His work has been included in several literary magazines and more frequently, are featured on a number of horror podcasts of thriller / horror tales.
For as long as I can remember, smells have always fascinated me. The ways they could make you feel. The different places they attached themselves to in our memories. From the musky smell of steel dust in the Metro Station to the pungent odor of sewage off Grid Street. As for the Vertex nightclub, it emitted a humid soufflé of stale cigarettes, flavored alcohol, and the perfume of excited, frustrated sweat. The club’s thickly clad walls were stylized with graffiti, colorful slogans, tags, and three-dimensional art. From the ceiling, a three-faced rotating prism, accompanied by spinning gobos, shrouded everything in rapid psychedelic patterns. Two DJs worked the music, keeping the dance floor happy and writhing. The smell of cheap cologne graced my nose. A man was now occupying the seat next to me. Head lowered, defined cheekbones, trim beard coating his jawline, and a full head of thick hair. He turned toward me and said something beneath the thunderous music. “What?” I asked. He leaned forward and spoke in my ear, “What are you drinking?” I lifted my glass. “Black Tonic.” “Cool.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Does Miss Tonic have a name?” My shoulders unconsciously rolled back. “Gage.” He extended his hand with a mannish grin. “Dom.” I shook it firmly, which appeared for a visible moment to surprise him. My grip wasn’t a dainty one. From behind us, the rising pitch of an angry voice caught my attention. A man was now yelling at the bartender. He was somewhat on the taller side with hair slicked back into a Faux Hawk. I sampled my drink. “Wonder what his problem is?” Dom shifted in his seat to join my onlooking. “Maybe his drink not tasting right. The Serf they brought in is a total newbie. Overflowing the dispenser, shaking an old fashioned. No doubt, it’s his first night tending.” He wasn’t wrong. The uniformed boy looked about nineteen, maybe twenty at most. With trembling hands, the Serf wiped his bald head with the rag on his shoulder. The five-digit serial number across his temple glistened with sweat. “What happened to the last bartender they had?” I asked Dom. He motioned at Faux Hawk. “Made the same scene last week. Ended up smashing his glass over the Serf’s head.” “And they let him come back?” He shrugged, “He’s a high-roller.” That explained Faux Hawk’s expensive-looking grey suit. He must have come from the upper floor, where all the other high-rollers were. Sitting in their heated private booths, with an endless assortment of complimentary drinks. Levitating dispensers between them that were able to suspend cocktail droplets you could lick right out of the air. Just a taste of the many culinary benefits from gambling big. It was Serfs that kept the city in a constant state of motion. They occupied jobs not enough people wanted. Business owners could open a loan for the city to provide employees for them. The cost and expenses of server droids could be bypassed entirely. A Serf could always be replaced, but a high-roller had to be sustained. The club we were in was merely a small attachment to an even larger construction behind it—The Apex Den. It was one of many different facilities spread throughout the city. Behemoth structures of dancing lights and tantalizing electric displays to lure risk-takers inside. Such was the gravitation pull of Fortune City. The club’s purpose, much like the maw of a large beast, was to grind your rationality and doubt into a malleable paste before sending you into the stomach where the slots and tables waited. Some left winners, others never left. My attention returned to Faux Hawk. He now gave a last bit of slurred curses and muffled sentences and was given his new drink. I watched the bellowing suit as he returned to the upper floor. I chatted with Dom for the next fifteen minutes, talking about our time in the city, what each of us did for a living, and all the other essentials for stranger conversation. As he finished off the rest of his drink, he excused himself to go to the restroom. I decided to get another drink, maybe even two. I reached for my purse to head for the bar, but my fingers felt air. It was gone. Instinctively, I searched for it—under the table, on the floor, everywhere. Then I saw it, nestled under the arm of a stout man who was walking away. Anger would be the appropriate reaction to something like this, but instead, all I felt was a slight tingle. The stout man made a beeline for the exit, arrowing his way through the shape-shifting mounds of people on the dance floor. I trailed after him, feeling my organs start to vibrate as I passed by one of the eleven-foot speaker stacks. Elbows and shoulders jostled me. I watched the man vanish through the open doors, scot-free—or so he apparently thought. The cool of outside hit my ears, and I pulled on my hood. Fresh snow had settled over the road but was already being melted by the grid of heat cables retrofitted throughout the city’s asphalt. I burrowed my hands deep into my pockets. The thief’s fresh set of footprints led around the corner. He had stopped to light a cigarette and was now talking to someone, blowing out plumes with a fat celebratory smile, like a smoke after a good lay. Probably hoping something in my purse was good enough to pawn off. If that were the case, they should have gone for the optical bracelet around my wrist. I started my approach, and the owner of the other voice I was hearing came into view. The man named Dom, sporting that same mannish grin he’d used to pry through my defenses. So that was their game. An attractive wink to lower the target's guard and a quick snatch for the merchandise. And just like a naïve schoolgirl, I’d fallen for it. It wasn’t surprising. They were acting on the city’s true nature, feeding off the exploitable. People like them were everywhere. I stepped up to them and whistled. Both turned to face me. “Hey,” I said, with an offhand wave, “I’ll be taking that back now.” The plump man turned to Dom and passively chuckled. “I’m sorry, what was that?” I pulled my hood off. “You aren’t getting another warning.” His response was to press my purse into his side with his stubby fingers. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but if you’re lost, the next red-light district is a few streets down. So, why don’t you go work one of those corners?” He concluded with a middle finger, rigid and stiff. “Alright, then,” I said. I darted forward and clutched for the purse, trying to hook at least one finger in the strap. A surprised, guttural sound escaped from the stout man, and a hard, calloused palm smacked my ear. Sharp, stagnant pain rang out from the already sensitive area. My fist, led by its knuckles, whipped forward and directly collided with his jaw. I felt a few teeth rattle. He staggered back heavily, slipping on the mire of slush between us and dropping my purse at his feet. “Wha-huh?” he grunted, spitting out threads of saliva. When he finally realized the position I was taking, the look of anger transfigured into astonishment. Hands up, elbows in, hips between my feet, knees slightly bent and back heel lifted. That’s right. This schoolgirl knows how to box. “So that’s what you are.” He sneered, massaging the swollen lump of his jaw. A few veins popped out of his neck. I found a grim comfort seeing his new expression. The red-blooded look of a man waiting to cave in his opponent’s face. Hungry for dominance. He went for my face with a balled-up jab, but he wasn’t expecting his target to slip past and dig a right hook into his side. He bellowed incoherently and swiped again. Sloppily. I delivered a jab between his eyes. The bridge of his nose crunched. Too many openings. Another solid hook to his gut. And then a surprise knee to his liver. Once the damage finished processing, his body lurched forward and collapsed into the wet earth. I brushed the grime off my purse. “Enough,” said Dom, or whatever his actual name was. His voice was still well-pressed into a calm, collected tone. “No more hysterics, alright? Just hand it over and walk away.” “No, thanks,” I said. I turned away to dismiss myself, but the sudden glint of a knife in his hand stopped me in my tracks. “Maybe you didn’t hear me.” He sighed and then flicked some knob on the plastic handle. A hiss quickly sizzled into existence. Electricity coated the blade in a water-like flow of bright blue current. “Now, your final warning. Drop. It.” The smooth center was gone from his voice. Had I known the night would have turned out like this, I would have brought the gun I kept in its safe. That would have made things a lot more convenient. But, for now, it couldn’t be helped. I turned my back to him. Then, with an abrupt twist of motion, I threw my purse directly at his head, like a fastball pitch. As his instincts kicked in, he ducked out of the way. A few quick steps and I was already on him. I grasped his