by Isaac E. Payne
That would be the title of Aurora’s memoir — oil, knives, and a neon sign. The first two parts wouldn’t amount to much, maybe fifteen or twenty pages.
Oil was pretty easy to explain. Her daily routine revolved around it, unfortunately. A quart a day kept her urges in check.
Her biohack, [Redacted], had a small lab by the river in lower Köpenick where he brewed the stuff. Called it SNA — synthetic nucleic acid — which Aurora found incredibly annoying.
The creativity for naming things, whether it was drugs, bars, or even children had really gone downhill. Fuck, she remembered when the Internet became the Outernet, which wasn’t even congruous in the slightest.
But she’d keep injecting the stuff, whether it was called SNA or Safety Net Slurp. [Redacted] really was terrible with names.
Every injection wracked her body with convulsions and formed a pit in her stomach. It was worse in the beginning — she’d vomit uncontrollably and sweat bullets. Her body had become accustomed to the ritual now, but she still dreaded every visit to the biohack’s lab.
But the oil kept people safe, so it was worth the pain.
Knives were also fairly simple. She liked them.
She’d held a pistol before, a long time ago. She didn’t like the feeling. Her mother had said that the advent of gunpowder was the first chapter of humanity’s downfall. It was almost tied with Christianity.
And the moment when the pistol was in her palm, safety off, cocked, she’d felt as if she held a personal doomsday clock. A doomsday watch? The feeling had turned her off.
Instead, Aurora carried three knives on her person at all time. After a few hundred years of practice, she had become proficient at twirling, flipping, juggling, and sometimes — if the mood was right — swallowing them.
One was for killing — a karambit. Light, smooth, and quick. She didn’t have time to think when wielding it, which is why she liked it.
The next was for show — a basilong, the Damascus blade patterned like a snake. When Aurora was peeved, she’d mimic the motions of viper, the knife glinting enough in the light to be threatening.
And the last was an old Case knife — utilitarian and stout. If she were more resourceful, she’d do the research, trace the initials scratched into the wood — R.H.B. — and weave a story from it. But it was only a knife, its existence was story enough.
The small bar she called home was set between a venom parlor and a perpetually-bankrupt-but-never-closed guitar shop. Not the greatest real estate for someone of her position, but it had its benefits. Her sign — hmm, her sign — was high, bright, and dominated the backwater street.
In un-stuttering neon, the sign depicted a man in a crisp blue suit with his arms spread wide. From the lapels and sleeves and cuffs of his suit jacket, sizzling drops of neon rain fell to ‘plunk’ off the teal word, Lluevo.
It was Spanish. Many years ago, while sitting in a café watching the Barcelona rain patter against the glass, Aurora thought about llovar. The verb, meaning ‘to rain’. She felt it was unfair for it to be the only one allowed to rain; she wanted to rain, too. Afterall, that’s how her heart felt. Lluevo.
The bar was a place for all those who felt the rain in their chest, for the outcasts and the downtrodden, the rejected artist, the genius lover, the corrupt idealist.
And the innocent, as she had come to learn, because the innocent deserved to rain.
The problem with human blood was that, just like water, it was difficult to find an uncontaminated source. Aurora felt this was a minute detail, but reading over the first section again, she knew people wouldn’t understand the significance of the oil.
When Aurora had come to Berlin in the 1950s, the place was full of life — sure, sorrow and heartache and corruption, but life, too. Laughter, the rare smile, an elusive twinkle in the eye. The blood was hot and pure and human. She never had trouble finding a willing donor.
But in this techscape, everyone was jacked in; mods of all sorts distorted the human body, made it ‘better’. And if you didn’t have the money to splice nerves and wires, you sought the feeling of power from the street corners.
The blood tasted like static now.
Aurora looked up from the bar to see a pair of men walk through the door, their white undershirts damp with sweat. They didn’t have any visible mods, but their eyes were dilated beyond nature’s possibility. She took a deep breath and tasted the beta they’d swallowed minutes before walking in the door. Without comment, she served them and went about her business.
Who was she to judge? Everyone had a reason.
It was a Wednesday — not that it mattered much. Her patrons were the kind who only cared whether it was night or day. But she thought for sake of the memoir it would be worth noting.
