Read an Excerpt
NO MORE SECRETS
Just make them love you.
This is not real.
“This is real,” I said, because the voice in my head ordered me to say it.
Because machines follow orders, and I am a machine.
This is not me.
“This is me,” I said. Because I was programmed to lie.
You see everything, but you get nothing.
“What you see is what you get,” I said, and I smiled.
You see: Perfect lips drawn back in a perfect smile. Perfect skin pulled taut over a perfect body.
You see: Hands that grasp, legs that stretch, eyes that understand.
You see a machine that plays the part she was built to play. You see a dead girl walking. You see a freak, a transgression, a sin, a hero. You see a mech; you see a skinner. You see what you want to see.
You don’t see me.
“So it doesn’t bother you, millions of people watching your every move?” the interviewer asked. She was sweating under the camera lights. I wasn’t. Machines neither sweat nor shiver; we endure. This interviewer had a reputation for wringing tears from all her interview subjects, but in my case it would be easier to get a toaster to cry. So something else was needed. Extra feeling from her, to make up for my lack. Shining eyes welling with liquid, rosy cheeks at opportune moments for anger or passion, a shudder for effect when we passed through the really gory parts: the aftermath of the accident, the uploading of spongy brain matter into sterile hardware, the death and reawakening. I had to admit her act was better than mine. But then, pretending to be human is easier when you actually are.
“You don’t feel like you need to put on an act for us? Keep something private, something only for you?”
Artificial neural synapses fired, and electrical impulses shot through artificial conduits, zapped artificial nerves. My perfect shoulders shrugged. My perfect forehead wrinkled in the perfect approximation of human emotion.
“Why would I?” I said.
It had been fifteen days. Fifteen days of posing and preening under their cameras, mouthing their words, following their orders. Burrowing deeper into my own head, desperate for some hidden refuge that their cameras couldn’t penetrate, somewhere dark and empty and safe that belonged only to me.
“After all, I have nothing to hide.”
“The commands will feed directly into your auditory system, and it’ll sound like the voice is coming from inside your head,” Ben said, giving the equipment one final check like the perpetual employee-of-the-week I knew him to be. BioMax’s best mender of broken mechs—mender, fixer, occasionally builder, but, as he was always careful to clarify, not doctor. Doctors tended to real, live orgs, and Ben fixed broken-down machines who only looked human. These last six months, every single thing in my life had changed and changed again, everything except for Ben, who was a constant: same tacky flash suits, same waxy hair, same plastic good looks. Same fake-modesty shtick, as in Aw, shucks, I’m no one important, no one to be afraid of, certainly no one who’d keep secrets from you and manipulate you and blackmail you and hold the power of life and death over your remarkably lifelike head; I’m just a guy, like any other, so you can call me Ben. “Some people get disoriented by the voice—”
“I’ll be fine,” I said flatly. I’d had voices in my head before. One of the many perks of being a machine: the potential for “improvements.” Like a neural implant that would let me speak silently to other mechs, and hear their voices in my head. Like infrared vision and internal GPS and all the other inhuman modifications I’d had stripped away when I moved back in with my org parents and my org sister and pretended to return to my org life. Like I could close my eyes, make a wish, and suddenly be organic again, suddenly be the living, breathing Lia Kahn that had gotten into that car a year ago, pulled onto the highway, slammed into a shipping truck, and been blown into a million burned, bloody pieces.
“I want to make sure you understand how everything’s going to work,” call-me-Ben said, always pushing. “Once things start, we’re not going to have a chance to talk like this.”
“What a shame.”
He ignored me. “So if you have any questions, it’s best to ask—”
“If Lia says she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine.” That was Kiri Napoor, director of public relations and my own personal liaison to the BioMax powers that be. She caught my eye and winked, Kiri-speak for I know he’s lame; just go with it.
