Not all of us are really human. Some of us have been made and put here by Others. And, every now and then, one of us realizes it.

Paris in June

by Pat Cadigan

A Kiss in Paris
Photo illustration by Robert K. J. Killheffer. Images: Andrii Iurlov (yuran-78 / 123RF Stock Photo), Anastasia Kazakova (beautyblowflow / 123RF Stock Photo),
and Alexandr Parfenov (alextan8 / 123RF Stock Photo).

If there’s a good time to be homeless in Paris, it’s June.

It’s warm enough during the day to stake out a spot by the Seine and wave at the tourists on the Bateaux-Mouches, cool enough at night to be — well, okay, damned cold, especially without blankets. Wind blowing off any water can be cold, and only in Paris can you get weather that is hot and muggy with cold breezes.

But if I had made it easy on myself by choosing June — or Juin — it was still somewhat hard because I spoke almost no French, and understood even less. A few words — merci, au revoir, est-ce que je peu regarder, bonjour — but Is it okay if I look?, while suitable for the shops on the rue de St. Andredes Artes, isn’t what you hear from the person rifling through your clothes while you’re still in them.

I wanted to speak French, understand. I found myself falling into French-ish cadences when I spoke, fancied that I heard a lilting quality in my voice that I hadn’t had back in London or Scarborough. But I just couldn’t manage the tongue.

Nonetheless, I got by. What I do is a language, whether you do it on a beach in a quaint British resort town, or on the last tube of the night rocketing under Big Ben, or on the paved banks of the Seine where no stars shine except the ones you bring with you.

I liked it by the Seine best, even without amenities. In Scarborough, I sometimes saw the inside of one of those pretty-as-a-picture hotels, like the Hotel St. Nicholas, and once even the Grand Hotel. Although I did have to leave before dawn could even light the water because the man’s wife was driving up from Sussex to join him and he had to air out the room.

In London — fabulous London — I had a good, if brief, thing with two gentlemen who loved each other so much that they had no love left for anything or anyone else. They let me be part of it for a while but ultimately I had to go and leave them to each other.

Then there was the couple in Queen’s Gate Gardens — I didn’t get the exact address. Even briefer with them: one little night. But every night spent under a real roof was one more victory. And they were responsible for sending me to Paris, at least indirectly. It was because they took me to the tube in their own car, bought me a little card to ride all day, and wished me good luck. And lo, as they say, I got some.

People fantasize more than they know in situations like that — riding on the tube, I mean — and it was like being in a candy store with a blank check or something, a real embarrassment of riches. I binged. When I stopped to think — or reflect, or maybe just gloat — a lady executive with a beautiful briefcase and a rich overnighter bought me a ticket to Heathrow and took me aboard her Air France flight. She liked me well enough to kiss me good-bye at Customs.

I napped on the Roissybus into town in spite of its being my first time in Paris (everyone needs a little downtime). The driver came back to wake me at L’Opera, where everyone else got off and I discovered that in spite of my binge on the British tube, I seemed to have run out of something important.

Luck shifts all the time, so I didn’t worry. I wandered around and the weather held. Pretty town, Paris; Paris in Juin, anyway.

But yes, I did see the beggars. I think their children must have been drugged to sleep so much. There were also the homeless like me, who had no fixed address. Not so bad, really. You may think the tourists on the boats wouldn’t care for the view of us there on the banks of their pretty Seine. But all you have to do is smile and wave. Then they smile and wave back, figuring you must be all right after all.

The Batobus Edith Piaf passed by full of people hooting and hollering, and most of them weren’t tourists. Then I saw her. She was pulling her clothes back on and giving them all what we used to call the “international symbol of disdain.” She was a filthy, skinny blonde with hair cut short the way they do in some hospitals to forestall the lice. She was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a young, pretty little thing and I could tell she was completely bewildered by having to get dressed. The Batobus people were obviously yelling for her to leave it off, and she looked such hate at them that I half-expected their gas tank to suddenly explode and engulf them all in a fireball. But nothing happened. She kept struggling into her dirty shirt and jeans. I was tempted to go down and see about her. Even at this distance I could tell that she was what I was, but she didn’t seem to know it.

