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Halfskin (The Vignettes)

 
h2={color:#000;}. TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • {color:#000;}Alien invasion, dark fairytales, heart-pounding galactic adventures and cyberpunk thrillers in22 all-new full-length novels by award-winning,New York Times,USA Todayand international bestselling authors.
  • {color:#000;}vi·gnette [vin-yet]
  • {color:#000;}HALFSKIN
  • {color:#000;}1
  • {color:#000;}2
  • {color:#000;}3
  • {color:#000;}4
  • {color:#000;}5
  • {color:#000;}M0THER
  • {color:#000;}2
  • {color:#000;}3
  • {color:#000;}4
  • {color:#000;}5
  • {color:#000;}6
  • {color:#000;}7

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Alien invasion, dark fairytales, heart-pounding galactic adventures and cyberpunk thrillers in 22 all-new full-length novels by award-winning, New York Times, USA Today and international bestselling authors.

vi·gnette [vin-yet]

A brief evocative description, account, or episode.

HALFSKIN

We’re often convinced if we just get [_this, _]all suffering will end. Yet with all of today’s advancements, why does utopia still seem to be something achievable only after death while dystopia our human inheritance?

Can technology change this?

Medical technology can print body parts. That’s happening today, right now.

Suppose that medical bioengineers take the technology a step further and invent a synthetic stem cell, a biomite, that can replace any cell in your body. Unlike our organic cells, biomites are infallible. No more kidney failure, no severed spines or blood disease. No cancer. Pharmaceuticals become obsolete. As our percentages of biomites rise, we become stronger, we become smarter and prettier. We become better.

If tempted by the promise of perfection, can we resist? As a society, probably not. Who are we when our bodies are replaced by synthetic replications? Are we our memories? Our brain? Heart? What if we retain one single organic cell, what are we then?

Still human?

If biomites exist, governments will see the danger of unlimited access. Laws will be imposed to prevent people from excess and abuse. The Halfskin Laws will decree a human composed of 50% biomites is no longer human. Halfskins will have no legal rights and will have their biomites shutdown.

They won’t be murdered. Merely deactivated.

1

Ned Peterson sat in the third row, center stage. The set was black and empty except for a small table, also black, with a large box beneath a heavy blanket. Something inside moved with mechanical precision.

The kids around him were in their mid-twenties, maybe thirties, erupting with nerdgasms. There were thousands of them. Ned was polite but didn’t talk much. He never came to product launches; this was his first and probably his last. But he didn’t want to be distracted by theatrics.

If the rumors were true, this would change the world.

Ned taught high school students the basic manipulation of their initial biomite seeds: how to increase intelligence and inspire creativity. He wanted them to use their gifts to better humanity. His students, on the other hand, just wanted to initiate Dreamland experiences and thought-chat.

Ned was about to find the bathroom when a beam of light engulfed the mystery box. There was applause and standing ovations. When nothing happened, silence settled. Ned sensed a subtle drone in the background, a low baritone that amped the anticipation.

A puppy bolted from stage left and raced across the stage.

Laughter rumbled through the auditorium. The floppy-eared black puppy skidded to a stop, paws hanging over the edge of the stage, and searched for a way down. Then piddled on the floor.

Another spotlight knifed from above, this one illuminating a slender figure that stepped out from stage right. This time, the entire room erupted. They were on their feet, applauding and cheering.

Ned was forced to stand.

The iconic figure didn’t recognize his fans with his usual wave. Instead, he strode in front of the small table and towered over the puppy now prancing in a circle.

“Accidents happen,” Allen Smith said, scooping up the puppy.

While the crowd continued, silent assistants placed a chair by the table and wiped up the dog’s accident. Allen Smith sat down and crossed his legs. The puppy climbed up the front of his black turtleneck to lick his face.

And the mystery box continued to churn.

Allen Smith cleaned his round spectacles while the crowd settled. He remained calm even after the room was relatively quiet. The puppy curled up on his lap and he scratched it behind the ears.

The crowd waited.

“Over the past twenty years,” he finally said, with little effort, “we have brought human-augmented technology to unprecedented heights. Our company is solely responsible for biomite stabilization. We curbed runaway replication and allowed humanity to control their biomites. Thought-chat is more common than texting. Internal audio has replaced the need for external speakers. We’ve increased memory storage like internal hard drives, initiated group thinking and collective IQ. We are on the cusp of developing augmented dreamworlds that will generate new realities inside the mind. Quite simply, we’ve made better humans.”

Allen Smith looked up and delivered his trademarked line.

“What else can we do?”

This was greeted with raucous cheers. Ned sat quietly, perhaps the only spectator not moved by Allen Smith’s theatrics. Pomp and circumstance were not substitutes for substance.

Allen Smith put the puppy down and paced to the left. He folded his hands and walked meditatively. The crowd couldn’t contain its enthusiasm. Allen Smith, characteristically, ignored them. He continued walking with measured steps until he reached the left side of the stage and turned around. The puppy followed him to the right.

He returned to the center and stood next to the table. He held his reflective pose, gazing at the floor. The puppy sat by his side.

“What else is there?” he asked sincerely this time. “For twenty years, we have seeded biomites into our bodies to support life, to bring it more vitality, greater longevity and infinite potential. People, we sit on the precipice of creating imaginary universes and unheard-of genius.”

Assistants scurried out with a short set of steps and placed them in front of the table. Some spectators muttered. Ned was riveted to his seat.

“People, we were made in the image of God. And now we can follow in His footsteps. I don’t want to simply support life anymore.”

He grabbed the blanket.

“I want to create it.”

Beneath the blanket was a glass case that contained silver rods that moved like mechanical fingers preparing magic, circling around an inanimate object.

Allen Smith was expressionless. The puppy, however, climbed the steps to investigate what looked like another puppy, this one white.

The crowd murmured. Ned hoped they wouldn’t stand. He gripped the armrests like he was on the edge of a cliff.

The silver rods twirled around the white puppy one last time; mist emitted from microscopic nozzles embedded along ridges inside the box. Everything folded up and collapsed to the bottom.

There was just the white puppy.

Allen Smith didn’t wait for quiet. Even he knew, at this juncture, that silence would not return. He tapped the front of the box and the glass pane opened. Ned barely heard what Allen Smith said next. His heart was thudding, his ears ringing.

The white puppy moved its head. It looked at Allen Smith. A lull of stunned silence fell on the room. The white puppy stepped onto the steps and hesitantly climbed down. The puppies collided and rolled in rollicking puppy fervor.

The crowd found its breath.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Allen Smith said, “I bring you the world’s first fabricator.”

The magic words were spoken.

Ned was the first one to stand, his meaty palms applauding. The crowd joined him, tears streaming down their cheeks. Some would not sit again.

And Allen Smith, uncharacteristically, smiled.

2

Perry Dawkins had never been in a green room.

Turned out that the backstage room wasn’t green at all. He knew that, but he still had expectations, would’ve been happy if the walls were mossy. Instead, they were white and water-stained. A coffee machine was in the corner.

He was breathing a little too rapidly and feeling light-headed. He could control the nerves like other fabricated humans (a thought-command to increase dopamine and suppress norepinephrine for starters) but preferred to let it ride. The stress wasn’t debilitating. In fact, it was exhilarating. Humanizing.

After all, he’d started out human.

Emotions were evolutionary shortcuts to environmental response. It was only when he ignored them did they back up, an emotional river that spilled over the muddy banks and flooded him with anxiety. If more fabricated humans embraced the emotional aspect of their identity rather than exerted their will over them, they would have fewer problems assimilating into society.

Perry was more than a role model. I am a perfect human.

“How you doing?” an elderly man with wavy gray hair took his shoulders and asked. “A little nervous?”

Perry blew through smiling fish lips and nodded.

Dr. Wilkerson shook him, patted him and then embraced him with his characteristic hug that, for a moment, squeezed out all the air. He slapped his back with a heavy paw.

“You’re going to change the world,” the professor said gruffly.

One of the conference directors grabbed the professor for a few words but not before he imparted a fatherly grin, the stage lights sparkling in his eyes.

A stagehand came after Perry with a wireless mic. “It’s backup, just in case primary audio goes down.”

He worked on fixing it to Perry’s lapel while a young woman waited with a short brush in one hand and a box in the other.

“Do you mind?” she asked.

The professor mentioned they’d want to fix him up for the recording, add color blanched out by the stage lights. Perry’s complexion was mocha, his hair looping curls of surfer brown, eyes distinctly almond-shaped. He was an amalgam of several races. No one would guess him as a neuroscientist. The world’s leading.

“What’s the talk?” the makeup artist asked.

“What?”

“You look nervous.”

“Oh, yeah.” He shook his hands. “A little.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Um, dream disease.”

She exaggerated an understanding frown, intrigued but not really. “Friend of mine’s daughter has a friend at school that died from it a few months ago. It’s a shame, really need to do something about it.”

“I think I have an answer.”

“Tell you what the answer is.” She made long, soft strokes across his forehead. “It’s getting rid of the bricks. They started it.”

The smile that had grown through his nervous breathing wilted; the butterflies in his stomach curdled into lumpy, crawling critters with thick lapping tongues.

“That’s not true,” he said. “See, there’s evidence out there that… you see, the dream accelerators that allow halfskins to generate dreamlands are networked, which means halfskins are trading…”

Her brush slowed.

“Bricks have stable dreamworlds,” he blurted, hoping his use of the racist vocabulary would win her over. “They really have nothing to do with the dreamlands that halfskins experience. And there’s no connection with clay dreams. My analysis is conclusive. The sooner we can identify the real cause of this epidemic, the sooner it can be cured.”

“Done. Good luck.”

His hand twitched. He wanted to snatch her like a rogue calf that needed to learn how the ranch worked, but it would only scare her. She didn’t know he was a brick when she started applying makeup, but it was clear she figured it out.

Bigotry had a finely tuned detector.

Maybe he could convince the waiting room of academics, but how would he win over the general public? Prejudice wasn’t interested in facts. People like her already lived in an altered reality designed by their xenophobic thoughts.

[_People like her. _]He had to watch his own prejudice.

It was just hard to stomach reactions like that. The incidents of dream disease among the brick population were nonexistent while the casualty rate of halfskins using dreamland accelerators was pointing at the sky.

It was the scientists from the clay states that suggested a theory that bricks were carriers of the psychological disorder since dream disease didn’t exist prior to the sentience laws. They couldn’t explain why clays were succumbing to dream disease, albeit at lower rates than halfskins; just blame the bricks and everything would be all right.

Bricks were vectoring rats.

The link, as Perry’s lab discovered, between dreamland and dream disease was the halfskin accelerators. They were all networked. It would be like no one washing their hands during an influenza epidemic and coughing into each other’s mouths. Start by getting rid of the accelerators and then they could focus on clay dream disease.

The answer sure as hell wasn’t getting rid of the bricks’ dreamlands. No evidence supported it, yet they still kept them from dreaming. It was only Dr. Wilkerson’s connections that allowed Perry to venture off the Settlement to lead the research. This was rare and, as it would turn out, would be the last time it ever happened.

Perry had proof that the accelerators were the problem. Halfskins were using them to create their dreamlands. Dreamland accelerators were malleable resorts, digital funlands that expanded the dreamer’s recreational opportunities. This was a trillion-dollar industry that Perry was blaming.

But they were missing the entire point of dreamland. It was so much more than a dream vacation world where they could sleep with twenty women or skydive without risk or murder without repercussions.

Dreamlanding is world building.

Imagine a creative outlet that wasn’t a blank canvas or pages in a book or images on a screen but an actual universe with planets and stars and outer space. Perry believed that dreamlands were real.