Kiri was my watchdog, assigned to make sure I kept both feet on the company line. When they’d first told me about her, I’d imagined a female version of call-me-Ben, some puffbag of hot air with a tacky weave and skin pulled watertight from one too many lift-tucks, a nag who would follow me around all day, tattling back to her BioMax overlords every time I opened my mouth. Instead she turned out to be Kiri, with her sleek purple hair, perma-smirk, impeccable taste (retroslum shift dress paired with networked boots flashing mangarock vids, that first time I saw her), and enough of a punk twist to make her look cool without even trying.
“You say you want to help the mechs,” she’d said, that first day. “So I trust you to do that. I’m not here to spy on you; I’m here to help you.”
It was pretty much the same line call-me-Ben had been feeding me ever since I’d signed on to the BioMax cause. But when Kiri said it, something in her voice suggested she thought as little of the corp as I did, and felt the same about the crap spewing out of her mouth. Then she’d kicked call-me-Ben out of the room, telling him that from now on if he wanted to bother me, he’d have to bother her first. That sealed the deal.
Kiri was the only reason I’d gone along with this stupid idea to begin with. It had been hers, which meant it couldn’t be all bad. At least that’s what I’d let myself believe when she talked me into it.
Guesting in a vidlife meant wiring myself with micro-cams and mics, ensuring that anyone who wanted could track my every move. Worse, it meant playing whatever part my audience wanted to give me. The perfect blend of scripted melodrama and absolute 24/7 reality, that’s how they had advertised it when vidlifes first started popping up. Your favorite characters mouthing your lines, dosing on your favorite b-mod, hooking up with your choice of guy, running their lives by your rules and ruining their lives for your personal entertainment.
I told myself that it wasn’t any different from what I’d been doing for the last six months as BioMax’s poster child for the happy, healthy mech, doing what they told me to do, saying what they told me to say, bowing and scraping for board meetings and press conferences and legislative committees, dangling on their strings. I’d started because my father had asked me to, and I was still playing nice, honoring the letter of our bargain—I got all the credit I needed to help Riley, and my father got his daughter back. Or at least a reasonable simulacrum thereof. But once I’d made the obligatory appearances he’d asked of me, I stuck around. I’d always been good at acting the part, and at least this time the act would be for a good cause.
Baby steps, that was the plan. Persuade the orgs that the mechs offered no threat, meant no harm. That we were just like them. That we were young and foolish—yet also mature. Carefree, yet responsible. Predictable, yet prone to petty spats and parties like the orgs our age. It meant walking a fine line, and singing different songs to different audiences. Kiri customized the sober lectures I delivered to boardrooms, the grinning idiot I made myself into for pop-up ads, each persona carefully crafted to suit its circumstances—irrelevant, apparently, that none of them suited me.
The vidlife took the act one step further. We would offer them proof—24/7, in living color—that I was no more harmless and no less vapid than your average rich-bitch wild child. We would sucker them into caring about my fights and flings, sacred pacts and romantic treasons, and without realizing it, they would come to believe that I cared, that I felt. That I was, in my petty melodramas of daily life, no different from them. Or at least no different from the other people they watched on the vids. There were those at BioMax who couldn’t understand how acting a part would convince anyone of anything about the “real” me—but they were the ones who didn’t watch vidlifes. Those of us who did knew the shameful truth: No matter how much you knew you were watching live-action puppets play out the fantasies of the masses, the more you watched the vidlifers, the more you believed in them. That was, after all, the whole point of the vidlife: to forget the fantasy and accept the reality. To ignore the distinction between “reality” and “real.”
“Ready?” call-me-Ben asked.
I nodded, and he exchanged a cryptic set of gestures with the vidlife rep, then gave me a thumbs-up. That was it. This was it.
Nothing seemed different. Nothing felt different. The buzzing of the micro-cam hovering over my shoulder could have been a fly.
