By Ray Nayler
What are "I" and "You"?
In the niches of a lamp
Through which the One Light radiates.
Dead Stay Dead
The words were scrawled in scarlet, hurried script on a concrete flower box. In the spring, the flower box would be full of tulips. For those who could afford the spring, there would be sunny days and crowds. Right now there was nothing in the concrete box but wet earth.
A city worker in a jumpsuit a few shades darker than the drizzling sky wiped the letters away with a quick swipe of chemcloth, leaving no trace of their message, and moved on.
Whoever wrote those had probably already been caught by the police. Why bother? The risk of a fine, of a notch against you - for what? A pointless protest against a world that would stay just as it was, ugly words or no.
Across a cobblestoned street and defoliated winter gardens, the minarets of the Blue Mosque rose, soft-edged in the drizzle, their tips blurring into the mist. It was chilly in the open-air café, even under the heater. It was a familiar chill, bringing immediately to Regina’s mind years of Istanbul in winter – memories of snow hissing onto the surface of the Bosporus, snow melting on the wings of seagulls. Mornings wrapped close in a blanket, watching the rain on the windowpanes distort the shipping in the straight. The icy, age-smoothed marble of mosque courtyards. And ten thousand cups of black tea in pear-shaped glasses, sign and substance of the city: hot to the touch, bitter on the tongue, a cube of sugar dissolving in their depths, identical to and yet different from one another. This, and so many other deeply pleasant repetitions, comforted her. They were in her past and, now, ahead of her again.
She flexed her tanned, muscular hand. She had spilled her first cup of tea with this clumsy hand. So eager to get to the café, not waiting even to get settled in, still pins-and-needles and misfires, but wanting that first taste of Istanbul, of its black tea against its chill. The old waiter had shrugged, and brought her another. “Do not worry, beyfendi,” he had said, wiping the tea from the table with a rag. “No charge.” Now she lifted the second glass of tea, carefully, to her lips. Yes, that was it. Now another year’s Istanbul had begun.
And now Regina saw Ilkay, walking toward the café with that uneven step that said she had just woken. Ilkay was scanning the seats for her. Ilkay was blonde, this year. Beautiful – an oval face, this year, eyes set wide under high cheekbones, long-limbed. But Regina would know her anywhere. And Ilkay knew her as well, scanning the seats in confusion and concern for a moment and then catching her eye, and smiling.
“Well,” Ilkay said, when they had embraced, and embraced again, kissed cheeks, held one another at arms’ length and examined one another’s faces. “This is a new wrinkle in things.”
“Is it bad?” Regina asked, keeping her voice light and unconcerned, but feeling underneath an eating away, suddenly, at the pure joy of seeing Ilkay again. All things fall forever, worn by change / And given time, even the stones will flow . . .” a piece of a poem she had read once. The poet’s name, like much else, gone to time.
Ilkay grinned. Even, smallish teeth, a line of pink gums at the top. A different smile from the year before, but underneath, a constancy. “No. It isn’t bad at all. It will be something new, for us.” The waiter had approached, stood quietly to one side. Ilkay turned to him. “Two coffees for me. Bring both together.” She settled into her cane-bottom chair. “I never feel, this first day, as if I can wake up all the way.”
All was well, Regina told herself. Despite her heavy, clumsy hands. Despite her nervousness.
“Tell me,” Ilkay said. “Tell me everything. What is your highrise working on?”
“You would not believe it, but it is a contract piece for the UN Commission on Historical Conflict Analysis, and what they are focusing on is conducting the most detailed possible analysis of the Peloponnesian War. All year we’ve been focused on the Battle of Pylos – refining equipment models, nutrition and weather patterns, existing in these simulations for 12-hour shifts and feeding data to other teams of analysts. No idea what they are looking for – they’re concealing that to keep from biasing the simulation – but the level of detail is granular. I’ve been fighting and refighting a simulation of the battle of Sphacteria. Half-starved, trying to keep the phalanx together. I’ve been taken hostage and shipped to Athens so many times as a Spartan hoplite, I should get danger pay. It was supposed to be a six-month research project, but it’s already run all year, and looks set to run another year.”
“You actually look like you could handle yourself pretty well in a battle, right now. That’s a heavy blank you’re sheathed in.”
