“Portrait of a Pinup Boy at the End of the World” by Andrea Tang
I’d successfully dodged missing persons contracts for four glorious years, until the morning Q dumped OneWorld’s sweetheart—or rather, his case file—on my doorstep, along with a bouquet of bona fide, Earth-grown roses. The insistent buzz of the knocker wrenched me from my lie-in, bedside coffee cradled black and steaming in my ceramic mug. These days, my late morning coffee provided the only smidgen of heat to be found in the over-cooled apartment unit.
I peered through the unit’s cloud-glass sliding door at Q, who lounged sunlit and smug-smiled beneath his dark golden pompadour. Next, my gaze found the flowers artfully splayed at his feet, before landing at last on the old-school photograph pinned to the slick, clear pages of the file Q had mashed up against my door.
“What the fuck,” I said, and spared a finger from my dressing-gown sleeve to stab at the sliding-door console. The door jerked aside, wobbling in that way of cloud-glass you haven’t found money or energy to fix, even though you said you would months ago. By the time it shuddered aside, Q had the roses cradled in one arm like some kind of OneWorld pageant queen. His spare hand waved the file pages in my face, which flapped translucent beneath the artificial sun.
“Nat, diamond of my heart,” he drawled. “I come bearing a gift for the finest contracting detective on Medici Space Station.”
“I hate flowers,” I said, clutching my coffee mug before me like a shield.
“But I’ve brought you a celebrity!”
“I don’t care.”
“Don’t you want to know which one?”
“No. Get me an embezzling case instead. Money’s easier to follow than people. Cash doesn’t talk back.”
“Cash leads to people.”
“Q, get me an embezzling case, or a money laundering case, or a goddamn missing puppy case, or get out of my face.”
Q’s fair lashes went half-mast. Combined with the freckles sprinkled across his razorblade of a nose and the high-knotted silk of his cravat, the expression made him look even more like a space-age dandy than he already was. “I could swear on the galaxy’s soul that you were nicer back when we shared a bed.”
“Everyone’s nice when you take them to bed. It’s one of your charms. And before you ask, no, you can’t trade sexual favors for one of my jobs. I’m a professional.”
“Who sleeps till noon, rents an apartment with broken climate control, and refuses to take missing persons cases even though they’re by far the most lucrative contracts to be had on the space stations.”
“You know,” I observed into my coffee, “I really thought not sleeping with you anymore also meant that you wouldn’t nag me about my career anymore.”
“I’m still your handler. Someone must keep you in contracts and…” Q paused for effect, nose wrinkling as he shivered in my cold-blasted doorway, “… rent checks. Galaxy help us all.”
“Right. You handle all your detectives with a dozen red roses imported from Earth?”
Q canted his head at me, suddenly still and unreadable as an old Greek statue. Sunlight beaming from the space station’s blue-painted sky made the hollows of his cheekbones glow. I was never sure whether to be turned on or jealous over the way even artificial light clung to Q wherever he went. He’d make a good fairytale princess—Cinderella, maybe, or Sleeping Beauty—if you dressed him up right. Q told me once, winking from between my legs, that he’d gone by she for a time, which was how he knew women so well. To this day, I had no idea which pronoun, if any, his parents had slapped on him at birth. Opacity had always suited Q, finely tailored to his body like a pair of bespoke trousers. Now, he used that opacity to press his advantage, marble-faced, as he said, “Jonathan Aurélien Ibrahim.”
“Gesundheit,” I replied.
“Call him Johnny for short, if you like. That’s what his friends called him.” Q raised the file, the photo gleaming on its cover still. “But at least look at him. He deserves that much.”
The young man grinning out of Q’s picture struck a faint chord in my memory. Skin like cast bronze, rich brown hair cut all boy-band-floppy, forever falling into the saddest, greenest eyes you could imagine.
“People used to hang this photo up in lockers at school back on Earth,” I said. “I’m pretty sure one of my old boyfriends used to jerk off to this guy’s film posters.”
“He’s missing,” said Q. “Vanished, poof, after some run-in with a scientist.”
I folded the green eyes down the crease at the center, and shoved Jonathan’s picture back at Q. “Get the real police on it then.”
“They won’t touch it.”
“They’ve decided he’s already dead.”
“Then he probably is.”
“Or someone’s paying them to think that.”
“It’s happened before, Natasha.”
Q shrugged. “Before he vanished, Jonathan called the OneWorld government out on a lot of shit. Didn’t like the way they used up the Earth.”
“Why not? He was their literal poster-boy for a while there.”
“Guess he wanted his keepers to practice what they preached. All that peace and unity under Earth’s blue sky kumbaya. It was cute, back when Earth’s sky still had any blue in it.”
I massaged the bridge of my nose. My coffee was going cold. “Who paid for a contract detective’s missing persons job, then? Family? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?”
“Hell no. This baby’s crowdsourced.”
“Are you shitting me?”
“Guy had a lot of fans. Some had deep pockets. Really, Nat, don’t look so scandalized. Crowdsourced everything is all the rage these days. Keep up, or people will think you’re old-fashioned.”
I met Q’s upturned, unblinking eyes. “How much is the contract offering?”
Q named a figure that made the coffee in my mug slosh. “Jesus, who is this guy, Helen of Troy with a dick?”
“Sure.” Q laughed. “The space-age edition, airbrushed and ready for rescue. Come on, Nat. What’s one job? You bill some hours, make a good show of methodology, and that money’s ours, hardly any skin off your sweet little backside. You can pay someone to fix your climate control and everything.”
I looked at Q, then at the folded white edge of the photograph, peeking out from the file. “What’s with the roses?”
“Jonathan’s favorite, according to the last interview he gave. Figured that was as good a starting point as any.” Q winked, waving the bouquet. “I know what you’re like.”
The scent of the flowers—the scent of Earth—made me flinch back into the artificial comfort of the apartment. I pulled my dressing-gown tight around my middle. “Three months,” I offered. “I bill three solid months, and whatever happens at the end, that’s that. Hard cutoff.”
The smile spread slow and satisfied across Q’s full mouth. “Clock’s ticking.”
The earthy smell of the roses still clung after he left the doorstep, whistling, Jonathan’s photograph stuck against my cooling coffee mug.
I’m on a hillside.
This, in itself, is ridiculous. Hillsides don’t exist in space, not even under the false azure paint of the space station skies, and certainly not the rolling green kind you used to find on Earth, where they’d shoot idyllic movies about English countryside romances. But stuck here in this moment, I’m breathing air—real air, replete with dirt and sun—and a young man’s offering me a brilliant, crimson rose.
“I hate flowers,” I tell the green-eyed gallant, but my heart’s not in it.
Jonathan Aurélien Ibrahim smiles. “Don’t they remind you of home?” He sounds the way he sings on album recordings, tenor clear and sweet in that way of OneWorld-manufactured poster-boys.
“Earth’s not my home.”
A dimple deepens in his cheek. “I meant Medici Station. Lovely greenhouses there. Or is that not home either?”
“Home’s a fairytale, boy band.” I tip my head toward the cloud-streaked sky, blue as a memory’s corpse. “Either you’re a one-percenter clinging to the apron strings of the OneWorld government back on a dying goddamn planet, or you’re surplus like me and Q, jettisoned out to the space stations like spare cargo.”
Jonathan’s expression shutters. “No person is surplus.”
“Try that line on the deportation financiers.”
“I did. OneWorld was supposed to stretch Earth’s sky far enough to cover everyone.”
“And how much sky is left for anyone now?”
Jonathan’s gaze on me, softer than any I can remember, bruises me from the inside out. “We’ve got a chance, still. I know it hasn’t felt that way in a while, but we do.” Closing the distance between us, he tucks the rose, bramble first, into my hair. The blood-red bloom kisses my cheek.
“Find me,” says Jonathan.
