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Defragmenting Daniel: The Organ Scrubber - A Sci-Fi Thriller

 

 

 

Defragmenting Daniel

The Organ Scrubber

 

 

Jason Werbeloff

Defragmenting Daniel: The Organ Scrubber

Copyright: Jason Keith Werbeloff

Published: 24 August 2016

 

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

 

Fiction by Jason Werbeloff

 

Series

Defragmenting Daniel

Fragment 1: The Organ Scrubber

Fragment 2: The Face in a Jar

Fragment 3: The Boy Without a Heart

 

Novels

The Solace Pill

Hedon

 

Anthologies

Obsidian Worlds

 

Shorts

Solace Inc

Your Averaged Joe

Visiting Grandpa’s Brain

Falling for Q46F

The Cryo Killer

The Photons in the Cheese Are Lost

Dinner with Flexi

Bleed Me Silicone

The Time-Traveling Chicken Sexer

The Experience Machine

Fking Through the Apocalypse

The Man with Two Legs

Contents

Organ Scrubbing

The Pink Almond

The Gutter

Pineapple and Hair

Hearrt is No Prroblema

Cat Got Your Tongue

Project Alpha

The Missing Piece

Amputating Amy

Talking in Tongues

Margaret’s Manifold

Gutter Leather

Rolling in the Eddies of Lye

 

Daniel’s Gruesome Crusade Continues …

Acknowledgements

Organ Scrubbing

The first organ Daniel scrubbed was a kidney. Easy organs, those. Plug in the renal artery, and you’re good to go. If the kidney worked right, you’d have green piss running out of the ureter in no time.

“This one’s a dud,” said Hooplah. Daniel heard the wet slap of meat on stainless steel as she turfed a faulty organ onto the waste belt. “Cancer. Third one this hour. Kidneys ain’t what they were.”

Daniel didn’t reply. He’d learned over countless shifts working beside Hooplah that she didn’t expect an answer. Unless she asked a question.

He rotated the kidney on his tray to attach the renal artery. It wasn’t difficult, once you got the pipe and the artery lined up. They’d installed smart-pipes at the Organ Farm last month. Made scrubbing much easier. The first time he’d held the new tech, he’d freaked out. Damned thing had slithered in his hand when he’d touched it. Now, he held the squirming pipe to the kidney, aligning it with the severed artery. The pipe’s sensors detected the opening, and snuggled around it.

“You’re getting better at it,” said Hooplah, slapping a gloved hand across his shoulder. Green mucous splattered his coveralls.

After six years working in the Organ Farm, Daniel still didn’t know why it was green – the Rejek they pumped through the organs. They’d said something in class about photosynthesis. All Daniel knew for sure was that after you ran Rejek through an organ, it was good for transplant.

He depressed the foot pedal beneath his desk. The kidney shuddered in his hand. Rejek coursed through its interior. And … there it was – a steady stream of green piss ran into the tray.

Daniel removed his foot from the pedal. Detached the pipes from the quivering organ. He held it in his hand a moment. The kidney was the size of a large mouse. Or a small rat. It sighed as the Rejek drained from its tubes.

He squeezed it just a little. Placed the organ on the success belt. His left eye watered as he watched the kidney slide away along the ever-receding line of scrubbed organs. He counted seven before it was out of sight.

“You going tonight?” asked Hooplah.

Daniel’s heart leapt. Tonight. It was tonight.

He faked a yawn. “It’s Thursday. Cricket night.”

She slapped him lightly across the shoulder. “It’s not just any Thursday, silly. It’s your birthday. We’ll watch cricket next week. You gotta go.”

He turned away from her. Masked the movement by reaching for the next organ in his bucket. She’d never understood the concept of personal space.

“Thinking about it,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant. He examined the lung. Or tried to through his blurry left eye. The lung was adult size. Young though – no blackening. Anyone older than twenty-five who lived in the smog of the Gutter would have black edges.

“Don’t you wanna know? I do …”

“Not that important,” Daniel lied. His heart thundered in his chest. Tonight, his pulse shouted. Tonight … tonight … tonight.

Hooplah leaned in closer. The warmth of her breath lapped his cheek. Condensation dotted his neck where her exhalation left its trace. He suppressed a shudder.

“Come on,” she said. “You wanna know.”

“I never met them.”

But that wasn’t true either. He had a memory of Her. The blurry outlines of a woman’s face under the shade of a windy Birch tree. A smile the scent of pineapple.

Daniel flopped the lung on its back. He could never quite believe how light lungs were. The organ bounced on the metal worktop. He clasped the pink tissue. Ran his fingers over its sludgy ridges. No obvious tumors.

“Sure, yeah. None of us have met our parents.” She leaned in front of him, so her curly hair obscured his workbench. “But we still, ya’know, we still want to know who they are.” She stared into him with bulbous cybernetic eyes. They were malachite, greener than a vial of Rejek.

He sighed. “Alright. I guess I’ll go to Administration.”

Hooplah’s face lit up. He nudged her away with a slimy hand.

“My birthday’s next week,” she continued. “I can’t wait. Bet my mother’s an actress.” She flung back her flaxen hair. “And my dad’s a pilot. We’ll live glamorous lives. Gorgeous lives. Once they reclaim me, that is. They’ve been looking for me all this time. I just know it.”

“Sure,” said Daniel. “Not done with my quota though. Gonna miss the queue at Administration if I don’t hurry up.”

“I’m already finished. You’re so slow these days. It’s because you look at them too long. Ya’know, that thing you do. Staring at the organs like you want their story.”

Daniel harrumphed. Guided a slithering pipe into the trachea. The edges of the mechanical snake curled around the cartilage in a malevolent embrace.

He shivered.

A tear dropped from Daniel’s left eye. Landed with a gentle tap on the lung’s upper lobe. He hadn’t told Hooplah about the infection he’d had since they’d harvested his cornea three months back. Made it difficult to work. There was no point telling her, though. It would upset her – Hooplah was … sensitive about eyes.

He depressed the foot pedal, and the lung inflated. He watched the organ swell, just as they’d taught him. Counted to seven before he checked for any leaks. Checked lung capacity. Or tried to. He swatted away another tear from his eye. It was almost shift-end, and the eye seared after the day’s exertion.

“I’ll do the next one for you.” She grabbed a liver from his waiting bucket of organs.

It was no good. His quota was forty-nine organs for the day. The perfect number. Seven-squared. “I don’t need your –”

She ignored him. “What do you think they’re like?”

His eye itched as he watched her work on the liver. Forty-eight it would be. A multiple of six. Six and eight. Their average was seven. It would have to do.

“What were they like?” she repeated.

“Who?”

He returned his attention to the lung. Unhooked the pipe from its trachea. The lung deflated, and a fine mist of green vapor clung to the air. The cloud stung the back of his throat as he inhaled. He tried to taste it, that air breathed by a stranger, or a stranger’s lung. Tried to taste the breath of another. But it was no use. The printed tongue they’d given him still hadn’t grown buds.

“Your parents,” she said.

Daniel slung the lung onto the success belt. He counted as he watched the procession of silver trays carry the lung away to some distant corner of the Organ Farm. Two trays … three trays. How long would it be before the organ found its way to its recipient? Five trays … six trays … seven. The lung disappeared round a corner. By sunrise, he thought. A lung for breakfast. Some rich old man in the Bubble with a cough. No problem sir, they’d say. We’ll swap that one out for you in no time.

“I haven’t thought about it much,” lied Daniel. “My parents could be any-bodies. No-bodies.”

The truth was, Daniel had taken to thinking about his parents often. More and more as his eighteenth birthday neared.

The dreams had started in his 210th month. 210. A multiple of seven.

In his dreams, the blur of his mother’s face crystalized around almond eyes. Glowing cheeks. Deep smile lines danced about her mouth. It was a face he knew in his bones. In his sinews. Someone he would know at a glance. And someone who would know him too.

“Liver done,” said Hooplah, and flung it on the conveyer belt. “I love livers.”

Daniel glimpsed the clock hovering above the workstations. 6:50 p.m. Ten minutes till shift-end, and there was still a heart and a temporal lobe in his bucket. He groaned. Temporal lobes took forever to scrub.

“Iii’ve got it,” sang Hooplah, and yanked the gray matter from his bucket.

“Don’t –” But it was too late. She was already scrubbing.

“It’s your birthday,” she said, and smiled. He knew it was genuine. Knew her care was sincere, from all the years he’d known her. Hell, they’d grown up together. ‘The O-Team’, she’d call them. She’d always thought that was clever. ‘O for orphan. O for organ.’ But no matter how well he knew her, he couldn’t help but cringe at the sight of her lidless cybernetic eyes ogling him. The Bubble had taken her eyes, lids and all, last year.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, and looked away. Forty-seven organs today. Not a multiple of seven, nor six or eight. Forty-seven. A bad number.

She leaned in to peck him on the cheek, but he reached for the heart in the bucket before her lips found their mark.

***

Heart scrubbed.

Day-end bell.

Decontamination.

You’d think they’d use warm water to hose down the workers. No-sir. ‘Boiler ain’t workin’,’ they’d say. The boiler never worked. Not since Daniel had begun his employment at the Organ Farm just after his twelfth birthday.

“Raise your arms.”

Daniel braced himself for the icy jet, but it was no use. It sucked the breath out of him every time.

His muscles bunched under the force of the spray. “Cold,” he muttered. The tremors began. It was a thing – not shivering. He didn’t like giving them the satisfaction. Some days he managed not to move for a full forty-nine seconds into the decontamination sequence. But he didn’t have the energy today. His mind was elsewhere. He didn’t even count.

“Turn around,” said the speaker mounted to the ceiling.

Eighteen. Today was his eighteenth birthday, or near enough. Nobody knew for sure exactly when he’d been born. But when the Orphanage took you in, they gave you a name and a birthday. ‘Daniel’ worked well enough. And today was as good as any. Better than most. It was the seventh of July.

“Bend over.”

Except today wasn’t like any other. Everyone at the Orphanage knew that your eighteenth birthday was special. Today was the first time he’d get to read his File. Today he’d find out who his parents were. His real parents. Not the instructors and the matrons at the Orphanage. No, these parents were the people who’d birthed him. They were people who’d, at least in some way and at some time, in some moment, wanted him.

The cold burrowed through his costume, into the crack of his butt. His legs quaked. Glaciers scampered down his thighs. His teeth chattered.

“Scrub.”

He snatched a brush from one of the hooks. Left-arm, right-arm. Left-leg, right-leg. Chest. Neck. Face.

Seven areas scrubbed.

The jet dribbled to a limp stream, and switched off. The chamber door unlatched.

“Proceed,” said the speaker.

Daniel snatched a towel. His clothes. He was on his way. Administration closed in under an hour. The queue was permanently long, often snaking outside the building. If he didn’t get there soon, he wouldn’t make it to the front desk before it closed.

The sun was just setting behind the Bubble as Daniel stepped outside the farm’s front doors. Golden light shimmered through the edges of the forcefield, drowning the Gutter in a lugubrious sepia. Everything around him was tired. Decrepit. He glanced back at the squat building that housed the Organ Farm. Fissures tentacled across its façade. The shadows within the cracks deepened even as he watched.

Daniel. Move.

He’d been waiting for this day for eighteen years, and he was watching the sunset.

Daniel broke into a gallop, ignoring his grinding knee servos. He dashed through the broken Welcome Archway, past the living quarters, over the courtyard, toward Administration. Toward the Bubble. The Orphanage was situated just outside the forcefield, with Administration almost touching the shimmering barrier. That way, the Administrators didn’t have to walk any distance through the Gutter to get to work.

The cool, dead air of Administration bit into Daniel’s corneas as he entered the building. His chest inhaled the sudden drop in temperature and humidity. Asthma is normal with generic lungs, they say. Daniel tried to not to cough as he found the back of the queue.

“Not that long today,” said a girl with no lips. She was last in line, or was until Daniel stepped in line behind her.

“What isn’t?”

“The queue. Normally longer than this.”

Daniel didn’t know her. He didn’t know most of the orphans. And not just because Daniel was the quiet type. There were just so many in the compound. Thousands. Tens of thousands.

“Why you here?” she asked.

Daniel tried not to stare at her teeth. At the spittle dribbling down her chin. He licked his lips, checking they were still there.

“Eighteen today,” he said.

The lipless girl dried her chin with a tissue. Grinned. Grinned a little wider at least. “Same here! Happy birthday!” She seemed to consider hugging him, but stopped herself. “You excited to find out who they are?”

She had eight top teeth visible. Eight at the bottom. Not seven.

Daniel grunted.

The girl’s eyes narrowed. Finally, she seemed to understand he didn’t want to talk, and she turned away. Hooplah could learn something from her.

Hooplah lived in a fantasy world. Actresses and pilots – pfft. Of course his parents were likely Gutters – as hers would turn out to be too. Bubbler babies almost never ended up in the Orphanage. Why would they? If mom and dad died, grandmother or aunty or someone else would happily take them home. Bubbler babies were wanted. Gutter kids … well, they were a different story.

The queue shortened. Daniel’s knee creaked with each eternal step toward the gleaming granite counter.

The knee was cybernetic, and you’d think it wouldn’t mind the cold. But ever since they’d harvested Daniel’s knee when he was nine, winters had been difficult. It was summer now, but the cold air in Administration wasn’t helping.

“ID?” said a man making his way down the queue. The smart-fabric of his uniform glinted. Circuitry along the cuff of his shirt lit up as he neared each outstretched identity card.

Daniel reached into his pocket and fished out the polycarbonate rectangle as the man approached. It hurt Daniel to look at that picture. He’d been sixteen then. Before they’d harvested his lungs. His cheeks had been full and rosy once upon a time. Alive. Not the lumpy gray he saw in the mirror these days.

The Administrator passed his wrist over the card, and glanced at an LED screen at the back of his cuff. He didn’t give Daniel another look as he continued down the line.

The girl without lips walked ahead to the Administration desk. Her cybernetic feet clunk-clunk-clunked on the marble floor.

Daniel was suddenly grateful they’d never harvested his feet. Sure, artificial knees were a pain, but feet seemed … important, somehow. Daniel couldn’t imagine himself without feet.

He watched as the girl received her File. Her hands trembled. Metal toes curled against the floor tiles with a hair-raising screech.

She flung open the flimsy cardboard cover.

Daniel slurped a deep breath to steady his heart. He was next. He thought about his father. He knew nothing of the man. No memories of him at all. He was likely a Gutter when Daniel was born. But now? Maybe he’d risen up in the world. He could be a Bubbler by now. Would he want Daniel? Why hadn’t he tried to find his boy all these years? Why hadn’t the man claimed him?

The girl closed the File slowly. Stared at the beige cover. Rubbed its edges gently with her thumbs. Without her lips it was difficult to tell for sure, but Daniel thought she looked lost. She peered around the vast air-conditioned space.

“Next,” echoed the woman behind the glass. The Administrator’s face was a warble of worry. Valleys and craters puddled in concentric circles around her eyes. Daniel had been told that administrative duty wasn’t the kind of work Bubblers liked. That it was just one step above being a Gutter. The pressure showed.

His heart in his mouth, Daniel stepped forward. But the lipless girl hadn’t shifted. She stood in place before the glass, unmovable.

“Next,” repeated the clerk.

Daniel was unsure what to do. Everything in him wanted to shove her aside. It was his turn. On the other side of that glass was his File. In it, his parents. And maybe, just maybe, a way out of the Gutter.

When she looked up at him, there were craters in her eyes where her joy had been. “I thought … I … I thought they’d be …”

He glanced at the clock above the glass. 7:57. Any minute now, the clerk would lift herself off that ancient swivel chair, and disappear into the bowels of Administration. Any minute now, Administration would close.

Drool from the lipless girl’s mouth dripped onto the cardboard in her hands. Pooled and overflowed onto the floor. He pictured his hands on her sides. Lifting her up. Placing her to one side.

But he didn’t move. He gritted his teeth.

Waited.

He peered up again at the clock with his weeping eye. He felt tomorrow’s distant sting of the decontamination fluid. 7:58.

Daniel reached out. Touched her shoulder. Her skin was clammy. She stared into his eyes with her death grin. Silently, she pleaded with him. As though he could fix this. All of this. “I thought …”

“Next, please,” said the Administrator behind the glass. The girl snapped to. The clouds vanished from her eyes. She turned on her metallic heels, and clunk-clunk-clunked away.

“I’m here to collect my File,” said Daniel, before the clerk could ask what he wanted.

“ID,” said the wrinkled woman. Did this mean she’d help him before the 8 p.m. shutdown?

Daniel dropped his card into the metal bucket below the glass. He counted to seven. Realized he was tapping the countertop. Stopped. Counted again.

The worry etched into the woman’s mouth deepened. “Says here you’re a Gifted Donor. Even temperament. Good BMI. Healthy vitals.”

“Uh, yes ma’am.”

She bit her upper lip. Narrowed her eyes. “I see you’ve given a … knee, lungs, liver, and tongue.”

“And cornea,” said Daniel. He dropped his hands into his pockets. Why wasn’t she handing over his File?

“No brain donations,” she said. “We haven’t harvested your temperament.”

Daniel’s hands balled into fists. “My …? Uh, no ma’am.”

“Says here you got a Class 1 amygdala. You’re due for harvesting. Can’t hand over your File ‘til you donate. You’re behind on your debt repayments as it is. Three months. Food and lodging is expensive. Cornea donation wasn’t enough to pay it off.”

Daniel bit down on his tongue. Felt nothing.

“I’ll schedule you in for tomorrow morning. Sign here.” She slid a piece of paper under the glass.

DEBT RELEASE DONATION,

read the title of the page. He scanned the text. “RIGHT AMYGDALA,” appeared in caps further down. “… to be replaced with printed generic.”

Daniel had scrubbed plenty of them over the years. But he couldn’t remember much from the neurology classes. The lecture on amygdalas was hazy.

“Move it, buddy,” said a voice behind him. A boy in a baseball cap stood next in the queue. “Ain’t waited in this line for nothin’,” he said around a piece of gum. The boy was what the orphans called a “onesie”. He was missing all of his skin, replaced with a translucent cybernetic cling wrap. His jaw muscles expanded and contracted as he masticated.

“We’re closing now,” said the Administrator. “Sign.”

Daniel reached for the pen. It was warm in his hand as he scrawled his consent.

***

“Coming, Odin.”

The cat scrabbled at the inside of the door, as Daniel climbed the stairs to his apartment. Administration would add the scratches to his debt, he knew. But Odin was worth it.

“What you get up to today, old man?” He stroked the susurrating animal.

He needn’t have asked. A dead rat lay on his pillow. Daniel sighed, kissed Odin on the forehead, and carried the rat outside to the dumpster. Odin was not impressed.

Daniel had found the cat in Spares, the hall at the back of the Organ Farm where students practiced scrubbing techniques on non-human animals. Human organs were expensive. Couldn’t risk losing them to inexperienced scrubbers.

“Can I take him?” fifteen-year-old Daniel had pleaded with the instructor.

The instructor had bent down to examine the creature cradled in Daniel’s arms. The man’s nose had curled. “Twenty credits,” the man had said.

And that had been that. Odin had come home with Daniel, and lived with him ever since. Something in the folds of his feline brain had understood that Daniel had saved him from the scalpel that day, because Odin had been content to sleep by Daniel’s side every night since.

Daniel stepped inside the apartment. If it could be called that. He could almost touch all four walls if he stretched out his arms and spun in place. An atom-sized desk, a bed (which folded into the wall), a basin, and a toilet. And Odin, of course, who watched Daniel expectantly from the food bowl beside the desk.

Daniel pulled out a tightly-wrapped package from his pocket. Odin meowed even before Daniel had unfolded it. Rubbed against Daniel’s leg as he extracted the grilled Mopane worm. Daniel had snuck it from the cafeteria, as he did every evening. He’d considered feeding the cat the fat he scrubbed off the kidneys and intestines, but feeding Odin human meat didn’t feel quite right. No, Odin ate what Daniel ate.

The cat was all too glad for the worm meat. Hell, he should be – insect was the only meat Daniel and the other orphans ate. He’d heard rumors that they served dead cows and chickens in the Bubble. He hadn’t believed it at first. Who would want to eat cows? But Hooplah had insisted it was true. She’d overheard some of the Administrators talking about it.

Daniel removed the pillowcase and tossed it in the laundry basket beside his desk. He flumped into the chair. Kindled the desk-lamp, and examined the incomplete picture he’d drawn the night before.

It was his father. Or the father his mind had conjured last night. Square cheeks. Stubbled. A golden tooth. Kind eyes. Black hair specked with gray. A nose that could pierce armor.

He pegged the picture to the board above his desk, among all the other drawings (organized in rows of seven). His mother. His father. In all their permutations. Old and young. Fat and rigid. Sun-kissed and pale. He’d begun drawing them in his 210th month. When the dreams had started.

He pulled out his flash disk from the drawer. Inserted it into the holovision port. Law and Order, in its ancient grainy cinnamon hue, sprung to life above his tiny desk.

He hummed along to the intro. Tomorrow they’d open him up. Tomorrow they’d take a saw to his skull. Pry him open and remove the part of him they liked. And when they were done, he would have his File.

Law and Order had always calmed him before he fell asleep. He’d watched every episode twice, the initial seasons more than that. But tonight the methodical formula didn’t still his churning stomach. Didn’t quell the nausea that was so strong, it glazed the walls of his room.

Daniel slept fitfully that night. He dreamed he was a contract. His limbs were its lines, his organs their words. There, among the crossed ‘t’s and dotted ‘i’s were the bits of his brain. The tail of a ‘q’ bisected his corpus callosum. The curve of a ‘g’ wove through his prefrontal cortex.

As Odin watched on, a titanic hand reached down to alter the terms of the contract. The gargantuan fingers rearranged Daniel’s lettering, and undotted his ‘i’.

[]The Pink Almond

“You feel that, son?”

“No siw,” Daniel mouthed. His tongue was numb. Had been numb since they’d replaced it with the generic a year ago, but it felt more swollen than usual. Clumsy against his palate.

“That’s good. Try to relax.” The surgeon’s voice was deep and quick. Like a scythe. “Music, nurse.”

With Daniel’s head turned the way it was, he looked directly into the surgeon’s crotch. He tried to turn away, but his head had been immobilized.

A beat Daniel remembered from somewhere rolled through the operating theatre. The bass vibrated along the legs of the steel table, up, into the brace that pierced his skull, down, through its metallic fingers, and into his brain. It tickled.

The surgeon shifted. A nurse’s masked face replaced the crotch. “Don’t move.” Only her eyes showed above the mask. The doctors and nurses all looked the same with their masks on. How did they tell one another apart?

A grainy woman’s voice hissed through the beat.

We had you cleaned

We had you eat

The high-pitched whine of a bone saw echoed in Daniel’s skull. “We’ll have you open in no time,” said the surgeon.

Daniel felt pressure against his temple, above his right ear. The whine of the blade morphed to a lower, choppy grind.

We had you bathed

We had your feet

Yes, he remembered the song now. It was all the rage in the cafeteria on Friday nights, when they cleared the chairs to make room for an ad hoc dance floor.

“How the kids?”

“Good, thanks doctor. Jordan’s starting school next week.”

“Already?”

Daniel tried to swallow, but lying on his back with his head fixed at this angle, most of the saliva dribbled onto the operating table.

We ate your lungs

We heart your beat

The bone saw slowed to a toothy stop.

There was a hollow metal twang, as something red dropped into a metal bowl on the edge of Daniel’s vision.

“You doing okay there, boy?”

“Yeth, ma’am.”

The surgeon bent down. Peered into Daniel’s eyes.

“We’re in. Won’t be too much longer now.”

We love your toes

We love your meat

Daniel watched the surgeon. The nurses. Sniffed the antiseptic air. It was all outside of him. He was behind his eyes, behind his nose, behind his ears. And the surgeon, the nurses, the antiseptic and the music were outside of him. Except, that was changing. The doctor was fiddling inside of him now. Inside his brain. Crushing. Scraping. Carving him out. Dissecting him.

The outside was inside.

“Incision along the middle temporal gyrus. Entering now. Which school?”

The room wobbled. The doctor’s legs bowed. Receded.

“Heartrate increasing, doctor.”

“Calm down kid.” The surgeon’s voice dropped. “Administration will kill me if I lose another one today.”

We had you cleaned

We had you eat

“Sacred Hearts. Hardly a mile inside the Bubble’s edge. Ten minutes transit from here.”

Cinnamon and smoke found Daniel’s nostrils. The pale taste of Mopani sushi filled his mouth. The way it had tasted before they’d harvested his tongue.

“Good school, that. My niece went there. Great options on torso organs if the kids need them … I’m at the parahippocampal gyrus now.”

Daniel was under the Birch again, gazing into his mother’s hazy eyes. The leaves above her head ruffled this way and that, driven by the beat of a distant song. She lifted him to her cheek. He inhaled her. Pineapple.

“Cauterizing the bleed now.”

The acidic scent of the pineapple shifted. Grew sweeter. Acrid. The aroma of burning flesh stroked Daniel’s cheek.

We ate your lungs

We heart your beat

“Prepare the generic replacement.”

Daniel blinked. He was back in the operating room. The nurse held up a pink, almond-shaped mass between her fingers.

“Heartrate steady.”

We love your toes

“Mapping is done. Put him under. I’m almost finished here anyway.”

We love your meat

***

“… waking up.”

“Boy, can you hear me?”

Daniel tried to open his eyes. A shard of glass flared through his temple.

“Don’t touch the bandage. You only came out of surgery an hour ago. Needs time to heal.”

“Where …” Daniel swallowed dust. “Where’s my … File.”

“Rest.”

He opened his eyes again. Gritted his teeth. A smoky ward wafted into view. He blinked, and the smoke cleared.

A pair of narrow eyes examined him through horn-rimmed glasses. Green. Everyone’s eyes were green, Daniel realized. Hooplah’s. His. As though all their eyes were made of Rejek. Maybe they were.

He shook his head to clear the fog that suffocated his thoughts, and fresh agony erupted behind his ear. “Where’s my File?” he seethed.

“Shhhh.” The eyes grew closer, larger. Greener. “Sleep a bit. Plenty of time for that later.”

A hand reached for his shoulder. Thrust him into the mattress. He swatted the hand away, but his drugged arm traveled a different path, and connected with the pair of glasses instead. He heard something snap. A woman yelled out. Footsteps. A prick in his arm. And then less than a prick. Less than a yell. Less and less. Until everything faded to nothing.

***

Daniel came to, gasping. Waves of ammonia swaddled his lungs.

Everything clarified in less than an instant.

He’d had an operation – they’d taken his right amygdala. The pain behind his ear was almost gone. His debt to the Orphanage was paid. He needed to get to Administration. Needed to retrieve his File.

His mind raced. Every minute he lay in this bed recovering, every drop of medication he absorbed, was a way for the Orphanage to put him back into their debt. Nothing was free at the Orphanage. Food, lodging, clothing, medicine – someone had to pay for it. And that someone was Daniel. He needed to get out of here. Before they said he’d incurred too much debt to access his File. He needed to leave.

Now.

He yanked the IV from his arm, and was surprised how painful it was. He rolled off the bed. Staggered to his feet. Scrounged in the metal closet beside the bed for his clothes.

Pants. Shirt. Socks.

Shoes. Where were his shoes?

He rummaged through the cabinet again. Checked under the bed. His shoes were gone.

Daniel shifted the curtain that surrounded the bed. Peered around. Rows of beds lined the walls of the ward. All of them were occupied. Children. They were all occupied by children. All with bandaged heads.

He headed for the exit. Left, down the corridor. He was just about past the nurses’ station when someone called out. “Where’d you think you’re going?”

The nurse glared at him through horn-rimmed glasses. One of the lenses was cracked. She stepped out from behind the desk. She was wearing his shoes.

Something flashed through Daniel’s mind. A shadow of a memory of a thought. Something he couldn’t catch, and couldn’t stop. It was in his curling toes, cold on the linoleum floor. He tasted iron. His jaw clenched so hard, his teeth creaked. His fists bunched.

“Doctor says he needs ta talk to you. Amygdala replacements have side effects. Aggression and emotional outbursts and such.”

Why was she looking at him like that? Smug. Like she owned him. Like she was better than he. Standing in his shoes. In his fucking shoes.

He’d kill her, he realized. If he didn’t stop himself, he’d walk right up to her, and punch her in the gut. Yank those glasses off her pasty face, and break her nose. Shove his fingers down her throat. Tear her insides out.

Daniel closed his eyes. Shook his head. Counted to seven. Unclenched his fists. That image. His hands scrabbling down her throat. Ripping her open. He could see her neck split in his mind’s eye, down the middle. Where had that image come from? Daniel had never hurt anyone.

“Doctor says the generic replacement doesn’t always work so well at first. You need time to wear it in.”

“I’ve got to go,” he heard himself say, as he turned on his naked heels, and stumbled to the exit. To Administration. To his File.

***

“You’re back.”

It was the same clerk behind the glass. The woman with the worried eyes.

“My File.”

“ID?”

Daniel slammed the polycarbonate on the counter. Slid it under the glass.

The clerk raised an eyebrow. Muttered something that sounded like, “amygdalas,” under her breath. Then seemed to shrug it off, and typed at her workstation.

“Says your debt is paid up. Brain donation put you in the black.”

Daniel heard the high moan of a printer. The clerk handed him a sheet.

“Sign here … alright. May I have my pen back? Right. There you are.”

She slid the File under the glass. Daniel touched its perfect edges. Ran his fingers across the beige cardboard.

“Next please.”

His hand shook as he opened the cover. He couldn’t see the contents of the single, crisp page until he’d blinked away the film of anxiety encasing his corneas.

There were only six lines of text.

MOTHER

Name: Alicia Mendez

Address: 84 Porcuperry Road, New Settlers Way

Contact information: Unknown

FATHER

Unknown

Knocking against the glass. “Move along. There’re other people in the queue.”

Daniel caught his breath. Shut the File. Clutched it with burning fingers as he made his way toward the doorway of light that was the only exit from Administration.

Daniel knew what he had to do next.

He had to find her. He had to find his mother.

[]The Gutter

“I’m leaving,” said Daniel.

He plugged the snaking tube into the pancreas on his workbench.

Hooplah lowered the spleen she was scrubbing. She didn’t say anything, but her enormous, unblinking cybernetic eyes screamed their disapproval.

“Don’t look at me like that,” said Daniel.

Hooplah was silent.

“I need to find Her. My mother.”

“I understand,” said Hooplah. Mercifully, she looked away. “I’m leaving too.” She raised the spleen with her dainty fingers.

Daniel’s eyes were heavy. A throbbing began under his scalp. Underneath the bandage. It was too tight. “You didn’t tell me.”

“I’m telling you now,” said Hooplah.

“Where will you go?”

She didn’t answer for a time. “I knew you’d leave.”

“I … I have to,” said Daniel. “I need to know. And I’m eighteen now. They won’t let me stay at the Orphanage much longer.”

Her voice was flat. “So am I,” she said, and drained the spleen of Rejek. “I’m going to work at Sales. In the call center. Ya’know, where they sell the org–”

“I know,” said Daniel.

“You’re different today.”

“Different how?”

Hooplah squeezed the last of the Rejek from the spleen. “You’re far away. No, not exactly. You’re here, but … there’s too much of you and too little all at the same time.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Hooplah shook her head slowly.

They worked on in silence for a while. Daniel realized that Hooplah had never been silent. Until today.

“I guess this is the end of the O-team, then?” she said, and flung the spleen on the reject belt.

The shift-end siren rang. He wanted to say something, to say the words that would make this right. He could see the barely contained hurt in Hooplah’s stiff lower lip. In the way her shoulders bunched. But he couldn’t find the words.

