by Russell Hemmell
The reflection of the red, oblong moonlet on the buildings’ titanium shield has the look and allure of blood flowers. The smell will follow shortly.
“Ready to rock, Anne?”
The Queen’s in good mood tonight. She even cracks jokes. I decide to humour her. “I was created ready. Let’s go and get the others.”
Kristel hands me a night 3D plasma visor –a sparkling top-end model– while we head toward the meeting point, kicking aside a fancy-looking garbage bin that rolls over the terrain with a tingling noise, without spilling anything off. All the garbage it contained has long being shredded and recycled. And yet, WestWing’s apparent sophistication is just that: apparent.
“DNA scan, loaded and ready.”
Apparent, and dangerous, too. The only sophisticated thing the suburb of WestWing –aka Cyborg City– shares with the sprawling megalopolis called Sogcho is an atypical, futuristic architecture of tubular structures coiling up to high-sky domes in an intricate maze and a gamedrome the rest of the hemisphere envies with an attitude. You’d better not look at what lies beneath.
“What about them?” She points to a couple of tourists, who stumble in a drunken haze through the next bar’s doorstep.
I give the zombie-like duo a prolonged, appraisal look before dismissing the suggestion. Goners before dawn breaks, these spring chickens, but not by our doing. “Nah.”
“They’re young and well fleshed out, though.”
Young, fleshed out, and devoid of grey matter (not that I have any use for it at the moment). Don’t they know sourcing human organs and chunks of naturally grown tendons is the second most common activity contractors ask us to carry out, mercenary squad work being the first and most obvious one? Idiots.
“For today’s list of items, we don’t need two suppliers, we need twelve at the very least. Best practice strongly suggests we keep the supply chain as lean as possible.” Otherwise said, snatch them all in one single raid, lock them down, and get over with it.
She reluctantly turns her head away from them and stares at the bag on my shoulders. “Where’s the equipment?”
“Where it should be: on the cutting slates already. Hangar is just passed the checkpoint, to keep the police happy. I’ve carried with me only what we need to sedate them.”
We continue our prowling stroll across the alleys behind the gamedrome, checking out people who have ventured tonight for a dip into Cyborg City.
I’ve never been able to understand the interlopers’ arcane motives to trespass and visit our world, apart from lewd curiosity or morbid attraction for whatever they think it contains. It’s a place anybody in their sane mind should avoid like a plague-ridden town, even in the periods we’re not around on a chopping spree. And no, I’m not making ill-conceived jokes here. I said chopping and I mean it. Whatever ripe human muscles a body owns is at risk of being stolen and put at a better use in an augenblick. I think if any cyberpunk version of Hell existed, WestWing would definitively be the one. But it doesn’t, of course: reality is worse.
Kristel extracts her electric whip-rod. She’s getting impatient.
“You’ll get your whisky fix in just a few hours, My Queen. Trust your Anne boy when he gives you a time estimate.”
“How in fucktopia have they given a woman’s name to a nasty, ugly bloke like you?” she sneers, before kicking my butt in what wants to be an affectionate gesture.
I could observe she’s not that plain vanilla either. Queen Kristel—that’s the way we call her– sports a set of blades where her left arm should have been, and her teenage doll face is a (perfectly manufactured) mask of porcelain with a permanent, immobile smile. Impossible to tell what she looks like behind it, if anything at all.
“It’s not English, it’s an old French name for males, sugarpuss.” Any other (man or woman or talking cat) addressing her in this way would lose his tongue, and probably a limb too. But we’ve been partners in crime for as long as I can remember, and this allows me a few bonuses. Calling my squad leader names is one.
Tonight, we’re going out for a hush-hush contract that comes directly from Sogcho’s Science Complex, where the majority of the cyborgs like us come from: a large-scale operation of bio-component sourcing. Destination’s classified, so it must be to manufacture high-tier kinds of artificial soldiers. We have a natural target in this kind of assignments: people coming out from nightclubs and whorehouses. They’re often so drunk they can barely walk, and they fight even less.
“On your left -y’see them?” Kristel adjusts her X-ray visor.
I click my tongue in appreciation: foreign visitors are always the best. They’re not protected by any internal regulations, and therefore free for all to grab. What’s more, they’re generally mixed enough to provide all variety of biosamples and genetic characteristics. It’s like going to a fucking supermarket with a diamond-powered buying chip at your wrist. Hey!
“Affirmative. Twelve of them, all males between 20 and 40, half of them Asian, two genetically enhanced. Healthy, for what I can see from a superficial reading.” I quickly scan the tester’s results on my visor while my good mood exponentially improves. “And already stoned to death. The Virgin Mary is with us tonight.”
“Not sure about that, but we can do without. Alert the others.”
