her knowledge-thus-affinity for Rahl’s supposed native language. She had never before addressed them by this given name, as Rahl had never given it to her, and now they felt the haunting pang of resentment bristle their demeanor of calm.
“Yes, Dr. Orne?”
“You’ve always been suspicious of your meals here. Why?”
“I’m still overcome by the novelty, Doctor.”
“You used to grow so much of it, isn’t that right?”
“You didn’t realize that our produce takes a final adjustment before it’s served, did you?” the doctor said. The casual, non-discretionary way she said this cut further through Rahl’s established way to act with the typically impenetrable program director.
“Yes. The sprays… I—”
“Get used to it,” and she uttered Rahl’s whole misgendered suffix and family name. “This is your life now.”
Suli’s piercing laughter drowned out the end of the doctor’s statement. The mist fell down again. Rahl inhaled it slowly, steadily, and finally picked up a plate.
* * *
The lot of them were moved to a different facility where they were given private rooms and common rooms and freedom of movement between them. Suli called them dorms. Kay called it nice. Braga didn’t say anything, to Rahl anyway—who found themself disturbed by a muscle memory familiar with the layout. Rahl was past adolescence, slight of build, and after cyberization still well possessed across their shoulders and back and torso. But they found themself caving inward, moving through the halls and rooms of their new containment, shrinking down and holding their breath like when they were little, during those years in the live-work contract tenement—a watching place that held kids but was unkind to them, that managed its little occupants through fear and lack while their kin were out working. And here, Rahl felt that same tacit sensation of holding and watching but with no obvious surveillance staff and with more substantial building materials and friendlier design elements. So Rahl understood then how valuable they all were to this project, for the time being.
Where before, the group’s handler teams led them in secrecy from individual confinements into specialty exercise rooms throughout the day, they now ambled freely out of their rooms each morning and down a long corridor, reporting to an all-purpose facility called simply the lab, for coordinated trainings and medical inspections and team building exercises. Their dissolved individual handler teams reemerged as a unified group of specialists who awaited them in the hub, armed with recording tablets and banal inquiries about how they’ve been enjoying their AH—Available Hours—the project’s peculiar euphemism for unscheduled time.
There was so much of it here.
Rahl had never before had this much unscheduled time in the day not working or having to be somewhere. A couple days had to pass before they accepted that there wouldn’t be consequences for failing some punishable duty of routine—being asleep a few minutes earlier than scheduled or spending too much time washing up, for example—and there wasn’t even a schedule beyond the morning orientations. They gradually took the risk of reclining on wide, plush couches or beautifully made wooden chairs at beautifully made wooden tables, mulling over what they had exchanged for these passing material pleasantries, watching in silence as the others likewise acclimated to their new surroundings—their monastery, Rahl began to call it, where they were all cloistered together in peaceful solitude and silently looked after by a formless, ever-watchful presence Rahl was certain existed.
Available Hours. Rahl mused over what the real meaning of the phrase was about. It was during AH that the four of them toured each other’s rooms for fun—everyone’s had the same interior shape and furniture, with a filtered window guarded by a statuesque potted plant. Very beautiful and eternal feeling. Untouched, maybe, was the better word for it. The light was different at each window, a realistic detail that left Rahl puzzled since none of the plants reacted any differently to the light in turn. But then the windows were fitted with privacy filters that none of them could see ‘out’ of. Every seeming source of natural light in the facility was like this—the little courtyard surrounded by covered walkways, and the rooftop leisure space. Both fitted with a semi-opaque shell-shade structure. No blue sky or distinct suggestion of the sun. Just a bright, diffuse light that gradated and eventually dimmed after many hours. Rahl pondered whether the facility itself was a story within a larger structure or if it was a separate building and the roof was really the roof or what. Come night time hours the privacy filters conveyed the appearance of an unbroken cloud covered sky. Its sense of depth was impressively real. Rahl wondered, why this effect? There is a reason. Someone chose it that way.
There were reasons too, why they all chose to hang out in the spaces they did during AH, but Rahl felt unnerved by their compulsion to dissect the vast amount of them, and quickly made the small choice instead to mind their own business.
