Sample: Boil 1
I reached out with one hand, and ten needles sank into the pig’s soft flesh, eliciting murderous screams. Loud. It thrashed against its bondage.
“Mr. Bowles, if you please?” Mr. Hayworth spoke. Not a question, per se.
The young student, an attractive young man in uniform, moved the turntable that the pig was caught on. The animal’s screams continued as it continued to struggle against the arrangement of metal bars that held it in place.
The injection area now faced away from me, leaving me unable to see the progression. I was nervous, my mouth dry. My leg kept wanting to bounce up and down, which would have been unsightly.
Three men, only one of whom I knew, sat at the long table opposite me. They watched me, and they watched the pig. The thick tome of pages I had carefully typed out sat before them, untouched.
An older man without a wrinkle on his face gestured at my hand. I held it up. Each finger nail had two spurs of bone extending from the sides. He nodded, then looked down at a piece of paper, frowning as he scribbled something down.
The pig’s squealing abruptly died down. It would be dead now. More frowns from the table across me. They didn’t look impressed.
Had it taken too long?
Had one of the injection sites failed to take? If I’d succeeded, then there should be five patches of flesh turning color. This would indicate the injections had been delivered successfully. Most settled for one injection site and a dye. For drama, and to show the full breadth of what I was doing, I had gone for practical application. De-oxygenization, extracellular distortion with high biliruben levels, enzymes to rebind the hemoglobin and break up the capillaries, bacteria to hyperoxidize, as well as a hemorrhagic.
I had set the bar high for myself, in this. I put my odds at one in forty. I’d doubled down on each dose, but even so…
Still with my hand raised, I retracted the spurs. I clasped my hands in front of me before they could start shaking.
“You have three colors,” Professor Hayworth finally said. He was the only one I knew on this committee. Unfortunately. He had light blond hair and he hadn’t even taken off his coat before sitting down, and he toyed with his fountain pen as though distracted or bored. “Blanched blue flesh, orange with boils, purple bruising… and I believe more bruising.”
“If you’ll please wait?” I asked, even as I felt a cold hand close around my heart. No, no, no.
“Ah. I think I see another,” another professor said. The youngest of the three, he looked no older than thirty. Not that looks indicated much. “Green, a touch faint, but distinct.”
Faint? I’d tested the hyperoxidizer and hemorrhagic any number of times. Was it the pig’s fault? Was it from a different farm? Did it have thicker skin?
“With the demonstration over, we can begin the questioning,” the older professor said. There wasn’t a waver in his voice. He didn’t sound old. Only his hair and a poor posture betrayed his real age.
“Yes, professor,” I said.
“What was your source material?” the youngest professor asked.
An easy question. Something to help me get my bearings. “Shelley’s third codex.”
“What is the mechanism?” the old professor again.
“Telescoping series of bone, forming taps, drawn out of the body by synovial fluids in a hydraulic mechanism. When the bone is fully extended and pressure is placed on the taps, the channel is opened to force the fluids out.”
“You showed mechanical work last year as well,” Professor Hayworth said. “In fact, there was a great deal that was similar to this. Telescoping.”
“I did, professor.”
“Professor Pruitt was on that committee, if I recall. He had a car he was fancying. He was in a phase of fetishizing machinery, which may be the only reason that project passed muster.”
“You could be right, professor,” I said. I was being rude, suggesting he might be wrong, but I wasn’t sure how else to respond, and I couldn’t be silent. I wasn’t about to agree.
“Shelf life?” the young professor asked.
I was maybe falling a touch in love with him. He was making this easier, asking the questions I wanted them to ask. “Lifetime. Nothing should need replacing, barring a needle breaking in a struggle, and even then it should be easy enough. The cartridges can be refilled by use of a syringe.”
“Where are the cartridges?” the old professor again.
“Within the proximal phalanx of the respective finger,” I said, tapping the longest bone of my middle finger.
“Show me? The fingers, not the cartridges.”
I did, extending my hand with fingers down. He gestured, and I turned my hand around, fanning out my fingers, then closing them.
“No scars,” the young professor said, approving.