We are the seeds of new realities.

No single region of the brain controlled dreamland. It was a production of the entire organ. That was Perry’s proposal: biomites would be used to rebuild the entire brain. That was why the bricks could dream so effortlessly, why they were immune to dream disease—there was no clay holding back the experience. And clay, by the clay state’s own admission, was imperfect. [_We are descendants of original sin, _]one such pastor claimed, proudly.

But we don’t have to stay in the garden!

Perry would show the audience that he had proof that imagination didn’t just create images and sensations but acted like a portal to new planes of existence. He would pull back the curtain on God, give a purpose to each and every human being. We weren’t just here to enjoy ourselves.

We are creators!

Perhaps that was what God intended, not for us to live a good life, an obedient life, a fun-filled healthy life. But a creative life.

And dream disease? Maybe that was our failure to live up to that purpose. Our imperfections created monsters that terrorized dreamlands instead of spinning new and amazing solar systems.

_The dream feasts on the dreamer. _

“Five minutes!” someone shouted.

Perry took several short, choppy breaths, shook his hands and jogged in place. Dr. Wilkerson was with his peers. They gave him a thumbs-up. He would be presenting for the team. It was a collaborative effort, but Perry was leading them. It was his baby. They wanted him to deliver salvation.

A brick to save the world.

Stagehands rushed past him. His introduction had begun. The makeup artist was approaching for a last second touch up. He closed his eyes and bowed his head for a few moments of inner solitude.

He didn’t see her press the Taser against his stomach.

Didn’t feel the floor crumple beneath him.

The electrical charge delivered enough voltage to cause serious damage. He never recovered.

And the world never changed.

3

The room was warmly lit with a corner lamp, the walls dark olive with three sofa chairs a dark shade of pumpkin. It would be described as cozy, something a therapist would design.

Exactly what Hanoi Fender expected.

One of the chairs was singled out and faced the other two. That was his chair. He wasn’t ready to sit, but they’d be watching what he did while he waited. He wanted to appear relaxed, confident. For the next fifteen minutes, he slouched into the deep cushion and watched a fish tank bubble. It was home to a goldfish that seemed obsessed with escape, bumping its nose against the glass the entire time, probably since it was dropped in its new home.

Probably until it died.

Funny thing was this: if it managed to somehow escape—flop out of the tank or push through the glass—it would suffocate on the carpet.

[_Maybe that’s what it wanted. _]

“Good morning.” A woman stepped inside with a man.

“Good morning,” Hanoi answered.

They sat across from him, smiling pleasantly. They were athletic looking, attractive and nonthreatening. He doubted they mixed it up outside of work, but they’d make great babies if they did.

“Okay, well,” she said. “Here we are.”

“Yes.”

“Are you comfortable?”

“Very.”

“If you’re thirsty, there’s water on the table.”

“No, thank you.”

“This will take about an hour.”

“Yes.”

He let out a long, easy breath, questioning whether he should’ve acknowledged that last statement. It wasn’t good to know too much, but everyone knew this took an hour.

_That answer was fine. _

“Nervous?” she asked.

“Little bit.”

The couple nodded. They didn’t write anything down, didn’t need to. Everything was being immediately analyzed—every word, every movement. All the way down to how he blinked.

He let out another long breath, let this one shake a little at the end, and darted his eyes between the two evaluators. That would look cautious.

“Did your parents prepare you?” she asked.

“No.”

“No?”

“I mean, we talked about it, of course. But they didn’t, you know… we weren’t able to—”

“It’s all right.” She smiled.

[_Shit. _]That was too much. He wanted to look nervous, not act it. Shaky breathing, quivering hands, dry mouth and rapid blinking, that was what a nervous person would do.

“So you have parents?” she asked.

“Yes. A mom and dad.”

“They fabricated you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a transplant, is that right?”

He hid his annoyance. She knew the answer to that.

“Yes. They lost their son in an unfortunate accident and, um, used his DNA to fabricate me.”

“So you’re not him?”

He nailed a nervous laugh. “No, no. He’s like an identical twin.”

“Do you think of yourself as a transplant or a clone?”

This is stupid.

“A brother.”

“Does that bother you? No? Not being original?”

“I have my own thoughts, my own interests. We’re twins born at different times.”

“But you have his memories.”

“That’s where he ends and I begin.”

“How do you know?”

Shrug. He was tired of this line of questioning. Besides, the shrug showed indecision. That was a good human trait. The shrug was well-placed, well executed. [_I don’t know and I don’t care. _]

The man spoke up for the first time, asking Hanoi to compose a poem.

“Roses are red, violets are blue… that sort of thing?”

“Yeah,” the man said.

“All right. Roses are red, violets are blue, you’re very pretty, and I like you.”

He said it to the woman and elicited a rush of blood to his face. His cheeks turned pink. Like roses. _Nailed it. _

“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked.

“No.”

“Do you go to school?”

“I do.”

“What grade?”

“I’m a junior in high school.”

“What’s your favorite thing about school?”

“Recess.” It wasn’t, really. Then it occurred to him that recess was what grade schoolers did. That sounded rehearsed, but before he could correct himself—

“What’s the square root of 88,574?” the man asked.

Pause. “297.6 something something.”

They didn’t react. He had paused for at least five seconds before answering. Was that long enough?

“I like math,” he added.

The man asked the chess problem. Hanoi knew that was coming; there was always a chess problem in Turing tests. He stared dully as the man set up a scenario and asked Hanoi his next move. The rook could mate in one, but he leaned forward, pinching his lower lip, watching the goldfish hit the water’s surface.

“I don’t like chess.”

“Why not?”

Shrug.

He wished they would write something down. It would be a good way to gauge how he was doing. The sitting and staring was unnerving, the pauses getting longer, the silence broken by the bubbles.

“Hanoi’s an unusual name,” she said.

“My father served in the military.”

“Do you love your parents?”

“Of course.”

“What is love?”

He stammered. That was genuine; he didn’t see that coming. They were supposed to ask why he loved his parents. He loved them, of course, because they were his parents and they gave him life and it was how he thanked them. Children loved their parents, that was the rule.

“Love is an emotion.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” A very long pause. “Tell me more about emotions.”

“Emotions are evolutionary shortcuts. It takes too long to think about everything. A human hears a twig snap in the bushes and fear instantly makes him ready to fight or flight.”

“A human?”

“You know what I mean.” He shook his head. [_That was stupid. _]“I just meant early [_Homo sapiens, _]that’s all.”

“Do emotions define human?”

“I think so.”

“Are they required?”

He paused. He didn’t mean to, just tripped up on the answer that was thrust onto his tongue. He caught it between his teeth before it escaped. The answer, it seemed, was obvious. Emotions were often irrational, were not good choices. But emotions, to some degree, were required. At least, he wanted to believe they were.

“To some degree, yes. Refined emotions, I think.”

Another long pause. The long silences seemed to be serving as palate cleansers because the man started in with typical questions about songs or art or impossible scenarios. Hanoi handled them deftly with precise pauses mixed with consternation bordering on constipation.

This went on for half an hour, the woman not saying anything until after a very long pause, and she said without expression, hands folded on her right knee, “You have failed, Hanoi. You will need to tell your parents that, according to the sentience laws, you exhibit the nature of artificial intelligence. You will be terminated. Your parents are in the next room. Would you like to tell them?”

“Yes.”

Hanoi stood up. It was rather unfortunate. His parents spent a lot of money to fabricate him in the likeness of their late son. They would be disappointed. It would be better if he told them.

“Hanoi?”

“Yes?”

“How do you feel?”

“Sad.” That was the correct answer. He should feel sad for being turned off. _Dying. I will die. _

His parents were in the next room, but they never got to see him again. He never went to tell them. Hanoi Fender was terminated following the final answer of his Turing test. Because he didn’t [_feel _]sad. He didn’t feel anything.

In fact, he went to tell his parents because that was what he was supposed to do. They wanted a child that would listen. He was doing what he was told.

The last thing he saw was the goldfish gasping at the glass wall. Then fabricated human #588, known as Hanoi Fender, was no more.

4

“Your room is ready, Ms. Winters.”

Norah Winters didn’t stop at the sprawling desk. She didn’t even take off her sunglasses. The cheerful receptionist offered a curt but pleasant smile and returned to her administrative duties.

It was one of many reasons why Norah chose the Dream Institute[. _]There were many certified dreamland accelerators in Denver, a few rated four stars with a clean record. But none of them had the service like the Dream Institute[. _]The name even implied superior status.

Norah liked that.

The door to the left of the desk swung open. A petite young lady was there to greet her, a blonde with small breasts and athletic hips. Norah knew the way to her room but let the young thing lead the way.

The hallway was wide with tasteful art on the walls (well, not all of it tasteful) and several quiet doorways. A mix of jazz played softly. The young lady opened the third door to the right, asked if there was anything else and left with a curt but pleasant smile (they trained them that way).

The suite was plush and clean with a living room arrangement for entertaining (if you wanted to waste your time) and a large workspace. The spotless bay window overlooked the Rockies, a view Norah was enamored with the first time she leased the room but now had become as unnoticed as the wallpaper.

A glass of red wine (Dana Estates Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon) was on a sterling silver platter, a wine she discovered in Napa with husband number two (or was it three?). Norah sat on the duvet to free her feet from the high heels.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Winters.” Sheila closed the door quietly behind her.

“Good day.”

Sheila sat next to Norah and opened a black leather case, humming a pleasant tune as she did so. Sheila was naturally chatty, something Norah put an end to after their first meeting. She allowed the humming, considering it a fair compromise.

“It’s been six months since we last sampled,” Sheila said.

Norah allowed her to tie an elastic band above her elbow, turning her head before the needle pricked her vein and the vial turned red. Sheila then placed a black box the size of a cell phone against Norah’s chest. A wave of prickly static scattered under her skin.

And then the nurse was gone. No goodbye, no the doctor will be here in a minute, just a little humming ditty out the door.

There was a bathroom to the left. Norah showered and put on a Stefano Ricci robe. She hadn’t even requested that type of robe, they just knew she’d love it. She leaned over the sink and wiped away the condensation to study the loose skin beneath her green eyes. Not bad for an eighty-nine-year-old woman.

But not good enough.

When Dr. Toby Chalmers arrived, she was still in the Stefano Ricci and the pedicurist was almost finished.

“Ah, Norah,” he said with all his pearly teeth. “It’s so lovely to see you.”

“Of course.”

“You look fabulous, as always.”

“I suppose, but these bags.” Norah turned her cheek. “Can we do something?”

Toby (she was on a first-name basis; just because he was a doctor didn’t mean she called him by his last name) bent over to examine her creamy complexion.

“A little tweak might work,” he said. “Perhaps we can address that next time. Your biomites are at 94% and I’d like a full analysis before we do that. You don’t have time for that now, a busy woman such as yourself.”

She felt the blood rush to her cheeks, admonishing herself for showing indulgence. He knew what she liked.

And that’s why I’m here.

“Your blood work and scan are perfect. Anything else we can do before you go?”

Her lips parted. A tiny sound stuck in her throat, the words throttled in place. Something was on her mind; it had been since she read the newsfeed that morning. It was bothering her, but she didn’t want to say anything, didn’t want it to sound like little-girl worry (her third husband called it that, or was it the first?).

Besides, if she said it out loud, it could make it true. It was like actors that played terminally ill cancer patients (when cancer was a thing). If they believed they had cancer, they got cancer. But she couldn’t stop herself from thinking. Her thoughts had always had a life of their own. If only she devoted more biomites to her brain, she could control what she thought and felt.

