The alley behind Club Barista was chilly for a spring night in the Gulf. An old-fashioned bulb in a battered tin shade above the back door of the club didn’t do much for heat, but it did cast a pale light that shook itself off the walls.
The transy’d better be out soon. I’d already sent two flash texts.
Leaning against the wall, I sucked on my tempence. E-cig steam trickled from my nostrils like ectoplasm. What I wanted was a real cigarette. There were a few back at my flat, but I had no desire for the attention I’d get smoking one of those in public. The tempence at least muted the craving, plus gave me an excuse for why I was lurking in the alley—if anyone came asking.
A drone fizzed by the mouth of the alley, scouting Porter’s Run for malcontents. I turned my head slightly, but wasn’t too worried. Even if the snub-nosed, flying bastard decided it wanted a scent of me, there was a dumpster between us.
The drone blew on by without pausing.
A squeal. The door opened. I touched the tip of the tempence with a finger. The red light faded out.
The tempence went into an inside pocket. I roughed my voice up, said, “Yeah. Over here.”
“Can’t see for shit out here,” the transy said. Didn’t seem too concerned, though.
“I’m here.” A step into the light showed the transy that I was. It opened the door farther, stepped out.
It was six-five, but slender, with pipe-cleaner-thin arms and legs. Couldn’t tell much about the torso from the breezy, multi- colored sheath it wore, but the transy had sent me nude flash texts, so I knew the ribs were little more than ridges around a tube.
The head was bigger, the pipe bowl screwed onto the stem of its body. Big like that, kinda slung forward. Saucer-sized, splayed-out eyes. Slits for the nose and mouth. When the transy breathed, the ratty edges of the single nostril flared. The mouth barely opened as the creature talked.
Why would anyone make themselves into that?
I took another step, my hand out, like you’d do with a dog. The thing touched my palm with three fingers. A shiver crawled its way up my arm, but I didn’t flinch. I’d had some practice being touched by transies.
“You still want?” the transy said in that ventriloquist way it had.
I nodded. “I’m here, right?”
“Maybe you want to go somewhere else?” It removed its fingers from my palm and made a not-very-expansive motion that encompassed the not-very-expansive alley. “Fucked up alley.”
Did I want to sleep with it, it meant. I shook my head. We’d already agreed on payment. “How long will the clinic be there?”
The transy shrugged, making a scarecrow caricature out of its body. “Day or two. Doesn’t stay long. Too many hot-head pureblooders.”
Of course there were. “Then I want to go soon. Take my chance.”
“This doc is one of the good ones. Did me, like I told you. Did Sheefas.”
That distracted me. Sheefas was high profile. An activist. Always at some rally or another in Washington or Berlin. “I didn’t know Sheefas got it done”—I almost said ‘backwater’—“in the AIC. Was that before the legal clinics got shut down?”
The transy nodded, an exaggerated bobbing of its oversized head. “Doc was legal back then. Won’t see no back alley tomatoes from Doc.”
My smile wasn’t forced. “Good. Great.” The doctor that did Sheefas. Holy hell. What a coup.
Long fingers waggled, so I reached inside my coat and fished for a Wal-Mart gift card. The back of my hand brushed against what Ernst called a ‘nad zapper. “In case things go Hong Kong,” he’d said when he handed it over.
The ‘nad zapper stayed in the pocket. I found the Wally card and gave it to the creature, which bobbed its head again. The value of the card was on the face. No counting required. “Okay,” it said.
The transy touched its smart watch. A second later, mine vibrated against my wrist, telling me I had a new message. I glanced down and memorized the address before the flash text evaporated.
“Good?” my contact asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
The transy looked me over. “You sure you don’t want to go somewhere? Last time you this way?”
There was the ‘nad zapper in my pocket. I wanted to use it so badly I could smell the burnt flesh. But, “No. Don’t want it anymore this way,” is what I decided a pre-transy like me would say. Figured right. My contact’s slit of a mouth turned up at one corner, an almost human gesture. Without saying anything else, it opened the back door of Club Barista and slid back inside.
I went out onto Porter’s, not as worried about drones or foot cops now.
Productive night. All that was left to do was to kill someone.
There was always the possibility the transy might identify me later, but if it said anything at all, it’d say, “Gave the address to a guy named Vic Anglose,” an identity that hadn’t existed three weeks ago; in twenty-four hours, the name would go back to nonexistence.
Not that the creature would say anything at all. The cops would want papers, genetic history. I doubted the transy’s ident material could stand up to examination any more than ‘Vic Anglose’s’ could.
Being a transy wasn’t illegal, at least not yet, but how you became one was. Should be enough to keep the creature quiet, at least officially.
