She felt more than heard the clink of the glass, and enjoyed the slowly settling warmth in her belly from the vodka. She pulled a pack of cigarettes and lighter from her purse.
a disgusting habit,” Geoffrey said hatefully, as she put a flame to the tip of one.
She sneered. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You know, nobody smokes in America. Funny, isn’t it? We cured cancer and then we stop smoking. It’s illegal everywhere there.”
“It’s illegal here
,” she said.
“Really?” he wondered. “I definitely never noticed.”
“Signs are up all over. Five hundred rupee fine.”
“Have mercy,” he said sarcastically. “Never seen them. Must have been the guys with cigarettes standing in the way.”
“It’s not enforced much anymore in the city.”
“Wouldn’t be, would it?” he asked, with a certain menace.
“Like you said... we have the cure.”
“So do we, but it’s only you Third Worlders who still smoke.”
“Do you—do you really
still call us the Third World?” she asked, more surprised than offended.
“Sure,” he said bemusedly. “It was Gandhi coined the phrase.”
“Split the difference.”
“If you say so.”
“Like Washington and... you don’t have an equivalent.”
“No, we wouldn’t,” he agreed, with derisive, smug satisfaction.
“Well, didn’t take us half a century to get rid of our Brits, once we made up our minds to do it.”
She passed off an obviously counterfeit smile. “So cute. The SubconCom’s richer than North America and Europe combined. The only one even close is China. Who’s ‘Third World’ now, Yanqui?”
“The whole planet is,” he said with a shrug. “No developed and undeveloped countries anymore, are there? Developed and undeveloped people. That is, the ones who get cancer, and the ones who don’t. People like us.” He grinned. “ Disgusting
“So have one then,” she demanded, tossing the pack at his head.
He watched it fly at his face, and didn’t flinch; he caught it with a clipped, one-handed motion. “Only when I drink, thanks.” He took one out, and threw it back at her. She caught it as easily as he had. “Light?”
She snorted. “Sure.” She reached out and lit it for him; instinctively, he put his hands around hers, although there was no danger from the wind in here.
They were quiet for a minute or so, as smoke curled around them. In the quiet, they shared another round, and watched the sun finally drop below the curve of the Indian Ocean. The reds and purples were quickly fading into black, and the stars were visible and brilliant. Mars was rising.
It was a pity they weren’t real, only accurate. Even up here, the noisy light from the city blotted out the night sky, so she’d gotten a program that ran the stars above on the active surface of the window for her.
The stars below had already risen. Short films played across the skins of the towers and the shafts of spotlights poured out of their spires. Only the Xenon was waiting—the top few dozen floors could still catch the sun, and sparkled like a gaudy electric crown.
“Pretty city, from here,” Geoff said again.
She looked back at him, and narrowed her eyes. “Why did you leave America, if you’ve got so much contempt for India?” she wondered aloud, adding, “I don’t think I ever asked you.”
“You haven’t,” he said, and she wondered if he was offended by the realization. “You have quietly assumed that I really do love it here, despite my insults against an ancient, majestic civilization, my I hate Mumbai
T-shirt, and my persistent, low-level racism.”
“Let me disabuse you of the notion that I find this hellhole of a country remotely acceptable, right
“No, Geoff—I get
it,” she said. “I know you hate it, so why the hell did you come here?”
He blinked. “I hate America more.”
She hadn’t expected that at all. “What?”
“It’s a big continent-sized nowhere, Swas, going nowhere, and been going nowhere since the day I was born. Boeing and Lockheed and Virgin aren’t doing
anything. Hindustan is the only company there is that’s thinking extrasolar. The job brought me here, Swas, and the job’s gonna take me so far away I’ll never even have to think of this place again.”
She smiled sadly, realizing it herself. “Damn. One of these days it will be the last day on Earth for us, won’t it?”
“Yeah. It sure will.”
This was a sobering thought enough—leaving all they knew, probably never to return—but he might have been thinking more sobering thoughts than that, and in response took a long swallow directly from the bottle. His face seemed to relax—it lost the cast of gloom that had been holding it since she’d asked him about America.
“I can’t believe I called it a job. That’s almost insulting. That’s almost sacrilege.”
He was wearing that child’s smile that she liked, that shone through on occasion, even when he was drunk and even when he was horrible. “Really?" she asked. "What should you call it?”
“I don’t know. What could
I call it? I’ve seen such beautiful things already—I’ve touched the rings of Saturn, and walked on its moon. We were farther from the Earth than any man had ever been before, and the sun was distant and cold, there were black dunes on the edge of ethane seas. My God—sleeping in my suit on a Titan beach, I never could have dreamed that I’d breathe
the air on another world, feel its grass
under my feet. Swas—we’ve got the chance see things beyond anybody’s dreams. Mackenzie told me Hindustan needed a man with experience and... hell, I’d have left heaven
He finally noticed her grin, and flushed. The alcohol helped, but he was clearly embarassed. His skin didn’t hide his blood.
“Why did you fight for this, Swas? You’re almost the youngest member of the team.”
“That just makes me more qualified, these days, doesn’t it? If I didn’t fight, someone even younger would have gotten it,” she said, shaking her head. “Oh, Geoffrey, are you really asking me why
? What do you think
? Why else
?” She laughed gently. “To see two suns in the sunset.”
