by Daifuku Hoyako (惰猪腹 ほや子)
Never let people do favors for you. You just end up owning them in return. Owing people favors is what gets you saddled with an assistant, which leads straight to hell. Or in my case, to standing in the parlor of a country manor, debating the best strategy for emptying my seasick stomach. The planet we had followed good money to, New Victoria, was all islands. Colonists–no advanced life preexisted on it–thought boats were a fine solution to the inconvenient topography. In the house, the floral curtains made my spinning head dizzier and reminded me of nothing so much as the dresses I had to wear at the orphanage. Meanwhile my damn assistant made small talk with our client. After spending the morning on a ferry and a glorified dinghy, I defy you to come up with a better definition of hell.
The kid, Alistair, was with me because his father owned both our asses and knew it. Pops was the founder of Epiphany Media Plug-Ins, wealthy without being conspicuously rich, and blessed with a son who lacked anything resembling ambition. I was a detective who mostly only owed favors to people I could afford to say no to, but I was also a detective going to seed, just a little. I’d been thrown off roofs twice, had my wrist broken with a fork, and was pushing fifty. Let me tell you, for a detective, fifty feels a lot like two hundred. Also, people had started to call me “ma’am” and offer to carry my effects. So when Mr. de Guerre calls me up and says, “Morgan, show my son the error of his daydreaming ways,” I figure that is the price of staying in the good graces of a valuable resource. At least I get someone who can haul crap around for me. This is what I told myself and look at where I am now.
My professional effects were all back at our hotel, on another damn island. Turns out, for all he’s tall, broad, and engineered to be perfectly proportioned from eye to instep, the kid is a wimp. I make him answer phones and I haul my own damn crap around, just like before. I’ve trained all the “ma’ams” out of him, at least. That meant if I needed anything more than the lock picks in my coat, I’d have to take the boats back before starting on the case. Wasn’t going to happen, so I had to angle for at least the rest of the day here, at the client’s house.
“I couldn’t help noticing,” the kid said, “the lovely Renneson in here.” Whatever that was, it had been in the blind spot created by my never-formed right eye. I turned to look past the silver tea service and a VR system masquerading as a vintage wireless, where an honest-to-fuck, paint-and-canvas piece of art hung on the wall. “He’s my father’s favorite as well.” Looked dreadful to me.
The female half of our new clients stopped fussing with the tea service for a moment. The kid always knew the polite thing to say and our client finally looked comfortable. “It was my grandfather’s and–” She looked like she could talk to him all day.
“Ma’am, would it be possible,” I asked between clenched teeth, “to see your son’s room?” I had tried to be polite then I had tried to be patient. But after waiting a month to wonder about their son’s unexpected absence, the Captain and Baroness Ivory seemed content to delay my search indefinitely. Alistair was great at handling clients for me, except that he would spend all our time on polite chitchat. So I fell back on my old stand-by: prickly.
“Yes, of course,” she said after a glance at the still-silent Captain. At a guess, I thought his sour non-expression was the same one he got when a stock in his portfolio did poorly. “Mrs. Budgitt will show you up.”
The tear-steeped nanny emerged from the corner she had been hovering in. “This way, please,” she said between sniffles. Once out of the parlor, she said, “I’ve been worried sick this whole time. Thomas wouldn’t go this long without contacting us. He just wouldn’t. Why, his mother calls him nightly and now so many weeks?”
“Maybe he needed a vacation,” I muttered, but she continued talking and did not hear me. She kept up this steady vomit of worry, speculation, and assurances as she led us to an upstairs bedroom.
The painting in the parlor was not the only genuine article in the house. There seemed to be a strategically deployed object at every major intersection of rooms and hallways. I hadn’t seen a single piece of art that was not rendered in hologram in more years than I could count. You just didn’t see it any longer. As far as I could tell, every unused piece had been deposited here for safekeeping. The bedroom she let us into was the size of my whole flat, but left much of the house’s extravagance at the door. It was done in blue and white and it had the crisp look and freshly laundered smell of a room not lived in. Much of the contents were memorabilia related to an assortment of sports. The furniture was subtly smaller than normal.
“This is a child’s room,” I said. Alistair, clinging close to my side like a child, nonetheless examined the room with those restless eyes of his. His father had trained him never to touch, not to mess about, but he had never been able to slow down those eyes.
“Yes, Thomas never brings much with him when he visits and it’s looked like this since he was in primary school.”
Annoyance ticked in my gut. “So, when you say he’s been missing for a month, you mean he’s been missing his nightly check-ins for that long.”
“And he doesn’t actually live here?”
“No, he has a flat near the university. The masters wanted to buy a house for him. But he has an impetuous streak.”
I sighed and felt the on-a-case high drain from my body. I had been stupid enough to get excited, too. A missing person was much better than my usual fare of cheating spouses to photograph in seedy hotel rooms. But this was just some kid with rich, overbearing parents who had at least enough sense to get the hell away from them. I would feel sorry for him, except that’s just not my style. Still, if I could track him down and get them properly estranged, I might at least get paid. “Where is this flat?”
“The university is south-west of here. The Captain will arrange for a private ferry to transport you there from your accommodations in the morning.”
This case just kept getting better.
On the other end of the video chat connection, the “call accepted” screen blinked out and I got a glimpse of a catastrophically cluttered room. Off-screen, a voice said, “Nelly Vaughn. Please hold while I ascertain your identity.”
I settled into the cramped quarters of the chat booth. “If you don’t know by now, you never will,” I said. I waited as a rolling chair catapulted into view with a clatter.
“Oh, honey, what are you calling from a public terminal for? You know I hate getting caught on camera.” Nelly’s face-mounted display blinked at me, computerized eyes rendered in zeroes and dashes. It hid and substituted for her whole face. The connected equipment, in bulky, retro-style casings, perched on her head. A chunky brown sweater protected her from the room’s computer-friendly chill and made her head look like a metallic egg cradled in a bird’s nest.