The woman who walked in the creaky screen door next was unlike any Aurora had ever seen in this new Berlin.
Her shoulder-length flaxen hair was unbound, framing her plain, country face. She was clad in all black, which was common, really, but the clothes themselves were old, from a forgotten time and place.
The newcomer glanced around at Lluevo’s other occupants before she spotted Aurora and walked toward the bar.
“What’ll it be?” Aurora asked, inhaling discretely after the question mark, tasting the air around the woman. Fields of wildflowers and a deep, bright well.
Aurora raised a brow. “Hmm. Ice?”
If a tech-head or ketamine-tongued fool asked for neat scotch, Aurora would turn up her palms. But this woman intrigued her, so she reached under the counter as far as she could until she felt the patterned glass decanter that held her good stuff. The extinct scotch.
Aurora prepped the drink in silence and slid it across the spotless steel bar top. The woman smiled slightly and wrapped her fingers around the tumbler. Her hands were rough, but her unpainted nails glinted in the half-light.
Turning her back to the woman, Aurora went about idle tasks, breathing through her mouth, trying to get a better taste of her. A single flower amid a world of concrete and electricity. It sent a tickle down Aurora’s spine.
“Do you dress like that all the time?” Aurora recognized Weasel’s scarred-esophagus wheeze, tasted his week-old body odor poorly masked with cheap cologne.
“What?” the woman asked in response.
Weasel hacked out a laugh. “You’re new, quiet, from out-of-town. We notice those things. And the grandma clothes don’t lie either.”
“Listen, I’m just crossin’ your wires. Name’s Nord.”
Aurora heard Weasel’s wet grin.
“You in the city long?”
“A few days.”
“Ahh, enough time to see a picture of Berlin, but so short as to never be able to paint it. Say, what about I show you around, give you the good ol’ Nord tour?”
Jane sipped her scotch. “I’m here strictly on business, I’m afraid.”
“Business at Lluevo?” Weasel burst out with raucous laughter.
“Come now,” he said after a few breaths. “I might throw in a few derms of the good stuff, just for fun.”
“Enough, Weasel,” Aurora set a mug firmly down on the bar, making the steel vibrate like a gong. “You know what I said about peddling that tripe here.”
Weasel sniffed, annoyed, and pulled close the lapel of his trench coat. “Aurora, Aurora, you ain’t ever any fun.”
Aurora gave him a long, needling stare, under which the dealer trembled, backing away from the bar with the look of a scorned dog.
“A terrible introduction to the city, you’ve gotten,” Aurora said sideways to Jane.
“An introduction nevertheless,” Jane polished off the last of her scotch and set the tumbler back on its napkin.
As Aurora poured the scotch, she felt a tremor in her legs. It worked up her body, latching onto her stomach with a grip of steel. The new oil formula was stronger than [Redacted]’s last batch, and she felt it.
Aurora’s hands wavered while she corked the decanter. She felt Jane watching her.
“A bit under the weather,” Aurora muttered, stashing the scotch under the bar.
Jane didn’t say anything, and Aurora didn’t wait for her to. She moved down the bar and started wiping down the already immaculate bottles. After a few moments, Aurora heard the scrape of a barstool and the squeak of the steel door’s hinges.
She glanced back at the empty tumbler and pile of credits. Aurora picked up the napkin, breathing in the lingering scent of Jane’s country heritage. The credits went into her apron, but the napkin — neatly folded — went into her back pocket.
Köpenick was seedy and dark. If Aurora had been anyone else, she’d have avoided those streets like the sun. People died in the streets often, whether from drugs, malware, or a well-placed bullet.
Aurora wore a black mask, cheap sunglasses, and kept her hood up. Protection from the light of day, yes, but also to keep a barrier between herself and the streets.
[Redacted]’s slipshod laboratory was in the basement of an abandoned strip club; sometimes the concrete walls dripped with moisture that stunk of the polluted river.
Her hand trembled as she punched in the security code on the reinforced basement door. It took her two tries to get the pass code correct.
The place was a whir of tech and equipment. Clear plastic sheets hung from the ceiling, making the basement feel like a quarantine zone. Beakers and bottles stood on every available surface. Some were filled with unidentifiable liquids, others with fine, vibrant powders.