We round the tourists down and put them to sleep with sedation darts. As rest of the squad joins the pack, we drag the bodies to the nearby hangar.
Kristel sets up the room, while Jarmin and his mates extract their blades. I observe Jarmin inserting his instrument into the back of the nearest one with a quick motion. Then, effortlessly, he began drilling. Two seconds after, the electronic sensor of the blade shows that the retrieval of the victim’s spinal liquid is well under way.
Jarmin is especially good at sourcing–that I already knew. This is why I have asked him to join the operation. Half of his face is covered by a metallic structure that leaves only his eye and mouth in the open. Where a pupil should have been, however, there was a sort of silver-like globe that reflects glints of the bunker’s dim green light. He’s not as ugly as I am, but still ugly enough.
“Do we have enough processed helium to keep them warm and cozy until we reach the Science Complex?” Kristel asks, opening the storage jar and lifting up the canisters.
“You mean cold.”
“I mean alive. If there’s necrosis in the tissues they’ll pay less.”
“Fear not, Kristel.” I offer her a suave smile. “I’ve got enough helium to freeze the entire Sogcho.”
I’ve not overstated the supply. I’m going to need it, because hours later when the ripping party is completed, the goods delivered, and the half-empty tourists returned to the street where we’ve found them, I get back to the hangar.
I have a last item to check out of my list.
My previous mission for the Sogcho’s City Overlords has left me disfigured, and it’s not a misnomer: my face is gone. What remains, it’s nothing nice to look at: a hole instead of a nose, missing cartilages here and there, and obviously not a shred of skin has survived. Burnt down to the seventh layer of derma. I have to wear a full-face mask to avoid people fainting around me—which I can’t care less about—including the girls I bone at night, which I do care instead (unresponsive people don’t blow you).
Since that sad day, I’ve been on the hunt for a face.
I’ve earned enough diamond points for the machinery that will make implantation possible—more expensive than doctors, but less ethically concerned. Not that I plan to kill the poor bastard. To be fair, I’d only remove what lies on his skull and nicely implant it on mine. Still, I may well guess people wouldn’t find it palatable.
But I need to find the right one, one that fits my specs. Genetic matching is a bitch, and shopping around for the right muzzle ain’t easy since you have more constraints than with other body parts.
Back to WestWing’s sordid bars, stealthy and famished like a wolf.
At this early morning hour, I don’t even need to inject targets to examine them. The streets are littered with drunken people, and I have only to stick a cellular scan into their palms to get a reading. One, two, three, five times. None suits, may the world be damned.
For how long will I have to stand a reflection I can’t look at?
There’s a noise coming from behind a litter box, and I approach to have a look.
Somebody is lying face down. A young boy, shabby clothes, and small, delicate hands. I hesitate for just a moment; I generally leave young people alone. But tonight, I can’t afford this luxury. I insert the needle on his neck and scan him for compatibility. Fireworks and cake: 95%. That’s just bloody perfect.
I turn his limp body over, and blink. And blink again. It’s not a boy; it’s a girl, one that must have taken industrial quantities of dope and lies like a broken doll with a dress in tatters.
A few more moments of hesitation are all it takes. Then I lift her up and haul her on my shoulders like a stack of meat. What the fuck, a face is a face is a face. I take her to the storage and stick the blade into her jaw without thinking twice.
I’m not as skilled as Jarmin, but I manage to remove her features with sufficient care and put them on helium, which will preserve them until I reach home and begin the transplant. Caressing the gleaming metal of my cheek, I exhale.
I’ve become a small celebrity in the cyborg world. They call me Lady Anne now, a man with the pure face of a girl who kills with a ferocity his features can’t convey. I’m more careful now with the risks I take, protecting that precious possession as if it were my life itself. I wear a full-face mask when I work and have even stopped assignments that entail more than a quick sting. I especially avoid sourcing missions, from which I’ve kept away ever since.
And yet, I’m troubled.
The memory of the girl I’ve robbed keeps haunting me, especially when I look at myself in the mirror, observing her pretty face smiling at me with grace. And there’s something else, too. At times, when I’m between sleep and wakefulness, weird sensations creep in, like butterfly wings touching my body, and in that moment the skin of my cheeks doesn’t belong to me any longer. I feel it strangely extraneous, as if tissues had memories of their own.
I would be scared if it weren’t so fascinating. I lie down on the metallic ground of my unit, naked, breathing, concentrated in listening to the whispering of my face. I’m seduced by my own otherness.
Somehow, I’m contented, too.
Nothing last forever, especially inertia, and for a cyborg with high-energy consumption patterns like me, even less. Two months later, Lady Anne is back in the field, this time smuggling drugs in and out Sogcho’s nightlife district under Jarmin’s lead. It doesn’t pay as well as other missions, but it’s a good trade-off.