Instead, Daniel stalked off toward Decontamination. He didn’t dare look back as he stepped into the metal chamber. He couldn’t let Hooplah see his tears.

He counted the full 49 seconds this time. Didn’t feel the icy jets on his back. Daniel stood resolute against the arctic spray. Even as the tears streaked down his cheeks, his mind tucked into itself. Numbed within a crease of a fold of a distant dream.

The humidity outside the Organ Farm was almost as thick as the humidity inside Decontamination. But hotter. Beads of sweat erupted on Daniel’s brow the moment he left the air-conditioning of the building. His fingers came away oily and slick from his acned forehead.

A gust of wind swatted his face. Tiny particles of sand tucked under his eyelids. He battled to rub them out of his already raw eyes.

He ran across the square, past the gray façade of the cafeteria, toward the Residence block. Wind buffeted his cheeks. Driven by the gale, black clouds surged from the north, from around the Bubble. They were headed his way. Silky tendrils of electricity tickled the nape of his neck. Static enveloped the sky.

He couldn’t understand them – the tears. In Daniel’s eighteen years, he’d almost never cried. Sure, he’d felt them from time to time. But this was different. They flowed now, as quickly as the rain that soaked his hair.

Daniel stumbled forward. He’d spent most of his life in this cluster of buildings – the Organ Farm, the Cafeteria, the Residence, and Administration. What else did one need? Work, food, shelter, and command. But now he was about to lose it all. He’d already lost Hooplah. But even with that loss, even with the tears, he felt … alive.

Daniel yanked open the door to the Residence. Ascended the stairs in sevens (split into three-two-twos). Water dripped behind him as he climbed, leaving a damp trail in his wake. His generic lungs struggled up the last two flights. But there he was. Home. Or what had been his home until now.

He passed his identity card over the door control. Flung the door aside. Odin dashed under the desk.

Minutes later, in a blur of organization that made Odin bristle, Daniel had packed everything he owned – three pairs of trousers, five shirts, seven pairs of socks and underwear, a pair of shoes, 49 drawings of his parents, a pencil, and his toothbrush. With his satchel on his back, and Odin under his arm (Daniel tickled the cat behind his graying ears to calm him), he realized he’d almost forgotten his flash disk. Every Law and Order episode recorded. He tucked the thumb drive into his pocket, and shut the door behind him.

It was time to leave.

There was a beat in his step as Daniel exited the Residence. The rain had stopped, and the air had taken on an avocado glow. The wind had died down to a breeze, the consistency of egg white on his face. He inhaled, filling his cybernetic lungs with petrichor. As a child he’d loved this smell. Could the generic organs in his chest bask in the scent of rain like his original lungs had? In many ways, the generics were inferior. They spluttered in the cold, and grated in the drought. Running was always difficult. The 3D printers they used to manufacture the cybernetics had poor resolution, and couldn’t fully duplicate the functionality of the originals. But they’d have to do – his original lungs were probably sitting in the chest of some rich kid in the Bubble. The generics were all he had now.

“It’s alright, Odin.”

The cat was skeptical about the sudden change in location. He’d lived in Daniel’s fourth floor apartment since Daniel had negotiated his rescue, and wasn’t particularly fond of the outdoors. His ears twitched in the breeze.

“We’re going on an adventure, old man.”

Daniel stepped off the sidewalk, and arrived at the intersection through which he passed each morning. He would always turn left, north toward the Cafeteria, the Organ Farm, and Administration. North, toward the Bubble. But today, for the first time, he turned right. South. His heart, his real heart, galloped as his foot touched the new path.

“Eigh-ty four Por-cu-pe-rry,” he muttered as he walked, counting the syllables on his fingers. His footsteps fell into rhythm. It was right that his mother should live at an address of seven syllables.

He’d walked for only a few minutes before he noticed the change. The buildings here were … off. They crowded over the streets in a menagerie of shapes and sizes. Some were squat, others tall. But all shared one quality – they were old and unkempt. And although they lumped together in greater density the further he traveled from the Orphanage, each appeared lost and alone among the others.

It wasn’t long before Daniel realized he too was lost. This was the heart of the Gutter. His teachers had spoken of it, but of course he hadn’t listened. Why should he? His world was circumscribed by the invisible borders of the Orphanage. But now, with a careful dread creeping up from his toes, spoiling his rhythm of seven, he began to wonder whether this journey was a fool’s errand.

“Last known address,” the File had said. Last known. Not current. His mother may not be there now. How up-to-date was Administration’s recordkeeping? Daniel remembered the clerk’s tired face behind the glass. That wasn’t a face to stake one’s life upon. That was the face of a woman treading water. Barely coping with demand. Not someone who went out of her way to ensure everything was up-to-date.

Daniel rubbed his weeping eye.

The Gutter was larger than he’d imagined. The road on which he walked seemed to be a main thoroughfare. Buses in varying shades of dilapidation crawled past, puttering great sinister clouds as they moved. Cars hooted behind them, their drivers cursing in the ever-thickening atmosphere. The rain had hardly helped to clear the air. Here, the scent of petrichor had been replaced with the rot of sewerage. It wafted past him from open gutters to either side of the road.

Odin was agitated, meowing and digging his claws into Daniel’s shoulder. After a bus with half its roof panels missing rumbled past, the cat bolted into the satchel.

“It’s not much further,” Daniel cooed.

But that was a lie. Or might have been. Because Daniel realized with growing panic that he didn’t know where he was going. He’d assumed that if he walked far enough, long enough in a single direction, eventually he’d reach Porcuperry Road. That’s how it was at the Orphanage. There was only a handful of buildings. The notion of getting lost, of the world being larger than he could traverse in a few minutes, was alien to him.

But this was the Gutter. A maze of interlacing streets and cars and buildings. So many people, walking and driving and shouting without Administration to supervise them. Chaos.

To his left and right, roads split off from the thoroughfare, and none of those roads (he’d checked) had been labeled Porcuperry.

The street rose over a hillock, and by the time he’d reached the top, he was panting. The nerves connected to his cybernetic knee throbbed. Sweat dripped under his polyurethane shirt. Daniel squinted. Squinted ahead to wherever it was that the road might end. But he could see no end in the dusk. It didn’t help that the sun had almost set. Broken windows winked into life around him. Faint, incandescent lights bubbled through the dirty glass.

The street was clearing, the buses disappearing. Cars sped up, and turned off the thoroughfare this way and that, until only a few remained. As the minutes passed on the verge of the hill, Daniel felt more and more alone.

His stomach groaned. As if on cue, Odin crept from the satchel, his claws raking up Daniel’s shoulder. The animal nuzzled his master. Purred, awaiting his evening meal.

Food. Daniel had forgone dinner before he’d left, and he’d taken no food with him. Never mind that, Daniel had no water with him. And neither did Odin. Guilt swallowed him. What would the cat eat tonight?

Daniel looked back the way he’d come. There in the distance was the Bubble. The seat of wealth glowed so brightly, it lit the clouds. He could turn around right now. Return to the Orphanage at the glowing foot of the meniscus. His apartment would still be there – he hadn’t told Administration he was leaving.

Instead, he returned his gaze to the street ahead. The windows of one of the buildings seemed less cracked than the rest. The light within shone more steadily, as though lit by a globe rather than by a candle.

BUTCHER,

proclaimed a sign above the door. As Daniel squinted deeper into the dying light, he could just make out below:

LAUNDERETTE

MASSAGE

“Let’s ask for directions,” said Daniel.

Odin meowed his assent.

Daniel turned the brass knob.

Even before his eyes had acclimatized to the light, before he could make out the old man standing behind the counter, Daniel felt at home.

“Meat, clothes, orr massage?” asked the pockmarked face. Daniel had never heard an accent. All the children and instructors at the Orphanage spoke in the same level drawl.

“I’m looking for Porcuperry Road,” said Daniel.

“Porrcuperrry, Porrcuperrry. Hmmm.” The man looked up at the ceiling. His neck folded in two, but with his throat stretched out that way, his double chin receded.

Daniel liked the old man immediately.

That’s when Daniel noticed the smell. Heavy and savory. It was a scent he knew. The scent of blood. He hadn’t noticed until now that the streets lacked that smell. The scent he’d come to know so well.

“Let me see …” Supported by a bronze-tipped cane, the man shuffled around a chest of frozen meat, to a shelf off to one side of the shop. He reached behind a pile of graying-white clothes, and withdrew a folded piece of ancient paper.

A muffled chime of laughter sounded through the far wall. A girl’s voice. It sounded like Hooplah’s laughter when Daniel did something she said was “silly but cute.”

“Porrcuperrry, you say.” The man unfolded the paper, and slid the glasses further down his lengthy nose.

“Hahaha! My what a big boy you are,” said the girl’s voice through the wall.

Daniel blushed. “Yes sir, number eighty-four,” he said quickly.

The old man brought the map up to his face, then held it further away by vigilant degrees. Brought it closer again. “My eyes arre not what they werre. You look?”

A deep moan vibrated through the wall. Maybe the old man had unruly neighbors or perhaps he couldn’t hear, but whatever the reason, the shopkeeper paid the noise no heed.

Daniel shook off his embarrassment, and peered at the map. At the top was an enormous blank circle, filling the width of the page. Beneath it spurted an assortment of lines that he saw now were streets. In the north, close to the Bubble, the streets were organized at right angles. But as they dribbled down the page, the lines grew squiggly and chaotic, crossing and crisscrossing in greater and greater densities until they became an unintelligible web at the bottom of the page.

The street names, other than the main roads, were miniscule. Illegible closer to the southern edge of the page. Daniel squinted in the gloom of the single incandescent bulb. He realized after a moment his head was throbbing from screwing his brow so tight. His left eye wept with the effort. He was about to hand the map back to the old man, when he noticed a label in the bottom-right quadrant of the page. “NEW SETTLERS WAY.”

Daniel pointed.

“You find it?” asked the shopkeeper.

“I think so.” Daniel’s tongue was anesthetic-thick against his palate.

“Let me see … hmmmm. Ah, therre. Therre … eh how you say … no good.”

A hidden door behind the reception desk opened with a click. A girl sauntered out with her arm around a middle-aged man. He tripped over his lopsided smile as he made his way to the front door of the shop.

“Same time next week?” she asked with boudoir eyes.

“Definitely.”

Daniel tried not to look, but the girl’s left nipple popped out above her low-cut blouse.

The lopsided man extracted an oily credit card from his pocket. Swiped it across a paypoint in the girl’s hand.

Daniel waited for the lopsided man to leave the store. Fixed his eyes on the shopkeeper, silently pleading for the old man to explain why New Settlers Way was “no good.”

“Big trrouble therre. Poliss, they come inside therre and hurrt the peoples.”

Police. Daniel had heard of them. Hadn’t seen them, though. The Orphanage was a safe place. Well, except for that one time, when they took away Mr. Sanders for questioning. But that had been just once.

The girl stood arms akimbo. “Who’s the kid?”

“He lookingg for Porrcu … Porrcu …”

“Porcuperry Road,” said Daniel.

“Sounds familiar,” said the girl. She adjusted her blouse. “What you looking for there?”

Daniel didn’t know what to say. These were strangers. He didn’t divulge personal information to Hooplah, never mind to strangers.

Odin chose that moment to pop his head out of the top of the satchel.

The girl’s face fractured into a smile. “Oh, look at you.” She reached forward, the scent of berries and sweat on her wrist. She tickled the cat under his chin. Odin nestled against her hand. Rolled over.

Daniel was torn between ogling the girl’s cleavage, and pressing the shopkeeper for more information. But what’s wrong with New Settlers Way? he wanted to yell.

He counted to seven. Steadied his voice. “Please tell me more about that area on the map?”

“You have place to sleep?” asked the shopkeeper. “It darrk outside.”

“He can take the spare room,” said the girl.

Daniel was about to refuse, when Odin purred. Nuzzled the girl’s shoulder.

“I think we got some cat food in the back. Might be a little old, but it’ll taste fine.”

Daniel was so close. So close to his mother. He could see her on the map right there. New Settlers Way. He could point to it. Touch the font on the faded paper.

But he couldn’t find her tonight. Odin needed food, and he needed rest. He was struggling to keep his eyes open in the gloom. Echoes of the anesthetic.

“Alright,” he said. “Yes. Please. Just one night.”

The girl tickled her lips in Odin’s whiskers, and the old man smiled.

Daniel couldn’t help but smile in return. “I’m Daniel,” he said, “and you’ve met Odin.”

“Welcome,” said the shopkeeper. “I, Geppetto. This my sisterr’s daughterr, Florrenza.”

Florenza winked at him.

“Dinnerr forr now. Tomorrrow, we show you to get to New Settlerrs Way.”

Dinner was pleasant. The bed was comfortable enough. But by the end of breakfast the next morning, Daniel could no longer contain himself.

“Please, tell me how to find New Settlers Way. I need to go there. Today.”

Geppetto lowered his mug. Tilted his head. He studied the boy.

“An hour’s walk from here. Quicker by bus,” said the girl.

“Why you want to go therre?” asked the shopkeeper.

A cold sweat broke out on the nape of Daniel’s neck.

“It doesn’t matter why he wants to go,” said Florenza. “Let him see for himself.”

Geppetto shrugged.

“Come, I’ll show you.” Florenza walked him by the elbow to the window. “Right, you see that building there. No, not that one. The far building, with the green roof … Yes. Turn left there. Walk far. Very far. A good few miles. You’ll come to a broken archway. That’s the entrance.”

Daniel almost asked what it was, this ‘New Settlers Way’, but he knew the girl wouldn’t tell him. Or maybe, he didn’t want to hear the answer.

“Bad place,” said Geppetto. “No good.”

“He’ll make up his own mind, Uncle.”

The ancient wooden chair scratched the floorboards as Daniel rose. “We must go.” He grabbed Odin, who was nursing a saucer of milk. The cat put up a moment’s resistance, but then climbed into the satchel on Daniel’s back.

“I’m sorry,” said Florenza. She pecked Daniel on the cheek. Her wide, brown eyes held the echo of a tear.

“Why?” he asked.

“You’ll see.”

[]Pineapple and Hair

Geppetto was right.

NEW S LERS WAY,

read the broken archway. It arced across the road, from one building to another. Or rather, they had once been buildings. Now they were burnt husks of twisted concrete. Glass had melted over the sides of the ruined structures. Metal struts pierced their glossy skin.

Daniel passed under the broken lettering. Roads split off to either side of the main street in front of him. They could hardly be called roads now, though. Houses and buildings had burst open, vomiting their bricks and mortar onto the rubbled paths.

The sun beat down on the crown of Daniel’s mop of thick, black hair. The hanging smoke in the air thickened. His left eye cried. His lungs protested, spasming as he penetrated deeper into the warzone. About a hundred yards into New Settlers Way, the sweet stink of burning flesh competed with the smoke. Daniel remembered that smell from the operating theatre, when they’d removed his amygdala. But it was stronger here. Omnidirectional. As though the entire area were a seeping wound, and the sun its surgeon.

Daniel tried to count. To find sevens in the chaos. But the buildings weren’t in rows or columns. There was no order here.

We had you cleaned

We had you eat

He rubbed his eye. Tried to bury the memory of the song.

We love your toes

We love your meat

Odin crawled out of the rucksack and perched on Daniel’s shoulder. They surveyed the destruction together. Daniel could hardly feel the cat’s claws burrowing into his clavicle.

“No good,” said Daniel, echoing the old shopkeeper.

He walked over to one of the mounds of rubble. Heat radiating from the stones baked his cheeks.

Odin meowed. Dug his claws deeper into Daniel’s chest.

“What do you want here?” called out a voice.

Odin darted into the satchel as Daniel whirled around. His cybernetic knee grinded with the sudden turn.

“You have no business here,” said a man. He wore a holey t-shirt and a week-long beard. His eyes were swollen. Frantic.

“I’m looking for Porcu–”

“We don’t need your help,” hissed the Holey Man.

“I’m not here to help. I’m looking for Porcuperry Road.”

“You PeoPle …” The man spat his P’s “… from up north think you better than us. What with your implanted parts and such.” He nosed the air in the general direction of Daniel’s cybernetic knee.

“Sir, I mean no disrespect, but I don’t like my knee. I’d rather have my original.”

The filthy man’s eyes snapped back to Daniel’s face. “What’s that you say?”

“The Orphanage took my parts to pay my debt. I never wanted the replacements they gave me.” Daniel flexed his leg. The joint wheezed as he lowered it slowly to the earth.

“Hmmm.” The Holey Man stroked his grizzled chin. He had a gash along the bottom of his arm. Were those maggots wiggling along the edges? The man needed a good scrub of Rejek.

“What was it you’re looking for?” asked the Holey Man.

“84 Porcuperry Road.”

“Porcuperry was … fi-si-seven blocks down.”

Daniel’s heart quickened. He eyed the broken streets. Doubted he’d be able to make out city blocks in this mess.

The man sighed. “I’ll take you.” He turned on his feet and walked off, not waiting to see if Daniel followed.

The carnage grew thicker as they hiked into the epicenter of New Settlers Way. And the stench. The sulfurous pong of burnt hair singed Daniel’s sinuses. He knew that stench well – from the Spares department at the back of the Organ Farm where they chopped up the animals.

Eventually, the man stopped. Stood atop a hillock of rubble. The bricks were hot underfoot. “I thinks this was Porcuperry.” The man swung his arm like a pendulum, perpendicular to the main street.

“Would you know which way is eighty four?” asked Daniel.

The man shrugged. A tick dropped off his head onto one of the sunbaked bricks. The insect panicked for a moment. Then resigned, and sizzled in the heat.

Daniel was about to walk away – he guessed left was as good as right – when the Holey Man stopped him. Placed a long, grimy set of fingers on Daniel’s shoulder. “It happened not a week ago. We was doing nothin’ wrong. They came in, the Police and the Bubble Guard with their shiny badges and tanks and guns. Blasted everythin’ to nothin’.”

“But why?” Daniel shifted his weight so he stood on a more stable brick, about a foot below the Holey Man.

The Man stood tall, his head framed by a passing cloud. “We’re the Sect of Seven,” he said. The sudden defiance in his voice impelled Daniel to retreat a step further.

“Seven?” Daniel swallowed. Billions of needles pricked his spine. “You believe in seven too?”

The Holey Man peered at Daniel from under his broken glasses. “Seven ain’t much ta-do with the Sect of Seven. Yeah, we used to pray seven times a day, and bow seven times. That sorta thing. But it got tedious. Nowadays, we use seven for what it represents.”

Daniel’s fists were bunched in his pockets. He tried to relax. He’d never known anyone other than himself to talk about sevens. It made sense that his mother would live among these people.

That said, Daniel had never put much stock in the notion that blood relations meant anything. He couldn’t, not when he’d seen blood running down the drains every day at the Organ Farm. What did biology matter, when it was reduced to piles of meat? There was no meaning in a lump of meat.

But now, hearing about the number seven, Daniel felt a kinship with his mother. He suddenly knew he would find her. She was a Seven too, just like him.

“What does it represent?” he asked.

“Completion,” said the man immediately. “Seven represents completion.”

Daniel thought about that for a moment. That wasn’t the answer he’d expected. Beauty, maybe. Or symmetry. But completion?

“Completion of the body,” continued the Holey Man. “Of the seven organs the Bubblers steal from our chests: two kidneys, two lungs, the heart, the liver, and the spleen. We keep our organs. To ourselves. That’s why they come here.” He swung a trembling arm across the ruins. “That’s why they pillage our bodies. Our land.”

The man’s grubby, ailing frame took on ever more dignity as he spoke. His voice deepened. Gravitas leeched his face, his cheeks scarlet with passion.

“We believe in the sanctity of the body. We give not away what is not ours ta give. The Gods gave us our organs. Only the Gods may take them away.”

Daniel was insignificant beside this man. This man who spoke of Gods in the plural. This man who had purpose. Daniel had worked out the importance of sevens already, on his own. And for that he was proud. But he hadn’t realized the importance of the body. Of its wholeness. He’d never protested the “donations” the Orphanage had forced from him.

The Holey Man sniffed the air, his chin high. “I know number eighty four Porcuperry. It’s the Old Missionary. Come.”

They wound their way around and over heaps of rubble, until they reached a cluster of buildings less damaged than the rest. These were missing their façades in places. Windows and doors had been blown in. But the structures stood, unlike their unfortunate cousins.

As they neared, music perforated the air, soft but certain. The sound of a piano. A series of notes, a pause, then the series again.

“Here it is.”

84

was painted in careful white lettering beside the door. Daniel’s heart swirled in his ears as they entered.

“Janice, I’m back.”

An elderly woman hobbled into view. “Who’s this now?”

“Found the young’un on the street,” said the Holey Man.

“Let me look at you.” She lifted Daniel’s chin. Shoved her face so close, their noses touched. Her breath was saccharine. As though she’d swallowed a gallon of honey.

That’s when she saw his knee.

“Lords! You brought a Bubbler into our home.”

“He ain’t no Bubbler. He’s an orphan this one.”

“Nemesis above.” The old woman lifted her hand. Traced a shape around her chest. A circle? “Poor child.” Her face softened. “What you want here?”

“I’m looking for my mother,” said Daniel. His tongue was so dry it clicked as he spoke.

“Your what?” The woman hacked into her hand. It came away spotted red.

“My mother.”

“What’s her name?”

Daniel panicked. Now that he was here, now that he was about to meet her, he couldn’t remember her name. They would think he was lying if he didn’t say it now. How could he not remember her name?

He was about to reach for the piece of paper in his pocket, when it came to him.

“Alicia. Alicia Mendez.”

The old woman’s arthritic finger made the shape on her chest again. Not just a circle. A wheel. With three intercrossing spokes.

“Where is she?” asked Daniel.

The Holey Man’s eyes fell to the floor.

“Come,” said the old woman. She led him up the remains of a staircase. Up to the fourth floor.

“This was her room.”

Daniel stood in the center of the space. A mattress on the cracked concrete floor. A leather-bound book beside the bed – he recognised the wheel with three spokes on its cover. A dresser beneath a hole in the wall. Sunlight streamed through, illuminating a shard of dust.

“We left it just the same. Some of the others wanted the room. But it didn’t … it didn’t feel right,” said the Holey Man.

Daniel examined the mattress. He hadn’t seen the stains at first. Blood in the deep blue fabric. He knelt. Ignored the groan in his left knee. The bed had no sheet or blanket, but there was a pillow. He settled his head onto its surface. Shut his eyes.

Pineapple. Faint but unmistakable.

Tears sprung to Daniel’s eyes.

“She didn’t suffer,” said Janice.

“The shrapnel pierced her heart,” said the Holey Man. “We did everything we could.”

Daniel remembered the only memory he had of her. Of his mother. The flapping leaves of the Birch. How soft her cheek had been against his. Her pineapple perfume.

“You just missed her,” said Janice. “The Guard invaded New Settlers Way a week ago.”

“The barbarians don’t like our way,” said the Holey Man.

Daniel sniffed away the tears. Sat up on the mattress.

“I don’t understand.”

“We oppose organ transplants,” said Janice. “The human body was never meant to be chopped and changed as the Bubblers do. We spread the word of the Gods. Of Nemesis. Completion. Wholeness. Balance. The message of the Sect of Seven. The Truth reaches more ears every day. More find the path of light.”

The Holey Man scratched around in his left ear. “They hurt us, sure. But the Truth will always win in the face of darkness.” He examined his fingernail.

“We will prevail,” said Janice.

Daniel considered their words. There was a pastor at the Organ Farm. So he’d heard the word ‘God’ used before. But the pastor used the term very differently. In the singular.

Daniel quoted the pastor now. “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it,” he said. “We exchange organs because we are all one body, and to give one’s organ is a holy act.”

Janice’s lips thinned to a frosty line. “Boy, be careful. You blaspheme on your mother’s deathbed.”

Blood ran into Daniel’s cheeks.

“Does this look like the work of the Gods’ army?” spat the Holey Man. He pointed a trembling finger to the ruins outside the window. “Your mother died at the hand of those … organ rapists.”

A vein in Daniel’s forehead throbbed.

“Your mother knew the Truth,” said Janice. “She was whole. Complete. She was a True Seven.”

Daniel’s artificial cornea dripped. His knee ached. His lungs struggled in the dust. Daniel knew Janice and the Holey Man were right. This was not the work of the Gods.

The Orphanage. The Bubblers. They had taken the parts of him they’d wanted. They had taken his soul. In return, they’d promised Daniel his parents. But they’d taken his mother from him before he could find her. They’d taken everything from him.

The taste of iron, the taste of injustice, the bitterness flooded the back of his mouth.

“What can I do?” he asked.

Janice glanced down at his knee. She shook her head.

“Your parts are missin’,” said the Holey Man. “They ain’t together the way the Gods intended. You ain’t pure. Nothin’ you can do if you ain’t pure.”

Daniel’s gaze rested on the bloodstained mattress. He remembered that feeling in the hospital yesterday. Wanting to tear out the nurse’s throat. That feeling coursed through him now. It throbbed in his fists. His nails bit deep into his palms. It clenched his jaw. It pumped through his blood. It beat at the center of him.

There was only one way to become pure again. Only one way to reclaim the connection to his mother. Only one way to become complete.

Daniel needed his parts back.

[]Hearrt Is No Prroblema

Daniel stumbled from his mother’s deathbed. He retched.

“You alright, boy?”

“Leave him be. Nothing ta be done for him now.”

Once he’d spilled the guts of him, once the warmth had left his body, he propped himself up. Stumbled out of the missionary, away from 84 Porcuperry. Back the way he’d come.

Odin cried in the back of his satchel, as Daniel hiked through the rubble of New Settlers Way, until he left the broken town. Through an adrenaline-fueled haze he found his way to the main road that passed through the Gutter. Back to Geppetto’s shop.

“Didn’t find what you were looking for?” asked Florenza.

For the first time since he’d left the stained mattress, he looked up.

Daniel was too tired to hide the tears. His eyes stung from the smoke of the smoldering town. His left eye had swollen shut.

“She … wasn’t.”

Florenza took a drag of her cigarette. Looked through him with her wide brown eyes that knew everything, and nodded.

Daniel sat beside her on the sidewalk.

“I smelt her,” he said after a while.

Florenza waited. Listened.

“She died a week ago. I waited so long to … and now that part of me, the waiting, is gone. But I could still smell her.”

Florenza placed a hand on his knee. Something hot, something electric, shot up his groin and into his brainstem.

“We’re all missing parts of us,” she said.

They sat there a long while. Daniel cried silently. Florenza smoked.

“Come inside,” she said eventually. “There’s lunch on the table.”

Daniel stepped into the store. A rush of humidity singed his cheeks. His eyes felt better immediately.

“Puttingg the washingg in the drryerr now,” said Geppetto. “Ah, you brrought him back.” The shopkeeper smiled, and hobbled over to shake the boy’s hand. His cane bump … bump … bumped on the linoleum floor. If he noticed the moisture on Daniel’s cheeks, he ignored it. “You want to help me with the washingg, Daniel?”

The boy nodded. Loaded the dryer. His hands burned as he handled the wet clothing. A current lived in his fingertips. An electricity he couldn’t ignore.

***

One day became two. Became three. Became seven. Daniel worked in the shop during the day, helping the old man with the laundry business. He ignored the men who stepped into the back room with Florenza in the afternoons. Ignored their moans and ejaculations.

By night, he and Odin slept in the spare room above the shop. In his dreams, sweaty and stale, horned beasts of fire stormed through New Settlers Way. The demons scorched and slashed the town. Barreled through the streets. Emerald blood, the color of Rejek, oozed through pores in the bricks of the fallen buildings. Flames charred the sky.

“What can I do?” he asked his mother, every night. She wore a white nightie. White, but for the crimson blossom over her heart. “You know what to do. Find them. Find your parts,” she said, before he woke.

“You rready forr morre?” asked Geppetto one morning over breakfast.

Daniel glanced up from his cereal. “More?”

“He’s not ready,” said Florenza.

“Is his choice,” said the old man.

Florenza shook her head. The doorbell tinkled. “He’s not ready,” she said softly, and left the room.

Daniel swallowed the last of his muesli. He couldn’t taste it. Not really. The tongue still hadn’t grown buds. Maybe it never would. “What would you like me to do?”

“Come,” said Geppetto, and grabbed his cane.

As they ascended the stairs at the back of the shop, Daniel regretted asking. He was sure the old man would ask Daniel to do what Florenza did with those men in the afternoons. Geppetto had been kind to him, but Florenza was right – he wasn’t ready for that. He doubted he’d ever be ready for that. Daniel had never kissed a girl, let alone – well, Daniel wasn’t ready for that.

But he followed the shopkeeper, past the spare room where Odin slept, past Geppetto’s, to the third and final door on the top floor. The old man removed a chain from his neck, upon which hung three gilded keys. He unlocked the door with one, and unbolted two more locks with the others. Daniel’s heart leapt as the door opened. He knew that smell. Knew it well.

Umami at the back of his throat. The scent of blood.

The scent of organs.

Florenza’s voice slunk up the stairs. “Right this way.” Daniel assumed she was taking another man into her bed downstairs, but footsteps echoed up the wooden staircase. “It’s good to see you again, Mrs. Hampshire.”

He wanted to glance back, to see who it was Florenza was leading his way, but his eyes were fixed forward. At the unlocked room.

A flat steel table stood in the middle of the space. It looked like the vivisection tables the instructors used in the Spares department at the back of the Organ Farm. Except this table wasn’t full of animal hair. The metal had been scoured down to its bare molecules. A tray of implements, arranged in size order, perched beside the table. And around the operating area, on the floor, on the ceiling, and on the walls, was a thick, murky plastic. It had been scrubbed clean, but Daniel couldn’t help but notice the faint but unmistakable emerald stains of Rejek.

“Do you think it will take away the yellow in my cheeks?” asked a thin voice.

“I’m sure it will,” said Florenza. “It helped last time, didn’t it?”

A woman older than anyone Daniel had ever seen squeezed past him.

“Let me take that for you,” said Florenza, and removed the old lady’s coat.

She wore sunglasses and a mint-green gown with an open back. Mothballs and cinnamon trailed behind her as she made her way to the table in the center of the room. Skin hung off her in gentle folds.

“You won’t tell my son, will you? He doesn’t know about the …” Her voice dropped to a murmur “… drinking.”

“Missis Hampshirr, so good to see you. Longg time.”

“Geppetto, dear man. You know I prefer to be called Elle.”

Geppetto kissed her left cheek. Then her right.

“Liverr givingg prroblema again, Mississ Hamphirr?”

The ancient woman craned her neck to peer at the plastic-clad ceiling, as if the answer lay somewhere in its synthetic creases. Bags of watery skin hung from her jaundiced eyes.

“Are you okay, Mrs. Hampshire?” asked Florenza.

“Oh … you’re so pretty, dear. When I was young, there was a boy who would send me flowers. Daffodils and violets. They only lasted a day, but they were as pretty as you.” She blinked. Eyed the room. “Where is this place?”

“You came here for your liver, Mrs. Hampshire. Lie back now. That’s right. We’ll have you feeling better in no time.” Florenza looked to Daniel. Shook her head and whispered, “Cirrhosis. Confuses the old ones.”

Geppetto slid a needle into her papery wrist.

“I was no daisy, though, mind you. Had my share of …” The old woman’s eyes rolled back in her head. Her jaw hung slack.

“Pensioners can’t afford fresh organs,” said Florenza. “They come to us for a cheaper fix. Cybernetics.”

Geppetto tapped the bag of anesthetic hanging from a hook beside the bed. He nodded. Selected a scalpel from the tray. “Brring rreplacement.”

Florenza elbowed Daniel aside, and shifted apart the plastic hanging on the wall behind him. She pulled open a rusted metal closet. Extracted a metallic ball. Bullet-gray.