Just make them love you, I reminded myself, waiting for something to happen. Preparing myself to be bright and sparkly, harmless and irresistible, to be the old Lia Kahn, the one who didn’t run on rechargeable batteries. We’re the same people we used to be, I’d said at meeting after meeting, lying through my porcelain teeth. We’re perfect copies of our old selves. We’re exactly like you.
The voice, when it finally spoke, was inflectionless and personality-free.
There’s a party at the Wilding, the voice said. From what I’d heard, there was always a party at the Wilding. The club ran full speed from dusk till dawn and round to dusk again, the dancers and dosers locking themselves in a nonstop fantasy. Find something to wear and check it out.
“You know what?” I said brightly. “I feel like dancing. Maybe I’ll go find myself a party.”
And without waiting for a response, I skipped out of the bunkered office, already mentally running through my wardrobe, wondering what would be suitable for the Wilding, wondering what the voice would make me do once I got in.
Wondering who would be watching.
Mechs don’t get tired. We don’t, technically, need to sleep. And obviously there’s no need to eat or drink or rest our legs from hour after hour of whirling beneath spinning neon lights, arms twirling, head thrown back, bass-pumping music shaking the walls, floor undulating beneath our feet, bodies on bodies pressed together, sticky, sweaty, salty flesh grinding against flesh, and in the center, me. Seventy-two hours at the Wilding, watching dancers flow in and out, like jellyfish washing up on the beach, then dragged out again by the rising tide, ragged and desiccated by their hours in the sun. Except here in the Wilding there was no sun, no hint of anything that might mark the time passing, or the daylight world beyond its midnight walls.
It turned out the Wilding had only one rule, anything goes, which was good for me since I’d heard one too many stories about mechs trying to slip into org-only clubs and getting the shit pounded out of them. But here the wasted masses were too lost in their dancing, their shockers, their threesomes and foursomes, their licking and tonguing and whipping, to notice what I really was, or to care.
“You need a guy,” Felicity shouted in my ear, with a giggle that sounded almost sincere. Everything she said sounded almost sincere—the same went for Pria and Cally, the other two vidlife regulars who’d swept me into their circle as soon as I stepped into the club. The fly cams buzzing over our heads glowed as they came within range of one another, and on cue the lifers laughed and shrieked, stroked my hair, whipped me in wild loops across the packed dance floor, and didn’t seem to care that I was a mech—which of course only meant that their characters didn’t care, and they were playing their parts.
Cally grabbed my shoulders and kneaded her thumbs into the synflesh. “Definitely need a guy,” she agreed. “You’re way too tense.”
“I’m just tired,” I shouted back, my body still rippling in time with the music, arms, legs, hips on autopilot as we bobbed on the synthmetal waves. “Don’t you ever get … tired?” I didn’t mean tired of dancing. And they knew it.
“Never,” Felicity said, twirling in place. Her red hair furled around her head like a cloud of fire.
“But don’t you ever …” I chose my words carefully. No mention of cameras or privacy, nothing that would burst the delicate vidlife bubble. “… feel like a break?”
“Break from what? This is life.” Pria giggled. She threw her arms in the air, where they flickered and whorled like ribbons in the wind. She’d been vidlifing for two years without a day off, and I wondered if she even knew the difference anymore. What would she do if the voice in her head went silent and left her on her own?
“Come on, pick someone,” Pria urged me. She twisted me in a slow circle, her pointed finger hopping from a weeper with huge biceps and teary hangdog eyes to an albino blond to an artfully scruffed guy, bare from the waist up and dosed out on Xers, who happened to be a dead ringer for Walker, my org ex. Not going to happen.
“Look, I already have—” I stopped, reminding myself that for these fifteen days Riley—or, more specifically, Riley-and-me—did not exist. No one wanted their vidlifers tied down, at least not with an outsider, and certainly not with another mech, a random from a city who’d never been to a club and, if he had, would have spent the night sitting in a corner, still and silent as his chair. It would be different if Riley had agreed to go on the vidlife with me. It might have been an appealing novelty act, he-and-she mechs, a matched set ready and willing to show off how anatomically correct—how lustful, how passionate, how human—the walking dead could be. But Riley never would have agreed to something like that, so I hadn’t asked.