She could commit the last 6% of her clay to brain biomites. Well, 5% of her clay. It was impossible to go 100%. Even if she could, she’d become one of those bricks and they’re the ones that started dream disease.

Dream disease—damn it! She thought it.

“No. Nothing else.”

“Very well.”

The nurse returned and the pedicurist left. Norah went to the side room, a small enclave that was without windows or decorations, that housed the largest most comfortable chair invented. It resembled a reclining throne.

They helped her lie back. She tucked the flaps of her robe to avoid exposing her thighs (she was still nude) while the nurse fussed with an IV bag and Toby checked the monitors that tracked her vitals. There would be no catheter (no tube in there, thank you). They would have to clean her.

The chair began to vibrate.

Toby lifted her hand like a delicate flower and kissed it. “Bon voyage, beautiful woman.”

It occurred to Norah they knew her thoughts. This disturbed and pleased her at the same time. There was no need for her to request her wants and desires, they were taken care of. It was just… some thoughts she wanted to keep private. But if that was the price of luxury and a handsome doctor (it occurred to her he wasn’t really a doctor), then she was willing.

The bricks (damn them) didn’t need accelerator chairs to reach their dreamlands. They just closed their eyes and went. Well, back when they had dreamlands. The government took that away because of the dream disease.

Dammit.

When the door closed and the room was silent, the vibrations ramped up. She closed her eyes and let the vibrations take her. She could no longer feel the fabric around her. No longer tell the difference between where she ended and the chair began.

She whirred.

And fell.

A salty breeze blew across her face. She opened her eyes to see an endless horizon on a blazing sea, the sun setting off to her right in a violet sky. She was standing on a glass portico that cantilevered over a sheer cliff that ended in ship-eating boulders.

And that wasn’t all.

Her hips were curved, legs shapely, her cheeks taut where once they sagged. She was young again. And below, relaxing around a pool with an edge that appeared to fall over the cliff, were ten young men straight from Greek mythology—racked abs and oiled biceps.

_Dreamland. _

She was wealthy in real life, so the excess wasn’t that much different, really. But she couldn’t control everything in the physical world. [_You must live life on life’s terms, _]her recovering alcoholic ex-husband told her before leaving (he was number four, she remembered that).

But not in dreamland.

She stepped off the portico and floated down to the pool as gently as a rose petal. Here, life lived on her terms. These were her rules. This was her universe. Perhaps some would find being a goddess boring.

Not so.

Later that night, she lay at the water’s edge, strewn across a large boulder like a wet rag. The black sky sparkled with diamonds; the moons were full (she preferred two moons). That evening’s orgy had sapped her. She could still taste blood and wondered if it was still on her lips. Even in dreamland she could become exhausted. Three men would do that to anyone. (And one woman, just to spice things up.)

She murdered them when she was finished, cut them open and spilled their organs, rolling in the gore as her orgasm faded.

Her inner fantasies indulged, she closed her eyes. She had another couple of days before having to make her exit, to return to the flesh for the required recuperative therapy (too long away from the real world and the body forgets you, they say). She wasn’t one to push it. But for now, she would sleep.

In the morning, she’d have breakfast in the tower, perhaps fly over to the mainland and visit the city. The details of the urbanscape were unknown to her, something the Dream Institute provided for her to discover.

Perhaps she could bring back some children for the evening’s festivities.

She felt the warm arms of sleep when a cool shadow passed over her. It was a strange unsettling feeling. She’d been known to allow mythological creatures into her dreamland, but none now. Even so, one could only pass over one moon.

Not both.

She sat up and willed the ocean still. The frothy water settled as if a wave machine had been cut off. She listened and reached with her mind, her thoughts crawling to the extent of her universe. She fought to keep the paranoid thoughts out of her awareness, the worry she couldn’t extinguish in front of Toby. But she couldn’t help it. Something felt… foreign.

The temperature plummeted.

The ocean immediately froze into a solid sheet. The moon crystalized, the sky shattered. One column of fog escaped her lips before her body—her young, curvaceous body—turned into granite.

Only a distant beeping rang in the silence.

She was unable to turn her head, to move her eyes, to call for help. But the beeping grew louder.

Voices.

Someone was out there. Someone was coming.

“Not yet!” It was Toby’s voice. “Don’t disconnect, she’s got to be stable!”

There were people around her now. The boulders had disappeared; the glacial ocean gone. A quick journey through a dark shattered blackness brought her back to her tremoring flesh.

“Norah!” His face was blurry. “Stay with us, Norah!”

There was chaos, but it didn’t matter to her. The cold had stolen her breath and taken her will. She just wanted to sleep. No, not sleep. To give up.

To give herself to the dream eater. Forever and ever.

This, she realized as her body was lifted and rushed down a hallway, was what I worried about?

She knew in the final moments where she was going. And she didn’t care. She would become something bigger, something better and pure.

The dream disease works this way.

5

Follow your passion.

Some people have no passion, my granddad used to say. They had nothing to lead them. Passion wasn’t a bag of glitter you could grab; it wasn’t fairy dust that would inspire you to greatness. Passion required great effort; it was a garden that needed to be tended. “And you got passion, Theo,” Granddad would say. Then he would add, “Some people aren’t as lucky as you.”

That always confused me. If passion took all that hard work, what did luck have to do with it? My passion was baseball. And Granddad had a little something to do with that.

The glittery path of passion led me to the World Series. I was on the mound and the crowd was coming unglued. Granddad was in section four, row three, with a stony expression, the one he reserved for times like this. It was the last inning of game seven. The last out. The last pitch. There were tectonic plates under less pressure, but I was made for this moment.

Literally.

I was stroking the baseball’s red stitching when time began to slow. The Hall of Famers always said that was their experience when it was all on the line, when the pressure was unbearable… time just slowed down. Maybe I was thinking faster and it just seemed that way, the synapses firing in overdrive and the carnival ride coming to a slow grinding halt. Maybe I was having a stroke or a tumor was about to burst, but strokes didn’t exist anymore.

Neither did cancer.

Ever since I was little, I couldn’t get enough of that red stitching. Someone once asked if I was happy playing baseball. What the hell does happiness have to do with anything? I thought. Happiness wasn’t always on the other side of success. Good for you if you found it there, it just wasn’t guaranteed. I went through a long list of emotions getting to the top of the game and couldn’t remember a lot of happiness. That glittery path was anything but straight.

How did I get here?

I started thinking, a dangerous thing to do in baseball. How did I get here? Hell of a question to ask at that moment. Hell of a question to ask at any moment, but with a World Series on the line? Hell of a time to get existential.

It all started when I was five years old.

I was feeling the seams on a baseball Granddad had given me. Baseballs lived in his back pocket. Bam, curveball coming at you, kid. I remembered that particular baseball because the day before I didn’t give a damn about it. One day it was just a leathery paperweight sewn together with thick red thread, the next day it weighed a little over five ounces and had 108 hand-stitched threads with a cork center surrounded by two rubber layers—one red, one black—followed by various layers of yarn and wrapped in a full-grain cowhide leather cover.

What happened in between was a doctor’s visit.

There was nothing wrong with me, as far as I could remember. Granddad insisted I go see this doctor, promising nothing would hurt. I was five; what choice did I have? The doctor smelled like cherry smoke, which seemed wrong. He put something on the back of my neck, didn’t let me see it, but it was cold and hard. Granddad was there and didn’t seem concerned. I wondered where my parents were. A few seconds later, Dr. Cherry Smoke injected half a gallon of ice cream into my head. No one ever explained why.

The next morning I grabbed the baseball and never put it down.

That same doctor, the one that smelled like cherry smoke, was at the hospital when my mom and dad got in the car accident. He wasn’t as friendly, a lot more serious this time. Didn’t look at me, just addressed my grandparents and said they were doing all they could.

My grandparents worried more than most people. They remembered the days when people couldn’t be fixed. Those were the days when people got sick, when there was such a thing as diabetes and multiple sclerosis and heart disease. The days when people donated kidneys instead of printing them. I used to think those were the days the dinosaurs were around.

That all changed in the late seventies.

Stem cell biotechnology – or at least the key parts – was developed by Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch in 1978. There was debate about who actually discovered stem cells (the term was published in 1932 by Dr. Florence Sabin), but it was Till and McCulloch who changed history. That was about the same time Steve Wozniak and a business partner got together to found a start-up company. Some experts believed the company might’ve become a contender in personal computing, rather than medical technology, had Wozniak’s neighbor’s son not fallen out of a tree. Instead, the company changed course and became instrumental in stem cell production and applications, developing a line of synthetic stem cells that made it possible for the boy to walk again. These flawless replications of stem cells—like microscopic computers—were called biomites.

The two founders split before biomites were officially announced. The new biomite-production company was renamed Tree, and their advertisements always referenced the tree of life, as in [_Life is better under the Tree. _]Their symbol was an apple tree.

If that neighbor’s son hadn’t fallen out of that tree, the world would still rely on immunizations and antibiotics, and would be at the mercy of genetic disorders and microbial infections.

Those synthetic stem cells were what they used to print my mother a new leg. They used her DNA so it wasn’t some generic limb off the shelf. It looked exactly like the leg she had before it was mangled. They also injected biomites to restore a partially functional liver and a crushed spleen as well as reduced the swelling in her brain. Dr. Cherry Smoke put her in a coma while they made the repairs and she would wake up fully repaired.

Granny didn’t like it when they called it that. Repairing something was mechanical. “She’s a human being, not an automobile.”

Biomites couldn’t save my dad, though. You couldn’t take a rod of steel through the chest and be repaired. We were indeed still human. My uncle Craigy never understood that and always said we should live forever, said it was a conspiracy that people died so companies could sell more biomites. Craigy had problems, though. He was a little off. Paranoid. Granny never let him get seeded with biomites to correct what Granddad called correctable problems.

I used to think, Yeah, why not live forever? Biomites are perfect biological stem cells that can endlessly and flawlessly replicate. We should all be ageless immortals. Nobody wants to die. Especially Dad.

Granny thought the mites were a sin. “You can’t build a Frankenstein and call it dad.”

Biomites were made in a vat, extruded like amorphous goo that was made to look like flesh and bone and tissue. “That’s not clay,” Granny would say. “The good Lord shaped us in his likeness.” Clay was what she called it—the cells we were born into, the fallible organic cells that made up our body.

Craigy would argue with her, saying things like, “Biomite legs are no different than prosthetics. People strapped on fake limbs and you never had a problem with that. Now they just print them.”

Granddad never joined the debate.

Despite Granny’s proselytizing, she didn’t stop Dr. Cherry Smoke from printing my mom a new leg. The day she walked out of the hospital, I thought if God gave us the brain to make these biomites, then we should use them. And then a week later, I forgot all about that. Sort of forgot about my dad, too. All I could think about was baseball and the seams beneath my fingers.

Granny was worried. She thought I should be sadder, that I was acting like everything was okay when it had only been a week since my dad was buried. She thought something was wrong with me. “They did too much to him,” she told Granddad.

He hushed her up when she said that. They looked at me funny, one of those knowing looks adults gave kids. I was too old for them to spell words, so he just hushed her up. I wasn’t supposed to know it had something to do with Dr. Cherry Smoke and that thing he did to the back of my head and the brain freeze that followed, how every day after that I only thought about baseball. Granddad always said he could’ve gone pro had he not screwed up his knee. He always said my dad could’ve been a pro if he wanted it more. Granddad said he couldn’t live with himself if he let his grandson waste all that talent.

_Follow your passion, Theo. _

I was sad about my dad, sure. Anyone would be. It was just, I didn’t see the point of being sad. I wanted to play baseball.