There was no money in patching up broken immortals. She was the only one.
But there was an abundance of hackers looking for sleeplessness drugs and junkies craving their next trip.
[Redacted] was hunched over an old microscope covered in vinyl stickers. A big pot leaf sticker was starting to peel off at the corners.
“It’s a bit early for you, huh,” [Redacted] said without looking up from his work.
After a glance around the basement, Aurora decided they were alone. “The sun is the least of my worries.”
[Redacted] raised the lens and straightened up. His patchy ginger goatee was a habitat for crumbs, and his eyes were beyond red, a result of no sleep or ‘product sampling’ Aurora wasn’t sure.
“You gave me a bad batch,” Aurora said. “It’s tearing me up.”
The biohack paused for a long moment, aimlessly rearranging petri dishes and samples on the workbench.
Eventually, he said “listen, Aurora, this shit I’m brewing for you, it’s not simple to make. To get the right compositions, I need DNA samples that are at least 75% a match for yours, you know how hard that is?” [Redacted] paused to suck on his vape, shooting out a thick cloud of cotton-candy-smelling mist.
“The only donors are the desperate, the ones who need a couple credits for derms. Our last donor, the best match? He got into some nasty Omega malware, the brain-frying shit.”
“So, you can’t make any more oil? Is that what you’re saying?” Aurora clenched and unclenched her fists.
[Redacted] sighed, “Well…I did make some without a DNA sample, but the test failed, it seems.”
Aurora flared a nostril, took a big deep breath of [Redacted]. Shame, deceit, and failure.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
His eyes flitted up to Aurora, “I managed to concoct an infusion that replicated your DNA from the ground up, full strands without piggybacking off a sample. But the protein chains were largely incomplete, so I —” He paused, scrubbing his face. “So, I engineered a virus to latch onto your native proteins and strip the information to supplement the final parts of the SNA.”
Aurora saw red as she worked through what she was hearing. “You infected me? With an untested virus?”
“Hey, I did what I had to do! Without the infusions, you’ll wither to jerky, Aurora, you know that.”
She ought to wring his scrawny throat. She took two long steps forward, the familiar grip of her karambit falling into her palm.
“Aurora, think about this rationally,” [Redacted] put up his hands and retreated behind the steel workbench. She tasted his pungent fear.
“Rational? What part of you is rational?” The glass beakers and wire apparatuses flew off the table tinkling against the concrete floor.
[Redacted] backpedaled, slipping in a puddle of bubbling goo.
“I will show you what it’s like to have done to you what you never agreed too.” Aurora jumped onto the steel table in one smooth motion, twirling her karambit on her index finger. All she wanted was to waste his blood.
“You need blood, goddammit! Aurora, you’re going to die without it, and you know it.” [Redacted] crossed his arms over his chest, still clutching his vape.
“Or the virus is going to kill me. Seems the probability of survival is low, then, isn’t it?” Aurora hated to admit it, but she enjoyed the taste of his fear, it was like nicotine.
[Redacted]’s voice cracked as he stammered through his next sentences, “You’re right, you’re right! I should have consulted you, I just wanted so badly to help you. I’m at the end of my rope here, Aurora, your biology is wholly different from ours. We can supplement nutrition for drugs, implant devices to regulate our bodies. I just don’t understand your make up.”
Normally, she’d have a biting remark, but at that moment, her stomach jumped against her lungs, and she tasted acrid bile.
Aurora stumbled off the table, bent over in pain. Her head began to spin but she sprinted up the stairs, ignoring [Redacted]’s far-away pleas. She barely made it outside without fainting, but she still slammed the steel door so hard it warped.
Aurora’s eyelids felt weighted down with iron, but the familiar grain of her sheets told her she was in bed. She let out a sigh; her dreams had been particularly disturbing.
But then, she caught scent of wildflowers and rain.
She forced her eyes open and glanced around her dark bedroom.
Jane, of all people, sat on the black divan near the window, knees together. Perhaps Aurora’s dreams had been real after all. Was the sinking feeling in her stomach the virus working through her system, or realization — dread?
Try as she might, Aurora couldn’t remember how she got back to Lluevo. All she remembered was cursing the wind for blowing away the smog, revealing the mid-morning sun.