Him, the voice in my head decided for me, as my eyes settled on a punkish banger a few years older than me, his spiked hair tipped with metal studs, silver bangles ringing both arms from wrist to elbow. The silver decals striping his neck marked him as a skinnerhead, one of those fetishists who claimed to crave eternal life as a mech—but didn’t crave it enough to actually cut open their brains and download them into a computer. Covering yourself in mech-tech was the newest trend, at least among those who weren’t trolling the streets looking for a mech to bash, and sometimes—fine line between love and hate and all that—among those who were. This loser clearly considered himself on the cutting edge. Someone out there on the network apparently thought that made him my perfect match. Go for it.
It didn’t take much.
My come-hither glance was rusty, but it got the job done. Or maybe it was the pinpricks of golden light at the center of my pupils, the dead mech eyes flashing under the neon strobes, the taunting glimpses of synflesh beneath the on-and-off transparent material of the flash shirt. What skinnerhead could resist a skinner?
I love Riley, I thought, as the skinnerhead began to grind his hips against mine.
But: Tell him you want him, the voice in my head commanded.
“I want you,” I breathed. The skinnerhead smiled like a wolf.
He pressed his left hand—nails coated in metallic silver, of course—to my bare shoulder. His fingers spidered down my back, and I hoped it was too dark for the cameras to see my face. He twisted me around, pressing his sweaty chest against my back, his groin against my ass, and wrapped his arms around me, one hand cupping my breast, the other squeezing my waist, his lips at the curve where my neck met my shoulders, breathing in my artificial skin.
Riley and I had talked about this. We’d discussed the obligations, weighed pros and cons, set boundaries. But boundaries were hard to specify in advance. No nudity, fine. But what about a skirt that barely covered the curve of my thigh, what about silver-tipped fingers creeping beneath the netsilk, what about legs tangled in legs … arms encircling chests … what about lips?
It’s just an act, I had said, we had agreed, I reminded myself now. Means nothing.
His lips were on mine. Sucking. Slobbering. His tongue in my mouth, something wet and alien, probing soft places it didn’t belong. I counted to ten. Ignored the squishing and smacking sounds, focused on the music. Counted to twenty, closed my eyes as his tongue slurped down my chin, up my cheek, explored the caverns of my ear, his body still grinding against mine, slow, slow, slow even as the music gathered strength and speed, a hurricane of beats. We were the calm at the center. I counted to thirty. Thought about the big picture, the message it would send, another divide between mechs and orgs crumbling to the ground, another thing we had in common: desire, need, want. Thought about the computer that was my brain and the body that was only a body, mechanical limbs woven through with wires, fake nerves that let me feel but made nothing feel real. Counted to forty, and his tongue had no taste, because I couldn’t taste; his hair, his neck, his sweat had no smell, because I couldn’t smell. I counted to fifty, and when his lips moved down my breastbone to the dark shadow beyond, I threw my head back and tried to smile.
And then I got to sixty and pushed him away, so hard that he stumbled backward, wheeled his arms for balance, and toppled into a klatch of lip-locked vamp-tramps. “Can’t spend it all in one place!” I shouted, and let the crowd fill the spaces around me, so by the time he got to his feet, I was gone.
“Let’s talk about the Brotherhood of Man.” The interviewer flashed a saccharine smile. “Unless it’s too difficult for you.”
I shook my head. After two weeks in the vidlife, “difficult” had taken on a new meaning; this didn’t qualify. “I’m here to talk,” I said. “About whatever you’d like.”