Va te faire fautre!

She was pelting some stupid tourist with pieces of rock or brick and he was completely confused. He had obviously meant to take some shots of the Seine and he’d had the misfortune to pick her spot for it. All he had to do was move maybe ten steps in any direction and that would have cured it. But he was too stupid to remember where he was — that is, not in his own country — and was trying to argue with her. It was quite a show. Yelling, she drove him back a step with a piece of rock, stooped to pick up another, and flung it at him with all the strength in her skinny arm. It bounced off his leg and he howled in both pain and fury. She got him in the shoulder with another rock and he howled again, louder. People were stopping to watch, the locals laughing, the tourists looking fishfaced and unhappy the way tourists do when they see people being themselves rather than on display for their entertainment.

The fourth rock got him just above his right eyebrow. Then he didn’t want to talk anymore. He held his camera off to one side and went for her, so she let him have it smack in the chest with another piece of rock. I was behind him and as he took another step toward her, I pulled him back. At the same time, someone else popped out of the crowd and did the same to her. She scrabbled and fought like something feral, but the group closed up around her as efficiently as an automatic door.

The stupid tourist twisted away from me angrily. “Kesker say?” he demanded in his unbearable hick accent, as if he would actually understand the answer if I gave it to him in French.

“You were on her spot,” I told him in English.

He brushed back his stringy brown hair. Too much hair tonic; he must have been one of the last fifty people on the planet using Vitalis. “What spot?”

“Her spot. The one where she lives. How would you like it if she stomped into your living room — no, better, your bedroom — and began taking pictures of whatever struck her fancy?”

He looked like he was going to argue with me and then took a second look. “And what the hell are you supposed to be — the fuckin’ beggar police?” I was still wearing the Knights Templar coat I’d come over from the States in because it made me look less like a vagrant and more like an old hippie or just an especially affected eccentric. “Haven’t you been to the Louvre yet? You don’t recognize me? My picture hangs in there,” I said, gesturing at the building visible through the trees from where we were. I still have no idea why I told him that. Perhaps I thought he’d be impressed, or scared. The crowd hiding the little blonde roared with laughter, the sort of noise French royalty must have heard just as the guillotine came down. It was a bad moment, because I wasn’t sure who the laughter was meant for.

Fortunately, the stupid tourist wasn’t so stupid that he didn’t know he was supposed to be scared now. Clutching his camera with one hand, he backed away from me making stay-there motions at me with his other hand. I stayed, but the crowd started to creep toward him on the other side. Panicked, he turned and fled up the steps to the street, while the crowd roared more of that scary laughter at his back. They all watched him go and then, as one, turned to look at me. Some of them shifted position and I saw her, now firmly in the grip of a copper-haired boy and a piss-yellow-headed woman who could have been his mother or his madame.

The skinny blonde’s face was pinched, defiant but also somehow pleading, or maybe just wary. Hers would be an old story: Don’t hurt me. All right, don’t hurt me much. All right, don’t hurt me much without paying twenty francs in advance, okay?

I went toward her and held out my hand, unsure if the rabble would let her come with me or if she would even want to. But I managed to pull her away; it felt exactly like uprooting a weed. It wasn’t the explaining that took so long but persuading her to believe it. If you need someone to believe something, make them go for a walk with you. Walking takes up most of the energy they’d use to disbelieve you. You have to be thorough and convincing, of course, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you’re telling the truth. And if you’re a liar, goddamn you to hell, who needs you?

With the blonde, the language barrier was against me. Her English was spotty and my French was worse. Then there were her — to put it mildly — emotional problems.

“But who are they?” she kept asking me in French. “Who?” Apparently even what I told her was not enough to alleviate her revulsion at their pure inhumanity. But why shouldn’t they be inhuman, since that is exactly what they were.

