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It began, in a way, with the midget hunchback tuk-tuk driver.

It was a night in the cool season. . . .

The stars shone like cold hard semiprecious stones overhead. Shadows moved across the face of the moon. The beer place was emptying—

Ban Watnak, where fat mosquitoes buzzed, lazily, across neon-lit faces. Thai pop playing too loudly, cigarette smoke rising, the remnants of ghosts, straining to escape Earth's atmosphere.

In the sky, flying lanterns looked like tracer bullets, like fireflies. The midget hunchback tuk-tuk driver said, "Where are you going—?" mainlining street speed and ancient wisdom.

Tone said: "Where are you going?"

The driver sat on the elevated throne of his vehicle and contemplated the question as if his life depended on it. "Over there," he said, gesturing. Then, grudgingly—"Not far."

But it was far enough for us.

Tone and Bejesus and me made three: Tone with the hafmek body, all spray-painted metal chest and arms, Victorian-style goggles hiding his eyes, a scarf in the colours of a vanished football team around his neck—it was cold. It was Earth cold, not real—there was no dial you could turn to make it go away. Bejesus not speaking, a fragile low-gravity body writhing with nervous energy despite the unaccustomed weight—Bejesus in love with this planet Earth, a long way away from his rock home in space.

Tone, in Asteroid Pidgin: "Yumi go lukaotem ol gel."

"No girls," I said. Tone smirked. Bejesus danced on the spot, nervous, excited, it was hard to tell. Tone said: "Boy, girl, all same."

Bejesus, to the driver: "I dig your body work, man."

Tone shaking his head. "Dumb ignorant rock-worm," he said, but with affection.

The hunchback midget tuk-tuk driver grinned, said, "You come with me, no pay. Free tuk-tuk!"

"Best offer we're going to get," Tone said, and I nodded. Bejesus passed me a pill. I dry-swallowed. The floating lanterns seemed larger then, like warm eyes blinking high above. "Let's go!" I said. My heart was beating too fast. "Hungry and horny and a long way from home," Tone said—a bad poet in hafmek armour.

We went.

Piled at the back of a solar-powered tuk-tuk at night, Aphrodisia tunes blaring out, blurring my careful composure—Aphrodisia, the Upload Deity, queen of no-space—Aphrodisia who loved me and fucked me and sang to me and left me—left everything and everyone behind. She was everywhere now, goddess bitch, and I cried and the tears were multicoloured in rust and acid rain. Bejesus, the tentacle-junkie, wrapped his arms around me, and even Tone patted me on the back, there, there, awkwardly.

I shrugged them off. Nest-brothers, we'd shared a hub in Tong Yun City years before, the asteroid-worm and the orbital hafmek and me—shared food and drugs and sex and minds—but we were younger then, on Mars.

Earth is different to anything you can imagine.

Picture a globe, a blue-green world . . . more base-level humans than anywhere else in the worlds. There are no protocols! Everything's unchecked, with no controls; even the weather doesn't obey a simple command. It's a strange place . . . a big place . . . they still do things the old way on Earth.

"Turn that shit off!" Tone, bass voice rumbling like distant thunder—the tuk-tuk driver turning, sickly grin in place around a cigarette—"Aphrodisia number one!"

"My friend don't like it!"

Hunchbacked shoulders shrug, a "Fuck you" as clear as any network broadcast. Aphrodisia singing of love and sweat and blood and rain, the pure clean rain of Polyport, on distant Titan.

"Aphrodisia, can you hear me—?" my voice small and lost, the artificial wind cold, cold on my exposed skin—Bejesus waving tentacles and munching on a speed-squid slice, suckers opening and closing in time with the tune. Aphrodisia, singing—"I loved you and I left you and now I no longer know—what name you cried in the dark—"

"Your name," I say, or try to. Tone pats me on the back again, there, there, the tuk-tuk shoots forward, a blur of music and rushing lights—so many people out in these un-domed streets, the shadows of the giant spiders moving high above, across their moon—music and lights and people calling out greetings—the tuk-tuk halts with a smooth silent swerve and the midget hunchback tuk-tuk driver says, "We there."

"Me like," Tone says, a hafmek of simple tastes and means. Bejesus's tentacles wave in ecstasy—he, too, approves.

And me?

Before Aphrodisia I was base-level too—more or less. Looking in a mirror—which I try not to do any more—I am a tall, pale, willowy figure. Lunar-born, not the small pathetic Earth one, home to spiders, but the majestic ones of Jupiter, the Galilean moons with a view of the rings . . . holes are punctured through my arms and legs, my chest and thighs. Sockets, sockets, even my sex had been removed to make another interface available. Unplugged I feel an alien, alone, afraid. Plugged in to a Conch in the no-gravity of space, I become the hub, the nucleus, the focal point of convergence; I become an intersection of datastreams, my fleshbot existence erased as irrelevant—I become pure data, without physicality—the only place where I can meet her, still.

But they took me off the cables and they barred me from that pure wide ocean, and when I cried and fought and tried to kill they restrained me, and pumped me with drugs, and plugged all my sockets to stop me from going back. I scratched and I bit and I tried to chew my own flesh off, but they were too strong, they were concerned for me, and they left me in rehab until the worst of it was over.

But it is never over. And as we got off that tuk-tuk on Earth, Vientiane, that city reaching for the stars and failing, there in the Mekong Valley, I felt the shakes coming on and bit my lips until I drew blood—which was not enough, it simply was not enough, not while Aphrodisia was singing, singing all around me, singing—

"You will never know—what it is like—to be everywhere, everywhere—at once—"

And suddenly Bejesus was wrapping tentacles around me again and the tuk-tuk driver's grin dropped to the pavement and Tone boomed out in Asteroid Pidgin, "Leggo, leggo! Bae yumi pati nao!"

Let it go, let it go—let's party now!

And so I nodded and grinned and shook (only a little) and we followed our new Earth friend who had not even a node to broadcast out his name, just a little Earth fellow with a hunchback not even paid for, towards the lights—the songs and music, the beer and smokes, the guys and girls—towards the lights.

The Monstrous Feminine: Ban Don Pamai, late at night, the party in full swing—the girls flocked around Bejesus, tentacle-groupies reaching out to squeeze and touch—Tone in a corner talking hushed protocols with a robo-girl—the tuk-tuk driver dozing in the corner, happy smile, a bong on the table beside him—Aphrodisia's music filling the air like a second layer of atmosphere.

"I swore off sex," an American told me—a type of Earthman from another continent. Bald-headed, an animal-leather jacket draped over broad shoulders. "Makes you do crazy things."

But it was never about the sex, with Aphrodisia. It was about love.

"Love is just another word for sex," the American said.

I said: "What do you know?"

It must have come across strong. He pulled back, raised his arms. "Take it easy, buddy," he said.

But I didn't know how to take it easy.

I needed a fix. There were Vietnamese dolls on the street and there were guys selling Plateau and weed and opium—The Monstrous Feminine a building of bamboo and concrete, the party building up, someone set up a miniature battle arena on the floor and set two blobs of Chinese nano-goo fighting—people taking bets, people hooking up, people high, people low, people—Earth was chock-full of people, too many people, and there was only one I wanted, and she wasn't human any more.

I needed a fix.

No one was paying me any attention. Bejesus had slunk away to a dark corner. Tone was motionless with his robo-girl friend—talking or fucking, you could never tell with the meks. Aphrodisia was singing all around me—"When the dark rains came, you washed away forever—"

You could do anything on Earth. Too many people, no way to control them all. I needed a majik man. I needed a voodoo man. I needed a wizard, a black-list operator, a back-street fixer. And this was a back street if ever there was one.

It didn't take long—though longer than I liked. Searching the crowd for telltale signs: thin bodies in too many clothes, hiding the plugs, the self-mutilation of love—we were people like thin wires, taut and easy to break, and always hungry—followed a girl with a black eye-patch over her left eye, deeper down the street, towards the back alleys, sleepy hollows of bamboo and bricks, frangipani and jasmine on the night's winds—

The One Way Ticket looked like a gamers' zone from the outside, dripping neon light and the sound of explosions, guns going full blast—zombie kids inside strapped into warrior gear, a far away look in their deadened eyes, but this was just a front—

Deeper into the shop and through an unmarked door—no one tried to stop me. I saw the girl remove her eye-patch—nothing below but a gaping hole. Masses of writhing cables bursting out of a white-painted wall. She took the end of a thick cable and rammed it into her eye and was still.