Regina felt a flush of shame. “When they pulled me over to my new Istanbul distro, someone had walked off in the blank I ordered. It was this, or wait another week. I was furious.” She looked down at the hairy back of the hand. “It’s terrible, isn’t it? My highrise had to take a 10% pay cut across the board this year. I couldn’t afford my old distro. The new distro is dreadful. I woke up with pins and needles all over, felt like I had a club foot, and could barely move my fingers for two hours. I staggered here like a zombie, everybody who passed me on the street staring at me. And nobody at the distro even apologized about the mix-up.”
“It isn’t terrible.” Ilkay had been too impatient in drinking her Turkish coffee, and a thin line of grounds marred her perfect lip. She wiped them delicately away with a napkin. “Fortunes change, and we’re all reliant on our highrises. I’m just so thankful that you were here when I walked up. I had a fear, crossing the hippodrome, that you would be gone. That there was a recall, or a delay, or you had been waitlisted, or that you had . . . reconsidered.”
Ilkay was always so fragile, this first day. Always certain there had been some disaster between them. Ilkay could afford a better timeshare – something in the spring, when the tulips came, or something in San Francisco Protectorate, but she came at this cut-rate time each year to meet Regina, slumming it in the off-season. In the end, it was Ilkay who was the most uncertain of them, most sure she would one year lose Regina. Money, Regina had to remind herself, was not everything – although it seemed like it was, to those who did not have it. Ilkay worked in a classified highrise, cut off from the rest of the world, plugging away at security problems only the fine-tangled mesh of reason and intuition, “gut” feeling and logical leaps of a highly trained and experienced mind could untangle. For Ilkay, cut off from any contact for the rest of the year, and restricted to the Western Protectorates for her timeshare because of international security reasons, it was not about money at all. She was afraid of losing Regina, even more than Regina was of losing her.
Ilkay took her hand. “Don’t worry about the mix-up. It will be . . . interesting. Something new. Okay – not exactly new, but something I have not done for a long time. And I’m just so glad that you came, despite everything.”
“What do you mean?”
Ilkay’s eyes widened a bit, and Regina saw she had slipped, had revealed something not to be known outside the siloes of the classified highrises that crunched the world’s ugliest layers of data. No wonder they didn’t let her out much: she may have been one of the world’s greatest security analysts, but she was a clumsy liar.
Ilkay recovered and continued. “You know, this really is going to be fun. This guy even looks a little dangerous. God only knows what he’s been put up to while we weren’t around.” Ilkay grinned wickedly, and ran a nail along the inside of Regina’s ropy wrist. “I can pretend you’ve traveled through time all this way from Pylos to be with me . . .”
“I guess that, in a sense, I have.”
At that moment the muezzin’s voice called from atop one of the minarets. Cutting clearly through the rain, the muezzin’s trained voice, a rich contralto, carried so commandingly through the air that it almost seemed to come from speakers, despite the laws in Istanbul forbidding any amplification of the human voice. Both Ilkay and Regina paused until she had finished her call, staring at each other, cow-eyed as a couple of teenagers on a first date. Like it was every year, and just as exciting and good. When the muezzin had finished her song, Ilkay caught the eye of a young waiter and made a sign in the air for the check. The young man nodded, unsmiling. The bent, friendly old man who had been serving their table was nowhere to be seen.
When the check came, Regina saw she had been charged for two teas.
“Sorry,” she said to the young man. “The other waiter said that I would be only charged for one of these . . .”
The young man shook his head. “You spilled the first one. You’re responsible. You pay.”
Regina began her protest. “Look, I’m happy to pay, but . . .”
“No, you look.” The young man spat back at her. “I don’t care what he said. You blanks think you can do anything you want. Spill a tea with your clumsy hands and not pay, forget to tip us because we won’t even recognize you next time. You pay for what you took, like anyone else. Like the real people here.”
Ilkay interrupted. “It’s no problem. We’ll pay. You can save the speech.”
Stunned by the young waiter’s hostility, Regina felt the pure, chemical haze of rage rising in her body. This was new – a feedback of violence that seemed embedded directly in the muscle and bone, a sudden awareness of her physical power, and a desire to use it so strong that it distorted thought. She wanted to smash a fist into the young waiter’s face. Or a chair.
