The Early Days of My Sordid Career

By Briar Ripley Page

Uncle Zero was not what my mother called an upstanding citizen, but he was a kind man. He would sometimes slip a pack of cigarettes into my hand and say, “Want one, girl?” with a big corny wink. They’d be handrolled, tucked neatly in a recycled Parliament or Marlboro container. When I lit one, it would quickly unfurl itself into a cloud of glittering, perfumed smoke. Images of dragons or spaceships or cities I couldn’t name would dance inside for a few moments as Uncle Zero laughed at my amazement. He was a man of few words, but he had a great laugh. Infectious.

I was old enough when I met him to understand that the cigarettes weren’t magic, but some kind of chemical trickery. I figured that was why Mom had barely spoken to her brother in years. She was suspicious of all things chemical, to the point she wouldn’t let me get vaccinated or take antibiotics. Even though she grudgingly allowed Uncle Zero to live in our home, she avoided him wherever possible and would’ve preferred I do the same.

Still, I didn’t understand the extent of what Uncle Zero could do at first. I was an uninquisitive wallflower of a child, and Uncle Zero, as previously mentioned, wasn’t much of a talker himself. Strange people with furtive, desperate faces or outlandish haircuts and asymmetrical makeup came to visit him sometimes. The former I rarely saw again, but the latter were repeat guests. I even learned a few of their names: Calvin, Lucio, Mnemosyne.

If the guests arrived while I was present, Uncle Zero would tell me to wait on the sagging couch in his living room while he took them back to his “workshop”, a section of basement studio apartment separated from the rest by a plywood partition he’d put up. I’d never been in there, and I seldom thought about why he kept it from me. I was content to curl into the worn velvet couch cushions and play Pocket Monsters on the antique GameBoy Uncle Zero had fixed up for me. I ignored the machine noises, moans, and faint cursing that sometimes emanated from behind the plywood.

Eventually, Uncle Zero would emerge with the visitor or visitors. They might be pale and sweaty, their eyes a little unfocused, but they usually looked relieved, and they always seemed basically all right. They’d have crisp white bandages around their heads or hands or throats. I never knew where Uncle Zero was getting all those bandages. They had to have been hospital-grade.

“Have a nice evening!” I’d say as they left. My mother raised me to be polite. Sometimes they’d nod and smile at me. Other times, they’d hurry to the door. Occasionally one of the people with bizarre hair and makeup would talk to me a little bit about the game I was playing, or about my math and science classes. Once, Mnemosyne gave me a sticky candy. It tasted salty and sweet at the same time. She told me it was a caramel.

A little after I turned eleven, I got my first period and Mom ordered me to stop spending time with Uncle Zero after school. “You’re a young woman now, Lena,” she said. “It’s unseemly. And I’m worried about what he might try to…” she trailed off into an awkward silence, frowning severely over my head.

“He’s not a pedo, Mom.” I was affronted on my uncle’s behalf, and on mine. How naive did she think I was? We lived in a city. I knew what pedos were.

“No!” Now Mom looked offended. “Lena! Of course that’s not what I mean.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“Just be careful, Lena. You’re growing up, and I want you to make good choices. Stay away from your uncle. Stay away from strange people. Stay away from anything that looks like trouble. Drugs, sex, implants.”

“Of course I will.” I wasn’t interested in drugs, sex, or implants, anyway. And I was, I thought, always careful.

I managed to stay away from Uncle Zero for a whole two weeks. After that, I missed him.

I told Mom I was tutoring another girl in math. I left our house by the front door, then snuck around to the sunken basement entrance out back. My heart raced all the while. I wasn’t used to deceit. But Mom was wrong about Uncle Zero, and she was right that I was growing up. I would make my own choices, I decided, and from now on that would include going against my mother’s commands if I thought they were misguided.

The basement’s outdoor entrance was down a series of narrow concrete steps set back in a little concrete cell. I’d never seen either my mother or Uncle Zero actually use it in my life, but when I turned the key in its lock, the door slid open smoothly and silently. Beyond its threshold was a tiny strip of basement floor, and then a thick, stained curtain of tarp. There was light behind it, so I could see a puppet show of shadows moving in the room on the other side. I stood still, watching the shadowshapes, disoriented by this new angle on Uncle Zero’s quarters.