The woman turned Aurora’s way; saw she was awake.
“What is it about this place,” Jane asked, looking out the window at the towers and lights, “that intrigues people?”
Aurora pulled herself upright, resting her back against the headboard. “It feels alive, I suppose.”
“Needs more trees for that.” Jane turned away from the window and focused her gaze on Aurora. The curiosity in her eyes made Aurora’s heart flutter. No one in Berlin thought to consider its existence or what it stood for. Or perhaps Aurora had never thought to ask the right questions.
“Have you thought about leaving?”
Yes, Aurora had thought about leaving. Every day since she’d arrived, oh so long ago. To a place where she could see the stars and fall asleep to the rising sun without a sound to indicate humanity was waking with it.
“I can’t leave,” Aurora said.
“Is it about… your condition?”
Aurora supposed it didn’t matter much anymore. Hell would freeze over, unthaw, and freeze over again by the time she would even think about walking into [Redacted]’s lab. What was keeping her in Berlin?
“It’s about Lluevo,” Aurora said simply. “It’s my life.”
Perhaps that was answer enough for Jane, or maybe she was dissatisfied with Aurora’s hollow response. Either way, she did not reply. Instead, she got up and poured a glass of water from the jug on the bedside table.
Aurora never kept water near her bed. Hell, it was a good day if she made her bed.
“Drink,” Jane handed her the cup.
“I was on my way to the train station when I found you curled up in the alley beside Lluevo, unconscious.”
“And that’s it? You just helped me out of the goodness of your heart?” Aurora was angry. Angry at herself for being so vulnerable, angry for letting [Redacted] make her this way.
“Do you make a habit of leaving your friends to die in dark alleys?”
Aurora locked eyes with Jane. “We’re friends now?”
Jane half-smiled, her black dress swooshing as she moved to the mound of clothes near the door. “That attitude of yours might make me reconsider.”
Aurora scoffed, but the action made her wince. She needed to be out of this bed, out of this bar, she needed fresh air and time to think.
She threw back the covers and slowly swung her legs out of bed.
Jane tossed her a pair of black jeans from the mountain of laundry and rummaged around looking for a shirt.
“The jacket’s good enough,” Aurora said.
The country woman raised an eyebrow. “It’s too hot for a leather jacket.”
“I’ll forgive your lack of style,” Aurora couldn’t help but flash Jane a smile as she tugged on the jeans.
“Are you hungry?”
Aurora pulled her jacket on over her white tank-top. Her ribs shown through the thin fabric. She was always hungry. “Yeah…yeah, let’s eat.”
Each step Aurora took vibrated her bones, sending little shockwaves to her stomach that felt like earthquakes. Her whole body was an entropic rave — every organ and bone and vessel dancing itself to madness.
But she couldn’t look weak in front of Jane. She’d already let their interactions go too far.
If something happened to Aurora — or Aurora ‘happened’ to someone else — Jane would be in a whole mess of trouble. Yet, Aurora couldn’t bring herself to disappear, to ditch Jane and run. Why had she become so selfish all of a sudden?
They walked away from the run-down joint that was Herr Fleisch with skewers of bratwurst and cones of chips. Jane sat down on an old stonework fountain to eat.
Someone had drilled out the eyes of all the little stone fish and replaced them with blinking LED bulbs. Aurora found it blasphemous, but Jane thought it was hilarious.
Jane bit into her bratwurst, and Aurora winced at the stink. Eating meat sparked in her the same reaction as when a human is transfused with the wrong blood type. It was torture.
Instead, she sucked the salt off the chips, tossing the rest onto the sidewalk for a gaggle of pencil-thin pigeons.
“Bratwurst was my father’s thing,” Jane said when she’d finished eating. “He even wanted them at his funeral, but they were too expensive.”
Aurora wasn’t sure whether to laugh or apologize, so she did neither.
“His funeral was the day before last, you know,” Jane said. “That’s why I’m in Berlin. Train only runs out to the country every few days.”
Aurora knew it had been recent. She’d tasted the sorrow heavy on Jane’s breath. But she didn’t know it’d only been days.
In that instant, Jane seemed so small. Like the pigeons perched on the fountain behind her. Aurora softly placed her hand on Jane’s knee. It was the smallest comfort she could afford; her words could never do as much.