arm, holding the knife with both hands. The blade crackled and sparked. With a firm grip and a surprising lack of resistance, I slammed his wrist into the solid wall next to us. Tremors traveled through us both. He howled, releasing his fingers daintily from the knife, which lost its blue radiance before hitting the ground. I kicked it away. He collapsed to his knees, holding his limp wrist excruciatingly. “Bah—Broken! You broke it!” he bellowed, in short, manic gasps. The veil had crumbled, much like his ego. By the time I looked back at him, he’d already made a slippery dash down the walkway. The area now smelled of cigarette smoke and the astringent odor of an electric burn. Another place to stitch in my memory. Even out here, I could still hear the club’s faint reverberating pulses. I once again retrieved the purse and rounded the corner for the entry door. A different sound came. A continuous beep in my ears, like the rhythm of a cardiac machine. Realization struck. “Shit,” I breathed, a foggy wisp between my teeth. I had to go; I had to get home. I cut across the sloshy surface of the street and raced down the sidewalk. Idiot, my thoughts barked, Idiot-idiot-idiot. Why wait this long? How could you forget? I made my way through the network of diode street lamps and neon signs flickering with lively animations. Thankfully, The Vertex wasn’t incredibly far from Alibi Town, where my apartment was. The angry, brisk air coated the phlegm in my throat. My heart pounded like a pump about to short-circuit. My pant legs clung to my skin, sodden, and dripping from the puddles. Exhaustion set in. My field of view squeezed into a tunnel. All I could focus on were the noises around me. The squelch of wet pavement. A distant car alarm screaming. A smoker’s whistle outside a bar. My short, raspy breaths. And the accelerating signal behind my head. I had to stop to catch my breath. I hooked my fingers into the chain-link of a fenced-off alleyway. The first wave hit. A strangeness started and grew, grabbing hold of me. The world teetered and then clenched like a body bag. My lungs tightened; my jaw hung loosely open. I swallowed the cold phlegm. Breathe, the fleeting voice in my head cried. Lights from the frost-choked street lamps meshed together in a nexus of streaks and black dots. For a moment, I saw it: everything saturated with emotion, drowning in it, engulfed by it. Too much. I asked it to stop. Warm tears rolled down my cheeks. Fear, anger, sadness, stress, all pouring out together in a perfect storm. My brain flooded with images: The first bar of sunlight crawling over the sidewalk until it reaches my crumpled body. My fingers curled and shriveled like pale spiders. My jaw fractured; cheeks lodged with broken teeth shrapnel. My milky eyes frozen like marbles. Several stab wounds in my abdomen, with black rings of charred flesh surrounding them. Not a drop of blood. Pre-cauterized from a knife, voltaic and beautiful. I’m dying, I gagged through my thoughts. I’m dying here, in this gutter. I sat there for some time; a hunched silhouette lost in its inner turmoil. When the wave finally passed, I uncurled my bloodless knuckles from the chain link and got to my feet. The waves would only get worse from here. I reached my complex—an older six-story structure that had probably once been considered a luxury before time and neglect reduced it to a run-down shadow off Cane Street. I practically fell into the thankfully empty elevator. If the doors had opened for any other tenant, they’d have seen quite the calamity. I reached my floor. Hugging the wall down the dimly-lit corridor, I reached my door and stabbed the room key into the lock. I stumbled inside, and another wave began to crawl up my throat. I staggered to the charging station next to my bed and grabbed the hanging cable extending from its port. Lifting my hair, I fished around to access the small, egg-shaped device at the base of my skull, just above the nape, and I plugged in the jack. The excessive pulsing ended. The blinking light on the device shifted from red to solid amber. I sank against the wall, curled there like a golem with my knuckles jammed between my teeth. Another wave struck. This time, the light on the device flashed green and gave off two loud chimes. A familiar, sort of prickling, sensation followed, glazing my brain in what one could only describe as pins and needles. The untethered flurry of raw emotions dispersed. I gained back control of my breathing and the strangeness sank back into the barred lower levels of my subconscious, replaced by a quiet numbness. The device behind my head had functioned as designed. The Reaction Receptor Modifier (RRM) was a piece of Neotech intended to “free the user from the blight of negative emotions.” Fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness were all isolated and converted into a mere tingle behind the user’s neck. The purpose was to promote productivity and well-being by reshaping reality into something easier to chew. Unfortunately, as advanced as the device was, it came with its drawbacks. One of these was that, although it cut off the negative emotions, it also did so with the positives. Users would find their excitement and overall enthusiasm heavily dampened. No heaven, no hell. Another much more serious drawback was the RRM’s battery life. More specifically, what would happen if its power ran out. The consequences presented themselves as severe episodes, waves of emotions crashing over the user all at once. It became a sort of Pandora's Box: the longer the device was kept functioning, the worse its potential repercussions. Be it weeks, months, or years, whatever the user suppressed was always waiting to find its way back home. In my case, the insertion procedure had been painful, but nothing compared to the post-surgical pangs of my other operations. The device acted as the anchor I needed for my frenzied thoughts. Unfortunately, it also fed the monstrous debt I owed Fortune City. For all the thrill seekers out there hungry enough for the rush of uncertainty and the fresh bursts of dopamine, the city was their sanctum. A place people could go to forget about the earth freezing over. As a tourist, you were granted a visitor’s visa, with a limited budget and a plethora of restricted uses. These visas were for the sightseers just passing through. Those who wanted to sink their teeth into the addictive marrow this place had to offer would require a Crypt-Chip: a small integrated circuit that was implanted into the ball of your palm and acted as the universal link for transactions. No physical currency necessary. Only those embedded with the chip were allowed to become residents, buy property, and gamble. The chip never declined or had any limitations, as long as you were able to cover the accruing interest. That was the snare of the city. The only way in and out of the city’s gates was via the Maglev Railway, stationed at Fortune City’s southern border. Propulsion coils and an array of superconducting magnets propelled the rails at inexplicably high speeds across the inhospitable wasteland of ice that surrounded the city. It was the channel that connected Fortune City to its neighboring, still habitable cities. Anyone who amassed any unpaid debt during their stay would be denied a pass and left stranded in the city until it was paid. Trapped in paradise. Sure, someone could try to make the trek on their own, but without a Neotech thermal suit, they’d end up an ice sculpture by dawn, vehicle or not. The amount of debt, also called markers, accrued was directly reflected by the color of the chip embedded in the palm of the gambler. The different degrees of color indicated the tally—starting with chromatic blue for debt-free souls and gradually darkening until the glow of the chip was a colorless sable. That was my chip, dark as the hole I’d spent years stuck in. But all that was going to change. By the day after next, I’d be aboard that train and watching the lights recede in the hazy distance. Until then, I would crawl into bed and wait for time to put me to sleep. *** I awoke to the sun settling over the Spire like a distant explosion. Its vague massive bulk jutted between the multi-story resorts and glitzy casinos. The large midsection of its waist was twisted with an elegance that made it resemble an hourglass overlooking a garden of light. It acted as the operational nerve of the city, where all matters were handled. The wealthy could afford penthouses in its platinum interior while the rest of us lived in its shadow. I took a shower and set out on my walk to work. My knuckles were slightly swollen, raising the keloid scar I’d gotten in high school from a jock’s embedded tooth. The shop in which I apprenticed occupied a sliver of space off Carmine District and was directly parallel to the Ragtag Museum of Art. Did something in the gallery speak to you? Get it inked! said the banner in our window. On most days, I arrived at the parlor around eleven, one hour before the doors