“Right, you just like to catch other people.” As though in response, the dual cameras facing out from the display sighed as their focus adjusted. “And I’m not home. I’m on a case. New Victoria.”
Nelly’s fingers darted across multiple inputs. Behind her, a map and aerial view of the planet filled one of the monitors in her legion. “A case, then? Must be paying better than best to get you out of the city.”
“And yet still not enough. I already hate the place. I’ve got a missing person.”
“Usual fee, plus expenses,” Nelly said. What I could see of her displays showed shuttle ticketing.
“You’re coming here?” I asked. It was difficult to get Nelly to leave her home. She was even more set in her ways than I was.
“Good heavens, I hope not. I’m sending my darling equipment by carrier shuttle. I’ll have it delivered to your hotel. You overpaid, by the way.”
I was accustomed to the way Nelly automatically hacked all my private information. If she used this access for some nefarious purpose, I never caught wind of it and never seemed to suffer any harm. “Next time, I’ll let you book it for me. But right now, I don’t want your equipment; I want you.”
Nelly’s display face flashed pink instead of the usual black. “I’m flattered, though I promise my equipment is very nice as well. But fear not. I’ll show, so long as you pay the bills for it.”
“Fine, but if you’re not shuttling…”
“There’s a lab two doors down from you that does quick clones. I’ll telepresence and you can pick me up there in three hours.”
When I stepped out of the sound-proof chat booth, Alistair sprung up from his chair to reattach himself to my side. “We’ve got our orders,” I said and left the hotel communication lounge.
As we exited onto street level, Alistair asked, “Is it entirely necessary that we employ Ms. Vaughn?”
“I called Ivory’s landlord. Rent’s been paid up in advance and someone’s been checking up on the place for him. Ivory’s in hiding,” I said with relish. That, at least, had been cheering for me. If Ivory had just been sitting at home with his chat offline, I might have cried. I craned my head around to see Alistair, who was forced to walk behind me in the single-file stream of people. When they weren’t on the hated boats, the population insisted on walking everywhere. The road through the travelers’ district seemed to be used exclusively by cargo trucks, while the ultra-wide sidewalks were jammed with pedestrians. He looked glum. “She only teases you because you always react,” I told him in a voice raised to carry over the chatter around us. “And because you believe everything she tells you.”
“I can’t ever tell if she is lying or telling the truth.”
“So assume she’s lying. I always assume everyone is lying.” I ducked my head and burrowed out of the crowd to get to the quick clone lab.
“But sometimes she isn’t. How am I–oh.” Alistair’s voice dropped away as he stepped into the lobby and got his first look at the lab. Against the back wall, the staff desk was flanked by three tanks on either side. Nine feet tall and cylindrical, the tanks were lit with subtly shifting green light. A steady stream of bubbles rose in it as the fluid inside cycled through the filters and tubes at top and bottom. They were just for show, of course. No half-grown bodies bobbed inside. Alistair stared at them with naked curiosity while I signed in to pick up Nelly.
When he finally snapped out of it, I was sitting in one of the office chairs, which felt good now, after traveling, but would be agony by the time three hours were up. “They do tours here,” I said. “I asked. Go check it out.” Some of the smaller labs still did tours of their facilities. Most of the large ones had abandoned the early public relations campaigns and got on with the business of growing remote-controlled bodies for office managers and planetary ambassadors and music idols.
“You’re quite sure?” Before I had done more than start to nod, Alistair said, “I won’t be long, boss.”
So I had a short time of dozing in my seat while he took a field trip. The rest of the time waiting for Nelly, I was regaled with the details of the lab’s functions and asked more questions than I could hope to answer. If he was more his father’s son, Alistair would have wanted to buy stock in the company or start his own. The kid just wanted to know. And to talk my ear off.
It was a welcome, if unexpected, relief when I heard Nelly’s voice raised in anger and getting closer. “I specifically marked acceptable body mass ranges,” she howled at the hapless staff member even as she was escorted out.
“We applied our most generous parameters,” the woman pleaded.
Nelly stormed into view. Without her head display, her face looked small and vulnerable. She had on the simple white shift the lab provided. She slapped both palms against her stomach. “I said fat. F. A. T. Corpulent. Big. Does this body look fat to you?” The other woman nearly choked, incapable of choosing the right set of placating words to shut Nelly up with. This was clearly not a complaint they usually received.
“Nell, you just think you’re skinny because you’re missing fifty pounds of hardware,” I said and stood up with too many pops from my vertebrae.
“You! I blame you. Look what they did to me. It’s not enough you make me come here, half naked.” Nelly was oblivious to the stares of the other people in the waiting room. “I want food,” she said and ticked off demands on her newly grown brown and pink fingers. “And I want my equipment, such as it is. Can you believe they don’t allow trace bugs through customs? We’re going to have to do this the long way. And get me a razor so I can get this mess off my head,” she added and tugged a handful of the short, dark curls of her hair. “I can’t even hook up my display to this body–no internal brain-computer interface.”
I just let her breathless tirade wash over me. “Good to see you, too. So that’s food, gear, trim?”
Nelly huffed and wrapped her arms around herself like she could hide her diminished form. “Make that gear first. I want eyes before anything else. You were right. This planet sucks.”
Nelly’s com bug whispered in my ear, “All clear.” She had disabled the building-standard security in a few moments. She muttered and cackled through the slightly longer period needed to break down the extra electronic security Thomas Ivory had installed. That left just a physical lock for me to pick before we were inside the flat.
With the door closed behind us and Nelly’s surveillance bugs in and out of the flat keeping watch for us, Alistair finally stopped huddling at my shoulder. Inch by inch, case by case, he got braver and more accustomed to searching on his own. He went for the things that looked most promising on-vid. I went for the things we couldn’t see with an aerial view.