All right, I’ll confess: I love this. Once I discovered that I was a data-gathering device rather than a true human, I embraced my nature — if nature is a word you can use for a manufactured thing — and fully cooperated with my raison d’être. You are what you are and while it may be pointless to hate it or love it, it’s easier to function loving it than not, yes?

(Still feeling fine and français, you see.)

So I walked the skinny blonde homeless thing along the banks of the Seine and told her the facts of our life. And yes, she thought I was a psycho, trying to put one over on her so I could lure her to some place where I could rape and murder her.

I took her to a public facility and I showed her how it was impossible for me to rape anyone. When I discovered my true nature, you see, I decided to dispense with the frills and dodges and I carved off anything I didn’t think was absolutely necessary.

It wasn’t hard, or even painful. You see, what pain really is, is a failure to understand. My complete understanding was something I can only describe as an über-satori — my understanding was not only an embracing of my true nature but a conquering. And let’s face it, most humans would regard the complete conquest of pain as unconditional victory within the human condition of being alive.

And then there’s most of us, who are compelled to partake of the human experience without ever becoming human. Maybe that was supposed to make me care more about real humans. It didn’t.

She tried to beat me up.

She tried to make me believe it was for these outrageous paranoid-schizo lies I was telling her but I knew by the bleak look in her eyes that she not only believed me but my telling her had cleared up the mystery of why she was the way she was as nothing else ever had — her fucking gut was telling her I’d spoken the truth. And her gut also told her to beat me up. I countered her fists with my forearms and when she got too active on me, I just held her by her wrists until she tired. Eventually she was crying into my front and wanting to know Qu’est-ce que je faire? over and over between sniffles.

“Well,” I told her, “that isn’t too hard. You fare the way you’d fare, regardless.” Her English wasn’t good enough to appreciate the pun, but some things I find irresistible even when I’m the only audience for them. Perhaps that’s part of the conquest of existence, too.

“No, seriously now, listen. Ecoutez,” I said to her, mixing a little bad French with sign language and English. “I’ll show you all the things you can do voluntarily that you didn’t know you were doing all along. There’s no way you can’t do those things because the mechanism works too well. I’ll show you how to yield your information at times more convenient for you so that you can do whatever you want. Almost, anyway; close enough for government work, certainly.”

She didn’t get that, either.

In the middle of my explanation of how to yield, she clapped both hands over her ears and ran away crying. I kind of figured what to expect after that and she didn’t disappoint me. The one she sent was named Gaston — I swear — and he was infuriated with me. Who did I think I was to tell the cherie she was nothing more than a poupée, and what odious cult was I proselytizing for, or had I just drunk too much antifreeze during the last pressing in some cheap vineyard. I admitted to nothing and denied nothing. Gaston was certainly not like us and could never understand. But what he lacked in knowledge — of any kind — he made up in heat. She had obviously decided to bring her formidable talents to bear on him, to make him take her side. Which, ironically, proved I was right. Only we can exert such power over humans, since our chemistry triggers their own obsessions.

Do I sound unbearably smug? I should.

I had to kill Gaston. He pulled a knife on me.

Even if it was a sad, rusty excuse for a jackknife, I had to kill him to prove my point to her. He still could have killed me, after all, if I’d been weaker, if I’d been some scared tourist, say, or new to this kind of life. And as I’d suspected, when I was tending to the remains, I discovered that Gaston had killed two people in his time. If I reveal that one of them was the man who had raped a person who had once been his woman, would you feel bad for him and terrible anger for me? How about if I tell you that the other was the infant that was the issue of this crime? Will you then see me as Gaston’s justice caught up to him at last? How is it that you insist that your lives, all your lives together, do not mean nothing?

It was only after I found that I had been manufactured for the sake of information-gathering that I actually felt free enough to gather some. I thought my little blonde would come around to the same point of view, but when Gaston’s body bobbed to the surface of the Seine with the features and other important parts carved off and scared the Bateaux-Mouches tourists, she called the police. But what the hell, they came to us there under the impassive Louvre, and they questioned us, those of us who would allow ourselves to be questioned, and she accused me. Pointed her finger, said I did it, said she could prove it — if they would just undo my culottes, they would find that the parts that should have been there had been carved off in just the very same fashion as Gaston’s.