opened. During that time, I prepped the workstations, sanitized the various pieces of equipment in the autoclave, and then coated them in a plastic barrier to avoid cross-contamination, kind of like safe sex. With innovations of technology constantly on the rise, traditional methods of tattooing were also dying. More and more parlors were adopting a new form of tech that reduced the need to hire artists. Machines that could measure contours perfectly and determine the different textures of skin to print flawless designs. Still, Rasputin’s Studio clung to the old-fashioned traditions of the industry. My boss thoroughly believed a machine could never match the skill of an artist’s hand. Like clockwork, as I finalized the drawing for my first appointment, my boss, Mr. Petrov, rolled through the door in his wheelchair. At face value, he’d be described as intimidating. Long black hair hoisted into a ponytail, a scraggly out-of-control beard, the scythe-shaped scar below his eye, all decaled to a face that never smiled. He had been born and raised in Moscow before it became the lifeless plain of frozen structures it was today. Deadly temperatures were rending major cities into eerie reminders of human life. His inspiration for Rasputin’s Studio had drawn from his persistent mortality. He’d survived six heart attacks, two car wrecks, several complex surgeries, a house fire, and, more recently, a set of black spots on his lungs he swore could form a Mickey Mouse head. But behind his menacing undercurrent was the tenderness of a kind soul. He’d given me a chance here, taking one look at my portfolio and then saying in a thick Russian tongue: “Da, welcome to the family.” That was how he saw the whole staff, as a makeshift family. He even went as far as to fit a room behind the station area with a spare bed, solely for any of us to have somewhere to sleep. Not all of us wanted to go back home. When my appointment arrived, it was time to work. The client had asked for a cybernetic heart made of gears, cogs, and wires to be inked over his chest. Designs had to be compatible with the size and shape of the area they would be on. Forearms, from elbow to wrist, needed long designs. Small, rounder shapes belonged on shoulders. Large, round ones on the chest or back. And oblong designs were always good for biceps and legs. By the time I caught that first whiff of injected ink, I would already be in my client’s head, reading every curve and fold of my living canvas. Tattoos were more than just pieces of art to me. They were windows, reflections of one’s inner thoughts for the whole world to see. Something one refused to hide about oneself. *** Years back, when I had realized I wanted to become a tattoo artist, I had practiced on everything from oranges and grapefruits to pigskin. The real touch and polish had come from the discarded mannequin parts I found in an alley dumpster, a boneyard of plastic body parts. Five hours later, I put the final touches on my client’s heart tattoo. I applied the thin clear wrap over the design and sent him on his way, I couldn’t help but hope he would take care of it. Don’t scratch it. Don’t make chunks fade. Don’t take away what we both created. Whenever anyone asked what had brought me to this profession, I would often think about my childhood. My mother had been a vendor, often selling her variety of different gems, jewelry, and healing crystals at the flea market. My father, for the entirety of his adult life, had sought after countless high-risk, low-investment, get-rich-quick schemes. He had enjoyed his weekly hookups with the other investors, who had always managed to convince him to take on their hasty business ventures. Ultimately, this had led to our permanent move to Fortune City. I was nine then. Within weeks, he’d already won the pot of a high-stakes roulette game. Just like that, he was hooked. He had spent most nights at the tables, constantly grasping for that next hot streak. When he had started to fall out of it, the free perks and luxury suites had enticed him back. The winnings, along with most of our savings, were gutted. The bills had racked up. My mother had cried in her bathroom most nights. We had moved from place to place until we settled in an old apartment complex on the city’s edge. Every night, around one or two AM, I would smell the room below mine: a chemical mix of cat urine and ammonia. Probably something being cooked up for the streets. Eventually, my lack of friends and chronic introversion had caught my parent’s attention. My mother, being her anxious self, had complained that all I ever did was draw in my book; she hadn’t been wrong. I had preferred drawing friends more than finding them. My father, on the other hand, had taken it upon himself to sign me up for different sports, mostly kickboxing and some wrestling. When I had turned fourteen, he had taken me to the shooting range to test out his Remington 1911 pistol, just like his father had taught him. At first, I had assumed all these things were an effort to socialize me. That is, until I found out the truth of the matter. My father was indeed worried—not about my social life, but my masculinity. Back in those days, I was still his son. *** Through my school life, I never fit into the same social mold as my other male classmates. They looked for anything to remind me of that. The way I spoke, the way I walked, whatever it took to spark a new laugh. I was different, blood in the water to consume. When a laugh wasn’t enough anymore, they’d push and shove. But, thanks to my father’s countermeasures, I knew how to defend myself. The first tattoo that had spoken to me was one I had spotted during a school trip to the downtown aquarium—a scary, biker-looking man with hulking arms had a grey kitten inked on his bicep. I couldn’t believe how honest it was. Open for the whole world to see. Not even a trace of vulnerability. I have five tattoos now—green carnations on my shoulder, a full moon phase down my spine, a Luna moth encased in geometric shapes on my wrist, a Venus symbol on my ankle, and a syringe on my thigh. ***
By the end of my shift, strong winds had brought with them another slew of heavy snowfall. I broke down my station and mentally prepped for the walk home. Mr. Petrov was hunched over at the reception desk, two-finger tapping his antique keyboard. His sunken eyes swiveled toward me and then toward the darkened street. “You are walking in this?” “Nothing I’m not used to. Besides, it’s not a far walk from here.” “Hmph.” He sighed in his closed mouth. I headed for the door, but he spoke again. “Your cut this week is tomorrow. It will be your last one with us, no?” I stopped and turned toward him. “Oh, yeah. I guess it will be.” He’d been aware for some time now of my goal to leave the city, even offering his sage financial advice to help me kill the gnawing debt from my reassignment surgery. For the past four years, I’d been living as frugally as possible, walking myself everywhere, budgeting food on the essentials, living in a small crummy apartment, and stockpiling a particular percentage of my cuts to a secure savings account. Even my optical bracelet was highly outdated and the cheapest model money could buy here. By tomorrow, I’d finally have enough to pay the city off and start my life elsewhere. “Where will you go?” Mr. Petrov asked, ceasing the tiny clicks of his keyboard. “What is plan?” I shrugged at him. “Planning as I go. Might try my luck in Babylon for a while.” He pursed his lips, pulled out a slim piece of paper, and started writing vigorously on it. “I have friend in Babylon, a good business friend. Take this. He can provide you a place to stay for a good price. Tell him I sent you, and he will cut that price in half. A good starting point, no?” I pocketed the note. “I may take you up on that.” “Wherever you end up,” Mr. Petrov sighed, returning to his work, “I hope it suits what you’ve worked so hard for.” Behind the numb, tingling cloud, I’d have probably smiled at that. Instead, all I did was nod and say, “Thanks, boss.” And traversed the snowfall. The cold whipped at my face instantly, crawling up the openings of my sleeves, my cheeks already flushing. The street was stained a slushy gray as the underground heating system worked its magic. I passed by the district’s fountain, still flowing with the radiant glow of virtual water—a way to maintain its aesthetic despite the pumps constantly freezing. Eventually, I reached the frostbitten trenches of Alibi Town, one of the city’s more troubled neighborhoods. Users came here for narcotics, sharing their needles and tainted blood. Clusters of homeless gathered in the underground drainage tunnels for warmth and shelter. Sex was cheap here and easy to find if you checked the right places. Most stores in the area had shut down but still lingered in their dilapidated shells like ghosts. The more of them I saw, the closer I was to home. As much of a cesspool this part of town was, I didn’t hate living here. To me, it was the perfect