Some young ladies were wooed by poems and flowers. He had inadvertently targeted my weak point, my science. I smiled a little, curtsying just a bit before I remembered where I was. “No, professor. I’d like to say it’s because I’m talented in that respect, but the cartridges are easy to install.”
“I imagine you still have the blemishes on your arms?” Hayworth asked, almost casual. As if it were a non-sequitur.
Joy squashed. Dash it all. “Yes, professor. I’ve treated them. You would have to look carefully to see.”
“Roll up your sleeve, please?” he asked.
Not the subject of this particular discussion, but I couldn’t exactly refuse. I unbuttoned my shirt at the wrist, then rolled it up. Stretch marks ran across my skin, only really visible in the wrong light.
The young professor looked too, of course. I wanted to hide. There was no need to keep my arm up this long, I’d done as I was asked. Yet I held firm. I had made mistakes and I would face them.
Even with everything on the line.
“I don’t have to look carefully to see,” Hayworth said. “Don’t lie to us, Miss Fray.”
“Yes, professor,” I responded, more offended than chastised.
“This student,” Hayworth went on, for the benefit of the others at the table, “chose to demonstrate her first year project using augmentations to her own body, as she’s doing today. There are a wealth of individuals in the lower class who will gladly serve as a test subject in exchange for some free care. Something looked at, something removed, or perhaps some cosmetic attention. To demonstrate a project using yourself indicates confidence. Being wrong in the face of that confidence indicates exceedingly poor judgement. The scars suggest your last project was poorly thought out.”
I momentarily wished Hayworth and the pig could have traded places before this started.
“Hayworth isn’t entirely wrong, we have a great many facilities at our disposal,” the older professor agreed. “Something to keep in mind. Let me ask, with such small cartridges, the doses must be small?”
“I used a high concentration,” I said. “I could do the same to twenty pigs.”
The old professor’s eyebrows raised. Wrinkles appeared in places that shouldn’t have them, with the uncharacteristic change in his appearance.
“With only four out of five doses working?” Hayworth asked.
“My tests showed all five doses working reliably,” I said. True, but it felt like an excuse, given the situation.
“A correspondingly high chance of self-contamination, then, with this high concentration dose, and the risk of breakage?”
Could I stab myself? Or would I infect myself with the poisons or drugs I’d loaded into the cartridges?
“The telescope structure is strong enough I wouldn’t fuss, Professor.” I said. “The only sort of impact that would put me at risk would be the sort that broke every bone in my hand.”
“A risk, nonetheless,” Hayworth said.
“I know many students who carry volatile chemicals and pathogens on their person. Any impact that could break a hand could break a bottle they carry.”
The older professor frowned. “I recommend that you do not let the carelessness of other students lower your own standards, Miss Fray.”
I bit my tongue instead, taking a second.
“Yes, professor,” I finally said. I even managed to sound proper.
“Market?” the young one asked me.
Another question I was glad to answer. “Upper class women. Even lower class women would find it appealing, and the turnaround to produce components is short. It’s discreet, convenient, easily added once and then forgotten, with no maintenance. It serves as a means of self defense when out and unaccompanied. If accosted, they can scratch or inject their assailant. Our nation’s spies could use them as well, if the situation warranted.”
“Interesting thought, and not a traditional direction,” the young professor said.
“Because it’s a poor direction to take,” Hayworth said. “Proper young ladies put a priority on appearance. What message does it send, if a young lady conceals hooks and barbs all over her person?”
“If you would allow me to speak from the perspective of a young lady…” I said.
“I would rather answer your other point. Please. Remember you are in a university setting, Miss Fray, and we cannot speak out of turn, or this will devolve into chaos. You think spies should use these devices to poison America’s enemies? When the world is on guard against this very thing, in this burgeoning new age? An actual syringe can be destroyed or discarded after use. If a spy was searched thoroughly, someone would surely notice the holes in their fingertips.”
An actual syringe can be found readily before use. “The holes are miniscule, professor.”
“Miniscule holes can still be detected. My biggest problem, Miss Fray, is the scope of this project,” Hayworth went on. “Many of your fellow students make a term project out of something more grandiose. Developing a new lifeform to a certain life stage, a new manner of voltaic life, a pathogen. What you demonstrate here would be an interesting feature, a detail in another, grander project.”