I opened the closet first. Below a rack of clothing united stylistically by little more than a general impression of casual youth, there was an opaque box. It contained shirts, slacks, dress shoes–even a separate set of undergarments–that would have been perfectly at home in Captain Ivory’s closet back at home. It would seem Thomas kept his two worlds carefully segregated. That go bag was the only thing in the room that I saw to link him with his past. The room was studiously deviant. It was as though Thomas had calculated every choice, every object, to be diametrically opposed to his background. In place of pride, where his parents would have put a painting, Thomas had a wall-mounted hologram. It showed a three-dimensional model of a human body, rendered in a grid of green lines against a black background. As I watched, the body began to morph in increasingly improbable ways. It grew wings and lost limbs and stretched its skull into an aerodynamic pear. On the other side of the room, there was no sign of floral curtains. The window was shuttered from inside with mirrored panels that threw my reflection back at me. It was subtly off. I couldn’t tell how, exactly, but it didn’t show true.
“Hey, boss,” Alistair called from the computer setup. “Nelly’s given me access to his system.” His face was flushed. Nelly’s instructions must have contained her usual excess of teasing. “He’s got half a dozen sports feeds on perpetual recording.”
I leaned on the back of his chair and watched over the top of his head. “Guess his room at home wasn’t all his parents’ doing.” They all ran in small insets on the screen: a baseball game, a rugby match, wrestling, boxing, interplanetary-rule football, and something that looked like a cross between fishing and polo. At a touch, Alistair brought the rugby match to full screen then shrunk it again.
Over the com, Nelly said, “He’s got some selective recording patterns running in the background. They’re all tag-based, directed at archives, replays, and commentaries.” She made an interested noise. “Huh. They’re a little…”
“What?” While she poked through a hacked simulation of the system, Alistair worked on the machine in front of him. He pulled up schedules of classes and bill invoices and music collections. I tapped his shoulder and made him bring the schedules back up.
Nelly finally answered in a bemused voice. “He’s kinda kinky. His selective recordings are all of injuries, accidents, and the occasional, really excellent finishing blow in boxing matches. He’s got a whole collection of noses being broken. Baby’s got a fetish for pain, from the look of things.”
“That’s got to be a fun secret to keep from Mummy and Daddy,” I said. “The file we’ve got now–check out the classes he’s got scheduled.”
“Didn’t they say he was studying finance?” Alistair asked uncertainly.
“They did, indeed,” I answered. “‘The Science of Attraction.’ ‘History of Idols.’ ‘The Rise and Fall of Fame in the Modern Age.'”
“All classes in the domestic anthropology department. He changed majors after the first season,” Nelly confirmed. “He’s at the top of all his classes. He’s taking a fame studies emphasis.”
“He got out of the house and started a new life,” I said. The whole flat confirmed it. It was no surprise he had disappeared. The path he had chosen would, sooner or later, demand a complete break. Anything less would be too much of a threat to his freedom.
Alistair continued to pour over whatever records were on the computer while I returned to the physical room. I found a few signs of life beyond classes. The litter of the room contained single-use access cards to clubs and bars, advertisements with embedded GPS to guide you to the issuing store, and charging cables for devices not present. I used one finger to lift the cascade of bed linens and looked under the bed frame. Something cast an unexpected shadow.
“Kid, fetch,” I said. He slithered under the bed on his back and, after a moment, emerged with a box in him arms. He knelt on the floor and popped two latches. Not quite square and only a hand’s width high, when opened, the box revealed a mad doctor’s version of a first aid kit. Alistair pulled it apart, piece by piece, for me to see.
A bundle of blood-soaked gauze came from one corner. A medical-grade laser scalpel was lovingly packed in its box under a wrap of protective sheeting. An array of needles and syringes in various sizes were scattered in the bottom. Alistair passed a vial to me and I held the tiny label to my eye. “Nelly, what’s Parlydam?”
“Ooh, localized muscle relaxant. Causes temporary paralysis in the area.”
Alistair passed me another. “And Actazol?”
“For pain. You could eviscerate someone and if they had enough of that in their system, the only thing that would slow them down is the eventual blood loss.”
“So he watches pain, but makes sure not to cause it. Despite trying his hand at home surgery.” Alistair pulled a piece of paper from the inside lid of the box and, after a moment, passed it to me.
“If you find this, it means I messed up somehow. Sorry about that. It was still worth it. My body is my canvas and my memorial.”
“A suicide note?” Alistair asked.
“Maybe,” I said and left it at that. I didn’t like to say more and get caught up in speculation. My eye went back to the phrase “messed up.” Messed up doing what? What was the purpose of his medical kit? What was he trying to do and why was it important enough to risk an accidental death?
When I collapsed on the sofa next to Nelly, she finally looked up from her system. I had been rattling around in the hotel room for at least half an hour already but had received not so much as a glance. I wanted a large drink and a fleet of lightly-scented masseurs to work the knots out of my aching body. I felt old and tired. I wanted a little company.
Nelly blinked slowly, letting her eyes adjust to looking at something other than the screens arranged on the huddled coffee table, desk, and night stands. “You’re still here? Weren’t you going out?”
“Six hours ago. Yes. While you and the kid were supposed to work here. I’ve gone and come back.” The muscles clutching my spine slowly relaxed and it was more painful than the tension had been.
“Oh. Good.” She scratched absentmindedly at her bald scalp. “Six hours? I missed lunch.”
“Could have sent the kid out. You get anything good?” I waved vaguely at the screens. I had spent the day talking to his teachers at university. They said, without a single dissenting voice, that they were not at liberty to discuss student performance with me.
Nelly’s fingers twitched on input pads and projected keyboards. It was almost an unconscious action, like petting a cat that insists on sitting in your lap. “Paid the bill from the lab for you. Two thousand for clone growth and neural interfacing, minus stasis chamber rental.”
“You have your own stasis chamber now?”
“Got rid of the fridge. I just get take-away now. Oh, plus the deposit on recycling, but you’ll get that back when we’re done.”
“They’re doing a deposit on that now, if you aren’t buying the clone for long-term use. You get it back so long as you return the clone to them with no major damage and within five percent body mass range. Snuff filmers hate it, of course, ’cause they’re always out the money. But it’s good for telepresence commuters.”