Grasping Regina’s knee under the table to restrain her, Ilkay waved her palm over the check. “It’s done, and a regulation tip for you, as well.”
The young man shrugged. “I deserve more, putting up with you people every day.” He muttered something else as they got up to leave. Regina did not catch it, but Ilkay’s cheeks flushed.
As they were walking away, Regina turned and looked back at the terrace of the little cafe where they had met for countless years. The young waiter stood, arms crossed, watching them. As Regina caught his eye he turned his head and, keeping his eyes locked on hers, spat on the sidewalk.
Ilkay squeezed her hand. “Come on. We’ve got . . .”
Regina interrupted her. “What did he say, that last thing?”
“It’s not important.”
Ilkay smiled gently. “You’re going to have to get used to that male blank. You’ve never been in one before, have you?”
Regina shook her head. “No.”
“You need to ride on top of it, the way you would a horse. Don’t let its adrenaline surges and hormones get the better of you, or the feedback will distort your decision making. Cloud your thinking.”
Regina shook her head, as if to clear it. “Yeah, I can feel that. But what did he say?”
Ilkay tugged at her hand, and they walked in the direction of the Hagia Sophia. In this early hour, there was almost no-one on the sidewalks and the squares. The figures that they saw, all locals going about their own business, drifted in a clinging mist that did not quite turn to rain. “I’ll tell you,” Ilkay said, “but only if you promise, then, to concentrate on me. On us, and our time here.”
Regina stopped walking, gathered herself. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry. I got carried away. It’s embarrassing.”
Ilkay punched her arm, playfully. “Well, don’t forget to add this to your simulation. You can bet those men on Sphacteria were feeling exactly the same adrenaline surges, and it was having the same distorting effect on their decision making.”
Regina grinned. “I was thinking the same thing. Always the analysts, the two of us.”
Ilkay pulled them along toward the Hagia Sophia’s entrance. Its heavily buttressed mass loomed. “He said, ‘why don’t you dead just stay dead?’”
Regina felt her teeth actually grit themselves. “I earned this. We both did. We’ve worked hard, both of us. We spent lifetimes sharpening our skill-sets, making ourselves valuable, making real contributions to science. I’m not some trust-fund postmortem cruising around in a speedboat off Corsica. We competed fairly for our places in the highrises. We worked for this. And . . . who do they think keeps them safe? And who spends all their money here, pays for the maintenance of these places, keeps their restaurants open? And . . .” She trailed off helplessly.
“I know, I know.” Said Ilkay. “Now forget about it, and let’s go visit a church that has stood for over two thousand years, and let the temporary things be temporary.”
The house Ilkay had rented for them, one of the ancient wooden homes along the Bosporus, was like a wedding cake fresh from a refrigerator – all white paint thick as frosting, china-fine detail, silken folds, and chilled from top to bottom. The heating system was apologetic but insufficient. They built a fire in the master bedroom’s fireplace, found wool blankets in a trunk, ordered a very late lunch, and clumsily explored the possibilities of their new configurations. Then, increasingly less clumsily.
By the time lunch was delivered, they were exhausted and starving. In near silence, wearing their blankets like woolen super hero capes, they spread fig jam on fresh bread and watched sleet spin down over the Bosporus and spatter slush against the windowpanes. Out on the roiling chop of the strait, a fisherman in a small rusty boat and black rubber raingear determinedly attempted to extract some protein from the water. His huge black beard, run through with gray streaks, jutted from under his sou’wester, with seemingly only the axe blade of his nose between.
Regina dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. “It’s amazing to think that these people have lived in a nearly identical way for centuries. Technology changes some things, like maybe fish-locating sonar systems and nearly perfect weather forecasting – but for the fisherman who actually has to get the fish on the hook, in any weather that comes, not much has changed.”
“The physical things – the actual moving of matter around – are immutable,” agreed Ilkay. “As we have been experimenting with all morning.” She grinned, carefully applying fig jam. ‘And that’s why, I think, these weeks are so important. They remind us of the base – the essentials, the substance of life and the world. Not that what we do isn’t important. Not that who we are usually isn’t real . . .”