“We all know the story of how the Brotherhood began,” the interviewer said, then immediately disregarded her own words by regaling us with the gory details: the Honored Rai Savona’s noble quest to preserve the sanctity of human life, his abdication of the Faither throne in favor of a small, grassroots, antiskinner organization that helped the poor, fed the hungry, and, incidentally, advocated for the eradication of those of us with artificial blood running through our artificial veins. As the interviewer moved onto the “tragic downfall” portion of events, the vidscreen behind her flashed images: kidnapped mechs strung up on poles at the altar of Savona’s temple, the “mysterious” explosion at the edge of the temple complex, the destruction of a facility that was never supposed to have existed in the first place—and then the final image, Savona’s right-hand man standing before the adoring masses, apologizing for the transgressions of the supreme leader. Promising a kinder, gentler Brotherhood under his new kinder, gentler leadership. Auden Heller, the best weapon the Brotherhood had against the skinners, because his ruined body, his artificial limbs and dented organs, were all permanent reminders of the damage we could wreak.
“Lia, how did it feel—”
I steeled myself, waiting for her to ask me about Auden, though she’d been told he was off-limits.
Or about Riley, who had burned in the explosion but was back now, a different body but the same mind, containing an exact copy of all the memories of the previous Riley, every memory but the memory of how he died. Every mech had an uplinker, and we used them daily to upload a copy of our memories to a secure server, just in case. But unless you were uploading at the moment your body was destroyed, that memory would be gone.
“—when Brother Savona came out of hiding and surrendered himself to BioMax?” she concluded. Then she leaned forward, as if—misinformed about my technical specifications—waiting for waterworks.
“I was surprised.”
“Because you were among those who believed that he’d died in the explosion?”
Sure, we’d go with that.
I nodded, wishing I were free to answer honestly. The only surprise was that a cowardly nut job like Savona would deposit himself on BioMax’s front doorstep and beg for judgment. The only thing I felt was disappointment that he was still breathing.
“And how did you feel”—insert predatory smile here—“when corp security operations officially pardoned him for any role he may have played in the unpleasantries at the temple?”
BioMax had released its own official account of “the unpleasantries,” one in which Brotherhood fanatics had nearly slaughtered a building full of their own, not to mention a handful of innocent mechs. (Of course it was the mechs who had nearly massacred all those orgs. But that kind of truth was counterproductive, and so we all kept our mouths shut.)
“You have to weigh Brother Savona’s past behavior against his expressed willingness to repair the damage.” The script had been easier to memorize than it was to choke out. “Brother Savona’s voice obviously has a wide reach, and now that he’s had his revelations—”
“You’re referring, I assume, to his statements expressing regret for the way he treated the skinners, and his pledges of tolerance? You believe he means what he says?”
I believed that there was nothing anyone could do to Savona now that BioMax had decided he made a better savior than he did a martyr. He’d signed back on to the Brotherhood as an unofficial consultant—right-hand man to his former right-hand man—and the rest of us were supposed to forgive and forget.
“We prefer to be called mechs,” I told the interviewer. “‘Skinner’ is derogatory.” Out of the corner of my eye, and just beyond the camera’s sightline, I saw Kiri raise a hand in silent warning.
“Of course,” the interviewer said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I know.” No one ever meant. “And to answer your question, Brother Savona and Brother Auden have a message of tolerance and equality that I’d like to think we can all believe in. All I want is to show people that mechs are no different from anyone else—we’re regular people. If the Brotherhood can help get that message out, then I’m all for it.”
“You’re a very big-hearted girl,” the interviewer said.
I could have reminded her about the wireless power converter nestled where my heart should be. But I didn’t.
Not going to make it.
“You skank!” Cally shouted, and launched herself at Pria.
“Not my fault you couldn’t give him what he wanted!” Pria screeched, squaring off to face the charging blonde. She crouched and grabbed Cally around the knees, flipping her head over heels. Which put Cally in perfect position to gnaw on her thigh.
Pria went down.
Hands clutched at tangles of blond hair, yanked. Violet nails raked across pale skin. They hissed, they slapped; teeth were bared, backs were arched, saliva was sprayed. There was some very unladylike grunting. Soon the two interlocked, writhing bodies rolled across the mansion’s marble floor, a monstrous eight-legged beast.