* * *
Sometimes during AH Rahl couldn’t help but watch Suli—a hardbody teen who seemed like he very much wanted to be watched—traipsing and posing whenever he entered a room; leaning, arching, poising his body at every interaction. Did he ever relax? Or was this the culture of the tower here? Suli wore their off-schedule uniform with zippers halfway and cuffs rolled, exposing skin wherever possible. He seemed perpetually fresh from the shower, his tan skin dewey and dark hair damp, the length of it fingered back over his scalp. A flower dripping nectar, Rahl thought, except the mental image did not fill them with any sense of serenity.
Suli ignored Rahl whenever possible it seemed, appearing into the common areas only after Braga or especially Kay had come out of their rooms. And this was only after he’d been ousted by his old handlers. The four cyborgs (as the techs had taken to saying) would be in the lab hooked up to monitoring equipment, the routine end to the morning’s check-in, while Suli carried on in a loud high voice about having screen parties on the couches and if they just brought the one mist he liked by Cimexa. Rahl wasn’t sure if Suli seriously believed his relationship with the handlers would last or if he wanted to show the rest of them that he was someone, not just another test subject in a tower project, or what. His former handlers grew progressively mirthless and unresponsive to his propositions, to the point of acting like they didn’t even hear what Suli said, while they made sure to carry own their own loud and banal conversations he was outside of. As Suli began to realize he was cut off, he gave the handlers a standoffish can’t-be-bothered attitude in return, and soon after when that had no effect, he became resigned and dissociative like Kay and the rest of them. Interesting.
So Rahl observed as new patterns emerged during their time in the monastery.
For instance, in the afternoons Suli made a habit to find Kay, freshly settled into a comfortable position on the entertainment room’s outrageously large sectional couch. The Elly screens would just be tuned in to The Bodywork Block of eroticized endurance wrestling and service massage and titillation shows. And before Suli’s arrival Kay would acknowledge Rahl who sat in the far adjacent hub of the kitchen-dining area, indulging their own afternoon habit, drinking as many clear cool sweet-tasting glasses of water they could stomach. And when Suli appeared, Rahl would idly watch the backs of their heads line up along the plane of the couch, moving closer and closer as the Block progressed. Until inevitably the murmurs of their voices fell to shuffling and silence into the multiply-angled sound bath of the screen speakers. And they wouldn’t ever look back over the couch to acknowledge Rahl or check when they moved about. Fascinating.
Many times on the way back to their room, Rahl would encounter Braga lounging among the pair of little courtyard benches that faced the covered walkways to their rooms. Braga was reliable to Rahl, always with a rote ‘how you doin’ at the ready, words much appreciated when compared to Suli’s absolute non-acknowledgement and Kay’s wordless smiles and monosyllabic ‘hey’ greetings. Rahl was poor at conversation and there wasn’t much to talk about here as far as they were concerned—a sentiment Braga seemed to share. You wanna sit, he’d offer, and Rahl would join him on the bench staring outward into the diffuse light above, until it simply felt time to carry on with their respective days.
It puzzled Rahl when they sometimes caught glimpses of Suli with Braga in the same little courtyard, their bodies angled tense and poised towards each other with a big distance between them. Braga seemed to make it a point to sit himself on the angle of a planter where Suli couldn’t join him. Yet it was he who seemed anxious to trade the perch for the flat of the bench where Suli leisured. And as Rahl continued for their bedroom, they wondered if Braga spent his time with Kay in her room or if they talked, if they were close friends or maybe lovers or survivors. They didn’t share many words when they were all in group, but the pair’s body language was sympathetic and patient towards each other. And there was that time when Suli seemed especially pressed for company, circling between the tv room and courtyard when it became apparent that both were indisposed.
Rahl encountered Kay most frequently at night in the lavatory, where they both prepared for bed at length with their respective brushing and washing routines, and lingering proximities in various states of undress. Otherwise she tended to be polite and flirtatiously disinterested in Rahl.
“Hey,” she approached one night looking nervous. “Would you…smell my skin?” Gestured her damp forearm out. Rahl looked from it to her face and confirmed a genuine request.
And the next night, “How long did it take you to recover?”
And the next, “Can I touch your skin?”
And so on.