Regina finished the thought: “But it’s just so abstract. Immaterial. Not without consequence, but . . .”
“But without immediacy.” Ilkay interjected. Then, after a long pause . . . “Regina, I miss you terribly. All year. And I cram everything I can into these short few weeks. And every year, I am afraid.”
“Afraid that next year, you will not be waiting for me at the café. These few weeks, always in winter . . . they are everything to me. They aren’t a vacation . . . they are the sum and total of everything of meaning in my life. It’s not that . . . it’s not that I don’t value my work, or think it saves lives. I haven’t lost faith in the project. We watch over a troubled world, in my highrise . . . a world cruel people are constantly trying to tear to pieces . . . but none of that work seems to matter nearly as much as the moment I see you again. Sometimes, I feel my work is eating away at who I am. It’s like watching a shadow underwater: you know it is just seaweed, this shadow, a harmless mass writhing in the current, nothing to worry about. But what if it is a shark? A shadow with teeth and volition? The more you stare at the shadow, straining to make out its outline, the more certain you become that it is a shark – until you convince even yourself. This constant watching - it eats away at your feeling of security. It eats away, I think, at your sanity. And I’ve been afraid to tell you, because I feel as if once it’s said, it will shatter all this . . . this causal sort of . . . easy feeling between us.”
Regina put an arm around her. Her thicker arms were increasingly feeling as if they were her own. She pulled Ilkay toward her. “This was never casual or easy for me, Ilkay. And I’ll always be at the café. Every single year.”
The weather did not improve after lunch. The Bosporus swelled and churned, and the rain came down in columns. There was time to sit long over lunch and talk, and to lay under the heavy covers of the four-poster and talk. Dinner was brought in a dripping container, and they tipped the young woman who brought it, soaked to the skin, double for her efforts. The sun set, and on the strait the lights of small boats bobbed in the dark between the chop of the water and the sky. Just after 8:00, the door buzzer jangled. They had been having cups of tea in front of the fire. Regina saw Ilkay immediately tense, like a cat hearing a dog bark in the distance.
The man on the doorstep was in a long, gray raincoat, black rubber boots, rain pants. Under his sou’wester an abglanz turned his face into a swirl of shimmering, ever-changing abstract patterns. In a tech-limited city, the effect was particularly jarring.
“Good evening,” the composite voice said to Regina. “I apologize for the interruption of your timeshare. I hope to take up as little of your time as possible. I must speak to Ilkay Avci. This is, unfortunately, a matter of urgency.” His credentials drifted across the shimmer of the abglanz. Istanbul Protectorate Security High Commission.
Standing in the corridor behind Regina, Ilkay said “Come in, inspector. Hang up those wet things.”
As he did so, Regina noticed a port wine birthmark on the back of his hand. It was large, spreading across his wrist and up to the first knuckles of his fingers in a curious, complicated pattern, like a map of unknown continents. They should have given him an abglanz to cover that, she thought. I would know him again anywhere. They went into the living room.
“I apologize,” the inspector said to Regina, “but due to the classified nature of this conversation, I will have to ask you to wear this momentarily. Once you are seated comfortably.” He produced the slender metal cord of the scrambler from the pocket of his shirt. No matter what they did to that thing (this one was a cheerful yellow) it still looked like a garrote. Regina settled into a chair and let him place it around her neck. He clipped it into place gently, like a man fastening the clasp of his wife’s necklace.
She was in Gulhane Park, at the peak of the Tulip Festival. The flowers – so large and perfectly formed they seemed almost plastic, were everywhere, arranged in brightly colored plots, swirling patterns of red, white, orange, maroon, violet, and cream. A few other tourists roamed the paths of Gulhane, but the park was, for the most part, empty. It was a cool spring day, smelling of turned earth. It was an Istanbul she had not seen – had not been able to afford to see – since the austerity, so many years ago now, had reduced her highrise’s benefit levels. But, she thought, bending to cup the bloom of a Chinese orange tulip with a cream star at its center, what I gained when I lost this season was Ilkay. And that is enough to replace all of this. Though – just for a moment – it was good to feel the warm edge of summer hiding in the air, to close her eyes and let the sun bleed through her eyelids.