reminder of what I would someday leave behind. The small pocket of reality hiding behind the Spire. By the time someone saw past the flashy peacock display of lights and the exciting gambling mecca, they were now one of its vices. Welcome to the land of crime, cravings, and affordable living. A black police van passed me, its large industrial box of a body gliding across the snow on magnetic spherical tires that morphed the flexible shape of their treads to steer smoothly across any surface. No windshield or windows meant the officer was using a holographic system from the inside. Police patrolled these streets all the time. The vehicle rounded the corner. I reached one of my shortcuts, an alleyway between two tenement blocks. Random spots down the narrow space were still blanketed with orange light from the few lamps not yet broken. The air was thick and carried a sulfuric aftertaste. Scents trapped between the walls came in different orders, from cannabis sweat to the occasional waft of drifter urine. I stepped over a disemboweled mattress and a frozen condom popsicle. If anyone were to try and jump me, they’d find themselves deep throating the muzzle of the pistol in my holster. After last night, I wasn’t taking any other chances. Twice every other week, I’d be practicing my dry fire at the range. Once every three weeks, my live fire. Another habit born from my father’s influence. From one of the pipes above, a clump of snow fell next to me. A silhouette sprang blindly out of the intersecting walkway and dashed right toward me. Neither of us had time to react. Before I could so much as graze the butt of my gun, we smacked into each other. The runner stumbled back and lost footing. A boy. Some bald punk, I thought, but then I caught a glimpse of the five-digit numbering on his temple. A Serf? But why out here? He was shivering, nowhere near dressed for the weather in only a black short-sleeved shirt. More snow crunched from the direction he had appeared. Somebody else was coming. Stunned by my obstruction, the boy floundered about and then affixed his eyes on a grimy dumpster. He hopped into it and closed the lid. A thin, bug-eyed man raced into view, gray curls of hair bouncing out from the hood of his brown coat. His skin, dark and wrinkled, suggested an age somewhere north of his sixties. Not exactly an age for sprinting. His cheek bore a discolored graft of synthetic skin. He took quick notice of me and stopped, huffing out heavy clouds. “Where?” he barked, nostrils flaring, as though I owed an immediate response. I jerked my thumb back behind me. He fired past me, still wheezing. When the coast was clear, I lightly tapped the dumpster with my foot. “You can come out. He’s gone.” The Serf hesitantly lifted the cover like a malfunctioning jack in the box. Both of his arms were clamped over the other, his lips a pale, bloodless hue. I took off my jacket and gestured it to him. “Take it.” Straightaway, he pulled it over himself. “Who was that you were running from?” I asked. No response, just more shivering. “Do you have someone I can call?” That was a silly question. Abandoned Serfs, either lost or not properly stationed, would have to be retrieved by an officer. They belonged to the city. I lightly tapped the side of the optical bracelet, which projected a transparent screen down my wrist. It blinked at me, waiting for the number to call. I reached to start dialing, but a cold hand clasped my arm. The boy was staring at me with wide, desperate eyes. “Please,” he breathed. “He’ll find me. Please, don’t.” Things that may have been emotions trickled down my neck. “Alright,” I sighed, flexing my hand to close the screen, “But you’re going to freeze to death if you stay out here.” I stepped forward to walk the rest of the path and turned to look at him. He was still staring awkwardly at me. “Are you coming or not?” He hesitated, as if still unsure what exactly make of me, but then the cold seemed to persuade him to follow. We moved at quite a pace through the empty streets. Sharp iciness sank into my exposed arms from the bombarding wind and powdery debris, detonating goosebumps over my skin. My eyes were dry, the nerves in my face shredded. Not soon enough, the outline of my apartment surfaced out of the haze. We made it inside and up to my floor without another stir. I was not up for any other surprises. I kicked off my shoes and batted at the snow that clung to my ankles. “Make yourself comfy,” I told him, and I disappeared into my room for warmer clothes. My fingers rattled their senses back. I locked away the Remington in the safe below my nightstand. I returned from my room. The Serf had not budged from the doorway. He stood cemented there like a sheepish mannequin. His bald face was still that colorless palette graced with heavy, hanging eyelids. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen. “You do know what comfy means, right?” I asked. I adjusted the thermostat and gestured to the couch. He faintly shrugged and then crept towards it, sinking into the cushions. An uncomfortable silence inflated between us. Guests were not my strong suit, let alone a kid I’d found in a dumpster. I coughed, then asked, “Do you want something to drink? Some tea or coffee?” No response, just another shrug. “Water it is, then.” I clicked my tongue and started filling. When I offered him the glass, he turned away and stifled a few stuffy coughs into his arm. His nose was a rosy Rudolph red. I lightly felt his forehead. No doubt, getting a fever. “Here,” I said, draping one of my fleece blankets over his shoulders. I returned to the kitchen. “I may have a fix for that bug you’re catching,” I called back to him. I fetched a can of chicken soup, still to this day a staple for home remedies to combat the global freeze. I always kept at least three or four in the pantry. I warmed up a bowl. The room’s temperature grew sluggishly. I rested the soup on the table in front of the Serf, along with some bread. “It’s far from a five-star meal, but I think it will do the trick.” I planted myself on the sofa next to him. He observed the food with sagging, tired eyes, glanced briefly at me for clarity, and then started eating. “I’m Gage,” I said. “What about you?” He tapped the numbers etched in his temple: FC6666 Of course, I sighed internally. Serfs were given serial numbers for identification; names were probably considered too humanizing. “Doesn’t roll off the tongue,” I commented. “What about a nickname?” “The others called me Six.” He took another bite of bread. “Alright, then. That’s what I’ll call you.” A reserved smile crept to the corner of his mouth. “Okay.” The laborious task of my heater finally kicked in, and he slipped my jacket off. I noted the gnarled line of scarred tissue running down his wrist. Before the silence could swell between us again, I popped another question. “That man chasing after you. Who was he?” His shoulders rolled back. “I don’t know. We just call him the Taker.” “The Taker? Why that?” “Because when he shows up at the plant, it means one of us has to go with him.” I leaned back, chewing on a piece of loose skin on my lip. “What kind of plant?” “The Neo plant,” “Oh, for Neotech. That is where you were stationed?” He nodded. “Rows and rows of us on assembly lines. Ten to fifteen hours a day. We build everything from parts to new circuits, even moving heavy machinery.” His eyes shifted into an inward gaze. “We eat while we work, whatever they scrounge up for us. We don’t even have time to use the restrooms. Breaks waste time.” It was surprising, thinking that Neotech, one of the largest and most utilized tech industries in the city, would resort to labor like that. Production demands must have been getting too high for them to have resorted to sweatshops to pick up the mass volume. My eyes returned to the vertical scar on his wrist. “Did they ever hurt you?” He looked at the scar and then openly displayed it for me. “They took my tracer out. It’s the first thing they do for any new arrival.” I stared ahead of me absently. If they were going as far as removing tracers, the city must not have been providing the Serfs that were working for it. Whatever this was, it was being handled in secret—somewhere the Spire couldn’t see—and potentially was even preying on the Serfs lost in the system. The way Fortune City procured its Serfs was already a dark enough business. If parents, or even a single parent, were desperate enough, they were allowed to surrender their child to the city, clearing both slates entirely. After the paperwork, the infant, usually a year old at most, was taken in and processed. No identity. Just flesh with a serial number. They became a resource, precious fuel for the city. That was the justification, a roundabout way to accept modern-day slavery as a social norm. Six buried his face in his palms. “When the Taker comes, he picks one of us to go with him. Never a girl, only a boy.” “And then you were chosen?” He sighed heavily. “When they said it would be me, I felt a