Granny got cancer a few years after that. “Very treatable,” the doctors said. “But not if she doesn’t take the biomites.” Which she didn’t. She died a year later. Granddad was heartbroken. We did the funeral and a week later he went to the doctor and came back not so sad. He remarried six months later to Jill, his second wife. She was twenty years younger than him. He was happy again.

For me, life was good.

By the time I was fifteen, I was on a travelling baseball team, the youngest on the bus and the number one high school prospect in the nation. And I wasn’t even in high school. But all that changed when I heard the pop in my elbow.

Granddad took me to a different doctor this time because Dr. Cherry Smoke had been arrested a few years earlier. I saw it on the news and watched the police escort him into court, where he was sentenced for a long, long time. Granny would’ve had a heart attack if she was around to see that.

The new doctor was tiny, wore a white lab coat a size too big, and had very dark eyes. Granddad told her what happened to me and that he wanted her to repair the ligament with an injection. He knew exactly what strain of biomites worked best for athletes. He knew the dosage, the technique and how much it would cost, and he wanted it done that day. She ordered tests even though I didn’t need them. I heard the pop, we all knew what that meant. Granddad was patient, went along with the tests, and he was right. Let’s do the injection.

But the doctor refused.

She said I had too many biomites already. I never knew there was such a thing. What was the difference? Clay cells were fallible and biomites were impeccable. If she went to buy a car, she wouldn’t drive a lemon off the lot because she had too many perfect cars at home.

Granddad was livid. I’d never seen his nose get so red. He demanded to speak with the chief of medicine, swore she would never practice medicine again, threatened lawsuits and even punching out a window if the hospital thought they could refuse treatment like that.

It got him nowhere.

They said my body had been pushed too hard, too fast. Granny would be nodding her head if she was there. I was already over six foot tall and threw a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball. They called me the freak, but the doctor made it sound more like I was a freak of technology. Frankenstein.

“Let nature take its course,” the doctor said. “Let his body catch up. Besides,” she added, “it’s against the law.”

I didn’t know there were laws. I was fifteen, maybe I should’ve known that, but I didn’t care about anything that happened outside the foul lines. I didn’t know there was a law that only allowed so many biomites. There were exceptions, such as accidents and deformities, but children below the age of eighteen could only get so many.

The doctor didn’t explain any further. She could’ve talked about the crazy parents that pushed their kids too far, seeded their brains for intelligence, their legs for speed. The government put a limit on that, protecting those developmental years.

Granddad didn’t believe that I was over the limit, insisting she check on that. They pulled the records and pointed to one particular treatment, one administered by Dr. Cherry Smoke, currently a resident at a federal penitentiary. That, it seemed, was all the proof she needed. He had given me a psychoactive seed.

“And those are illegal.”

It was like she hushed Granddad up. He didn’t say another word. We walked out. We never saw her again.

But I didn’t forget that. A psychoactive seed. I looked it up later and discovered it was a questionable procedure that altered the shape and activity of the brain. Brainsculpting was what most people called it. It had its uses, like curing compulsive behavior and epileptics, but it was illegal on children. At least the way Dr. Cherry Smoke was using it.

I wasn’t much of a thinker, but it wasn’t hard to connect the dots. One day I didn’t care about baseball, the next day I never stopped thinking about it. Granddad gave me the passion my dad never had, the drive to compete, to win. To never give up. Is that a bad thing?

Years later, a reporter asked me a question when I was connected to Dr. Cherry Smoke. He asked if it was fair for my granddad to pick baseball for me, that I didn’t have a chance to be who I was. The reporter suggested that Granddad picked my life for me and how did I feel about that?

“What did it matter whether I chose it, Granddad or God chose it?”

“Well, what if he’d brainsculpted you into a soldier?” he asked.

“Then I’d be the best goddamn soldier in the world.” That got a laugh.

The reporter later wrote how I used “Granddad” and “God” in the sentence, like I confused them as the same. Whatever.

The day we left the doctor with the white coat and dark eyes, Granddad called a friend about my elbow. A week later, his friend came to the house. He wasn’t wearing a white coat, no stethoscope around his neck or credentials on his jacket, either. He examined my arm, took a seeder from a black case, and pressed the nozzle to the elbow. My arm went numb from shoulder to thumb.

“This is our secret,” Granddad said. “It’s not fair you have a bad tendon. We just made things fair.”

We won five state championships and two national tournaments by the time I graduated high school. That was how we said it in the house. We won these awards. We won these games. I never argued because Granddad was right: it was a team effort. I couldn’t have done it without him.

I wouldn’t have.

I was drafted number one that year by the Chicago Cubs, a losing franchise that always seemed to have the top pick. I didn’t have a girlfriend and didn’t want one. If I wasn’t playing baseball, I was practicing it. If I wasn’t practicing, I was watching it.

“Just give me the seams,” I once told a reporter. Nike paid me seven figures to use my face and that line on their products. Just Give Me the Seams was on T-shirts; fans waved it on banners and had me autograph it on baseball cards. I never wanted to say it again.

That was about the time the complications started.

At some level, I knew I had issues. I just figured they were buried so deep I’d be dead before they made it to the surface. But hairline fractures started showing up in my psyche and this hollow ache, this perennial emptiness would seep and fill my head. Even when I set the record for strikeouts in a single game my rookie year (twenty-four), I went home and watched game tape. Happiness, I discovered, was not on the other side of success.

Just more road.

Cocaine, heroin, and weed had become relics from Granddad’s era. They had been replaced by a new strain of biomites called charge. Charge targeted the chemicals of happiness, namely dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Charge was seeded in tiny doses and changed the brain chemistry so these chemicals were naturally produced in ready supply. When it came to dulling the pain or filling the emptiness, charge made narcotics look like breath fresheners.

I was twenty-five and the fractures had grown into cracks. I felt like an empty shell at times, a programmed strikeout machine that no amount of autographs or billboards could fill. I wanted to feel something.

So I took a charge.

It happened after I was traded to the New York Mets. I was lonely in Chicago, but absolutely isolated in New York. I was a Midwesterner and grew up in a small town. I wasn’t ready for New York. It occurred to me that I could brainsculpt myself into liking the city, but Granddad was against toying with success. I’d already won two Cy Young Awards at that point. Why risk winning two more, five more—hell, ten more—just because I was a little nervous?

The team’s trainer noticed me sulking, I guess. Or maybe he was making money on the side, it didn’t matter. He was good at spotting marks. “It’s nothing,” he told me. “Like a tenth of a percent, like a drop of rain. Not even that, like the size of gnat shit,” he said, showing me his little finger like that explained it. “Baby gnat shit.”

I said no.

But he kept coming back, making conversation about biomite technology, that it wasn’t just about health anymore, it was about how you felt. A small dose of iSkin created temporary tattoos that could change on a daily basis, even tattoos that moved like short video clips—angel wings that flapped or tigers that leapt across your chest. Audio biomites now made it possible for music to be pumped directly into the brain.

The trainer was beginning to make sense. Charged biomites targeted your needs because everyone was different. “You throw different pitches than everyone else,” he said, “so I do different stretches for you, you understand? People are shooting biomites in their eyes to make them blue or their goddamn scalp to get hair, you know what I’m saying? It’s got something for everyone.”

He got to me. If I was honest, I wanted him to. He knew that. He saw the desire under all the resistance. I didn’t want blue eyes or gorgeous hair. I wanted to fill the emptiness. He could see that.

“This charge is called buddha,” he told me.

We met at my apartment. He brought a friend along, I didn’t know why. He also had a tiny case small enough to fit in his pocket. The equipment looked like an acupuncture needle.

“It’s going to take a couple days to feel the effects, all right?” he said. “Then buddha will take care of you.”

“Why do they call it ‘buddha’?”

“You’ll see.”

I didn’t know why it was illegal. The charged biomites just manipulated brain chemistry. The people who resisted biomites were taking Xanax or Lexapro, so what was the difference? If you got charged, you didn’t have to gamble with poor brain chemistry that resulted from genetics. I hoped that maybe this would make things right.

“Like fixing a car,” the trainer said, stabbing the needle.

In retrospect, having a maniac jab me in the neck was idiotic. But I was that desperate. I was punching out batters with 110-mph heaters, but happiness was nonexistent. Did I want to be happy? Was that it? Maybe not happy, but something.

It took more like a week to hit me. At first, I thought I’d been duped, that maybe the little prick stuck me with a fancy needle and put my money in his pocket. But it was after an extra-innings win, a game in which I threw eleven scoreless innings on one hundred and forty pitches, that the buddha landed. I was in the clubhouse, just out of the shower and waiting for depression to arrive. At that point, it kept a better schedule than a bus station. I could feel the slide beginning, the slow coast down the emotional slope, when an invisible hand cradled me in loving-kindness and lifted me up.

Years later, a friend described the first time the charge hit him as floating on a big cloud of titties. I couldn’t argue.

Life was really good. I loved every morning, every day and every night. I couldn’t wait to wake up for another day. This was what life should be; it should be about loving everything no matter what. I would walk through Central Park and talk to strangers for hours, sign autographs until security sent me home, help people carry things across the street. The city wasn’t a dark menacing metropolis. It had been transformed into heaven. Nothing out there had changed, yet nothing was the same. All I had to change was the filters through which I looked.

There were parties. There were clubs. No booze or old-school drugs because I didn’t need them, but there were all-nighters with baseball groupies and friends of friends. There were pictures in the newspapers with my perma-smiling face and big goofy wave because life was so goddamn beautiful.

My ERA doubled. By September, it hovered above 3.50. I had never been above 2.00, not in my life. I was trending toward 4.00 and didn’t give a damn. Once, when I was in high school, I broke all the glass on my car—the windshield, the sideview mirrors, the rearview mirror, the headlights and taillights and even the dashboard—because I blew a game in the last inning. Now I lost and went to a party.

And sex. There was sex. Lots of it.

I was twenty-five and had never been laid. Hell, I never kissed a girl or held a hand or even thought about it. Now it was every night. Sometimes three times in a night and not always the same girl. That was until Jace.

I felt her before I saw her, the back of my head tingled and the little hairs in my nostrils stiffened. When she parted the crowd—she had a way of doing that—my throat went numb; words dissolved into lumping things that stuck together. She was ripped from a Photoshopped billboard. The skin glowed, the eyes pierced, the hips swayed like a body of water. She was an iSkin addict, but I’d learn that much later. And much too late.

We made love for two hours that night. I timed it because I was doing things like that.

Six months later, we were married. It was extravagant, to say the least. Multiple cakes, high-powered bands, a celebrity guest list. Most of them were her friends because I still didn’t know anyone. I could hang out with a group for days and not remember them the next week. Because it didn’t matter.

Granddad came to the wedding with wife number three. I had stopped taking his calls, didn’t even listen to his messages. By the last week of the season, someone pointed out that his box seat was empty. I didn’t notice. He didn’t approve of Jace, but his wife was the same age and just as addicted to iSkin.

“Pheromones,” he said. “She got you with pheromones.”

I half-listened to him explain why I was so in love. It was pheromone targeting. Human pheromones, the chemical messengers that elicited specific reactions and feelings, were complex and often different for each person. Jace had pheromones injected into her sweat glands that specifically targeted my senses, designed to trigger a love hormone dump when she was around. I thought about the way my head tingled, how my throat seized. And that was before I saw her.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

Granddad jerked his head at wife number three. She worked for a biomite specialist and said that Jace had come into the office weeks before I met her. All it took was a dab of my saliva or a blood sample. She had both. I didn’t know how she got them, but I was forgetting a lot those days.