The police knew her as the woman who often entertained the tourists with her nude sunbathing; besides, they had no desire to see me or any other of the vagrants sans culottes. They talked to me, although no more closely than they talked to anyone else, and there was a story in the papers and some pictures. She got herself a knife and threatened to use it on me if I came near her again. She also got herself a couple of protectors and threatened to use them on me as well, though the way it actually went was, they used her and smirked at me over their shoulders while they did.

I shrugged, continued to gather information, and June continued to be beautiful.

When I was full of experiences, it was time to yield to those who had made me. I had the strong sense that they would not come to the Seine, that I would have to find some other place where they could take from me. I didn’t understand why, but my understanding was not required.

I took a little walking tour in ever-widening circles, rode the Metro, found L’Opera again. Something about the arrangement of the steps and the statues . . . I climbed to the third step from the top and settled in to wait. I hated being in sight of the beggars who worked the streets and the entryways to the Metro but those who created me don’t argue or bargain — I would yield, or I would cease.

I stayed on the steps for two days without moving. Their sense of time is different from ours, so I didn’t know how long it would take — two days, five days, a month, whatever. People went up and down, refusing to see me; the police came and made me move to one side during the day, and the weather held, and held, and held.

On the third morning, clouds moved in just about the time the sky began to lighten and the air became heavily humid. I had been asleep or passed out; I went from oblivion to a state of being completely alert, sitting up on the hard stone steps. It took a few moments for me to understand why: there was no sound. I could see cars moving; some of them glided right past me where I sat, but it was like watching a silent film.

Overhead, the clouds were boiling, also in silence. I laid myself down on the steps spreadeagle. It wasn’t comfortable, no, but that wasn’t the idea, after all. I watched the clouds continue to boil and then to swirl slowly and unevenly clockwise. Appropriate to the hemisphere, I thought dreamily. A fragment of newspaper caught on my foot and then flew up into the sky, mirroring the motion of the clouds as it did. Far inside, lightning flickered almost too fast for the eye to see and too bright to bear, a harshness that turned the clouds into a negative image of themselves.

The spiral in the sky became tighter, narrower and I felt the familiar pulling from within myself. It felt like what I imagined a tide would, or love.

My two English gentlemen passed before my inner eye, and then the business lady who had brought me to France. She had been hoping for that, I realized now; she had been hoping for love when I had come to her on the Underground, backed her up against that smeared, graffitied rear wall of the carriage rocking and swaying and put my mouth against her eye, I had been bringing love — bringing something, anyway — rather than taking away.

Perhaps knowing she had simply broken even was what had made her kiss me good-bye. It isn’t often that human compromise doesn’t involve some kind of loss. And all that went up to that flickering, spinning cloud-flower in the sky, too. Feeling what she’d felt, I cried a little or at least tears ran from my eyes, because I was an emotion machine as well, when the information called for that kind of context.

The cloud-flower seemed to grow larger and to lower as well; I thought I could feel the cold vapor swirling on my face, the cold wind doing strange things to my eyes. There was the sensation of hard stone at the back of my head suddenly overridden by a more powerful pulling than before, as if I were about to be turned inside out.

And then nothing. I was lying on the steps with the rain pouring down from the dirt-gray sky, though above me was one new shadow. Just a blur at first, it resolved itself into a familiar figure, soaked completely through and miserable, angry, and curious at the same time. She had my forelock in her dirty fist. She pulled me up to a sitting position. Something about the rain she yelled into my face, barely audible over the sound of it beating down on the pavement, making a fist of her free hand, threatening me, then pointing at the sky. I tried to shake my head and then settled for just looking bewildered. “What?” I asked her. “What are you saying? Qu’est-ce que tu dis?”

“Rain! Clouds!” she bellowed. “I saw you!” Did she think I’d brought the rain? Most vagrants I’ve known are superstitious as hell.