Years ago, when people first started building up a bargain-bin Earth on the space stations, they converted one of the greenhouses on Medici into a black box theater. Jonathan Aurélien Ibrahim, on loan from Earth proper, delivered the theater’s inaugural performance, a jukebox medley of old Broadway standards from his early days on a New York stage. One of the last people Jonathan spoke to before he vanished was the artistic director, an iron-haired, sepia-skinned woman decked out in long, golden-painted lashes and crimson lipstick. She called herself Medea, and told me I might as well chase a great white whale through an ocean of stars, for all the luck I’d find, chasing Jonathan’s ghost across the space stations.
“That boy would die in Earth’s stead if he could,” she croaked around her pipe. “Even if he’s alive, he’d hate being around to see those beloved blue skies go ash-dark, the grass burned up to nothing. Even OneWorld’s precious hand-picked desirables don’t want to live planetside these days. It’s only a matter of time before Earth gasps its last. There’s talk of an evacuation.”
I squinted at Medea through the pipe smoke. “Where will they go?”
She shrugged. “Space. Where else is there?”
The scent of tobacco under my nose burned and burned.
“I stayed up all night looking up your performance credits,” I tell Jonathan one day. “I remember some of those musicals.”
The young actor, black suspenders pulled over crisp white shirt, cuts a lithe line of a figure beneath a single spotlight. The theater around us is grand, plush, and charmingly generic. We might be at London’s West End, or Broadway in New York. When Jonathan walks toward me, the spotlight moves with him. “Hardly anyone remembers my early stage plays, since—”
“—you became a film star?” I snort. “Dream on, boy band. No one forgets a voice like yours, heard live.”
“I was going to say, ‘since we lost the last of blue sky.'”
I eye the actor. “You’ve really got kind of a one-track mind, don’t you?”
He shrugs, muscle sliding under skin and suspenders, the boy from bedroom posters rendered achingly human when he asks, “What happened to the scientist?”
The last person to see Jonathan alive. “Dead.” An accident, anonymous, in a broken-down lab, like most of their kind: some pointless, last-ditch effort to save us all.
“Really.” Jonathan’s eyes, almost amused, are a pair of lanterns in the dark. “As dead as me?””
I shiver without answering.
The hawker who sold me my shuttle ticket to Earth muttered his disapproval when I transferred the cash. “That big gasp is coming, you know. All the scientists—the ones still alive, anyway—have predicted it. Fire-streaked sky, rising oceans, the whole Biblical fiasco. Life on Earth is kaput. You better off staying on the space stations, girl.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I said, scanning my ticket.
He squinted at me through a greasy pair of spectacles. “Hey. You’re that contract detective. The girl who’s been hunting around for that dead movie star.”
“Missing,” I corrected absently.
The hawker snorted. “And you think you’ll find him on Earth, sitting pretty, waiting for the apocalypse like a sacrificial lamb, is that it?”
“Nah.” I winked, doing my best Q impression. “I think he’ll find me first.”
I flop backwards onto sun-kissed, tide-soaked sand. “So, this is where the magic happens.”
“A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.” Jonathan stretches his long, smooth-carved limbs skyward, upside down in my sight line. “You’re getting seawater in your hair, by the way.”
“You don’t sound fussed.”
I slit my eyes against the glare of sunlight, reflected off white beaches. “I’ve got better things on my mind than nostalgia for Mother Nature’s ghost.”
Jonathan laughs, seawater glittering green in his irises. “I’m not as complicated as you think.”
“That’s what all men say.” My back cracks when I roll to my feet, pulling a face. “So, you came back to Earth, which is also where you disappeared. The question is, who disappeared you? Who the hell doesn’t want a living Earth?”
“What makes you so sure I was disappeared by people who disagreed with my goals?”
“You know ‘disappearing’ is contract detective euphemism-speak for murder, right? So, who was it? That poor dead scientist you kept harassing? A pissed-off publicist? Or —”
“Nat, listen to me—”
“What else do you think I’ve been doing for the past two months?”
One arm snakes around me. “No, really listen.” He’s too warm, like a miniature sun made flesh. “You assume this vanishing act of mine was something terrible. But what if it wasn’t?”