little bit happy. Like I was finally able to leave that place behind. Probably to somewhere worse, but at least different than those walls. Sometimes, I even have a dream where I explode into a swarm of birds, flying off in every direction possible, going everywhere else but here. “An officer was there when they woke me up from my bunk. They told me to go with him and to keep quiet. He took me to this part of town where the Taker was waiting for me in some black van. When they said to get in,” his fingernails curled over his pants, “I took a chance and ran as fast as I could.” His head sank toward the bowl, now empty except for a few strands of discarded crust. “Thank you,” he said, with a slight tremble to his voice, “for not reporting me.” “Don’t worry about it,” I said, taking the dishes from him and returning to the sink. A short “Oh” escaped from him. “You have one of those?” I turned back to him. “Have one what?” He signed with a few fingers to the back of his smooth head. “An RRM. We made some of those too. I never did, though.” “Oh, yeah.” Feeling somewhat exposed, I rubbed the back of my neck and returned to washing. He cocked his head, interest piqued. “Does it ever hurt?” Now was my turn to shrug. “Not really. All I ever feel is a slight tingle when something tries to squeeze its way through.” Six nodded. “Emotions, yeah. It must be nice not having to worry about those, huh?” I reached for an answer but couldn’t find one. “What made you get it?” he asked. A sharp, sudden prickle rang from the device, dispersing into the void that was my state of mind. “It’s getting pretty late,” I said. “We should both get some rest. We can figure things out in the morning, okay?” The interest drained from his face. “Okay.” I set the couch up with some warm blankets and pillows for him. “If you need anything, knock on my door. I’m a pretty light sleeper.” “Thank you,” he said, staring at the small nook of blankets I made. “For everything.” “Don’t mention it.” I closed the door behind me. Was I worried about a stranger sleeping in my apartment? Under any other circumstances, completely. But the kid wasn’t a thief; I knew that much. It wasn’t in his eyes. I spent the next thirty minutes wetting my thoughts in the shower. Behind the numbness, my thoughts were trying to complete themselves. How would I be feeling right now? How should I be feeling right now? Hot water trickled over my tattoos and traced the small scar above my pubic region where the surgical blood drain had been. The rest of the scars around my body, most noticeably on my chest, had faded from time and plenty of silicone sheeting. Even so, you could still somewhat see them if you looked hard enough, the little reminders of my gender detour. A system permanently altered. “What made you need it?” The question ping-ponged inside my skull. Something traumatic, I almost said. That was the easy answer, though I didn’t even want to share that much. That was the annoyance of having this device; it left people wondering what drove you to the point of emotional paralysis. Why did you give up on feeling? What happened to you? Now I was forced to sit in the partially digested memories of my past, to the day I lost everything. *** By my seventeenth birthday, my father, despite all his efforts, had still been severely concerned about my fleeting manhood. He had confided his worries to my Mother, who couldn’t help but absorb them like a sponge. Every conversation between us had been spoken through a small dense pocket of awkwardness. Honestly, I had tried to play along, to be the best son I could be. But I just hadn’t able to cope with it any longer. I had become tired of playing a part, reading a script. The unhappy seed inside of me had sprouted despite my best efforts to ignore it. The truth had to come out. On the night that I had finally worked up the courage, I had sat them both down and spilled everything. All my convictions, the secrets I’d kept hidden, every piece of matter that was my inner self, had been dissected and splayed on the table; the most vulnerable I’d ever been and would ever allow myself to be again. When the subject came to the surgery I’d planned, my mother couldn’t help but interject. She had said she didn’t want a daughter; she wanted her son. That was the back and forth of it. As for my father, he had said nothing the entire time, but the expression on his face had said enough. To this day, it was still embroidered somewhere in my subconscious. Not a look of anger, but one of absolute defeat. It was as though I’d spit on the life that he’d tried to build for me, spit on the body he and my mother had created. And so, we had left it at that, locked into our separate lives. No further conversations were necessary. Our relationship with one another was left ragged and full of holes. After a month of limited eye contact and hollowed bits of conversation, I had come home to them packing their things. Before I had even asked anything, I had seen that both of their chips were missing. “We’ve paid the city,” my father had said in a distant, passive tone, like he was addressing this to a coworker. “Tomorrow, we’re boarding and leaving this place.” I had never been a stranger to the financial struggles our family had, and the very thought of them possibly saving enough to buy their freedom had left me perplexed. But then it had hit me: they no longer had to worry about a third passenger. Although I had already known the answer, I couldn’t help but murmur the question, “What about me?” My father had huffed out his nose, “That’s up to you now. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” That had been the last thing he had said to me and made do for a goodbye. My mother had taken the time to hug me, but even that had felt like a vacant piece of formality. It wouldn’t sink in for me until the next morning, when I walked into an empty home, that the rest of my journey would be walked alone. Left in my room was my father’s Remington pistol, still in its safe. *** Once I had landed a job and established a feasible enough way of living, I had started taking hormones. Ordered online, self-dosed at one-hundred to two-hundred milligrams a day. After eight weeks of that, when I turned twenty-one, I had switched to estrogen. Although my mind was made up, the idea of surgery had terrified me. The risks had felt so high, ranging in a list from infections from blood clots to cancerous tumors. As apprehensive as I was, the hormonal transition had helped me grasp a few straws of confidence. The operation didn’t define who I was but would help me create the way I wanted my body to work and feel. My own Crypt-Chip had funded the entire process, hemorrhaging money on all sides but covering everything I needed done. There are things they don’t warn you about in gender-reassignment surgery. One is the extent of surface tissues that end up dying off, leaving you thinking something has gone wrong. The other is the world of pain that awaits you after the post-surgical recovery. Getting past the procedures had been one thing, but the aftermath had bloomed an entirely new hell. The pain would fade and then come back far worse. My energy was low, and my body struggled to adapt to its geographic changes. Painkillers had helped but always twisted my dreams into nightmares. Throughout that whole ordeal, I had been too afraid to confront the truth: that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I’d be. I had needed physical and emotional support through that crucial phase, and I was alone. No family or friends had been around to help me climb the sheer cliff of womanhood. And, to this day, I was still climbing it. Losing hope, I had done as much research I could to try to get some help. That was how I had found the RRM in a published article. The whole concept had sounded too good to be true. A way to quarantine everything and keep my sanity intact. What other choice did I have? The last of my thoughts washed down the drain. I turned off the water and fell asleep without drying my hair. When I checked on Six in the morning, he was gone.