“The rain is not my fault,” I said carefully, close to her ear. She pulled back, looking supremely irritated.

“I saw you. Sky come down and kiss you!” She stared at me, her eyes hard and demanding and expectant. I burst out laughing. The one person who might have appreciated what she’d said had been dead for almost a quarter of a century and had nothing to do with either one of us anyway.

“Sky comes down to kiss you, too, soon,” I said, poking her breastbone with my finger. She slapped my hand away, but not very hard, and blinked at me in the rain, which was becoming an honest-to-god pavement-cleaning and gutter-clogging downpour. I got up and hustled her across the street to a Metro entrance, but she balked at the top of the steps, holding onto the railing with both arms and kicking out at me.

“Okay, okay, I get it: you’re a claustrophobe.” I pushed her into a doorway just big and deep enough to keep the worst of the rain off us. “Or something bad happened to you down there. More likely, eh?”

She looked up at me, puzzled. I smoothed both hands over her face, letting my fingers slide into her hair. Her body stiffened but she didn’t try to get away. In her life, there was always something like this. Living through it was important; how, less so.

I had never tried to yield to a human or to another of my kind before. The idea had never even occurred to me until now. I wasn’t even sure I could, although there certainly was enough left in me. They never took everything, maybe because there are so many similar things, or maybe because some of the things just aren’t to their taste.

In any case, once the idea was in my head, I wanted to try it. It would be an experience that was mine alone. I’d never thought in terms like that before and it was like the notion was tickling me with an urgency all its own.

The rain was machine-gunning on the sidewalk, splattering us with mist from the impact as I pulled her face close and put my mouth over hers. Her lips were cold and thin like the rest of her, though not entirely unpleasant. Things weren’t quite right — I moved her jaw so that her lips encircled my mouth instead. She wasn’t sure about this and started to pull away, but I had one fist braced against her upper back and the back of her head cupped in my other hand. She had no organ of taking the way they did, or rather, no specific organ, but what she had should serve.

She struggled a little more, and I could feel the panic start to rise in her. The noise of the rain was almost unbearable now, the kind of white noise people must hear in the depths of madness, I thought, and wondered how long I’d be able to tolerate it myself.

Then I felt it give; the place inside me reserved for them opened gently, sensing the nearness of a recipient, and found her in a matter of seconds. It was not what I or the ability was accustomed to and I had some bad moments when I thought she might reject what I had to yield. But then some instinct took over and she accepted in the same way she had been accepting everything else in her life.

Some time later, we just stood holding onto each other. The rain pounded as if it meant to pulverize the cement. Used transit tickets dissolved into aqua pulp and then disappeared altogether.

“You bastard,” she whispered to me in French. “You abortion. If you were human, the best part of you would have run down your father’s leg.”

I pulled back from her, not understanding. She was radiating a satedness that didn’t go with her words.

“Some would say I carved off the best parts, or at least the most useful,” I said, “but why do you?”

“You pet. Are you really going to give that to these — whatever, these things that live in clouds —”

“They don’t live there,” I said.

“Shut up. Fuck you, you don’t understand. You betray your own kind, surrendering to them when we could be doing this for each other.” She stared up at me, her no-color eyes moving so very slightly as she searched my face. “Now do you get it, you stupid robot? You stupid slave!”

She clamped her mouth over mine again, but there wasn’t much left and after a few moments she pushed me away. “C’est bien, I know what to do now,” she told me. “And not as somebody’s dog to kick, either. How about it, you want to walk on your hind legs for a change?”

That didn’t sound so bad, even though I knew I’d done something very wrong and precipitated something even more wrong. But, I thought, what was it to them anyway? Did they even look at me until they wanted what I had? Did they protect me, did they find me any place to go? For all I knew, they thought as much of me as a maid thinks of a vacuum cleaner when the inside bag needs to be changed.

