HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop
2013 Aurora Award Nominee for Best Short Fiction - English
When my nose stopped aching, I smiled at Rain. She had snorted a song ten minutes before me, and I couldn't quite figure why she waited here in the dark confines of the sample booth.
"Rain?" I said. "You okay?"
"Do you hear it, Alex?" she said, not really looking at me. More like staring off in two directions at once, as though her eyes had decided to break off their working relationship and wander aimlessly on their own missions. "It's so amaaazing."
She held that "a" a long time. I should've remembered how gripping every sample was for her, as though her neurons were built like radio antennae, attuned to whatever channel carried the best track ever recorded. I needed to get her ass on the dance floor before I got so angry that I ended up with another Jessica-situation. I still had eight months left on my parole.
"Do you hear it?" Rain nudged me, hard on the shoulder. "Alex!" Her eyes had made up and decided to work together, locking on me like I was the only male in a sea of estrogen.
"Yeah, it's awesome," I lied. For the third time this week, I'd snorted a dud sample. My brain hadn't connected with a single, damned note.
Beyond the booth, the thump, thump of dance beats pulsed in my chest. Not much of a melody, but since they'd insisted I check my headset with my coat, I couldn't exactly self-audio-tain.
I grabbed her arm, feeling the soft flesh and liking it. Loving it. Maybe the sample was working on some visceral level beyond my ear-brain-mix. "Let's hit the dance floor."
"In a minute. Pleeease."
Over-vowels were definitely part of her gig tonight.
"Wait for the drop," she said, stomping her foot.
"Right." I watched her sway back and forth, in perfect rhythm with the dance music coming from the main floor. The better clubs brought all the vibes together, so that every song you sampled was in perfect synch with the club mix on the speakers. When the drop hit, everyone jumped and screamed in coordinated rapture.
I would miss the group-joy here in this tiny booth, with this date who was more into her own head than she would ever be into me. If I could get Rain out on the floor, I could at least feel the bliss, whiff all the pheromones, feel all those sweaty bodies pressed against mine, soft tissues rubbing together.
"Yeaaaah!" She shouted and grabbed my hand, squeezing it. Harder. Her eyes pressed shut, her mouth wide open, she leaned her head way back.
The drum beats surged, and then, for a fraction of a second they paused. Everyone in the club inhaled, as though this might be the last lungful of air left in the world and then...
But drop doesn't say it all. Not even close. Because when it happens, it's like the most epic orgasm of all time and pinching the world's biggest crap-log at the same moment.
Rain opened her eyes and pressed her hand against the side of my cheek. Lunging with remarkable speed for a woman who over-voweled, she kissed me. Her tongue pressed against my lips.
I tasted her. Wanted her. An image of Jessica popped into my head: the look of terror on her face when I accidentally yanked her under.
The euphoria gone, I closed my mouth and turned away from Rain.
"Whaaat?" she said.
For a second, I thought about explaining what I had done to Jessica. Spewed on about how the drop isn't always built of joy. Instead, I went with the short, obscure answer. "Probation."
Rain looked at me funny, like she couldn't quite figure out how the judicial dudes could mess with our kiss-to-drop ratio. Finally, she smiled, and said, "Riiight."
Desperate to avoid another over-vowel, I shouted, "Let's dance!" This time, when I grabbed her arm, she followed along like a puppy.
Scents smacked at us as we pushed our way through the seething mass on the floor. This week's freebie at the door was Octavia, some new perfume marketed at the twenty-something set. It was heavy on Nasonov pheromones, some bee-juice used to draw worker-buzzers to the hive. When the drug companies cloned it, the result was as addictive as crack and as satisfying as hitting a home run on a club hook-up.
My nostrils still ached from snorting a wallop of nanites, but scent doesn't only swim in the nose. The rest is all neurons, baby, and I had plenty to spare. Apparently so did Rain, because she was waving her nose in the air like a dog catching the whiff of a bitch in heat. The sight of her made me want to take her and do her right there on the floor.
But Conduct was a high-end club. The bouncers would toss us both if they caught us in the act anywhere on the premises, so I kept it in my pants. I still had another two hundred in my pocket. Enough for three more samples. Maybe I'd pick up a track from an indie-band this time. Top forty drivel never seized my brainstem.