*** I took a cab to the Spire. From the back seat, I kept looking back at the dark colorless chip embedded in my palm. Today was the day the shackle came off. We passed a pair of Serfs riding the back of an automated garbage truck. I thought of Six and where he’d possibly gone. The blankets I’d left had been folded tidily next to each other on the couch. Nothing out of place or stolen. I hoped he’d keep out of trouble. Once we reached the Spire, I stepped out and traversed up the wide set of stairs with their swirling wrought-iron railings. Despite myself, I deliberately tried to leave a scuff on the otherwise pristine alloyed steps. They led me to a large entrance that opened up into a great hall of constant movement. I stepped through the quivering shimmer of a particle field that was spread along each of the doorways. They scanned for any weaponry or otherwise dangerous substances. Standing near its wall-mounted generators were guards in black uniforms. The inside of the Spire was large, airy, and multi-tiered, like a platinum-encrusted beehive. Tall over-encompassing walls adorned with large rings of unique, glamorous metals. The air was laced with a manufactured white musk that added to the sense of luxury of the clientele. Handling the first floor was a row of accountants seated behind a flowing electromagnetic barrier. Particles of light converted into a solid surface. Military grade and highly durable. It was meant to protect the employees from potential robbery, should anyone be stupid enough to try it. It was my turn. I approached a female Serf working at her desk. She wore a tight black suit. Unlike the employees in their other windows, who each had their name tag, her name was inscribed on her temple. She cocked a pin-up smile and tilted her bald head. “Hello there. How can I help you today?” “I’d like to make a wire transfer to my Crypt account.” She nodded and took down the payment details I gave her, running each digit along the holographic keys on her desk. Her eyes left the monitor screen and returned to me, “And how much will that amount be?” I cleared my throat. “Every dime. I want the balance zeroed out.” “Alright,” she said, almost chant-like, and proceeded with the transfer. Within minutes, my chip pulsed with life in a bright blue glow. “There we go. And will you be staying in the city or taking your leave at the station?” the woman said with that relentless cheer. “The station, please.” “Not a problem. What will your destination be?” “Babylon City.” She input the data and motioned to the table. “Please place your hand here, palm up.” I did what she asked and watched as she brought up a small white canister and sprayed a misty layer over my hand. It was a little cold, and my skin surrounding the chip prickled. After a moment of waiting, she followed with a pair of white tweezers and plucked out the blue chip. Not even a pinch. “That wasn’t so bad, huh?” the woman teased, placing the chip inside a round metallic case. She handed me a yellow card, now printed with my information. “This pass will be automatically validated tomorrow, so give this to an attendant at the station and they will provide you an actual ticket. If, for any reason, you’d like to be fitted with a chip once more, we will have it stored here.” I accepted the pass, taking a moment to slide my thumb across its laminated texture. “Thank you.” *** For the rest of the day, I was filled with a sort of exhilaration that somehow bypassed the device, invading my system like a foreign entity. Tucked away in my pocket was the key to a new life. For the first time since my last surgery, I felt that smooth edge of control returning. I dropped by Rasputin’s Studio one last time and exchanged goodbyes with Mr. Petrov and the other artists I’d come to know. They all wished me luck, and I set off to spend the rest of the day packing my things. By the time I was done, the outer sky had already darkened into a grey night. I stepped into the kitchen to pop in something to eat. Three consecutive knocks racked on the door. Two seconds later, they repeated. I squinted my eye through the glass peephole and saw the top of a bald head. I opened the door. Six was hunched over and coughing up spurts of exhausted breath. “I’m sorry,” he panted, like his lungs were deflating, “Nowhere else to go. I’m sorry.” Fresh wet trails dribbled down his red cheeks. I brought him in and took him by both shoulders. “Calm down. It’s okay. What happened?” His veiny eyes raced back to the door. “They’re coming—followed me here. I tried to lose them, I—I couldn’t.” The sound of heavy footsteps from the hall now reached us both. I grabbed Six by his arm and brought him to the large window of my bedroom. Pushing against the glass, it opened horizontally outward to reveal the gratings of the fire escape. From the other room, a firm knock hit the door. Six and I exchanged glances. “I’ll keep whoever is here busy,” I said. “You just follow the stairs down and go through the alley.” Before he even had a chance to respond, I turned and unlocked the safe in my nightstand. I peered through the peephole’s fisheye lens and saw the face of the man from last night. From that close, I could make out the bristled grey flecks on his chin and the marred patch of synthetic skin on his cheek. He knocked again, harder this time. I opened the door to greet him. “Hello.” He stretched his lips into a smile that crinkled the discolored tissue on his cheek, “You’re a familiar face.” The foulness of his breath immediately hit me. It fit his spotted row of bottom teeth. I shrugged at him. “You aren’t. Can I help you with something?” “You have something of mine, and I’m going to need it back.” He spoke in a slow, commanding manner, with an accentuated roll of his octaves that bordered on cheeriness. I yawned and then mustered a sigh. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” “Stop, stop!” he said, raising his palm in a dismissive gesture. “I know what you’re doing, and I will ask in the nicest way I can to bypass the hindrance. My employer is very keen on deadlines, and I’m in a bit of a time crunch. Where is the Serf?” “Look,” I said, with a firm calmness in my pitch, “I’m going to call the police if you don’t leave.” A bristled corner of his lip twitched. “Go ahead. Knock yourself out.” I went to close the door on him, but his hand whipped out a gun. He held it just an inch from my face, my lips practically kissing the muzzle. “But if I were you,” he said, “I’d consider my next set of actions very carefully. Now, open the fucking door.” I opened the door fully and stepped back. The man, also known as the Taker, stepped inside, his firearm locked on me. He was followed in by a larger military-looking man wearing a green trench coat and dark cargo pants. I noted that the thuds of this man’s right foot were heavier than the left. The Taker’s eyes momentarily slipped away from me, as he motioned his partner to search the place, starting with the nearest closet. I tried to get a fix on the type of gun aimed at me. A rectangular blackish body, short-barreled, threaded muzzle, and judging by the pulsing green canister attached to its lower portion, the ammo was corrosive. If I were to wager a guess, it was a Carborane Carrier, better known on the streets as a Disintegrator. Usually obtained only by illegal means, the weapon broke its targets down at a cellular level. Just one pull of that trigger and I’d be reduced to a foamy, acidic puddle of myself. Not a trace of reliable evidence. The sound of my coffee table tipping over from the military man’s search made me jump. I mentally followed the sound of his boots as he headed to check the bathroom door. “No chip?” the Taker asked, taking notice of my palm with narrow eyes. “You must have bought your way out then. When do you leave? Tomorrow? I didn’t answer him. “Hm?” His head cocked curiously to the side, with the slanted smile of a snake playing with its food. “Any idea where you’re going yet? I heard the southern temperatures were good this year.” I was not playing ball, and he sighed at my lack of conversation. “Honestly, why risk all of this for a Serf? Just make it easier for yourself and tell us where it is.” Without warning, the sound of a muffled cough came from my room. The Taker’s neck craned toward the source. “Bedroom,” he called out. “It's in the bed—” The moment those eyes left me to relay the message, my pistol had already left its holster. I fired off a shot that ripped through his left leg. In an instant, the room flashed, and the Taker howled with agony. He fell backward, but not without a spasm of his trigger finger that sent a flare of green just shy of me. The impact punched a molten hole into the back wall. Thick blood seeped out of the ragged tear in the Taker’s pants. He hit the ground, the Disintegrator slipping from his grip and clattering onto the floor. I went for it, but a shattering force collided into me. My feet slipped, I hit the wall, and the world became vertical. A deep reservoir of pain started in my hip and rippled down the meat of my leg. Next to me, the military man lowered his leg from the kick he’d just delivered. I curled my fingers, only to realize the gun was out of my grasp. I’d dropped it from the sudden strike. The military man bent over to retrieve my gun, but I managed to kick it away from him just in time. With a wincing effort, I got back to my feet. Within seconds he was on me. The flurry of punches came fast and hard. My back was against the wall. I was pinned, only able to block what I could predict, while mentally walling off the pulsating throb in my side. Get out of the corner; my brain riffed in my father’s voice. I distributed weight on my lead foot and waited for my chance. He threw an overexerting right that allowed me to duck and step toward his left side. Granted my new opening, I spun around and struck him a solid one in the jaw. There was little to no sign of damage, but at least