“I’ll make sure to drop you off to be mulched before we leave.” There was a knock at the door. It turned out her idle keystrokes weren’t so idle. She had ordered up room service for both of us. The tray I accepted might have had enough food for four people, but Nelly squirreled most of it away on her side of the couch when I got close enough.
“Oh, and the Night Light team is planning to hack the Golden West Bank,” she said around a mouthful. “I moved your funds to a different one before I paid the bill.”
I grimaced. Moved my money, but left the hackers to their sport. A lot of people were going to have very bad days soon. There was no point in trying to explain that to Nelly, however. “Thanks for that. But I meant on the case.”
“Hm? Oh, yes. Sure. I finished that, ah, hours ago? Anyway. Ivory is a member of three body fetish organizations, except his dues haven’t been paid for over a month. He’s got passes registered with two specialty dance clubs, too. They’re paid up for the year, but nothing’s been swiped in a few months.”
“He’s cutting ties all over the place. But why? His parents are hardly the sort to follow either of those places. If he’s trying to walk away from them, what threat do the body freaks pose?”
Nelly shrugged. “That’s your job, making theories. I just get the facts.” She used a foot to nudge a screen around to face me, bumping microphone pickups as she went. “His system’s history,” she said. Sites clicked on and off the screen, one after another. “Instructions for decorative branding. Scarification. Wired piercings. Skin dyes.”
“All I found was the laser scalpel, so scarring may be as far as he’s gone, unless he had a professional do it.”
Nelly shook her head. “Not on this planet, at least. It’s all illegal. You have to get the equipment for ‘approved’ purposes and you can’t get a license to practice. But if some friends should just happen to have a laser scalpel on hand for chopping vegetables, why, there’s no stopping that.”
“Hence all the exclusive clubs then,” I said. “They can only do this if they have the right social ties.”
“Guess you and the kid were wrong then.”
“Wrong about what?”
“The note. It wasn’t a suicide note. It’s just a precaution. Ivory’s trying to get into this scene, so he’s got some homebrew body modding to do.”
“I’ll agree that nothing about this suggests suicide to me.”
“Alistair was all worked up about it. He was even talking to me after you left.”
“One of the people who worked for his father committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the offices. The reporters hounded the family for weeks about it. He has a thing about suicide.” I didn’t know if it was the dark topic or something more, but I felt nervous. “Where did you scare him off to?”
“He said he wanted to check out something for the case, so I let him in to go about his merry work.”
“Pull up the cameras on the flat,” I ordered with urgency cracking my voice.
“Yeah, okay.” Nelly sounded reluctant, but she did not hesitate to show me the surveillance. It filled one monitor with an interior view of a dark room and a shape that had to be Alistair seated on the bed. On the other camera, we saw the hallway outside the door and the figure just moving out of that view and into the other through the open door.
I cursed but not into the pickup in front of me. I couldn’t have Alistair react to me and blow what little cover he still had. On Nelly’s monitor, Alistair and the stranger stared each other down. After a moment, the interior alarm panel began to beep ominously. Slowly, like he was at gunpoint, the stranger raised his hand and displayed a key card. When Alistair did nothing to stop him, the stranger swiped the card and, without looking away, typed in a pass code. The beeping stopped and the room fell into an eerie silence, punctuated by the static hiss of air currents moving across the surveillance bugs.
“Who are you?” The bugs on Alistair picked up his voice perfectly, as though he was in the room with us. Even in the moment, I couldn’t help wanting to ask Nelly what upgrades she had made.
The stranger’s voice came across sounding distant and strange, like someone unexpectedly saying your name during a broadcast. “I’ve got keys. I’m supposed to be here, or at least have evidence of such. So don’t you think that’s my question to ask?”
“Stall,” I ordered Alistair. He flinched slightly. Oh, we could both imagine the dressing-down he would get later for botching a case like this. Away from the microphone, I told Nelly, “I want to know who the hell that is and why he’s got keys to Ivory’s flat. No one else is living there. I never saw anything–”
In the flat, Alistair, the darling idiot, said, “You’re not Thomas Ivory.” Getting directly to the point is not the same as stalling, I wanted to shout.
The stranger flicked on the lights and the camera’s view flared white for a few seconds while it adjusted. “I’m Pike. I’m checking up on the place. Good thing, too.” He stepped forward and I finally got a good look at him.
His nose had been broken more than once and the bridge bore a knot of scar tissue halfway up. His head was shaved, to better display the methodical scars that started there and worked their way down. Though it was impossible to be sure with his clothes on, it appeared that those scars covered his whole body. They spidered across the backs of his still-raised hands and mapped imaginary countries on his face. They were very smooth and artfully laid out. I thought of the laser scalpel. It seemed Ivory’s friends shared his interests.
“Do you know where Thomas is?” Alistair asked. “Are you watching this place because he’s gone somewhere?”
“You could say that. He’s not here. But once again I am answering all your questions and none of my own. How did you get in here? Why do you want to find Thomas? What’s the point of sitting in a dark room, waiting for a stranger?”
“I’m not a stranger. I-I’m worried about him. I’m from the university student health department.” That was almost good, almost believable. Simple and reasonable. “And I didn’t hurt anything to get in. We just hacked the security and I picked the locks.” And it was also complete rubbish, as he helpfully pointed out, just to make sure his lies could never fool anyone. The kid still didn’t know a damn thing, even if he had picked the locks without me. He was saying all the wrong things. He was being polite, being reassuring. No one needed that now. Pike knew Ivory, knew him well enough to place Alistair as a stranger at first glance. And now…
“We?” Pike asked. “Just how many people are worried about Thomas?” This was why I had told him to stall. Lying was never worth the trouble, especially when Alistair did it.
“I work for a detective and we’re here because Thomas’s parents hired us to find him and I came here without telling my boss because I thought Thomas was going to kill himself.” Alistair took a gulp of air. “And I thought that was more important than the case.”
Nelly nudged me. “You should have told him what you thought. He’s not too bright.”
I scrubbed my hands across my face. “He’s plenty bright. He’s just still learning not to pounce on the first idea in his head.”
“I need him to touch this guy to spread my bugs. Then I can get a biometric read on him. Otherwise, it’s just facial recognition and I’ve got a bad angle for it.”
Shit. “Find an excuse to touch him,” I said into the pickup.
I could see Alistair start to panic. He twisted his hands around each other. “Your face,” he said and lost his nerve. There was no polite way to bring it up.
Pike had decided Alistair was no threat and tossed the key ring on the desk. He poked around in the refrigerator, making himself at home. “Ugly, huh?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t–”
“That’s okay,” Pike said as he shut the refrigerator. “I don’t mind if you tell me the truth.”
“I only meant–” Alistair trailed off as he looked closely at Pike’s face. “I’m not sure ugly is the world I would use, now that you mention it.” He stepped around so the light was behind him and didn’t interfere with his view. The kid had been paying attention to my lessons. It put him closer to Pike as well. As soon as Alistair made contact with him, I planned to call him off while he had a chance to get out. “It’s very strange, but the patterns are too well-organized, too regular to be ugly.”
Pike clicked his tongue. “I know. I messed up. I planned it out too much.”
“Then, you meant for it to be ugly?” His voice changed. The nervous, stilted hesitation ebbed out. He sounded like he had at the clone lab. His voice lowered as he relaxed and he sounded less like a child and more like a young man.
“Sure. Everyone is beautiful now. If you want to be different, you have to be ugly.” I felt a sour bite of resentment toward him, a rich child with money to destroy a perfect face more money had bought. I was born to parents too poor to even fix my missing eye and half-formed socket. He got clean rooms with signed baseballs and posters. I got an orphanage for unacceptably flawed children.
“Then, did you teach Thomas to do,” Alistair waved vaguely to the box under the bed, “all that?”
Pike’s eyes narrowed. He looked annoyed for the first time, as though only just realizing that a detective broke in for the purpose of poking through someone else’s things. “Saw all that, did you?”
“So he isn’t trying to commit suicide?” Alistair asked in relieved tones. The kid was so soft-hearted, it was a wonder his chest didn’t cave in.
Pike laughed, loud and unexpected. Alistair gave a little jump and edged away. “I guess that note does sound a little overwrought. No, this is just a dangerous hobby. But the goal is definitely not to get dead.”
Alistair inched forward again and reached out a hand to not-quite-touch the scars on the back of Pike’s hand. “Doesn’t it hurt, even afterward?” I couldn’t tell if this was his angle for touching Pike to spread the bugs or if his curiosity was just getting the best of him again.
Pike lifted his hand so the skin met Alistair’s outstretched fingertips. “Doesn’t hurt. It’s just scars.”
Alistair touched his hand tentatively at first. Then he had both hands exploring, manipulating, turning Pike’s hand over and tracing patterns as they wove up his arm.
“Is that enough?” I asked Nelly.
“Mm,” she said without checking anything. “No need to make them stop now.”
“But you couldn’t have done it all yourself,” I heard Alistair say and I turned back to the screen. “The angles.” Alistair had pushed up Pike’s short sleeve to follow the patterns up his bicep. They stood very close together, a fact clearly shown in the camera’s overhead view. None of this seemed to bother Pike. Perhaps he took curiosity for admiration. Perhaps his community encouraged this kind of space invasion.
Pike said, “I had help,” and the word “help” sounded like a euphemism. He touched Alistair’s arm, almost mirroring his pose. “I could do you, if you’re interested.” I thought, a close-knit group of social outcasts and rebels with a special fixation on flesh. Yes, they probably are all fucking each other. The kid wasn’t so thick as to miss the double meaning there, which made it all the more surprising to me when he did not immediately answer.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
Nelly grinned. “Being boys,” she said. She tapped a button and a red recording icon came on in the corner of the screen. I hissed at her but she ignored me.
Alistair was never physically imposing, but he was tall, and Pike had to lean up into him. It made the kiss, one-sided and assertive, look strangely submissive. Alistair permitted it, perhaps just out of surprise. Then he used his hold on Pike’s arm to pull him closer and respond properly. In the camera’s view, the space between them disappeared entirely.
I told myself it was worry for his safety that made my insides hot and squirmy. He was in a dangerous situation and he wasn’t being careful. That was all. It was not the sight of this rough stranger melting into my assistant’s body, which suddenly looked unfamiliar and exotic. I closed my eye. The image of them together floated before me, an afterimage rendered in double vision I couldn’t have.
Nelly made an appreciative noise next to me. My eye opened against my will. Their hands had started roving while I wasn’t looking. They were still braced against the edge of the desk, but now Alistair was snuggled between Pike’s legs. Their combined breath, both gone fast and ragged, roared over the comm.
It was impulsive of Alistair, all gut and no brain (or a roughly similar division of his anatomy). That wasn’t what I wanted for him. I wanted him to think, to decide, not to just leap before his rigid conditioning kicked in. I felt like I had failed him. Or like we had failed each other. He was on a case; damn his curiosity. “Turn it off,” I said.
“Not a chance. This is gold.”
“Turn it off,” I said again and reached for the system’s controls.
I spoke too loudly. On the screen, Alistair jumped away from Pike. “I-I-I have to go,” he said. He barely stopped himself from looking up at where he knew the camera waited and where he now remembered we watched. “I’m sorry, really. It’s my boss. I need to get back.”
Pike didn’t try to stop him. “You’ll still look for Thomas?”
Alistair looked up from fitfully adjusting his clothes and nodded. “The case isn’t over until the client is satisfied enough to pay us.” Rule number one.
Nelly gave me a sullen pout as Alistair disappeared from the camera’s view. I flipped her off and said, “Just get me an ID on that kid.”
I paused the recording in the split second before Alistair and Pike kissed. Nelly had planted the file on my system and I was hypocrite enough to not delete it. More than that, I kept watching it. As far as pornography went, it didn’t even make the cut. And yet. And still. I could have bought my choice of vids, real or CineMental, and watched more than a few kisses and the slightest hint of petting.
But it was the two of them. It was Alistair, for whom I felt no attraction when he answered the phone or fielded clients or brought home take-away during a stakeout, like tonight. But in that recording, all his familiar, puppyish mannerisms became new and strange and charged. It was a gross violation of his privacy, even if he had known the camera was there, even if he had known Nelly and I were just on the other end of an electrical signal. I knew this, but I still couldn’t stop watching.
The door opened behind me. In a panic, I scrambled with the controls to hide the video, piling five other screens over top of it. When I looked over my shoulder, it was only Nelly. “Oh, you–” Nelly, with Alistair right behind her. My heart shuddered in my chest. I was dimly pleased, however; it really was only fear of being found out that made it do so. Life was complicated enough without me getting hot and bothered every time I saw the kid. I thought, I’m too old for this crap.
“We have a little issue,” Nelly said. She threw herself down on the sofa. “And bring me food, kid. This body is no fun when it’s hungry.”
Alistair was too polite to tell her where to shove it. He opened a container of food, placed a fork into it, and handed it to Nelly with a careful two-handed hold that made it seem more precious than it was. Then he continued to unload the rest of the food onto the table. I forced myself to watch him. He was efficient and diligent in everything he did. He was a good assistant, a good partner, and I felt rotten for the liberties I had taken.
“What kind of issue?” I asked when I tore myself away from guilty introspection. “Did you get the results of the ID search?” If she had, it could only be good news, since the rest of my work had turned up nothing of value. Thomas Ivory might as well have fallen off this inconvenient damn planet, because I could find neither hide nor hair of him. Following Pike to social places, staking out the flat, skulking around his classes–nothing had turned up anything useful.
“Yeah, well, I ran him through the usual systems–no Pikes matching his description. Ran his biometrics through the crime databases as well. Nothing even remotely interesting. Nothing at all.”
“At least he’s not a wanted criminal,” Alistair said. “I’d prefer not to take up bounty hunting as well.”
“You and me both,” I said. “So that issue is a whole lot of nothing?”
Nelly drummed her hands on the belly she was trying to fill out without breaking the recycling policy and its five percent body mass rule. “When have I ever wasted your time with a nothing? I got creative after that point. This planet has a child registry system, in case some kid falls off a ferry and they don’t find the body for a week, that sort of thing, and it’s biometrics based with extrapolations for aging in abduction cases.” She took a breath. “Pike doesn’t exist and never has, as far as this planet is concerned. But that’s okay.”
I waited out the pause, but she wanted a little more audience appreciation–it must have been something really good–so I said, “Why is it okay?”
“It is just fine and fabulous because it turns out Pike is wearing Thomas Ivory’s skull. And presumably all the rest of him as well, but skulls are the easiest to identify.” Nelly basked in our shock.
“Pike is Ivory?” I asked. “His own mother wouldn’t recognize him.” I pulled the picture of Ivory his parents has given me from the pile of case papers on the desk. Nope. I couldn’t see it, even knowing it was there.
“I think that rather might be his intention,” Nelly said.
“He lied to me?” Alistair asked. I glanced over at him, worried by the strange, broken tone of voice. If it was bad for me to be hot for my assistant, it was fucking disastrous for Alistair to get a crush on a subject.
“He let you read the situation wrong on your own,” I said. “He didn’t lie about Ivory being into body modification either; he’s just farther alone than we realized.” Alistair still looked faintly hurt, even a little offended. Kid was always surprised when people lied, always took it personally.
I had thought tailing people was difficult back home. There, we had multilevel elevated roads and ultra-high-rises to contend with. There, our pedestrians became aeronauts on the electromagnetic hover walks and public transit could move vertically. But at least we didn’t have all these islands. Do you realize how difficult it is to follow someone across town when “across town” means risking being seen on the same island-hopping ferry or risking losing them by waiting for the next one? While seasick? Suffice it to say, by the time Pike/Ivory stopped at an office building in the medical district–island, whatever–I was glad I never carried a gun. I wanted to just shoot him and drag his miserable carcass home to his parents. Let them all duke it out; I just wanted to get paid and get home.
Sometimes, annoyance makes me work better. Sometimes, it makes me blow my case.
I had been concentrating on just keeping up with Pike, who caught ferries like they came whenever he called. I had been concentrating on maintaining a balance of protective distance and visual confirmation of his next move. I had been concentrating on navigating the crowds of locals, who never looked directly at each other and seemed to move around each other out of sheer habit, which I couldn’t do. So I was not concentrating on the only question that ever really matters: why? For example, why was Pike heading for the medical district? Why did he go into a building that, according to the title on the sliding doors, specialized in biological reconstruction? And why, as a special bonus, did it have to be a building with the most neurotic secretary AI I had ever met?
“Name?” the virtual secretary said in a sweet, bright voice.
I watched the numbers on the elevator steadily tick upwards. It stopped at the third, fifth, and eighth floors. At least there would be only three to check. I punched the call button to get another elevator. When it opened, Alistair and I stepped in, followed by one more patient. I looked for the buttons for the floors, but there were none. The panel inside the door just had emergency controls. This was new.
“I’m sorry,” the same voice sang inside the elevator, “you must check in at the front desk before proceeding. Please exit the elevator now and check in at the front desk. Thank you.” The other patient pulled off a pointed glare without ever looking away from the blank spot of wall his eyes were fixed on. I had gotten that look a lot that day.
As soon as we got out, the elevator snapped shut and took our surly companion to his destination. With dwindling hope of ever catching up to Pike, I approached the secretary.
“Name?” it asked again.
“Morgan Sieler,” I answered, unsure what good it would do me.
“I’m sorry; you are not currently listed in my database. Do you have an appointment?”
“I can schedule an appointment for you here. What doctor would you like to see?”
There was no directory that might list my options. I knew medical secretary AIs were common, but I’d never seen one that also controlled the elevators in its building. This planet must take patient privacy to new extremes. I grumbled, “Never mind,” and left the building.
I summoned the chartered ferry from the Ivorys to pick us up, mostly because I thought I might get lost trying to reverse the series of public ferries that got us there. We were onboard, headed for our hotel in defeat, when Nelly suddenly burst into my ear. It was like I had swallowed a bee.
“We have a seriously major problem here and I swear it isn’t my fault–someone hit the whole damn building and they got my bugs as part of it and–”
“Hell and a half, slow down. What happened?”
“Someone wiped the building with an EMP. I lost my eyes on the flat. When I got new bugs in there, there was–Ivory’s here. I mean, I think it’s him.”
“He beat us back there?” Alistair asked.
“He’s used to getting around here,” I said with a helpless shrug. “But what do you mean you think it’s him?”
Nelly whined. “I’m running DNA now. I had the bug grab a sample. It’s not like he was going to notice.”
I gripped the handrail in front of me harder. I leaned forward, as though I could meet her disembodied voice’s signal faster that way. “What do you mean, he won’t notice?”
“He’s had a reset done. Pink and untouched as the day he was born. I’m only saying it’s him because he looks like his picture for once. And he’s stone dead.”
I pushed the folder of documentation across the table to Baroness Ivory. She took it up with trembling fingers, the only sign of her distress. The Captain was not with her, out of grief or rage or disinterest, I didn’t know. The nanny had only recently left the room in a rush of chatter and tears.
“You are quite certain?” Baroness Ivory asked.
“Yes. It’s all in there. DNA and biometric confirmation. Coroner’s report. Photographs.”
“I sealed those separately,” Alistair said softly. “You don’t have to look at them. It’s not–I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“He’s been cutting himself off from the world for months. Letting social contacts lapse. That sort of thing. His note said he had nothing left to keep him in the world.”
Baroness Ivory nodded, shock-silent, just showing she had heard me. She found her voice to say, “Your payment will be transferred immediately. Thank you for your services.” It was a dismissal and I had no intention of arguing.
The house ferry deposited us back on the island with our hotel. Inside, Nelly was already gone. A note said, “Went to return the body for recycling. See you at home.” She signed it with a little doodle of her usual face, masked as it was by electronics. The message was a strange echo of the suicide note, gallows humor and the crass, commercial jingle of body-as-product. It set my nerves more on edge.
“We’ll leave in the morning. First transport headed home,” I said.
By the window, Alistair nodded. He had a distant look on his face, like he was thinking something through and couldn’t be bothered. I said nothing more to him. Whatever may be, the case was over and there was no need for me to dwell on unanswered questions.
It was, I suppose, just my dissatisfaction with the case. When I heard Alistair whisper, “–really Thomas,” I snapped awake like I was one of Nelly’s search programs and I had just gotten a hit. I didn’t move and I tried to keep my breathing slow and sleep-even. Alistair probably wouldn’t notice, but whomever he was talking to might. At first, I cursed myself for not facing the door. Then my barely opened eye adjusted to the darkness of the hotel room and I realized Alistair was at the balcony, not the front door.
“Thomas Ivory is dead,” the other person said and I knew the voice. “I’m just Pike, for always now.” There was a long pause. I could hear the bell of a ferry ringing in the distance through the open slider. “Will you let me in?”
“We’ll be quiet,” Pike said and I could see his outline move into the room. They were backlit by the city lights outside, so I could clearly see their silhouettes but nothing more. My mind filled in the details easily enough. I had been seeing unwelcome visions just like this one for days. I wondered if I was really even awake. Had the fantasy versions of Alistair and Pike migrated into my dream space?
I heard Alistair stifle a hiccup of a gasp. He must have been able to see some real detail that I could not. “What did you do to yourself?”
Pike puffed up at what he must have regarded as praise. “Pretty awful, right? I’ve been planning this one for a long time.”
Alistair’s shadow arm reached up and touched Pike’s face. “Where–what happened to the scars? And how did you get those colors?”
Pike swooped into the tentative touch to give Alistair a fast and fierce kiss. The idiot was so pleased with himself, it was a wonder he hadn’t found a way to kiss his own preposterous face. Still, Alistair participated with no lack of enthusiasm. Their shadows blended into one mass, with only a slightly glowing edge to define a bit of Pike’s jaw from Alistair’s cheek. In my mind, though, that wet sound corresponded to lips parting to admit a tongue, to teeth bumping and bruising lips.
“I have to know,” Pike said and shook his head like one waking from a daydream. “I have to know: did my parents fall for it? Do they think I’m dead?”
Alistair put a little distance between them. “That was a terrible thing to do to your family. I had half a mind to tell them myself.”
Pike said, “You knew?” which echoed my own surprised thoughts. I had certainly suspected, ever since Nelly mentioned the recycling of the quick clones. Nothing I had seen had really suggested that Pike–Thomas–Pike had intentions of killing himself, whatever I might have told the Baroness. Had I asked Nelly, I suspected she would have found new memberships and paid dues in Pike’s name, each replacing the ones cancelled in Thomas’s.
“You said your intention was never to kill yourself with what you did. I believed you.” I could have laughed if it wouldn’t give me away. While I was looking for clues and psychological indicators and data trails, Alistair just asked and trusted what he heard. He would make the best, most ridiculous detective one day.
Pike’s outline leaned forward, desperate to get back to the welcoming openness Alistair showed. His voice was low and scared. “I told you the truth. But my parents–they would never have let me get away with what I did.”
“What did you do?” I rather wondered that myself.
Pike’s silhouette did a not-really-bashful sort of shrug and waver. “I got an overlay. Instead of skin, I’ve got symbiotic nanomachines. So I can change my face whenever I want. Most of the rest of me, too.”
“I just don’t understand,” Alistair said. They were beginning to forget themselves, letting their voices rise. I could move, even a little, and end the whole exchange for them. I stayed still.
“My face, my body, was bought and paid for. I was engineered, like everyone else who can half afford it, strand by strand, before ever I was born.” Pike’s hands curled to claws around his face, like some film of his old skin might still be clinging to him and he wanted to tear it away. “And the only thing they wanted, the only thing worth that trouble and that cost, was my pretty face. Before anything else, be beautiful.”