She wondered how wide the extent of the simulation was. Did it extend beyond the walls of Gulhane? The face of a passing tourist was glitchy, poorly captured, the woman’s features wavered. No, it would be only the park, a tiny island of flowers, green paths and good weather. But did it extend as far as the Column of the Goths? She would like to see that ancient object, surrounded by flowers in the spring. She began to walk further into the park. A crow glitched from one branch to another in a tree just beginning to leaf, its caw jagged with digital distortion.
She was back in the chair. The inspector stood over her, putting the scrambler back into his pocket. “Give it a moment before trying to stand. Just in case. And again, my apologies for any inconvenience. The Istanbul Protectorate Security High Commission thanks you, and will apply a small amount in contemporary lira to your accounts for the inconvenience. It isn’t much, I am afraid – but enough for a good meal on the Galata Bridge for the two of you.”
Ilkay was standing at the fire, warming her hands. “The courtesy is much appreciated, Inspector. At a later date I will review this interaction and give it the full 5 star rating.”
Once the inspector was gone, they both found they were too exhausted even to watch the fire burn down to its embers. They went to bed early, sliding into sheets as cold as the skin of ice on a river. Regina asked nothing about Ilkay’s conversation with the Inspector. It was one of the rules of their relationship, unspoken between them. Sometimes, things about Ilkay’s work were offered up, but Regina never asked for them.
“Perhaps next year,” Ilkay whispered in the dark, “we should meet somewhere else. Maybe it is time for a change.”
“What happened?” And now Regina felt the rise of anger in her. Somewhere else? Where? It was not enough that she had no contact with Ilkay during the year, only these few weeks when they could see one another – now they had to intrude on this as well, eroding even this small island of peace – as if it were too much to ask to have even this one thing. The face of the young waiter at the café rose up in her mind, spitting on the pavement.
“Nothing.” Ilkay said. “Nothing at all. Tensions, or rumors of tensions. That’s all it ever is, it seems. Like the shadow in the water. It’s almost always seaweed. It’s almost never a shark. But my job is to watch the shadows. And I’m tired, Regina. So very tired of being afraid. Why can’t they let me at least have this? These few weeks. Haven’t I earned a little peace in my life?”
The morning of the fifth day was bright and cold. The sky was opalescent. The mist that had clung to everything had risen to become a single, thin sheet of gauze, shrouding sun from earth. Under the Galata Tower, huddled beneath the glowing hood of a terrace heater, they drank black tea and coffee and had breakfast – honey and butter, warm bread and white cheese, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs – and lingered over the meal. There were other blanks at the café, together and alone, smiling and laughing or quietly reading newspapers. Real newspapers, on real paper: one of the great joys of Istanbul.
The blanks sat on the terrace, oblivious to the cold, with only the heaters preserving them from the chill. The café’s waiter, on the other hand, stood inside the café, watching his patrons from behind glass, continually rubbing his hands together for warmth. He was a middle-aged man moving toward old age, his thin hair combed straight back on his scalp. The cold, thought Regina, was different for him – lasting months out of the year, coming too soon and leaving far too late. For the blanks on his terrace, it was a joy to experience it, after their highrised, simulated year. Who were they all? Number-crunchers, of course, of one kind or another, moving data around. There were pure mathematicians among them, financial analysts, scientists and astronomers, astrophysicists and qualitative historical analysts. And those, like Ilkay and herself, working in more esoteric fields.
Regina had never thought deeply about the difference between the blanks and Istanbul’s permanent residents, the “locals,” as they were called by some – but not by Regina, who liked to think of herself as a local, liked to think of this city as her city. Hadn’t she earned that, by returning here every year for so long? Over the last few days she and Ilkay had “made their rounds,” as they called it – despite the bad weather, they had visited all of their old places – eating fresh fish on the Galata Bridge (subsidized by the Istanbul Protectorate Security High Commission), walking the land wall that had protected, for a thousand years, an empire that had been destroyed well over a thousand years ago. On the third evening, from an open-topped ferry crossing the strait to the Asian side, they had watched the interstellar array on one of Istanbul’s distant hills fire the consciousness of another brave, doomed volunteer into the stars, riding a laser into failure and certain death. The blanks on the ferry had applauded. The locals had hardly seemed to notice.