“Come on, pet,” my blonde spat at me. “Let me show you what it’s like to be something real, if you think you can face it.” She pulled me out of the doorway into the rain, which was still heavy, though not as bad as it had been. I wiped my face with my forearm and she laughed at me. “Bête! Stupide!” But she didn’t run very far ahead of me before coming back to lead me along.

The word ripped up and down the paved banks of the Seine faster than a tourist-borne chancre. I waited to see what this would bring, who would come forward and either denounce us or beg to join in. Well, nobody did. She and I were the only ones of our kind there, it seemed. If others were in the city, they were far away and/or uninterested.

My little blonde ran a come-on that made all the johns hot and bothered to the extreme and then, just before they would have nailed her by force, she came across. To one of the ones she had originally enlisted to protect her from me, no less; the experience totaled him. He agreed to pimp for both of us for no more reward than to be allowed to partake again.

That she and I would pleasure each other that way was understandable, but what could humans find so enthralling about the human experience? And if they had no natural method or organ of accepting the yield, how did they do it?

She only laughed when I said anything, spoke rapid, incomprehensible French at me, and trotted away to some tourist waiting for what he’d been told would be the ultimate in delectables, unusual even for unseen Paris.

“She says you ask a slave’s questions,” one of her new bodyguards told me helpfully. “She says you may talk to her directly again when you have evolved a backbone.” He thought this was hilarious; I was simply amazed that he knew what it meant. He was a dirty pervert who had evolved a belly to balance off his own backbone. I meant to spit on his pants but for some reason I couldn’t get enough wet in my mouth.

I suppose she got rich, by vagrants’ standards. I hid out closer to where the tourists took the dinner boats. Many drank themselves into near-stupors, enough to allow themselves to be lured away for interludes they never remembered afterward. It was more dangerous, though, because the boat owners and the police cared more about who was hanging around there, and less satisfying because it was on the fly and in secret — not like finding people who will take you in, talk to you, and give you a little help when they throw you out again. I was not working right. So much for my hind legs. I wondered what they would think when I yielded again. And then I wondered if they would even notice.

The big-bellied pervert was the one who came to get me in the middle of the night. I woke up over his shoulder in a familiar though distasteful position, not understanding at first that I was being carried off. He had to let me down to explain that there was something wrong with her and she had been calling for me.

“A good trick,” I said, “since she doesn’t know my name.”

“Nobody knows anyone’s name,” he told me, “but we all knew who she meant, and we all knew where you were.” I let him lead me up the Seine to where she was, on her old spot where she had once confounded the Batobus people with her nude sunbathing. The moon was full, or nearly so, and there were a lot of people with her. Some seemed to be trying to tend to her, while others were grouped around a man who was apparently waiting with great and graceless impatience for something. I knew, of course, what that was.

She lay on the pavement like a used rag and I thought she was unconscious. But she must have smelled me; I saw her push herself up on one elbow. Croaking something in French, she pointed at the man, who didn’t look all that thrilled to see a creature like me come on the scene.

“She says you’re the only one who can take care of him and they’ll both die if you don’t.” This from her pimp/protector.

“Just give him back his money and tell him to go home,” I said, squatting down in front of her and lifting her face to the moonlight. Her skin looked bruised. I thought the john had beaten her up but I was wrong; she’d done this to herself, straining to yield what she no longer had.

“I can’t,” said the john warily. “We have a problem here. What are you, her keeper?”

“Not hardly,” I said. He spoke English well but in a slow and deliberate way that suggested he wasn’t comfortable with the language.

“Her partner, then?” He didn’t sound hopeful about it.

“What if I were?” I asked him, standing up and facing him. “What if I were and you had to do the thing with me if you wanted to do it at all?” His eyes narrowed and I laughed at him. “Go home, monsieur. Give it up. Hit the road, Jacques.”

“I told you, I can’t.” He produced a handkerchief; the blood on it looked black, which was how I knew it was blood. Blood always looks black in the moonlight. “You want to see, I’ll show you.” He took a few steps back and I saw it happen. He was crying blood.