“I seem to recall you stating that small things can be the most dangerous. I believe it was in my second class ever, you were one of the professors who spoke.”
“Are you giving me lip, Miss Fray?”
“No, professor,” I said, my voice tense. “I’m trying to argue the merit of my work. This is the point of the annual dissertation?”
“If you’re going to be disrespectful, you can step out of the room, and we’ll conclude this without you.”
I pursed my lips. I can’t afford to fail here. “Yes, professor. I’m sorry.”
“Many of our students are here from a young age. Some exceptional students join us at a later date. Some less exceptional students join us at a later date, by virtue of luck or happenstance. I believe you’re one of the latter cases.”
“I only joined two years ago, professor.”
“Sometimes this happens,” Hayworth said, and he sounded unnervingly soft spoken. “A clever student has an idea, but it’s not one they can prepare in the span of a year. They take one small aspect of the project, then try to build a dissertation around it. Sometimes this works. They scrape by, some geniuses pass with flying colors, and then they stun the committee with their results the following year. More often, it doesn’t do well because it’s a mere three months of work, when we’re expecting the sum of ten.”
The younger professor wasn’t speaking up. He hadn’t, not since he saw my arm.
Hayworth continued. “Tell me, Ms. Fray. Do you have a hidden project in the wings?”
“I have three other projects that were near completion.”
“Any unifying theme? Can you tie them together?”
“There are no extracurricular activities in your record, as I understand it. Have I been misinformed? Have you been working in the libraries, with sales, military, sticks, or the clean up details?”
No time. “No, professor.”
“Is there anything to add? Something to add, justifying your use of University resources?”
I paid tuition. In a roundabout way. I earned my scholarship, and that money went to you. Money in exchange for resources.
Very reluctantly, I said, “No, professor. Nothing to add.”
“I see. Thank you, Ms. Fray. If you would return to your residence, someone will be along shortly to inform you about our decision.”
“Thank you,” I responded, not feeling grateful at all. I headed to the door, giving the table a sidelong glance.
The rumor among the students was that if at least two of the committee members went straight to the paperwork when the meeting ended, then you were in the clear.
None of them even glanced at it.
Sorry, pig, that you had to die for the sake of that.
Other students glanced at me as I strode down the hallway. The students ranged from ten to twenty-five. Five boys to every girl. Dozens. The vast majority of them had a weariness about them. Most would be getting a minimum of sleep, trying to wrap up their projects and type out an outline that covered every base. Some were in the company of voltaic creations or their dissertation projects. Animals with augmentations and a handful of people with augmentations as well.
I was done. Career over before it started. Four and a half years of intensive tutoring with ex-students, preparing my admissions project, six months in-school bringing the idea I had conceptualized to life, two years spent here.
I couldn’t help but feel a kind of resentment over the youngest students that were milling in the hallways. The ones with families that could afford to send them here from an early age. They would inject themselves with ox, a way of keeping their brains flexible, free associating easily. They had been dosing themselves with other substances to stave off the need for sleep for days, to make the most of their time. By the time I had stepped through the front doors and faced the option of doing the same, they had been dosing themselves for so long they were immune or used to the side effects.
I had started out behind and I had never caught up.
Or, better to say, they had started out ahead.
I loved the building, with the gleaming tile floors and the brown stone walls. It was warm and just a little disorganized in layout, like a living thing should be. Crawling with ivy. The residential buildings that sprawled around the foot of the University were more like the roots of the superstructure than anything else.
It was big, somehow overbearing and every few years, the work done here would touch the world beyond.
It would have been easy to use a human test subject. I could have gone overboard, taken more risks with safety and the cosmetics of it. It would have hurt me in terms of marketing, perhaps been a bit of a gamble, but I could have been more dramatic. It was, I suspected, what many other students had done.
I could have, but I hadn’t. I had seen a few too many of those test subjects coming through the University. There was a small but noticeable discrepancy between the number who were brought in for the experiments and the number that left. Small, only a handful each year, but still enough to note.
There was also another concern that nagged at me, but it was more abstract. The idea that we were so eager to take risks for the sake of a successful, attention-getting dissertation and then summarily hurrying to rush our ideas out the door to potential buyers… I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of that.
