The thing about World 2570 is it’s sustainable, the sunsets are nice, and the food is comically abysmal. Not in the dangerous way it is in the 2230s, where a burrito that doesn’t taste so bad might give you gut parasites that’ll eat and replace your organs over a course of a month, or in 2357 and 2358, where they act like you’re a fup for asking to see an ingredient list after you’ve watched the waiter sprinkle actual nuclear waste on your cordon bleu. Eating Five-Seventian food is like watching a movie that’s so bad it’s funny. That’s why, when we were in college, we used to get hammered and Fade there and eat at a new restaurant every weekend. It’s why I was there now.
Ian would arrive soon. I fiddled with my chopsticks. I wanted to see him again. But mostly, I really, really didn’t.
This place was, according to the sign outside, a sushi restaurant. It did have a bar, and a conveyor belt that hummed as it snaked crimes against the culinary arts past my seat. I chose a plate piled high with lumps of fried something. I’ve found that fried things taste pretty much the same, no matter what they are or where you get them. A passing waiter offered me a bottle of ketchup.
The air beside me shimmered like a dislodged contact lens. I rubbed my eye.
And, ever the genius with relative coordination, Ian appeared in the seat I’d left open for him. “Didn’t know they had oceans on 2570,” he commented as his form substantiated.
As if it had been yesterday, and not ten years, since the last time we’d spoken in person.
He chuckled. It looked so natural. Of course I’d seen prosthetics before. Arms, or legs, even both. But I’d never seen it done for half of someone’s head. The dark eye that watched me from its corner looked like Ian’s. I wouldn’t know it wasn’t Ian’s if I hadn’t seen the real one roll across the lab floor. The artificial flesh blended seamlessly with the original stuff.
What do you say to a man you’ve done that to?
I dipped my fried thing into the ketchup and took a bite. Nope, not fish. Rice, maybe. It was okay. Ian raised an eyebrow, and I nodded.
He plucked a lump from my plate. It was tradition, to share our spoils on 2570.
“What’s new?” he asked, chewing.
I toyed with idea of telling him about the leaps in molecular transference we’d been making. But I stopped myself. Bragging about the corporation we’d started together, and which had ruined his life, would probably have been a faux pas. “Not much,” I said instead. “And you?”
Though his face remained genial as ever, I caught a tiny twitch at the edge of his mouth. “I’m selling insurance now. Business is good since the Personal Conveyance Act passed.”
“Lots of people buying themselves Rifters and figuring out the hard way it’s not like driving a car?”
“Exactly. I insure the ones who’ve taken the guidance courses, and when an accident happens, it’s the other guy paying. Works out pretty well.”
“And I bet your company loves having someone who knows the technology,” I said before I could stop myself.
That twitch again. But his smile didn’t break. “Yeah, I guess. It’s really more about numbers than Rifto engines.”
I waved the waiter over and ordered us sake. She nodded and left.
“I really am sorry, you know.” I hadn’t meant to make this that conversation, but once it started, it couldn’t be stopped. I’d held it in for too many years. The words gushed out of me like bile. “I’m hasty. Usually that’s a good thing. We’ve never missed a product deadline, we’ve never not delivered what we’ve promised, and we do it in half the time as everyone else. That was why we started J-Corp. Remember? ‘Employing the best minds against technology’s biggest hurdles?’ Well, I’m the best at getting things done.
“But the science—that was you. Do you know how many nights I lie awake wishing I’d listened? I pushed, not trusting the one person who did it for the science and knew the science and wouldn’t have steered me wrong.” I lowered my eyes. “I’m so sorry, Ian. For everything.”
The waitress slid the glasses in front of us and I took a long drink to drown the quiet I’d left hanging between us. It tasted like lukewarm milk and vodka.
When I looked up again, I could see that friendly façade cracking. Ian’s rigorous smile had gone dark. There was no humor in his laugh. “And here, I almost couldn’t do it,” he said, shaking his head.
“I was so sure I would, and then I saw you again, and I lost my nerve. Why did you have to go and say all that?”
With one swift motion, he pulled a syringe free from his coat pocket, jabbed it into my arm, and pushed the plunger. I cried out. The liquid burned as it entered my fatty tissue.
“What?” I repeated. My tongue felt thick.
Ian leaned in close. I could see it, now; the line where true flesh met false, just along his nose and up his forehead. One eye dilated more slowly than the other.
“You ruined my life. And for that, you offer half-hearted apologies? For that, you invite me out for dinner, like nothing’s wrong, like the last ten years never happened? You’re a sociopath, Ash. A Goddamned sociopath. The worlds will be better off without you.”
I slumped forward. Thoughts were difficult. “It will be a quick death,” he promised me. His voice crackled at the end of his words as he Faded far away from World 2570.