But it was different for them. The waiter blew into his hands and watched his patrons with no expression on his face at all as they laughed and spread honey on their bread. He simply wanted to be warm, wanted the spring to come. Time moved along – and the faster, the better. The blanks were his economy, providing him with a living. In winter, the tables were half empty. In the summer, they would be full. All the tables would be full. The blanks would take the city over, ferreting out even the most local of the cafes, the most “authentic” places to eat. Raising prices, elbowing out the city’s residents, who would retreat deeper into the alleys and back streets. And the interstellar program ground on, engaging the imaginations of thousands, employing a hundred highrises, but without any news or result or breakthroughs for generations. Its promise was now ignored by the majority of the five billion, whose main task was just to live, here and now, not to worry about homes beyond the stars.
On the other side of the terrace, one of the breakfasters, a young woman with dark hair in a braid, seated alone, was having a conversation with a local teenage boy on a bicycle. The boy had drawn out a map, and was pointing to something on it. He handed the map to the blank, who began examining it, her easy smile displaying a row of white teeth. And then, the boy reached into his pocket, and drew out a small, red canister with a nozzle at the top. He aimed it at the young woman’s face and depressed the button, firing a spray into her eyes, nose and mouth.
Without thinking, Regina was on her feet, across the terrace, then on top of the boy, slamming his hand again and again into the pavement until the canister fell from it and rolled bumpily away across the cobblestones, wrestling with him as he tried to twist away from her. The boy struck her in the face, hard, his hand impacting with a strangely sharp pain. But then others joined her, from the street and from the terrace. Whistles blew. The boy disappeared behind a mass of struggling backs and legs. Ilkay was on the terrace, pouring water from a bottle over the young woman’s face. The woman’s eyes were red and swollen closed, coughing and gagging. Near her, others were wiping at their eyes, trying to clear them of the irritant spray. Another man offered Regina a cloth, a napkin from the terrace, and now she noticed that her face was bleeding. She pressed the napkin to her cheek, feeling the warm pulse of blood from the deep cut there. Only then did she notice the policeman, carefully placing a small, bloody folding knife into an isolation bag. The café’s proprietor stood in the center of his terrace, all tipped over tables and shattered tea cups, wringing his hands.
At the medical clinic, the nurse who applied the seal was a young man, ex-military, his silver-sheathed prosthesis of a right arm, twelve-fingered and nimble, deftly working the seal into place as he cheerfully bantered with Regina.
“Luckily, your insurance covers this damage. They can be picky about what you put the blanks through, you know. There are all sorts of clauses and sub-clauses. That knife just touched the zygomatic bone, but there are no fractures, no bruising. A lot of people don’t read the fine print, and go paragliding or something, break a leg and find themselves footing a huge bill for repairs later, or a scrap and replace that they can’t afford. But you made the right choice, bought comprehensive. You must have gotten into the program early – those rates are astronomical these days. Nobody can afford them but the highest ranking Minister Councilors and, of course, the postmortems. There we go. This guy’s face will be good as new in a few days.” He patted Regina’s cheek affectionately, flexed the smoothly clacking twelve-figured hand. “Just try not to smile too much.” He admired his hand. “God, I love this thing. If anything good can be said to have come out of the Fall of Beirut, it’s this hand. A masterpiece.”
Ilkay was giving a deposition in another room. Looking up, Regina saw the Inspector from the IPSHC standing in the doorway in a casual polo shirt and slacks, abglanz glittering weirdly under the medical-grade lights. She recognized him by the pomegranate-colored birthmark on his hand.
“I hope you are well,” he said. “After your adventure.”
Regina nodded slightly.
“Hold still one second,” the young nurse said. “I have to fix the seal along the edge here.”
“We are going to have to take a bit more of your time, I am afraid. Of Ilkay’s time, to be more precise. Will you be able to get back to your residence all right? If not, I can send someone to accompany you. We will return her at the soonest moment we can, but I am afraid . . .” His digital smear of a face turned to the nurse. “If you are finished, can you leave her for a moment?”
The nurse shrugged and left the room.
“I am afraid,” continued the Inspector, “That we will need her particular skill set over the next few days. We have encountered . . . a rather fluid situation. It needs further analysis. Normally we would not . . . well, to be honest, the austerities have left us a bit short staffed. Ilkay’s presence here, with her particular skill set, is an opportunity we literally can’t afford to pass up.”