In more ways than one, I had been safe. The self-experimentation was the smallest risk I could have taken.
I returned to my residence room, and my eyes roved over the other projects. In a tank, Dolores swam, undulating periodically. Somewhere between an octopus and a jellyfish, she had an open ring for a head. Smarter than most would consider. model hands sat on another dresser, carved of wood, with various components arranged on or around them. The one in front had sections carved and cut off to hold the other spurs I’d made. Another had the ink reservoir in the palm, as I did in my left hand.
I rolled up my left sleeve and put my arm in Dolores’ tank.
The ring encircled my upper arm. I withdrew both my arm and Dolores from the tank, letting her four arms wrap around my arm, wrist and hand. My roommate, still ensconced in her bedcovers, grumbled, annoyed, at the slight splash I’d made. She would be sleeping off the cocktails of cocaine and other substances she had used to get through her dissertation. She had passed.
I gave both Dolores and my arm a patdown with a handtowel to dry them, then adjusted Dolores so that one of her oblong eyes were visible.
I pointed, and she reached out with a prehensile limb, seized the book, and pulled it back to me. It wasn’t strong, and there was a floppiness to the arm that I had hoped to have corrected by now. Not enough cartilage.
I picked a sugar cube out of a bowl and stroked it along her skin. I pointed again.
Wrong target. I splayed out my fingers to stop her, then tried again. When she was right, I rewarded her with more sugar. By the time we had a rhythm going, I didn’t need the sugar anymore. Only an occasional stroke of her head.
If I had four more months here, I could have made a second Dolores, learning from the mistakes of the first. Or I might have tried something more basic, surgery to restructure her internal makeup. Shorter, stronger limbs?
I began picking up the various pieces of my room, with Dolores’ help.
“You’re back already, Genie?” Claire, my roommate, mumbled. She was still bundled up in her covers, with them over her head and tucked under her legs, but she’d at least turned over to face me.
She was able to read things from my body language and tone. Her voice was a little hoarse as she said, “I’m sorry.”
“I won’t hold my scholarship unless they all pass me, and they won’t all pass me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “You could reach out to your parents? One year of tuition, do better next year?”
I wasn’t sure I would, and that wasn’t an option anyways. How nice, that she could suggest it in so cavalier a fashion.
She groaned a little. It wasn’t for my sake, but for hers.
“Would you like anything?” I asked. “Water? Food?”
“Yes. But you should ignore me. Be selfish, Genie. If you’re right about them not passing you, they’ll come and ask you to leave, and you’ll only be able to bring what you can pack in two minutes. Hurry and get yourself set.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
She was being nice, even while under the weather. She had always been nice.
Why did I feel uneasy, thinking that?
She spoke, but her eyes were screwed shut, and she tugged the blanket over her head. “People are going to ask what happened. There are a few of them who like you. They will think I had something to do with it.”
“They have no reason to blame you.”
“What should I tell them?”
“That I love this. The work. The learning. The creation. It’s everything else that I hate. The people, for one thing. I like new ideas too much to stick to one for the dissertation. That’s where I went wrong.”
There was more, but complaining about the elite students and the advantages they had from attending at a young age wouldn’t go over well with Claire. She was one of them.
“I guess you’re going home?”
I nodded, but it was a lie.
No home to go to. Not really. My family’s fortunes weren’t doing so well. I had hoped to finish over three more years and then work for the academy, taking my cut from selling research and projects to support my family.
“Can I give you a tip?” she asked. “A big tip that you positively cannot tell anyone I gave you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Keep Dolores. Hide her. They’ll confiscate anything they can find, but they won’t dare touch you.”
I stared down at the little lifeform, with her pink and gray blotches. Not my work, not entirely. I had made it with an upperclassman who had dropped out, just as I was about to.
“Alright,” I said.
I gathered my clothes from the drawers, folding them and placing them with my luggage.
When the knock at the door came, I was nearly done. Only my library books remained, along with some of the booklets that I’d been given when I arrived.
My uniform, too. I had worked too hard for too long to take it off now. Dolores lightly squeezed my arm beneath my uniform shirt.
It was the young professor. I invited him in.
“It is entirely too late in the day for a young lady to be abed,” he said, his voice stern. “You would do well to study at the library, if you want to maintain your standing.”