That’s how I meet the girl again, whoring in one of the brothels and accepting even cyborgs as customers. A glittering metal covers her face, where only cold blue eyes have survived of the original features that now shine on my cheekbones. Hidden behind my mask, one evening I go searching for her.
“Thirty diamond points, and I’ll entertain you for the whole night,” she says, opening up her shirt and showing me a pale breast. “This is prime human flesh, no fake lab-grown tits. Have a feel, C-boy.”
I touch her nipples before I can stop myself, and it’s like an electric current in my veins. Has the skin on my face somehow…recognised it? I force a smile to fight the creepiness of that thought and concentrate on the erotic side of the bargain. “It’s dangerous flashing these pretty boobs. I could gobble them up instead of just using them for sexual release.”
“Of course,” she replies without a hint of fear. “I had already a taste of it. My goddamn face has been torn off down to the seventh layer of derma. It’s a risk I have to take, if I want to afford one again one day. You pay much better than humans, you know?”
Hell if I don’t. I put a card-size transparent plastic on the desk, and she quickly checks the amount. Her fingers go for my face, to take the mask away, but I stop her.
“Doesn’t matter.” She shrugs and takes my hand. “You won’t regret it.”
I follow her to her dormitory, my lips twitching in the anticipation of pleasure and slithering anxiety like a slowly rising tide.
She was right. I didn’t regret it. More, I had a pure sip of heaven with her on that night, and I have kept coming back.
The initial sensations her face transmitted to my brain have not faded away in time – they have only changed typology. They’ve become images, more precise every day. I could call them memories if there were history attached to them. But this only happened haphazardly, once in a while. Each time, however, there was a man in them, probably her former lover. I saw him in my visions—v isions that were more persistent than dreams but devoid of the bleak solidity of real stuff. I saw his face—s omebody who hurt the girl so much to force her to a life of drugs and danger and that has eventually led her under my blade.
I should be grateful to him, otherwise I wouldn’t have this face. These exquisite features I now love to the point of believing I’ve always worn them on my bones, like a pretty dress kids are fond of. But I don’t.
Over the weeks I’ve grown progressively angrier with him, the more since these memory bits have become more vivid in their details. And one day, I decided to act. Lady Anne is not famous for his conscience or for having done anything moral in his life, so I think this might well represent the exception. At least, it has the excitement of the novelty.
I tracked her former lover down. It didn’t take me long—t he man worked in the same underworld I spend my days and night, but he was a prey, with no defence when the predators are around. Nobody would regret seeing him gone. I observed him, selling drugs to teens, as he has done with the girl a while ago. I waited for him to be alone. I swooped over like a vulture, and I cut his head. I played for a moment with the idea of giving her that face—better with the one she (doesn’t) have, anyway—but I discarded the idea: she’d find it distasteful. I harvested everything worth keeping and bagged it up.
I’m going to sell it in the Science Complex and buy something nice for her. Like a derma layer, maybe, for the moment she’ll have a face to put on. The seventh one, for a start, the most expensive. And the others. In time.
Am I perhaps feeling guilty for what I’ve done to her?
This thought crosses my mind for a moment, to be quickly rebuffed. Fuck no. I do what I’m supposed to do, which is stealing, killing, and follow my programming. We cyborg don’t have a soul, or we careful avoid developing one: it can be hard on the business. Don’t they hammer it on us since day one? Under all your graphene and steel alloys, C-boys, you’ve still been grown out of human cells, and your natural instincts remain the same. Beware your first, emotional response: more than often, it’s a decent one.
I’ve always obeyed.
Months have passed by, and Helen, that’s the girl’s name, is now my companion. She’s still a working girl, but she has less time to spend with other customers. I make sure of that. There’s also a specific clause in our agreements, which lets her only entertain humans, not the other cyborgs. I don’t want her to take any risk with that slender body.
Not now that I have her memories filling my vision cones and running deep inside my flesh. I know the name of her first pet, and once I’ve even visited the dilapidated area where she grew up. It’s strange and together unsettling, this pervasive feeling for her to which I can’t give a name, more persistent than lust, tenderer than hunger, and always lingering, even in my sleep.
The sad truth is that I can’t live without Helen in my bed—which means in my life, considering I’m so tired that I sleep the moment I hit the mattress. Yes, because I’ve started taking up difficult missions, extreme-risk, high-reward. Aerial targets, undercover ops outside Sogcho, and a few warzone hits. Even Queen Kristel disapproves, and I’m not sure why I do it.