Kay began to divulge what her own ordeal with the prosthetic process had been like, how even though she felt physically better than before, she felt like something didn’t gel all the way like it should’ve, and she was perpetually experiencing phantom pains. Her skin had a peculiar green, dew humidity smell to it and felt stiff and strangely textured. She told Rahl that she pursued their physical exchanges as a source of feedback—tactile confirmation—that her epidermis was indeed approaching a realm of familiarity, and Rahl deeply appreciated the premise.
Alone, Rahl thought in very quiet thoughts how they wished so badly just for something to write with and keep private. Ever since they left to come here. So many things have changed. They worried to forget these transitional times and of becoming someone who had forgotten. But to ask for something to write with here would be an invitation to Elly into Rahl’s most explicit interior thoughts—bonus data on top of the thoughtfully designed environment of movement sensors, behavioral trackers, and mood augmenters. Rahl wondered in the produced dark of their bedroom, if the other three noticed this or cared. And Rahl thought about the thrilling smell of Kay’s still growing skin.
* * *
Something is going on. Today is their twelfth day in the monastery and Rahl is hurriedly retreating to their room. This morning Dr. Orne had personally come into lab to announce the approach of their first survey—the Preliminary Dispatch, first live day on the job; a probation date. Moments ago Rahl stood three paces into the lavatory staring at a partial reflection in the long wash basin mirror of Suli sucking Braga off in the last stall, door open and all. It was the muffled sound of lips slaking down an absolute throatful that caused Rahl to even notice. They stood frozen, their body flushed warm and tingling with quickened bloodrush, until they took a breath and slipped away before either of them looked. Something is going on. Because this happened to Rahl earlier today, in the kitchen.
Rahl sat drinking their water, and across in the TV room Kay and Suli had just settled in for The Bodywork Block as usual. The murmur of their banter quieted down as usual. They sat closer to each other. And as usual, Rahl could only see the tops of their heads peeking over the couch back, shrouded in the dissociated shadows and washes of color projecting from the screen’s obscured angle. Yes, just this afternoon Rahl had watched Suli’s head slip down and disappear and Kay’s head fall back in turn, revealing a new view of the top of her head and its two braids. And then—uhn!— her voice a sharp, urgent noise that turned into a low, dragging groan. Rahl felt themself get hot then, and frozen in place.
They sat at the little dining table and painstakingly worked on finishing the big glass tumbler of water they’d poured moments earlier. Leaving now, even though a whole room away, and risk drawing attention to themself would be unbearable, the mistake of lingering in the wrong place. As Rahl gulped down the last of that premium water, Suli’s image resurfaced through the glass bottom. And when they lowered the glass so did Suli with it. Rahl noticed that he faced Kay with his head turned down and quickly slinking below her’s. His fingertips appeared grasping the top of the couch on either side of her head, before unclasping and creeping elsewhere. Soon after that the moaning and groaning and barely restrained panting began. Both of them. And once the couch itself started thumping, then Rahl unhinged themself from the chair and wobbled off to also pant, but alone in their room.
Now it was the end of another day and time for bed. Rahl’s nerves have been cycling and shorting from witnessing both of the day’s occurrences, dreading what might happen in tonight’s expected encounter with Kay. But as they enter the lavatory with their pajamas and washcloth over shoulder, they find Suli patting his face dry at the sink.
“Look who it is,” Suli smiles—grins? He holds a long eye contact that also seems to grin at Rahl, assessing them. Rahl pauses, moves for a comfortable talking distance—two mounted spigots of the four away—and draws a measured breath.
“Suli, what’s going on with you today?” He perks a faux-concerned brow and leans against the wash basin with his arms folded. Rahl draws another breath. “You’re having sex with everybody.”
“No. I’m not having sex with you. Don’t be jealous.”
Rahl is aghast. Suli’s tone is cuttingly matter-of-fact.
“Look, you’re just not what I’m into.”
“Rahl, this is all very normal around here. If people wanna fuck then that’s what they do! Especially among teammates. Don’t get your feelings hurt—it’s all a power-pleasure thing to pass the time and like get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.” Suli waves a hand like you know what I mean.