Ilkay was in the doorway. “Inspector, can I have a moment alone with her?”
Once the Inspector had departed, Ilkay crossed the room to Regina. She ran a finger lightly along the seal. “They’ve done a good job. It’s the best work I’ve ever seen.” She blinked back tears. “God, you are an idiot. You’ve spent too long in that simulation, or maybe that body is getting to you.”
“I don’t know what came over me,” Regina said seriously. “It’s something in the air, I suppose. I just reacted.”
“Well,” Ilkay said, ‘Stop reacting. I’ll be back with you in a day. Two at the most. In the meantime, try not to play the hero too much. And I expect a full report of your adventures. But . . .” And now she seemed uncertain, lowered her voice. “Play it safe a little, will you? For me? It might be better . . .” she leaned in and whispered in Regina’s ear. “It might be better to stay away from the touristy areas for a while. Can you do that for me?”
She pulled away. Regina nodded.
“Oh,” Ilkay said, running her finger along Regina’s razor-stubbled chin. “And by the way – you really need to shave more often. You’re a beast, and it’s not that I don’t like it, but it’s giving me a bit of a rash.”
They had met here, so many years ago. It had been a different Istanbul, then – a city dominated by a feeling of optimism, Regina thought. No, not dominated – optimism could never dominate the city’s underlying feeling of melancholy, of nostalgia for what was always lost. But the city had been brightened, somehow, by optimism. For years, there had been a feeling, ephemeral, like a bright coat of whitewash over stone. The relays were in place on a hundred possible new worlds, the massive array on Istanbul’s distant hills were firing the consciousnesses of the first explorers into interstellar space. It was in that time that they had met. They had met on a Sunday, at the Church of St. George. Regina, who was not religious, had gone to a service. She had been trying things out then – meditation, chanting, prayer – all of it a failure. Where does one go when one has lost everything, risen back from nothing? But she found the drone of the priest’s voice and the smell of incense – a thousand years and more of incense soaked into the gold leaf and granite – comforting. The flat and meaningfully staring icons, the quietude. In those first years of adjustment, it had been all she had.
Ilkay had found her outside in the courtyard. She had been doing the same – wandering from temple to mosque to church, searching. They fell in together, naturally, talking of the most private feelings immediately, walking up the hill through neighborhoods that had been crumbling for as long as they had been standing, where the burned shells of houses mixed with those restored, and all of them leaned on one another, the whole leaning on the broken for support, the broken leaning on the whole. They ate a meal together in a little family restaurant whose courtyard was the ivy-covered walls of a shattered house, long ago consumed by fire, open to the sky. The meal felt, for Regina, like a communion. Someone had found her and had made her whole. And there had been no struggle, no doubt, no sacrifice. They had spent every moment together afterwards, never parted, and agreed to meet the next year. That was all. They had never questioned it.
Regina did not question it now. If Ilkay was gone tomorrow, she would not think it was because she had abandoned her. This was not possible. It would be because she was gone completely.
Regina lasted three days, waiting in the icy house and keeping to the city’s Asian side. She found some comfort in a book she dug up in a bookstore there, a long-forgotten treatise on insect architecture. The book came complete with color plate illustrations of the complex constructions of bugs. It was a labor of love written by some Englishman, obscurely obsessed in the best possible way. She pored over the book’s slightly mildewed pages, rich with the vanilla scent of their paper’s chemical decay, for hours. Ilkay sent her reassuring messages, full of her bright sarcasm, hoping every day for their reunion. And the time slipped away. Would Istanbul Protectorate pay for their separation? Reimburse them for what they were taking? Unlikely.
On the fourth day, Regina decided to return to the European side. She would avoid the most popular places, as she had promised Ilkay. But most people went to the hippodrome and Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and, at the most, strolled up to the Grand Bazaar. She would avoid those places.
The Church of St. George itself was surprisingly small, suited now to the dwindling number of pilgrims and tourists it received, though once it must have swelled full of the faithful on holy days. Pilgrims must have filled the small courtyard which, now, was nearly empty. The gray stone of the simple façade was more like a house than a church, though inside it was filled with gold leaf and light.