A tall human shadow moved around the shadow of a table or bed of some kind, on which a second human shadow lay. The standing person kept sticking wires into the supine person’s head. The supine person moaned, and giggled, and made a noise like “ak-ak-ak-ak.” Their arms jolted up suddenly, and I saw they were tied to the table with heavy restraining bands.

“Malik? Can you still hear me?” said the tall shadow. It had Uncle Zero’s voice.

“Uh-huh,” said Malik, in a voice like broken razors. “Please, Zero…”

Their tone unfroze me. I had never heard anyone talk that way before. They sounded like they had gone through pain beyond enduring, pain that should have killed them. They sounded like a corpse might sound if you dragged its unwilling soul back inside the rotting, putrid flesh and made it speak.

I burst through the curtain. “Uncle Zero!” I shouted. “Stop hurting that person! You don’t have to hurt them!” There were tears stinging the corners of my eyes. “I can’t believe Mom was right about you!” My voice grew louder; I knew the basement was soundproofed, but I half-hoped she’d hear me from upstairs anyway.

“Keep your voice down, girl,” said Uncle Zero calmly. He didn’t even stop futzing with the wires that led from various ports and electrodes on Malik’s shaved head to a squat pillar of computers, monitors, and strange machines I didn’t recognize. “You’ve got it all wrong. I’m saving their life.”

“He’s n-n-not lying,” rasped Malik, in that terrible voice.

There was plywood behind the blinking, humming pillar, and I realized I was in Uncle Zero’s workshop. Of course. “How is this saving their life?”

“I’ll show you,” said Uncle Zero. “Later. Right now, time is of the essence. Do me a favor and watch that monitor,” he gestured to a screen with several oscillating colorful lines on it, “and tell me right away if the green line dips below the pink one.” He affixed a new electrode to Malik’s forehead and used an alcohol wipe to clean a skull port that was leaking clear fluid. I obediently stepped in front of the monitor and set my eyes on it. The green line careened across the dark screen in sharp peaks and valleys; the pink line undulated in a steady wave beneath it. But some of the green valleys came within kissing distance of the pink.

Malik sobbed. Uncle Zero cursed softly. The machines beeped and hummed. I watched the lines. I was afraid to look away.

“There,” said Uncle Zero, after a surprisingly short time. “Sit up, Malik. I’ll get you some water and aspirin. Lena, you can come over here.” The green line was still zig-zagging, but its peaks weren’t nearly as high and its valleys were much shallower. Then it shuddered and blinked and the monitor’s face went blank, powered down.

On the table, Malik looked around wide-eyed. “I can see normally again,” they announced. “No hallucinations.” They stretched their hand out in front of them and watched its fingers wriggle.

“Great. Now tell me your name, your wife’s name, and the name of the street where you bought your first black market n-implant upgrade. And count backwards from twenty-five.”

“Malik, Rosanna, Ink Road,” said Malik. Their voice was weak, but already much more normal. “Twenty-five, twenty-four, twenty-three…”

They continued all the way to one without hesitating.

Uncle Zero nodded his approval and got them their water and aspirin. Then he helped them put on a big gray overcoat that covered the shape of their body and a wig of electric lime dreadlocks that covered all the ports in their head. Now they looked somewhere between Uncle Zero’s furtive, desperate one-time guests and his outlandish friends like Mnemosyne. Maybe they were friends with Uncle Zero, too. Something in the way they spoke with each other seemed to suggest it. Something in the way Malik grasped Uncle Zero’s hands in theirs before they left the basement.

“A million thanks, again,” said Malik. “If I can ever repay you in any way, just let me and Rosie know. We’ll do whatever we can for you. And for your granddaughter.”

“She’s my niece,” said Uncle Zero, smiling. “My baby sister’s girl.” 

“Of course.” And Malik departed in a swirl of long coat and dreadlocks.