I had my footing back. The Taker, meanwhile, was still writhing on the ground, with his fingers clenched over his bleeding leg. Behind us, the corrosive substance in the hole of the wall had begun to bubble and eat its way through the plaster. Noxious odors filled the air. The military man faced me, fists waiting. An addictive surge of adrenaline raced through my body and nulled the stabbing pangs. He came at me again, but this time I was prepared. I parried off the first few blows and opened myself a counter with a jab to his throat. As he wavered back, I went for a low kick to his outer thigh. The bones in my foot rattled and then sang with new pain. It was like I had just kicked a steel girder. The military man inclined his head in acknowledgment and then, with an amused look, he lifted his pant leg. An artificial limb. But not just that. One of the more advanced models designed to be versatile enough for combat situations. With its internal circuits, the prosthetic could link up to the electric signals of the bearer’s nerves to mirror the actual feeling of tissue and bone with hydraulics and metal. Another gift courtesy of Neotech. He approached, now wearing the smug look of premature victory. That alone was enough to bring my groove back. This time, I wouldn’t let him touch me. I bobbed and weaved around his attacks. My best bet was to tire him out, while avoiding that catastrophic sweep of his prosthetic. Thanks to the RRM’s influence, I was able to hold my nerve and keep my mind steeled. It wasn’t long before he realized my strategy. As I stepped back to avoid a roundhouse kick, I fell right into his trap. At the last second, the length of his metallic leg extended outward with a hydraulic hiss to complete the blow straight into my gut. Everything flashed red. It was like someone had swung a sledgehammer directly against my insides. Air spewed out of me. Behind the crippling feeling of my stomach being clenched into a tiny ball was an odd cramping beneath my limbs. Had I been prepared, I would have braced my stomach muscles to minimize as much of the force as possible. But as it was, he may as well have kicked a bag of dough. My legs gave out and left me on the floor, curled into an instinctive fetal position and gasping for more air. My neck rolled back, and my vision sloshed over. I watched the fuzzy, clenched image of the military man approaching. A jolt of my insides brought back the details of his boots. The boots waiting to stomp me into a stain on the floor. Still, something else was inside me—a sort of voltage feeding the primal urge to come out on top, to overcome, to live. He was getting close enough. I twisted my body around and hooked both my legs around his prosthetic. I pulled my knees in, but with his solid stance, there was no way of bringing him in. I clasped my left hand around his other ankle and repositioned my feet, one now dug firmly in his hip and the other propped behind his metal knee. Then, with a spark of strength, I pushed against his hip and yanked his other foot upward. He was unable to regain his balance. Gravity overtook his bulky frame and sent him crashing backward. Instantly, I clambered over him, pinning my knee deeply against his Adam's apple while also holding his left arm down. His right fist, however, found its way into my ribs, several times over. I slid the optical bracelet over the knuckles of my free hand and drove it into his unguarded face. Its protective carbon fiber casing, combined with the carnal force of my drive, fractured his nose and a few front teeth. Torment bubbled its way back up to remind me of its existence, but I didn’t care anymore. All that mattered was immobilization. One final blow to the chin sent his head flopping back against the floor and rendered him unconscious. I crawled away from him and used the wall as leverage to get back to my feet. I retrieved my gun off the floor. “Happy with yourself?” The Taker spat the words. “You’ve thrown everything away, all for the sake of a Serf. Leave the city. Go ahead. We’ll still find you. Your life is over.” I didn’t have the energy to muster a response, and even if I had, he wouldn’t be worth any more of my time. I opened the window to my room and saw Six clinging desperately against the fire escape railing. The blood had left his exposed hands and flushed his face red. “Why didn’t you leave?” I asked, leaning into the pane. His neck twisted toward me. “I didn’t want to leave you.” I sighed at him and tried to help him inside. The sound of heavy footsteps reached us both. Standing at the door to my room was the military man, his face swollen and bent into an angry grimace. I saw his arm come up, and all I could think of was to dive out the window. A membranous arc of green surged over my head. My back hit the steel gratings. “STOP!” the Taker shrieked from the other room. “You’ll hurt the merchandise!” I grabbed Six’s arm and pulled him with me down the stairs. The metal above us shuddered with a ringing thud as the military man dropped onto the platform. We reached the second flight, and I heard a sharp crack. The piece of railing I had just taken my hand away from was now melting away into globs of oozing matter that smelled like hot vomit. The clunky stairs trembled with vibrations as we raced down them. Heavy drumming footsteps from our pursuer grew louder. Another flicker of green whizzed by my peripheral and devoured a nearby support beam. He was still firing, showering the fire escape in corrosive hellfire that was quickly liquefying its foundation. A metallic whine emanated from the structure as it began to sway from its restraints. This death trap wasn’t going to support our weight much longer. No time to turn and aim, I snapped off a shot toward him. The bullet nailed a section near his head and sent a burst of sparks in his face that made him grunt. Our feet reached the ground, and we spun on our heels, erupting into full-blown sprints. From behind us, the entire lower portion of the fire escape lurched downward and detached from the upper level. Fixings gave way and sent the molten sections of stairs and beams hurtling to the pavement. A loud thud generated a cloud of dust that wafted through the alleyway. The shooting stopped, but I could still see the vague figure of the military man watching us flee from his still-attached platform. Most likely just out of ammo. The energetic high of adrenaline was gone, leaving me in the suffocating fumes of my limit. My stomach felt bloated and full of rocks. Cold air battered my lungs. My limbs might as well have been rusted pieces of machinery that I had to force to keep moving. Everything hurt, but the hardest to ignore was the nova of pain that expanded in my side at every step. We attained a safe enough distance, and I chose a brick wall to prop myself against. Six did the same, coughing out the excess slime in his throat. Out of curiosity, I fiddled with the dented, red-streaked body of my bracelet. No response. I wasn’t surprised. “I’m sorry for all of this.” Six sighed and looked up at the first flakes of snow that had started to fall. I waved a dismissive hand at him. “What are we going to do?” He groaned. “Where are we going to go?” Something came to me. “I think I have a place in mind.” *** Rasputin’s Studio stood like a shoebox drenched in the lights of the museum across from it. We snuck around to the back of the shop and got inside with the spare key I still had from my apprenticeship. The security system started its thirty-second warning chime but I keyed in the code to silence it. I hoped that nobody would be using Mr. Petrov’s spare room tonight. I opened the small room in the back. It was empty. A fiery stitch throbbed in my side. As much as my body hurt, that area was the worst of it. I lifted my clothes. A fat reddish mark of a large bruise was starting to form. It was a blessing that kick hadn’t dislocated my hip completely. I sifted through the shop's medical supplies until I found some painkillers and ointment for the swelling. Six had taken a seat in one of the chairs and was watching the increasing snow smack the windows. “You can have the bed,” I called to him. “I’ll probably just keep watch, anyway.” He didn’t turn to me. “Merchandise.” “What?” “Didn’t you hear? ‘You’ll hurt the merchandise.’ That’s what he said.” His voice wavered, as he choked something back. “That’s all I am.” I rested a hand against his shoulder. “No, you aren’t.” He slowly wound toward me. “That’s how it is for Serfs. We’re just things to be traded, to be used for someone else’s gain. We aren’t people. We aren’t even alive. It isn’t just him that thinks that; it’s everyone in this horrible city. We’re whatever they say we are.” He stopped, as the evident sob he had choked back returned in an endless stream. His face disappeared into his hands with congested, muffled crying. I stood next to him, a fortress of locked up emotions. Had the numb veil not been shielding me, I’m sure I would have cried too. He was right; it wasn’t just him. Serfs were commodities we saw behind the rose-colored lens of efficiency. They had surrounded me for so long that it had become eerily natural to see them as simply part of the bedrock. Shapes in the background. People didn’t vouch for them; most didn’t even want to be involved in the matter. I knelt to his level and lifted his tear-trailed face. The enormous puffy eyes stared through me. “Listen,” I said, “nobody can tell you who you are. Nobody can tell you what you are. Nobody but you can do that, because you are not some abstract thing we can fit into a box because it is convenient to do so. You are perfect just the way you are.” His scrawny arms pulled me into a hug, as he buried his bald head against my aching stomach. I dropped my gaze to the small grooves of code engraved into his temple, and I ran a finger over the yellow pass in my pocket. Whatever happened next didn’t matter. All I cared about was getting him out of this place. “Get up,” I said. I got him back to his feet and led him to the station area. Sniffling, he asked, “What are you doing?” I looked at him, actually surprising myself with the convincing grin I was able to pull off. I started setting up shop. “Giving you an out,” I said. *** We went through a few sketches before nailing one down. Spontaneous as it was, Six seemed fairly sure of his choice. I cleaned the area of his head with some iodine and applied the carbon transfer paper. Six shuffled uncomfortably in the chair. “Is this going to hurt?” I loaded a canister of ink while the stencil dried on his skin. “It’s going to start with the machine buzzing in your ear, but you’ll honestly forget it’s there. It’s going to be a sharp, scratching pain for the first ten or so minutes. After that, your body is going to start releasing some pain-killing hormones that will dull it. The pain will spike, but then it will go down. Just breathe through it, okay?” He nodded. “Okay.” I checked over the stencil one more time and then readied my tracing hand. “We’ll take as many breaks as you need. We have all night anyway.” He breathed out deeply and straightened his shoulders. “I’m ready.” *** Considering that it was his first tattoo and, even more so, in a particularly sensitive area, Six’s tolerance was admirable. Despite the number of times he winced, tightened up, and instinctively started to lean away, the linework came out thin and even. We completed the tracing in a little under an hour, with just one break. Then came the shading, which was often easier for clients since they had already survived the worst of the needle. By the ninety-minute mark, we were finished. I gave the area a small pea-sized drop of ointment and covered it with a thin plastic gauze. “Take a look.” I handed him a mirror. He examined the reflection for a few moments. The uncomfortable silence returned. “It’s perfect,” he finally said, with a beaming astonishment. He put the mirror down, only to pull it up and look again. “They’re gone! You can’t even see the numbers!” It was the happiest I’d seen him since we’d met. “You’re going to want to touch it. Don’t.” “I won’t. I won’t,” he said, tilting the mirror around his head to admire the different angles. “Hurt like hell, too.” The reactions like these were what artists craved. When something you created sparked this kind of joy, you knew you had found your calling. Six was no longer a piece of stamped property. He was a person, nothing less. I started to break down my station and bin the equipment. He suddenly asked, “What is that sound?” Before it even dawned on me to ask what sound, the rhythmic cries of the device’s dying battery reached me. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, wiping down the surfaces. “There is a bed in that room over there. You should get some rest while you can.” He approached the door and then pouted in my direction. “You should get some rest too, you know.” I flicked my wrist at him. “I will, after I wrap up here.” Too tired to argue, he disappeared behind the door and left me to finish cleaning things up. By the time I finished, I could already feel the internal strangeness start to well up. It was going to be a long night. Contemplating my limited choices, I sat at our reception desk, popped in some gum Mr. Petrov had in his desk, and rode the waves. *** Running the length of the Metro Stations concourse were its leaded skylights that revealed a white overcast sky with feathery grey creases. The walls were lined with marble and gilded trimmings. Ornate bronze chandeliers decorated the ceiling fixtures. We moved along the glazed hexagonal tiles, through the heavy throngs of people dispersing in every direction. The tendons in my neck felt like a tightly strung piano wire from the sleepless maelstrom of the previous night. The tender bruise in my side had now welled up into an ugly purple fruit. Six walked alongside me, looking a little nervous but at least not conspicuous. We didn’t seem to be attracting any attention. We reached the ticket line and waited in the jangle of voices and shuffling bodies. I swallowed dryly, trying to regulate my chaotic heart rate. My nerves were in shambles. The RRM’s battery was completely drained, leaving me to face the emotional trenches. My mood was so raw and off its hinges that I had to bite back a hysterical sob from the cute little girl ahead of us that looked back and smiled at me. Even the slightest bit of annoyance or unconscious bump in line would have sent me into a jagged rage. I could no longer shrink back into the nothingness inside of me. I’d been cut off for so long that every emotion was like an old piece of muscle memory I’d forgotten. It was our turn. We approached the attendant at the booth and handed him the yellow pass. He examined it behind big round spectacles and eyed the both of us. “Identification please.” I handed over my information. He examined it in seconds and handed it back. Then, looking at Six, he tilted his head and seemed to take notice of his tattoo: a flock of blackbirds making their way up his temple to an open sky. “Just the one then?” “Yes. He’s seeing me off.” I nodded, doing my best to hide the jolt of panic that surged through me. The man then smiled and exchanged the yellow pass for the ticket. Walking away with the ticket in my hand filled me with a waterfall of relief. Now, all we had to do was reach the terminal. We cut through the large open main floor, but I noticed a figure weaving between the crowds. The Taker was here, still wearing that brown coat, but with an evident limp to his step today. That also meant the military man and whoever else worked for him were here too. I kept my head low and moved faster, with Six pinned to my side. If just one set of eyes noticed us, they’d surely alert the whole hive. We followed the directional holograms that projected out of the walls, while doing our best to stay off the radar. The entrance to the terminal shimmered with a particle field that cut off the hall from the platform. A grim-looking guard in a black uniform waited on standby next to it. The field was most likely designed to scan anyone for active chips, unauthenticated tickets, or—in Six’s case—tracking devices. If Neotech had not so graciously removed it for us, our passage would have ended here. At the foot of the shimmer, I handed Six the ticket, as well as the addressed note from Mr. Petrov. “When you get to B—Babylon, find this person. Tell them that Petrov sent you.” The tears choked me and sent my voice into convulsive gasps. I took a breath. “Tell him I’ll wire whatever he wants down, that will . . . at—at least give you somewhere to start.” He flung his arms around me and pulled me into the tightest hug of my life. I held him close, wondering if this were the sort of hug I would have liked from my mother. After our embrace, the face he gave me was saturated with uneasiness. “Will I ever see you again?” I let out a weak chuckle and cleared my throat. “Sure. Hopefully somewhere better than a place like this.” I watched as he passed through the field and headed straight for the Maglev. Before vanishing into its hull, he turned to me one last time and waved. I waved back, not daring to leave that spot until the Maglev fired up and propelled forward with its precious cargo. From above the skylights’ tempered glaze, flecks of snow started to dance. During the walk back, I thought for a moment that I felt a prickle from the device. But it was something else. The feeling gradually rose into a rich warmth that bloomed my lips into a smile. I no longer cared about being caught or noticed. Not even about what would happen next. To kill this feeling would be to kill the very thing that had driven me to achieve this identity. I stepped out to the snowy street, wondering how many more Serfs out there were on the run like Six was. Waiting for someone to help them. It was strange to think how long I’d dreamt of leaving this place behind. But this time, something different was in the air. A flavored new purpose. Something that smelled rather nice.