Alistair, gentle and fond, held Pike by both arms and pulled his hands from his face. The touch was not passionate, yet it quivered with the possibility of passion. The potential was like a radiation glow along their edges, lighting them up for my private and illicit viewing. I remembered that Alistair must be older than Pike, at opposite ends of their university years. I had never thought of Alistair as being older than anyone. He was just a kid. Just the kid.
Only now, as he leaned into Pike’s space with a mix of friendly caring and raw desire, I could see he was growing up. He said, “You are wonderfully ugly now.” Yes, I thought, that is just the right thing to say.
Pike agreed, if his hungry grab for Alistair was any indication. They clinched together so that they became one form in my limited vision. I shut my eye but it gave me not respite. They might try to quiet themselves, but still, all around me I seemed to hear their voices and the echoes of their voices. Each nonsense “oh” and “ah,” each hissed “yes” came to me as clearly as if I had still been bugged. I opened my eye and that almost seemed less intimate. I heard clothing opening, unzipping, peeling. I could not help but wonder, giddily, if Pike’s clothes were real or if they were manufactured by his new exoskeleton. Pike leaned closer, put his mouth to Alistair’s ear, and said, “Tell me again.”
Alistair’s one arm stroked across Pike’s back. The other was just a dark mass between them. “You really do look most appalling,” he said in a husky voice I would not soon shake out of my head. Pike’s spine moved like a wave as his hips thrust forward and back. I might not be able to see clearly, but I still knew a much-appreciated hand job when it happened right in front of me.
Pike tried to bury his face against Alistair. He was shy, unsure of himself, even as he pushed himself to stand out more, to be more of a spectacle. My early bitter dislike of him faded, replaced by a sad sort of recognition. I had been that kid, too, scared and hiding it under in-your-face defiance. Alistair wouldn’t let Pike hide. He reached up with his free hand and pulled Pike away with a handful of loose shirt fabric. It let us both see him. His profile was oddly flat, the bone structure subtly off. “Your nose,” Alistair said, “is especially eccentric now.”
Pike laughed at that, breathy and quiet. “I have a thing about noses.” He reached out to Alistair. With a roll of his shoulders, Pike broke out of his grip. He did not duck his head. They stood close enough to breathe each other’s air, close enough for noses to brush if Pike’s hadn’t been so newly flattened. It limited what I could see of them, but they both hissed and moaned and pleaded. Without context, it might have been read as pain.
They both came quietly, mouths pressed together in clumsy kisses. I might have been grateful for their continued consideration of me, except my senses strained to pick up every noise. I pieced a momentary jut of elbow and a city-lit outline of a cock and details from memorized footage into a whole picture. I saw a fictional version of them and I welcomed the distance it imposed. But Alistair only wanted the truth. They stayed together for long moments, during which Alistair touched and examined and praised Pike. He saw Pike. Alistair made sure, by the time Pike disappeared off the balcony, that Pike felt glorious beneath his new skin.
Just being in the terminal at the space port made me feel I was halfway home. There were people and their noise in a mad press and swirl. It was a mishmash of languages and dress and attitudes. No one was polite, either. The best part, though, was the utter lack of boats in my future.
All our bags had been stripped from us to be loaded on our shuttle. Alistair and I were left to bide our time with sleeping or people watching. The terminal was busy enough, considering how small New Victoria was, and I had been watching a family who seemed to have just arrived on vacation. So far, I guessed that, while the man might have the occasional fling on the side, it was actually the woman who most likely had a second relationship. She checked details too obsessively; I pegged her for a dual identity, possibly a second partner on another planet. She navigated the terminal with the efficiency of a regular business traveler, so she would have no shortage of excuses. Their child, bored with everything, had been systematically destroying the reinforcements on his luggage with grim pleasure. I gave him three years, tops, before he started doing hideous things to whatever small animals existed on his home planet. But then, I read all children as budding sociopaths.
I looked away from them, about to say something about never really clocking out from our job, in time to see a grin flash across Alistair’s face before he hid it. That was warning enough, so when someone flopped into the chair next to me, I didn’t flinch. “Hi, boss,” Pike said, slinging an arm across the back of my seat.
I twisted around to get him out of my blind spot. When I finally saw him, I said, “You look like you had a fatal accident in a paint factory.” He hadn’t quite shaken off his sense of design–the colored patches on his skin still followed a regular pattern. He really had done something grotesque to his nose and the proportions of his face were carefully arranged to entirely fail to please the eye. He was, no doubt, very pleased with himself.
“Thanks, boss. It was hard to get through security though. The fine defenders of New Victoria’s safety and virtue had difficulty believing my face went with my ID.”
“A new one, I hope, or the system’s going to flag you for stealing your own dead identity.” I could feel Alistair just bubbling with excitement next to me. What had I done to deserve this?
“Don’t worry. I thought it through.”
“I noticed. I will give you credit for using a quick clone to fake your death and keep your secret from your parents. Fairly clever. But if they look around, they’ll find out you never really saw anyone at the reset clinic, for all it did throw me off your trail. Not to mention the clone records. They could put it together, if I did.”
“That’s why I’m leaving New Victoria. I can’t hope to dodge my parents forever if I stay. So I’m coming home with you.”
“Oh, like hell you are,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. “What for?”
“I had a budget for the clone and the overlay with plenty of extra. The reset didn’t happen, so it didn’t cost. But the last-minute EMP rental cost me too much. I wasn’t expecting that part, so I’m a little shorter on cash than I planned. So I need a place to stay.”
I whipped around to look at Alistair. “Did you know about this?” He shook his head but I distrusted that smile. “If you encouraged him, I swear, kid, I’ll throw you out the airlock.”
“And,” Pike interrupted, “I thought I could make myself useful to you, help out a bit. I know you covered for me with my parents. So I figure I owe you a favor.”
What did I tell you about fucking favors?