I turned on Uncle Zero and fixed him with the steeliest glare I could muster. “You’re going to explain everything to me now. Why are you messing around with implant junkies? If Mom knew —”

“Don’t ever say the word ‘junkies’ again.” Uncle Zero’s tone was mild, but I could tell he was being very serious. “Even the ones who have addiction problems are people just like you and your mother. They’re not trash and they don’t deserve to be called trash. Whatever she may have told you.” He sat down on the couch and patted the place beside him. “Come. Sit. I should’ve been open with you from the start, I guess, but we can fix that now.”

Here’s what I knew about neurological implants from my mom, and from gossip at school: n-implants were Bad News. Sometimes people got prescribed them by doctors, to fix things like seizures or severe mental illness. Sometimes people without health insurance got them on the black market. Sometimes people without any medical problems got them on the black market and had them hacked to produce psychedelic effects, all for the thrill of it. They’d share dreams and hallucinatory worlds they’d code. In any case, implants were dangerous. A perversion of nature. They could turn people into zombies or raving maniacs. They could cause insidious, long-term problems. They turned people into addicts and perpetual patients, dependent on Big Pharma or black market dealers to keep their fix coming.

Here’s what I learned about neurological implants from Uncle Zero: n-implants were a technology and a tool. They weren’t inherently good or bad; they were something people could use to produce certain effects in their brains and bodies. They were extremely effective at treating seizure disorders and some forms of brain damage, moderately effective at treating mood disorders and psychosis. Many people found them useful for inducing mental states they couldn’t normally access, whether to help them with their jobs or simply out of curiosity and for fun. As long as n-implants were prescribed and used through approved medical channels, they were pretty safe. Doctors would quickly catch any major problems and fix them. But n-implants were prohibitively expensive for anyone without the right kind of health insurance (which was most people), and they were strictly regulated by the government. Many people who wanted them, or even needed them, were forced to go through the black market. Some black market dealers were unscrupulous or unskilled, dealing in damaged n-wares or implanting them incorrectly. Some — probably most, Uncle Zero assured me — did their best to serve their clients safely, but were hampered by supply chain issues, the illegal nature of their business, and even government sabotage.

“But,” I broke into his spiel, “if black market implants are dangerous that way, people still shouldn’t get them. At least, not if they don’t really, really need them. It’s stupid.”

“People do stupid things all the time. People do stupid things all the time for worse reasons than wanting a little more energy, a respite from pain, or a beautiful dream. Do people deserve death for wanting those things? Do they deserve to go to prison? Do they deserve to have reputable doctors turn them away? Do they deserve to be looked down on and shunned by people like your mother?”

I didn’t answer. I knew he was being rhetorical.

“You know, I have an n-implant. Treats my…I guess you’d call it some kind of bipolar disorder. Never got officially diagnosed with anything. Couldn’t afford a good psychiatrist. Couldn’t afford an implant through legit channels, either. But I was swinging hard between rage and despair. Once spent the night in jail for attacking a guy. It was ruining my life. So I got Ms. Mnemosyne to fit me with a few discreet chips and ports.”

I tried to imagine Uncle Zero with an implant. I tried to imagine him attacking anybody. The latter was impossible; I’d never so much as heard him yell at another person.

“Mnemosyne taught me most of what I know. I like the implant business, Lena. It gave me a way to support myself and a purpose in life. I’m helping others, you see? I just wish I could do it in the open, with up to date equipment that always works right.”

It was weird to think of Mnemosyne as Uncle Zero’s teacher. I didn’t know how old she was, and it was hard to see if she had wrinkles or anything with all the makeup, but I figured she couldn’t be more than maybe forty. My mom was forty-two, and Mnemosyne seemed younger than her. Uncle Zero was fifty-three. I thought about him learning the ins and outs of illegal implants as a middle-aged man.

“Could you teach me about implants?” I asked. “I bet I’d catch on fast. I’m in the most advanced computer class at school.”

“It’s very, very illegal, Lena. Even as a kid, you could go to prison for involvement with the implant black market.” Uncle Zero sounded like he hoped I’d argue, and I did.

“That’s if I got caught. I won’t get caught.”

“Your mother…”

“She won’t know anything. She thinks I’ve stopped seeing you. I can keep up that lie.”

Uncle Zero sighed. Then he smiled. “Be back here at midnight,” he told me. “I know your mother sleeps like a stone.”