Sometimes these fights ended at the hospital; sometimes they ended in bed. (Or in the closet, the pool, the shower, the rug—any and every conceivable surface.) Whatever the audience wanted.
Now, the voice commanded. Tell them.
“You’re both brainburned,” I said. “You want to kill yourselves over Caleb? Go for it.” The voice gave me the storyline, but—usually—I made up the words myself. A miniature measure of freedom in my zombie life. “You know who’ll really love that? Felicity. Because then she gets him all to herself.”
The writhing creature froze, then separated itself into two discrete bodies again, every eye, ear, and molecule trained on my next words.
“Of course, she’s already got him,” I said.
“I’ll kill her.”
“Not if I kill her first.”
“I’ll kill you first, if you try that.”
The truth: Felicity had never touched Caleb. I didn’t know if I was lying because I wanted him for myself, because I wanted Cally or Pria for myself, or because I wanted trouble. The voice would tell me, soon enough, and then that would be the new truth.
The fight temporarily over, and Felicity marked for death, we were free to move on to more pressing concerns.
“Mini or maxi?” Pria demanded, hanging the two dresses over her curvy frame. “There’s a rage at Chaos tonight and we are there.”
“Maxi,” I said. “Definitely.” Because that day I was supposed to be hating on Pria, and the billowing black and white gown made her look like a pregnant cow.
“That’s my dress!” Cally spit, grabbing it out of her hand.
Pria looked clueless, but only for a moment. Then her face transformed—narrowed eyes, tensed muscles, slight upturn in her puffy lips. A masterful dose of pure spite. “So what if it is?” she snarled. “Looks better on me, anyway.”
It’s your dress, the voice decided.
So that’s what I said.
Then I added the part about the pregnant cow.
And then I was on the ground, with my hair in Pria’s hands and my artificial flesh beneath her nails.
Good luck breaking the skin, I thought, gifting her with a light sucker punch that would give her plenty of material for the cameras.
It had been made clear to me that the audience loved a fight.
Especially when the skinner lost.
“Every skinner—I’m sorry, mech—has an understandably conflicted relationship with the Brotherhood, but I think it’s safe to say that yours is more conflicted, or certainly more complicated, than most,” the interviewer said. “After all, its current leader, Auden Heller, is a former classmate of yours, isn’t that right?”
You know it’s right, you disingenuous bitch.
I should have known better than to believe Kiri when she said the interviewer had agreed to my terms. Easy to declare a subject off-limits when you’re backstage—so much the better to launch a sneak attack once the cameras are rolling.
“Yes. We were in school together for about ten years.”
“And you were close?” she said.
“Until that day at the waterfall—”
“I don’t talk about that.”
“That’s understandable,” she said, sounding sympathetic. She patted my knee.
I let her. I even let her regurgitate the story of the waterfall, and how Auden had nearly died trying to save me, the skinner who didn’t need saving. My fault, and so—in his mind, and the minds of the Brotherhood’s brainwashed masses—the fault of every skinner.
“It must be so hard for you,” she said. “I’m sure you wish you could talk to him, apologize for everything that’s happened. Is there anything you’d like to say to him now?” she asked, eyes hungry. “Anything at all?”
I wasn’t about to ruin everything by exploding on camera. Two weeks of misery were not going in the garbage just to give myself the luxury of self-pity. Or privacy. I’d given the latter up for fifteen days, and the former up for good. But I couldn’t play along.
I glanced off camera. Kiri’s lips were moving, and, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, the interviewer began to speak. “Looks like we’re out of time,” she said, stiffly. I was surprised the sweat running down her face didn’t harden to ice. “It’s been a pleasure to have you with us. Please come again.”
I smiled like I meant it. “Anytime.”
Maybe I was the better actor after all.