“It feels worse than it looks,” he said, moving toward me quickly. “And pressure in my ears. Any further, I’ll bleed from those, too.” He dabbed at his face, shaking his head. “I am not a superstitious man or a bad man. But she came to me —”

“Yes, yes, the woman tempted you,” I said. “It’s going around, eh?”

“She came to me,” he said, as if I hadn’t spoken, “and sometimes I am a weak man. But what did I do so bad to cry blood?” I looked down at her and she looked back at me, breathing in deep, shuddery gasps. Probably no hope for her, unless there was something I could do —

“I don’t want to do a thing with anyone now,” the john said. “Especially you. But to end this —” he shrugged. “Is there some other way?”

I had to shake my head.

He spoke through a painful breath. “Then we do this quick. If we can.” I could see that he wanted to ask me if that was possible, but he couldn’t quite because he was afraid that the answer would be no. I didn’t know if we could do it quick or not. I wasn’t really ready to yield yet; I didn’t know how long it would take me. Especially with an audience. I looked around. Such a big audience, too; every Seine rat seemed to be in on this tonight, and maybe a few regular citizens in vagrant drag as well, for all I knew.

I had a few moments of pity for this weak man and for my blonde, also weak, and for myself, perhaps the weakest of all. I might have wanted to blame her rat’s greed and lust, but this was my fault. Careful to stay within a certain distance of her, I pushed the john into the shadows of the willows along the wall.

“Here,” I said, backing him up against the stone. He stiffened as I took him by the throat, but he didn’t try to push me away. At least he knew that it was going to be something other than an especially adept handjob.

I had thought to make it as quick and painless as possible, but after five minutes fading in and out of a half-assed trance state, I knew I couldn’t do it for him. Quirk, mine or hers? Either mine for being unable to do a human, or hers for being able to?

“She —” he croaked, and then began coughing. I loosened my grip on his throat, realizing he was right. She, indeed. She would have to complete the circuit before anything could happen.

I pushed him back against the wall and gestured for him to stay, and then went to get her. Lifted her up one-handed. She’d been siphoning off her own substance so that now her very bones must have been hollow tubes. Hollow tubes with a little soft-chewed leather stretched over them; she dragged along under my arm, her feet bumping the pavement but no complaints about it, none whatsoever.

As soon as he saw me coming back with her, he knew it was right. “What do I do?” he half-whispered to me.

I put her hands on each of his shoulders. “Hold her,” I said. “Lean back so she can stay up on you without trying.” Her head flopped forward and nestled under his chin, so that they really did look a lot like lovers. I yanked her head back by her hair and managed to maneuver his face into position, so that finally her mouth was on his eye. It was difficult, given our height differences and her limpness, but I was able to position my own mouth on her eye.

I had barely done so when her need seized on me and ran all through me, searching for the best and the most substantial that I had. This would not be a yielding, I realized, no matter how passive I was to it, to her. What there had been in her to gather information had mutated into a drive rapacious, hungry, and without intelligence or compassion.

It found the issue from the dinner boat patrons I had lured: a man who had had the experience of loving one person but being bound to another for many years, until the one he had been bound to had died; discovering, once he was free to join the other that it had been the barrier and not the hope of consummation that had kept that love alive;

a woman who had filled her emotional needs with material goods so that objects were passions for her now while other people’s passions were messy and distasteful;

a man who had done terrible things to his children in the sincere belief that it would prepare them to live in a world that would do far worse;

a woman who stole things without understanding that she was trying to recover something she believed had been stolen from her long ago;

a man who was a man by accident and a woman by intention;

a woman who had carved off in spirit what I had carved off in fact;

a teacher who had never learned a single one of her own lessons;

a priest whose faith had failed when he realized that he loved another priest;

Each was seized, examined, gobbled up, digested, and claimed. I relived each one, felt the explosion of knowledge in the pivotal moment and then felt it ripped away from me and absorbed by my skinny blonde, who then applied it to the man with such force that I thought she might be purposely trying to kill him.