We aren’t programmed for guilt any more than we are for love, but I’m incapable to get rid of both. I don’t even bother any longer. One day I’ll have the courage to tell her how things stand between us—maybe. Or maybe not. But a face, she’ll eventually get one, because she’ll inherit all the diamond points I’ve managed to put together so far.
She moves in her sleep, her hand caressing a face she can only feel through the gelid surface of a mask. Her fingers slip behind the locking device.
I stop her from removing my mask. This is the reason we’ve never kissed, a detail that in time has started annoying me with the resignation things can’t be different. I have to be contented in touching her lips on my face when I look at myself the mirror. What she has now for a mouth is only an ugly thin pale line that surfaces from the layers of metal.
She laughs, and, with a movement faster than a flash in the dark, she activates electronic-powered glowing ropes that block my limbs and trap my chest. A low-energy laser cage grabs my face, freezing it like a statue of flesh. Looking up at the ceiling, I spot sophisticated machinery already in place. Oh well.
“Did you really believe I didn’t know, Lady Anne?” she says, grinning. “You must think I’m diabolically stupid.”
Her blue eyes have a shining quality now, with a glimpse I’ve never seen in her. I should be angry she has played me all along, upset for having been such an idiot, and, more than anything, worried for what it’s going to happen to me. Strangely, I can’t force myself to be any of that.
“Since the beginning. Since the first time you’ve screwed me in that WestWing bar.” She removes my mask, caressing my–her—face with loving fingers, slowly, respectfully. Awed, I’d say. “You’ve kept it in a good shape, dear. I’m grateful.”
I can’t but smile at that.
“You were way too emotional for a human, let alone for a cyborg. So gentle to me. So attentive,” she continues, inserting a code on the bedside table’s panel control. The surface slides away, showing a set of gleaming, nasty looking tools. “Good feelings damn people, don’t you know that?”
I do, and it’s going to hurt. I could ask for being drugged before the procedure. Helen didn’t feel a thing, after all, not during at least; but I guess I’m not entitled to any comfort. The more agonisingly, searingly painful, the better, and I’m in no position to complain.
Her hands move fast on the holographic keyboard that has just materialised in front of us. I hear the sibilant sound of a laser and the lights in the room shift to a dark hue of blue – as if I were in the middle of a Martian sunset.
I close my eyes, breathing and waiting for the ordeal to begin.
“This place is magnificent,” Helen says. We walk barefoot on the wet sand of Dawn Beach, the most coveted holiday spots Sogcho people can fancy. We’ve been here a week now, but we keep marvelling at the pristine beauty of this place. I think it must stir ancestral memories of Old Earth in us.
I nod and bend to kiss her lips. Made of a bioactive white shell-like compound, which give them a warm, tender texture and perfect sensitivity. If you close your eyes, you can mistake them for natural.
Anne and Helen Kirin are a strange married couple. So odd that when they’re in public they have to wear masks to avoid people staring. You can’t blame the beholders: a big scary man and a young woman sharing the same, delicate features are not an everyday view.
Especially when one set is made by the most sophisticated creation plastic surgery has invented so far, a bionic material capable of reproducing any face, since it is grown directly in contact with its original model. It has taken a couple of weeks to make it happen, but the process hasn’t been painful for me, only tiring. More for the forced immobility than for anything else.
And the output has been astonishing.
Like a self-evolving, intelligent cast, the shell-like substance grew and adapted to perfectly replicate the original in its feature, its texture, its neural extensions. The only thing is that it remains shining white instead of developing the human skin appearance. Probably the technology is still too new for that.
“One day we will make it perfect, my love,” I say, kissing her pearl-like cheek.
“No. I prefer the magic of a looking-glass.”
I wonder at times whether this artificial face has also done to her what the original has caused to me—bringing over physical memories and piercing sensations that have upset me so deep inside and for so long. If the biocells have managed to transfer to her some of the sensorial experience and shreds of life I lived since I’ve been wearing those layers of derma… The only time I dared to ask, she shrugged, as if the whole thing had no importance to her. I’ll never know, and it’s better this way.
Helen tilts her head, looking at me with a serene smile. “When I want to see the original, I look at you.” Her hand takes mine, squeezing it with surprising strength. She pulls me toward the shore. The water is like a lake tonight, another magic mirror for celestial objects, sprites, and lovers. “Come, Anne. I want to swim with the stars.”
I follow her into the warm embrace of the waves, turquoise Pleiades and white-hot Aldebaran twinkling in the distance, their twin reflections dancing with ours in the gleaming mirror of Sogcho Sea.
Russell Hemmell is a French-Italian transplant in Scotland, passionate about astrophysics, history, and Japanese manga. Recent stories in Aurealis, Flame Tree Press, The Grievous Angel, and others. HWA and Codexian. Find them online at their blog earthianhivemind.net and on Twitter @SPBianchini.