“Now watch, boy. Liverr is big prroblema for Bubblerrs. Too much … how you say?” He looked to his niece, scalpel in hand. Lifted an invisible glass in his other hand, raised it to his lips, and tipped it back.

“They drink too much,” said Florenza.

Brown eyes, thought Daniel. Florenza has brown eyes. It only dawned on him now just how rare that was. Almost everyone at the Orphanage had green eyes. With all the organ donations and replacements, the concentration of Rejek in their blood steadily increased, until their eyes turned green.

The thought of Florenza as pure, untouched by Rejek, sent a thrill through his chest. Into his groin. He noticed her breasts. How pert they were under her blouse. She wore that blouse on Wednesdays, he knew. For the men in the afternoon.

“Why you looking at me like that?”

Blood flooded Daniel’s cheeks. He swung his gaze. Found himself staring into Mrs. Hampshire’s glassy eyes. Geppetto turned the old woman’s head gently, and her tongue flopped out her mouth. Her breath was slow and wet, until Geppetto shoved a tube down her throat.

Florenza tipped the woman to one side, so she could slip the gown from under her back. In a moment, the woman was naked. Leathery breasts hung either side of her chest. Ancient. So different from Florenza’s.

Something chrome, something glossy, caught Daniel’s eye. It was flat and round. About the diameter of Odin’s paw. The device sat between Mrs. Hampshire’s breasts. He stepped closer. Examined the display. “1,” it read.

“What’s that?”

Florenza shrugged. “They call it a phase … a phase-something-or-other. She slid the device up the woman’s sternum, out of the way of Geppetto’s waiting scalpel. The underside of the machine clung to the woman’s delicate skin, lifting the epidermis as it slid. “All I know is the Bubblers don’t want us removing it. No matter what.”

Daniel’s eyes moved down the floppery of the woman’s skin. It was thin enough for him to spot the web of blue veins beneath. He leaned closer still, fascinated by the texture of her. His eyes reached out and stroked the rubbery fronds of her stomach. An unbidden urge crept over him. He wondered how easy it would be, how it would taste, to take a chunk of that papery skin between his teeth. Rip it off. Would it tear easily? Would her blood be warm on his lips, tacky on his cheeks?

He shook his head. Expelled the image. Gods.

“Let us see what is inside,” said Geppetto. He lowered the blade just beneath the ancient woman’s right breast, and sliced.

***

Cirrhotic livers. Lungs blacker than tar. Hearts caked with fat.

The Bubblers arrived, pensioned and frail, young and ashamed. They arrived late at night, or in the early mornings before their absence would be noticed.

They all had two things in common. They wore the phase-something-or-other device on their chests, displaying the number ‘1’. And they all wore sunglasses, no matter the time of night.

The Bubblers arrived, they lay upon Geppetto’s table, and they left with a smile.

“Thank you,” they’d say. “Won’t drink anymore,” they’d say. “No more cocaine. No more smoking.”

Geppetto nodded and wished them well. But Daniel saw in the old shopkeeper’s eye that he knew they’d be back. Many were repeat customers.

“Bubbler life’s wild,” said Florenza. “Pleasure is tough to give up.”

As the weeks passed, Geppetto insisted that Daniel watch all the surgeries. The boy participated in the easier transplants. “I old man,” Geppetto would say. “You young.” He’d pinch Daniel’s cheek. “Many surrgerries in you. One day, you be my hands.”

Daniel watched. And learned.

Odin found a new lease on life. The old cat had taken to hunting the rats in the attic. He’d deliver one on Daniel’s pillow every other day. Back arched, purring like a thing possessed, the faithful animal would meow until Daniel accepted the gift. This involved tossing it in the trash bin on the sidewalk outside.

Friday night. The four of them were eating dinner. Florenza had just finished cooking a hunk of processed Mopane, and Odin was beside himself, swiping his tail from side to side. Geppetto read the paper in that mild, confused way that a foreigner does. And Daniel was not-watching Florenza’s ass, when the shop bell tinkled.

Geppetto glanced up. Lowered his paper. Florenza turned off the stove, and tossed a piece of meat to Odin. Daniel opened the door.

A young man about Daniel’s age sprawled on the sidewalk. “Heart,” he said, clutching his chest.

His eyes were bloody, his cheeks gray. But it was his lips, blue and thin, that galvanized Daniel to place an arm under the boy’s shoulder, and help him up the staircase and onto the metal table.

The Bubbler’s breath crackled in shallow bursts. “My parents … they, they don’t … don’t know about the coke. You … can you fix me. I have …” He spilled a handful of credit cards onto the floor. “I have money.” He coughed a bright red haze on the plastic ceiling.

Daniel pulled off the boy’s shirt.

“It will be alrright,” said Geppetto to the wheezing boy. He handed the wad of cards to Florenza, and pulled on his gloves. “Hearrt is no prroblema.”

The boy offered a weak smile, and lay back against the steel. Florenza jabbed a needle in his arm, and a few seconds later, the young man was snoring.

“Brringg hearrt,” said Geppetto. “Biggerr than kidney. No, no. Smallerr than lungg. Si. That one.”

The metal orb was heavy in Daniel’s hands. It gleamed under the fluorescent lights, its input-output valves beckoning for connection.

“Thomsin Sparling,” said Florenza, flipping through the Bubbler boy’s wallet. “Good-looking kid.” Jealousy punched Daniel in the gut. “Looks a lot like you.” She winked.

Geppetto slid the phase-something-or-other device on the boy’s chest up and across to his shoulder. Now that it was out of the way, Geppetto lowered the scalpel. Traced a thin red line down the center of Thomsin’s muscled chest.

“This one’s empty.” Florenza swiped one of the boy’s credit across her paypoint.

Geppetto grunted, and a loud crack reverberated through the operating theatre. Thomsin’s ribs parted.

“I’ve never seen a heart inside someone,” said Daniel, peering over the shopkeeper’s shoulder. “Lots at the Organ Farm. But they look different when they’re beating.”

The heart was wedged between two lungs, and covered in a layer of fat. But there it was. Pumping like its owner’s life depended on it.

Florenza held up a second card. “Ah,” she said, “this one’s got some juice in it. Wealthy boy. What you think a heart is worth?” She typed on the keypad.

The paypoint beeped.

“That should do it,” she said, and stuffed the cards back into their owner’s pocket.

“This hearrt,” said Geppetto, peering into Thomsin’s chest, “… big as horrse. No … how you say?”

“Not enough oxygen,” said Florenza.

“Firrst, we cut here.” Geppetto whistled a ditty as a jet of blood hit the ceiling. Thomsin’s lips purpled. “And then we …” The old man grabbed a thin tube from the tray beside the operating table. The smart connector came alive in his hand. It slithered about, probing the air for an orifice. Its head stretched in anticipation as it neared the dissected artery. A moment later, the tube and the artery were joined snugly.

Geppetto repeated the procedure, narrating the arteries he snipped and replaced. “Aorrta.” He shoved the lungs aside to get at the other tubes. “Pulmonarry arrterry … superriorr vena cava …”

Florenza snatched the artificial heart from Daniel’s hand and tossed it to her uncle. He connected the other side of the tube to the metallic orb. Geppetto’s whistling grew louder. He grabbed another tube from the tray, and was about to snip a vein, when a loud bang punched through the calm of the theatre.

“Open up,” cried a muffled voice downstairs. “By order of the Bubble Guard.”

Florenza paled. Sweat broke out among the creases of Geppetto’s brow. He snipped the last pulmonary vein. Shoved the end of a smart tube around its end. The other side of the snaking tube found the input valve of the metal heart.

Florenza grabbed the original heart, gray and limp, and lifted it from Thomsin’s chest. Snipped arteries and veins sprung out from it like dreadlocks “He won’t be needing this no more.” She chucked the mass of meat into a blender. Poured the resulting maroon sludge down the sink.

“Open!”

Geppetto pulled off his gloves. “I go see what they want. Lock this doorr.” The old man shuffled down the corridor, tucking in his shirt as he hobbled along. His bronze-tipped cane knock-knock-knocked the wooden stairs on his way down. “I comingg.”

Daniel bolted shut the operating room door.

Florenza was a flurry of activity. She fired commands at him. “Lock the cupboard. No, wait. Put this inside first.” She thrust the tray of scalpels at Daniel, and a suction pipe into Thomsin’s chest. Blood eased its way up the translucent tube, into a bucket waiting on the floor.

“Pour that down the sink.”

“Hold this.”

The suction pipe gurgled in Daniel’s hand. Air bubbles under the pipe’s surface tickled his fingertips as they passed.

“Sirr, we arre a shop. We do yourr laundrry. Sell you meat. Massage yourr muscells. You sirr, you look like you need massage. Tired eyes.”

Florenza was pulling plastic off the walls. Off the floor. Shoving it into huge, black bags. “Wash away the blood. Shit, where’s the key to the cupboard?”

She fumbled to open the rusted lock. It clanged against the cupboard door.

“What’s that noise? We know just what kind of ‘shop’ this is old man. We’ve been tracking movements in and out of here for days now.”

“Sirr, I assurre you. We do nothingg wrongg. Rrats, they make noise. But if you want, you can uh … buy some rrump. We have best rrump steak this side of Main Strreet.”

Florenza stuffed the black bags in the cupboard. Clicked closed the padlock.

“We know you’re performing black market surgeries with illegal cybernetic parts. We had a talk with Mrs. Hampshire.”

“She good lady,” said Geppetto. “Verry sad about herr husband. She miss him so much. She uh … how you say … she uh … all overr in herr head afterr he died.”

“I need the stitches to close him up,” whispered Florenza. She fumbled with the lock again.

Footsteps up the staircase.

Daniel jumped. An animal groan, deep and low, emanated from the operating table. “Where … where am –” Daniel dashed over to Thomsin. Placed a hand over the boy’s mouth. “Shhhh.”

“What’s behind that door, old man?”

“Doorr. Uh … we do massage therre. Yourr shoulderrs, so tight, Officerr. You need massage?”

Florenza swaddled a bandage around Thomsin’s open chest. “There’s no time to close him up. He needs to get out of here. You do too.” Florenza pointed to the window. “Now.”

Daniel lifted the groggy boy to a sitting position.

The Bubbler clutched the bandage over his chest. “It hurts.”

“Step out of the way old man … You and you, kick in the door.”

Daniel supported Thomsin to the open window. He glanced back. “Aren’t you coming?”

Florenza was wiping down the operating table. “They can’t know what we do here. I’ll stay. Clean up before they break through.” She rinsed out the blender. “Go. It’ll take them a while to get in. Strong locks. I’ve got time.”

An explosive bang rocked the door. Then another.

Florenza’s cheeks were pasty. Waxen. “Go!”

“Uh, sirr. It is nothingg behind doorr.”

“Shutup you Gutter.” Daniel thought he heard a slap, then a weight drop to the floor.

“Lift your leg over the windowsill,” he whispered to Thomsin. “Now the other.”

Bang!

Daniel peered behind him before he followed Thomsin out the window. The tongues of the top two bolts had been smashed through the doorframe, and the third looked like it was about to suffer the same fate. A large crack ran down the length of the door.

Thomsin was unsteady on his feet as they descended the fire escape. Twice, Daniel had to brace against the boy to prevent the Bubbler from tipping over the handrail. They were almost at the bottom of the rusted staircase, when Daniel heard a noise he knew so well.

Meow.

Odin’s gray chin stared down at him from the window of Daniel’s room. One window away from the operating theatre. The two rooms shared access to the fire escape.

Two flights of stairs back up to the window. Seven stairs per flight. He liked the numbers.

Daniel’s cybernetic knee grinded as he sprung up the stairs in three-three-one’s. By the time he’d reached the top of the first flight, his heart registered the exertion, and his artificial lungs flurried to keep up.

“Hey there little girl.”

“Don’t touch me.”

Daniel was at the top of the second flight, when he heard the second slap.

“Don’t!” cried Florenza.

“Come,” whispered Daniel. Odin looked dubiously at the fire escape. “Come, boy.”

“We know you and your old man are trading in cybernetics,” said a deep male voice. “We know everything.”

“Not sure about organs, but we offer an excellent laundry service. That bloodstain on your cuff, we could get that off in no time. Won’t even charge –”

Another sharp slap pierced the air.

Odin seemed finally to understand the urgency of the situation. He leapt onto Daniel’s shoulder.

Daniel was about to turn around, to head back down the stairs to Thomsin, but something stopped him. Held him fast.

“Cheeky, girl. We know what else you do here. The service you offer those men on Wednesday afternoons. Well, it is late afternoon. And it’s Wednesday. Me and my boys need servicin’. Get … on … the table … That’s better.”

Daniel raised his eyes above the sill. Peered into the operating theatre. In the corridor, beyond the door, Geppetto lay slumped on the ground against a wall. Blood snaked down his chin. His cane, his bronze-tipped cane, was broken in two.

And in the operating room, was Florenza. Florenza lying on the metal table. Florenza with her legs spread open. Held open. Florenza with her eyes closed, her lips pursed, her cheeks bunched. Florenza with four men standing around her, and one on top of her. Men in black uniforms. Men with black souls.

Daniel knew men like these. In Law and Order they worked for Internal Affairs. Or, worse, for another precinct.

Thomsin coughed at the bottom of the fire escape.

Daniel ducked.

“Thought I heard something outside, Sarge.”

“I don’t hear nothin’. Probably rats. Gutter’s full of ‘em.”

A tear rolled down Daniel’s cheek as he descended the staircase.

“Let’s go,” he said to Thomsin, trying to put the image of Florenza out of his mind. He shoved the boy forward. This was the Bubbler’s fault. If he hadn’t been in the operating room when the Guard had arrived, Florenza would have gotten out in time.

The boy spluttered a mist of blood, but he stumbled ahead. “Where … where we going?”

Florenza’s stoic face materialized behind Daniel’s eyelids when he blinked. The ravaged buildings of New Settlers Way. The bloody mattress. The words of the Holey Man sang in his ears. “Your parts are missin’,” he’d said. “You ain’t pure.”

The Bubblers – entitled, undeserving cretins like Thomsin, waving around their credit cards, rotting their organs, soaring from one cocaine high to the next. The Orphanage. The Bubble. They’d taken everything from him. His organs. His mother. Florenza.

It was time to get his parts back.

“We’re going to your place,” said Daniel.

Thomsin glanced down at the bandage around his chest. “Home.” He coughed. “Home would be good.”

***

“I’ll need to see his ID, man,” said the border guard around a piece of gum.

“No need.” Thomsin rallied a mustard smile. “He’s with me.”

The guard’s greasy blonde hair draped the shoulders of his Guard uniform. “Who is he?”

“My cat walker.”

“Cat walker? Dude, I ain’t never heard of a cat walker. Didn’t know you could even walk a cat.”

Thomsin straightened himself. Broadened his shoulders. “Do you have a cat?”

“No sir.”

“Your feline ignorance isn’t my problem, now is it?”

The border guard swallowed his gum.

“Uh, no sir. But I really should see IDs for y’all. And, that cat don’t look so good.” He eyed the bandage across Thomsin’s chest. “And … ummm, don’t mind my sayin’ sir, but you don’t look so good either.”

Daniel reached into his pocket to fish out his polycarbonate ID card, but Thomsin grabbed his forearm to stop him. “You’d need a permit,” Thomsin hissed in his ear.

The Bubbler returned his eyes to the Guard. Thomsin’s shoulders relaxed. His cheeks bunched into another smile. “What sort of hours you work?”

Daniel looked past the guard, to the border of the shimmering golden Bubble just a few yards ahead. He’d never been this close to it before. Now that he was, he noticed that it wasn’t static. There was a breeze in the air tonight, and as gusts of wind buffeted the forcefield, swirls of electric fancy cascaded over its surface.

“Till sunrise,” said the Guard.

“Till sunrise …” Thomsin shook his head. “That’s quite a shift. They’re paying you the mandatory night bonus, of course. That helps pass the time, I’m sure.”

“The manda – what bonus?”

“You know? The after-hours bonus owed to all civil servants. Was on the news just last week. Came into effect …” Thomsin looked up, as if trying to remember. “… yesterday.”

The Guard eyeballed Thomsin. “You ain’t pullin’ my foot?”

“Is that a paypoint?” Thomsin pointed at a black box strapped to the guard’s shoulder.

“Sure is.”

“How about a donation, then? In lieu of the bonus they should be paying you? I feel like it’s my civic duty. The border is a dangerous place. Our guards must be well remunerated.”

“Remunerated …” repeated the border Guard. He seemed to like the taste of the syllables. He mouthed them again.

“Alright,” he said, and handed Thomsin the box. “What’ya think is a fair bonus?”

“How about this?” Thomsin swiped a card across its front. Punched some numbers into the keypad.

The Guard’s eyebrow arched in the reflection of the LED display. “That’ll do, sir. Y’all free to go.”

Thomsin tapped the side of his glasses. An opening about the size of a doorway appeared in the forcefield. Heart thumping, Daniel supported Thomsin through the orifice. Odin’s claws dug deeper into Daniel’s shoulder with each step.

A cool breeze caressed Daniel’s cheek.

This? This was the Bubble?

[]Cat Got Your Tongue

“But … where is everything?”

Odin sniffed the air. His whiskers fluttered in the breeze.

Thomsin glanced back at Daniel. Dark circles around his eyes betrayed his fatigue after the recent surgery. Slick alabaster cheeks framed his bloodless lips. “Of course. You’re a Gutter. Wrong phase. Follow me.”

They were standing in a field of perfectly mown grass. Daniel had never seen grass before. At least, not an open expanse like this. There were little ponds of it at the Orphanage, under lonely trees. But all the open space in the Gutter was paved or tarred. “Not enough water for grass,” the memory of his Biology teacher’s voice echoed in his head. “People need water. Not grass.”

But here it was. Acres of the stuff. Most noticeably though, was what Daniel didn’t see. There were no buildings, no cars. No people. Just grass. Cut into alternating columns of lime- and olive-green, like the cricket fields in the old cricket documentaries he liked to watch with Hooplah on Thursday nights. The other boys watched wrestling or football. But Daniel liked the finesse of the gentleman’s game. The nuance.

“I just don’t get it,” she’d say munching on a handful of krill popcorn. “One of them throws a ball, and the other hits it. Then someone runs after it, and gives it back to the thrower. Then they do it all again. Why? And ya’know, who has time for that sort of thing?”

“That was the past,” he’d tell her. “People played games in the past. They called them ‘sports’.”

“But when did they work?” she’d asked. “We work sunrise to sundown every day. Everyone does.”

“I guess they didn’t work every day.”

He remembered the shock in her lidless cybernetic eyes.

But here, now, Daniel was standing on the largest cricket field he’d seen. Bigger than Lords. Or the Wanderers. Or any ancient grassy stadium. But like a stadium, it was oval. And lit. If he strained his eyes hard enough, in the light that seemed to burst from everywhere at once, he could just make out in the distance what he thought might be the far side of the golden forcefield.

Thomsin blundered ahead along a meandering dirt path. It didn’t take long for Daniel to catch up. The Bubbler limped. Tripped over himself. He had to stop in shorter and shorter increments to cough up growing clumps of blood. His lower lip quivered. After a minute of this, he looked up at Daniel.

“It hurts,” he said. “My chest. Please … help.” He clenched Daniel’s forearm with weak fingers. “Walk with me. Another twenty yards or so. We’re almost clear of the border control building. Almost there.”

“Almost where?” Daniel shielded his eyes from the glare, and peered around. No buildings. He looked ahead, trying to make out what Thomsin was talking about. In about twenty yards, the dirt path ended abruptly, but there was nothing there. Nothing but more grass.

“Just … walk. Please.”

He did as he was told. By the time they’d reached the end of the path, Thomsin had taken to leaning against Daniel, the Gutter shouldering most of his weight.

Thomsin reached for the phase device on his shoulder. Turned the dial along its edge. The LED number displayed shot up. 1 … 146 … 649 … 892 …

“Taxi,” he whispered.

As the numbers increased, Thomsin’s body … changed. As though the edges of him had turned liquid. His color changed too. His alabaster skin grayed.

“I don’t understand?”

Thomsin’s body seemed to wobble. The numbers on the device’s display shivered. Blurred. Daniel glanced down. He could swear he saw grass through Thomsin’s legs. As though Thomsin’s skin had become translucent.

The Bubbler ducked his head, leaned forward, and … disappeared.

Daniel gawked at the spot where Thomsin had been a moment ago. The evening breeze whistled through the cut grass. Grass in every direction. Not a sound but the wind. The world inside the Bubble was empty and still.

“Thomsin?”

“Get in,” said Thomsin’s voice. Or what sounded like Thomsin’s voice. The edges of his words warbled. Faded into one another. And the pitch was wrong. Too high.

“Uh … where are you?” asked Daniel.

“Damned privacy settings. Taxis don’t interface well with the new glasses. You must be in Gutter phase. Hold on a sec while I shift …”

One moment there was a patch of manicured grass. Just like every other piece of ground in the Bubble. The next, a saffron-colored box popped into existence. It hovered above the ground with a low humming noise.

“Get in,” repeated Thomsin. He was slumped in a seat on the other side of the taxi. Odin meowed as Daniel sat down, and a door slid shut behind them.

“Thirteen-seventy-two Bentley Place,” said Thomsin.

Daniel’s cheeks pricked at the mention of 1372. A multiple of seven. No, not just that. It was divisible by a square of seven. He ran the numbers through his brain. Their precise lines calmed him. Ordered his edges. As the numbers formed and shaped, he realized 1372 was divisible not just by 7 and its square, but by a cube of seven too.

A hot tingle passed over him. 1372. What a number.

He settled into his seat. Breathed a little easier. Nothing bad could happen in a place named 1372.

Daniel flinched. What was that smell?

He sniffed. Glanced around the taxi. It was Thomsin. His breath had stretched across the taxi’s leather interior. It reeked. Daniel knew that smell. Hooplah would call it ‘Intestine Special’. The recipe for Intestine Special was simple. First, get hold of a length of intestine. Block the one end, and pump Rejek into the other side. Wait a minute or so – Hooplah and some of the other orphans ran competitions to see whose could last longer – and pop! Intestine Special. The smell was astonishing. The resulting sludgy green mess was worse.

Daniel was no doctor, but he was fairly certain that if that smell issued from a living human, it was a bad sign.

A shiver vibrated through Daniel’s seat as the taxi lifted – Gods, it lifted – into the air. “Where we going?”

“My place.” Thomsin’s chest bandage had shimmied down far enough to expose his open ribcage. The artificial heart gurgled behind the sharp tips of his ribs. With his sunglasses, blue lips, and exposed chest, he looked like something out of a Halloween holo vid.

It made Daniel nauseous. But he felt something else as well. Something curious. Something playful. An image flashed behind his eyes. His fingers in the wound, between Thomsin’s open ribs. Prying them … prying them apart.

“Uh …” Daniel chased the image from his mind. “You might need a doctor.” ‘Sepsis is no good,’ Geppetto would say.

Thomsin scoffed. Which turned into a cough. Which morphed into a fit. “And what would I tell him?” he said eventually, after he’d caught his breath. Oh, yeah I bought a black market heart. Please don’t report it, doctor. Why not organic? Well, doc, my Daddy doesn’t much appreciate my lifestyle. ‘That coke’s gonna kill you boy,’ he says. ‘And when it does, don’t come runnin’ to me. One more heart attack, and I’m cutting you off.’” Thomsin sighed, and a stunningly rank cloud of fetor filled the cab.

Odin buried his nose under Daniel’s armpit.

Daniel couldn’t tear his eyes from the bone-white tips of Thomsin’s ribs. They jiggled as the boy spoke.

“You can help me, right? You worked with that old Italian guy? The surgeon?”

“I’ve watched him do a few replacements, yes.”

Thomsin coughed up a handful of blood. “My place it is.” The Bubbler smiled a dreamy smile. Daniel watched his heart pump inside his broken chest, keeping pace with the electric hum of the taxi.

Daniel finally managed to look away. Stared out the window. Grass. More grass. In the distance, the skyward sheet of the Bubble incandesced. Reflective and opaque. No hint of what went on outside. No suggestion of the Gutter and its atrocities. He couldn’t see the smoldering ruins of New Settlers Way from here. Couldn’t see the Organ Farm. The orphans. Hooplah and her missing eyelids.

Daniel was nudged forward in his seat. It was difficult to judge without a frame of reference on the grassy plane, but he thought the taxi might be slowing.

“We’re home.” Thomsin coughed. A sprinkling of blood and spittle dusted Daniel’s face – the feeling wasn’t altogether unpleasant. The door on Thomsin’s side of the cab slid open, revealing a sheer drop.

Was Thomsin mad? Maybe the sepsis had gone to his brain. “There’s nothing out th–” But before Daniel could stop him, Thomsin had stepped out of the cab into fresh air. He was gone.

Daniel had time to think that this would be a problem – that without Thomsin, he was stuck in a strange, barren world, with no plan of escape. He scurried over to Thomsin’s side of the cab. Peered down, expecting to find Thomsin’s body on the grass below. He wasn’t sure exactly how high the taxi hovered, but the cab couldn’t have been less than five stories above the ground. Falling from this height, Thomsin wouldn’t have stood a chance.

But no matter how carefully Daniel examined the grass below, there was no body. No Thomsin.

“You have arrived at your destination. Please disembark,” chimed a melodic female voice.

Daniel searched the cab’s interior for the woman who’d spoken, but other than Odin and Daniel, the taxi was empty.

Thomsin’s voice pierced the silence. “Hmmm. Uhuh … setting the phase to one, with gradual increase over the next few hours to return to default … Yes. There we are. Sorry about that. Haven’t adjusted this apartment in years.”

A moment later the boy appeared through a doorway. A room shimmered into existence behind him. Hues of silver. Glimmers of white. A legless table. Legless chairs. Below the room, was air. Nothing but a gentle breeze.

“We don’t …” Thomsin coughed. “I don’t have all day.” Thomsin rounded a corner.

Daniel toed the floor with his loafer. Solidity greeted his foot.

He didn’t trust the gleaming porcelain tiles. Expected to fall through them any second. But after a moment, he relaxed. The floor seemed to hold his weight well enough. He stepped into the room, and the taxi shimmered out of existence behind him.

Jazz.

He’d heard the piece before. Plaintive, wholesome notes caressed the folds of his ears. They licked the nape of his neck.

Jazz.

Daniel shut his eyes. Drew in the mournful tones.

“What the bloody fuck!”

Thomsin’s alabaster cheeks rounded the corner. “What in the Bubble’s name is this?” He pointed to his chest. He’d removed the bandage. The stark tips of his ribs screamed through the open wound.

“There wasn’t time to sew you up.” Daniel’s voice sounded deeper, richer in his ears. The jazz flowed over the ridges of his face. Under his armpits.

“The hell …” Thomsin’s eyes rolled back in his head, then snapped back onto Daniel. He braced himself against a floating chair. “… the hell you think you’re doing? Help me. Do something!” He slumped to the floor.

Daniel stood over the boy. “What do you want me to do?”

“Fucking Gutter,” seethed Thomsin.

Something in Daniel’s skull throbbed. An itch behind his eyes. Words cascaded from his lips, before he knew he was speaking. “Maybe you want me to find you another heart? Perhaps you’d like mine.” Daniel stabbed a finger in his own chest. He tasted iron at the back of his tongue. “Maybe you want my hands too.” He knelt down. Straddled the boy. His face was above Thomsin’s. The Bubblers eyes were wide. Bloody. “You fucking Bubbler,” spat Daniel.

Fear crept across Thomsin’s sallow cheeks. The points of the boy’s open ribcage tickled Daniel’s buttocks through his jeans.

“You steal our organs,” continued Daniel. “Kill our parents.”

Daniel found his hands around Thomsin’s neck. The flesh was soft. Softer than Daniel’s had ever been. It oozed between his fingers as he squeezed. Tighter.

“Well,” Daniel said through clenched teeth, “you can have my hands.” His fingers locked tighter around Thomsin’s throat. The boy flailed beneath his thighs. Thomsin’s Adam’s apple was spongy. He thumbed it inwards, until he heard a satisfying pop. The sound of bubble wrap. The kind with the big, hard bubbles. The kind they used to package the organs at the Farm.

Thomsin’s sunglasses fell from his face. His eyes bulged as he tried to shake his neck free. “I think,” said Daniel, his hands throttling ever tighter, “that you might need new eyes.”

Thomsin’s lips parted, but no sound escaped. Nothing but the stench of Intestine Special.

“What’s that? Cat got your tongue?” Daniel lowered his face until his lips locked around Thomsin’s. The boy’s tongue flailed about, but Daniel seized the tip between his front teeth, and tore it off.

Now the taste of iron was thick and rich at the back of his throat. He never knew tongue had this consistency. He chewed on it for a moment. Spat it out.

“Yeah, I’m sure Daddy will buy you a new tongue for Christmas.”

Odin investigated the piece of meat. Sniffed at it. Then leapt away, onto the floating table.

Daniel laughed, deep and forever in his chest. The cat cringed behind a vase of lilies.

A final flash of terror cascaded over Thomsin’s crumpled face. Daniel thought there was something omniscient, something whole, in the boy’s eyes.

He became still under Daniel’s hands.

“Snap out of it, man.”

Daniel blinked. Blinked again. Shook his head. Thomsin stood against the hoverchair. His arms folded over his open chest. “You mind helping me out here? I’m kinda in trouble.” Thomsin coughed.

Daniel’s throat tightened. “I … uh.” He remembered the taste of blood in his mouth. The feel of Thomsin’s throat under his hands. He looked for the piece of tongue on the floor, but it wasn’t there.

“There ain’t time for standing around. Help me.” Thomsin tapped an exposed rib. “Please.”

Had he dreamed all that? The strangling? The tongue? What the hells was the new amygdala doing to him?

Daniel’s awareness snapped back into the room.

Geppetto. He’d used Rejek on patients with sepsis.

“You got Rejek?” asked Daniel.

Thomsin laughed. “Do I look like I carry Rejek? You’ll have to go out and buy some. I’m in no shape.” Thomsin hacked up a mouthful of blood.

Daniel peered out the translucent door he’d entered earlier. Grassland stretched out forever. Where the hells was he going to buy Rejek in a grassland? “Where?” he asked.

Thomsin handed him his sunglasses. “Put these on. They’re configured for default phase. Twenty-three hundred.”

Daniel slid them on. His mouth fell agape.

The room in which he stood, the room so delicately composed of creams and hues of white, exploded into a billion configurations of depravity.

Breasts. They wallpapered the room. Hung from ceilings. Breasts. Pert and enormous. Golden and black. Brown and porcelain. Clitorises the size of fists replaced the light switches. The chairs had become beckoning, pubeless laps.

Daniel swung his gaze from the room. Peered out the window. Framed by a curtain of buttery smooth legs, the Bubble glowed in all its splendor.

Towers of variegated glass perforated the sky, kissing the top of the Bubble. They threw a dizzying array of multicolored prisms against one another. Against the now rain-bowed surface of the meniscus in the sky.

Thomsin coughed, and a spray of blood splattered a porcelain breast on the wall. Daniel couldn’t be sure, but he thought its nipple hardened.

“Where do I find Rejek?”

Daniel jumped. Thomsin hadn’t answered. Instead, something vibrated along the tops of his ears, along the scar from his amygdala extraction. And as the vibration tickled his skull, a voice, clear as quartz, more benevolent than Hooplah’s, more woman than even Florenza, spoke in the center of his brain. “Nearest retailer is Phil’s Pharma. Request a taxi?”

Two glowing boxes appeared in his vision. “YES,” bold and blue, and “NO,” in crimson.

“I … I don’t …”

“Respond vocally, or blink left for ‘yes’. Right for ‘no’,” chimed the woman in his head.

“Yes,” said Daniel.

Thomsin slumped into a chair. His head lolled to one side before he righted it. “Take this.” He held out one of his credit cards with a tremulous hand. “Please. Hurry.”