She couldn’t help it, I saw; this had become something she had to do, or die. I felt him trembling under the onslaught, unable to produce enough will in himself to want to refuse her. Her need would kill him, and probably me, too, while leaving her alive, though just barely, and still in need.

I didn’t want to do it just then but there was no good time; while his body was in spasm, I pulled up both my hands and snapped her neck.

The sudden absence was deafening, blinding, dizzying; we swayed from side to side with her still pressed between us, and I heard him sob, or groan, or just make meaningless noise. He did it again and I realized he had said Gaston — in the act of saving us from her, I had let that come through and he knew now what I had done.

I stepped back and let her fall to the pavement. “You can go safely now, I think,” I told him.

He was clutching his head with both hands but he managed to nod.

“Don’t even think about telling anyone what you know,” I said, “or what you think you know. And don’t come down here again looking for anything, or I’ll eat you alive myself.”

He promised, wiping quite ordinary tears from his eyes, and staggered up the steps to the rue whatever-it-was.

The Seine rats weighted her body with stones and dumped it in the water. One of them bet that it would dissolve down there before it had a chance to float. I cleaned up and gorged myself at the Louvre and at Notre Dame. All tourists, of course, nothing but tourists, who spoke French to me in accents of varying atrociousness and gave me more information about themselves than I had ever thought of asking for. I kept hoping one of them would take me home, wherever that was.

I couldn’t stand the smell of that river anymore. It was as if the rat had been right and her body really had dissolved, poisoning the entire body of water and everything it touched. The essence of her seemed to be in the air; I didn’t understand how the tourists didn’t choke, or how the rats themselves could stand it. Till the end of Juin, then, I lived in the Metro with the beggars, emerging when I thought they should come again for my yield.

They didn’t. I waited at L’Opera, near the Louvre, below the Eiffel Tower and finally on the banks of the Seine, but they didn’t come. They weren’t coming — not just taking a long time about it, but really not coming. I went a little crazy, and then a lot crazy. The Seine rats, sensing my trouble with that bizarre and unerring instinct for hurting someone by helping, directed her old johns my way, telling them I was the sole surviving practitioner of her odd art.

Her art. It’s a laugh.

I held on as long as I could, but I was made to yield and I did, choosing those as clean as I could find for it. I could do it without her now; the circuit, once completed, stayed completed. Humans did not have much capacity, so it took more of them to yield to, and they weren’t as good at it, but they were better than ceasing to be.

Or maybe they weren’t. I just didn’t have the nerve to test that out.

It’s because I turned from them to her, of course; I chose her to yield to and whether they consider this is some unforgivable sin or just a dirty, unnatural act, I’ll never know, because they have left me here to go on or to cease on my own, and I can tell by the great empty sky that they will never be there again for me. I’ll never even see them come for another of my kind.

(Maybe it was her. Maybe she was defective and they consider me tainted because of my association with her.)

So everything is a little bit looser and messier than it used to be, but the world being what it is won’t notice, so I don’t imagine it will ever really matter. And since it won’t, I tell what I know promiscuously, to anyone, everyone within my range, wherever I am. I’ve learned to do what she should have, to siphon off here and siphon off there, and I have a Seine rat’s instincts as well now, so that I only dispense the exact knowledge nobody wants at the exact moment they don’t want it.

This is my indirect message to them, if they still come for the others like me that they made. The information they take is imbued with the mess I’ve made in it. So they can do something about me, or they can live with their poisoned knowledge.

As for me, with nothing to lose, I will go underground again for the worst of the summer heat and then the onset of cold weather. When spring comes, I’ll poke my head up with the other things from under the earth. And when it is Juin once again, I will go back to the Seine, to her old spot, drive away anyone who might be on it before I strip off my clothes and lie down for the entertainment and edification of the commuters on the Edith Piaf Batobus, and I will drink in whatever essence of humanity that I find under the sun.

And when it gets dark and the rats draw close, I will tell them everything. Everything. Everything. And if I’m still alive when the sun comes up, I’ll do it all again.

This story copyright © 1994 by Pat Cadigan. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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