“I am moreso, primarily, concerned with damaging the care dynamics we’re supposed to have established in the group. We are just some days from this first dispatch and you’re—”
“Rahl. Rahl—that’s for the job. What I do in my A.H. isn’t related.”
“What?” Rahl is flabbergasted by Suli’s statement. It spirals them into a vortex of what they (mistakenly?) understood their collective obligations to be in Elly’s monastery, and what Suli’s apparent understanding was in opposition. Is he a plant? A spy? Rahl bewilders.
“Baby, it’s ok.” Suli insists in a dispassionate tone. He grasps Rahl’s shoulder. Rahl glares at the hand. “It’s normal. You’re not what I’m into, it’s never gonna happen for us, and just mind your business—you’ll be fine. Now I gotta get to sleep!” And he trots out before Rahl can muster a response.
Rahl sleeps fitfully after that and awakens in the dead of the night, distressed and body-aching. The showers get very hot. It’s a luxury. They plod down the hallway, awash in the low orange glow of Unavailable Hours lighting, and they are met by a sound of rushing water that sets their adrenaline in motion. Rahl pushes the flap door in and crosses into a darkened humid fog, orange-cast and obscuring the mirrors with its density. The near shower is going. That could be anybody, they think, but their body wants it badly to be Kay.
Rahl passes the showers and enters the far toilet stall to piss (did Braga like it earlier?) and hears the velocity of water slowing when they unhitch the stall door to leave. Their gaze jumps to the ledge above the wash basin spigots where a crumpled uniform top and pair of briefs underwear sit topped with Kay’s well-worn braided cloth necklace. There is a need to confirm it is Kay in that shower stall and not just her pile of unattended clothes, a trick. The need compels Rahl’s stiff body towards the shower stall, their mind’s eye flooding with memories of the back of her head from up close, her soft cotton tank top on angular shoulders, and her textured skin with its own engrossing aura full of ghosts of tattoos. They pause.
“I’m in the bathroom,” they announce. “It’s Rahl.” A dripping wet head pokes out from the stall into the condensation-heavy air and faces them. Kay’s demeanor is softened with exhaustion.
“Ugh. I’m glad it’s you. Will you pass me my underwear?” Rahl nods and passes them through the curtain. Kay exits the shower stall a moment later with the pair of briefs on and one of the monastery’s natural-cotton towels across her shoulders and chest. “I was just thinking we missed each other tonight.” She is carrying a little tote basket full of hygiene products, specialty items fashioned to meet the unique nutritional needs of their prosthetic Surveryor’s skin. She sets the tote next to her clothes on the wash basin mirror’s ample ledge and plucks out the base moisturizer of a two-step Elly-prescribed skincare regimen. Rahl eventually follows her sink side.
“I was coming to take a shower, too.” And after a beat, “I don’t feel good.”
“Me neither.” She works the creamy humectant into her skin. Rahl watches. She rubs it across her ribs and collar and fleshy nipples. Her heavy hands work from stiff wrists. That ghost texture is everywhere Rahl can see. They look at themself in the mirror and see Kay also looking at them. “Will you do something for me,” she says once they notice, a weary smile tracing on her face while the sound of slick product glops and whips between her hands. “I’ll do it for you back.” And then Rahl looks down as her foot bumps their’s. They’re both wearing the Elly issued room slides, no socks.
“Something we’ve done before?” The amount of moisture in the air dampens the usual echo their voices make against the bathroom surface tiles.
“Yeah. In fact, I wanted to try something different. Do you wanna shower first?”
“I’m in no rush. Go shower first,” she ushers gently, smiling with patience of a seasoned instructor. So Rahl enters the stall and undresses in the shadow of orange light, grateful for the dark and the warm damp that soon envelops them behind the stall door.
When Rahl exits they find Kay working in the last of the humectant—she is bent over and Rahl sees the top of her head, the landscape of her downturned shoulders spreading into her back, her arms outstretched and fingers gliding over ankles and feet. She looks up and painstakingly brings herself upright.
“How are you doing?” Rahl concerns. They watch her breathing, recomposing herself from pain—Rahl has been there before.