Lethargic, tense, doing a poor job of hiding her scowl, Claire rose from bed, brushed her skirt and hair into a semblance of tidiness, standing awkwardly by her bedside.
My heart pounded.
“Genevieve Fray. I’m sorry,” he said.
I nodded, wholly unsurprised.
There was a kind of relief, mingled with frustration and anger. I was out from under a pressure that had weighed on me since my second week in the University, but I didn’t want to be.
I had spent a full third of my life working towards this, and now I was done?
“You will need to turn in your uniform, keys, and you must leave everything behind in your workshop, to be cleaned up by other parties. With no notes in the pathogens or invasive species files, I understand there’s nothing you need to oversee?”
“You’ve read and understand the procedures for exit?”
“I’ll take you to the sticks now. You will need to remove your uniform.”
“Alright,” I said, feeling a lump swelling in my chest.
I collected the change of clothes from my belongings and stepped into the washroom.
The professor and Claire were talking in low tones. He was stern, she was quiet. I heard his voice drop in volume by one notch.
Confiding something? I felt a twist in my stomach.
I took my time getting dressed, thinking. A white calf-length dress, a thick red belt around the waist, a blouse with a froth of lace as the sleeves and neck, and a red tie for my short black hair.
I turned my attention to Dolores, who I had placed in the sink’s basin. I jabbed her with one of my ‘spurs’, and watched as she slowly stopped moving.
My only real friend, here.
By the time I stepped out, the professor was looking somewhat impatient. I handed him my folded uniform. As he took the folded garment, he could see my bandaged fingertips, a little blood marking the cloth.
I held out my other hand, showing him the little horns of bone.
“In the wastebin,” he said.
I did as he asked.
“Thank you,” he said. “We should be going.”
Before we could get on our way, Claire hugged me.
I could feel her tense.
When she broke away, I was smiling. Her eyes dropped to my arm. I could see her brow momentarily furrow in confusion, her gaze darting to the washroom.
I smiled a little wider. “You’ve been ever so kind. Somewhere down the line, I’ll owe you one.”
The professor was kind enough to take the biggest piece of luggage for me, leaving me to carry two small bags.
The residences were on the street level, and exit was too quick, too soon.
We passed the military building on our way through the gardens. The color was startling, the birds garish, the flowers so bright and varied they looked like something artificial, especially with the overcast sky and light rain that fell around us.
I had always preferred English style gardens, where things ran wild, more than a little messy, but in a good way.
An distinguished building like the University deserved something more natural. Which was ironic, given the focus.
We entered the city. There was nothing natural about it. A stark contrast, dingy and gray, with roads that were brown and gouged with wet tracks and holes disguised by puddles. Shit piled in the street, here and there.
There were crowds of ordinary people, with the uncommon oddity among them. For every thirty people, there was a voltaic man or woman. I could safely assume that there were probably more than twice that number, given how well the more recent ones were made, with their stitches and scars hidden by hairline and clothing.
I saw a single voltaic horse, pulling a wagon, alongside the other ordinary horses and wagons on the street, and two cars. A beast of burden that outlast even the doped horses on the streets. The voltaic beast had flesh sown together patchwork from two different horses, at a glance, with metal studs where it might be plugged into a wall during a lightning storm.
Three ‘Roses’, two ‘Lilies’ and a ‘Violet’, alongside a ‘Hawk’ and two ‘Colts’. The women were dressed well, considering the climate and surroundings, their immodest dresses in colors that matched their names. Red, pink and violet. They smiled and flirted with passerbys with painted lips while the narrow ‘Hawk’ and two hulking ‘Colts’ unloaded boxes and luggage from a wagon.
A Rose, utterly identical to her sister just as the two Lilies and two Colts matched, cooed at the young professor as we passed them. Her sister echoed her.
The professor’s neck and shoulders were rigid as we passed. I clasped my hands behind my back, and he glanced down at me. “Hands in sight, Ms. Fray.”
More oddities. Men too muscled to be natural. People who didn’t quite look right, their faces too smooth, their hair colors one step beyond the ordinary, too red or blond. Uncanny, more than anything.