“This is all confidential,” she said. “I could lose my job.”

Granddad just wanted to shit on my wedding. [My life isn’t going the way he planned it, _]I thought. _My life.

When spring training started the following March, I was still a blissful idiot with a rag arm not worth a slice of what the Mets were paying. But I kept on smiling and the party continued, even when the headlines read _The Seams Have Unraveled. _

By July, me and my 4.33 ERA were sentenced to middle relief. By then, the trainer was coming to my house every week. I was dreaming of Granddad at night, remembering Dr. Cherry Smoke and my sudden obsession with red seams. Who am I? I would wake up wondering. What am I?

The emptiness was returning.

The lovely charged effects were draining off before the trainer could hit me up again. A year of injects and a million dollars later and the buddha couldn’t fend off the emptiness for more than a few days. The trainer gladly stabbed me with another dose even while explaining brain chemistry and neuroplasticity. He was either brilliant or memorized a Wikipedia passage. Either way, I didn’t care.

“You might lay off a bit,” he advised. “Let nature catch up.”

I wanted to put my fist into the back of his throat.

Wish I could say the accident ruined all of that, that it would’ve been a fairy-tale ending with a picket fence had I not brought it all to a halt. Somewhere beneath all the dopamine and oxytocin, though, I could hear the fat lady.

I was a [_Behind the Music _]episode.

The motorcycle violated my contract, scared the shit out of my wife, and pissed off Granddad. But I needed something because I wasn’t me. I was an actor hitting my marks, saying someone else’s lines. I was damn good at it, but somewhere deep inside I fucking hated it. And Jace knew it.

That was why she planned to have a baby.

I found out through Granddad’s wife. She was still working for the biomite specialist and still giving up the gossip on my wife, even though she could lose her job. I knew every time she had a boob adjustment, a brain enhancement, or tummy trim. Even when she ordered a new pheromone, one that didn’t match my profile. She was targeting someone on the side and I didn’t do a damn thing.

The baby, though… that was too much.

Jace had an ovarian injection, one that would turn them on. She did it without telling me. Maybe she could see I was fading, I was losing interest. Maybe she really did love me, I sometimes wondered. But we couldn’t bring a baby into this scrap heap we called a marriage. I’d like to say Jace was a distortion of her true self, a reflection so warped that she wouldn’t recognize herself. But so was I.

I just couldn’t do that to a baby.

I climbed on a brand new KTM 1290 Super Duke R that morning and woke up eight weeks later. The news reports were blunt and viral images of the carnage filled the Internet—scattered teeth and my million-dollar arm bending the wrong way. Besides a new arm, they printed a new jaw, three new organs, a new lung and a new leg from the knee down.

I was told that Jace left me and the Mets voided my contract. Only one of those things saddened me. Even worse, the doctor told me the extent of the damage done by the buddha.

“Charred.” That was what he called it. “Your biomites are in a charred state.”

My chemistry was overworked, the neurons going on strike. Charred was not the label an athlete wanted. It wasn’t what anyone wanted. Rehab, I was told, was my only chance to make things right. I figured it was my final stop because if it didn’t work and baseball was done, I was checking out. No point in living anymore. I didn’t want to be around to see the ESPN biopic of an athlete that had it all only to end with a fade-out of me sitting in a dark apartment.

For the first time in my life, I was scared.

Granddad was there. After all that, he came in and hugged me. I started crying right there in the hospital.

He found me a rehab center that specialized in biomite addiction. In the old days, someone could throw away the booze or flush the coke, but what did you do when your own body was getting you high? I could just stop taking the charge, but there were others out there that had transformed their brains into opiate factories that just flat-ass collapsed. They had become the bottle of booze. I was lucky, someone told me. The buddha was a kinder, gentler charge. It gave me a chance to recover.

As much as I wanted to get better, I hated that fucking place. I don’t remember much, but at one point I was put in a straitjacket. Much later, I cried for my dad. Someone said that was good.

There were also clay injections, the extraction and replication of my own organic cells and reinsertion into my body to cleanse it of toxic biomites. For all the good biomites had done in the world, for every case of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and autism it cured, there were ten biomite addicts chasing the buddha. Experts were saying that biomites would soon go beyond the body, that phones would be integrated into the brain, there would be thought transmissions like texts and audio implants and imbedded video in the visual cortex. The world would be more connected than ever.

“It’s too much, too fast,” a counselor said. “The human race isn’t ready for that.”

Granny would’ve loved that place.

There was even some brainsculpting treatment to return my habit of thought back to normal. How they knew what normal looked like was beyond me. I didn’t. The technician that put me in the brainsculpter, this MRI-looking machine, said my body would know normal. That seemed a little shortsighted since my body craved the buddha. Besides, what did my normal look like? Was it before Granddad brainsculpted me into a Hall of Fame pitcher? (Hall of Fame was a little in doubt, at that point.) Would I give a shit about baseball when the technician pulled me out of the noisy tube, or would I come out loving fingerpaints and gardening?

“You can’t change your true nature,” the counselor told me.

Isn’t that what Granddad did?

A year in rehab and I was clean and normal. I was thirty-five and, as it turned out, still loved baseball. I stopped asking myself if that was my normal or if that was Granddad’s doing. It didn’t matter. Everyone always thought that once diseases were cured and the problems solved, life would be just a long road of green lights.

I couldn’t sit at home watching baseball if I wanted to stay clean, so I started advocating for biomite reform. Abuse wasn’t limited to the addict. It was everywhere. A girl was disqualified from the National Spelling Bee when it was discovered she had been brainsculpted with an unsanctioned strain of biomites that boosted her intelligence equal to Deep Blue. They asked her to spell pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis. She did.

A teenager had been dropped off at an emergency room when her head swelled to the size of a pumpkin after they applied a knock-off strain of iSkin meant to facesculpt their features. She looked more like a Bratz.

A Little Leaguer was found to be 99% biomites after his parents arranged for a complete transfusion. That became a landmark debate on whether he was still human or a synthetic being.

I was asked to coach a minor league team. I declined and, despite the advice of everyone to give up the dream, including the agent I made wealthy, I made another run at the majors. The new arm from the motorcycle accident was lively and, once my mind was right, every bit as good. It was the strain of biomites used to rebuild it that made it spectacular. Granddad never said so, but he had a little something to do with that.

A year after I returned, Major League Baseball established biomite augmentation limits and brainsculpting directives to protect the integrity of the game. That would have prevented me and my new arm from ever playing again.

It also explained how a fifty-five-year-old was pitching the World Series.

There would always be an asterisk by my name. History wouldn’t remember me asking for the seams or all those strikeouts. I would forever be the poster child of brainsculpting. Was it fair that I was made that way? Was that really human?

Biomites got me back in the game, put me in Wrigley with the bases loaded and a chance to reverse the curse. I was fifty-five years old with the seams in my hand. I didn’t know what I would be the next day or the day after that.

But I was made for this.

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Halfskin

BOOK 1

The Halfskin trilogy

M0THER

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It’s the end of time, peeps.

Mark this date, put a black X on your calendar because it’s all over, starting today. It used to be that if you didn’t like the laws where you lived, you just moved to another state or another country. Freedom existed somewhere in the world. We had a choice. I mean, hell, if you were desperate enough, you could live on the South Pole with penguins and shit.

Not anymore.

Today, it’s all over.

Today, M0ther was born.

Who’s M0ther? Our M0ther. Already got a mother? Now you got two, only this one will know everything about you. You can’t hide from her. She’ll know when you’re full of crap, know where you stash your porn, know when you pick your nose and when you eat it.

You’ll hate her, and she’ll know that, too.

Case you’ve been asleep for the last ten years, the Mitochondria Terraforming Hierarchy of Record is what I’m talking about.

Let’s just call her M0ther.

A mother that doesn’t bake cookies or wash your underwear. She’s not getting up to make you French toast or wipe your nose. Nope. This bitch is going to spy on you until you’re dead. Which may be sooner than you think.

M0ther is somewhere in the frozen plains of Wyoming. No pictures of her exist because no one’s allowed to even fly over. But rumors say she’s this massive dome, a computer the size of a football stadium, like some artificial brain heaved out of the frozen soil that’s wirelessly connected with every biomite in existence.

Did you catch that? EVERY BIOMITE IN EXISTENCE!

Hear that buzzing on your phone? She’s listening.

Feel that tickle on your laptop? She knows you’re tapping.

All that Do Not Covet Your Neighbor’s Wife crap? Yeah, that’s the real deal now. M0ther might tell your wife what you’re thinking about doing to Joe-Bob’s wife mowing the lawn in a tube top.

George Orwell wasn’t even close, man. I mean, Big Brother was just a peashooter compared to M0ther. Big Brother was pissing on a forest fire; M0ther’s bringing the goddamn ocean.

Here’s the official statement from Marcus Anderson, chief of the Biomite Oversight Committee.

(BTW, he looks like a gargoyle. Right?)

It is with great pleasure that, after ten years of global effort, I present to you the greatest feat of humankind. I present to you a regulatory system that will keep all people safer and healthier for centuries to come. Bionanotechnology has put us on the brink of greatness, but with that comes uncertainty and danger. The human species has the potential to live forever. Or end tomorrow.

I prefer the former.

Mitochondria Terraforming Hierarchy of Record is linked to every booted cellular-sized biomite living inside our bodies. Its primary function will be to monitor individual levels of biomites and take appropriate action if, or when, they cross a previously determined threshold. This will keep us human.

This will keep us safe.

Forever.

I don’t know about you, but this is not a gross infringement on our freedom: it’s raping it. I don’t want anything or anyone peeking into my biomites; that’s none of your business, none of my neighbor’s, and it sure as hell ain’t the government’s.

Biomites aren’t evil, dude. They’re artificial stem cells, that’s all. What’s the big deal? If you want to be 100% artificial, be my guest, that’s your business, bro. I don’t give a rat’s pink sphincter what you do with your body. You want to boost your brain with biomites to get smarter? Hey, as long as you got the cash, good for you.

What the chief didn’t say in his official statement was what exactly the previously determined threshold is.

Want to know?

You should, before you rebuild your kidney or tone those wrinkles, you should know that when your body is 40% biomites, you’re a redline. And redlines go to jail.

JAIL.

Think I’m joking?

They call it a Detainment and Observation Center. You can’t leave, you don’t order takeout, you shower with other redlines. That’s jail. You get a federally funded cot and three hots while they watch your biomite levels. On a side note, you’d think the scientists could figure out how to keep biomites from reproducing and slowly taking over our bodies once we get seeded. They are the geniuses, for Christ’s sake. Doesn’t seem like it should be all that hard.

But all right, whatever. So they continue dividing once they’re in our bodies. It’s worth the trade-off: they are the answer to every disease, every shortcoming, every desire known to man. They’ll figure it out; give them some time.

But here’s the kicker. Guess what happens when you hit 50%. Guess, no seriously. Take a stab. When your body becomes halfskin, when it’s 50% God-given, good ole-fashioned organic cells and 50% artificial biomite cells, guess what M0ther’s going to do?

Bitch is going to shut you off.

That’s right.

And when she does, when she turns off all your biomites like a light switch, what do you think happens to the other half? The living half?

Yeah. That’s right.

It’s real, peeps. Real as it gets.

The death of human liberty happened today and you probably didn’t even feel it.

Well, I did.

2

Cali knelt down to reboot a server. Her knee hit the concrete, driving spikes up her thigh. She cursed and didn’t hold back. She stood a little too fast and steadied herself against the stainless steel rack. A head rush stormed her entire body, weakening her knees. She remained still until it passed and made a mental note to drink some water.