“Meh. You know,” she smirks, checks out Rahl’s water droplet skin peeking from beneath the towel, also slung across their shoulders and chest. “Actually…yeah, I dunno. It’s different. I had different problems before coming here, and a lot of those haven’t bothered me since—” she’s chewing on a thought, “Since waking up in this…new…body.” Rahl holds themself as Kay leans back against the basin. “I’m just—I dunno. Things are working out but it’s always taking me longer than they schedule for.” At that Rahl sucks in a breath.
“We waited for you. The handlers started to act strange. I remember thinking something had been delayed or changed but they weren’t going to tell us. After we got here, Braga told me it was because you died or almost died, and that’s why they didn’t give us a firm reason for why the next stage kept getting pushed back.” Rahl stops talking because Kay’s gaze has gone elsewhere. In the silence she whips her attention back. Her whole face is taut. Burning. Then she scoffs.
“Yeah maybe I died.” Rahl is starting to feel tense. “Or maybe my cells were all just really, really chemically dried out. Will you help me?”
“You want me to soften up your balm?”
“I want you to apply it, since you’re here. If you want.” Rahl watches the tension-grimace in her expression shift to exhaustion. “My joints have been bothering me since the morning meeting.”
“I can apply it,” Rahl offers quietly. They hold their hand out and gesture for Kay to get it from the basket. As she turns, Rahl watches her skin move over the structure of her torso. She looks them in the mirror, grabs the balm, and turns back around. Rahl remembers something is going on.
In the bathroom there is a dressing area with a selection of vanity mirrors and small tables, off to the side from the main entrance’s straightforward path to the bathing area. It is a peculiar cubby, a private corner one must deliberately enter, with no mirrors to reveal what’s around the corner. It is here the two night owl cyborgs decide best for applying Kay’s balm.
Rahl moves one of the two dressing benches forward so they can stand behind it while tired Kay sits—and they both face a generously sized full length mirror. Kay’s natural-cotton towel sits folded in her lap, and she sits shoulders slumped with fatigue, low back curving. When Rahl goes in to work this balm, its with their palms on her trapezius muscles and their fingertips pressing along the range of her collarbone. She makes a sound of relief that puts Rahl back in the headspace of the kitchen earlier today, and they think to themself, isn’t this what they wanted?
Kay, are you having sex with everybody, they want to ask. But they know they don’t want an answer to that question because what would that do? Instead they watch the expression on her close-eyed face as their spindly, knobby fingers glide a formation across her ligaments.
Put a lot on me, she says.
Sit down next to me, she says.
Take this off. And Rahl’s own towel is on a vanity ledge.
“Now,” she looks at Rahl, eyes beckoning, serious. She is glistening with balm, glowing deep cocoon orange. She drags her knee onto the bench and turns to face Rahl, straddling it halfway. “Sit like this, too.”
And come closer, she says. Rahl is breathing shallow, then does. She hugs herself tight, rubs her own lotioned arms up and down, and then locks eyes with Rahl, hands back out and reaching. Rahl inhales under the sensation of that warmed balm, doubly warmed by her own skin, as she rubs the excess into their shoulders and arms.
They say nothing and watch her hands intently.
Kay continues drawing the excess balm from other places of her body, and it’s not long before Rahl begins to wonder what’s in Kay’s particular skincare regimen—they’re beginning to feel increasingly…something to this ongoing skin contact. They remember watching a cat arch its body more and more as someone pet it.
Kay snickers. She wags her eyebrows and purses her lips together when Rahl looks. Her eyes shoot to Rahl’s chest and its little breasts with downward pointing nipples. Soon she’s stroking them upwards, smiling.
“I never notice you have these until we’re in here with our shirts off. Do you like them?” Rahl’s mouth hangs open with shallow breath, looking from their chest to her hands to Kay’s face.
“They were bigger, before,” they say, swaying and panting and arching their body under Kay’s coaxing strokes. “I’m not sure what to think about them yet but. I like this.” The two of them are sitting knees touching thighs.
Later, Rahl creeps through the dim quiet-hours glow and back beneath the sheets of their bed. They feel like a sun-ripe plum, throbbing all over with a radiating heat, and their body memories are full of pressure and handfuls and teeth, and their skin feels absolutely plumped. They go to sleep easy.
Word comes in the morning that they will leave this monastery within the week.