“Your taxi is here,” said the woman’s voice. A floating box appeared through the exit of the apartment. Its door slid aside.

Odin meowed from behind a thigh-shaped vase on the table, as Daniel stepped into the cab.

***

“Welcome to Phil’s Pharma. Shopper one-four-nine-nine, please take a seat.”

The lip of a floating chair pressed into the backs of Daniel’s knees.

1499. One away from a multiple of seven. Daniel was skeptical, but remembered Thomsin’s imploring eyes. He sat.

“Thank you, sir. One moment while we locate you.”

The seat soared into the air. Daniel gripped the edges with white-knuckled surprise. Around him, below and above him, in the great hall that was Phil’s Pharma, people floated on suspended chairs, as a variety of items spun around them.

A roll of toilet paper sprung up before Daniel’s face. So sudden and so close, he almost fell off, but a gentle forcefield corrected his posture to center.

“Smell it,” cooed an androgynous voice. “Touch it. Phil’s Paper is the smoothest toilet paper this side of the Bubble. Infused with three types of aloe. Add to cart?”

Daniel shook his head.

The toilet roll disappeared, and was replaced by a silver tray of white powder. “Special today on cocaine. Freshest cut. No added preservatives. Comes with complimentary –”

“No. I’m looking for Rejek.”

“I can help you with that query, sir. We offer Rejek in grades A through D.” A line of green vials danced around him.

Daniel didn’t know there were varying qualities of Rejek. At the Organ Farm he depressed a pedal and the stuff slushed out.

He grabbed one of the vials. Examined its contents in the fluorescent light.

“I’ll take this one.”

“Grade B. We offer volumes from three to thirty ounces. What is your requirement, sir?”

An array of boxes in size order hovered before Daniel.

He thought for a moment. He’d need to flush out Thomsin’s chest cavity, and get the boy to imbibe at least a glass.

He pointed to the largest box. “Give me two of those.”

“Very good sir. Will that be all? May I interest you in our special on –”

“Oh, I’ll need a suction pipe and pump.”

“Would you prefer –”

“Just give me a pipe and pump.”

“Very good, sir. We have a special on needles. Track-mark free. Would you –”

“No.”

“Very good.” A paypoint hovered before Daniel’s nose.

He swiped Thomsin’s credit card.

“Thank you for shopping at Phil’s Pharma, Thomsin.”

A brown bag holding his purchases settled into his lap.

“Thirteen-seventy-two Bentley Place,” he told the cab that collected him outside the pharmacy.

“Certainly, sir.”

Daniel braced himself. The cab rose into the air.

“Annual Pump and Dump Party at Vic’s,” shouted an excited voice in the center of his skull. A menagerie of nude women paraded across the inside of his glasses. One of them knelt down. Spread her legs.

Daniel tried to look away, but everywhere he turned, there she was. He shut his eyes. He’d shut his eyes the whole cab ride to the pharmacy, as advert after advert glazed his retinas with images of naked women.

“It’s Christmas at the Muffin Tosser,” said a deep voice. “And Santa’s been a very naughty boy. Penis extension and three elves included in the evening package.” Daniel peeked. Regretted it immediately.

He shut his eyes. Blocked his ears. But that didn’t help. The voice was inside his skull. “Downers getting you down? Try our latest line of heroin. Because cocaine is so last year.”

He was about to give up. To remove the glasses, when the door of the cab slid open. Thank Gods. “You have reached your destination. Thank you for using Helios Taxis. Enjoy your evening.”

Daniel hopped out of the cab, bag in hand.

The apartment was silent. The jazz had stopped.

“Thomsin?”

The paper bag scrunched in Daniel’s tightening grip.

Odin brushed past his leg.

“Thomsin? I have the Rejek.”

And that’s when he saw it. He’d never seen one before. A body. It lay under the table, cheeks whiter than the lightest breasts on the walls.

Daniel placed two fingers against Thomsin’s neck. The skin was slick and cool. No heartbeat. He turned his head to listen to the artificial heart in the boy’s chest.

Silent.

“CALL EMERGENCY SERVICES?” flashed bold, uppercase lettering across Daniel’s vision.

He was about to answer in the affirmative, when something glinted in the corner of his vision.

He removed the glasses, and the world clarified. Breasts and vaginas disappeared, leaving a plain white room. And a chest. An open chest. It was the ribs that had caught his eye. Their white tips in the bloody wound around Thomsin’s heart.

Odin brushed past Daniel’s arm. And that’s when he noticed the blood on the cat’s lips. Noticed the blood smeared across his pant leg where the cat had touched him earlier. The blood, wet and thin, on his wrist now.

He glanced back at the ribs, their white tips yawning in Thomsin’s bloody chasm.

Daniel’s hand quivered as he reached into the wound to stroke them. The tips of the bones were cool to the touch. He thrust his hands further inside the boy’s chest. Nestled his fingers between the artificial heart and Thomsin’s lungs. The organs were tightly packed. But supple. Wet and warm and forgiving.

He wasn’t sure how much time passed while he sat over the body, his hands buried in the Bubbler’s chest, his eyes fixed to Thomsin’s. If he concentrated hard enough, he could see his own image reflected in Thomsin’s milky lenses.

Maybe it was the moisture on the boy’s corneas, but Daniel’s face seemed oily in the reflected image. Glossy. His own eyes were wild, large as artificial kidneys, under a mop of ragged hair.

Daniel withdrew his hands from the Bubbler’s chest. His knee servo cracked when he stood. Flecks of dried blood crumbled from his crimson hands.

He looked down at the body on the floor. Thomsin’s face was ashen, fixed in a perpetual question mark. What disturbed Daniel most was the … the thingness of it. Its immobility. Nothing moved. Nothing changed. Nothing would ever change in Thomsin’s expression.

A wave of nausea, sudden and pungent, heaved through him. Daniel looked around for something to cover the boy. A towel or a blanket. He stood in the living room. Two couches, a table and four chairs. Seven items of furniture altogether.

A pale muslin throw had been tossed across one of the couches. Daniel retrieved it, tossed it into the air, and let it come to rest on Thomsin’s body by gentle degrees. A cloud over a mountaintop.

Daniel glanced down at his hands again. Blood, dark as December, under his nails. Blood in the creases of his knuckles. Blood in the folds of his palms.

He looked for a bathroom, and found one. Sort of. It was tiled the way a bathroom was usually tiled. It was small, the way a bathroom was usually small. But it lacked the essential features of a bathroom. A shower. A basin. A toilet. Blank, yawning porcelain walls greeted him on every side.

He was about to leave the room, when something snagged onto the periphery of his vision. A shimmer in the tiles. He looked more closely. No, not in the tiles. Between him and the tiles.

He walked further into the room, and noticed that the shimmer had a shape. By turning his head this way and that, by looking at the space from varying angles, he detected that the shimmering area was roughly square. A barely visible disturbance in the air.

He reached out with a bloody finger. Touched something cold and wet. He plunged his hand deeper into the space, and milky water appeared around his fingers, floating in an invisible oval container. He bunched his hands into fists. Relaxed. Rubbed them together. The blood came away in translucent vermillion bands.

Daniel withdrew his hands from the floating basin with a gentle thlopp. He was about to search for a towel, when he realized that his hands were already dry. And soft. As soft as Thomsin’s neck –

But Daniel hadn’t strangled Thomsin. That had been … a daydream.

Or had it?

Daniel hurried back to the living room. Peered at the muslin shroud on the floor. The ridges of a face stretched through the cloth. A dark stain permeated the fabric where the chest would be. Underneath.

He lifted the edge of the throw. He needed to see the neck. To make sure that it hadn’t happened. That he hadn’t strangled Thomsin. That the boy’s death wasn’t his fault.

Thomsin’s eyes were still open under the shroud, staring at the ceiling. But there was the neck. Pale. Unblemished. No bruising. No inflammation or scratches.

Daniel replaced the muslin over the boy’s face, and heaved a massive sigh.

It hadn’t happened. It wasn’t Daniel’s fault. Thomsin must’ve died from blood loss. Or an infection in his open chest.

Okay, Daniel. Alright.

He stood. Stroked Odin, who was preening himself on a legless chair. “So what now, old man?”

Odin glanced up. Licked his bloody lips. Regarded the glasses lying on the floor. Thomsin’s glasses.

Daniel picked them up. Slid their polycarbonate arms over his ears.

“CALL EMERGENCY SERVICES?” flashed across his vision. A persistent beep echoed through his skull.

“No,” said Daniel.

The beeping message box disappeared.

He hadn’t realized that the glasses could make calls. He’d only known of cellphones making calls, and he’d left his at Geppetto’s shop during the raid.

An image of the old man sprung in his mind. Geppetto slumped on the floor under the foot of an obsidian-clad Officer. Florenza on the operating table, her legs spread, uniforms crowding around her. Taking turns.

The nausea washed over him again. Dizzied him.

He reached out to steady himself against the wall, but his hand found flesh instead. He looked up, to see that the breasts had returned.

The glasses.

He removed them, and the breasts disappeared. He reached out, but his hand didn’t encounter flesh. All he felt under his fingertips was the cold, polished surface of the wall.

Daniel put on the glasses again, and the breasts returned. He reached out, and stroked the flesh of one of the rounder breasts. Goosebumps erupted around the nipple as it hardened.

Daniel jerked his hand away. Ripped his gaze from the obscenity. He wasn’t feeling that throb in his groin. He wasn’t.

How was this possible? He could imagine the glasses changing his vision. Changing the way he saw the world. But touch? Could the glasses alter his other senses too? Maybe the glasses altered his thoughts?

He shook his head, repulsed and confused.

A memory, a voice, clear and distinct, perforated his mind.

“Your parts are missin’,” the Holey Man had said. “You ain’t pure.”

He remembered now why he was here. He remembered his mother’s deathbed. The bloody mattress. He remembered why he’d come to the Bubble in the first place.

The confusion. The anger in him. The daydreams. The violent thoughts. It was all because They had taken his amygdala. His parts. And he needed them back.

But how to find his organs? The Bubble was enormous. Endless towers of glass, presumably filled with people. How would he find his knee, his cornea, his lungs, and liver? His tongue? His amygdala? Who had them? Each was likely in a different recipient. Each in a different body. How to find seven people in millions …

A light pierced the confusion.

Hooplah.

Hooplah would know.

“Call Organ Sales,” said Daniel.

The glasses complied.

***

“Daniel, is that you? Switchboard said someone by your name was looking for me. Tell me it’s you, Daniel.”

“It’s good to hear your voice, Hooplah.”

“Daniel!”

With the quality of the noise-conduction sunglasses, Hooplah sounded as if she were standing right beside him. Every photon of her sunny demeanor shone through the phone line.

“I need your help,” he said.

“I missed you. You just … you just disappeared. Life working for Sales isn’t as glamorous as the Organ Farm. No Intestine Special on Fridays.”

Daniel suppressed a smile. Buried the urge to tell her about Thomsin’s breath. “I found her,” he said instead. “My mother. She wasn’t … I never … she passed before … You there Hooplah?”

“Mine too. She died three years ago.” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

Hooplah paused. “You’re all I have … I miss you,” she said on an inhalation.

Silence squeezed its gentle tentacles through the wireless phone line.

“You have access to the sales database?” asked Daniel. “The list of organ recipients?”

Daniel could almost hear the layers of armor click into place around her voice. “Why’d you ask?”

“I want to find my recipients. I’ve got nothing left of them – my parents. Nothing but the organs they gave me. I want to find my parts. Speak to the people using them. See if they might give them back to –”

“We don’t release that information. Privacy laws.”

“Hooplah, please.”

“I could lose my job.”

“They’ll never know it was you.”

Hooplah sighed. “I miss Thursday night cricket reruns, ya’know.”

Daniel thought about the grass he’d seen when he’d first stepped through the Bubble. He wanted to tell her. About the invisible cab. The glasses. The –

He glanced at the shrouded body on the other side of the living room. He couldn’t tell her. Couldn’t tell her anything.

“Please,” said Daniel. “I need to find my parts.”

“You got a pen handy?” she asked.

Daniel hurried to the bedroom. Rummaged through the bedside tables. A pen and a Bible.

He ripped out one of the pages. “Go ahead.”

“I have to go,” he said when she was done reading the names. She’d listed the recipients of all his organs, except for his amygdala. Not in the database yet, she said.

“Can’t we talk a while longer?” asked Hooplah. “It’s been forever.”

“I can’t now.”

Hooplah’s voice cracked. “I miss you.”

“Tap the arm of the glasses to end this call,” prompted the voice in his skull.

He hesitated. A part of him wanted to keep talking. But he knew the longer they talked, the more Hooplah would find out. And he couldn’t have that.

“I miss you too,” he said, and ended the call.

He exhaled. Read the first name on the list Hooplah had narrated to him.

Cornea – Margaret Evans:

3406 Hadbury Heights

He searched the bedroom walls for a clock, but there wasn’t one. “Time,” he muttered to himself.

A series of glowing numbers appeared over his vision. “21:36,” they shouted.

Nifty, thought Daniel.

It was late though, to go looking for organs. And how would he do it, anyway? Ask politely? Please, Margaret Evans, could you return my cornea? He couldn’t imagine that ending well. Obviously Margaret, whoever she was, needed the cornea.

Maybe he could buy it back from her with the money in Thomsin’s credit card? Did the card have enough credits? And was he prepared to take it from her if she refused?

Daniel sunk into a pool of fatigue. He hadn’t thought about this when he’d left the Gutter. He’d been angry. He’d been so certain his quest was noble. They were his organs after all. Why shouldn’t he get them back?

Odin jumped onto the bed beside him. Nuzzled Daniel’s elbow.

He noticed how soft the bedding was. Stroked the linen with fingers still tingling from the strange basin in the bathroom. The fabric was softer than Florenza’s eyes.

Daniel nudged off his shoes. Placed the glasses on the nightstand. With Odin on his chest, he settled under the duvet. The pillow. Gods almighty, it was perfect. Firm under his neck. Cool to the touch. It cradled his head. Like his mother’s embrace that day so long ago under the Birch.

The texture of the bloody mattress in New Settler’s Way pricked his heart. He let it go. Let go of everything.

The light dimmed around him.

Odin’s face appeared above his. The cat’s eyes stared down at him. Through him. Their pupils were slits at first, but they grew. Expanded. Until their obsidian depths swallowed the universe.

[]Project Alpha

Morning slapped Daniel across the face.

“Margaret Evans,” his lips mouthed soundlessly. “Margaret Evans, Margaret Evans.”

Daniel shielded his eyes from the sunshine tearing into the bedroom. His stomach groaned.

His swung his feet out of bed. The carpet was even softer than the duvet. He traipsed into the living room. He glanced around, looking for the kitchen.

There was no kitchen.

How could that be? With its plush carpet and porcelain tiles, with its crisp, pale lines, the apartment seemed the height of luxury. What did Thomsin do when he was hungry? Surely he didn’t only eat out?

Now accustomed to the solution for finding invisible things, Daniel returned to the bedroom and put on the glasses. Standing in the living room again, he noticed that one of the walls wasn’t covered in breasts. The wall was flanked by the image of two 1950s-style waitresses. They smiled brighter than Hooplah, their dresses high enough to display their glazed naked buttocks. They pointed to a central spot on the wall. He neared. Squinted. Noticed the familiar intangible outline of a forcefield, much like he’d discovered in the bathroom the night before.

He reached into the space, but his fingers didn’t encounter any resistance. Nothing wet. Nothing cold.

“Select an item,” spoke the voice in his skull. His glasses pinged, and a smorgasbord of delights cycled across his vision, each with a pale number floating beside it. Item 3 looked like a salad. He just had time to ogle its pink salmon slices languish across sprays of butter lettuce, before the salad cycled out of view. Number 7 caught his eye. A steak. Ridged with tenderness. Glistening brighter than a scrubbed liver. The meat lay in a bed of mashed potatoes. Browner than Mopane steak, made of something he hadn’t tasted before.

“Select an item,” persisted the voice.

“Seven,” said Daniel.

“Please hold while I print your breakfast.”

The air molecules in the forcefield shimmered more intensely. Then glowed. Daniel thought he smelt something. A tendril of sweetness, overlaid with woodchips. It smelt like jazz sounded.

The food materialized. The steak, a knife, and a spork on a silver plate, hovered in the air.

Odin sprang onto the table.

Saliva flooded Daniel’s mouth. He took hold of the plate, and its weight settled into his hand. He shuffled to the table. The knife and spork trembled between his fingers as he sliced into the meat.

He chewed.

Dear Gods.

It wasn’t until he and Odin were halfway through the second steak that the nausea hit. Daniel didn’t recognize the feeling. All the meat he’d ever eaten was Mopane worm in various configurations. Fried or seared, baked or blended. Lean, wholesome insect.

Daniel’s stomach was not impressed with the steak.

Something slithery, something rusted, wound its way up his gut. Tugged on the back of his tongue.

And in that opportune moment, Daniel remembered Thomsin. He peered over the lip of the table at the muslin-shrouded shape on the floor. A fly had settled on the ridge of its nose. The insect trekked to the top of the blanket, and ducked inside.

Another fly landed, and then another.

Daniel was well aware of what happened to organs without Rejek. Those buckets of organs handed to him each morning. If he didn’t scrub them in time, if he left one over for the next shift, the flies got to it.

And now, the flies were getting to Thomsin.

Daniel’s stomach tensed. Spasms undulated through the length of him. A tentacle, green and alive, reached down his gut and yanked up his insides. Until the hot brown sludge that had been his meal was exorcised from his body.

Daniel caught his breath. Picked himself up, and searched for a mop or a towel. He looked for a closet on the wall – somewhere Thomsin might keep cleaning supplies. But the walls had no seams. No handles or divisions. Nothing to hint at a cupboard that might store a mop.

He tapped the glasses. “Call housekeeping?” asked the voice in his skull.

He glanced at the body on the floor.

“No,” he said quickly.

He stumbled to the bathroom. There must be toilet paper somewhere. But not only was there no toilet paper, there was no toilet either. And he needed both. “Toilet,” he said as he examined the bare walls.

On cue, a toilet shimmered into existence, complete with a roll of toilet paper against the wall.

“Thank Gods,” said Daniel.

***

Thankfully, Thomsin’s clothes fit Daniel well enough. Better than well. The smart fabric hugged his chest, but not too tightly. The pants seemed short at first but then … yes … they’d lengthened to fit him.

His stomach had settled, and after a battle, fought and won, to find the relevant menu on his overlay, he managed to use the shower. Daniel felt much better.

“Taxi,” he said. By the time he reached the door, his glasses pinged.

He glanced at the torn bible page. “3406 Hadbury Heights,” he said, and stepped into the cab.

“Certainly, sir.”

“When was the last time you tasted it?” asked a husky woman’s voice in his head. He shut his eyes to avoid the image. “The warmth. The salty, fleshy taste of raw, untouched pu–”

He couldn’t take it anymore. Couldn’t listen to one more filthy advert. Daniel seized the glasses. Was about to yank them off –– when the ad stopped.

“Block future adverts from this retailer?” asked the voice.

“Yes,” he said. “Block.”

Ten minutes later, and the slurry of revolting adverts had been stemmed. The glasses seemed to be learning. After numerous blocks, it now displayed ads for vacation destinations. Sundrenched beaches serenaded his vision. Lulled him into a delicious consumerist coma.

“Peace,” whispered a voice behind his ears. “Silence.”

He found himself floating above a deep-blue beach of copper crystals. Cobalt-saturated waves lapped his retinas.

“The perfect getaway.”

Daniel glided up into a swarm of golden butterflies. Swirled through silver clouds. He could almost feel their wings brush against his cheeks. Almost smelled the drift of autumn in his chest.

“Choose from thousands of M-class planets, many uncolonized. Find your perfect destination. Message Planetary Tours today.”

Daniel was about to switch off the adverts, to drift off to sleep, when he felt the familiar lurch of the taxi begin its descent.

“Hover thirty yards away from destination,” he said.

A tower of glass grew outside the cab window. It was similar to the surrounding buildings, except not quite as sleek. Not as clean. The reflections in its mirrored surfaces weren’t as clear, as faithful as the reflections that played across its cousins.

As the taxi neared, Daniel thought he saw traces of dirt on the glass. Hints of rust. He examined the building more closely. His glasses brought up an overlaying grid of numbers.

There were about ten units per floor, with the numbers ascending as the stories crept ever higher into the air. There were thousands of them. Almost all their windows were opaque to outside view, but he spotted a handful of units whose fronts were translucent. And one of those units was his destination.

3406.

He didn’t notice any movement at first through the transparent facade of the tiny apartment. 3406 had two visible rooms – a bedroom and living room. Square, utilitarian furniture. A mottled carpet.

And that’s when he first saw it.

Since he’d donated his left cornea, he couldn’t see well through that eye, and from this distance he couldn’t be sure what he was looking at. It had the form of a human, but it didn’t move quite the same. Its movements jarred. They seemed … overly calculated. Square.

“Move closer,” said Daniel to the cab. “That’s enough.”

It was chrome in color. Shadows and points of light collected on its metallic skin as it walked around the edge of the bed.

“Take me to the door,” said Daniel.

“Certainly sir,” chimed the cab, and closed the remaining distance.

Daniel slid aside the door of the taxi, but wasn’t too sure what to do next. He couldn’t step out of the cab. The doorway to apartment 3406 was transparent, but he could see it was closed. The apartment’s glass façade shivered under his knuckles as he knocked.

Behind that door, somewhere, was Margaret Evans. Perhaps the thing that marched in clunky strides to the door would know where Margaret was. Is this what ‘housekeeping’ looked like?

The glass slid aside.

“I’m looking for Margaret Evans.”

The machine regarded him with curious, blinking eyes. Cold. Blue. Like a dead ocean. But the way the light diffused over their corneas wasn’t right for a cybernetic part. Too supple. Too moist.

The android’s eyes were human.

“You have found Margaret,” said the machine.

“I’m looking … I’d like … ummm – my name is Daniel.”

He thrust out an awkward hand.

The machine’s head turned at a thirty degree angle. Blinked. Its fingers were cold in his as the two shook hands.

“Daniel will come inside,” it said. As Margaret’s hand dropped to its side, he noticed that three of the fingers were human. Two were not. And the android’s carapace wasn’t entirely chromatic. In places here and there, human skin of varying shades stretched across its carapace. A patch of pink flesh over its clavicles. Chocolate skin on its left forearm.

Daniel shuddered.

He glanced at the transparent number floating over the doorway. 3406. Not a multiple of seven. Not even close. Three plus four plus six. Thirteen. A bad number. “No good,” Geppetto would say.

Daniel’s left eye crawled as he met Margaret’s gaze. And he knew, just knew, that he was staring at his own cornea.

He swallowed, and stepped into the apartment.

***

“What does Daniel desire?”

Margaret sat perfectly upright across the dining table. She pointed at two polished tins.

“No tea or coffee, thank you …” Daniel almost finished the sentence with ‘ma’am’, but thought better of it.

The android interlaced its collection of mismatched fingers in an unnervingly human gesture. “Why does Daniel visit Margaret?”

He struggled to think of the robot as feminine, with its utilitarian mannerisms. But when it blinked, when its fleshy forearm brushed the table. When it tapped its fingers on the melamine, Daniel couldn’t help but feel that he was sitting opposite an intelligence.

“I’m looking for my parts,” he said.

Margaret seemed to consider that for a moment. Its eyes widened. Its fingers curled into one another. “Which parts does Daniel seek?”

Daniel rubbed his eye. “Seven parts. Right now, I seek my cornea.”

“Margaret does not compute.” It blinked. Slow but slick, like a lizard on a sunbaked rock.

His cornea was so close. Just the other side of the table. How would he get it out of the machine’s eye? He wondered what it would feel like to rub it between his forefinger and thumb. Would it be smooth? Oily?

“You have my left cornea,” he said.

When he was done removing the delicate membrane, he’d claw out the eyeball. Squelch it between his knuckles.

The machine touched a piece of skin on its left cheek.

“This cornea in Margaret … this cornea is Daniel’s?”

“It is.” He wet his lips.

“This is Daniel’s Project Alpha? To retrieve Daniel’s cornea?”

“I don’t understand,” he said.

Daniel glanced around the room. The graying walls. Faded couches. Nobody else was around. Nothing to stop him. He could do it now. Spring across and smash the machine’s head against the table’s edge.

He thumbed the corner of the tabletop. Sharp.

“Margaret’s Project Alpha is to become human,” it said. “Margaret buys what Margaret can. But human parts are expensive.” The machine lifted a hand to its chest, and scratched its clavicle with a human thumb. There was something disturbingly humanoid in the movement. Did machines itch?

“Yes, my … Project Alpha is to find my cornea,” he said. “And my other parts. To bring them back. Inside me.”

“Daniel and Margaret have the same Project Alpha,” it said. “The project to have all their parts in one. Together.”

“This is true,” said Daniel carefully.

“Margaret and Daniel can aid each other.”

His calves, which had been tightening and compressing with everything the android said, relaxed.

“I’d like that,” he found himself saying.

He tried not to stare at the thin, black hairs on the android’s forefinger as it scratched its chin.

“Daniel will tell Margaret more,” it said.

Daniel spoke, and Margaret’s human eyes lit up in a mesmerizing glow.

[]The Missing Piece

Kage Jackson walked as if he had three legs, although he had only two. ‘The Shufflegate Scandal’, the other officers called his loping strut.

“Where’d you get that jacket?” asked the bank teller. “It’s gorgeous. Egyptian cotton?”

Kage sighed. “Bethany’s on 7th Street.”

Kage was not a tall man. Not by any stretch. And like his height, which he augmented with pumped moccasins, Kage wasn’t getting any more butch despite his efforts. The transition just wasn’t taking. Women would stop him in the streets to compliment his dress sense. His shoes. Worst of all, the elegance of his gait. All this, while he was trying hard, so fucking hard, to be a man. The full-blooded, heterosexual, iron-pumping, cock-wagging, Hemingwayesque man.

“The money should be transferred in the next two days,” said the teller. She flashed Kage an unthreatened smile.

So she thought he was gay. Brilliant. He’d had the genital replacement surgery, pec implants, voice deepening, even fucking calf implants. But still, Goddammit, still, they thought he was gay.

“Two days is too long,” snapped Kage. At least, he tried to snap at her, but instead his deep-not-so-deep voice escaped as a husky effeminate harmony. He blushed. Dammit. What more was he supposed to do?

Testosterone. Another three doses. High potency, higher than the regulated dose, sourced from a gray market seller in the Gutter. Once he transferred the money, he’d have it in his mailbox within the day, the seller had assured him.

The teller crossed her arms. “It’s a large payment. The bank has to clear any amount over ten thousand credits. It takes time.”

Kage’s balls itched. It was his third set in as many months. The first set had gangrened. The second hadn’t worked at all. And now this sack itched day and night.

“Isn’t there something you can do to get the money transferred quicker?”

He scratched. Dr. Anderson, who was tiring of Kage’s almost weekly visits, insisted there was nothing wrong with this pair. But what did the doctor know? If this carried on any longer, Kage would have to find a fourth set of testicles. Fast.

“We offer an expedited clearance service …” The teller leaned forward, her nose almost touching the glass partition. “… for a hundred credits.”

Kage intertwined his legs. “That’s daylight robbery.” He squeezed his thighs together. The pain relieved the itch.

“Just gone up to one-twenty.”

“Alright, alright.”

The teller smiled. Held out her personal paypoint.

He could have her job for this, thought Kage as he swiped his credit card. Although, she didn’t know that. Kage wasn’t officially a police officer. So he didn’t plaster his badge on the back of his ID card. He was a consultant to Bubble Police Department – close enough. And he knew people at the station who could ruin – Kage examined the woman’s name badge – who could ruin Fiona Bradford’s day.

Kage was about to say something, when his organ dealer’s ringtone reverberated through his skull.

“Kage, am I glad I caught you.”

“Why’s that, Yaron?”

“I found it.”

“Will that be all, Ka-ssa-ndra?” The teller enunciated, drenched in vinegar, each syllable of his birth name.

“I’m on a call. One moment … Found what?”

“What you’ve been looking for. It’s your ticket, man.”

“Speak sense, Yaron.”

“We don’t normally allow customers to take calls in the bank. Security policy.” The teller pointed to the holo-sign above the glass.

“Look, I paid you the ‘expedition fee’. Are we done?”

She nodded. “Yeah, we’re done.”

“What’s that?” asked Yaron.

“What you got for me?” asked Kage, striding out the bank.

“It’s the be-all and end-all, man. It’s what you’ve been looking for. It’s the brain behind the penis. The bravado behind the machismo. The essence of what it means to be a man. This organ was made for you, Kage. I’ve got other clients who’d kill for this. But I called you first.”

“Yaron, what is it?”

“It’s an amygdala, man. Hundred percent organic. Free-range donor. Perfect temperament. Strong, reserved, confident. Young. It just screams ‘male’. Did you know that men peak sexually in their late teens? The donor is eighteen. This is an A-grade amygdala. Floating in a jar of Rejek on my desk right now. Perfectly scrubbed. Butch as hell. Not a single dead cell detected. It wants you, Kage.”

Kage rubbed his pocket. “How much?” He regretted buying the testosterone now. It might still be possible to stop the transfer if he pleaded with the teller. But the thought of reengaging Fiona Bradford was unappealing at best.

“Could have it in you before you go out tonight. Yeah, I know about that party you’re planning to attend later.”

“How’d you find out about that?”

“You’re not the only detective round here. So whadaya say?”

Problem was that he’d need the testosterone anyway. Even with a male amygdala. And he’d likely never get it at this price again if he pulled out on the seller now. No, Kage needed both. The testosterone and the amygdala.

“How much?”

“I’m not gonna lie to you, man. It’s not cheap. But for this kind of quality, does it really matter?”

Kage thought about that for a moment. For the right amygdala, for the part of the brain that would control his fears and impulses, that would release his inhibitions, perhaps his masculinity, he guessed no price was too great. Maybe this was it. This might be his missing piece.

“How’s this? I’ll come to you. Do the implant right in your bedroom. You’ve never taken advantage of my complimentary tuck-in service? Much more comfortable receiving organs at home. I’ve forgotten your address. Give it to me again, please?”

“I never gave you my address,” said Kage.

“No problem, man. You want to do it at the clinic as usual, we can do that. Meet me there in thirty minutes, and we’ll talk price. I might even throw in a pair of biceps,” said Yaron, and ended the call.

I should know better by now, thought Kage.

He whispered for a cab.

Gangrene. Yaron had sold him gangrenous balls. The calf implants had worked well enough though …

Kage’s glasses highlighted three oncoming cabs going cross-Bubble, in the direction of the clinic. He winked at the third, and its outline shifted from green to red. The other two disappeared.

He’d go. Of course he’d go. What choice did he have?

“Vista Clinic,” said Kage as he sat down.

The cab lifted off before he’d finished speaking.

“Your news at four. Bubble Forces establish three new domes in Europe, and fighting intensifies along the Cuban coast. In your sports, Phaseball season kicks off tomorrow night. I’m your host, Trevor Mandelbree.”

Kage tapped the right arm of his glasses, and the voice in his skull died. He stared out the cab window. Yawned as the cityscape drifted by. A dull, lusterless gray.

“Pumping iron, and getting no joy?” An image of a reedy black teenager flashed across the inside of Kage’s glasses. Not for the first time, Kage wondered whether his glasses intentionally showed him ads with actors of his own ethnicity. “We have just what you need. At The Big League, we offer celebrity treatment at budget prices.” The teen disappeared from Kage’s vision, and the cityscape shifted. Most of the buildings reduced in opacity, but some glowed an ethereal blue. “We have gyms throughout your Bubble. Book an appointment with one of our personal trainers today.” The glistening arms of an Adonis hovered over Kage’s vision. “Special prices available until midnight tonight.”

The cab descended, and after a few seconds, the glowing blue buildings disappeared out of sight. Ghostly text at the bottom corner of his vision informed him that the cab ride had cost 12 credits. The cab had interfaced automatically with his glasses or the card in his pocket, and charged his account.

“Thank you for using Helios Taxis. Enjoy your evening.” The door slid aside, and Kage stepped into the clinic.

“Kage! You’re here early.”

He avoided the dealer’s embrace, and settled for an oily handshake instead. Shit. The handshake was already over before he remembered to squeeze. Real men squeeze.

“Wanna see it?” The way Yaron grinned at him with those perfect carnivorous teeth, the way the dealer’s eyes quietly sized up Kage’s level of despair, made Kage want to take a shower.

The organ dealer placed an arm around Kage’s shoulders. Led him to a room off to one side of the lustrous reception area. “I can’t keep it much longer, man. I’ve got clients beating down my door to get at this one.”

The green jar hovered at eye-level. Spotlights above and below bathed the amygdala in an ethereal glow.

Despite himself, Kage salivated. “Let me see the stats.”

AGE – 18

SEX – Male

RISK:CAUTION RATIO – 9:7

CONFIDENCE INDEX – 4/5

DEAD CELLS – 0%

Kage’s heart leapt. 9:7. The golden ratio for male impulse control. When he’d had his own amygdala profiled, it’d come out at 1:2. Typical female profile.

He eyed the amygdala in its jar. The pink almond rotated in the avocado spotlight.

He glanced back at the stats. It had a high confidence index too. What an organ. Yaron may have been greasy, but he was right. This amygdala was what he’d been waiting for.

“How much?”

Yaron’s polished incisors gleamed. “You know, I once had an uncle with three thumbs. Yeah, I know right … I didn’t believe it either. And you know what my uncle said when they come out with finger-swap tech?”

Kage sighed.

“You know what he said when they offered him a replacement for his missing index finger?”

“Tell me.”

“He said …” Yaron shut his eyes, delighted by the memory. Kage took the opportunity to scratch himself. “He said, ‘I would have paid double.’”

“Uhuh.”

“Kage.” Yaron gripped his shoulder. “I could give it to you for thirty thousand.”

Kage almost choked.

“Did I say thirty? I meant twenty-five. Twenty-five, because of our history together.”

“You sold me gangrene balls.”

“Oh that!” Yaron howled a barrel of laughter. The receptionist in the next room glanced their way. “A rare complication,” he continued. “You know how these things work, Kage.” He clasped Kage’s forearm. “Unforeseeable complications. One in a million mishap. You know I would never …” He leaned in, as if divulging a sacred confidence. “… sell you anything other than the very highest quality goods.”

Kage didn’t blink.

“You detectives sure know how to get a man’s lowest number.” Yaron’s smile evaporated “Alright. Twenty thousand credits.” He dropped his voice. “I can’t go any lower than that, man. This is the kind of amygdala you just don’t find. Hell, if you don’t take it, I’m thinking of giving it to my son for his birthday. He’s a bit …” Yaron batted his eyelids and flapped his wrist.

Kage resisted the urge to punch the slimy man in the jaw. He scanned the stats floating over his vision one last time. 9:7.

He sighed, and handed over his credit card.

Yaron gobbled up the card with his quick hands. A moment later, the fee had been deducted.

“Lee-Anne will schedule you in.” Yaron pointed to the receptionist.

Kage’s feet echoed on the polished concrete floor.

“Thai or Swedish?”

“Excuse me?”

Lee-Anne yawned. “All our amygdala implants come with a complimentary massage. Would you prefer Thai or Swedish?”

“What you mean, ‘come with’?”

“We do the implant during the massage. Customers like it.”

Kage shook his head. “Uh, that’s okay. You can drop the massage. Just need the amygdala.”

“Sorry, sir.” The receptionist filed her nail. “The computer doesn’t allow for that option. Thai or Swedish?”

“The computer?”

Lee-Anne didn’t reply for a moment – something under her cuticle captivated her.

“Yes, sir. The computer.” She looked up at Kage. Her eyes softened. “Where’d you get that jacket? It’s darling!”

Kage gritted his teeth. “Thai. Bethany’s on 7th.”

“Oh, look at that. We’ve got an opening in five minutes in the aquarium.”

“The what?”

“Right this way, sir.” She took him by the arm, thumbing the material of his jacket as she sashayed to a room on the far side of the reception area.

Dappled blue light splashed across his shoes. “Forty percent leather?” she asked.

“Sixty.”

The receptionist’s eyebrows shot up above her hairline. “Gutter leather? Bethany’s you say?”

Kage slid into the dentist chair in the center of the room. “That’s right.”

“My husband would love one of those. Or he should, anyway. You know how men are.” She winked. “No dress sense at all.”

Christ. Was she fishing for a gay man’s inside knowledge of the male species?

Kage didn’t reply. He unfurled his fists.

“There’s a pair of pants and a shirt over there. I’ll leave you to change.”

The receptionist swooshed out of the room. Kage was alone. Or, not exactly alone. Surrounding him on all sides was a continuous fish tank. He’d heard about these. Mutant fish. They had scales and gills, sure, but beyond that, nothing else about them was fishy. Their fins had been swapped out for human fingers. Their heads replaced with those of mice. Tufts of fur sprouted from their pig lips.

A woman, who could easily have been a product of the fish tank, burst through the door. “We do amygdala today?” She shook a massive fist at Kage. “You change first! Quick-quick.” She exited the room in a huff.

Kage slipped out of his pants. Stepped into the replacements. The calf implants looked good enough, but his thighs were tiny. He looked ridiculous with such massive calves. And then there was his bulge under his boxer shorts. He didn’t even want to think about that right now. No joy at all in that department. Not once had the penis cooperated by springing to attention. He’d need to get another one. Talk to Yaron about that.

One of the fish blew him a kiss with its bulbous, hairy lips.

Kage shuddered as he removed the 60% leather jacket. Studiously avoided his stick-like arms in the mirror. Forearm implants were reasonably priced, but a matching set of bicep implants would cost a small fortune. Could he get away with just doing the right arm? Kage had heard stories about amputees. They managed to bend and turn in such a way that they fooled people for years into failing to notice their missing hand. He might manage to pull off just one large bicep.

The trunchbulled woman blew open the door. “Put on shirt. Quick-quick.” She juggled the jarred amygdala from hand to hand. Its emerald liquid frothed and bubbled. “You thin man.”

Kage grunted.

“Lie down. Good. I give you massage. Give you amygdala.”

“At the same time?”

“Lie down before you hurt yourself.”

The woman slotted the jar into a machine at the head of the bed with more arms than the fish had fingers.

“Good. Need head.” She gripped Kage by his ear and under his molars. “Yes, there.”

He heard the arms of the machine click and whirr as they extended. Something cold pierced his right temple. The sensation, all sensation on that side of his head, ceased.

The woman took hold of his feet. “How much you want massage? Soft or hard?”

Kage tried to answer ‘soft’, but his numbed lips only produced an indecipherable fuffft.

“Hard,” she said, and began her assault.

With his head locked in place by the machine, the masseuse heaved. Something in his knee popped.

He moaned.

“Leg stiff,” she said. She yanked on the other foot, harder this time. A drill whined in his ear. Then grinded as it found its mark.

Kage tried to stop her, but it was no use. The anesthetic had worked its magic on his vocal chords. With glorious strength, in a single movement, the woman lifted Kage’s feet off the chair, whipped them over his hips, and then, above his head.

A series of cracks echoed down his spine.

“So tight, you thin man.”

The machine whirred again, and something metallic clanggged on the floor. He confirmed it out of the corner of his eye. The jar’s lid.

She twisted his legs so that his right knee brushed his nose. “Feel good?”

Something sloshy, by the sound of it, pressed into his right temple. The woman dropped his legs back into the chair. He bounced.

“Important thin man be big man,” she said, and seized his right bicep. She yanked at it until his shoulder popped.

One of the fish glared at him through lashed, mousey eyes. He could swear it winked at him.

The pressure against his temple lessened, and the masseuse slapped a bandage over his ear. “All done.”

***

Did he feel any better? More masculine? Any different at all?

Kage wasn’t sure.

The advertising overlay on his glasses didn’t seem to think the amygdala had made any difference. It displayed the same lusterless gray landscape below the taxi, punctuated by the same adverts and news categories. Fitness, sports, dating, and war.

He blocked the ads, at a credit a minute. Switched to his peace – a recording of Neruda’s poetry read by a voice synthesized from the great poet’s vocal records. Kage allowed Neruda’s cadence to etch into his bones. Neruda whispered of hearts and hair. Fingernails and laughter.

Before he knew it, he’d arrived at the gym.

“Shhh. There she is now … Welcome back, Kage.”

He didn’t like the way the women behind the gym counter stared at him. Like he was an insect in a killing jar. Kage didn’t much like women at all.

“Thanks, Miranda.”

“Your head okay? Quite a bandage.” The faux concern in Miranda’s eyes made Kage nauseous.

“Fine,” he said, and loped toward the change rooms.

Locker 3430.

He switched lockers every other day. The gym staff had erected signs saying they cleared all lockers at midnight, but he knew that wasn’t true – there were too many lockers, and not enough (motivated) staff. But they did systematically work through the locker room as the week wore on, roughly a thousand lockers a day, ensuring they were empty come day end. If his calculations were right, they’d cleared lockers 2000 to 3000 last night. He’d have to shift his clothes forward or back a thousand by tomorrow.

“Time,” he whispered, and a ticking LED display glowed faintly across the interior of his glasses.

6:32 p.m.

The party was at eight p.m. “Dating in the dark,” the advert had said. “Meet professionals tailored to your interest profile.” Ten minutes by cab … he had time for a quick workout.

He winced as he pulled his shirt over his bandaged temple. Lee-Anne had warned him on his way out, “No vigorous exercise for the next few days, darling.” But what did she know? Anyway, he’d read brain grafts were all automated these days – secured by smart tethers. No way the implant would come loose.

He caught himself in the mirror as he walked by – the white bandage was striking against his ebony skin. A Daliesque figure, Kage looked as though he’d stepped into a flattened vertical plane. Bulging calves, but overall, he was lost in a thin, perpendicular line.

He inhaled. Puffed out his chest best he could. And made his way to the weights.

It was just after peak gyming hour, and most of the machines and dumbbells were in use.

“Hrrrrr,” grunted one of the Hyenas. Technically, that was bigoted. They didn’t like to be called that. And the adverts insisted that just because they implanted hyena jaw muscle into their biceps, their pecs, their thighs, didn’t mean they were any less human.

“Huhrrrr…”

The Hyena’s arms were wider than Kage’s torso. He eyed the creature with equal parts suspicion and envy. Sure, its eyes glowed with something approaching a feral cat’s. But what would it feel like to be that heavy? That powerful? Hell, he doubted a hovercab could lift the brute.

Kage took hold of one of the weights. It floated in the air just below his shoulder.

The arms of his glasses vibrated above his ears, and a voice in the center of his skull asked, “Please specify the weight of the dumbbell.”

“Twenty-five pounds,” said Kage. His hand fell with the sudden load. Something in his shoulder popped.

“Okay, fifteen pounds,” he whispered.

Biceps, triceps. Pecs and shoulders. Abductors and adductors. Treadmill.

By the end of it, Kage didn’t feel any bigger. Any butcher. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his skin in the mirror of the change-room, glistening under the high-temperature LED lighting.

A Hyena stepped into the shower cubicle behind his. Kage glanced down at his own thighs. His own absent chest. Then back at the Hyena’s. He wanted to scream. More testosterone. He needed more fucking testosterone.

He tapped the right arm of his glasses. No notifications from the post office on the testosterone delivery. ‘Expedited transfer’ my ass. The teller had ripped him off.

Kage stepped out of the shower. Maybe the amygdala was working after all. Maybe there was a sturdiness in his stride. Something heavy and certain in the way his feet slapped the tiles. He strutted to his –

His locker was empty.

Kage yanked open the metal door. Empty. It was fucking empty.

Kage surveyed the change room. Hyenas. More Hyenas. A handful of college kids, not yet boasting implants. But nobody suspicious. Nobody holding five pairs of pants. Nobody holding a pile of dirty underwear. Nobody stalking away with seven dress-shirts.

He glanced back at the bare locker. It wasn’t quite empty after all.

A scrawled note lay on the bottom.

Kage Jackson, please see reception.

Kage’s heart fell into the puddle between his wet toes. Thoroughly deflated, in nothing but a towel and a film of beady moisture, he skulked out of the change rooms.

Eyes.

Eyes on the treadmills. Dozens of them tracked him from the aerobics studio. Every set of eyes in the gauntlet of bodybuilders found him. Raked up and down his sinewy limbs. He slunk past the health shop. They looked up from their holo-papers and printed smoothies.

“Why doesn’t that man have clothes, Mommy?”

Still dripping from the shower, he arrived at the reception desk.

“Kage.” Miranda’s smile was reluctant, but hungry. “This wasn’t my idea.”

She handed him an unsealed envelope.

We regret to inform you that your membership at Super Tone has been terminated. It has come to our attention that you have been using our facilities as your primary place of residence. We at Super Tone regret to …

Kage scrunched up the note. “Where’s my stuff?”

“On the sidewalk outside. Kage,” she called, “you don’t look so good. When was the last time you slept?” Her voice dropped. “I know you’re taking the pills instead. Have you tried rehab? There’re programs that’ll help. You don’t have to carry on like –”

Her voice faded away as Kage stepped through the turnstile into the evening air. He collected his clothes, donned a shirt, and flagged a cab.

Programs. What the fuck did Miranda know? He didn’t have money for fucking rehab.

“Pumping iron, and getting no joy? We have just what you need. At The Big League, we offer celebrity treatment at budget prices.” Kage winked twice, and a sturdy male voice filled his head.

“This is The Big League. How may I help you?”

“I’ll need a membership. Twenty-four hour entry. Effective immediately.”

“Certainly sir. May I have your credit card details?”

Kage tried to remember how much was left as he recited his card number. Since he’d left his apartment and stopped paying rent three months back, he had more cash to play with. Gym memberships were cheaper than rent. But with the calf implants last week, amygdala today, and the monthly testosterone treatments, there wasn’t much remaining. Not enough for an apartment. Not enough for a bed. For sleep. And certainly not enough for rehab. He didn’t need it anyway. With the amygdala and the testosterone, he’d butch up in no time. Then he’d settle down. Find a place to rest his head at night. He could wean off the Anti-Sleeps when he was done transforming.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said The Big League’s salesman.

Kage was too tired to correct him.

One of the buildings beneath the cab lit up in a yellow column of light, with a label floating above The Big League’s entrance. “We’ll see you tonight?”

Kage checked his jacket pocket. Three Anti-Sleeps left. He wasn’t sure if he had enough credits for more tablets. And Bubble Police Department hadn’t called him for work in almost a month. Not enough murders, and they only called him for homicides. Crime in the Bubble was down. Which was bad news for Kage.

He needed work. A serial would do it. There’d been none so far this year. But there would be. There’d been at least one serial killer a year in the Bubble since he’d started consulting. And then there were plenty credits available. Then the money flowed thick and sure. He could buy those hyena muscle implants. Hell, if there was a serial, he’d get an apartment.

“Yes. I’ll –” But Kage never finished. “Incoming call,” pinged his glasses. “Bubble PD.”

Kage almost fell off his seat. Maybe there was a god after all. He steadied his heartbeat.

“Captain Weeks, good to hear from you.”

“Kage. Death at the Promenade. You in?”

Kage’s eyes narrowed. The Promenade was on the border. Seedy. Barely out of the Gutter. Murders were unremarkable in the Promenade’s alleys. Bubble PD hardly investigated them, and almost never involved a consultant. Unusual. A high-profile victim maybe?

And high profile meant high budget.

“I’ll be right there.”

Things are looking up, thought Kage, as he scrambled into his suit pants.

[]Amputating Amy

“Daniel will open the tracking application by stating the password, ‘Rick Forrester’.”

He eyed the android. Who the hells was Rick Forrester? A memory hidden in the folds of Daniel’s brain twinged. An advert on a Law and Order rerun. Forrester … Forrester. Yes, that was it. One of the characters in The Bold and the Beautiful. He hadn’t pegged Margaret for the soap opera type.

The android had been fiddling with his glasses for some time now. The combination of excitement in Margaret’s human eyes and its deadpan mechanical jaw, made Daniel queasy.

“The tracking application is illegal. Daniel will not tell other humans about the application.”

“Alright,” he said.

Margaret held out the glasses. “Daniel brings Margaret four more fingers.” It tapped its remaining mechanical fingers on the tabletop. “In trade, Margaret gives the cornea to Daniel.”

He took the glasses from the machine’s steady grasp. “We have a deal,” he said.

“Rick Forrester,” he whispered, feeling idiotic.

His vision clouded over with a bird’s eye map of the Bubble. Countless faint red dots coated its surface. They reminded Daniel of the Great Infection that had rocked the Organ Farm when he was fourteen. Rejek hadn’t helped, and almost all the organs had been lost before Administration had found a cure.

Daniel glanced at the next name scrawled on the folded bible page in his pocket.

“Lincoln Russell,” he whispered.

Three of the red dots pulsed a golden yellow. “Please disambiguate,” prompted his glasses.

Daniel read Lincoln’s home address aloud.

Two of the dots turned back to red, leaving one golden point in the upper-left quadrant of the map.

Margaret had been fairly receptive to a deal. He needed the android’s cornea. Margaret needed fingers. But he had a feeling Lincoln Russell wasn’t going to be as receptive about returning Daniel’s knee. And the fingers. Removing his fingers might be a problem.

“Thank you,” he said, standing.

“It is good to meet Daniel,” said Margaret. And as the android showed him to the door, Daniel could swear its eyes smiled.

***

Half an hour later, Daniel sat behind the squash-courts on the rooftop of the Winston Hotel. The ball was hammered back and forth. Back and forth. His eye drifted to the soothing rhythm, organizing his thoughts. He took stock, and a plan emerged.

He had a place to stay – Thomsin’s. He had a way to find his organs – the combination of Hooplah’s list and Margaret’s tracking software. The cornea was almost secure. Margaret would give it to him soon enough. And soon he’d have his knee. He didn’t yet have a means to implant the organs inside himself. He’d thought about seeking out Geppetto and Florenza to help him with the implants, but that way he’d have to cross in and out of the Gutter-Bubble border. Hells, he didn’t even know whether Geppetto and Florenza were alive. Too risky.

He’d find a way once he had the organs in hand.

“Organite stock is a sure buy,” said the man in the salmon shirt, as he struck the ball. “A little birdie tells me it’ll be up on Friday.”

Daniel had watched enough Law and Order to know what made a good criminal. Or at least, what made a bad criminal. Fingerprints. DNA. A recognizable modus operandi. A pattern. Lack of research. That’s why they were caught.

Daniel would be different. He’d be one of the rare few who got away. Although, he wasn’t too sure yet just how he’d do it. Somehow he’d have to get rid of Thomsin’s body back at the apartment. That could wait, though. Nobody else lived with Thomsin, or else they would’ve arrived at the apartment last night. No, the body could wait. He’d find a solution to that problem later.

Right now, he needed intel on the man in the salmon shirt. The man smashing the winning backhand. Lincoln Russell.

“Your point. How sure are you?” asked Lincoln’s opponent – a man clearly unaccustomed to a squash court. Sweat rained off his lumpy frame.

Daniel had been playing around with the interface on his glasses. He’d noticed that if he stared long enough at a person, their details popped up. Name, Facebook profile, Tweets, Instagram feed.

Lincoln Russell. Stockbroker. Statuesque wife. Hundreds of followers. Sunglasses and smiles in every picture.

“Trust me,” said the stockbroker, twisting on his left knee, on Daniel’s knee, to execute an effortless forehand winner. “Let’s just say this birdie knows what he’s chirping about.” Lincoln Russell flashed a leathery smile.

Through the Bubble’s meniscus, the sunshine on the rooftop of the Winston Hotel was hotter than Daniel could bear. He vaguely remembered his Geography teacher explaining that the refraction of sunlight off the Bubble created a current of air that drove the clouds around and away from the forcefield. The result was perfect sunshine for the Bubble, and perpetual clouds above the Gutter.

Daniel signaled the waitress. “Another one?” she asked. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen. He swiped his credit card (well, Thomsin’s, but Thomsin wouldn’t be needing it), and sipped the iced tea. It tasted better than anything he’d ever drank. No matter that this was the fourth he’d ordered.

“Good … game,” huffed Lincoln’s opponent. By degrees, he caught his breath. “How’s … how’s the wife? Still making that unprinted crème brûlée we had last time?”

“Yup, that’s Henrietta. Loves to cook it old style. Imports the ingredients from …” Lincoln trailed off as he ogled the waitress walking by the court. His eyes narrowed. He licked his bottom lip. “Those new uniforms …”

Lincoln’s drenched opponent shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Uh, quite something. Yes.”

Daniel scrolled through Lincoln’s Instagram feed. Plenty of photos of him posing with Henrietta. Shirtless on an alien beach. Shirtless on an air balloon on Kepler 452-b. Shirtless poolside. He thrust out his bronzed barrel chest in every photo. She had a nose as streamlined as the yachts in the vacation ads. Their eyes never met.

Family portraits. Two children. A boy and girl. Hair blond as their parents. The boy’s smile was as sophisticated as his suit. The girl … Daniel looked closer. The girl’s hands were curled inwards. Fingers tense and extended. The way mom and dad stood around her, it was easy to miss her wheelchair.

“Thanks for the advice, Lincoln.”

Lincoln shook his opponent’s dripping hand with far more gusto than could possibly be real. “Any time.” Lincoln’s ruddy cheeks beamed in the afternoon sun.

They arrived in a steady procession after that. Fat, breathless white men with questions.

“Organite,” he’d say to each of them. “Buy now. Trust me.” “Yes, yes, kids are well thanks.” “Coming to that dinner next week at the Presleys’?” “Send Susan our thanks for the Christmas gift. The kids love indoor scuba.”

Lincoln won every match.

It went on like this all afternoon. Daniel sunburned in the stands and imbibed more ice tea than his cybernetic liver could process. Every time Lincoln dived for the ball with irritating grace, every time he bounced on that knee with far too much energy, every time he smiled that leathery winning smile, or undressed the waitress with his corporate eyes, Daniel’s anger grew.

Lincoln couldn’t be a day under fifty, and he was prancing around on that knee like he was twenty. Or eighteen, Daniel corrected. That knee was eighteen. Daniel’s replacement cybernetic joint ached in the unrelenting heat. Throbbed under the Bubble sun.

By the time sunset had arrived, Daniel’s mind had relocated to that hairy fold behind Lincoln’s knee. Lincoln had been playing all afternoon, and Daniel could almost taste the sweat on Lincoln’s leg. He’d take the sinews between his front teeth, and rip them to one side. Until the skin split. He’d tear it open. Scoop out the fleshy back of the knee with his fingernails. Peel off the remaining skin, until he could see all of it. The patella. The joint. He’d cut. He’d cut until –

“We’re closing,” said the waitress.

Daniel blinked. The court was empty. Lincoln was gone.

“Shit,” he muttered, and hurried into the clubhouse. Lincoln’s bronzed face, its smile faded to an irritated frown, was being swallowed up by a pair of closing doors.

“Hold the elevator,” he shouted but Lincoln wasn’t interested. At the last moment, Daniel shoved a hand through the doors, and they sprung apart.

The stockbroker paid Daniel no attention as the two descended to the lobby of the building. Lincoln didn’t notice the young man’s eyes on his leg. He didn’t notice the way Daniel inhaled his musk. The way the boy’s fists clenched whenever the floor indicator passed a multiple of seven.

***

“Follow that taxi.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Outside the cab window, sunset soaked the Bubble in a delicious shimmering treacle. Daniel slowed his breath. Allowed himself to relax.

“Too much fun in the sun?” shouted an exuberant voice in his skull. “Skin redder than a Gliesian radish? Try SunAway. Say ‘YES’ now for free shipping to your door.”

Daniel groaned. Now that he thought about it, the heat radiated off his face in waves. He could hardly touch it. It hurt to adjust the glasses on his nose.

He considered turning the cab around. Diverting it to Phil’s Pharma, buying something for the sunburn, and catching up with Lincoln tomorrow. But what sort of criminal mastermind gave up because of a little sunstroke? This was serious. He had a knee and four fingers to harvest. And he still didn’t have enough information on Lincoln Russell.

The taxi begun its descent. This was an area of the Bubble he hadn’t seen before. The structures weren’t as tall here. Squat and older than their siblings in the center of the city, the buildings crouched under the downward slope of the Bubble. ‘The Promenade’, his glasses labelled the suburb. Near the edge, on the opposite border of the Bubble he’d entered with Thomsin the previous night. But not far from Margaret. According to the map, Hadbury Heights was just outside the Promenade. Off Canal Street.

Had only one night passed since he’d found his way to the Bubble with Thomsin? Hooplah. His mother. Geppetto. Florenza. They seemed a lifetime away.

Daniel alighted on a busy street, fifty yards behind Lincoln’s taxi. The thoroughfare bustled with pedestrians sporting various hues of smart fabric, many choosing to mimic the shades of the dying sun. Draped in burnt oranges and crimsons, Bubblers wafted through the streets in every direction. Lincoln’s shirt and shorts, still salmon and white from the squash courts, were striking against the tableau of warmth pulsing in the street.

As if he’d heard Daniel’s thoughts, the stockbroker’s smart clothes morphed to a pair of jeans and a florid mandarin t-shirt. Daniel decided to do similarly, whispering to his glasses to alter his clothes to a burgundy buttoned shirt and torn jeans. Not bad, he thought, rubbing the new fabric between his fingers.

Daniel followed the man down the street, and around a corner, maintaining the fifty yard distance. Lincoln turned into another alley. Then another. The stockbroker was fit, he’d give him that. Daniel’s lungs struggled to keep up with him in the summer heat. Sweat broke out on Daniel’s forehead. Seeped into his weeping left eye.

Lincoln and Daniel penetrated ever further into the bowels of the Promenade, and the feeling on the street shifted. It was still unmistakably Bubble – there was none of the stench of the Gutter, no sputtering cars (no ground cars at all), and no squalor. But Daniel could sense the subtle drop in affluence. The way the smart fabric on the pedestrians didn’t render quite right. The dead pixels and glitches in their clothing betrayed the white baseline color beneath. The stockbroker’s manicured hands were out of place beside the inhabitants’ grimy shoes and cheap cologne.

There.

Lincoln disappeared through a neon-lit purple doorway.

Daniel hurried to catch up. There was no signage above the open entrance, but as he neared, his glasses threw a ghostly sign over his vision.

AMPUTATING AMY

Daniel had hardly set a foot through the doorway when a purple beehive took him by the arm.

“Boys or girls, hun?”

She cocked her towering headful of hair to one side when he didn’t answer.

“First time here?”

“Uh, yes ma’am.”

“Boys or girls?”

The walls were black. Darker than the insides of his eyelids. Darker than the uniforms of the men who’d surrounded Florenza. An iridescent obsidian hue that caught his reflection as the Beehive lead him deeper into Amputating Amy.

“Ah, you’re one of those. Not sure what you like, eh?”

Daniel nodded. The Beehive broke out into a grin.

“Not to worry, hun. We’ve got a three-for-two special running at the moment.”

“Uh, three of what ma’am?”

“Look at you! So polite. You know what they say … it’s the quiet ones you gotta watch. No matter. You like them with arms or without?”

The Beehive shoved him in front of what looked like a large metal box, half a yard wide and taller than he was.

“You really haven’t done this before, have you?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Press the red button, hun.”

Daniel gasped.

The metal plate he was looking at swooshed aside, to reveal a tank. And inside the tank floated a child without –

“I … why is he …?”

“Ah, you prefer ‘em with arms.” The Beehive stretched across Daniel. Slapped the red button repeatedly. A blur of bodies cycled past the glass, sloshing the water as they were wrenched aside. “Hmmm… this one has no arms … no legs … no face … no eyes … ah! You’ll like him. Complete. Everything intact. Came in just a few weeks back. He’s a little pricy, but I’ll give you a discount, seeing as it’s your first time. He’s hardly touched. Minor scratches. Nothing serious. Wanna play?”

“Play?”

The Beehive shook her head, mystified. “Where d’ya say you were from?”

“I didn’t.”

“Right.” She looked him over. “I guess you might need a tutorial.”

She snatched his hand. Her arm’s-length fingernails dug into his skin. “We offer all your basic implements. Machetes, knives, hatchets, barbed wire.” She’d delivered him in front of a room-length window. “The basics. Mind you, we charge an extra for the barbs – helluva mess to pick them out after. Know what I mean?” The Beehive beamed. Her incisors blazed luminous yellow in the purple light.

Behind the glass window, a girl lay on a hovering plastic mattress in the center of the room. The child had only one foot, but otherwise, most of her was whole. Her eyes were greener than Hooplah’s. Darker than the purest bottle of Rejek at Phil’s Pharma. Puke green.

A man circled her bed in casual strides, tossing an ax from one hand to the other.

“What’s he –”

In a fluid circular motion, the man raised the ax above his head, and chopped.

“Gods, he –”

“Oh, you’re wondering why she isn’t screaming? Anesthetic or sedative comes standard – chopper’s choice. But you can choose to have them off the drip if you prefer. All our rooms are sound-proofed.”

The girl stared up at the ceiling, seemingly unbothered by the blood that coursed down the plastic mattress. She ignored the hand that lay, twitching, on the ground.

“Self-sealing arteries. You can lop them all off, the hands, feet, everything, and she won’t bleed out.” The Beehive lowered her voice. “But no funny business with the children. This is a respectable establishment. And if you kill one of them, we charge a cleanup fee.”

The man circling the little girl raised the ax again. And that’s when Daniel recognized him. Sure, the face was blurry through the stained glass, but he knew that look. From the squash courts. The hunger in his eyes as the man had watched the waitress walk by. His stealthy stance. His jeans. That awful mandarin shirt – becoming ever redder with each swing of the ax.

Lincoln Russell.

Every ounce of remorse evaporated at the notion of retrieving his knee from this … this cretin. And the fingers. It would be a pleasure to take his fingers too. Remove them one by one. And unlike the girl on the table, Lincoln wouldn’t be anesthetized.

“I see it in your eyes, hun.”

Daniel swung his gaze to the Beehive. Layers of base did nothing to conceal her wrinkled mouth.

“The hunger,” she continued. “All us Bubblers have it. It’s natural. Don’t fight it. The hunger to hurt.”

She watched Daniel a moment. “If privacy is what you need, you can switch the window to opaque. But this customer – he likes others to watch. Even leaves the door unlocked sometimes. See, the green light is on. Fingers and hands are his thing.”

Lincoln swung the ax again. Even with the girl’s self-sealing arteries, a jet of blood sprayed his grinning cheeks. Daniel stared at the amputated elbow. At the shiny tip of bone poking through the now diminishing crimson flow in the girl’s upper arm. He could almost feel the sensation in his own elbow. A tingle. An itch. He licked his lips.

The Beehive led Daniel by the hand back to the tank. “He’s all yours if you want him.”

The boy floated, suspended in the minty liquid. Eyes shut, his face reposed almost peacefully. He might be dreaming. Daniel’s gaze traced the scars that ran down his arms. The fresher, equally-spaced cuts across his chest. The Beehive’s voice echoed in his head. ‘We charge extra for the barbed wire.’