When I was far enough away from Club Barista, I stepped into a public bathroom. No one else was there. Despite that, I felt a driving need to get the zapper out for easy access. Somebody’d come in, stick a knife in me just for my shoes. Then, half a year’s footwork shot, and me dead.
I resisted. Stood in front of the scratched metal mirror, under popping fluorescents, and massaged a nub embedded beneath the skin at the base of my neck.
I watched in the mirror as short, black hair lengthened, gained curls, as it always does when I let it grow out, and changed color. The color shift was like some invisible somebody pouring a can of paint over my head. In a moment, my hair was shoulder-length and dirty blonde again.
Next was the painful part.
I squeezed my eyes shut, wrapped my fingers around my nose, and jerked hard to the right. There was a cartilaginous crunch. I choked off an expletive. When I opened my eyes, the line of my nose was more or less unbroken. The nanites living in the bone would fix it the rest of the way, just in time to be broken again in an hour or so. Easier to stay Vic, maybe, but better if he wasn’t caught too much on video, especially since I needed to go by my flat. There’d been no guarantee when I’d left earlier that I’d get what I wanted.
A bit of makeup from a kit in another pocket and I could see me in the mirror again. I breathed easier. After that, it was quick enough to get the tape off my breasts and reverse the jacket. The flip side was red, not black.
I worked my jaw around, feeling as if I’d just gone through some sort of full-body mod rather than a relatively simple FX, then got out of the bathroom before I got mugged.
Ernst buzzed my watch when I was still two blocks from my flat.
“Yes?” he asked after a swipe of my thumb made his vaguely three-dimensional face seem to hover over the watch face.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Now,” I said. “Gotta stop at my place, first.”
He said, “Andrea,” and sighed. Nothing more.
I nodded, but he was already gone.
The building my flat was in was an Edger, which was grand if you wanted a view of the lights on the coast a few miles away and didn’t mind the smell of fish and seaweed. The one brought the price up and the other brought it back down, so I ended up spending about the same as I would have hubward, where Artificial Island City #5 was perched on oil-rig pylons and therefore didn’t ride the waves nearly as much as the Edger did, supported on its drums and, probably, dead bodies.
To calm myself once I was inside, I had a bowl of shrimp from the fridge and one glass of white wine. My stomach seemed okay. Not too many butterflies. But I didn’t want to press my luck. I fingered a picture of Melissa still pinned to the fridge with a Hello Kitty magnet. Decided I ought to throw the Polaroid away. Didn’t.
“This is the way to do it, Andrea,” Ernst had told me. This was before the group had split apart on the assumption it was better not to be seen together for a while.
We held that last meeting in the attic of a defunct prosthesis storefront. 3-D printed arms, legs, and other limbs angled up out of gaping boxes scattered around the room, the appendages seemingly frozen in the act of trying to claw their way free from their packing- popcorn graves.
“I know,” I’d said.
Ernst acted like I was balking. “People, human people, come out to the AIC all the time. All that illegal shit you can’t do in the Fifty-Two any more: gambling, drugs, sex. It’s the fucking Wild Wilder West out here. Fuck the drones and the cops. Hell, hack the one, pay off the other. Fine, whatever. Nobody gives a damn.”
Some of the others nodded. We all had our reasons for being here; we’d all lost something, someone, or somewhere—Walter’s home, Amy’s wife, Caine’s mother. For me, it was Melissa, what she had ... chosen. The Cult of Ernst Stanley, the Angry Man, spoke to us, found something inside of us, gave us permission. Permission to do what? Well, that depended.
Ernst went on. “That’s fine. People can play. Have their vices. Maybe someday we’ll get some sense. Someday. But the Change salons? Salons! Like turning transy is the same as getting a haircut or getting your fucking nails done, and isn’t—” At this point in his spiel—and Ernst gave the spiel a lot—he sputtered. He made a show of calming himself and then, very quietly, said, “—and isn’t becoming some alien thing. Some not-human thing.”
I agreed with the quiet part of the speech. That was why, after the shrimp, but with more wine in the glass, I went into my bedroom and pulled out a blue book bag from under the bed.
There wasn’t much in there: a ceramic gun with a box of gel bullets; oil-resistant gloves to shed fingerprints; and a ball of something explosive about the size of a quarter. That last item was deceptively small, yet it came with a big fire. No bang, but lots of fire. All I had to do was stick it on a wall somewhere and jab a lit tempence into it. After that, fifty seconds until reactive meltdown.
Ernst gave me those things, like he gave me the ‘nad zapper. No idea what his sources were. Didn’t care.
I shoved the bag’s contents into various jacket pockets and laid the jacket out on the bed.
Then, wine glass in one hand and a lit, very real cigarette in the other, I stood at the window and looked across the Gulf of Mexico to the coast, where the lights of the megacity waded in the surf. Enough vice over there in Orleans, too. Just different: embezzlement, chicanery, husbands and wives cheating on one another, politicians cheating everybody, a thousand daily evils.
Couldn’t be a superhero, couldn’t right every wrong. But maybe a few people, human people, could right this one very large wrong. We’d come so far, in spite of the lobbyists and the vast amounts of money changing hands in the marble halls of power. Finally, salons were illegal again in all of the Fifty-Two except for Washington, and sometimes Guam, depending on the way the political winds were blowing. The passage of the Human Rights Act meant most laws didn’t apply to transies. Genetic tests proved it: not human. Not any more. Animals. Things.
Wasn’t enough. More and more people wanted the Change. They called it “engaging evolution.” As if to become something with gills, or something with double- and triple-jointed arms, or something tall and thin with a pipe-bowl head—as if that was right, something to be proud of.
I shivered, finished the wine and the cigarette. Time to become Vic Anglose again.
My poor nose. When it was not-so-cleanly broken, I let my follicle ‘nites do their thing on my hair. Without makeup, my face had enough angles to pass as male in bad lighting. Tape for my breasts, the bulky jacket to disguise my lack of broad shoulders. Pants with leather pockets and leather patches on the knees and calves to give the illusion of a different muscle set than what I actually possessed. Not a good enough disguise to fool for long. But I wasn’t looking for long. I just had to get in. That’s what the gift card had paid for: a reservation, an endorsement, an address.
“Okay,” I told myself. I took three breaths, as deep as I could with the tape around my breasts. “Okay.”
When I thought I was far enough from the flat to take the risk, I hailed a rickshaw to shuttle me hubward. The addy I’d gotten was not far from uptown, which was gutsy of the salon’s operators.
The property could be one of those in renovation post- Hurricane Lydia, a place where a flash restaurant or a rave might pop up for a night or two amid the plastic sheets and piles of wood and rebar before vanishing ahead of the raids.
But when I got to the address I’d memorized, all of the buildings looked fine, untouched by storm damage. And occupied. Among a handful of others there was a tailor’s shop, a shoe store, and a place that seemed to specialize in sarongs. I paid off the rickshaw driver and stood there in the street for a moment until he’d rattled off in a haze of diesel.
Even though it was nearing midnight, all the shops were still open, so it wasn’t like the window dressing was just there to fool the drones and the walk-bys.
Down the street was a storefront betting house. A group had gathered around the pass-through in front, likely betting on ostrich races or something similar taking place somewhere on the daylight side. There were humans and transies both. One of the latter had hair made of tentacles spiked up in a spray, like a floral arrangement of suckered flesh.
I turned away from them. Had I screwed it up? Wouldn’t that be just grand? Blow the whole operation because I misremembered an address. Couldn’t get it back from the smart watch’s memory, either. There was a reason flash text was the safest way for teens to pass around naughty pictures of themselves: the texts burned away thirty seconds after being accessed and would fry your watch if you tried to take a screenshot.
841 Circadian Circle had to be right. Circle, not Run. Alliterative. There’d been something else in the text: ‘Access.’ Had thought that was just telling me what the address was. But here I was, and ‘841’ was the tailor’s. Inside, a fat Hispanic man puttered around, a strip of cloth held in his mouth and another in one hand.
I glanced down at my watch, as if maybe I could will it to give up lost secrets, and saw the manhole cover under my feet. On it: “AIC #5 Pylon Access 14a.”
I looked around and hoped nobody cared. Circadian was no Government House, but it wasn’t exactly as conducive to shadowy deeds as Porter’s Run either. The transy with the tentacles for hair looked my way. I waited. It glanced past me, turned back to the person next to it in line, laughed.
Hooking a thumb in the hole provided, wishing the contact had recommended bringing a crowbar, I lifted the cover.
It came up with astonishing ease. I almost laughed. Made of heavy-duty plastic, rather than the metal I’d been expecting. I slipped under it as quickly as I could.
I didn’t know what to expect under the street. Lovers and teen daredevils sometimes snuck in among the pilings that held uptown up, plus there were rumors of smugglers running cigarette boats under the city to make drop-offs and pick-ups, but I’d never been down below. I was half expecting the salon to be set up on a maintenance catwalk, kiosk-style. Maybe selling corndogs, too.
It wasn’t, and it didn’t.
After I clambered down through a thick layer of pipes and street supports, I swung off the aluminum ladder onto one of those catwalks and looked around. For a long time, I didn’t see much of anything at all, not even teenagers making out in the shadows away from the condensation drips. Then I spotted it. Definitely not a food cart.
The salon was a submarine.
More accurately, the sub was a semi-submersible, like what drug dealers in South America had played around with for years. There wasn’t a conning tower, like I’d seen in old movies; the deck was flat, inlaid with old, glossy wood. The rest of the boat, to the waterline anyway, was metal. The stern was tapered, the bow rounded. Two portholes set high in the bow, presumably where they wouldn’t leak, cast the only nearby light.
There was a hatch set in the wooden deck just forward of the aft taper. To get there, I’d have to climb down fifty feet of iron rungs stapled into one of the skeletal metal pylons holding up Circadian Circle. The Change doctor apparently liked to make his clients work for their surgery. I got to it, but paused halfway down.
The undercity was silent except for the gentle sloshing of water and a soft hum emanating from within the sub. A generator. I hooked an arm over one of the rungs, wiped my forehead with the back of the other, thought about the weight of the gun in my pocket. The ceramic wasn’t heavy; the bullets were heavy.
I unhooked my arm and kept going.
Finally, I stood on the deck of the semi-sub and sucked in the stale, heavy air under the city. Climbing wasn’t a skill I got to practice a lot, living in the AIC.
After slipping on my gloves, I walked aft to the hatch and yanked it open.
From below, a melodious voice said, “Welcome to the Ship of Fools.”
The interior of the sub was bright, lit by sunlamps—the ones that mimic sunlight so if you live in Alaska or Russia or somewhere, you don’t go crazy. When my eyes adjusted, I saw a figure standing nearby—a figure whose poise and aura were not that of nurse, assistant, or guard, but could only belong to someone used to wielding the powers of creation and re-creation..
Air caught in my lungs.
What was I expecting? A devil, with horns and hooked claws, with a cadaverous head and flames for eyes? An amorphous blob whose pseudopods could form into all the arms and hands required to perform the necessary surgery of Change? A person, human, traitor to his kind?
Of course I’d seen pictures of the good ones, the really good transhuman operations. Sheefas was one of those. But television, even high-def, wasn’t real life. Freaks on TV, even pretty freaks, still look like freaks. Alien. Monstrous. There weren’t many of the good ones in the AIC for comparison.
The salon doctor, the one who had made Sheefas, was, of course, a freak.
But such an incredibly beautiful freak.
Her face—without a doubt, the doctor was a she—was heart- shaped and very human, despite silvery skin barely a shade darker than her pixie-cut hair. Her eyes were mercury. Would have been reflective if there hadn’t been gradations, variations of platinum upon platinum giving depth and form to iris and pupil.
She wore an off-white something that glittered and clung close to her curves, but not like that of a streetwalker hunting a mark or a socialite going to a Government House gala. The dress wafted, like feathers. It wanted to become part of her.
Maybe it was part of her.
Or maybe she wore the dress to complement the wings. Those were hard to comprehend at first. They were like an ‘m’-shaped white cloak suspended in the air at her back, like the statuettes hucksters sold outside churches that showed Mary framed against white arches.
The doctor flexed, and the wings spread out to either side of her, almost to the curved bulkheads of the sub. Doing so barely flattened the m-shape. She’d have maybe a fifteen- or twenty-foot wing span, fully spread. More. Enough to be able to fly, if such a thing was possible. I didn’t think it could be, but she made it seem like ... maybe.
I may have gaped.
The doctor smiled. Her teeth glowed, transformed to white fire by the sunlamps.
“I am my own best advertisement.” Again the voice. Birdsong.
“I—” I couldn’t remember what I’d planned to say. There’d been a whole speech practiced in front of the mirror. “Yes,” was what I settled for.
“Mardet told me about you,” the doctor said. She frowned and the whole room seemed to dim. I wanted to ask her why—what had suddenly eclipsed her thoughts? What could I do to make it better? My mouth wouldn’t work. What was wrong with me? The doctor didn’t seem to mind. She knew the question was there, told me anyway. “I see that Mardet was mistaken.”
The doctor smiled again. “You aren’t a man, for one.”
I put my hand to my face. Had I forgotten to wash my makeup off? Had I forgotten to break my nose? My internal ‘nites were suppressing the pain, but when I touched the bridge I jerked my fingers back. Definitely broken.
“No.” The doctor shook her head slightly. Silver hair danced around pointed ears. “I am very good. Did you think I would not see a woman wearing a man’s mask?”
“I—” What could I say?
I sighed and pressed the skin at the base of my neck, cracked my nose back into true.
When I was me again, the doctor regarded me carefully, nodded. “Is that what you are here for? There are clinics for that sort of change. Legal ones. The process takes longer. There will be more pain, but no need to worry about imprisonment or loss of citizenship.”
Lost in her eyes, I shook my head. Was it pheromones? Was I being manipulated by chemicals? I couldn’t bring myself to care.
“A disguise then, to keep those who track such things from knowing you?”
That was a good lie—or the truth, but not the way she meant it. I nodded.
At last I found something to say. “Why did you call it the Ship of Fools?”
She laughed. Windchimes. My thoughts careened. How could she be here in this claustrophobic space? She belonged to the sky. She should be dancing in starlight above the dark side of the moon, with the borealis light of nebulas spraying around her. That was where that laughter belonged.
The doctor said, “Everyone who comes here is a fool. A beautiful fool.” She walked to a desk and perched on a high backless stool. “Including me.”
In addition to the desk, tall enough so she could work comfortably while still accommodating her wings, there was a large padded chair for clients. There was also a filing cabinet, a potted plant on a round stand, and a side table cluttered with a scatter of folders and paperweights.
She motioned toward the chair. When I didn’t sit, she just smiled and went on. “The political climate we live in is so charged right now. The transhuman lobby fights hard, but reversing the Human Rights Act will be”—she paused, looked sad—“even harder.”
I hated that my voice caught when I started to speak. “So why do it?” I waved at the room, as if this waiting area was where the operations, the DNA re-interpretation, and the nanite infusions happened.
The doctor spread her wings slightly, an avian shrug. “Because I must. People like you—despite the laws, despite the threats, despite the beatings and the prejudice and the hate—you still come, you still feel the drive to become something larger, something more, than what we were.”
“Human,” I said.
“Human,” she answered. “Purists argue that—”
My mouth opened without my knowing it was going to. “That with all our problems, there is something special about humanity, something we lose when we change our genetics, give ourselves the ability to live underwater, in vacuum, in the air.” I couldn’t help but look at her wings again. How could I?
She nodded. “Yes. But we, what you seek to become, aren’t the usurpation of humanity. We are the culmination. Human intellect, human imagination, made it possible to become us. One day, we children of humanity will live among the stars. We will prosper and thrive. We will remember where we came from and be better than it.”
My head spun. Her words were as seductive as the dream of her wings.
Still, somehow, I said, “But there won’t be humans anymore. Not then.”
She hesitated. “I don’t know,” she said.
But she did.
A universe without humanity.
It was a small space. Most of the lab must be forward, part of my brain told me. Walking to her was only the matter of a few steps. What I wanted to do was put out my arms, wrap them around her, kiss her forehead, her eyes, her lips. Tell her that it would be okay.
Instead, I reached into a pocket and drew out the ceramic gun loaded with its poisonous shells. Her mercury eyes shifted momentarily away from mine. Did they widen? What would I see in them, if I came too close?
When I was too close, close enough to smell the vanilla scent of her skin, I lifted the gun up, put it against her perfect, more-than- human forehead.
Child of humanity.
She didn’t say anything. She didn’t cry out. She didn’t fight. She only contemplated her own reflection in my drowning eyes as the gun trembled. Did she see wonders? Had Melissa?
I cried as I pulled the trigger.
C. Patrick Neagle is originally from Missouri but now lives in the Pacific Northwest where he writes, hikes, kayaks, takes pictures of vistas and waterfalls, and occasionally pours wine for a local winery when he isn’t out teaching college-level English classes onboard US Navy ships. He used to write a newspaper column filled with travel and humor musings, many of which you can find collected in e-book format (now with pictures!) at Amazon and Smashwords. His short fiction recently appeared in Typhon: a Monster Anthology, and he is currently scripting a series of superhero parodies to be produced for the stage this summer back in Missouri. Follow C. Patrick on Twitter @parablehead and on Facebook. He blogs at c-patrick.com.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Luna Lynch is an illustrator and cartoonist. She’s interested in exploring the bizarre and the unusual, and the beauty that sometimes arises therein. Her influences include Zdzislaw Beksinski, Alfred Kubin and Al Columbia. In her free time she enjoys dabbling in music and performing. You can find more art by her at www.lunalynch.com or follow her on Instagram at @LunaLynchArt.
ABOUT THE RAG
The Rag is the home for literary guts and steel. We are an electronic publication hell-bent on true grit and uncompromising action. We call this “literary entertainment.” We publish new fiction monthly on our website www.raglitmag.com. You can read online, or free downloads are available in PDF, Kindle and ePub formats.