“You survived.” Kiri swept me off as the interview ended. That was code for You didn’t screw up. I didn’t know whether she meant the interview or the whole two weeks; I was too tired to care.
One more night and I was free.
I couldn’t thank her for the save—not without revealing her interference to the vidlife audience. So I just raised an eyebrow, and she mirrored the gesture with her own. You’re welcome.
“She wanted me to talk about myself,” I chirped. “What’s better than that?” Code for I know I’m already dead … but kill me now. Please.
“Ah, the Lia Kahn we all know and love,” she said. “Sure you’re not too tired to hit this gala tonight?”
A star-studded night with the crème de la crème of high society, pretending not to notice that the crème was made with soured milk? We both knew there was only one acceptable response.
“Me? Miss a party? As if.”
No one told me the party was underwater.
A transparent bubble sucked us below sea level. The orgs were intrigued, pressed against the clear walls, watching fish meander by and algae lick at the glass. This was all new to them, an adventure. But I’d stroked through the deep; I knew what it was like to lose myself in the silent dark of the water.
I knew what was hiding beneath the ocean’s surface—I’d seen the dead cities and their bloated bodies, and I knew that only algae and jellyfish could survive in the bath of toxic sludge. But the transparent dome was surrounded by an elaborately fake ecosystem, sparkling water clear enough to show off rainbow coral reefs and fluorescent schools of fish. It was the perfect match for the garish undersea spectacle that lay within the dome, synthetic algae undulating from the floor, sparkling lights floating in midair, stars hung so low you could flick them with a finger and watch them float across the room, as if we were all buoyant, gravity temporarily suspended. Holographic reefs and ridges projected from every surface, the illusion broken only when the occasional dancing couple floated right through it. Literally floated, thanks to the buoyancy generators beneath the floor that lifted them on a cushion of air. The party was a gala, which normally would have meant fairy-tale finery but this time, apparently—for those more in the know than I—demanded a more nautical touch. Mermaids drifted by on hovering platforms, their hair architectured to float above their heads. There were org-sized sharks with gnashing teeth and of course the obligatory skanked-up efforts, in this case nude body stockings wired to project shimmering scales across bare abs, chests, and asses.
I wandered, waiting for my orders, wondering what all these people would do if they saw what life underwater was really like, how the ocean had transformed the org world: the pale, swollen flesh, the rusted cars and broken windows, and all the detritus of life interrupted. And then I imagined the transparent dome over our heads cracking, a spiderweb of broken glass spreading across our sky, the water trickling down, like rain, and then breaking through, a hail of glass and a gush of water washing everything away. I imagined the costumed mermaids writhing and flailing, trapped in their tangled hair, their cheeks puffing with one final breath, bubbles streaming out of their mouths and noses until there were none left. I imagined their corpses floating slowly to the surface, leaving me one by one until I was alone with the wreckage. It would be like being the only person left at the end of the world.
I shoved the vision from my mind. That wasn’t my fantasy; that was his. Jude’s. A world purged of orgs. Purified, he would have said. I didn’t want to think about the things he would have said, or the things he’d dreamed about, but I did, more than I would have liked to admit.
Which is probably why, at first, I thought it was my imagination.
A shock of silver hair bobbing over the crowd. The razor-sharp cheekbones, the unbearable smirk. Slitted golden eyes, resting on mine for an impossible second, flickering away, and then he was gone.
Never there, I told myself, and danced. My mech mind processed music as little more than syncopated noise. There was none of that wild abandon I’d once felt, the loss of body and self in throbbing notes. Only silent commands, from brain to limbs. Twist. Turn. Jump. Wave. Shuffle. Shimmy. The motions looked seamless; I knew, because I’d practiced in a mirror. It turned out there was nothing too hard about building a smooth surface for yourself. If you knew the steps, if you knew which muscles to move, if you knew how to smile and how to speak, if you knew your lines and played your part, then it didn’t matter what lay behind the pose.
