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Sideshow Throb by Emily Nussbaum

Science fiction has often relied upon the physical marvels of the universe to create a sense of wonder, with stories set in the white-hot core of a star or the viscous oceans of a gas giant. In this story, Kathe Koja takes us to the cusp of a black hole, an object so dense that its gravity well can literally halt time — warping the space between the awesome and the amorous.Scott Westerfeld, Guest Editor of Nerve’s Speculative Sex: The Science Fiction Issue

It’s not real, you know, she said.


It’s real all right.


Not real like a person. Not like someone you know, who knows you.


Not like someone I came all this way to see, is that what you mean? Not like someone I’m going to have dinner with, someone who might screw my brains out later?


Might or might not, with a dry little frown, looking down at her hands; long fingers, capable hands. She wore no rings and never had, not as ordinary jewelry or during either of her two marriages. Especially then. Now she said, looking past him, into the dark: There’s a certain Freudian aspect here that I frankly find . . . discouraging.


Oh lighten up. You’re the one who started it, you’re the one who—


You’re the one who wants to fuck a black hole.


Her face did not change as she said it, though she tried to change it, to smile; she thought she did smile but he frowned, a luxurious frown of censure and If that’s the way this dinner’s going to be, he said, if that’s the way this trip’s going to be, then there’s no point in—


No point in what? In your being here? But I was here first, remember? when you were still calling it the ass-end of nowhere, insisting there was nothing to see but the NASA hermits? But she didn’t say that, she didn’t say anything, she kept her face pointed at the window, deep bowl of plastic with a million scratches, a million light-years’ worth, all the hieroglyphics written on the endless dark and If you didn’t want to discuss it, she said, you shouldn’t have told me in the first place.


You asked. You specifically asked, What’s your fantasy? And then you were going to tell me yours, which I notice you never did. Why not? Are you—


I said—


—afraid of your own desires? Or is it that you’re drying out, working up here like a . . . a nun, is it that the loneliness and solitude are—


Her bare hands moved, one then the other, climbed up and down her arms and I like it here, she said. I never get lonely.


He had turned away from the window. He said he wanted to see and then he turned away. See what? Nothing without the right telescope, even as close as they were; no other way to glimpse the redshift dazzle, the gases streaming away, X-ray trail like pheromones, a god’s gigantic musk. Hydrogen, helium, gravity — the dark. And ringed all around with imaginary DANGER signs, skull-and-crossbones, no admittance which she knew was more than likely part of the attraction, the head-on, dead-on lure of it, la belle dame sans merci. But be fair, she thought, who would you rather screw: Mary Poppins or Lorelei?


He was marching up and down now, before the window, marching without looking and I’m not afraid, he said, to claim what I want. Even if it’s Freudian as hell — so what? Whose kink isn’t?


Or Jungian, she said in her head. Her hands continued to move. Go on, she said aloud.


It’s like — it would just be the ultimate bang, right? The big bang, and he smiled a little, at himself, for himself. It just sucks you right in.


He would think that. He didn’t want the big bang, the ultimate lover, what he wanted was an infant’s oral joy — oh boy, how typical. He was so typical it hurt, so much like all the others who came up here, stitched together fine for Earth but in this weightless, stateless place they started to come apart, to grope and flounder and strike, sometimes, at the ones who were here all along, the ones who had if not conquered then reached détente with what was out there. The ones who could look out the window.


Big bang, she said. She knew already what she was going to do — knew and at a certain level deplored it, knew and could not stop and You think you know what it’s like, she said, as her hands moved again, white animals, white crabs moving to rest on her elbows, promontory rocks. Should I tell you what it’s like? Because I know.


You’re a physicist, he said, as if this were an insult. Only a poet could really do it justice.


But only a physicist understands. The white crabs had crawled down from the rocks, and now they joined together, pushing one against the other, nestled and twisting and Danger, she said, is an aphrodisiac. One way, no exit. But that’s not what makes you hot, is it?




Is it the darkness? The invisibility? You can’t even see what’s got a hold on you; that’s like desire, isn’t it? Can’t see it, taste it, smell it, only its by-products. But once you’re in it, once you get to the place where you can’t turn back, once desire’s got you good — then what?


Approaching him, advancing as he stood with his back to the window, a dry frown on his face and Smooth, she said, is how I imagine it, smooth and welcoming and slick, like that second glass of good wine, or satin molded to a humid thigh, so smooth that all you notice is the way it cradles, no, caresses you, taking you just as you are. Insisting on you, in fact. You know you’ve never been wanted the way the dark wants you now.


He took a step back, even closer to the window. You sound like a cheap romance novel, he said.


The white crabs, white animals moved again, climbing up her arms, resting on her shoulders. Her voice was calm and pleasant; she looked not at the dark but at him.


And this, she said, is the one lover you can’t deny. Demanding, like gravity, impelling, no, pulling you in, drawing you deeper and deeper, that’s what it’s all about, right? Getting all the way in? Where time dilates, and seems to slow down, just like when you’re in love, when you’re with the beloved, time stops mattering, isn’t that what it’s like? Relatively speaking?


You’re taking this way too seriously, he said, stepping back another pace. You’re making it into something that’s—


Now she was before him, the white hands gesturing, reaching, brushing his lapels and Once you’re in, she said, once it begins then everything starts moving faster. Her voice rose and roughened, her eyes were wide. Faster and faster, she said, so close now she could have kissed him, her odorless breath in his face, harder and harder, it’s pulling you to your limits, stretching you to the breaking point, it’s taking everything you’ve got—


He tried to take her hands, to stop them but they danced away, ran up his arms to his shoulders, crept up to his throat and Then, she said, her voice less murmur than pure exhalation, then at the hot point, the absolute center, the singularity, everything becomes infinite. Time and space, hunger and pleasure, fury and need all collapsing on themselves, into themselves . . . it’s just like orgasm, don’t you see? A moment of no-time that lasts forever, a pleasure that peaks as it begins, it pulls you to pieces just as it makes you whole—


Don’t! loud, his hands on her wrists, head twisted away from her seeking face so close, too close, his back pressed against the window too thin against the dark, against what was out there and You are nuts, he said, still too loud, as if they were grappling, fighting. Absolutely fucking nuts. All I meant, all I wanted was a—


All you wanted, she said, the white crabs flushing pink, a tender, hungry color, was for someone to share your fantasy. Right? Isn’t that what you said?


Jerking at his lapels, drawing himself together and I don’t need this, he said, any of it. I’m going back to the dormitory. Don’t call me — palming the door and gone, the noise of his retreat absorbed by the non-slip tiles, sucking up the sound but she had stopped listening, her attention to the window now, the window and what lay beyond: pink hands moist against the scoured plastic, breath a cloud of longing, cheek against her lover’s in the vacuum of the dark.


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