Truth was, Aurora didn’t know what it was like to grieve. Nature played a cruel game with her; she saw death every day, it was so commonplace that she had a hard time seeing it as anything other than a cycle ending.
And Aurora would die too. She’d shrivel up like a prune from all the oil she’d taken. Or she’d have her head buzzed off with a saw for… well, for existing.
Jane took Aurora’s hand, wrapping her warm fingers over Aurora’s cold knuckles.
The country woman looked at Aurora, locking eyes with her.
“You’re freezing, are you feeling alright?”
Aurora smirked, averting her eyes, “Never been warmer.”
But Aurora knew she wasn’t alright. And so did Jane. It had been forty-eight hours since she’d had SNA. She was going through withdrawal on top of everything.
[Redacted] had assured her that his concoctions were non-addictive, but habits die hard, and his habit was crafting drugs, plain and simple.
“Let’s get back,” Aurora said, pulling her hand away. “It’s time to open the bar.”
Jane gathered her greasy paper cups, dumping the crumbs out for the birds. “It’s barely noon.”
“My clientele drink early.”
“I guess I drink early, too.” Jane smiled.
Fuck, she was hard to shake. But Aurora waited while Jane threw her garbage in the can.
Aurora served Jane neat scotch and kept her eyes on the steel door. The country woman was silent, contemplating the bottom of her glass.
Aurora’s phone buzzed in her back pocket. No one ever contacted her.
With trembling hands, she clicked through her new messages.
[Redacted]: hey u need help
[Redacted]: w/out the sna u r gonna keel over
[Redacted]: rora just let me help u
Aurora clenched her teeth so hard she felt her molar crack.
But just as she was about to delete the message and block his number, the encore for the rave sent her organs into a brutal mosh pit. Her fingers seized up like immovable talons, and her phone clattered on the steel bar top.
She took a deep breath and tried shut out the pain, the rage, and Jane. For a moment, it and all was still.
“What’s this about? Aurora, are you okay?” Jane was holding Aurora’s phone.
“Nothing.” Aurora snatched her phone and slammed it on the bar.
“I never took you as a liar,” Jane said.
“Look, girl, you never took me as anything. You don’t know me; you don’t want to know me.”
Jane sniffed. “The dictator act doesn’t suit you.”
“What, then, what would you have me do?”
The mosh pit jumped on Aurora’s kidneys, pummeled her liver, and sunk its teeth into her pancreas. She felt blood oozing inside of her, vessels snapped cleanly in half like the pretzel sticks she kept on the bar.
Jane didn’t know what Aurora should do. She didn’t know Aurora at all. To this plain, caring, rural woman, Aurora was a joke. An immortal who had backed herself into a corner and was going to die because of it.
Aurora grasped for something, anything, to clench her fists around. She knocked over bottles and jars, let loose a howl of frustration. Finally, she found her Case knife in the pockets of her jeans, and she gripped it with both hands, falling to the floor. The glass that dug into her skin didn’t hurt.
In the distance, she heard Jane’s frantic voice, calling her name, asking her questions, shouting at nothing.
There was nothing she could do. Nothing Aurora would have her do.
But then, a single, succinct word rung through the madness between Aurora’s ears. Spoken from Jane’s lips, a question first, and then the following silence forged it to certainty.
Aurora forced her eyes open to see Jane prying the Case knife from her fist, a fire in her eyes. Hell, she wasn’t even scared.
And then Aurora saw her phone in Jane’s other hand. The screen was cracked but she made out a single text:
[Redacted]: blood. U need blood.
The old Case knife glinted in Jane’s hand, street neons danced across the blade from the open window.
Jane wrapped her fingers around Aurora’s. They were rough from years in the fields.
“Don’t,” Aurora whispered, her eyes still on the blade.
“It’s only a scratch.”
“You don’t get it, I—”
Jane brought the tip of the knife to her index finger. The sharp edge traced a line in her skin, a single drop of crimson welled up. The scent of it awoke a primal urge in Aurora that she’d suppressed for decades.
It riled up images of gore and carnage of her mother’s feeding parties hundreds of years ago. Memories she thought she’d successfully purged from her mind.