Thus commenced my practical education.

I told Mom the tutoring had become a regular bi-weekly appointment. I invented elaborate stories about my developing friendship with Kiara Jamison, a real girl in my grade who I’d spoken to all of twice. I chatted about Kiara’s love of horses and dedication to singing in her church choir over dinner. I mentioned her casually in unrelated conversations. I even faked weeks of text messages between us, just in case Mom came snooping through my phone. I made sure never to talk about Uncle Zero, never to let anyone see me sneaking around the side of the house to the basement. I went on most Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, when I was supposedly tutoring Kiara, and late at night one to three times a week— the day or days varied.

As I predicted, I learned quickly. After a few months, I was able to read all of Uncle Zero’s monitors and charts. I knew how to recognize all the different models and brands of implants on sight, even with the identifying information rubbed off the plating. I could do basic implant programming, in theory, although I hadn’t been allowed to try it out yet. Uncle Zero wasn’t quite ready to put me in charge of another human being’s actual nervous system.

Mnemosyne and the rest of Uncle Zero’s friends began to treat me less like a kid. They showed me how to do makeup like theirs, explaining how it would keep street cameras from recognizing my face, from recognizing me as a human being at all. I looked in Uncle Zero’s cracked little mirror and admired how my mousy, plump features were transformed into a crisp geometry of asymmetrical black, white, and gold. I painted myself a new set of stripes, triangles, and strange swaths of bright color every time I ran an errand for Uncle Zero and his friends. Delivering parts, delivering messages. I never found out where any of the others lived; I’d meet them under the Hand Street Bridge, or down at the end of a nameless little trash-clogged alley next to a titty bar.

I watched Uncle Zero perform implant adjustments and surgeries until my initial squeamishness disappeared and I felt only excitement when he had a patient hooked up twitching and retching to his machines. When he stuck tools carefully into a naked, bloody patch of brain, exposed by the removal of a protective metal plate. Not that it was always so dramatic; sometimes he just ran a wire from a patient’s neck port to the computer while they sat calmly on the operating table, typed in a few lines of code, asked them how they felt now, and sent them on their way. But, of course, that wasn’t what I fantasized about during dull moments at school or doing my chores. I daydreamed of how someday I’d be the one fusing flesh and implant with wet red gloves and a look of calculating determination in my bespectacled eyes. I’d save lives, all by myself. I’d change people’s dreams. I’d make everyone I touched better.

I’d never had a real goal for my future before. I’d always vaguely figured I’d go into some boring but stable programming job. I wasn’t pessimistic about my grown-up prospects, but I didn’t look forward to adulthood. I didn’t think I would ever do anything that mattered. Now everything was different. You might think my grades would suffer from so many late nights and after-school apprenticeship tasks, but instead they improved. My long-dormant curiosity stretched itself out and bloomed. I was determined to learn everything I could that might make me a more ingenious implant-smith and surgeon. My eyes developed permanent bags, but I never felt sleepy. I didn’t care that my mom was alternately distant and cruel. I didn’t care that I didn’t have friends my own age. I was happy.

Happiness can never last in this world.

I found that out one gloomy day in winter, about five months after I began my apprenticeship with Uncle Zero. He didn’t have any patients or deliveries that Thursday, so as a treat he’d announced he was going to teach me how he made his dragon-starship cigarettes. It was, he claimed, a simple process I could manage independently once I’d been shown the trick of it. My mind was alight with the mirages I’d create.

Lying to and tricking my mother had become a habit I barely thought about anymore.

“Lena,” she asked me as I raced out the door, “are you going to Kiara’s?”

“You know I am.”

“Are you sure? Is there anything you’d like to tell me?” Her mouth wrinkled like she’d tasted something sour.

“Of course I’m sure. Don’t be so suspicious.” I smiled. “Kiara’s really struggling with algebra lately.”

She nodded. I left, careless, sure she didn’t know a thing.

Uncle Zero and I had just begun arranging the necessary papers, powders, wicks, and solvents on a scratched metal tray when there came a pounding and a cry over the intercom Uncle Zero sometimes used to communicate with people upstairs, in the house.