The beats were building again. This time, with a third-beat thump, like reggae on heroin. I could feel the intensity from my fingertips to my teeth to my dick. Even if I couldn't hear more than the background beats, I anticipated the drop. Rain opened her mouth again, raised both her hands in the air with everyone else, like a crowd of locusts all swarming together.
My date kept her eyes closed, her hands on her own breasts as she milked the release for all it was worth. Any decent guy should've watched her, should've wanted to, but I caught sight of a luscious creature, near the high-end sample booth, in the far right corner of the club. The chick was about to slip between the curtains, but she caught me staring.
Her eyes glowed the purple of iStim addiction, reminding me of Jessica.
She had grown up in the suburbs, her allowance measured in thousands not single dollars. The pack of girls she hung with had all bought iSynchs when they first hit the market. The music sounded better when they could all hear the same song at the same time. For the first time in more than a hundred years, getting high was not only legal, but ten times more amazing than it had ever been before. We all lived in our collective heads, the perfect synch of sound and sex.
I should've turned away from the sight of the purple-chick, should've reached out to Rain and kissed her again. Close tonight's deal. Instead, I approached her swaying body, and next to her ear shouted, "Back in five."
Fueled by fascination, and the two hundred burning a hole in my pocket, I headed for the high-end booth.
One of the bald bouncers with tribal tattoos worked the curtains. Yellow earplugs stuck out of both ears, so conversation, or in my case, pleading, wasn't an option. Feeling in my pocket for the two hundred, I scrunched the bills a bit, trying to make the wad appear larger than its meager value, then pulled out the stack in a flash. I had never dealt with this particular bouncer. Conduct was more Rain's club than mine, so I hoped the bills would get me past. The guy didn't even acknowledge me, as though he could smell my poverty, or maybe my parole. His eyes stared straight ahead.
My head scarcely came up to his bare chest, so I was uncomfortably close to his nipple-rings, but I held my ground, and pointed at the curtains.
He remained statue-like. More boulder-like. Then a woman's cream-colored hand with purple nails ran from the guy's waist to his pecs and he turned to the side, like a vault door.
Purple-chick stood in the gap between the curtains. Her black dress was built of barely enough fabric to meet the dress code. Her hair stood on end like a teenager's beard, barely there and oddly sexy. She must have dyed it every night, because the stubble matched her eyes and nails. A waking wet dream.
"Come in." She pointed beyond the curtains.
"In what?" I mumbled to myself.
"You're not laughing."
My body neared hers as I moved past into the sample booth. I carried my hands a little higher than would have passed as natural, hoping to cop a feel of all that exposed flesh on my way by. But she read me like a pheromone and dodged back.
A leather bench-seat lined the far wall of the booth. Three tables were set with products in stacks like poker chips. The first was a sea of purple, tiny lower-case "i's" stamped on every top-forty sample like a catalog from a so-called genius begging on a street corner for spare music. The second was a mish-mash of undergrounds like Skarface, Audexi, and Brachto.
The third table drew me like fire. Only one sample. The dose was pressed into a waffle-pattern, which was weird enough to make my desire itch. But the strangest part was its flat black surface that sucked light away and spewed dread like mourners at a funeral.
Purple-chick watched me stare at it, waiting for me to speak. My mouth kept opening and closing, but I couldn't find words.
Expensive. Dangerous. Parole. All perfectly legit words that I couldn't voice.
I had forgotten my two hundred. My palms must have been really sweating, because what had once been a quasi-impressive stack, now stunk of poor-dude-shame.
With practiced smoothness, she liberated my cash and said, "The Audexi works on everyone."
Distracted from the waffle, I said, "How'd you know I couldn't hear the last track?"
"Your throat," she said. "You're not pulsing to the beat."
My fingers felt my pulse beating like a river of vamp-candy. Her observations were bang-on. I wanted to illustrate my coolness, or, at the very least, my lack of lameness, but all I could manage was, "Oh."
My eyes wandered back to the waffle. I licked my lips.
Grabbing my chin, she forced me to look at tables one and two. "Your price range."
"What's the waffle?"
She didn't laugh. "Far from it."
"Addictive?" I asked, staring at the purple on the first table. How this woman could work the booth without Jonesing for her own product made me rethink her motives.