He held his tongue for a solid ten seconds, before saying, slowly, as if he just couldn’t help himself, “No need to go to Alpha Cen for that. You could just stay here, and wait.”
Swastika felt betrayed. She huffed and rolled her eyes, and half-shouted, “Again! God! You can’t stay pleasant for more than two minutes. Geoffrey, I swear—I’ve timed
“Sorry,” he said half-heartedly. “But it lends a certain urgency to getting off the planet, doesn’t it?”
“Well, keep your psychotic motivation tools to yo—”
“It’s why I’m glad you’re coming, too.”
The note of concern almost overrode her frustration with him, but all she gave him was wearied disbelief, punctuated by the click that lit the cigarette between her lips. He was looking at the city again, as if trying to capture it in his memory.
“It’s getting worse. In America, it’s getting worse. At least for people like us.”
She exhaled. “Smokers?”
“Ha—yeah. In manner of speaking. And it’s gonna get worse everywhere,” he decided. “You can feel it.”
She shrugged sarcastically. “I’m afraid I can’t.”
“No. No, not here,” he said dismissively. “Not in the city.”
“Not in this country. I doubt in any country. You’re like a conspiracy theorist.”
“You think I’m talking shit?” he said, offended. “I lived my whole life in America.”
“I feel bad for your country’s problems, Geoff. But no matter how badly you want them to be—they’re not the end of the world.”
He smirked. “You don’t think?”
“There’s a handful of rotten people on the wrong side of history everywhere. And I’m sure America’s no exception to that. But they’ve never been more than nothings and nobodies, and never will.” She added, suddenly playful, “I think you only believe they’re important, since if they hate you
, it means you must be important too.”
“Swas, us seventy are the most important people in the world already. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need
any more validation than that,” he said easily. “We might be last seventy people in the world, and I don’t want
to be that important.”
“In ten years, no one will even remember whatever it is they’re fighting about over there. I’d say you’d feel pretty ridiculous then, but you ought to feel pretty ridiculous already.”
“You’ve gotta tell me how you can see future so clearly, especially when you’re sitting on your ass in the present day, half a mile off the ground and pretending there’s no problem.”
She was starting to lose her patience.
“I’m not pretending there aren’t problems
—I’m only refusing to pretend that the problems we’ve got are the signs of the bloody apocalypse! I’d hate to think what it’d be like if ‘people like us’ were all people like you
. Then it probably would be the end of the world.”
“No, I mean it. You’ve got about the same attitude as those Muslims.”
“The bastard ones who blew up that nightclub in Lucknow last week.”
“If you were a natural, you’d probably be setting the bombs off yourself.”
“Thought you didn’t follow the news,” he muttered.
“No, I don’t,” she confirmed, “but Chuykov told me about it. I found him in the middle of trashing his room over it. He threw a desk through the wall.”
“Well. That’s Yevgeniy for you.”
“Yes, it is,” she agreed. “I mean, I can’t say I was surprised. He does that. He’s an interesting man, but honestly, I’m glad he’s just the poet, and we don’t have to listen to him about anything. Sometimes I think they made him wrong.” She lightened, smiling at the notion—“Then again, if his parents really did think that
name was clever, it’s probably for the best that he doesn’t share all of his DNA with them.” She thought about the bombing, and frowned again. “I don’t blame him for being angry. It made me angry too. But I know better than to think it means the world’s coming to an end. That’s what separates me from you. The only thing that separates you
from Chuykov is upper body strength.”
“Yeah? Well, let me tell you something: getting that mad over a few dozen dead dorks in an exclusionary nightclub is nonsense.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me?”
“It’s nonsense to get mad about it at all,” he repeated. “It was probably just some punks who were pissed that they didn’t have the test results to get in. Frankly, anyone who’d patronize a place like that deserves it.” He unnecessarily pointed his finger at her. “People like that
are part of the Goddamn problem.”
“Sixty-four people died,” she replied solemnly, “just because they wanted a drink and a dance.”
“No. They died because they didn’t want to share the same air as the great unmodified, and people like you will wonder how that could possibly
piss anyone off—”
“Geoffrey,” she warned.
“—Just like you just sort of shrug at how a national public smoking ban somehow doesn’t get enforced in the Seven Islands. Probably doesn’t get enforced in clusie-clubs in Lucknow either.”
you at all
sorry they died?” she asked with a novel seriousness, an immediacy to the anger that she hadn’t noticed before. She could scarcely believed she’d ever screwed him, let alone considered she might ever again. She was too mad to talk straight, English lapsing for a moment. “Geoffrey—you—tu maanchod, I could hit
you right now—”
“Maan-what?” he wondered ignorantly.
being such a callous bastard, Geoffrey!”
“Shut up! Can’t you be decent
for once? At least pretend some sympathy for sixty-four murder victims? Do you enjoy being a self-loathing, sadistic asshole so much that it doesn’t even occur to you?”
He seemed shocked, and retreated slightly. He finally said, “I don’t think I’m self
Her mouth fell open slightly. “What is wrong
“Look—look,” he stumbled earnestly, “I’m not happy about it.”
“You sound happy about it.”
“I’m not. It’s just... you said it’s not a sign? Sixty-four dead people make a pretty big fucking sign, don’t you think?”