“Zero!” yelled my mother, through blurts of static. “I know you have the girl down there, Zero! Lena, if you come out now, I won’t punish you! You’re young. It’s not your fault!”

I bit my tongue. Tears prickled at the corners of my eyes. I’d been careless, and now Uncle Zero was in trouble.

“Don’t say anything,” whispered Uncle Zero, unnecessarily.

“This is your last chance!” A noise like a series of blows to the basement door. “I called Kiara Jamison’s parents, Lena! They have no idea who you are! If you don’t come out of that basement this instant, I am going to call the police!”

Uncle Zero’s normally olive skin blanched a sour milk color. He put down the funnel and the vial of pink powder he’d been holding and looked frantically around his quarters. “She wouldn’t,” he said, as though to himself. “She’d be culpable for harboring me.” He ran a hand through the scant hair on top of his head and breathed shakily through his teeth. “Lena, you’d best get out of here. Sneak out the back. Come in through the front door, calm her down. We may have to stop these sessions for a while.”

I gathered my things. I crept out quietly. As I mounted the stairs from the basement to the backyard, I found I couldn’t deal with the idea of seeing my mother again. Not so soon. She’d hit me with the belt, or her hairbrush, whatever she’d said. She’d want to know what I’d been doing with Uncle Zero. She’d want to put a stop to it for good. And I wouldn’t stop.

I wanted to go to Mnemosyne or one of the others, but I had no clue where they were, and I didn’t want to bring trouble on them if the police got involved. Instead I wandered aimlessly, even after it began to rain in a thin, acidic drizzle. My hair plastered itself to my skull in wet chunks. My fingers grew cold, then numb. I watched neon signs flash their broken advertisements into the gathering dark. I saw panhandlers huddling on a filthy mattress under the awning of a closed down computer repair shop. One of them had half her head shaved, and I could see the glint of an implant port just above her ear. It was leaking some kind of sludgy black fluid. I passed the Hand Street bridge, but there was no one beneath it. I saw a person with neon green dreadlocks haggling over potatoes at a vegetable stall, but they didn’t turn around no matter how long I stood and waited across the street.

Eventually my stomach was a knot of hunger and the only illumination in the landscape came from the streetlamps and the neon signs. I wished I could see the moon. I didn’t even know if there was a moon tonight or not. Shivering, I headed reluctantly home.

Police cars surrounded the house. There was yellow tape everywhere; Mom stood outside talking angrily to two cops. Her breath filled the air with harsh shapes. More cops carried machines and cables and boxes of parts from the house: Uncle Zero’s things. Everything looked unreal in the ceaselessly strobing blue and red lights.

An ambulance was parked in the street just a little way from where I stood in the shadows of the abandoned supermarket next door to us. Two paramedics were loading a body into it. A body on a stretcher, covered by a body bag. Zipped up snug inside.

My heart seized. I grew up years in moments.

I knew I could not go back. There was worse awaiting me than a belt or hairbrush to the ass. And I wanted to remember Uncle Zero the way he had been, confident and gentle, laughing, alive.

I picked my way through the hollowed-out ruin of the supermarket and escaped back into the night.

The panhandlers let me share their mattress. I think they were too strung out to protest or question much, but I’ll never forget their kindness.

In the morning, I went to wait under the Hand Street bridge. I knew it wouldn’t be long before someone showed up, and I would talk my way into their clandestine lair of implant-hacking, and I would begin my life’s work. I daydreamed about the sleek silver medicine I’d create as I watched the dawn break beautiful and toxic over the gray streets and tried not to think of a corpse in a body bag rotting on a table at the city morgue.

I wished I had a dragon cigarette.

Sometimes I still do. I never learned how Uncle Zero made them, and I never met anyone else who could.

Briar Ripley Page is the author of two novellas, Corrupted Vessels (swallow::tale, 2021) and The False Sister (Knight Errant, 2023, tbr in June). They’ve also self-published a very weird erotic dystopian novel called Body After Body (2020). Mostly, though, Briar writes short stories, which have seen print in anthologies like Mooncalves and The Book Of Queer Saints as well as in online lit mags like beestungsmoke + moldLigeia, and, of course, HyphenPunk. Find Briar online at


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