"The absolute best never are," she said.
"No black eyes allowed in the boardroom, huh?"
She nodded. "Precisely."
I remembered Rain. By now, she'd have noticed my absence.
Purple-chick still held my two hundred. Her eyes locked on mine. "Try the Audexi. You won't be disappointed."
Like a Vegas dealer, she shoved all of my money through a hole in the wall, selected an Audexi sample from table two, and held it in front of my nose.
I probably should've reported her. All of the clubs had to be careful not to push products hard, end up drawing the cops in to investigate. But my money was long gone and Rain wouldn't wait much longer.
I exhaled. The moisture turned the poker-chip-shaped disk into a teeming pile of powder-mimicking nanites, and I snorted. For several blinding seconds, my nose felt as though a nuclear bomb had blown inside. I could feel Purple-chick's hand on my arm, making sure I didn't wipe out and sue the club. Then the song erupted in my mind.
Sevenths and thirds. Emo-goth-despair. Snares and the ever-present bass, bass, bass. Music flowed like a tsunami through a village, grabbing ecstasy like cars and plowing through every other thought except for the sweet tweaks of synths and the pulse-grab of the click-track. The song was building, and all I could think about was finding Rain before the drop.
Rain and I danced in nanite-induced harmony until the early dawn. Exhausted and covered in sweat and pheromones, we grabbed our coats and carried rather than wore them outside.
The insides of my sore nose stuck together in the frigid air, a wake-up call for the two of us to don our coats or end up with frostbite. I didn't want to, I was so damned hot and pumped, but I figured I should set a good example for Rain. And the way our night was progressing, I wouldn't have much time to scan my barcode at the parole terminal before curfew.
Jessica's fucking choice of words would be killing my buzz for eight more months.
That fourth of October had been hot as hell. After clubbing, we both stripped and headed into the lake for a skinny dip. Except she wasn't skinny and I wasn't much of a dipper. She'd called me over to the drop and I thought she meant for the lingering song, not the drop-off hidden in the water. When the drop blissed me, I lost my footing and plunged over my head.
"Shit, it's cooold," said Rain.
I snapped back to reality. "Still with the vowels?"
"Screw you." She pushed me away and called a cab with the same arm-wave.
"Don't be that way, baby."
"Now I'm your fucking baby? After ditching me for a dozen drops while you plucked that purple fuzz-head."
"Sorry. But you gotta admit, you and me, we really synched after." I nudged her, maybe a little too hard. "The last sample I snorted was worth it. Right?"
A cab squealed a U-turn and stopped in front of Rain. She started to climb in and then looked up at me.
I shook my head. Shrugged. "Tapped out."
"Fine." She slammed the door in my face and the cab took off up the street.
I stood there, watching my breath condense in the air, its big cloud distorting her and the cab. The cold clawed its way into me, sucking away my grip on reality. The shivering reminded me to at least wear my coat.
As I stuffed my arms into the sleeves, I sniffled, feeling wetness and figuring the cold was making my nose run. But then I noticed the red drops on the ground and the front of my coat. I wiped with one finger and it came back a dark and bloody mass. Dead nanites, blood, snot, all mixed together. Two shakes didn't get it off my finger, so I rubbed the mess in a snow bank and only managed to make it worse.
The nearest subway was blocks away. I should've kept my mouth shut, shared the cab with Rain and then stiffed her for half the fare. But I'd hurt her enough for one night. Hurt enough women for one lifetime.
Jessica had been the closest thing to a life preserver, so I grabbed on. Tripping on the samples, her brain couldn't remember how to hold her breath, or at least that's how my lawyer argued it at the trial.
As I trudged for the subway, I concentrated on not slipping and falling on my ass. I found the entrance, and headed down the stairs, gripping the cold metal handrail, even though my warm skin kept sticking to it. The Audexi sample still pulsed through my system and I couldn't walk down in anything but perfect synch. The song was building to another drop, and I had to make the bottom of the platform before that moment, or I would be another victim of audio-tainment.
The platform was nearly empty, save for a few other clubbers too tapped out to cab their way home. Octavia hung in the air, the Nasonov-pheromone-scents calling us all home like buzzers to the hive. Much as I loathed their company, I couldn't resist the urge to huddle with the others in the same section while we waited for the train.