She walked two more rows. Computer after computer blinked green lights at her. No one would suspect she was in a suburban brick house with a pink flamingo in the front yard. The basement looked more like an industrial IT department. It took two air conditioners to keep the house cool.

She couldn’t afford to shut her lab down. Not now.

No one could afford a setup like that—hell, there were companies[_ _]that couldn’t afford it. But she had money. [_Blood money. _]When she married Thomas, he joked he’d need another life insurance policy. Luck was not something Cali’s family possessed. She thought he was joking, but he took out a ridiculous life insurance policy on himself so that Cali, Avery and Nix would never worry about money again if something ever happened.

And it did.

Cali sat at a desk cluttered with gadgets and monitors, microscopes and assemblers. She sipped at a water bottle while waiting for an espresso-like machine to drip a gun-metal droplet into a flask. No coffee from that machine. It was uniquely constructed to produce congealed biomites: the raw synthetic stem cells with designer DNA coding. At one drop per day, it was a slow process.

She took a heavy flask of mercury-like liquid off the shelf and swirled it under a circular magnifying glass attached to a hinged arm.

Good.

It would take a complete analysis to see if they worked, but she’d seen enough raw biomites to know the subtle colors, just like an Eskimo knew snow. These were brighter than usual, less viscous. Exactly what she expected.

There were six monitors arranged on the wall in two rows of three. The one in the middle, bottom row, was the largest. Numbers scrolled down a column that she occasionally stopped with a mouse-click. Several submenus expanded with another series of clicks. She sat back and let the numbers continue to run. The analysis was taking too long, but the program needed time.

Time was the only thing she couldn’t afford.

Biomites were humanity’s greatest invention. Forget telecommunications, forget transportation… bionanotechnology changed everything. Once humanity controlled the human body, they could cure disease, heal bones, alter brain chemistry. Biomites were the answer, the one big answer to every question.

Only one side effect. It was a big one. They were malignant.

They were exact duplicates of the body’s cells but, for some unknown reason, wouldn’t accept enzymatic cues to stop dividing. No matter what coding bionanoengineers inserted into the DNA, they always reverted back to runaway division, replacing the body’s natural organic cells.

Cali had a theory.

She believed the biomites intuited the weakness of organic cells—their susceptibility to random DNA variability, cancer, disease—and logically replaced them. Biomites were doing what we wanted; they were making the body sound and impervious.

Perfect.

The monitor to the left, bottom row, chimed. Another email arrived and filed at the top of a long column of unread messages. The office manager confirmed Cali’s paid leave of absence was nearly depleted. She’d spent her sick days and vacation long ago. Pretty soon, her leave of absence would convert to unpaid. Her employers had been very sympathetic. They gave her more time than they should have. She was a valuable asset, a deserving individual, but a Fortune 500 company can only bend the sympathy branch so far. Pretty soon, they’d prune it.

Cali finished the water and rubbed her eyes. She saw her reflection in the dark monitors. The shadows across her cheeks were long and dark, disguising the red rims of her eyelids and cracked lips. Oily blond hair hung over her eyes. She retied the ponytail.

She rolled the chair to the right and touched the electron microscope. Images lit up a dark monitor, obliterating her deathly reflection. The previous batch of biomites that percolated from the espresso machine was still active. Under magnification, they looked like grains of sand jittering on meth. Excellent stability, that was good. She wouldn’t know if they possessed runaway division until further testing, but she didn’t care about that. Not anymore.

Priorities change.

She was looking for biomites that would disappear. Not physically, but virtually. Every biomite emitted a frequency that could be monitored. That’s what M0ther watched, the frequency with which biomites [_spoke _]to each other. M0ther was an eavesdropper, downloading everything they did. There weren’t enough zeros to count how many biomites were in existence, but everyone had them.

So M0ther knew what everyone was doing.

Cali wanted to change that.

So far, nothing worked. There was still hope. There was still time. But not much of either.

Someone squealed upstairs, followed by a fit of laughter. Avery was about to pee herself. Only Nix could make her laugh like that. She loved that sound, her favorite sound in the entire world. Without Nix, she might not hear it ever again.

This is all my fault. All mine. I knew this day was coming, knew his redline potential, but I waited. I waited because I’m selfish. Nix is going to pay for that. We’re all going to pay.

The numbers continued to scroll in a fuzzy line.

She rubbed her eyes and tried to focus, but it only smudged the images further. She didn’t have time for this, not now. She could sleep when this was all over; she just needed to focus, to see the data come together so that she could hide her little brother.

Get him off M0ther’s map.

M0ther didn’t care what he meant to her, what he meant to Avery. They would come, they would take him, they would take him from her life, from Avery’s life, and he was all she had, all she had, he was all she had—

She closed her eyes.

Breathing slowly, breathing deeply.

She relaxed before opening her eyes. The images around her weren’t sharp, but she could make them out. She could read them. The analysis was almost over. Once that was done, she could get the next batch started and then lie down for a nap. She’d done it earlier that day (or was it night, there were no windows in the basement), fallen directly into REM. Twenty minutes later, she was brand new.

She took the water bottle to the bathroom and filled it. She heard a bell ring and leaned out the door to see if the analysis finished early. The numbers were still scrolling. She sat back down and took another deep drink—

BING.

That was upstairs.

The doorbell.

Cali stayed completely still, ears pricked with attention. There were muddled voices. A long silence. She remained as still as a stowaway.

The basement door opened and snapped closed.

Little feet danced down the steps. “Mommy,” Avery said, “there’s some guy at the door talking to Uncle Nix.”

Cali stood too quickly and braced herself on the desk. “Who?”

Avery shrugged. “They want him to go.”

Cali stumbled to the steps, barely seeing the door at the top rush towards her. She punched it open, slamming it against the wall.

Time is out.

3

Nix just finished draining the dishwasher when the doorbell rang.

He stopped to turn the television off, where cartoons blared loud enough that his sister would hear them in the basement. He was going to take her something to eat and considered mashing up a sleeping pill in some cottage cheese. She swore she was taking naps, but her face was caving in. He’d laced her food once before, when she pulled a week’s worth of all-nighters to finish the coding on a new batch of biomites in time for a presentation at a global convention.

He dried his hands and slung the towel over his shoulder. There was a car in the driveway, a black four-door sedan with an unassuming man in the driver’s seat. No sunglasses, no badge. Just an ordinary guy sitting like a waxy replication of a normal everyday somebody.

BING.

Nix slowed. He thought-commanded a self-analysis of the biomite population in his body.

39.8%.

He was composed of less than 40% biomites; that meant over 60% of his body was good, old-fashioned organic cells. That meant he wasn’t redline. That meant it couldn’t be them. But biomite patrol didn’t make house calls to see how you were doing. They showed up for one reason.

There’s some mistake.

He gripped the door handle.

They’ll understand. Gear sometimes needs calibrated.

The door opened.

The man standing there, unlike his partner in the driver’s seat, was wearing sunglasses, the reflective kind.

They stood there, facing each other. There were no words. No greeting or informal nods. Just a silent recognition. They’d never seen each other, but they knew what the other was about.

“I’m not redline,” Nix stated.

The agent didn’t flinch. He unclipped a cell-phone-sized gearbox from his belt. He held it up like a badge and waited. Nix took a half a step forward. The agent lowered the box, pressing it against Nix’s flesh between the breastbone and bobbing Adam’s apple.

Nix felt the thing whir hotly. Its effect scattered over his skin like electric spider webs, wrapping over his shoulders and across his back, penetrating his body like feeder roots to estimate the biomite population. The agent pulled the gearbox away, leaving Nix feeling weak. He looked at it and turned it so Nix could see the number.

“It’s wrong.”

“We’ll confirm at the office.”

“It’ll say the same thing, and it’s wrong.”

“You need to come with us.”

Nix took a step back. He considered running. The agent shook his head one time. There would be no running. Any attempt to resist would be met swiftly. M0ther was in Wyoming and Nix in southern Illinois, but she could see him like he was standing right next to her. She knew what his biomites were doing, what he was thinking. If he ran, if he disobeyed a biomite agent, M0ther would flip a switch. He’d hit the floor.

Obey. Or else.

It’s the law.

“It is my duty to bring you into a Detainment and Observation Center to be fully analyzed. You are not under arrest, simply detained for further observation. If our readings are wrong, you will be brought back to your home and compensated for your time. Do you understand these rights?”

Nod.

He brandished a stiff metal ring, the color of a cold weapon. “For your safety and ours, I’m going to place this suppression ring around—”

A door cracked inside the house.

“NO!” Cali bounded across the room and wrapped her arms around Nix. “He’s not redline. You can’t take him.”

“Ma’am, this will be your only warning. Do not interfere.”

A car door shut. The driver approached the house.

“Look, look.” Cali fumbled her own reader, slimmer and colder, against Nix’s neck and shoved the reading in the agent’s face. “38.8%. He’s under; we still have time.”

“He’ll be verified at the satellite office. If there is a mistake, he will be back before dinner.”

The driver stopped behind the first agent.

“No,” she whispered.

“Ma’am.”

Her hand clamped on Nix’s arm.

There was a long moment of staring. Nix could sense all the thoughts floating around them like transparent bubbles. He couldn’t hear them, but he sensed them. Thoughts of escape. Thoughts of apprehension.

Violence.

Nix reached up and gently squeezed her hand. It would be bad enough to be taken away. He wouldn’t be able to handle watching his sister punished for it. She was still shaking her head, mouthing the same word over and over.

The agent reached up and lowered the suppression ring over Nix’s head to rest around his neck. It was cold against his skin, warming quickly.

Heaviness fell on him as the biomites in his body slowed down, diminishing their activity. They were not deactivated, just reduced to keeping him alive, to keeping him subdued for his safety and others. Thoughts became dull; memories began to pale.

But worst of all… Cali is alone.

Nix was guided to the car. A few of the neighbors watched. One leaned on a rake, relief on his face that it wasn’t one of his kids.

Cali wasn’t in the doorway when Nix sat in the backseat of the new-smelling sedan. The front door was closed. She was already in the basement.

The suppression ring wasn’t fully powered. There was still time to say goodbye.

Nix laid his head back and closed his eyes. The car rocked as it backed over the curb. Traffic sounds faded. He no longer heard the cars passing or felt the pavement grind under the tires. The world around him disappeared. Nix went to his safe haven, went to a place he discovered many years ago, a place that protected him from the world. Where he wasn’t different.

He went to a lagoon deep inside his mind.

4

The lagoon was deep and clear with striped mussels and bright starfish on the sandy bottom. Sometimes sharks would find their way through a small channel that funneled water from the ocean. They would skim near the beach, their dorsal fins cutting the surface. They’d come so close that Nix could run his hand over their slick skin.

A fire smoldered from inside a pile of sticks, a thick column of smoke withering in the still air. There was no scent, no sting in his eyes. He smelled very little in this dreamland, good or bad.

The smoke obscured the view across the lagoon where, above the palms on the far shore, blue cliffs rose up. Halfway up was an opening that spewed water like a giant faucet, its roar heard a mile away. The water poured forth and sprayed misty droplets, leaving an ever-present rainbow stretching into the palms.

[Away.]

The smoke twisted away like a vacuum simply pulled it in the other direction. The waterfall hadn’t changed much over the ten years he’d been coming to the lagoon. In fact, it was exactly like the day he first saw it. He was only eight. In fact, it was the day after he showed his best friends, Alex and Parker, the biomites in his finger. Even though he was just a kid, he knew the dreamland wasn’t normal.

But, then again, Nix was anything but normal.