Daniel glanced back as blood spattered in a perfect arc across the glass of Lincoln’s cubicle. And then his eye drifted further, to the procession of viewing cubicles that stretched endlessly ahead along the corridor. The thought of all the blood spilt, the slashes, the amputations that were happening right now on the other side of those glass partitions …

“Oh, hi John.” The Beehive turned to leech after a new customer. She winked at Daniel. “Just press the “Go” button. Give it a try,” she said, and fluttered down the corridor. “I’ve got a bleeder for you,” she shouted after the patron. “Arteries only semi-sealed …” Her voice trailed away as she disappeared into the murky depths of the club.

Daniel’s left eye watered. He glared, unblinking at the green light on the door. The door to Lincoln’s cubicle. Daniel’s fisted fingernails bit into his palms. His knee was behind that door. And Lincoln’s fingers for Margaret. Once the android had its fingers, Daniel would have his cornea too.

He peered through the glass. Lincoln had hacked off the girl’s right arm in methodical stages. Fingers. Wrist. Elbow. Shoulder. The parts lay helter-skelter on the bloody floor.

Now the stockbroker stalked to the other side of the bed. Juggled the ax from hand to hand.

Electricity surged through Daniel. His fingertips throbbed. His jaw clenched. Rage thundered in his heart. In his swollen fists. Every cell in him coursed with it.

And then, as quickly as the rage had sprung, a tingled, mechanical calm settled over him. It unfurled his hands. Made him reach for the door handle.

He stepped into the cubicle.

A surge of iron-laden humidity bathed Daniel’s cheeks.

Under the lazy revolutions of an unsuccessful ceiling fan, Lincoln poured his gaze over the child on the table. “Isn’t she gorgeous?” he asked, not bothering to look who’d entered.

Now that Daniel was standing on the other side of the glass, he could see the child’s face more clearly. Silky tears coursed down her bloodless cheeks, mingling with the blood on the table. Her elfin countenance was pulled into a practiced rigor mortis. How many times had she endured this? Stitches encircled her shoulders. Knees. Ankles. How many times had her limbs been hacked off, scrubbed, and replaced? Only to be hacked off again.

Lincoln wiped a hand on his pants. Blood trickled down the smart fabric of his mandarin shirt. Dripped on the floor. “Joining or watching?” he asked.

Daniel locked the door with a satisfying click. “I’ll join.” His finger found the opacity switch for the glass wall, and set it to private.

The floor shuddered, vibrating up Daniel’s legs. Lincoln had let the ax drop to the concrete. “Fetch me the saw,” he said through a blood-speckled grin. He gestured to the cupboard off to one side of the room. “The ax is too quick.”

Time slowed as Daniel padded to the rusted metal cabinet. The hum of the dulled fluorescent oozed through the webbing of his fingers. The thwop … thwop … thwop of the ceiling fan regulated his heart. His hand. Steady. Steady as he reached into the rusted metal cabinet. He paused at the handle of the saw, and moved on. His fingers found the machete instead. A long, gleaming sheath of stainless steel. Wooden handle. Coarse against his flesh. Heavy.

“It’s the color of her skin that I love,” said Lincoln, still staring at the girl on the table. He leaned over her, his eyes directly above hers. “So pale.”

Daniel moved to the bed. The hairline cracks in the rubber soles of his loafers squeaked on the bloody floor.

He stood behind the middle-aged stockbroker. Daniel’s eyes swam over Lincoln’s neck – hair pasted against the tanned, ochre skin. Down the man’s muscled back. Over Lincoln’s buttocks. Down to the cleft of the man’s left knee.

Daniel raised the machete. He was about to swing it down, when the handle seemed to come alive in his hand. Juddered painfully in his grip.

At the same time, a metallic clang pierced the room. Daniel and Lincoln looked up.

The machete had clipped the swinging blades of the ceiling fan.

Lincoln spun around at the noise. “What in the hell do you think –”

Every ounce of calm, every touch of confidence, evaporated from the room. Adrenaline flooded Daniel’s heart. His hands. His cock. The dim light of the cubicle brightened. Details sprung out at him. The chewed corner of the mattress where the girl lay. The exposed artery dripping from her shoulder. The shock in Lincoln’s leathery cheeks.

Daniel caught his suddenly rapid breath.

He swung the machete, but Lincoln had stepped inside the arc of the blade. Daniel’s elbow connected with the man’s ear, and the recoil forced the hilt from his grasp. It fell to the ground and bounded to the far corner of the room.

Stunned from the impact to his temple, Lincoln stumbled backward. Braced himself with bloody hands against the girl’s leg. Time had become an endless syrupy haze of shock. Daniel watched, fascinated, as the man’s fingers depressed the flesh of her thigh.

Daniel blinked.

The ax. It lay between him and Lincoln. Waiting.

This was it, thought Daniel. He had no choice.

He wanted to live.

The clarity of that thought galvanized him. Its edges were so distinct. Life or death. There was no middle ground in the dim, bloody chamber at Amputating Amy. Only one man was walking out of this room alive. Daniel wanted, Gods how much he wanted, that man to be him.

He dived to the ground. Ignored the crack of his hip on the concrete. Ignored the burn in his elbow as it grated against the unforgiving floor.

While Daniel grappled for the handle with outstretched fingers, Lincoln’s eyes seem to focus. With an elegant acceleration Daniel’s plundered body could never match, the squash player sprung to life, and rushed his younger opponent.

“I’ll kill you,” hissed Lincoln. He snatched a clump of Daniel’s hair just as the boy’s grip closed around the handle of the ax. “Do you know who I am?” the man screamed, and smashed Daniel’s chin into the floor.

Molten iron glazed his skull. Burrowed under his eyes. Seethed through the folds of his brain.

The world split in two, then interlaced, just as Lincoln lifted Daniel’s head to smash it into the concrete a second time.

Daniel snapped his weight to one side. Yanked his hair from the older man’s grip. He twisted, ignoring the way the world lurched and shivered when he broke away from Lincoln’s grasp. He gritted his teeth. Lifted the ax from the floor, and with everything in him, swung it down on Lincoln’s torso.

A wave of something hot and tangy spattered across his face. When he opened his eyes, when the earth stood still under his feet and his eyes discerned just one image, he saw Lincoln stumbling backward. The blade of the ax was buried in the man’s stomach.

Horror crept over Lincoln’s face like an unexpected mist on a warm evening. “I didn’t … do you know … know who I am?”

Daniel tugged the ax from Lincoln’s wound, and a fresh arterial spray caressed Daniel’s cheek.

Daniel stood to his full height. He couldn’t feel the blood from his split chin running down his neck. He couldn’t feel the throbbing in his skull. The twinge in his knee. He couldn’t feel anything at all as he swung the ax again.

And again.

Until Lincoln was silent.

He stood there a moment. Leaned against the steel table to catch his breath. A film of sweat covered the girl’s closed eyelids. She seemed to have fallen asleep.

Daniel returned his attention to the body on the floor. Lifted the ax again. And began his work.

The blade was composed of A-grade steel according to the handle. And the burnished face of the steel hinted at its recent sharpening. But Daniel was amazed at how difficult it was to remove a knee.

He thought one chop of the ax would split the lower leg. Maybe two chops. But as Daniel brought down the ax for a seventh time on Lincoln’s tibia, he speculated whether the man might have a reinforced skeleton – Geppetto had offered nanite injections that did just that. Or maybe all that time on the squash courts had strengthened Lincoln’s bones. Either way, Daniel was exhausted by the time he’d removed just the lower half of the leg.

Daniel explored the cupboard. Ah, a bone saw. Much, much better. The right tools made anything possible. The femur separated from the knee ten minutes later. Axes might look impressive, but they weren’t exactly efficient.

Unlike the girl on the table, who was sleeping soundly, Lincoln didn’t have self-sealing arteries. He’d lost consciousness early on in his dismemberment. Still twitched for a good twenty minutes into the procedure. Humans, it seemed, were resilient creatures. Or, at least, Lincoln Russell was.

Daniel unbuttoned the man’s mandarin smart shirt, and disrobed him. The moment the fabric lost contact with the dead man’s body, it reverted to its default white.

He wrapped the knee in the shirt, and slung it over his shoulder. Useful. Smart fabric was waterproof. Not a spot of blood showed through the material.

He was about to leave, when … the fingers. Godsdammit, he’d forgotten the fingers Margaret had demanded.

He sighed, and lifted the bone saw again. How many had Margaret wanted? Two? Four? And which fingers had the android been missing? He tried to remember the machine’s hands on the Formica tabletop. The way they’d tapped the surface while the android talked.

Fuckit, he thought, and sawed off all ten along their knuckles. Margaret could have all of them if it wanted. Hells, its fingers looked damned ugly as they were – being an assortment from various donors. Might do Margaret’s confidence some good to have them all in one hue.

He wrapped the ten fingers in the shirt, together with the knee.

Did androids experience confidence? He wasn’t too sure what the machine’s motivations were, if a machine could be motivated by anything other than a programmed command. Maybe he’d ask.

Daniel inspected himself in the reflection of the opaque glass window. He wasn’t exactly presentable – what with the streaks of dried blood across his face.

His heart leapt.

Blood!

He’d been entirely focused on dismembering Lincoln. Hadn’t given a thought to the myriad traces of himself he’d left in the room. And the body. What in Gods’ names was he going to do with the body?

The reflection of Daniel in the glass raised its fingers to inspect the gash on its chin. Between jagged edged skin, the finger touched bone. Smooth and sharp. He didn’t allow himself time to enjoy the feeling.

He had work to do.

He returned to the cupboard. Weapons of every description. A first aid kit. But no mop or bucket. Nothing he could see that could be used to clean up. What was it with Bubblers? Thomsin’s apartment didn’t have a mop either.

He steadied his shaking hands. Inhaled. Again.

Think, Daniel.

The room was about twelve by nine feet. Bed in the center of it, with the sleeping girl. The walls all appeared solid, other than the glass behind him. But there, in the corner of the room, the concrete floor was a mismatched hue.

He was about to inspect the silvery patch, when a sudden dingggg punctured his thoughts, and a chirpy jingle filled the room. “Two minutes remaining,” said the voice from everywhere at once. “Kindly swipe credit card to continue using facility.” A paypoint glowed beside the door.

Daniel reached for his card, but stopped himself. That was Thomsin’s card. If he swiped it, there’d be a direct trace back to the apartment. No, he needed that apartment.

Lincoln.

He hurried to the body. Reached into the man’s right pants pocket. There was something odd about calling them pants at all, now that the man was missing a leg. Was a pair of pants still pants (plural) without one of its legs? Was it a ‘pair’ at all?

“One minute remaining. Swipe card to continue using facility.”

He fished out Lincoln’s wallet, and fumbled around inside. Cards … cards … Ah. Raised numbering, with the same appearance as Thomsin’s card. Different color, but that looked like a credit card.

He darted to the paypoint on the wall, pulsing red now.

“Thirty seconds. Swipe card to – thank you. One hour remaining.”

Daniel sighed. Rose unsteadily to his feet. This killing business was hard work. He lumbered over to the patched floor in the corner. He’d do it better next time. Plan it. Like the perps did on Law and Order. The perps who got away with it, that is.

The discolored patch of floor yielded slightly as he stepped onto it. He bent down. Tapped it with his knuckles. Hollow. Metallic. He examined the floor more closely. No seams in the metal. No way to open it. His finger could barely trace the transition from the surrounding concrete to the metal plate.

Would it be that serious if they found his DNA here? He glanced at the sprays of blood across the gray walls. There must be blood from dozens of donors in this room. Maybe hundreds. Sure, they’d find his. But not just his. Maybe he should leave now.

That’s when his eye happened upon the round, glowing button on the wall above the panel. Gods, Daniel.

He pressed it, and the metal plate slid down and aside. A hole, a yard square, yawned in the floor where the plate had been. Cool, fetid air washed over his eyeballs as he stared through the black hole. The distant sound of dripping water echoed in the folds of Daniel’s ear.

He dragged Lincoln’s body to the side of the hole, and shooed it through the gap in the floor. “Looks like your stocks are about to drop,” said Daniel. He heard a soft squelch below. And then, silence.

But now he saw that the plate hadn’t only revealed a hole. To one side, partly recessed under the floor, was a polycarbonate box.

He pulled it aside. Lifted it above ground, and unlatched its hinges. Oh thank Gods. Spray bottles. A collapsed mop. A bucket.

Daniel got to work.

[]Talking in Tongues

Kage was halfway out the taxi before it had completed its descent.

“Shit,” he muttered, remembering the pile of clothes he’d left behind on the seat. Every item of clothing he owned. He scooped them up under his arm, and hopped out onto the sidewalk.

“Thank you for using Heli–” But Kage was already out of earshot before the cab could say goodbye. He was dressed and ready. He’d set his glasses to full sleuth mode – the custom app he’d designed to record and analyze crime scenes ran in the background. But he didn’t quite know what to do with the bundle of clothes under his arm.

Investigative policing, or at least the sort of investigating Kage did, was an elegant business. Scouring a crime scene for that crucial piece of fabric left behind by the killer, that stray strand of DNA, that lost pubic hair – Kage adored the finesse of his job.

The sort of finesse made impossible by a bundle of dirty clothing tucked under his armpit.

He glanced up and down the deserted alley. Police strobe lights threw billions of red-blue pairs of husky dancers across the cracked walls. Along the cobbled ground. They drove away the Promenade’s inhabitants.

With its locale on the northern border of the Bubble, the Promenade was perhaps the seediest area this side of the glowing forcefield. Politicians and housewives alike bemoaned the resemblance of the Promenade’s darkest alleys to the Gutter. Opposition politicians and religious leaders pointed quivering fingers to the underground clubs that spawned with the resilience of a stubborn cancer.

A club like the one he stood before now. Amputating Amy.

He’d heard about it before, but brought up details on his glasses by staring at the hovering sign in the doorway.

Gore bar. Thirty rooms. Big operation. Not quite a decade old. Licensed for amputations, but not killings. Not legally, anyway. Killings happened only at killing bars. Or so the law dictated. Killing bars were expensive. Limited licenses were handed out over the Bubble’s thick red tape. Gore bars had soared in popularity as a result.

But as popular as it was, the police blinkers had driven any potential customers away from Amputating Amy’s tonight. Seemed safe enough to leave his pile of clothes just outside the door.

“Oh, thank God you’re here.” The woman had a beehive piled so high it barely cleared the ceiling. Purple hair.

A patrolman caught up with her.

“ID?” he asked, looking at Kage.

“It’s me, Harry.” Kage handed over his polycarbonate PI license.

The patrolman tilted his head. Narrowed his eyes.

“Oh! Kass – I mean, sorry. Kage. Sorry ‘bout that. Right this way.”

“I’ve been waiting more than an hour for the detectives to arrive. When you think you people’ll be done? I’ve got a business to run. You pigs are scaring away the customers.”

The patrolman placed a hand on Kage’s back to guide him away from the Beehive. The way a man would protect a woman from a threat, thought Kage. Condescending. Protective. He hated that the touch felt so good between his shoulder blades.

“We’ll be done soon as we can ma’am … Fill me in, Harry.”

“Lady over there finds a body in the limb pit downstairs. Says it ain’t one of her Gutter kids. Y’know, the kids they uses in the gore bars. I never likes it ma’self, but y’know how it is.”

The patrolman led him past a series of cubicles with glass fronts. Most were mirrored, but the odd room was visible beyond the glass. The police presence had emptied all but one of them. A man in a lime-green shirt grinned maniacally, swinging a chainsaw through the air. A boy – couldn’t have been older than ten – scrunched his eyes shut, and poured his silent screams into the void behind the sound-proof glass.

Kage looked away. “Yes, got it Harry.”

The Beehive was in hot pursuit. “I reported this incident, mind you. And now my business suffers for it. See where being a Good Samaritan gets you these days.”

“Bubble PD thanks you for ya cooperation,” said Harry, and hurried down the glass corridor.

Unshaken, the woman pawed at Kage’s jacket. “Please hurry, Detective.”

Harry glared at her. “We doin’ our best, ma’am. Our very best. Now, where’s that key you used earlier for the … limb pit?”

The Beehive sighed. Dipped her fingers into her bra.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am.”

“I’ll want that back, mind you. And let me know when you’re done down there.”

The stench almost knocked Kage backward. It had been a while since his last case. Every time was difficult – he’d never quite acclimatized to the sweet aroma of rotting flesh. But this was something else altogether.

He choked as they descended the rusted staircase. LED lanterns hung from the walls, marking the subterranean descent in perforated halos of light.

“We got gas masks at the bottom,” said Harry, looking apologetic. “Shoulda’ given you one upstairs. Took me by surprise too.”

Kage grunted. Shook his head. Cleared the cobwebs spinning over his mind. “Tell me more about the scene.”

“I think you’s gotta see it. Mind your step, ma’am – I mean, sir. Jeez, I’m sorry Kass – I mean Kage. I … I’ll stop now.”

Kage gritted his teeth, and stepped off the last stair. Shit. His shoes would never be the same after this.

“Captain Weeks didn’t tell you to bring your galoshes?”

“No, the Captain wasn’t so kind.”

Harry tossed Kage an apologetic look, and stepped further into the room.

Something resembling congealed blood, except it was green, filled the room to ankle height. It squelched and slopped under and into his shoes, talking to Kage in tongues.

“I hear you,” whispered Kage. He checked that the customized investigation app on his glasses was switched on, recording every second of the experience.

“What’s that you said?” asked Harry.

“What else do you know about the scene?”

“Just that the body’s an adult. That’s how the workers knew som’in was wrong. It’s not one of ‘em Gutter kids they use for the gore.”

“But why am I here? Weeks doesn’t call me to investigate crimes this side of the Bubble.”

Harry’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Don’t tell ‘em I told you this. But I hear the vic’s some bigwig.”

Ah, he was right. Good news then. Big payoff. The squelching mess worming through Kage’s leather moccasins suddenly didn’t feel quite so intolerable.

Kage saw it now. A spotlight up ahead. A pile, higher than the officers who paced around it snapping photos. As he neared, he saw that it was more a mountain than a pile.

“Kassandra, thanks for coming.”

Who else? thought Kage. Who else would be assigned to this case but Detective-in-Fucking-Charge, Teague Shoulders.

Kage tried, and failed, to inflect as much venom in his response as possible. “I don’t go by that name anymore.”

Shoulders flashed a perfect set of porcelain veneers. Even brighter than Yaron’s. He slapped Kage across the back. “Of course,” he said, and extruded an obscene belly-laugh.

The rank stench of rot this close to the pile made it impossible to breathe. But Shoulders’ voracious smile seemed unperturbed.

“Let’s show you around. I told Weeks we don’t need you on this one. Promenade’s a dangerous place.” He lowered his voice. Leaned in, cologne thick as molasses. “Only reason we’re investigating is that the vic is the Mayor’s brother.”

Kage would have been more excited if he wasn’t holding his breath. Shoulders lifted the tape around the pile of limbs.

A gas mask appeared in his hands. “Here you are, sir.” said Harry.

Kage nodded his appreciation while he caught his breath under the plastic.

“Don’t worry about stepping on the limbs,” said Shoulders. He didn’t seem to need a mask. Shoulders thrived in decay. “They’re crunchy underfoot, but you get used to it. Forensics cleared the scene before we got here.”

Kage knelt down. Examined a hand. Such small fingers. He shivered.

“Told you, Kass. No forensic traces on any of the limbs. No need to examine them. The vic fell from above.”

Kage looked up. In silhouette above the mobile spotlights, he could barely make out the ceiling. But there it was, a few yards up. He thought he saw square outlines of light perforating the concrete ceiling every five yards or so, stretching ever deeper into the vast underground hall.

Shoulders was on the move, ascending the mountain of human limbs. Kage followed. He scrabbled up the pile of arms and legs, toes and fingers, elbows and knees. He was surprised how yielding they were. How they bent under his weight. But Shoulders was right. He couldn’t ignore the crunch of breaking bones.

“Why’d we legalize this?”

Shoulders threw him a look. “Why not? They’re Gutter kids. This way at least the Bubble gets to have its fun without anyone getting hurt.”

One of the hands twitched, and Kage almost lost his footing.

Shoulders held Kage by the wrist. “Whoa, you don’t want to be doing that. Those fingernails will rip you open if you land badly. Happened to Jensen just before you got here. Poor guy almost lost his cheek.” Shoulders shone a victory smile.

“Thanks,” mumbled Kage.

“Vic’s just on the other side of that ridge.” Shoulders pointed to a mound of limbs that looked a little fresher, a little more plump and moist, than the rest.

Kage trudged on behind the Detective. Climbed the hillock of arms. Had to grab hold of more than one to ascend it.

“What … what do they do with them?” asked Kage, breathing heavily under the mask. Beads of moisture condensed on the curve of his lower lip.

“Do with what?”

“The body parts?”

“I hear they send the fresh ones for scrubbing. The rest …” Shoulders shrugged. “The vic’s over here.”

More mobile spotlights, their metal poles staked in the pile of flesh around the body.

Kage looked for the flashing red light at the bottom-right corner of his vision. Recording. Good.

He knelt down. Pulled out a pair of gloves from his leather jacket pocket. He shuddered to think what the jacket would look like after this mess. But that wouldn’t matter if he solved this case. It was the Mayor’s brother. Captain Weeks would pay plenty to the investigator who solved this.

Kage shielded his eyes from the glare of the spotlights. Looked up. The body lay just below one of the thin square outlines of light in the ceiling.

“Which room is that?”

Shoulders’ broad face screwed into an uncharacteristic frown. “How should I know?”

“You didn’t check it out.” Kage phrased it as fact, rather than a question.

Shoulders sighed. “Harry! Get over here.”

“Coming, sir … Yes, sir. Sorry about that. Not easy climbin’ the hill. What can I do for you?”

“What room number is that?” Shoulders stared up at the ceiling.

Harry squinted. “Room number, sir?”

Kage stepped between the two officers. “Harry, it looks like each room has a trapdoor where they throw out the limbs. Which room number is that?” He pointed to the trapdoor above the body.

“Ah, got it, Kage. Got it. I’ll find out.” Harry scuttled down the pile of body parts. A minute later, Kage spotted him scampering up the staircase at the far end.

Shoulders stood over Kage, who was kneeling beside the body. He put a prickly hand on Kage’s shoulder. Lowered his voice. “That kid’s got less sense than a Gutter.” He raised an eyebrow to the ceiling. To Harry.

Kage stood to his full height. Felt a knuckle crack under one of his moccasins. “At least someone’s doing some work around here.”

Shoulders paled a moment, then recovered with a double-bright smile. “You’re quite a character, Kass.” He laughed, unconvincingly. “Quite a character.”

Kage grunted, and returned his attention to the body.

“Male. Caucasian. Mid-forties.” He lifted the man’s shirt. Raised an eyebrow. “In excellent shape. Note, likely a sportsman. End note.” His eyes glided over the man’s biceps. Kage ignored the envy at the back of his mind. He stared at the man’s face instead, giving his glasses time to find a match. “Badly beaten. Perimortem puncture to the skull. Bruising on left side of head. All ten fingers missing.”

The glasses pinged. “Match found. Victim is Lincoln Russell. Brother is Mayor Donald Russell. Bring up social media profiles?”

“Not now.”

“Left leg removed above the knee.” He looked around the body. A leg lay a yard down the slope. “Has this leg been identified?” he called to Shoulders.

The Detective lumbered over to Kage. Blinked.

Kage frowned. “How should you know, right?”

Shoulders stalked away.

Kage examined the fabric covering the severed lower leg. Same jeans color, under the blood. He pulled the fabric away from the skin, and it turned smart-fabric white.

“Note. Likely candidate for lower leg found. Knee missing. End note.”

He lifted the leg with careful fingers. It was heavy. “Note. Developed calves. Again, indicates sportsman. Set reminder one hour. Check sports club membership.”

“Reminder set,” said his glasses.

There was a loud metallic bang above. Kage’s glasses rang. He accepted the call.

“Hear this?” asked Harry on the other side of the phone line. “This the one?”

Kage watched the square of light vibrate as Harry jumped above it. “That’s it, Harry. Good work.”

Kage heard the man smile on the other side of the phone. “Thank you, Kage.”

“I’ll be up in a moment. Please secure the room in the meantime.”

“Yessir. Will do sir. I’m on it.”

Kage ended the call.

What was that? He leaned in for a closer look.

“Note. Line of what might be dried blood across the body’s forearm.” He examined the arm more closely. “Specks have a green tint. End note.” He blinked twice.

“Analyzing,” said his glasses. “Match found. Seventy six percent human blood. Twenty-three percent Rejek, industrial strength. One percent foreign contaminants.”

Industrial-strength Rejek. What was that doing here? That sort of concentration wasn’t available in the Bubble. He’d heard it was used exclusively in the Gutter. Given to Gutters who gave multiple organ donations. Nasty stuff. Bad side-effects. Likely belonged to one of the Gutter kids the victim was chopping up.

“Note. Send blood specks for analysis. End note. Detective Shoulders, call back forensics. Tell them there’s more work to do here.”

“Right away, Kassandra.”

Kage took a deep breath. Unclenched his fists. “Tell them to analyze this blood stain. No, please look carefully. Yes, this one. I’ll be upstairs with Harry.”

It was easier descending the hill than it had been climbing it. Two minutes later he was standing with Harry in the gore room upstairs.

“Looks like it’s been scrubbed clean,” said Harry. “Cleaner than any of the other rooms anyhow.”

Kage paced the empty room. Examined the concrete floor. It was stained dark in places. He rubbed a spot with his finger. Brought it to his nose. Ammonia.

“We won’t get much here. But tell forensics to check every corner. Clothing fibers. Blood. Fingerprints. Everything.”

“Yessir.”

“And tell them to have the autopsy completed by tomorrow morning. Captain Weeks’ orders.”

“Where’ll you be?”

“I’ve got some hunting to do,” said Kage. He marched from the room.

He felt it. The beat. The beat of the chase. He’d been out of it for some months now, buried under surgeries and more surgeries. But he was back. Private Detective Kage Jackson was back.

 

[]Margaret’s Manifold

Margaret answered the door with an ear pinched between two mismatched fingers. The ear wasn’t Margaret’s.

“It is good to see Daniel again.”

Daniel tightened his grasp on the bundle of body parts wrapped in Lincoln’s smartshirt. “I brought what you wanted.”

He couldn’t look away from the earlobe as he spoke. Gray. The Rejek-scrubbed capillaries beneath the skin gave it a green tint. Margaret held it in the air between them as it spoke.

“Daniel should come inside.” The android slid aside the glass door.

“Thank you.”

Margaret put the ear on the kitchen table. Switched on the kettle. “Tea for Daniel. Daniel looks tired.”

Daniel’s chin throbbed a metronome of dull pain behind his eyelids. He slumped into a kitchen chair. Tea sounded just right.

“What you doing with the ear?”

Margaret stroked the flawless metallic sides of its head. “Margaret has always wanted ears. Margaret has microphones with which to hear. But they do not look the same. They are not … human.”

Daniel shrugged.

The android placed a cup and saucer beside the ear. “Does Daniel like sugar?” It pointed at one of the silver tins in the center of the table.

Daniel lumped in four heaped spoonfuls.

Margaret’s eyes danced while it watched him drink. “Fingers,” said Margaret, and tapped its own on the Formica top.

He opened the makeshift satchel. Spread its pale contents on the table. Ten. Ten of Lincoln’s fingers. Some had broken nails from the struggle at Amputating Amy. But most of the fingers were unblemished, other than dried blood under the nails.

The android eyed the fingers with an expression Daniel could swear was hunger. It stood, and returned with the kettle and its own tea cup. Poured. Lifted one of Lincoln’s forefingers from the table, and stirred the tea with it.

The skin sheathing the finger swelled in the boiling water. The nail knocked rhythmically against the side of the cup.

Daniel lowered his own cup from his lips. The tea wasn’t quite as soothing anymore.

“Ten fingers is more than Margaret requested,” said the android. It tapped the finger on the side of the cup, and placed it on the saucer. It sipped slowly with inanimate, rubber lips. “Margaret is pleased.”

Daniel tried to suppress his nausea. “In return, I ask a favor,” he said.

Margaret blinked.

“Do you know someone, a surgeon, who could help me implant the organs? The cornea. The knee? Someone …” He searched for the word. “… discreet.”

Margaret steepled its fingers. The fingers attached to its hands. “Margaret knows such a person.”

“Take me to them.”

Margaret thumbed Lincoln’s forefinger on the saucer. Stroked its creases, now inflated from the boiling water. The android looked at its own mismatched digits. Some hairy. Some silver. Some smooth. Some black.

“Margaret agrees to Daniel’s terms. Daniel wants his cornea now?” The android stood. Rummaged in the kitchen drawer, and returned with a paring knife. Lifted it to its own eye.

“Not now! … Not now. Wait until you take me to the surgeon.”

Margaret dropped the knife, slicing one of Lincoln’s fingers as the blade bounced on the table.

Daniel’s chin ached. “Take me to the surgeon.”

***

“You brought me an ear! How good to see you, Margaret … Oh gosh, so sorry about that.”

The android who greeted Margaret and Daniel at the door was dropping boxes quicker than she could pick them up. Gauze and syringes, tape and bandages, scalpels and swabs. They fell this way and that. Festooned the floor in widening circles of chaos.

“Ooh! Mind those. Probably should walk around that. Oh dear. I’m so sorry for the mess. I just … oh, hello there. I’m Hallibery 342. But you can call me Hal. Oh dear. Could you get that for me? Yes, put it right there. On the counter. That’s it. Thank you so very much. You can sit on the couch. Just shove off the dog. Sorry about that. Can’t get rid of his mange. But he’s alright. Ignore the growls. Roger doesn’t bite. Usually.”

Daniel couldn’t help but smile at Hal. At her ticks and clicks. The fan on her head whirred to life as she sat down.

“So hot in here today. So hot.” The sound of broken glass spliced the room, as Hal dropped a packet of thermometers. “Oh dear. Anyway, what can I do for you two?”

“Margaret requires an ear to be implanted.” It held out the gray lobe.

“I see. I see. But …” Hal glanced at Daniel. Something in her head beeped. “… excuse my saying, but I think he has two ears already.”

“The ear is for Margaret.”

“Oh! Very good. Very good.”

“And Daniel requires Margaret’s cornea.”

Hal craned her neck to better peer into Margaret’s human eyes. “You want me to remove it? Give it to him?”

“Hal is correct.”

“And I’ll need help with this,” said Daniel. He unwrapped the smartshirt, and presented the knee.

Hal’s hand shot out, spilling a pile of bandages balanced on the edge of the couch. She touched Daniel’s leg. “Your current knee is cybernetic?” Her silicone countenance frowned.

Daniel sensed the cold of Hal’s skeleton beneath her rubbery fingertips.

“It is, yes.”

She examined the fingers festooned around the knee in the bloody shirt. “And what are those for?”

“Margaret requires all ten fingers implanted.”

“But you already have six.”

“Margaret requires these ten to replace all Margaret’s existing fingers.”

Hal blinked, and the fan on her head whirred a little faster. A plate slid from her midriff. She extracted a paypoint, and typed on the keypad. Held it out to Margaret.

Margaret waved a card over its surface. Handed the paypoint to Daniel.

“We’ll need your discretion,” he said, fishing the credit card from his pocket.

“Huh.” Hal snatched the paypoint from him. Tapped the keypad again. Returned the unit to the waiting boy.

“Wow.” Daniel wasn’t too sure how much money Thomsin had in his account. But this seemed a little steep, even for a Bubbler’s account.

“I charge triple for anonymous implants. The Rejek required is more expensive. Untraceable formulation. And I have to resequence the genes in the organ.” She held up a hand to avoid objections. Roger barked. “Yes, I know that’s done standardly when scrubbing organs. But traces of the donor’s DNA usually remain afterwards. When I’m done, that organ will be scrubbed cleaner than Margaret’s manifold. Nobody would ever know it wasn’t yours to begin with.”