“What, is ‘missing, presumed dead’ a hot new trend among you arty types?”
“Don’t be a dick. Think about who brought you my contract, and why. Look at your case notes again, really look. You know I went home, one last time. The scientist I met—”
“Dead end. Literally.”
“The same thing artists and scientists always throw their lives away on. A pipe dream.”
“Perhaps.” He smells like the sea, and sunscreen, and sweat. “But we all have one. Even you, if you’d only just admit it. What are you so afraid of?”
“I’m not,” I snap. “But you can’t fight reality. We used up our planet. That’s that. You can’t save everyone. You couldn’t save that scientist. Hell, could you even save yourself?”
He leans in close, lips a whisper on my ear. “Was that a question for me or you?”
I bare my teeth. “Fuck you.”
“Is that why you didn’t want this contract?” He’s quiet, but his tone is crisp and relentless. “Why you never want any contract that might necessitate actual human interaction or emotion? Anger is an emotion, incidentally.”
A wave, roaring onto the shore, sprays salt across my eyes and wrenches us temporarily apart. I sputter, blinded, clawing through water. “Johnny, please—”
“I’m here.” I can’t see him anymore. I can hardly even hear him over the pounding blue ocean. “I’m still here. I always have been.”
I open my mouth, but the second wave, cresting over the first, drowns out any reply I thought to make.
Q found me on the remains of a wide-laned city street, and wrapped me in a hug so sudden and real, it stopped the air in my lungs. Somewhere in the distance, a warning siren blared over and over again like a dying heartbeat. The first thing Q said was, “What the hell were you thinking, boarding a shuttle to Earth? Haven’t you seen all the newsreels?” The second was, “I’m taking you home.”
“Medici isn’t home.”
“Neither is this hunk of soon-to-be burned and flooded rock,” pointed out Q.
I shut my eyes against his chest. I’d probably wrinkled his waistcoat, and his lack of commentary on the matter, more than anything else, spoke his fears to me. I thought of every missing persons contract Q had ever tried to cajole me into taking, and tight-throated on nothing but sudden intuition, asked, “What did you do to Johnny?”
Q’s arms stilled around me. I waited for a quip. A deflection. Instead, Q said, “What he wanted. For the fat lot of good it’s done us.”
My fingers fisted over his lapels. “Why did you bring me his contract?”
“Natasha, we have to go—”
I pulled out of the embrace. “Why?”
Q’s haunted, fair-lashed eyes hung heavy on me. His lips, today, were painted red and full as Medea’s, like a rose in bloom. “I thought you could find the person he’s become. Or rather: the people he’s become.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Jonathan volunteered for a contract,” said Q. “That dead scientist’s last experiment. That’s how we met. I told Johnny the gig was shit, when he asked me to handle it. All scientists are loons, yeah? That’s why they keep biting it. But Johnny’s always done what he wanted, and he wanted to save this dying goddamn planet. So he became something that could.”
“What else would a pinup boy be? A vessel.” Q’s shoulders lifted. “If scientists are loons, what are artists? What are actors? Just a lot of people in the shape of one person. Why not a whole damn planet?”
This was absurd. “You can’t.”
“Oh, but you can, in the right person, with the right science. Right click, upload, and presto. Earth made human. Go big or go home.”
“Then he’s gone.” The words lodged jagged in my throat. “If he’s…all of this, then he’s not him anymore, which means he’s gone.”
“You—” Broke my heart. “Wasted my goddamn time!” I shoved Q, hard. “Why?”
Long fingers, a silent plea, wrapped around my arm. “Because I thought—wherever he is now, whatever he is—the part of him still Jonathan might return, if someone dogged and obnoxious enough went looking. I was wrong. Nat, the gasp is happening. We have to leave now, before we’re all ashes.”
I jerked out of his grip. “You should have told me what to look for, from the start.”
Q laughed, hoarse. “Then you’d never have found it.”
“No,” I said. “I will. I’m going to find Johnny.”
“You can’t stay here!”