I counted myself lucky that there were no corpse collectors. The smell was always atrocious, and the rare scene where someone decided to sell their bodies – a dime for a pound of flesh – was grisly. I had worked in every type of lab, but it was typically animals that screamed, not people.
“Many students start working in the periphery of the University when they fail to graduate. Some are too ashamed to return home,” the professor said. He gave me a pointed look.
“I can’t imagine working in some back alley laboratory,” I admitted.
“I have escorted many students to the sticks in my time as a professor, and virtually every student said similar things. Yet the number of people performing illegal, clumsy science and medicine in the area continues to increase.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
He led me to a building I had only seen in passing, on my brief trips through town. The station.
Officers glanced at me as I was led through the building, but I didn’t warrant more than a second look.
“That way,” the chief said, looking up from his desk. A bulldog of a man, to look at him. “They’re all full on this end.”
The cells. A final indignity.
Brilliance took only the right person, the right time and place, and diligence. Two such individuals had made places like the University a possibility.
To take that brilliance and catalyze it, stirring all of society, there was a need for war. War to unite. War to demand the very best.
We’d finished one war, bringing us to this point. Rumors stirred of another, on the horizon. Nobody spoke openly of it, but the professors told the complete story with grim silences and the odd intensity that caught them in certain areas. The dissertations were only one such area. Certain classes, certain departments…
An arms race, and we students were the means. We knew it, even if we did not speak of it.
In a way, my disappointment at my failure was a disappointment that I would not be able to serve my country. I had wanted to do what I loved, to support my mother, support my country… it had felt right.
To be locked in a cell because I knew too many dangerous details to be allowed to find my own way home was wrong.
Still, I didn’t complain as the door slid shut.
My father had always counseled pragmatism.
My father, I couldn’t help but note, had failed, gone bankrupt, and hanged himself. There was only my mother, living with family.
“Best of luck,” the professor said.
“I never got your name,” I said.
“Professor Newall. Thank you for answering.”
“I hope I never see you in front of the court, Fray. It would be a crying shame if you were caught up in something dodgy. We’ve had too many go down that road already.”
“I know,” I said. I wasn’t sure what else was appropriate.
With that said, he left. The rain was falling harder outside.
I rested my head against the bars, eyes closed, listening.
He had stopped to exchange brief words with the chief.
My suspicions were right.
As cells went, these special quarters were cozy. Inoffensive. Proper beds, dressers, sinks and a stall for the toilet. It was eerily quiet, with only the occasional set of footsteps or the scribbling of a hard pen nib to disturb the peace. None of the prisoners talked.
Everything and everyone was docile and quiet. I remained still, ignoring my slowly churning stomach, and I trained my hearing on the footsteps, listening.
When the captain approached, I knew it was him, from the volume and the way the sound approached.
He held a syringe.
Keeping me quiet, like all of the others. Just like the University provided the ox, the materials for tweaking our doses, so we could stay up and keep working. Keep feeding them ideas that they could sell, feed them ideas that would give them a critical edge in the war, as the voltaic people had helped decide the first.
“For your information, you’ll be searched while you’re under. My wife will do the deed. I’ve run her through it enough times she knows what to look for.”
“Alright,” I said, still feeling a little uncomfortable.
Pragmatism above all else.
If I was going to rebel or argue, this wasn’t the place to do it.
“You should know the drill, if you read your material. You step out of line once, you get dosed with something that slows you down,” he said, tapping his head. “If they don’t outright take something out of that skull of yours. You do something criminal or practice your work without approval from your University, same deal.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Best you remove anything offending, or tell me now, so we might take measures.”
“Okay,” I said. “Just the ink bladder. My left palm, here. I couldn’t remove it before I had to go.”
The lies came easily.
He nodded, following my instructions to drain the bladder of the ink. He took my offered arm to jab me with the syringe.
I didn’t sleep, but time and reality became decidedly fuzzy instead.
He eased me down onto the bed, and I reclined.
The scenes that played out were incoherent. The captain’s wife visited, and sure enough, a screen was erected at the cell door, and I was patted down. What made it weird was that in my dazed state, I couldn’t help but see her as the captain, dressed in drag. Jowls.
No Dolores, and they didn’t find the spurs in my left hand, even as they stretched and bent each finger until I mumbled in pain.