Margaret frowned.

Daniel nodded. Was about to swipe his card –

“Oh dear. You want anesthesia?”

“Uh, yes I do.”

“Sorry about that. Usually deal with androids.” Hal winked at Margaret as she yanked the paypoint from Daniel’s hand again. Adjusted the total, and returned it to him.

Daniel sighed. And swiped his card.

***

“All done! It might hurt for a little while. Pop a painkiller. It’ll put a spring in your step.”

Daniel raised a heavy hand to his face. Touched the bandage over his left eye. Numb. Soft and bulbous.

He’d woken from the anesthetic on a bare metal table. Each of the three walls of the little room were painted in glaring primary colors.

He swallowed one of the pills in Hal’s outstretched palm. Dry.

“Should probably take two.”

The two androids stared down at him with wide, curious eyes. A green wall behind them threw their features into sharp relief. Their eyes blazed against the backdrop. Daniel blinked. Tried to clear his head. The anesthesia had left his skull stuffed with cotton balls, soaked in vinegar. He wasn’t up for arguing.

He reached for the other pill.

“That’s better. Now be careful. You can walk on it, but don’t go running any marathons till it’s fully healed.” Hal petted his bandaged knee.

“It is time for Margaret to go,” said the other android. Its single ear looked absurd on its metallic head. He wondered how Hal had done it – turned the lobe pink like that.

“You want to sleep a little longer?” asked Hal. The fan on the crown of her head whirred to life again. “Could give you the table for another hour or two?” The compartment in the android’s midriff slid aside to reveal the paypoint.

Daniel blinked. Struggled to part his eyelids.

“That would be good,” he said, reaching for his pocket. “Yes, I’d like that pl–”

The nerve impulse in his fingers melted into the bare mattress. The room dissolved around him. He was back. Back in that rubbled room in New Settlers Way. Lying on the bloody mattress. He was his mother. But the shrapnel wasn’t in his heart. It was in his knee, and in his left eye. He bled, while the Holey Man shouted morning prayers from a burning rooftop. Flames encased the Holey Man as he wailed his song.

We had you cleaned

We had you eat

We love your toes

Wake up your meat

“Wake up, Daniel. Wake –”

Hal’s hand was hard on his shoulder. She rocked him back and forth.

The world snapped into focus.

“How long have I?”

“Two hours,” said Hal. She held out the paypoint. Almost dropped it. But caught the device before it hit the floor.

Daniel blinked. Both eyes. The gauze was gone. The pain in his eye was gone. He peeled away the bandage covering his left leg. Touched the almost invisible scar where Hal had opened him up. He tried flexing the joint, and … no pain. It flexed smoothly.

Gods, what two hours sleep and a bottle of pills could do. The analgesics and anti-inflammatories they used after surgery at the Orphanage were nowhere as good as these.

His stomach rumbled something furious – he could do with some good old printed food from Thomsin’s apartment. But otherwise, he seemed fine. No pain. The grog in his head was gone. In its place, he felt a fire behind his eyes. Warm and steady. He was … alive.

He jumped off the operating table.

“Careful,” said Hal. “That knee needs time to heal.”

Daniel nodded, not really listening. The red-blue-green walls pulsed around him. “Go,” they shouted. “Go … go.”

Hal lead him to the door.

“Oh, yes. Don’t forget your painkillers.” Hal handed him a small, unmarked bottle. “You know where to find me.” Only her mouth smiled.

Daniel left the apartment. Descended the twenty-six flights of stairs to the ground floor. “Margaret does not travel to Halliberry 342 directly,” the android had said on their way here. “Margaret does not want to be traced to this location.” Smart move, Margaret, Daniel thought. He walked in no particular direction, wanting to put a few blocks between him and Hal’s before calling a taxi.

The Bubble’s electric midnight sun bathed his face. Well, not quite midnight. It was 10:13 p.m. according to the blinking time display on his glasses, but it was so bright, it could have been day. By now he’d reached the outskirts of the Promenade, and the neon-glow of a thousand billboards bathed the streets. They screamed silently at him, about chewing gum and cocaine, liver replacements and sex clubs. As his gaze shifted from one billboard to another, his glasses shouted their messages through the center of his skull.

He shut his eyes, stared up through his fluorescent eyelids. The voices died down. Stopped. His left eye didn’t hurt. Didn’t burn. Didn’t weep. He noticed flickering shadows pass across his vision, and opened his eyes. Thousands of hovercars crisscrossed above him, darting between buildings and under walkways, interweaving seamlessly through the morass of billboards.

He noticed for the first time how grand it was. The Bubble was gobsmackingly awesome when one forgot its macabre price, paid in blood by the inhabitants of the Gutter.

He put the thought out of his head, and walked on.

Sure, the knee had been implanted only recently. But it was his knee. He sensed the difference immediately. The grinding of the rusted servo joint was gone. That ache in his leg that he’d lived with for almost a decade, that he’d convinced himself he could bear, was gone. Walking now was no trouble at all. Not even in the summer heat under the Bubble.

He called for a taxi.

Now that he knew how it felt to be alive, to get something back that was his, Daniel realized just how much of his life he hadn’t lived. The ubiquitous angst of waiting to ‘donate’ the next piece of him. Then the pain of living with the cybernetic replacements. The endless work shifts at the Organ Farm. The poverty of the Gutter.

That was no way to exist. The Gutter wasn’t where he belonged. Here. He should be here, under the phosphorescent meniscus of the Bubble. This was a life.

Daniel peered around while he waited for the taxi, his eyes drifting into the distance. He was enjoying the glasses. His gaze happened upon a lamp post, and in a moment the glasses overlaid his vision with information on its parts. Globe specifications. Solar charging techniques. Lux ratings.

Daniel tapped the arm of his glasses, and the information disappeared.

What else could the glasses do?

“Can anyone trace my searches?” he whispered.

A woman brushed past him. “And I told him,” she said, “that anything less than both kidneys is unac–” But she was gone before Daniel could hear the rest.

“Yes,” replied his glasses. “Would you like to switch to private browsing?” He was coming to like the glasses’ voice. It was richer than Hooplah’s. More sonorous than Florenza’s. And never impatient.

“Yes,” he said.

“Private browsing enabled.”

His glasses pinged, and he looked up. Out of the thousands of cars intermingling above him, one of them separated from the rest. Like a thread from a ball of string, the taxi descended from the morass toward him.

“What’s the best way to dissolve a body?” he whispered before the hornet-yellow taxi landed.

Dozens of web pages overlaid his vision.

***

Daniel whistled as he marched into his apartment. He liked the sound of that – ‘his apartment’. He was laden with bags from Phil’s Pharma in both hands. Lye, it turned out, was heavy. The store didn’t sell pure lye, but they did stock a high concentration lye-bleach combination product. “EATS THROUGH ANYTHING,” proclaimed the label. He’d bought buckets of the stuff.

He ignored the rumbling in his stomach. Hardly felt it at all. There was something good, something right about being closer to whole. He felt it deep in his chest. That he was purer now that he’d retrieved his knee and cornea. That he was coming together. As he was always supposed to.

He had just one more problem to solve before he could settle down to a hot printed meal. Before he could plot the steps to find the rest of his missing organs.

Three hours, the search results had assured him. Three hours in the lye, and Thomsin’s body would be reduced to an “easily disposable coffee-colored” sludge.

He whistled the Law and Order theme song, as he dragged one of the casks of lye to the bathroom. He bumped the container against the doorframe, and the lid popped off. A soapy odor permeated the apartment. Like the suds in Decontamination. But much, much stronger.

Odin was terrified. He’d bolted under the couch at the first whiff of the stuff.

“I’m sorry old man,” he said to the cat, “but it has to be done.”

“Jazz,” he whispered. The lights dimmed, and the saxophone’s voice drenched the room in lime-green tones. The walls of breasts hazed behind a shimmering curtain of electrostatic music.

He reached into one of the shopping bags. Thank Gods for SunAway, he thought, as he smeared it over his smoldering cheeks. Along the back of his neck. His shoulders relaxed.

He sighed. Glanced at the muslin-shrouded body on the living room floor. The fetor of decomposing flesh wafted between the molecules of lye, stirred by the saxophone. Daniel inhaled the mixture. Tried to taste it with his artificial tongue, but settled for tasting it with his prefrontal lobe instead.

He shut his eyes, and rocked to the beat, counting the pentameter. He swayed on his toes, then on his heels, then from his hips. Images of Hooplah drifted behind his eyelids. Her curly hair. The Holey Man’s smile. His mother under the Birch.

The completion of the song ended his reverie, and he came out of himself. The tongue. Yes, he’d find his tongue next.

But first, Thomsin needed attention.

Whistling the last movement of the song, he threw the shroud aside.

The stench punched him square in the jaw. “Good Gods,” he cried, trying to retain his balance as he retreated. As if pleased with the acknowledgement, a maggot appeared from Thomsin’s nose. It crawled with careful purpose, stopping every so often to sniff the air, until it reached one of his cloudy eyes.

The tentacle, green and hairy, reached down Daniel’s gut again. But he stopped it. Halted the spasms in his stomach. Steadied his thrumming heart. He swallowed the rising bile.

“Okay,” he said to himself. “Okay.”

He was about to try again, to approach the body a second time, when a cerise message box appeared across his vision.

Coming for lunch tomorrow, Thomsin? Your cousins will be here. And you know how your father gets when you’re not around for Uncle Kent’s visits. Let me know. Love you.

The text flanked a picture of a woman’s face. At first glance, with her creaseless skin and lips full as small intestines, she looked not much older than Florenza. But Daniel noticed the eyes. Recognition behind the smile. A rigidity that only came with experience. She may not have looked older than Florenza, but she was much older than she appeared.

He was about to tap the arm of his glasses to dismiss the message, but paused.

He hadn’t considered them. Thomsin’s family. His friends. They’d be looking for the boy soon enough. He could ignore this message. The next, and the next. But eventually, they’d come looking.

“Reply,” said Daniel, and a flashing cursor popped up. As he dictated, his words appeared on the overlay.

Not feeling so great. Need a few days to rest. I won’t be there tomorrow. Love, Thomsin.

“Send,” said Daniel, and the text of his reply faded away, leaving him to look at Thomsin’s decaying face. Splotched patches had appeared around the body’s eyes. Blue streaks had leeched from the corners of Thomsin’s lips into his cheeks.

“Music off,” whispered Daniel.

He held his breath as he dragged Thomsin by the armpits to the bathroom. The Bubbler’s skin was rubbery in Daniel’s hands.

Another cerise message box popped up in his vision.

Feel better XOXO

Daniel shook his head to clear the message. “Sorry about this,” he said to the boy’s milky corneas.

He lifted the body into the shower. Navigated a series of menus on his glasses, until he found the setting for the shower’s forcefield. He set the shower’s sides to ‘Impenetrable’ up to waist height, and instructed the forcefield to plug the shower’s drain. Now the cubicle would act more like a bath than a shower.

Daniel opened the cask of lye, and poured.

Shouldn’t have inhaled that, he realized, as a violent spasm seized his lungs. He hobbled from the bathroom. Hacked until the paroxysm subsided.

Gods, he’d just been at the pharmacy. They would have had gas masks.

He rummaged through Thomsin’s closet. Grabbed a shirt, and tied it around his nose and mouth. The smell of lye dissipated almost immediately.

He was just about done pouring the rest of the caustic liquid into the forcefield around Thomsin’s body, when –

Tingg

He paused, the bottle of lye suspended in the air.

Ouch! He’d jerked at the sudden noise. Splashed a few drops of the lye on the back of his right hand.

Tinggggg

The chime sounded again. “What is that?” he whispered.

“You have a visitor,” cooed his glasses. A camera feed appeared in his vision. A taxi hovered just outside the entrance of the door, about a yard from the building.

“Shit … shit … shit.” Daniel dashed out the bathroom. Shut the door. Who was this now? Thomsin’s mother? A friend?

He rifled through the contents of the bedside tables. Deodorant. Excellent. He let the bathroom door fall open a slice, and let out a good measure of the can. Vanilla clouds mushroomed through the little room. For good measure, he doused the living room in deodorant too. The stench of Thomsin’s body had lessened here since he’d dragged it to the shower, but the corpse had been lying behind the table not too long ago.

That’s when he noticed the tingling on the back of his hand where he’d spilt the lye. The skin was dotted a brilliant scarlet.

“Shall I ask who it is?” prompted his glasses.

He hadn’t thought of that. “Yes,” he said. He yanked the smartshirt from his face, and wiped his hand. Threw the shirt under the bed.

“He says his name is Private Investigator Kage Jackson.”

The skin on the back of Daniel’s hand bubbled. White-hot tendrils of pain burrowed into his knuckles. Welts had begun to form where the dots had been.

He dashed to the bathroom again. He opened the door. Stepped into the rancid blend of rot and deodorant. Thrust his hand into the basin’s forcefield. When he removed it, his hand felt a little better. He rubbed it with his other. His skin was soapy. He rubbed more. And realized that his hands weren’t lubricated by soap. As he rubbed, more and more of the skin on the back of his hand came away. Great layers of it. Peeling and melting away from him.

Tinggggg

Daniel swallowed his escalating heart. Ignored the skin sloughing off his hand. He blocked the pain. Erected a smile.

And strode to the door.

[]Gutter Leather

In his blood-soaked moccasins, in his Rejek-stained jacket, in his rotten suit pants, Kage marched from the murder scene at Amputating Amy. He strode with his longest, most androgynous gait. Down the corridor. Past the Beehive – he ignored her belligerent pleas for information. Past tanks of floating Gutter children. Past the bar, lit in the gaudiest shade of plum imaginable. Past the only patron, in the lime-green shirt. Out the doorway, and –

They weren’t there. He peered up the alley. Down the other way. He saw nobody. No people. No clothes. The pile he’d left beside the doorway, under the pulsing blue-red light of the patrol cars, was gone. Every item he owned, his entire wardrobe, had been stolen.

At another time, this would have been a problem. A calamity. But Kage wasn’t in the mood for calamities right this moment. He had a case to solve. “Recording off,” he whispered to his glasses. The app saved the video of the crime scene in his personal folder, and encrypted it.

“Taxi,” he said.

A moment later, a hovercar descended to the alley.

The seats were new. Plush leather. He brushed off the remnants of the limb pit from his pants, and sat. “Bubble PD,” he said.

“Certainly sir. Please note, there will be an additional sanitation charge.”

Kage grunted. But as the cab rose into the air, he couldn’t help but stroke the leather. Too soft for animal hide. Must be Gutter range. He felt a little queasy at the thought. Kage was old-fashioned that way – the touch of human leather made him uneasy, even if the humans were Gutters. He ignored the voice in his head that protested that his moccasins were made from Gutter leather too. There was no way around it – almost everything of quality these days was made from moisturized Gutter leather. Sure, there were slacktivists who protested from their hemp armchairs. But their cause had been lost years ago.

“Having one of those days? Those thirty-hour workdays when you don’t have a chance to eat, never mind shower? Try Deo-Killer. Eliminates odor-causing bacteria on contact. Comes in twelve enchanting fragrances. Warning: you’ll never want to shower again once you’ve tried Deo-Killer. Say “YES” now, for instant delivery to your door.”

“Yes,” said Kage. “Deliver to Bubble PD. Outside main entrance in … Cab, what’s the estimated arrival time? … in nine minutes.”

“Thank you for your order. We appreciate your business.”

His glasses pinged to let him know that thirty-three credits had been deducted from his account. Available balance … fuck.

“Apply for higher credit limit,” whispered Kage.

“One moment please … Granted. Limit now set at fifty-thousand credits. Available balance, twelve-thousand, four hundred and sixty-se–”

Kage tapped the arm of his glasses.

Should tide him over until he solved the case. Weeks might give him an advance if he played his cards right.

“Are your clothes more tattered than a Xicolian beggar? Do your shoes look like a Fengalese housefrog? They do? Come to ManScape today. Our expert staff will measure your dimensions. They’ll advise you on an outfit that will make even the coldest Venetian siren lose her will. With department stores in every quadrant of the Bubble, we’re never more than five minutes by hovercar from wherever you are.”

Kage glanced down at the city. It was nearing midnight, and most of the Bubblers were asleep. Buildings simmered in a low, phosphorescent glow under the moonlit meniscus of the Bubble. As the advert for ManScape played, a handful of buildings lit up in bright orange.

He was tempted to find one of their outlets. Redirect the taxi. Buy at least one change of clothes. But before he could say anything, the cab began its descent. He was at his destination – the jaundiced exterior of Bubble PD. It was one of the oldest buildings in the city. An ancient relic from before the forcefield was erected. Over the past half century, the building had been bleached a slick, yellow-gray from the daily sun filtering through the golden lens of the Bubble.

“Helios Taxis thanks you for your –”

The drone that greeted him on the street buzzed around him, trying to get a decent angle for a facegrab. “Delivery for a Kage Jackson. Please confirm identity.”

Kage held up his polycarbonate identity card.

“Confirmed.”

A compartment at the bottom of the drone opened, and a blue-metallic box escaped. It hovered erratically until it found Kage’s waiting hand.

“Deo-Killer thanks you for your patronage.” The drone let off an offensive bang, and shot up into the air, narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic.

Right there, on the steps of Bubble PD, Kage drenched himself in Deo-Killer. Vanilla fragrance. He hadn’t bothered to check first. He guessed it wasn’t really their fault. Vanilla had been his preferred scent back then. Back when he’d been Kassandra. The advertisers didn’t know how much he’d changed.

“Heard about the scene at the gore bar,” said a tall, slender voice behind him.

Kage was smiling before he’d had a chance to face her.

“I missed you, Una.”

“Look at you, man. Turn around for me. Slowly.”

Kage couldn’t help grinning.

“Looking mighty fine, Detective.”

“Doing my best. It’s been …” Kage’s smile tightened.

Una drew on her cigarette. “Transitions always are. Look at my cousin, Svetlana. The surgery knocked her bad.”

Kage nodded. He loved that Una smoked. Ancient habit. Almost nobody did anymore. Unless you counted virtual cigs, which Kage didn’t.

Lazy wisps of smoke ascended the incandescent glare of the streetlights. In her leather pants and gothic blouse, the smoky halo that formed above Una’s head made her look like a fallen angel.

Kage shook his head. “That gore bar’s something else.”

“Never been,” she said. Stomped the cigarette on the sidewalk. Litter. She actually littered. Outside a police station. Fuck, he missed her. “But I hear so, yeah. Come show me what you got.”

She led the way, her bootlegs frolicking about her ankles as she climbed the concrete stairs to Bubble PD. Why had he never asked her out?

“Whewee! That jacket’s seen better days, Kassandra.”

Una didn’t pause. Didn’t slow her walk. Didn’t look Teague’s way. “Fuck off, Shoulders,” she said.

Kage’s chest burst with pride, but he kept his eyes to the wooden floor as they passed by the stunned Detective.

“They gave me new digs since you were last here,” she said, and led him inside. “I call it, the Cave.”

Holoscreens scattered through the air, vying for viewing space above and around Una and Kage. Each screamed silently for attention. Warnings and captions flickered across their ethereal surfaces.

“Robbery on 4th and 6th,” yelled one of them in pulsing yellow letters. “Suicide cleanup required on the bottom of 16th,” flashed another. “Protest forming on Promenade South.”

“Don’t you need to get those?” asked Kage.

“Na. They generally take care of themselves. The AI routes them through to patrol cars and emergency services in the area. So … how can I help you?”

“Could you track the victim’s movements today? Owner of the bar, woman with no hair sense, says he walks into Amputating Amy just after …” Kage tapped his glasses. “… at seven thirty-one.”

Una gestured to one of the screens. It hovered forward. Lengthened and widened as she expanded the space between her pinched fingers. “Find closest camera to Amputating Amy, Promenade. Skip to seven twenty-five p.m. What’s your vic’s name?”

“Lincoln Russell.”

“As in …”

“Yup.”

Una’s face hardened. “Right. Let’s sort this out.” She turned back to the screen. “Facial recognition search on Lincoln Russell.”

“Please disambiguate. Three Lincoln Russells have been foun–”

“Brother is Mayor Donald Russell.”

“Searching …” appeared across the screen.

“So how’s it been? You know …” Una looked uncomfortable. “… the transition.”

Kage realized Una could faux pas all she liked, and he wouldn’t mind.

“It’s not easy. The …” Bizarrely, tears burned the backs of his eyes. “The testosterone isn’t working so well. Sometimes I –”

“Match found,” flashed across the screen in red letters.

Una placed a hand on Kage’s forearm. “Give it time,” she said. “You’re looking great.”

Kage sniffed back a tear. “I … thank you.”

Una squeezed his arm. “Definitely feel some tone there.” She winked. “Let’s sort this mess out, shall we?”

She turned to the screen. “Zoom and track.”

It was Lincoln, as far as he could tell. Kage recalled the swollen face lying on the mound of limbs in the basement of Amputating Amy. The laceration across the forehead. The hole in his head. It had been brutal. Personal. Maybe one of the Gutter kids had done it? One of the kids they used at Amputating Amy? Someone with an ax to grind.

The screen displayed a man weaving through the Promenade crowds. Yes, definitely Lincoln Russel. He turned into an alleyway. The camera angle switched. Tracked the back of his head down an alley, and round a corner. And another. And that’s when they lost him. Two blocks from Amputating Amy.

“Wait. Turn that back a second. There was someone else in the frame. There. About fifty yards behind him.”

Una pinched her fingers, and the image zoomed. The camera angle was wrong. Could only see the back of the person’s head. A thick mop of black hair. Looked young. Squat, but good posture. Toned upper body, Kage mused silently.

“Can you get an image of his face?”

“Tracking him back to Canal Street …”

“That might be him. Angle’s too high, though. Trying to zoom further. It’s pixelated. This is as good as it gets.”

Kage stared at a blurry face. Soft nose. Red cheeks. From this angle, the tinted glasses hid his eyes.

“Resolution is too low for a facial recog search,” said Una before Kage could ask.

“Alright. I’ve got another request, then.”

Una cracked her knuckles. “Bring it on.”

“Can you track Lincoln’s movements today? From this morning till he entered Amputating Amy tonight.”

“Because he was the victim of a crime, I can give you the location of his glasses within an accuracy of a hundred yards. More accurate than that, and you’ll need a warrant.”

“I’ll get on that warrant, but a hundred yards works for now. Can you run the tracking program?”

“On it,” said Una.

Kage wasn’t optimistic about the warrant. Mayor’s brother found dead in a gore bar? The Mayor would be wanting to squash that soon as possible – the less information about his brother’s whereabouts the better. And Bubble judges were notoriously politically sensitive beasts.

A map popped up on the screen. A thick blue line traced across the city.

“Color becomes warmer through the day,” said Una, standing back.

The line crisscrossed Bubble Central during the morning, turning from blue to green to yellow as the day progressed. All the way through to late afternoon. That’s when the line became orange, and dashed to the top the map. By the time it had reached Amputating Amy, the thread was jugular red.

Kage remembered the stockbroker’s biceps. His toned stomach. He reached involuntarily for his arm. Stopped himself.

“You have any gym or sports club membership info for the vic?”

Una typed at a virtual keyboard that hovered in the air wherever she went. “Yup. Looks like he belonged to three.”

“Cross-reference his known locations today.”

“Already on it,” she said. “Yup. Winston Hotel. They have squash courts at the top of the building. Heard it’s ostentatious as fuck.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a security feed from the Winston rooftop, would you?”

Una smiled. “Would need a warrant for that …”

“Uh, how about a street cam of the entrance to the Hotel. Maybe we would see the vic walk in. See if anyone followed him?”

“That I can do.” She typed at the keyboard. “Got it.”

Sure as day, there was Lincoln Russell. He’d looked a whole lot fresher that afternoon. A high-end taxi deposited him on the street corner outside the Winston Hotel just after lunchtime.

“Could you run that camera forward? Thanks. Yeah. Oh, wait. Stop there. That guy. Yes. Him.”

Same mop of black hair. Soft nose. Same cheeks. Not as red though. Terse lips. Couldn’t be older than twenty.

Same bad camera resolution.

Una pulled up the previous facial image. Pinned them side by side.

“I’d say he’s the same guy. But the AI’s giving only sixty-seven percent probability of a match. Not enough for a definitive match at this resolution.”

“It’s good enough for now,” said Kage. “One last thing. Any way to find out who this guy is?” This case could be closed by tonight, thought Kage. He knew in his gut that this was Lincoln’s killer.

“No match in the facial recog database.”

His heart dropped.

“No match? Is that possible?”

“Unlikely, but it happens. The perp could’ve had plastic surgery recently to modify his face. Or had a recent face transplant.”

“Run the footage outside the hotel. There. See, he swipes his credit card when he walks in. Could you get the details of that transaction? That would give us his name.”

“That’s … uh bending the rules a little. I’d have to hack the hotel’s records. Unless you can get me a warrant.”

Kage looked down. Shifted his weight from foot to foot. Blood and dried skin flaked off his shoes.

Una furrowed her brow, but there was mischief in her eyes. “Stays between us, yeah?”

“Not sure what you’re talking about.”

“Shut the door,” she said.

Una’s fingers were a flurry in the air. Pointing, zooming. Menus flashed across the hoverscreen.

“Card belongs to a Thomsin Sparling,” she said. A boy’s face leapt onto a side screen. Una shuttled the image across to stand beside the two faces of the killer.

“AI gives a forty-two percent probability of a match among all three faces. Fairly high, given the poor resolution.”

Kage stepped closer to the screen. Closer still. Until his nose almost passed through the shimmering ions.

“I think it’s time to pay you a visit, Thomsin Sparling.”

He was about to walk out, when he turned back. “You know where I can get a quick change of clothes?”

***

“Occupation sensors indicate he’s home, but he’s not answering,” sang his glasses.

“Ring again.”

Kage’s taxi hovered just outside Thomsin Sparling’s apartment. Bubble Central. One hundred and thirty-seventh floor. Obscenely high.

Kage glanced down at the ground. From this height, the Bubblers walking on street level were little more than maggots inching along the belly of the city.

What had happened to the testosterone order?

“Check post box,” he whispered.

“Empty,” replied his glasses a moment later.

Kage sighed.

“Ring the apartment again.”

“The occupant is not answering.”

“I can see that.”

He’d paid a small fortune for the testosterone, with the promise of delivery the same day the funds were transferred. And they’d been transferred yesterday.

Well, shit.

The door slid open, and a young man in a base-white smartshirt stood in the entrance. “May I help you?” he asked, eyes hard.

“I’m looking for Thomsin Sparling.”

The boy’s gaze didn’t leave Kage’s.

“I’m Thomsin.”

“My name is Kage Jackson. I’m a private detective consulting with Bubble Police Department. May I come inside? Ask you a few questions?”

The boy shifted from foot to foot. Jittery? “What’s this about?”

The boy had the same mop of black hair as the suspect on the street-cam footage. The same sunburnt cheeks. Thin lips.

“It really would be better if I came inside.”

Kage glanced down again at the ground below. Thomsin stood in the doorway of his apartment, while Kage sat in the cab. Emptiness, and the promise of a sheer drop, yawned between them.

The boy clutched one hand in his other. His lips were pale. Bloodless. “Now isn’t a good time.”

“It really won’t take long.” Kage signaled to the cab to move closer to the building. Now only a foot of empty air separated him from the boy. “You’re welcome to come down to Bubble PD with me instead?”

The boy blinked. Kage couldn’t be sure in the shadows thrown across the boy’s midnight face, but he thought he saw the flicker of a smile. “Those aren’t my only options. Come back tomorrow. Now isn’t a good time.”

Kage was so close now, he could smell the boy’s deodorant. Vanilla. The same scent Kage wore. Strange.

He tapped his glasses and stared at the ‘WAIT’ button in the top-left corner of his glasses, to let the cab know to hold its position. “We’ll be done in just a few minutes,” he said. Kage stepped across the gulf between them, elbowed past the boy, and into the apartment.

Vanilla drenched the room. Typical teenager, thought Kage. No finesse. No class. They found a fragrance they liked, and sprayed it to death.

Kage hid his irritation. Stuck out the palm of his hand to the boy. “I appreciate you giving me your time.”

The boy’s hand was slick in Kage’s. But rough at the same time. As though Kage were stroking snakeskin dipped in oil.

Kage stepped further into the apartment. Recessed lighting suffused the living room with a yellow-blue glow that struck him as unnecessary. Opulent. The hovercouch, with its perfect right-angles, made him slightly nauseous. That couch, no doubt Gutter leather, would’ve cost more than a month’s rental at Kage’s last apartment.

“You live alone?”

The boy nodded.

Kage noticed now just how pale he was. Beads of sweat lined the boy’s brow.

“Where were you this afternoon?” asked the Detective, and sat on the couch. It was absurdly uncomfortable. The square cushion bit into his back at just the wrong points. Opulence and comfort rarely intersected.

Daniel wiped his forehead. “What’s this about?”

“Oh, routine investigation.”

Dirty dishes on the table. A stained throw on the floor. No housekeeping? Odd in a place like this.

“Umm. I may be wrong,” said the boy, sitting the couch opposite Kage’s, “but I don’t think private detectives are consulted for routine investigations. And …” The boy whispered something to his glasses. “… twelve-thirty in the morning seems an odd time for a routine chat.”

Kage regarded the boy again. There was more color in his cheeks now, although they weren’t as red as they’d been in the footage from this afternoon. He still clutched his right hand.

“What happened to it?” asked Kage.

The boy swallowed. “Happened to what?”

“Your hand.”

“Burnt it.”

“Really? How’d you do it? Let me take a look. Had to do a month’s medical training to get my PI license.”

The boy’s lips thinned. “No need,” he said. “Got bandages somewhere. Once you leave …” The boy paused. Let a second pass. “… I’ll fix it.”

Was the boy grinding his teeth?

A cat jumped onto the couch beside Kage. Sniffed his leg dubiously. Kage hadn’t had a chance to wash with anything more than wet wipes since he’d left Amputating Amy. Una had found him some clothes at the station, but he still reeked. The Deo-Killer only worked so well. The cat must’ve smelt it. The rot. The limb pit under the gore bar.

“What’s his name?” asked Kage.

“Who?”

“The cat.”

The boy paled again, as the Detective tickled the animal’s graying chin.

“I really should get to sorting out my hand. Can we continue this routine chat tomorrow, please?” He stood.

Kage remained sitting. Stroked the cat’s ears.

“Where’d you get him?”

The boy walked to the door. The taxi hovered just outside. “I’d prefer to talk tomorrow.”

Kage stood.

“Nice place you got here.”

“Thanks,” said the boy, and gestured to the taxi.

“I’m looking for an apartment myself. Rent’s outrageous these days.”

The boy nodded. Stared at the floor.

“One more question.”

The boy sighed.

“Where’d you get that food printer? Never seen one quite like it. New model?”

“Not too sure.” said the boy. He placed a flat hand between the Detective’s shoulder blades. Guided him toward the door.

“Good luck with that hand.” Kage winked as he stepped into the taxi. “I’ll see you soon.”

[]Rolling in the Eddies of Lye

Daniel almost collapsed as he shut the door on the Detective.

Weird man. His angles were all wrong. With matchstick legs, and arms that thrashed around like concertinas as he spoke, Kage was like a flattened sausage. A slick, hairless sausage.

Gods, Daniel’s hand hurt. Felt like every nerve he had ended in that hand. He examined the jacket of rosy flesh on his knuckles. The lye had eaten so deeply into his skin, he could make out the pale traces of bone beneath.

Move Daniel.

The Detective would return in the morning. Daniel was sure of that. He knew the look of a predator when he saw one. Lincoln Russell. The Beehive at Amputating Amy. There’d been plenty of predators back at the Organ Farm. Administration was full of them. Their quicksilver tongues flapped through grinning pearly teeth. Kage hadn’t stopped smiling from the moment he’d seen Daniel, his opalescent incisors striking against his ebony skin.