“Q.” I turned toward him, magnetized in that way I’d always been, toward every inch of Q’s sharp-angled, opaque beauty. In this moment, beneath the soot-streaked red of the sky, that opacity fell away to something vulnerable. His face, cupped between my palms when I reached for him, looked young. “You have to go. But I’m on the last day of the last month of my contract. I’m tethered here.”
“I’ll be damned.” Q’s eyes hooded, an epiphany washing across his features like a wave. “You’ve fallen in love.”
“I’ve always been late to the bandwagon.” I kissed the side of Q’s mouth once, fierce on his jaw, just below that rose-red lipstick. “Your shuttle’s waiting. You have to go back to Medici.”
Q shut his eyes for a long moment, lashes trembling, painted mouth parted. Then he left, wordless, the beat of his step matching time with the blare of sirens that signified the end of Earth’s life.
I ran. Without particular cause or direction, beneath the ashen sky, until one of my ankles gave out, and I sank knee-first into debris.
I breathed, and paused. No, not debris. Dirt. I’d found one last patch of Earth in its dying hours, and could have laughed for the foolishness of it. Instead, I dug my fingers into a wilting square of grass, and said, “Jonathan Aurélien Ibrahim. Come home.”
Silence, punctuated by the insistent blare of that siren.
And then, carried on the wind, like an echo of something old and lost: “Home’s a fairytale.”
He brings me no white beach, no charming old theater, no rolling green hills. Only dirt under my knees, the throb of my ankle, and a dead city going dark around us, as I stare into the impossibly bright green eyes of the thing before me. He doesn’t look like any boy I’ve ever seen. He’s oil paints on water, or a bad hologram flickering in and out of existence, translucent, inhuman, and awake.
“That’s what you told me, right?” Jonathan Ibrahim’s remains cant their dim-lit, bronze-bright face toward me, hair a ripple above the skull, nose blurred, mouth an almost artfully slapdash impression, yet still undeniably the same face preserved on posters and film reels. “We have no home anymore. You said so.”
“I didn’t know.” My voice rakes through my throat, raw-edged noise mixing with soot as it emerges. Helpless. “I didn’t know that you were home.”
“Everyone forgot,” he says. The sky, darker and darker, feels like it’s falling around us. Jonathan’s eyes are sea-green flame. “We were so many, at first. I didn’t think we’d forget. I thought we’d be enough.”
“We are. You’re…we are enough.”
“But everyone forgot.”
“Not everyone.” When I take his hands, they’re embers between my too-human skin, burning me raw, but I don’t let go. “I’m still here, sweetheart. I’m only me, which isn’t very much at all, I guess. But I’m what I have to give.”
He flinches from the ugly red burns his flesh prints across mine. “What am I?”
“I don’t know, exactly. But I think you’re a lot of people, trying to be one person. It’s a pretty rough break. But you chose it, and that’s a brave thing, love.”
His candle-flame fingers sizzle, feather-light, across my cheek. “You remembered me.”
“You asked me to. So I came, Johnny. Real late, and not under the greatest circumstances, but I came, in the end.”
Below us, the Earth trembles. I can hardly see through soot and smoke, but Johnny’s still there, flickering, lantern-bright through the dark. “I’m afraid to die,” I confess. “I’m afraid of it all just…ending.”
Even now, I catch the shape of Johnny’s last, human smile. “It doesn’t.” His voice multiplies when he speaks, accents and languages and lifetimes layered behind the words that wrap around me. “We carry it. I carry you, too, like you’ve carried me. We exist now, so that one day, we might exist again.”
Concrete crackles apart behind me. But all I see are his eyes, endless green.
“We exist,” repeats Johnny. “And we… I.” Flame-flicker smile. “I will be with you, always.”
His arms burn around me, when I turn my face into his neck. As the world falls to dust above and below, I remember the sea, the sun, the color of blue sky. I remember the smell of growing roses, and this time, for the first time, I don’t flinch away.
|Andrea Tang lives, works, and writes in Washington, DC. Her poem “A Starship Shot Down Like the Sun” previously appeared in a 2018 issue of Kaleidotrope.|