They removed the bandages on the other hand, and noted the incisions beside and beneath each fingernail. He tried a few more times to eject the spurs.
When I was dressed once more, I couldn’t help but smile wanly a bit in my dazed state.
I’d been right. Miniscule. Ten sets of spurs in place.
I was not leaving without something to mark my time at the University.
It was dark when the next person was brought in.
His mouth opened like a fish on dry land. I only caught a glimpse, dreamlike, as two officers walked by the door, carrying him. A head with thick black hair and a standard life support rig, complete with a heart that could beat outside the body, and two jars of blood, each with a filter. Brass gears spun in jerking starts and stops as the heart beat.
“Found him in a basement. He matches the description you gave us earlier.”
“The tourist?” The captain’s voice.
“Yeah. Him. What’s the story?”
The chief explained, “Guy was visiting home after a few years away, business partner in tow. His family kicked him out. We get witnesses showing up, telling us a guy hit the pavement with a spatter. Would think it’s him taking the easy way out, but it was the Scarfellow’s place.”
“Business partner has shady connections, you think?”
The chief said, “Apparently everyone thinks, but he was gone, and so was the body.”
“Damn collectors. We found him hooked up to a thinking machine. They were probably signaled, because they took everything they could with them. I thought we’d get him to the University, see if we can’t get him speaking before we tried questioning him here, but they’re too busy, they say. He’ll keep for a while.”
“Put him at the end of the row. He can share a cell with anyone that’s not a damn student,” the chief said.
I blinked slowly, and I counted footsteps, tracking who was coming and when.
The lights went out.
I could move a little by the late evening, though without much strength. One of the officers on duty visited me, jabbing me with another needle, his other hand holding a dozen more.
By early morning, I could move a little once more. This time, I jabbed myself with one set of spurs on my left hand.
The remainder of the symptoms cleared. I retracted the spurs, waiting to hear the sound of footsteps.
I made my way to the washroom stall of my cell, crawling inside, and knelt before the toilet.
I drew in a deep breath, I used my finger to provoke my gag reflex.
It took three tries to produce anything. Already, I was feeling short on breath.
One tentacle. My throat caught, and I gagged for real.
“Ma’am?” one guard asked.
Don’t come in.
“They test that shit on themselves. Changes the entire brain or body, but mostly they do it to get sleep,” a guard said. “But there’s always going to be something ugly that follows.”
I pulled that ‘something ugly’ from my mouth and throat, using both hands. Dolores landed in my lap. I bent over the toilet and threw up for real, simultaneously trying to gasp for breath.
“We drugged ’em. How’s she up?”
“‘Bout time we re-drug them. It will be wearing off.”
I was damp with sweat, my back drenched, where I’d been lying in the same position too long. I had Dolores, and I had the spurs. I had telescoping arms, but they weren’t in working order. I’d stopped using them when a misfire had stretched the skin of my arms.
Hiding Dolores in my shirt, I crawled across the floor, then lay down on the cool tile.
Disabling the guards was easy. A poke with a fingernail, an injection of tranquilizer. When the second approached, I caught his leg with Dolores’ limb, then jabbed him with one of their own needles. He shouted and fought, standing and kicking me in the stomach, but the drug took hold.
I’d counted footsteps. But one could be sleeping. I waited to hear a response.
Nobody was awake enough to hear.
Using the keys, I opened the door. I staggered across the prison. Making my way down the hall.
My roommate had sabotaged me. I had little doubt. She’d told me to keep Dolores and then told the professor I had her. It had clicked the moment I’d heard her whispering.
I supposed she didn’t feel the need to be as subtle as before when I was on my way out.
I stopped by the head. I could see his eyes, frantic, confused.
“You want revenge?” I asked. “Blink once for yes.”
“Good. I help you first, then you help me with my thing. Something a little bigger.”
“Two blinks for no. What’s three?”
His eyes moved down, slowly roved over the machine that gave him life.
“I’ll get you a body, too. Might be a bit crude, but it’s better than anyone else can give you. Sound like a deal?”
He blinked once.
I hefted the life support machine under one arm, his head dangling from cords over the back of my shoulder.
Free for the first time in my life, I stepped out into the rain and the darkness.