I needed it, needed it bad. It was quiet here, too quiet, but I could still hear Aphrodisia's singing. She always sang to me. For me. I had that, at least, even when she took everything else.

A Jack put up his hand—politely. "Mister, you want in?"

I said, "I want in."

He nodded, sadly. "You have socket?"

I took off my coat. Underneath it I was naked. My socket-riddled body, perforated with holes. He cast a critical eye. "All blocked," he said, the same sad voice. I said, "Give me a knife."

I scraped out goo and blood and bones and opened up—one, two—as I started on three he stopped me, said, "Enough. The bandwidth not good too much. Two is plenty—"

I scowled but let him lead me, by the hand. Cables sprouting from the wall—direct access, pure shit, not like nodes on the edge of vision . . . he selected two and I rammed them in.

I screamed.

They call the first spray sitsit blong data, in the same way the ocean's spray is called sitsit blong solwota—the shit of the sea. Man, it was beautiful shit.

It hit me in waves—hovering closer to the nexus, rushing through—the rush took me, lifted me, shot me forward—her voice in the distance, murmuring words—she was everywhere, a hundred thousand fragments of Aphrodisia. She was on Jettisoned and she was in Polyport, she was in Tong Yun and she was in the lonely longhouses of the asteroid belt—she was on Luna and she was on Earth and she was everywhere in between. How many of them are there? No one knows. They are not like Others, those alien, digital intelligences St. Cohen bred, so long ago, in his Breeding Grounds. They are not like Vietnamese dolls, with a rudimentary expert system built into an android body, and they are not like Dragon, who is a mix of both. They were human, once, but now they weren't, they were floating in the no-space of everywhere—ol devel blong spes, they called them, devel meaning spirit, ghost—a vui in the old tongue of the islands.

I didn't care about the others. I cared only for her.

Floating, floating in the sea of no-space . . . you can't describe it, so I won't. I was waiting for her, calling out to her, fashioning around me a shrine of black nothingness, a temple of despair.

"Aphrodisia," I said.

Her song came through the blackened sea: "So long ago, I wasn't real, I was a thing of flesh and blood—"

"Enough, enough," I murmured, singing, "so long ago, when time was love—"

"But now I am, and everything—is cast aglow, is made anew—"

"So go, so leave, you mortal thing, a boy who dares look at his queen—"

"Aphrodisia, I need—!"

She whispered through me; and was gone.

They found me lying on the ground—the sun was rising in the sky. If I was cold I didn't know it. My coat was gone. My open sockets bled—the cables missing. So was the Jack. The One Way Ticket shut. The open socket of my groin cried tears of pus and blood.

"You're fucking sad."

Tone, tin man monster, hafmek, friend, towering above me. Bejesus writhing on the ground, in fear or ecstasy, it was never easy to tell. "I saw her, Tone. I told her—"

"You told her shit," he said—but not unkindly.

They had the tuk-tuk driver with them. His dopey smile welcomed the day. "We thought it would be better, here," Tone said. I tried to smile, and failed. "Screw Earth," the tin man said, "let's go back up, to pure clean space."

"She'll always be there," Bejesus said—the rock-worm's words ached in my head.

"She told me she was going," I said, trying to remember.

Bejesus: "Going where?"

"Beyond no-space," I said, and shivered.

"There's no such place."

Yet she was gone. I couldn't hear the music. A blackness where memory should be. How will I find it? There were no maps beyond the holes. . . .

"We brought you some clothes," Tone said. They helped me up. They dressed me. The midget hunchbacked tuk-tuk driver said, "I take you home. No pay—"

We went.

Lavie Tidhar is the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize–winning and Premio Roma nominee A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), the World Fantasy Award–winning Osama (2011), and the Campbell Award–winning and Locus and Clarke Award–nominated Central Station (2016). His latest novels are Unholy Land (2018) and his first children’s novel Candy (2018). He is the author of many other novels, novellas, and short stories. Twitter: @lavietidhar
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