The hands that slipped over my eyes were cold.
The whisper in my ear was familiar.
Remember they’re watching.
I grabbed his wrists, dug in my nails. Knowing it would make him smile. Then turned around slowly, fake smile fixed on my face. He had one to match.
“Didn’t expect to see you anytime soon,” I said casually, lightly.
Because he was a fugitive, accused of trying to blow up a laboratory full of orgs. He was guilty; I knew, because I’d helped him—and because I’d stopped him. Not exactly the safe, harmless face I wanted to present to the world.
He nodded, his eyes flickering toward the fly cam hovering above my shoulder, and his full lips curled upward.
“I’ve been around,” he said. “Maybe you haven’t been looking.”
Riley would be watching this, I realized, keeping my face blank. Riley, who knew only the story I’d told him, a fairy tale in which he’d never betrayed Jude, never seen cold hatred in his best friend’s eyes.
You were supposed to stay gone forever, I thought.
The skank fish spotted him and began to swarm. Girls distinguishable only by their hair color rubbed up against him, and he let it stretch on, grinning at the lame flirtations, complimenting one on her scales and another on her elaborate wings, forgoing what I would have thought would be the irresistible urge to point out that fish don’t fly. He was weirdly good at it, juggling them with an oozing grace, meeting their eyes with a gaze intense enough to convince them of their special place in his heart, fleeting enough to leave hope beating in the hearts of the rest.
He’s what you want tonight, the voice commanded me. Then it gave me my first line.
“Want to dance?”
Before I finished the question, Jude’s arms were around me, and we were floating across the dance floor.
“So you’ve decided the high life isn’t so bad after all,” I said carefully. Jude twirled me out, our fingers linked tightly so I couldn’t escape.
“What’s not to love?” We turned and turned. Lights flickered overhead, mimicking the effect of sunlight on water. “I can see how glad you are to have me back.”
I couldn’t see anything in those cat-orange eyes. I only knew that he wanted something, because Jude always did.
This is all for us, he’d always said. The good of the mechs, not the good of Jude. Just a coincidence, then, that they were so often the same thing.
“We’ve got a lot to talk about.” He dipped me so low that my hair brushed the floor.
“I’m not much for talking these days.” I shot a mischievous glance directly into the camera buzzing over our heads.
“And the world sighs in relief.”
“Well, you know what they say; talking’s overrated.”
Which meant shut up.
Not an instruction he’d ever been inclined to follow. “When you’re feeling chattier, let me know. I’ll be a mile past human sorrow, where nature rises again.”
“You’re an enigma, wrapped in a moron, shrouded in pretension,” I said, sweetly as I could muster.
“I aim to please. And, since I gather you do too—” He shot another look at the hovering cameras, and I stiffened, waiting for him to spout some anti-org drivel that would ruin all my work.
He leaned toward me, one hand tight around my waist, the other latched on to my shoulder. His voice was low, but the mics would catch it, as they caught everything, and he knew it. “Let’s give the people what they want.”
Maybe if I’d known it was coming, I could have ducked out of the way.
Maybe I did know it was coming.
I didn’t duck.
Just for the cameras, I told myself.
His lips were as cold as mine, his eyes open, watching me.
No different from any of the others, I told myself.
His lips were so soft.
His chest was silent, an empty cavity pressed against the emptiness of my own. A perfect fit.
This is harmless, I told myself.
It couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. And then I remembered what fifteen days had almost made me forget: that I could act, that sometimes the puppet could pull her own strings—and that the people liked a fight.
I slapped him.
He saw it coming, like I did; and he let me, like I did. There was a sharp crack, but he didn’t flinch. There was no angry red welt left behind on the synthetic flesh. Like nothing had happened.
“When you want me, you’ll know where to find me,” he whispered. And let go. He melted into the crowd before I could stop him. Not that I would have tried. I told myself I wanted him gone, for good this time.
I almost believed it.
© 2010 Robin Wasserman