He knew his body was in the back of a biomite agent’s car. Time between the dreamland and fleshland wasn’t synced. Dreamland time went so much slower. Still, the ring would suppress the biomites that powered dreamland.

Maybe he’d never visit again.

He looked around for Raine. The fire was there; she must be getting ready for something. Nix pulled a stick hard against his shin, heard it crackle until the dry fibers gave way and split open. The pain on his shin was dull and slight.

He dropped the branch on the smoldering fire. Sparks spit out from the bottom. He gathered the bark that flaked off and piled it onto the embers, waving and blowing it back into flames. Smoke billowed up. He squatted, rubbing his hands, as if he could feel the heat. Perhaps he could, but it was tepid. Like day-old dishwater.

The foliage rustled behind him. Something dragged through the weeds and then across the sand.

“Is the fire ready?”

Nix smiled.

“Such a slacker.” Raine pulled a cord with a wild boar tied to the end, the tusks curled out of its mouth. Raine’s skin was brown. Her black hair, cropped and choppy. Her eyes green, like the green of verdant forests when the sun rises.

She was about Nix’s age, he guessed, eighteen years old or so. Her body was taut with muscle roiling around the bikini top. She showed up at the lagoon about five years ago. Before that, he would explore on his own, but now they did everything together.

She slid a knife from a holster tied on her leg and cut the hog loose. Nix piled more sticks on the pathetic fire and watched her dress dinner. Grit and sweat smudged the perfect skin on her shoulders. She wiped the back of her neck with the knife wedged between her fingers.

He swore he could smell her, that her fragrance—that essence that was Raine—permeated everything inside him. He knelt behind her, kneading the cords of muscle that flexed over her shoulder blades. She agreed with a guttural mmmm.

“You know, I’d rather have a fire than a massage.”

Nix pushed his thumbs into her back and worked the knots loose. He kissed her neck, a distant taste of salt.

“Stop, now. I want to catch some waves and that fire looks like an ape built it.” She clapped. “Chop-chop!”

She finished dressing dinner while he set up the spit. Reluctantly, he shaved more bark and gathered kindling. A fire was roaring before she was ready. He watched her wash tubers in the clear water of the lagoon and slice them into the beast’s splayed belly.

They rested against a fallen palm trunk while dinner slow-roasted. If it all ended, he wouldn’t be disappointed. This was a good way to say goodbye. She nestled into the crook of his arm and lightly snored. He never got tired of that sound: the sound of her sleeping against him. The way her lips fluttered. The way her fingers twitched as dreams came.

Did she dream? Did she snore when he wasn’t there to hear it?

Nix always thought that question exposed the self-centered nature of humanity. If a tree fell with no one around to hear it, did it exist? The snoring question was different, though. The lagoon was his dream and Raine was part of it. Sometimes, he wasn’t so sure, but perhaps that was wishful thinking. The only thing that existed at the lagoon was what he wished to exist.

The sun was close to setting when Raine pulled the meat from the roasted carcass. He wondered where the car was in fleshland—how close it was to the satellite office—as Raine dished the meal onto primitive coconut bowls and piled cooked tubers onto it. They ate with their fingers. The food didn’t do much for Nix’s appetite. He didn’t have one. And he hardly tasted it. Raine moaned with each bite. Grease glistened on her lips. She licked her fingers. Her joy pulsed through him.

“You crying?”

Nix wiped the corner of his eye. No, he wasn’t crying, but she caught him wishing this moment would never end. This might be the last time he watched her eat like an animal, listened to her snore, watched her swim…

So, no, he wasn’t crying. “The fire… smoke… making my eyes itch.”

They left the fire burning, left the meat for scavengers if they got to it in time. Raine grabbed a well-worn surfboard that she carved from the trunk of an ancient tree years ago. “Come on,” she said, shoving his on the ground. “Let’s catch a wave.”

He lay there in the sand. The sun was low. Her skin, darker.

“Something wrong?”

He shook his head, smiling. “Go on. I’ll catch up.”

She hesitated, sensing the secret inside him. Or did she already know it, preferring to enjoy their last moments instead of soaking in them. He watched her push into the glassy surface, plowing the water with sun-kissed arms, powerful strokes driving her towards the narrow channel that led to the ocean, where she’d catch perfect waves.

Always perfect waves.

The water shimmered. Turned white.

Then black.

Nix stared at the black sedan’s roof. The biomite agent stood next to the car with the door open. He helped him out and led him toward a small brick building where they’d test his biomite population again. Where they’d officially call him a redline.

Where they’d power up the suppression ring.

Where he could say goodbye to dreamland.

5

Albert Gladstone turned fifty years old.

That was a few days ago. He ate birthday cake. It was vanilla with chocolate frosting. His wife and two teenage kids were there. They sang “Happy Birthday” and watched him blow out the candles. Someone cut the cake and took pieces to his family. His son ate. His wife and daughter didn’t.

Albert ate his piece. Even licked the icing from the paper plate. It wasn’t particularly good.

But that was a couple days ago.

He didn’t have an appetite now. He couldn’t feel much of anything.

Albert wore loose-fitting pants and a shirt that looked more like hospital scrubs. Felt like pajamas. He sat in a comfortable chair in a small room. A small empty room. The chair was cushioned but could’ve been made out of stainless steel and he wouldn’t have known the difference. His biomites began dumping synthetic morphine into his bloodstream an hour earlier.

Life was bad, but didn’t feel as such.

49.8%.

“Jenny from across the street was walking her dog this morning,” Albert’s wife was saying on the other side of a thick square of glass, “and sends her best. She’s got four cats and three dogs now. I think it’s too much, if you ask me. But she says what else is going to happen to these animals? I mean, she goes to the shelter and finds these poor pets that were abandoned by their owners and they’re going to be…”

Her words trailed off.

She covered her face. Words had always been a buffer. They usually didn’t fail.

An elderly woman put her arm around her shoulder. That was Albert’s mom. And behind her stood his dad and two kids. His daughter was leaking stained tears. His son wore a mask without emotions. Unlike his mother, he dealt with loss by killing his emotions.

Albert could hear his wife’s sobs through a speaker. They sounded like tiny hiccups strung together with squeaky thread. His daughter stepped forward and smudged the glass with her hand.

“Do you feel all right, Dad? Does it hurt?”

Albert smiled as brightly and widely as possible, but it only translated into a slight upturn of his lips. He nodded once. The cushioned back of the chair crunched on the back of his head.

49.9%.

“I’m proud of you, kids.” His words were amplified into the other room. “If I was God and had to build a daughter and son, they would be just like you. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

He took a moment to draw in a breath. His lungs felt smaller.

His daughter’s face was streaked with charcoal tears. She pressed both hands on the glass.

“This is inhumane!” The old man shook his fist. “How can you murder a good man and refuse to let his family be with him? How can you force us to watch him die from another room? This is… this is… it’s diabolical! I am a lawyer and I will see to an end of these sinister laws! I will make sure this will never happen to another human being!”

The old man hammered the glass with both fists.

“THIS IS MURDER! YOU ARE A COLD-BLOODED MURDERER!”

He was speaking to the odd-looking man that was in the room with Albert. Marcus Anderson stood off to the side like an observer, wearing a finely tailored suit and silk tie. He occasionally looked at a device in the palm of his hand. He represented the government in these halfskin matters. Anyone with a loved one near halfskin status knew his face well, a face one would not call handsome. He was the same age as Albert but looked more like Albert’s father. His thinning hair was prematurely gray, his head slightly misshapen much like the slight hunch on his back from an outward curvature of his spine.

He was as emotionless as the son.

A guard politely and gently guided the old man away from the glass, but words of protest still trickled through the speakers.

“It’s all right,” Albert could be heard whispering. “We all have to end. This isn’t so bad.”

They didn’t believe what he said. Later, they told the press that the gargoyle (they refused to call Marcus Anderson by his name, he was a monster, leave it at that) had drugged him so he would say stuff like that. They probably shouldn’t have called him a gargoyle.

“Shhhhh.” Albert was too tired to say anything else, so he just made that sound so they would feel comforted.

He didn’t want them to feel sad. He knew the rules. He knew he was pushing his luck with his biomite population. He’d exceeded the biomite seeding recommendation to his brain stem, but it had paid off. His memory and analytical abilities were computerlike. He won a record number of federal grants for his lab. He thought the seeding would boost his intelligence to find a cure for the runaway biomite replication before he went redline. It was a gamble.

But Albert wasn’t much of a gambler.

If he was honest, he didn’t like the way it felt. The more the biomites replaced the organic cells in his body, the less present he felt. He was smarter, more successful, more secure… but he was just less… real. The agents took him from his lab the moment he went redline. And as he neared the halfskin threshold, he wrote to his wife that everything felt the same, he just felt less real.

He couldn’t explain it any better than that.

Shutting his biomites down wasn’t such a bad idea. Not the way he felt.

50%.

Marcus put the device he was obsessively watching into his pocket and respectfully folded his hands. A doctor entered the room.

The sandman began pouring his magical dust into Albert’s body. It started at the top of his head and filtered down to his toes. He was becoming heavy. Gravity pulled him into the chair. His head lolled back and forth like he was refusing. He barely heard the sobs get louder.

His eyelids were too heavy.

He wanted to see his kids one last time, but that wasn’t to be. He wouldn’t hear them again. All he heard, as the biomites slowly shut down, pulling his life with them, was the sound of a leaking tire. A sound that slid through his lips.

“Shhhhhh.”

The doctor knelt next to Albert and pressed his fingers to his neck. He checked an instrument that he briefly pulled from his pocket. He stood and nodded.

“MONSTER!” The old man had to be restrained. “My son… was good—”

The speaker clicked off. The glass dimmed.

______

The family would remain in the room to grieve. Once Albert was fully examined, they would get to see him one more time but would not be allowed to take possession of his body for burial. Albert would be cremated and his ashes sent to them.

Marcus Anderson let his people attend to Albert’s body. The man known as Albert Gladstone was gone from this world. If anyone asked Marcus, the man began dying the moment he chose to be seeded.

Marcus stopped outside the room to rub antibacterial gel on his hands. He went directly to a room on the bottom floor of Cleveland’s Detainment and Observation Center, where a cadre of reporters would want a statement from the chief of Biomite Oversight and Regulation regarding the shutdown of another halfskin.

He would be happy to report one less halfskin in the world.

6

Marcus Anderson sank into the soft leather of the heated backseat, taking comfort in the laptop’s blue glow. His flight from Ohio was uneventful. He stayed long enough to answer questions and went directly to the airport to fly home.

The driver turned into the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Spring Valley. The streetlights illuminated the wet pavement.

He adjusted the Bluetooth in his ear. The press secretary wanted to be briefed on the halfskin shutdown. When laws regulating biomites went into action, there was revolt throughout the world. But the evidence was overwhelming: if something wasn’t done to curtail biomite integration, the human species was in danger.

The models predicted that biomites would essentially consume the human population within twenty years without regulation. The Halfskin Laws declared that—until biomite replication was cured at the cellular level—no citizen would be allowed to contain more than 50% biomites. Once over that threshold, you were more machine than human.

Marcus couldn’t agree more.

The result of shutting down a person’s biomites was always death of the body. The president was concerned about the family and the halfskin’s comfort level. The president had signed the M0ther Oversight Agreement with the United Nations; America would abide by its laws. But still, the president needed to show compassion for the victim and his family.

He is not a victim. He simply failed to exist.