Off to our right I caught sight of Purple-chick. She wore a long, black faux-fur coat. The image of her here, slumming it with the poor, was as wrong as a palm tree in a snow bank. She belonged in some limo, holding a glass of champagne.
I tried to break the pull of the scent-pack, but couldn't step far enough away from my fellow losers to get within talking distance of Purple-chick. When the train arrived, I watched her step inside, then waited until the last second before I climbed aboard, to make sure we were both on the same train.
The cars were so empty that I could see her, way ahead.
Standing near the doors, she held a pole while she swayed back and forth. I couldn't figure out why she didn't sit down, especially after a long night at the club. The rest of us were sprawled on benches, crashing more than sitting.
I considered the long trek up to her car, but I didn't trust my balance. Instead, I watched her. Waited until she stepped in front of the doors, announcing her intention to disembark.
Once again, I waited until the last second to leave the train, in case she decided to duck back on without me. I could tell that she knew I was watching. Following.
She hurried up the stairs. Either she was training for a marathon, or her samples had all worn off, because I couldn't keep up. When she reached the top, she turned around and said, "What?"
Instead of rushing off, she stood there, at the top of the stairs. Waiting.
Her eyes were blue.
I hurried until I stood in front of her, nose to nose. "You took the waffle?"
She shook her head. "Can't."
"Figures." I turned away.
"But I can show you."
"Kiss me," she said.
I sure as hell didn't wait for her to change her mind. We shared it all: tongues, saliva, even our teeth scraped against each other, making an awful sound that knocked my sample completely out of my head.
What filled the void wasn't the pounding of my heartbeat. Or hers. Or any song that I had ever heard. Instead, I could hear her thoughts, as visible as a black blanket on a white sand beach.
"Wow," I said.
Her words, not spoken but thought into me. They reverberated around my skull like noise bouncing in an empty club.
I lost my footing and fell. Down. In. Far away. Suddenly I was six years old and my father leaned over and hauled me back up onto my skate-clad feet. We skated together, him holding me, his back stooped over in that awkward way that would make him curse all evening.
"Find your balance, Alex. Bend your knees. Skate!"
I had forgotten how much I loved him. Forgotten what it felt like to be young and innocent, to enjoy the thrill of exercise for its own sake, and feel a connection that didn't cost the price of a sample.
"I love you." But when I looked up at him, he had morphed back into Purple-chick, now Purple-and-blue-chick. She held me, preventing my crash down the stairs.
"Cool, huh?" she said.
"A total mind-fuck."
"That's why it's so expensive."
"How much? I mean, you're on the subway, so if I save—"
"In my experience, those who ask the price can't afford it."
"Why me?" I said.
She smiled. "Marketing."
I needed a better answer, so I listened for her thoughts. All I sensed was the wind from another subway, blowing up the stairs at me.
She turned and hurried for an exit.
"Wait!" My head buzzed, confused by the difference between waffle and real, trapped by the synch-into-memory-lane-trip that lingered on my tongue like bad breath.
Her boots stopped clapping against the lobby of the subway station, but she didn't look back. I was glad of it, because my memories were still swimming in my head. I wanted her to be Dad.
Not Dad. Rain. My former date's cute outfit lingered in my synapses, replacing nostalgia with guilt. I wondered if Rain had made it home okay in the cab.
Then naked Jessica filled my head, and it was October again.
"I didn't mean it," I said aloud, my voice echoing against the tile walls. "The high confused it all. I'll do another year of parole. I'll spend my sample money on flowers for your grave. Please, forgive me?"
Still with her back to me, and in a voice that sounded eerily like Jessica's, she said, "What about Rain?"
I shook my head, even though she couldn't possibly see me. "She'll understand."
Far ahead, Purple-and-blue-chick turned to face me. I saw her as them, she had somehow merged with Jessica, the two of them existing in perfect synch, like a sample and the club music stitching together; twins in a corrupted womb. They both saw me for what I was, a lame guy who would always be about eight hundred shy of a right and proper sample. Whose love would always be shallow, too broke to buy modern intimacy.
"You've got less than ten minutes to clock in your parole." She started walking again, and I watched her leave, one synched step at a time until she exited the station and disappeared along the ever-brightening-street.