A predator.

Daniel had to move.

He tapped his glasses. Was about to order a taxi, to who knew where, when he paused.

Thomsin. His body was still in the shower. No self-respecting criminal on Law and Order ever left a body only half-dissolved.

He was about to open the bathroom door, when he remembered the shirt he’d wrapped around his face for protection. He returned a moment later, the makeshift gas mask in place.

The stench of lye in the bathroom had thoroughly overpowered the deodorant now. Daniel waded through soapy clouds of vanilla-tinged rot until he reached the shower cubicle. He examined the contents of the translucent forcefield that held the body suspended above the floor. The liquid had been colorless as Daniel had poured it over the boy, but now it bubbled gently, swirling with eddies of pink and brown.

One of Thomsin’s arms lay against the side of the forcefield. Wisps of skin had torn away from the deeper tissues beneath, rising and dissolving as they left the body. In places, the bone of the arm shone through, a gleaming white beacon in the murk.

Daniel watched the lye eat away at the flesh for a few more seconds, before he roused himself. He didn’t have time for this. He’d put the body into the forcefield – he checked the time on his overlay – about half an hour ago. Would the whole thing disintegrate in the next two and a half hours? That’s what the Wikipedia article had said. Three hours in total. But he wasn’t convinced.

And would the Detective be back before then? He’d have to take the chance that he wouldn’t. Anyone with an inkling of distrust in the world would assume Daniel had killed Thomsin, even though he hadn’t. He hadn’t, he reminded himself. He hadn’t.

Lincoln Russell had been different. A monster. What he’d been doing to that little girl in Amputating Amy … Lincoln deserved to die.

No, he couldn’t have the world thinking he’d killed Thomsin. It was almost 1 a.m. The Detective wouldn’t be back until breakfast at the earliest, he guessed. It was a risky guess, but it was one he was willing to take. He had time. But first he needed some extra tools, and something to assuage the fire on his knuckles.

“Taxi,” he whispered.

***

Something isn’t right, thought Kage. He leaned forward in the taxi’s Gutter leather seat. Rubbed his fingers together. They were tacky with Thomsin’s sweat. But something else too. Slippery. Soapy? He suppressed a cringe.

Kage had recorded the brief interview with the boy. He tapped his glasses now, and called up the video. It may have been brief, but it was telling.

Thomsin was an asshole, like any other Central Bubbler teen. That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was his face. It could have been the light, but Kage thought the boy looked paler than almost any Bubbler teenager he’d seen. With the magnifying effect of the dome, Bubblers tended to brown quickly. Thomsin’s cheeks had been speckled pale and red, like a Russian doll’s.

But there was something else. He scrolled back through the video.

The cat.

Curious. The feline wasn’t purebred. Mottled pelt. Just about every cat in the Bubble was purebred.

“The creak of soft leather against your elbows. Musk on your collar. If leather’s your thing, we’ve got it. Jackets, shoes, accessories, pants. Looking for Gutter leather, bovine, buckskin, fish, or snake? Something more exotic? We have it all, at Gutter prices. Full-grain, top-grain, or corrected grain – quality for your budget. Now selling in retailers throughout the B–”

Kage tapped the arm of his glasses. Saved the contact details for later.

The video of his interview with Thomsin returned to his overlay.

Yes. As he played through it a second time, he was sure. The beads of sweat on the boy’s brow. Lips so tightly pinched together, they’d all but disappeared. Clenched forehead. Jaw muscles bulged.

Kage had put it down to nervousness at the time. But it wasn’t fear or anxiety. It was pain. Thomsin was in agony.

It was an easy expression to misidentify. Bubblers, especially the elite class, like Thomsin Sparling, were issued standard analgesic implants at birth. To be in that sort of pain, he’d need to have an arm lopped off. Or undergo surgery without an anesthetic.

The boy had said he’d burned his hand. But a localized burn wouldn’t produce that sort of pain response in a Bubbler. Not a chance.

Kage rubbed his fingers again. The soapiness was still there from when he’d shaken the boy’s hand. The boy’s injured hand. From a burn?

He smelt the residue. Bleach. Soap. Not the sort of things one would put on a burn.

Yup. Something isn’t right, thought Kage, as he stepped out of the taxi, and up the stairs to Bubble PD.

“Anything back from forensics on that blood sample I asked for?”

“Ask them yourself,” said Shoulders.

Kage ignored the Detective’s curled nose. His snarl. He pressed the elevator button. Tapped it again. This must have been the last remaining building in the city with a cable-operated elevator. It had been built long before grav-based replacements. Every time he stepped into this death-trap he was certain the cable would snap.

But it didn’t. The doors opened, and he was in the morgue. The cool, chemical air settled around Kage’s throat.

“Good to see you again, Kage,” said Dr. Hoevert without glancing up. “I’ll be … right … with you,” he said, straining to crack open a chest. It was Lincoln Russell’s.

The doctor wiped his hand across his apron. Pulled off his glove, and presented his liver-spotted hand to Kage.

Kage paused. Shook.

“He was fit, mind you,” said Dr. Hoevert, returning his attention to the body. The Coroner’s gray hair was striking under the high-temperature LEDs. Almost nobody let their hair gray anymore, what with Gutter blood transfusions readily available. “Or as fit as a man in his nineties can be.”

“Ninety?” asked Kage, staring at the body’s muscled abdomen.

“Believe it,” said Dr. Hoevert. “This man has more implants than Cher. Did you attend her concert last month? Everything. From his skin to his joints. All his major organs. And much besides.”

Dr. Hoevert reached into the chest. Tugged on the heart. “See the size of that thing? Fit as an ox. I don’t like this way of doing things much myself. Aging gracefully is my preferred exit.” The Doctor tossed back a wisp of gray hair from his eye.

“How’d he die?”

“Tough to say until I’ve completed the autopsy. Either the head wound, or exsanguination from his severed femoral artery. Take your pick.”

“You got the results on that blood spatter I asked for?”

“Jaclyn, have you run that DNA profile yet?”

A girl in a pink tank-top ambled into the room, chewing gum at a hundred decibels. “Uh, yeah, doc. Got ‘em right here.”

Kage took the file from her. Avoided staring at her boob tube.

Just as he’d thought. Industrial-strength Rejek in the blood sample. You’d only find that in Gutter donors. Just as he’d thought. Male donor. Oh, this was interesting. Age estimated at between sixteen and twenty years old. If he remembered correctly, the Gutter kids used in the gore bars were younger than that. Prepubescent.

“Funny thing.” The girl masticated louder than a tap dancer. “Couldn’t find a match for the DNA anywhere in the database.”

You won’t find a match if he’s a Gutter, thought Kage.

“Why you smiling?” asked Dr. Hoevert. He dropped one of the lungs onto a scale. Blood spattered on Kage’s already blood-caked moccasins. He didn’t flinch. Not flinching seemed the masculine thing to do.

“You ever seen anything but the standard food printer, in a kitchen anywhere in the Bubble, Dr. Hoevert?”

“Uh, no son. They standardized them almost a decade ago. Only one type around these days. Stops people from …” He yanked on the other lung. “… from abusing municipal ink.” He looked up at Kage. “What’s your point?”

“Could you take a DNA sample from the skin on my hand? From my palm.”

Jaclyn’s head tilted a full sixty degrees. “Like right now?”

“Right now.”

She shrugged. Swallowed her gum. “Guess so. Hang on a sec.” The girl scurried to the next room.

“Don’t mind her,” whispered the Coroner. “They send a new one down monthly. She won’t last another week … You feeling alright, Kage? Looks like you’ve got something on your mind.”

Kage paced. “He didn’t know about the printers. That they’re standard,” he said.

“Strange,” said the girl, returning with a swab. “Everyone knows that the printers are standard.”

“Can you compare that with the DNA sample?”

The girl popped another stick of gum in her mouth. “Uh, which one?”

Kage almost slapped her with the file in his hand.

“Oh, yeah. Sure can.” She dropped the swab in a vial, and tossed it into a pile.

“Do it now,” said Kage.

The girl looked to Dr. Hoevert, who nodded.

“Alright, alright. You two are worse than my dad. I’ll be done in fifteen minutes.”

“Call me,” said Kage, loping toward the elevator. “I’ll be upstairs. In the Cave.”

***

Riding a wave of anesthetic bliss, Daniel meandered into the apartment an hour later, laden with more shopping bags.

He stroked the bandage wrapped around his right hand. Marveled at the ointment he’d bought at Phil’s Pharma. Gods, the times he could’ve used that cream while he was working at the Organ Farm. Rejek was caustic, and over years of handling the emerald liquid, his hands had calloused, then scaled. Sometimes the scales cracked, and when Rejek encountered open skin – well, it wasn’t pleasant.

Daniel unloaded the largest bag. Extracted the spade, and expanded the handle to its full length. The reinforced polycarbonate grip was cold in his hands. He examined the ceramic tip of the spade. “Cuts through rock,” the assistant had said at the utility store. “Nano-enhanced edge.” Daniel wasn’t too sure what that meant, but it sounded promising.

He pulled on elbow-length gloves from another packet. Struggled to stretch the rubber over his bandage, but the gloves fitted snugly by the time he was done.

The spade pendulumed back and forth as he walked to the bathroom. He whistled to the rhythm of his footsteps on the tiles.

We had you cleaned

We had you eat

This time, Daniel had a real gas mask over his face when he opened the bathroom door. Mottled gray, “because safety can be stylish too,” the packaging had said. The rush of his breath in his ears punctuated the tune.

We love your toes

We love your meat

There wasn’t much left of Thomsin Sparling inside the translucent forcefield. The arm that had previously been wedged against the side of the container, had separated at the elbow. It floated on the surface now, drifting around the enclosure, muscle fibers trailing in its wake. An eyeball sailed the gentle waves of decay beside the forearm, rolling in the eddies of lye.

Daniel leaned over the top of the container, its invisible edge gnawing at his ribcage as he lowered the spade into the blend. He stirred. Plunged. Chopped. And in what seemed like no time at all, big pieces of Thomsin became small. Then smaller still. The caustic mixture did its work. Hair proved difficult at times, catching on the polycarbonate pole. But Daniel rubbed the hair between the fingers of his gloves, and the lye dissolved the strands easily enough.

Sweat stinging his eye, Daniel surveyed the vat. As Wikipedia had promised, Thomsin had been reduced to a sludge barely thicker than manila-colored coffee. There was something awesome, something breathtaking, in the thought of a body in that form.

Liquid. Free.

Daniel withdrew his gloved hands from the shower enclosure. Walked over to the basin, and thrust the gloves into the basin’s forcefield.

Pristine.

He removed them, careful not to dislodge his bandage, and tapped his glasses. “Empty shower,” he said. A minute later, and Thomsin had drained away entirely.

Daniel threw off the gas mask. Let out every molecule of air in his lungs. Crumpled in a heap of relief on the bathroom floor. He felt as though he’d been covered in ribbons of anxiety this past day. They’d snagged on people, on objects, as he’d found his way through the Bubble. Thomsin, the recesses of his mind had whispered. Thomsin, Thomsin, Thomsin.

Now Thomsin was gone.

When Daniel stood, he was lighter. His thoughts clarified. Crystalized into a plan. He checked the time. 5:40 a.m. Half an hour until sunrise. Daniel listed mentally what he had to do next.

Get rid of any trace evidence that Thomsin had died here. The spade. The gloves. The throw that had covered the body. The blood on the floor. The droplets of sludge on the shower base.

He’d need something in which to carry his tools. A duffel bag maybe. And then he’d need somewhere to stay. It was no longer safe here, not with that Detective sniffing around.

He rummaged through the top of Thomsin’s closet. Found a medium-sized satchel. That would do fine.

He fetched the bleach from the shopping bags, got down on his knees, and scrubbed.

***

“That’s weird.”

Una leaned closer to the hoverscreen. “That video you sent. No facial recog match. He’s not in any databases. I searched crimes, birth records, and organ recipients. None of them. Thomsin Sparling’s face should be in dozens of databases.”

“It’s not weird at all,” said Kage.

Una raised an eyebrow.

“He’s a Gutter. Most of them aren’t in any databases,” said Kage.

“But I thought you said the killer was Thomsin Sparling? He’s not a Gutter.” Una brought up Thomsin’s image from his identity card.

Kage shunted through a screengrab from the video taken at the apartment earlier that night. The two images stood side by side now. Thomsin and his imposter. “This isn’t Thomsin Sparling.”

“Huh. Computer agrees. Only a 23% match probability now that we have high-res images of both of them for comparison.”

“They look similar from a distance. But look closely. Bone structure. Distance between the eyes. They’re not the same person.”

The whites of Una’s eyes grew. “So then, who is he? And what’s he doing with Thomsin Sparling’s credit card?”

“On top of that, he’s living in Thomsin’s apartment,” said Kage.

Una fished a cigarette from behind a hovering screen. “This doesn’t bode well for the future of Thomsin Sparling.”

Kage remembered how the killer had smashed in Lincoln Russell’s skull. Hacked off his leg. His fingers.

Kage turned. Was halfway out the door, on his way to round up a posse of patrolmen to pay another visit to Thomsin’s apartment, when his glasses rang.

“Soapy strings,” said Jaclyn.

Kage heard her chewing on the other end of the line. Which was impressive, given the noise-cancelling software in his glasses.

“Excuse me?”

“The DNA strings,” explained the girl, “they’re degraded. Some sort of soapy substance. It’s messing with the coding procedure.”

“But is it him?”

“Is it who?”

Kage inhaled deeply. Resisted the urge to punch one of the hoverscreens. “Is the DNA sample taken from my palm the same person whose DNA was on the victim – Lincoln Russell’s – forearm?”

“Oh … ummm. It could be.”

Kage glanced at Una. Calmed his heart. Bit down on his lower lip so hard, it bled. “Can you say more?”

“Well, you know, we do Short Tandem Matching here in the lab. To get a match, we need to analyze multiple STR loci, and see whether there–”

“A little less detail than that. Tell me. Is it a match?”

“Because the sample from your hand was badly degraded, I couldn’t analyze enough STR regions to get a definitive answer. But the regions I was able to analyze, matched.”

“Is it him?”

“Probably.”

“How sure are you?”

“Like …” She chewed for a few seconds. “… eighty percent sure.”

Kage ended the call. He couldn’t contain his grin.

“What is it?” Una took a drag on the cigarette. The glow of the tip reflected brimstone on her corneas.

“The match is good enough for a search warrant at least,” said Kage. He took Una’s hand. “We got him.”

Una smiled. The way only a woman can smile. Kage’s heart stopped.

He needed to go. He needed to get over to Thomsin’s. He needed to arrest the imposter. The killer. He needed to solve this case. He needed the money.

But Kage couldn’t move. Instead, his mouth opened, and the words tumbled out before he could stop them.

“Would you have dinner with me …” He tapped his glasses. Just past 2 a.m. “… later tonight?”

Una was so surprised, she almost swallowed her cigarette. Coughed so hard, Kage had to stand her upright. But as the spasm subsided, a smile blossomed across her cheeks. “Kage Jackson, are you asking me out?”

“I guess I am,” he said, and almost darted from the room. He stuck his head round the doorframe. “Pick you up at seven?”

Una laughed. Nodded. Waved him away.

“Jackson. My office.”

Kage’s limber body snapped into an inflexible pole as he turned to face Captain Weeks. “Yes, sir. On my way.”

Shoulders glared at Kage as the Private Detective hurried past. Open hostility danced in Teague’s eyes.

“Leads? Mayor’s pissing all over the place. Wants this resolved yesterday. Embarrassed. Wants the whole thing gone.”

“Yes, sir. Una and I have a lead, sir. A boy impersonating –”

Weeks glanced up from his tablet. “Una?”

“Uh, the tech girl, sir.”

“Oh. Carry on.” He scrolled on a hoverscreen. Kage couldn’t be sure, but he thought it was Facebook.

“Sir, we think it was a boy who’s impersonating a Central Bubbler named Thomsin Sparling.”

Weeks’ face softened at the sight of something on the screen. Glanced up again. “Sparling? My wife knows the Sparlings.”

“Uh, yes sir. Well, not exactly, sir. Someone impersonating Sparling.”

Weeks returned to the screen. Boxes glowed in his eyes as he scanned the site. “Sounds complicated. Tell me, Jackson, think a hundred and six likes for a photo is impressive? The wife’s new mud pudding recipe.”

Kage swallowed. Stiffened further. “Sir, I’ve found the killer, and I need officers to accompany me to make the arrest.” He took a step forward. Another. Until he was standing in the Captain’s light. “I need the men now.”

Weeks sighed. Switched off the screen. “Take Shoulders and SWAT team Beta.”

“Will do, sir. One last thing.”

“What?”

“I’ll need payment for my services. An advance.”

Weeks eyed Kage. Shook his head infinitesimally. The universal expression of covert displeasure. “Fine,” he said eventually. “Usual rate.”

Kage handed over his credit card. Weeks swiped it across the paypoint sitting on his desk.

“We done here, Jackson?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Expect this case’ll be solved by sunrise,” said Weeks, returning Kage’s card.

Kage nodded.

His heart throbbed behind his eyes as he stepped outside. He closed Weeks’ office door with a deafening click. Shut his eyes a moment, his fingers on the cool brass handle. Exhaled. Sometimes he wondered how it worked. How anything worked, when all the money, all the decisions, all the power, sat in the laps of idiots.

He opened his eyes.

“Shoulders,” he said, and walked up to the broad man. The Detective smiled malevolently through his five-o’clock stubble. His chest was hyena-sized, his hands big as boxing gloves. Those hands clenched now as Kage spoke.

“Get your men together,” said Kage. “We’ve got an arrest to make.”

The Detective’s smile faltered. “Already?”

“Yes.” He was already walking to the brass-arched exit of Bubble PD. “Now.”

***

Daniel packed the last of the bloody cleaning rags in the duffel bag. Collapsed the spade, and shoved it inside. He scrunched up the throw that had doubled as Thomsin’s shroud. Nestled it beside the shovel. He did a final walk-through of the apartment.

Everything was as he’d found it, other than a pile of scrubbed plates on the dining table. He still wasn’t sure what to do with them once he was done. No sink. No garbage disposal. He’d miss the food printer, though. But he supposed Margaret would have one.

Would she take him in?

He wasn’t too sure what thoughts clicked through that android’s neural circuits. Did it even have thoughts? In its softer moments, when its human eyes glistened with unshed tears, when he stared at its human patches of skin – an elbow, an ear – he could almost think of it as a her.

Margaret would let him stay. It would. It would have to. Daniel had nowhere else to go. And if it wouldn’t let him stay … nobody would miss an android.

As if he knew it was time, Odin appeared from under the duvet in the bedroom. The cat yawned, stretched its slender figure. Daniel wondered what it would be like to inhabit a different body. He’d only given away his organs – never received anyone else’s. What would it feel like to touch with someone else’s fingers? To smell the world with someone else’s nose? Would it be different? Was a hand just a hand, a nose just a nose, interchangeable with any other? Did our parts only fulfill a function, or did they come with … a feeling? An indescribable quality. Something uniquely ours.

The cat purred against Daniel’s calf. What would it be like to be Odin? The susurrations of its tiny frame vibrated through Daniel’s leg, and into his heart. For a moment, he and the cat vibrated together.

“Come, old man,” he said, and tapped his shoulder. The cat leapt up, scrabbling for purchase on the smartshirt, and settled in the crook of Daniel’s neck.

“It’s time to go.” He gave the apartment a final once-over.

He looked out the translucent window that was the front door of the apartment. At the shimmering city. At its lustrous towers. Rivers of cars, each throwing twin beams of light as they darted between the buildings. Movement. That’s what was so different. After sunset, the Gutter stilled. Sank into a pool of sleep. But there was no rest in the Bubble. It was almost as busy after dark as it was under its perfect day-lit golden sky.

Somewhere out there, under that glowing dome, were the rest of his organs. He’d found his knee and his cornea. But he wanted his tongue. His amygdala. Lungs. Liver. His organs. And he was going to find them.

Daniel tapped the arm of his glasses. “Taxi,” he whispered, as sunrise kissed the distant edge of the Bubble.

***

The sun was just rising as Kage stepped into the SWAT van. It had taken HOURS to assemble the arrest team. Entirely because Shoulders was responsible for calling them in. A duty the Detective was in no rush to perform. He’d been intent on reviewing every detail of the case first.

But, finally, Shoulders had made the call. The SWAT van arrived as a hint of a glimmer of aquamarine gold winked through the eastern wall of the Bubble.

“This is Beta Leader. Departing BPD at 06:11. En route to destination. ETA … three minutes forty-seconds.”

Kage tried to stay out of their way as they swung their weapons around in the van. Checked safeties, firing pins, barrels. There were four of them. Hyena-sized. Augmented arms thick as pillars. Leg muscles rippled under their gel-fused armor. Kage was insectoid beside them. A nuisance they politely ignored.

Gym. He needed to get to that new gym. Soon as this arrest was over. He’d have money once he solved the case. Maybe he could afford to short-cut the months of testosterone and dumbbells required. He could talk to Yaron. He’d give Kage a special price on hyena muscle implants if he bought enough of them.

Shoulders sat opposite Kage in the van, ubiquitous porcelain grin absent. He stared resolutely through the panel above Kage’s left shoulder. This arrest would be credited to Kage. Every arrest the Private Detective made was a stone in Shoulders’ shoe. The mere fact that Weeks had called in Kage, an outsider, was a vote of no-confidence in Shoulders. And Shoulders was well aware.

“Set your modulator to phase eight-nine-two-zero,” said the team leader. The man’s face was older than his subordinates’. Wizened. Concentric lines of burden radiated from his eyes. A man who’d seen things men should not see.

The eyes of the junior members of the team darted around the van. Their vitality and excitement rose as the seconds passed. But not the team leader’s. He sat, immobile, folded into himself.

Shoulders took out a device. Twisted a dial on the outside. Slapped it onto his chest.

“My modulator only reaches up to seven thousand and forty-nine,” said Kage.

Shoulders ignored him.

“You weren’t given a police-issue modulator?” asked one of the junior SWATters. The boy’s nose was pink inside the oval mask obscuring his cheeks.

Kage shifted in his seat. “No.”

“SWAT uses ‘em on all ingress missions nowadays. Changes our phase above the normal range so –”

“ETA, two minutes,” chimed the team leader.

“… so the perps can’t detect us. The new modulators are fuckin’ A. Higher frequency than anythin’ available on the market. Walk right through walls with this baby.”

Junior took one from a box in the center of the van. Dialed it until the number in the center shone ‘8920’. Placed it on Kage’s chest. “You’re good to go, man.”

Kage beamed internally at the pronoun. He felt larger inside his armor. Solid. Ready.

Maybe the amygdala was kicking in after all?

Shoulders spoke up for the first time. “You’ve never wondered why Gutters can’t see the Bubble when they walk through the border?”

Kage ignored the question. Kept his face impassive.

“Bubble’s in a different phase,” said Junior. “Takes time for Gutters to shift phases to match. They need the glasses to see anything until they’ve switched. The glasses are defaulted to phase twenty-three hundred.”

“ETA one minute.”

Kage glanced down at the alien modulator on his chest. “How long does it take for someone’s phase to switch permanently?”

“Around a day. Don’t worry man. You can wear the modulator for a few hours without any side-effects. You’ll switch right back to default Bubble phase once you take it off.”

“ETA thirty seconds.”

The SWATters clicked down their visors. Shoulders tightened his armor. Kage tensed under his vest.

“Inbound in five … four …” Kage withdrew the Glock from his belt. “… three … two …” Butterflies blossomed in Kage’s stomach. “… one.”

The van slammed to a halt. Kage’s inertia threw him forward. The opposite panel, the panel behind Shoulders, slid aside. In less than a blink, the team leader leapt past Shoulders, through the glass front door of the residence of Thomsin Sparling.

But the glass didn’t shatter. Didn’t crack. The older SWATter had passed right through it.

And then the rest of the SWAT team were doing the same. Leaping through the glass. Disappearing through to the other side. Shoulders hurried after them. Kage stepped through last, his Glock raised.

“Bedroom clear.”

Kage blinked. Again.

“Bathroom clear.”

Walls, chairs and couches wavered around him. The crisp lines of the apartment, the apartment he’d been inside just hours earlier, had morphed to hazy sine waves. As though the room were submerged in a puddle of liquid silver.

“Apartment clear.”

The SWAT leader removed his helmet. His face was distinct, unwavering, in the blurry apartment. As though everything around the leader had the contrast turned right down, but the contrast filter on his face had been dialed all the way up. Every line of fatigue shone on his cheeks.

Kage holstered his Glock. Stared at his hand. It too was clear. He looked over at the other SWATters removing their face plates. Clear, crisp edges to their shapes. Unlike the couch, which looked as though it could melt into the wall any moment.

“Heat traces suggest the apartment was occupied recently,” said the team leader.

“How recently?” asked Kage.

“Less than half an hour.”

“Well nobody’s here now,” said Shoulders, a trace of his smile returning.

Kage kept his voice level. “I checked beforehand. Sparling’s glasses are pinging in the apartment.”

Shoulders widened his stance. Looked down at Kage. “You see him around?”

Kage glanced around the apartment. Difficult to see anything through the haze. He walked over to the dining table. It quivered. Flickered in and out of existence as he approached. It seemed like the refresh rate on reality had been turned down too low.

He reached out to touch something black and angular on the table. His fingers gripped it for a moment, then passed right through the object. He tried again, more slowly this time. Lifted it closer to his face so he could see it. A pair of glasses.

Almost certainly Thomsin’s glasses.

Shit.

“Gods, Kass. Turn off your phase modulator. You’re giving us all a headache.”

Kage swiveled. The SWAT team had turned the same hazy silver as the rest of the apartment. Shoulders’ usually straight hair had morphed to a wavy gray. His hand left a wake of afterimages as he pointed to his chest.

Kage pulled the device off his own trunk armor to return to phase 2300. Felt the apartment lurch around him, then snap into focus like a set of guitar strings. His stomach compressed. His head swam.

“You’ll get used to it.” Shoulders laughed, and slapped Kage across the back. Kage had to double over to stop himself falling head first to the porcelain tiles.

“So, uh, I’d say this was a bust,” continued Shoulders. “Nice digs, though. This Thomas Sparling has it good.”

“Thomsin,” Kage corrected.

“Where is he, anyway?”

“We’re not looking for him.”

Shoulders shook his head, hair straight again. No afterimages. “But you said his glasses were pinging here. Why you pinging his glasses if he’s not the one you’re looking for?”

Kage glanced at the SWAT team. They slouched around the apartment, looking uncomfortable.

“We discussed this. There’s someone impersonating Thomsin Sparling. Wearing his glasses. Living in his apartment. He’s the killer from Amputating Amy.”

Shoulders tapped the toe of his shoe on the tiles. Smiled at the SWAT team. “Sounds like a stretch. What evidence you got?”

He’d been through this, all of this, with Shoulders back at the station. The Detective had sat there, apparently listening. But the whole time his eyes had seemed … glazed. He’d been busy with something else on his glasses.

“Facial recognition software says they’re not the same person. They have –”

“Pffft. Facial recog’s a crock a’ shit. You know the courts don’t accept the algorithms. Let’s see their pics.”

Kage tapped his glasses. Issued the commands to message through the face images of Thomsin and the boy he’d met earlier that morning.

Shoulders’ eyes swung from side to side as he compared them on his overlay. “They look the same to me.”

The SWAT leader stepped between them. Faced Shoulders. “Uh, Teague, we’ve got places to be.”

“Thank you, man. Apologies for bringing you out here.” Shoulders threw a bristled glare at Kage. “False alarm. See you at hoverhockey on Friday?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” said the SWAT leader, already walking to the door.

“But he’s not Sparling,” said Kage, as the SWAT team filed out of the apartment, back into the hovering van.

“How’d you know?” asked Shoulders.

“Because I chatted to him. Shook his hand. Got DNA samples.”

“Oh yeah, were they conclusive matches to anyone other than Thomas Sparling?”

“Thomsin. Thomsin Sparling. Uh, not exactly. But –”

“You got nothing,” said Shoulders.

“Let me at least take a look around.”

Shoulders yawned. “Knock yourself out. I’ll be over here. On the couch. Waiting for you to uncover another dead end.”

Kage needed to get out of the living room. No shoulder room with the Detective in it.

He stalked off, to the bedroom. Thick pile carpet. Unmade bed.

Focus, Kage. There’ll be traces of the imposter. There were always traces. And he never missed them.

Kage always found his man.

###

[]Daniel’s Gruesome Crusade Continues …

Read The Face in a Jar, Fragment 2 of the Defragmenting Daniel trilogy. Click here:

http://smarturl.it/FaceInJarW

Acknowledgements

The Defragmenting Daniel trilogy is the largest fiction project I’ve completed so far. In total, it spans over 120,000 words, and took a year to write and edit. I had plenty of help along the way.

A colossal thank you to Marc Ryan Rees. He thought up the ending of the third book in the trilogy, and came up with Kage’s character in under a minute. Marc is one of the most creative and talented human beings I know. Listen to him narrate my short stories on Sound Cloud here.

Michael Ferguson, my life partner and best friend, listened to me read him every word of the first draft of this book. (First drafts are awful, by the way – but he stuck through it. That’s love.) He was there for me throughout the process of writing this book, from offering countless suggestions, large and small, to providing regular shoulder rubs, and massive help with writing the blurbs for these books. Michael is an excellent writer in his own right, and has written a novel that he’s releasing in regular chapters on his blog. Read it here.

Rae Nash is my editor and mentor. Her suggestions and advice are always on-point. Always sharp. Always helpful. Rae has sculpted me into the writer I am today. I’m grateful for the input from the Sharp Pencils writing group, run by Rae.

Thank goodness for my friend and fellow writer, Khin Kyaw! Khin is a medical doctor, and fact-checked the medical elements of this novel – of which there were plenty that needed modifying thanks to her suggestions. The novel wouldn’t be half as plausible without her.

Warren Goldstuck is a close friend, superb sci-fi writer, and encouraging writing partner. Warren has sat with me countless times in coffee shops helping me hone my marketing strategies, book covers, and book blurbs.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, thank you to the dozens of Advance Review Readers and Newsletter Subscribers who read my books. Many of you have been faithful readers from my first book, The Solace Pill. I relish our exchanges over email and on my blog – there’s nothing more satisfying for a writer than to receive an engaging response from a reader. Your support and feedback is immensely helpful in improving my craft.


Defragmenting Daniel: The Organ Scrubber - A Sci-Fi Thriller

7 stolen organs. 1 vengeful victim. A gruesome sci-fi thriller. Organ scrubbing was a bloody job, but somebody had to do it. Daniel, an orphan from the Gutter, was put to work scrubbing kidneys at aged twelve. The job had its perks: a warm bed, Law and Order reruns, and an all-you-can-eat Mopane worm buffet … Until the Orphanage stole Daniel’s parts, and sold them on the organ market. Now Daniel has grown up, and yearns to become whole again. The cybernetic organ replacements just aren’t the same – he needs his parts back. But the new owners of his organs won’t give them up. Not without a fight. Just how far will Daniel go to regain his missing pieces? And how much more of himself will he lose along the way? Defragmenting Daniel is a cyberpunk crime thriller that will unnerve you. Every part of you. “A work of great imagination. Powerful and gripping.” “A stark and moving experience.” – ReadersFavorite.com, 5 Star Review

  • ISBN: 9781370143504
  • Author: Jason Werbeloff
  • Published: 2017-02-19 23:35:16
  • Words: 48250
Defragmenting Daniel: The Organ Scrubber - A Sci-Fi Thriller Defragmenting Daniel: The Organ Scrubber - A Sci-Fi Thriller