That was how Marcus framed the definition. If a healthy human could not exist without the assistance of biomites, then it was a failure to exist. There was a flaw in the definition (people were kept alive by artificial assistance all the time), but Marcus simply drew the line with biomites. These weren’t plastic arms or legs, they were artificial living cells. Replacing your God-given bodily cells with man-made ones was Marcus’s beef. A plastic arm was one thing, trading God’s temple for a slimmer, stronger, faster body with killer blue eyes was quite another.

The car eased to the curb. The brick house was set back from the street; a sidewalk meandered toward the front door. Marcus packed his leather briefcase and checked the mailbox on his way inside. Crickets sang and the night smelled wet. He didn’t get outside much.

One of the kids was crying upstairs while Marcus hung his coat in the closet. His shiny shoes clapped on the bamboo floor, making a harder click as he turned onto the kitchen tiles.

“Good evening,” he said.

Janine was sitting at the breakfast table with a phone pressed against her ear, surrounded by eternal stacks of documents. He’d had a discussion with her about that—orderliness of body brings orderliness of mind, especially for lawyers—but there were many things they disagreed upon. Their marriage was not a good one by conventional definition, but it was fruitful. It was powerful. Their children would be very successful, given the gene pool from which they were spawned. (Marcus knew this because he had their genomes mapped.) So, they called a truce on the paper stacking. Pick battles, not wars.

“Dinner is just about ready,” Ariel, the head nanny/cook, said. She stirred a pot of red sauce. Marcus stopped to smell.

“Then you can get the children.”

“Yes, sir.”

______

Marcus closed his office doors. The wall along the back was curved, with a mahogany desk centered in front of a bay window. The heavy curtains, drawn. Shelves lined the walls with classically bound books that were authentic, but never read.

He checked his emails while sipping a freshly pulped glass of carrot juice. He didn’t answer any of them, but glanced through the headings before stripping off his clothes and changing into a pair of shorts and T-shirt folded neatly in the bottom desk drawer. He mounted a recumbent bike tucked into the corner to the right of the desk and eased into an exercise routine. He didn’t like exercising on a full stomach, but there wasn’t much choice. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t exercise at all.

The television flickered to life. There was only one channel he watched: news. All-day news. As he dug into the next level of exercise bike’s resistance—his empty glass flecked with orange spots—he watched protesters march around the Capitol with signs that condemned the Halfskin Laws. They were always out there.

Change is difficult.

To lead a nation, one accepted protest. People did not like change. They wanted things to stay the same, forever. Whether they were suffering or not, whether change was logical or absurd, they wanted things to stay the same. They would hate you for it. Sometimes kill you for it.

The television went to commercial and came back to Marcus’s press conference following Albert Gladstone’s shutdown. He touched a button on the exercise bike and brought the resistance up another level while he watched himself climb to the podium. He hated seeing himself on television. The lights made his skin ashen and always seemed to catch his left eye, the slightly misshapen one. If it weren’t that, it was from an angle that made him look like a hunchback.

Damn liberals. Always showing my bad side.

“It is with regret that I hold this meeting…”

Empathy. Sorrow. He’d nailed every emotion, dead-center perfect. He wasn’t lying; he did feel for the family of Albert Gladstone. They had to watch their beloved father-husband-son destroy himself. Marcus was not to blame. He was innocent of such malevolence, just a man helping humanity—infantile in their desires and bottomless in their greed—save themselves from themselves.

“How do you respond to critics that this is government-sanctioned murder?” he was asked.

And he answered with a stern expression. “We’re simply shutting down biomites that have reached a threshold of willful domination in Albert Gladstone’s body. The human body is an organic being, not a computer. If it cannot survive without assistance of bionanotechnology, then it has reached its end.”

His empathy waned.

If the reporters all dropped dead simultaneously, he wouldn’t show sorrow. He doubted he could even suppress a smile. That would be sinful, but nonetheless. Some of those rats with a pen were direct descendants of Satan. And that, he felt certain, was a fact.

He watched the rest of the conference, suppressing the urge to vomit.

God didn’t make machines. Man did.

______

His office doors opened. Janine slung her briefcase over her shoulder. “Office called; I have to go.”

“It’s almost ten o’clock.”

“Deadline is tomorrow and the world is ending.”

Marcus climbed off the bike and mopped his forehead with a towel. He wished for another freshly squeezed juice. Ariel was most likely gone.

Janine pursed hairpins in her lips while she fixed her hair back. Her face was blotchy and oily. She rarely wore makeup, especially when she went in late.

“Did you see the press conference?” he asked.

She nodded. “I did.”

Janine squeezed his shoulder. He hated when she touched him like that. It was a pat on the shoulder and proud expression, and she never really looked at him when she did it. It was so… scripted.

A melodious tone muffled somewhere. Janine finished clipping her hair and dug through her briefcase as she headed for the doors. “This is Anderson.”

Marcus followed her down the hall, hearing the lawyer-speak that he loved so much—a language of order and righteousness—before turning into the kitchen as she exited the front door. He watched the car back out of the driveway, the headlights swinging across the lawn before fading down the street.

He returned to the office with another juice and prepared for his nightcap. The kids were asleep. The wife, gone. Still, he drew the curtains closed and locked the doors.

This moment was forever secret.

7

Cali pulled off to the side of the road. The Center was across the field.

The Detention and Observation Center.

She sat twenty minutes north of Carbondale, Illinois, just off Highway 51. Once a fertile field that farmers tilled for corn and soybeans, the ground that separated the road from the Detention and Observation Center lay fallow now, giving rise to yellow-flowering weeds and cocklebur. There used to be a community center over there for farmers, a place they could play bingo or drink coffee and talk about the weather. They wrecked it to build a secure building, one for detaining and observing. The farmers’ sons put down their plows and took up badges for a steady sip from the government, to protect this land from the 40% biomite-infested redlines.

This Center was just one of many across the nation. And unless the laws changed or biomite replication was solved, they would become modern-day death cubicles. When that day came, overpopulation would not be a problem as M0ther shut off halfskins by the thousands… daily.

The new-age holocaust.

That was how Cali saw it. Of course, critics were confident that something would change, surely the human race would evolve, they would solve the replication problem. They wouldn’t allow the mass extermination.

But those same critics didn’t have a loved one detained and observed. So Cali was a little… jaded.

She’d been to visit her brother once a week, every week, since they took him. That was six months ago. If she wasn’t visiting, she was in the basement.

Working.

She’d taken an unpaid leave of absence from the lab. They understood. They didn’t terminate her. She could always come back when she was ready, they told her. When Cali told people she wasn’t well, that she needed some time to sort things out, they didn’t ask why. Those that knew her gave her all the space she needed.

Poor thing.

The Center would see her car parked across the field. Someone would eventually come out. Cali just needed a moment. She came to visit every week, but it wasn’t getting easier. The closer she got to this sick and twisted place, the more her hands shook. No one seemed to care that her brother would be dead without biomites.

Now he’s imprisoned for it.

There was no justice in this universe. And if there was a God, she’d smack him for meting out such imbalance. The Christians were right; God had to be a man. Who else could make a woman’s life hell?

She fumbled with her purse and tapped out a cigarette. It took a couple clicks of the lighter to get it puffing. She blew a cloud out the window. The mentholated smoke settled her nerves.

She was used to southern Illinois humidity. Nix was born in Illinois, but Cali grew up in South Carolina and this was mild compared to that. However, she still wasn’t accustomed to the flatness. When she drove the country roads, she could see for miles in every direction, like God had scraped the edge of his hand over this part of the world. She craved the trees and hills where she grew up, the wetlands and smell of pluff mud and the rank odor of the paper mill on wet days. She missed home, a place where she belonged.

If she went back there, she still wouldn’t find it. Home was gone. Gone, gone, gone.

“Better get go-ing…” Avery sang from the backseat.

Cali looked in the rearview. Her eyes—ringed as if with soot, capillaries showing where the whites were supposed to be—looked back. She pushed the hair out of her face and took a drag before adjusting the mirror. Avery was strapped into the backseat, watching her iPod. Her backpack was next to her, holding all the essentials: water bottle, change of clothes and Pogo, the stuffed rhinoceros.

“You’ll get in trouble if they come out here, Mama. They won’t let you see Nix.”

“I know, honey. I just need a moment.”

The little girl hummed like she’d heard that excuse before. She dragged her finger across the screen and sang, “Better get go-ing…”

Cali smiled. What would she have in this world if that little girl wasn’t with her? God had taken everything else but Nix.

There was nothing left to take.

She sucked on the filtered end and hung her hand out the door. Cali put the car in gear. A white dust cloud followed her to the stop sign, where she turned right and passed a tan truck. The truck turned around at the intersection and followed her to the gate.

Avery was still humming.

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Copyright © 2015 by Tony Bertauski

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

This book is a work of fiction. The use of real people or real locations is used fictitiously. Any resemblance of characters to real persons is purely coincidental.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Writing is a lonely endeavor. Thanks to those that make it less so. And graciously volunteer to read the messy parts. You make this happen.

Lilly Burns, Dar Theriault, Jessica Collins, Frances Prema Werle-Smith, Noni Langford, and Russell Stare.

And, as always, Heather.


Halfskin (The Vignettes)

"A techno-thriller... far more intimate and human than anything Crichton ever wrote." Brian Braden, author of Chronicles of Fu Xi A synthetic stem cell called a biomite can replace any cell in your body. They are infallible. As our percentages of biomites rise, we become stronger, we become smarter and prettier. We become better. Can we resist the temptation of perfection? Are we still human when our bodies are replaced by synthetic replications? If biomites exist, laws will be imposed to prevent excess and abuse. Those with 50% biomites will no longer be considered human. They will be halfskin. Halfksin: The Vignettes is a compendium of short stories found throughout the Halfskin trilogy, a harbinger of what humanity’s pursuit of perfection may look like. INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR WHAT GENRE DO YOU PREFER? Science fiction, dystopia, technothriller and, to some extent, young adult. I do have a series of novellas in the vampire genre. Yeah, I know. Doesn’t fit. That character, Drayton, came out of nowhere when I was at a community theatre production of Dracula. I figured that an immortal vampire would more likely become compassionate and wise as he grew older. The technothriller Halfskin is similar to vampires in that technology promises immortality and complete control of our bodies. But then what? WHY A SYNTHETIC STEM CELL? Organic life is too nilly-willy. We’re limited by our DNA. Give it to the scientists to perfect this vehicle that carries us around because it is a vehicle. If we no longer have organic bodies, if every one of our cells is replaced by something manmade all the way down to the neurons and synapses, then what are we? What if our world is just a computerized environment, ala The Matrix? Would we know the difference? Look, we’re printing organs today. I’m not, but someone is. Some genius has figured out how to push play and heart or liver or kidney comes down the chute. Halfskin takes the idea into the distant future and explores whether this leads to more happiness or just more of the same. Because more money, more problems. DO YOU HAVE ANOTHER JOB BESIDES AUTHOR? Day job, I’m a college horticulture teacher. Writing is a passion. No plans to change it. WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO? Breathe. WHAT TALENT WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO HAVE? Omnipresent supergalactic oneness. IF WE HAD A CUSTOM THAT ALLOWED US TO EAT OUR CHILDREN, WHAT KIND OF SAUCE WOULD YOU USE? Ketchup, the miracle condiment. ARE OUR ELECTRONIC DEVICES STEALING OUR SOUL? AND IF SO, DO YOU MAKE OFFERINGS TO YOUR TOASTER? I offer white bread and the toaster gives back crunchy, brown bread. Never doubt a true miracle.

  • Author: Tony Bertauski
  • Published: 2017-04-28 03:35:15
  • Words: 19268
Halfskin (The Vignettes) Halfskin (The Vignettes)