Only this drop, waffle-back-to-real, felt like nails screeching on a blackboard. I wasn't in my usual subway station, and I had no idea where to find the nearest parole scanner. The station booth was empty, too early for a human. The only person in sight was an older woman with the classic European-widow black-scarf-plus-coat-plus-dress that broadcast, Leave me alone, young scum.
So I did.
I hurried onto the street, and looked towards the sun. It was well above the horizon now, but mostly hidden behind a couple of apartment buildings.
"Fuck," I told the concealed ball of reddish-yellow light. "How'd it get so late?"
The judiciary alarm buzzed inside my head.
For a moment, I could feel a drop, the biggest, most intense and amazing drop I would ever experience. The sort of nirvana that people pursue ineffectually for a lifetime. Or two.
I had less than ten minutes until the final warning.
Rushing for the nearest, busiest street, I tried to wave down car after car, hoping someone would point me to the nearest scanner. Or maybe they had a portable one, the kind I should've brought with me, had I been thinking about more than getting into Rain's pants when I left.
People ignored me.
I smelled of trouble. Which, technically, I was. But I didn't mean to be. It wasn't my fault.
It was never my fault.
One cab slowed, but didn't stop. The driver made eye contact, and then rushed away.
"Hey!" I considered swearing at him, but I didn't want to draw the cops.
I'm not sure why the cabbie stiffed me. Maybe he read my desperation. Maybe he was Rain's cabbie and he knew I was broke. In any case, he probably broadcast a warning to his buddies, because the next cab that got remotely close made a fast U-turn and took off.
Choosing a direction, I took off down one street, then hung a right at the next, jogging, skidding, almost falling on my ass. Every direction felt wrong.
I didn't see a single person. No one. Not even a pigeon for fuck's sake. All I needed was a phone.
With one hand on a pole, I leaned over, trying to catch my breath. To think.
My heart was pounding now, no synch in sight. The song was long gone, the link to Purple-chick disconnected. No one had my back.
I turned in a circle, then another, scanning far and near for anything of value: an ATM, a phone booth, a coffee shop, a diner, any place where I could access the judicial database. Plead my case.
The final warning buzzed.
"Fuck!" My spit froze when it hit the ground.
I hit full blown panic. My heart tripped like the back-bass before the drop. Only this time, the other side was built of misery not ecstasy.
If only I had paid my cell bill. If only my father was still alive, to catch my sorry ass. If only I had lied to Rain, shared her cab. If only Jessica hadn't called it a drop.
When you're panicked, it's tough as hell to keep any rational sense of time. I figured I was cooked. So I closed my eyes. But when the pain didn't come, I sat down on the cold curb, and felt the chill seep through my clothes.
I bit my lip. Tasted blood.
The first jolt ripped through my body. I wanted to writhe in pain on the sidewalk, but my body was stuck in shock-rigor. An immobile gift for the cops.
I imagined Rain beside me.
"You're an asshole," she said.
She morphed into Jessica, her purple eyes wide with fear. "I'm lost," she said.
"Take my hand." I wanted to reach out, but I couldn't move. My fingers looked nearly white in the cold. Her fingers seemed to shiver around mine, as though they were made of joy, not flesh. Then she touched my hand and I knew in that moment that life existed outside of stimulation, in a place where reality wasn't lame or boring. Life danced to an irregular rhythm that couldn't synch to any sample.
She let go.
The judiciary pulse jolted again. I flopped to the pavement, distantly aware that my skull would remind me for a long time after about its current state of squishage.
The parole-board must have lived for irony, because the jolt lasted for so long that I welcomed the release. A pants-wetting, please-make-it-stop, urgent need for the end.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne Church lives near Toronto, Ontario with her two teenaged sons. She is a 2011 and 2012 Aurora Award finalist for her short fiction. She writes Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror because she enjoys them all and hates to play favorites. When cornered she becomes fiercely Canadian. Her stories have appeared in Cicada and On Spec, and in several anthologies including Chilling Tales: Evil Did I Dwell; Lewd I Did Live and Tesseracts 14.
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ISSN 1937-7843 Clarkesworld Magazine © 2013 Wyrm Publishing. Robot illustration by Serj Iulian.