But Regina stayed in the courtyard. A group of blanks was there, in a cluster around a local guide who Regina could not see, but whose voice carried in the air. Pigeons walked around the feet of the tourists.
“The church’s most precious objects, saved from each successive fire that consumed parts of it, are the patriarchal throne, which is believed to date from the 5th century, rare icons made of mosaic and the relics of two saints: Saints Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom.”
Regina walked toward the group to hear more clearly. A message was coming in from Ilkay.
“Regina, where are you?”
“Some of the bones of these two saints, which were looted from Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, were returned by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Today the Church of St George serves mostly as a museum . . .”
Regina could see the guide now, standing in the semicircle of faces. The faces of the blanks were pale, lips and noses red with cold. Most of them bored. Some carried on quiet conversations with one another as the guide spoke. Why did they come to these place if they did not care?
“I am at the place we met,” Regina sent. “Still laying low, waiting for you.”
The guide wore a heavier coat, and a warm hat. As Regina approached, he saw her and looked up, continuing his speech. “Though there are still pilgrims.”
It was the young waiter from the café on her first day. Recognizing her, he smiled sarcastically. “They return here every year . . .”
Another message came in from Ilkay. “GET OUT!!!”
The guide raised his hands. “And they will keep coming until we stop them.”
There was a flash of blinding light.
The trireme lurched free of its anchorage and began a slow rotation to starboard, oars churning in the gray-blue water. Regina was crouched on the deck, the sun white-hot on her exposed neck. Her hands were bound behind her. Blood was spattered on the wood, small droplets from a wound she had received across her cheek in the final moments of the battle.
There had been chaos, and many had thrown down their shields, but for some reason she had kept fighting until finally one of the Athenian hoplites had struck her on the side of the head with the flat of a sword and she had fallen, dazed, struggling to get to her feet. Then they had moved in, knocking her sword from her hand, wrestling her to the ground, finally subduing her and binding her wrists with a leather thong.
Her head still throbbed from the blow from the sword, and a hundred other bruises and scrapes ached. Behind then, Sphacteria’s flat, narrow expanse, fought for so hard and at such cost, began to fade as the simulation’s boundaries drifted into opalescent tatters. Finally there was only the trireme, and the lingering sound of its oars in water that was no longer there.
An Athenian hoplite approached, and handed her water, but she did not bother to take it. Sensation was already fading, the materiality ending. The water would be nothing in a mouth that had ceased to feel it. The wound had stopped throbbing, was gone. Blood remained on the deck, and the sun's warm color, but not the warmth of the sun.
“Do you really think they would have kept fighting like that? After it was impossible to win?” The Athenian cut her hands free with a small bronze knife.
Regina lay down on the deck. Moments ago there had been the physical feeling of exhaustion, heat. Now there was none of that, though there was a faint sensation of the deck beneath her. She laced her fingers behind her head and looked up into the glaucous simulation edge that was the sky.
“I do,” Regina said. “Some would have given up. But others were beyond reason, beyond caring about consequence. They would have carried on when it was impossible. Hatred, fear, and anger would have ruled them. I was missing it in my reports last year. The stubbornness, the things beyond strategy.”
Astrid, who had played the Athenian but was now becoming Astrid again, was silent for a moment, then tossed her helmet to the deck, where it landed without a sound and was gone. She sat down with a sigh. “You’re probably right. Anyway, it seems to come closer to the truth. But I’m so tired of doing this every day. I wish I knew what they were looking for. What’s the key to all of this? Anyway . . . another year almost gone, and no end in sight. Is your timeshare still in Istanbul? Will you really go back there, after everything that happened there last year? After almost getting killed, and totaling your blank? You barely made it out of that place alive.”
That morning, before the start of the day's simulation, Regina had received a message from Ilkay: "Here a day early, already waiting for your arrival. Tell me you are coming, though I won’t stop worrying until I see your face.”
Regina grinned into the blank swirl of false sky, seeing black tea there, and cobblestones, incense aged into stone, the hiss of snow along a seagull's wing, and Ilkay’s face – the many faces Ilkay’s being had illuminated, her smile each year both different, and the same.
"Of course I'm going back. Now, and every year. It is my home.”