Jane pressed her finger to Aurora’s lips, wetting them with her blood.
Clawing, raging, ferocious hunger climbed from Aurora’s stomach. Her cells broke from their habits of tainted blood and beakers of oil. Synapses giggled along her spine; fingernails tingled while her incisors pulsated. Her vessels snapped back into place, the heat building up in her bones ebbed away and she felt every pinprick of glass in her back.
Her time had come.
But no. No, Jane wasn’t baring her neck to her. She presented only a finger, an offering. A glass of water in a desert of sand.
Aurora blinked, saw Jane looking up at her, expectant, and her hunger subsided. She licked the blood from her lips and tasted every inch of Jane’s being. Birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, all blended together into a collage of intimacy.
Chasing after her brother as he rode his bicycle just out of reach. Scraped knees when she fell.
Calling for her mother in a panic, blood trickling down her leg as she got her first period.
Laying her daughter to rest in a field of flowers, hands stained red even after a night of scrubbing.
And the apprehension — the excitement — as she pricked her finger to offer up her blood to a primordial bartender. To save her because…?
Aurora pushed those thoughts away. She didn’t want to know. She wanted Jane to say it, if she meant it.
Aurora felt every breath Jane took; the beat of her heart was synced with her own. Their unison was bold and vibrant, something Aurora had never experienced. Human blood had never sparked this reaction before.
Jane must have endured a similar flash of foreign memories too, because an expression of understanding washed over her face.
“Scared I’ll eat you?”
Jane snorted. It was cute.
“There are somethings you just have to savor,” Jane wrapped a small piece of bar rag over her finger. “Like scotch.”
Now it was Aurora’s turn to snort. “No free drinks, Jane Bauer.”
“Oh, it wasn’t free. In fact, I think that’s a good little agreement. You drink, I drink. Mutualism at its finest.”
That night, while they laid in Aurora’s bed listening to sirens off in the distance, Jane asked Aurora a question.
Aurora knew the questions were coming. Jane would ask one, the dam would break, and a whole barrage of inquiries would come rolling off her tongue.
How old are you? Are you fully healed? How much blood will you need? Am I safe with you?
But, when Jane opened her lips, that wasn’t the question she asked.
“Where did you get the Case knife?”
Aurora was a little taken aback, and had to think for a moment.
“A pawn shop in Kyiv, probably forty years ago now.”
Jane smiled, her full lips catching the fluorescent street bulbs.
“R.H.B.,” Jane said, “Rupert Hans Bauer, my grandfather. My father used to tell me stories about his time in the war, about how he lost my grandfather’s knife in a street skirmish in Kyiv.”
For a long moment Jane was silent, and Aurora felt the relief on her breath.
“It’s fate, isn’t it?”
“It’s certainly something,” Aurora said, and she kissed her. She tasted like scotch and wheat and dirt roads and war in Kyiv. She tasted like determination and hope and time.
It was in that moment that Aurora realized she’d leave Berlin and never come back.
Or perhaps it was when she flicked off Lluevo’s neons for the last time, watching those blue raindrops fade to darkness.
Jane held Aurora’s hand as she locked up the steel door to the bar. Aurora snapped off the key in the deadbolt, tucking the remaining nub in the breast pocket of her jacket.
“Looks like rain,” Jane said, squinting up to the sky between the lace of wires that ran back and forth across the street.
“Good,” Aurora held out her palm. As if on que, a fat droplet wet her fingers, cold and clear.
“Come on, the train leaves soon.”
They walked down the sidewalk as the city started to wake up, the sounds of music and cooking and sex leaking from open windows. The sky opened up.
Let it rain, Aurora thought. She was done raining.
Isaac E. Payne lives in the rural Pennsylvania mountains where he asks his keyboard questions, and sometimes, the keyboard comes up with something witty. His writing has appeared in DreamForge Magazine, Abyss & Apex, and Frozen Wavelets. In 2020, he was co-editor-in-chief for Triangulation: Extinction, an anthology of hopeful SFF stories about biodiversity. You can see more of Isaac’s writing here: linktr.ee/isaac_e_payne or by following him on Twitter @the_paynanator.
If you like HyphenPunk, consider making a donation to keep the magazine running.
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonateDonate