4767 WORDS

The apartment’s DNA scanner can pick Anton out of the crowd almost a block away, so the sliding doors were unlocked and the lobby lighting was welcoming when me and him arrived with the crate. Automated apartments are cushy like that, but I would get lonely without human voices. Anton likes it better that way so he can concentrate on work. The latest of which was, of course, the crate: a cube of dull green armor, military–grade stuff that looked ready for an atomic bomb.

“We’ll need cracking equipment,” I said. “It’ll cost.”

“There’s someone with a cracker down Tiber Street,” Anton said, grinning and adjusting the top hat he never sets at the same angle twice. “We can rent.”

Anton is a real piece of eight. He always wears a gilled coat, the kind you see in old European net plays, and when he grins like that people sink into his gravity well to become pucker–faced meteoroids. He has a kind of charisma, and a fire lit under his brainpan that drives him along at unholy speeds when he gets his hands on something exciting, something like the crate.

When the elevator opened, Anton guided the crate inside and I squeezed in behind, boned fish in the corner. We’d found the thing in floodland, sending up a lazy beep beep from Old Vancouver’s watery grave. Extracting it took most of the week — long nights in wetsuits and choking on boat fumes — but the salvage claim had gone through, and it was all ours now. I was moderately curious, but this one was Anton’s holy grail. Anton thought it was going to be something big.

“It could be nothing,” I said again, doing devil’s advocate as was usual.

“Possible, possible,” Anton said. “But why put nothing in a mobile bomb shelter?”

The elevator breezed open and we floated the crate over to Anton’s workshop. Walls recognized him and put on the lights. This was where the business, Anton and Hume Scavenging, went on. Four years of quality and exceptional service.

“We’ll stow it under the counter,” Anton said. “And throw those sheets over it.”

“Nobody’s coming to look for it, Anton,” I said. “It’s all ours now.” We slung it under the counter, no sheets, and it sat there looking real fucking innocuous.

§

We rented the cracker on Tiber Street, beside the yellow–taped hole they were still planning to fill with cement. It belonged to a woman with two cigarettes in her mouth. Anton thanked her for the discount with pale arms around his neck.

“I didn’t know you knew her,” I said, adjusting the recyclable rucksack we had filled with equipment.

“Biblically,” Anton said, spitting out the taste of her smoke. He laughed at his own little joke and I smiled by accident. Anton. For at least the past decade, except for the incident with Dolly from the supshop, Anton had always told me who he was docking up with.

“She’s not too troll,” I said, thinking of the seams of her tights and the pristine edge of her collarbone. He grunted his ‘you know, no big issue’ assent. I still don’t know how Anton does it. Friends tell me he’s handsome but I’ve never seen it. His face is just Anton’s face, asymmetrical and, I think, a bit smug.

“We’re going to crack open some bottles, too,” Anton announced, waving his skyper. The order form for a lunch and liquor was still blinking on his screen. “To a week of hard work, yeah?”

“Yeah, verily,” I said.

We clinked imaginary beer.

§

Cracking equipment is hard to assemble while drinking, but we did it. By the time Anton positioned the pincers all around the crate, making sure everything was lined up, the excitement was coming off him like radiation.

“Looks ready,” I said. “Let’s shatter the bastard.”

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction,” Anton said grandly, and he turned the handle. The crate split apart with a sound like bones breaking. We’d both been getting into the spirit, so when we saw what was inside, it was a bit of an anticlimax. It looked like an incubator, the kind they use to heat up eggs for clone–grown dinosaur collectors.

“Might be a Rex,” I consoled him. “Those sell tidy.” But of course I was kind of glad it was nothing earth–shattering. Anton’s gut feelings were right too often, and gut feelings shouldn’t be.

“Nobody cares about eggs this much,” Anton said, reaching for the control. The incubator gave him a green light, so he flipped it open and we saw that it wasn’t holding an egg at all.

Describing the contents is hard. It was shapeless, furrowed red meat and quicksilver splashes. It undulated and shivered in slow motion. It smelled like something bitter.

“What the fuck?” I asked.

“Looks like… nano.” Anton put out a hand like he was going to touch it.

“Don’t touch it,” I said. A ripple went through the thing, like responding to the sound. It was flowing together into sort of a starfish shape, all pumping muscle and the silvery stuff weaving into it.

“Nano–bio,” Anton finished. “How fucking peculiar.”

“This is one wyrd gene–job,” I said, watching the thing coil against itself.

It bucked, sudden, like hips at climax, and in a blink it was on Anton’s arm. He gave a muffled whoa of surprise, stumbled back and around in a circle. I made a grab for the thing, but it had already slithered up his sleeve and out of reach.

“Godshit!” Anton gasped. He hit the floor on his knees and I pushed him the rest of the way down, ripping off his red thermal. After that came off, I didn’t know what to do. The thing from the incubator was straddling his spine, stretching little fluttery stubs out over his shoulder blades. It took me off my guard, the wyrdness of the whole affair, and how it was sort of beautiful.

“Oh, man, man, man,” Anton said. “Help me remove this little monster.” He didn’t sound panicky, which is another excellent thing about Anton. He stays arctic cold under aggressive circumstances. He was even laughing a little, and a laugh of my own was halfway up my throat when the little stubs sharpened, right before my eyes, and plunged as tiny spines into Anton’s bare back.

He whimpered, and I knew this was bad, because he had never made that noise in my memory. Small beads of blood were welling up, all along his spine, and then somehow sluicing away. My first thought was that Godshit, this thing was vampirous. It was sucking him dry in the unsexy way. I tried to pry it off, but it was like grabbing gelatin, slipping and sliding off my fingers.

Then Anton held up a hand, like suggesting that I stop, and he got up off the floor.

“What the fuck is it doing?” I asked, stepping back. Anton looked slightly woozy, but he was alive. The thing from the incubator seemed to calm down, flattening itself along his back like a fleshy hug. I reached for my skyper where it had toppled from my pocket.

“Hume, I think it plugged in,” Anton said.

“I’m getting the emerg–serv,” I said. “We still have credit with them, right?”

“Leave the skyping,” Anton told me. He grimaced and propped himself up against the counter. Little twitches were running through him, miniature seizures.

“That thing just grafted onto your fucking back, Anton,” I said back. “Make me a damn compelling, you know, argument, or I’m getting them.”

“Hume, Hume,” Anton said, in his calming way. “I’m about to. Whoa.” Another twitch twanged through him. “You remember those spinal gears? For paralyzed people?”

“The things that looked like spiders,” I said. “Yeah, verily.”

“Like spiders, right,” Anton continued. “They lay new roads for the nerve endings. Bypass the damage. We’re looking at some remarkable nano–bio prototype for the same thing.” He was twisting and flexing.

“You’re not paralyzed, Anton,” I said.

“No,” he said. “I’m well beyond not–paralyzed. Hit me.”

“Hit you.”

“Hit me,” Anton repeated. I’ve never slammed one to Anton; I’ve wanted to now and again. The adrenals and the fact he was requesting it and the wyrdness of the whole thing made me amenable, so I took a bit of a stance.

“Only if you’ll come to emerg–serv,” I said. “Get that fucking thing off you.”

Anton nodded solemnly. So, thinking maybe it would give his brain a bit of reboot, I swung. Anton was gone, blurred off to the side like a screen glitch, and as I went for the left cross on instinct he squeezed off from that one, too. Anton did a lot of things well, but he didn’t box. The last punch was a lazy drifter, as I was flabgasted, but it was still way too weighted for Anton to pluck it out of the air, as he did, and stop my fist.

“Godshit,” I said, looking down. The thing had sent tendrils down his arm, red cords of twitchy muscle. Like an exo, but meat.

“Smart little brute,” Anton said, barely breathing hard. “Finders, keepers, yeah?” I knew he meant the both of us, because we always say that after we find something really big.

“Yeah,” I said. “Verily.”

§

The brute took up residence between Anton’s shoulder–bones, clinging at him like a starfish. First few days, we tried running tests and such, poking the thing with probes and once putting the pair of them into a scan tunnel. It looked to be alive, certain, and the scan showed electrical pulses running through a sensory suite and also through a fleshy nub that Anton thought might be a crude sort of brain stem.

“Paramilitary,” I said. “Some mad prototype. Who buys?”

“Nobody, until we know how much it’s worth,” Anton said.

“Fucking thing’s going to eat you in the night,” I said, even though the tests showed no damage being done.

Anton’s laugh sent a quiver through the knotted red, the rippled silver. He said it was like being on phencyclines twenty–five–seven, everything jacked up, everything quick. He was always juggling things, seeing how many bolts or airpens or tangerine oranges he could keep in the air at once, plucking and throwing too fast to see. A few times he tried to lift the old boat chassis, knees popping, red–swathed biceps shivering, and I thought it budged a bit, but didn’t tell him.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said to me a day later, tossing a spanner up and down behind his back. “We don’t need to tell anyone about this thing. The salvage claim went through, yeah, but something like this doesn’t get flood–dumped purposefully.”

“Think some brain team is crying over it in a labo somewhere?”

“Think it got lost,” Anton said, looking thoughtful. “As you do, in floodland. Think some transport fuck–up. Never got where it was meant to.”

“Have a look at the new scans,” I said, flipping him a sheaf of hardcopy. He peered at it, squinting for the dimness, and suddenly I saw a little red filament reach around from his collar and wriggle towards his eye like a fucking water snake. I unshuttered my jaw to tell him such, but Anton had noticed. He tugged it closer with one finger and let it branch a tiny membrane over the white of his eyeball.

“Helps in the dark,” he said. “No big issue, Hume.”

“New trick,” I muttered, and once he shrugged his way through those scans the tests stopped. The brute was mysterious, the brute stayed that way.

§

A week on, the cockroaches that scuttled through the cracks in Anton’s apartment wall were all but gone and the brute had grown hard little keratin nodules on it.

“Osmosing,” Anton explained, pulling his coat on. “Everything needs fuel, doesn’t it. Little fucker climbs off me and waits for bugs to crawl close, then snags them. Looks like they go into its underbelly. Really something to watch.”

“So’s a film,” I said, still in the doorway, fidgeting a bit. Anton’s workshop smelled a touch different, maybe because I hadn’t been in for a while. The little AI paddlers we bought up in YK and set to trawling floodland hadn’t given a peep since finding the crate. Business was mostly on the selling end, not the finding or repairing, which suited me alright. Wetsuits itch me more than they do Anton.

“Let’s head, then,” Anton said. A red–and–silver worm slid up from his collar and he tucked it out of sight, smiling to the mirror.

The film was supposed to be a livefeed, bounced and woven by some pirate satellite sailing over our heads, and they were throwing it up against the big stucco wall of an unfinished church. We were meeting the woman from Tiber Street on the way. The three of us had done beers a few times now and I knew her name was Marina, like the marina, and that she had prehensile toes from a poorly–thought–out biomod in her youth. She was clever, deadly pretty; Anton said he was done with her soon.

“Does she know about the thing, then?” I asked on our way.

“Biblically,” Anton said, and I couldn’t be sure he was joking. There was a stray cat winding along with us, whining and sneezing. Anton had been looking at it, sort of frowning, and as it darted ahead into an alley, he stopped. There was a big grimace on his face. I was going to ask, right, inquire as to why his eyes were all bulged, and then I heard a sucking sound.

The brute peeled itself away from him and slapped to the pavement like a dropped newborn. The little stubs on it telescoped, waving cilia.

“Godshit, that hurts,” Anton sighed.

The brute flipped itself over and scuttled into the alley.

“What’s it doing?” I asked.

“Don’t have an inkling, Hume.” Anton rubbed at his spine as the skeletal cat scampered back around the corner, sneezing soot and meowing all agitated–like.

A knotted red hook snatched it out of sight. Then a screech. Then a quiet, and I felt tingling up my vertebrae. We started after the noise simultaneously, no words, following it around the corner. I almost vomited.

You couldn’t call it a cat anymore. What was lying there, bubbling and gouting, was processed meat. The brute was drawing thick red ropes into its underbelly, patches of rank fur accompanying. Anton plucked his scarf up to his face for the smell.

“Oh, damn,” I said. “Oh, fuck.”

Anton’s eyes were watering. “She does know about it,” he said. “Marina. She, ah, she fucking loves it, Hume.” His smile was shaky, not convincing how it usually is. “But we don’t tell her about this. Alright?”

“Alright,” I said.

“Still want to dock her tonight,” Anton muttered, but his eyes were sort of cloudy as the brute crawled back to him, up his leg and then his waist and then clamped in again.

§

We didn’t talk about the cat, so I forgot about the cat. Business went on. We got some beeps from deep floodland, down past Old Vancouver towards Sunk Seattle, and took the boat out for a few days. Some of the border buoys tried stopping us on our way down, but they haven’t been repaired in about a decade so they can’t do much but moan and sputter.

Anyway, we ended up dragging a good five yards of ferrite cable up from a derelict fabricator. Anton dove without his wetsuit. It was eerie. The brute stretched thin over his pale body like a second skin, and when he swam he thrashed like a fish, body oscillating through the cold water at unholy speeds. It was eerie and it was beautiful, and when Anton came up dripping, naked, to sit in front of the heater, I couldn’t laugh at his jokes.

Later, as we were looping the cable, a band snapped and the length suddenly whipped around like a punctured balloon, hard and blinding fast enough to crack bones. Even Anton couldn’t duck it, and from my spot treading water I saw it lash right into him, enough force to carve him open. When I scrambled my slippery way up on board, he was lying winded on his back. The brute was hard and raw and shiny around his stomach, with just the slightest gouge where the cable had struck.

“Invulnerable,” Anton said, when he could speak.

“Fucking chancy,” I said. “Should have waited for me to help with it. Fuck.” He just shrugged at that, and he was moodier after the cable. Sometimes looked at me like I wasn’t supposed to be there.

But the ferrite sold, and so did the dissected fabricator, so we celebrated by going out with Marina to eat clams, real ones, not vat–grown, and to drink Antarctican wines. Anton was still seeing her, which was, you know, as it was. When she met us at the supshop she had on one of those nanofab dresses, the kind that gets more transparent as the night goes on, and so we were trying to hack it with just an airpen and our skypers to dial it all the way clear, but it was a smart dress and was having none of it. Marina was laughing and Anton was laughing, though sounding different from usual, and I was laughing, too.

When we all stumbled out three bottles tipsier, Anton stumbled into a fisher with little glowies woven through his beard like fishing lures. The fisher shoved him backward. I knew what would go on next, because I’d seen it often enough. Anton would joke, and the man would crack a smile, and in a matter of minutes they would be chummed. Anton was like that when he drank.

Then Anton put the fisher on the fucking ground. He moved so quick I had to blink as he caged down on the man, hands around a fleshy neck. The man sputtered and choked and wailed, and Marina told Anton to let go right fucking now, and Anton said nothing, just pushed his fingers into the cartilage like he was going to collapse the man’s fucking windpipe, and the whole while something was undulating under Anton’s coat, thickening down his arms.

I hauled him off before he killed him, but I think it was close. Marina swore and shook, Anton shrugged, I smoked. The emerg–serv came and some medroids slid the semi–conscious fisher into a little pod, charging it to the account of Anton and Hume Scavenging, and at this point the evening was definitely murdered. Marina left with her dress just barely wispy.

“Hume,” Anton said to me on the walk back. “I couldn’t control it.”

“How do you mean?” I asked, and all I could think about was how Anton had thrown the big man down like he weighed nothing, how fast and how starkly strong he’d been.

“Wasn’t me doing that,” Anton said, biting the inside of his cheek how he does when a salvage may or may not come through.

“Developed for paramilitaries,” I said. “So it makes sense. Combat reflex, wasn’t it?”

“No,” Anton said. “Wasn’t a reflex, Hume. I wanted to rip the man’s fucking throat out. In fact.” He looked straight at me. “I’d already decided to. Already decided how it would feel and everything.”

“Don’t exaggerate shit,” I told him, feeling static up the nape of my neck, right where the brute would be sitting.

“Hume,” he said, stopping. “I’ve got to get it off. Help me.”

§

There was a canister of liquid nitro from God–knows–when in the back of the workshop, the kind doctors use for cryosurgery, and there were plenty of scoring blades to pick from. Anton cleared a counter, sweeping autotools and scraps and batteries to the floor, all crashing, clattering, and then stretched himself out on the bare surface.

“You’re sure you want to do this?” I asked him. The red–and–silver machine–flesh pulsed gently on his back, wrapping his torso, gripping his neck. It glistened wet in the lamplight.

“Damn sure,” Anton said. “It doesn’t detach anymore. Not for weeks.”

“You never wanted it to,” I said, which was the truth. He told me drunk one night how it made him fuck like a god, how Marina had begged, and I told him I didn’t want to hear it even though a part of me did. That same night he lifted the boat chassis, the brute swatched around his arms and back like a man turned inside–out.

“Cut it off me,” Anton said into his folded arms.

I lugged the nitro canister over to wait on standby, then I slipped a few knives between the slits of the heater. Anton whistled tunelessly. It was to distract himself, I guess, but also I had the odd thought that it was to distract the thing on his back, to lull it. When one of the knives was glowing orange–hot, I pulled it out.

The brute shifted, almost as if it was looking at me, and gave a little shiver. I had a nearly guilty feeling as I descended the knife, but before it could contact the brute squirmed away, leaving a small hole of Anton’s pale skin. The pocked sucker–scars were wyrdly pretty.

“The nitro,” Anton said, and I realized he’d expected this, or else tried it before, even. I opened the nozzle and misted it over his back. Some must have touched him, because he bucked against the counter and hissed through his teeth, but most of it frosted onto the brute. A sluggish ripple went through it, then stopped. I started to cut.

Anton’s ice–veined, he really is, but he screamed like a banshee every knife–stroke. I severed the tendrils where I could, pulling them up and away with gloved fingers, usually with small bits of skin attached. The brute twitched, so I went faster. I cut and I cut, and from the way the thing writhed I knew it was feeling everything as much as Anton did. Or else the reverse, I guess.

“Nearly done,” I said. “Almost over.”

“Man,” Anton sobbed. “Oh, man, fuck.” The brute writhed as it peeled away, still sluggish, still slow, and the tendrils reached out at me like tiny fingers. Pleading, maybe. When it finally came free I dumped it into the incubator, the one we’d dredged up all those eons back.

Just like that, Anton was upright. There was sweat starching his hair and he looked suddenly small, suddenly skinny. “Tiber Street,” he said. “They’re filling the hole tonight.”

“With cement,” I said. “Yeah.”

“Get it onto the sled,” Anton said. “We’re going to bury the fucking thing. Deep, deep.” That made me drop the knife, just a micrometer off my big toe. I could tell by the way he was staring, eyes dark, that he meant it.

“Don’t joke me,” I said anyways. “We’ve never found anything this big. When we get a buyer, we’ll be kings, remember?”

“Hume, did you not see what just happened?” Anton said, but he said it in the calm slow way, like speaking to an infant or a shit AI.

“I saw everything,” I said.

Anton stared down at the incubator. “Well, you don’t know what it’s like,” he said simply.

“No,” I said back. “I never do.”

Anton looked back to me, and he shrugged, sort of helplessly, then booted up the sled. Before it started to hum I could hear the slither–sound coming from inside the incubator. I tried to remember back, back to the first time we opened it, and I wondered why Anton had tried to touch it and not me. Then I helped him secure it onto the sled.

The streets were empty when we got outside. The night air was chilled, smelling like grease and floodwater and boat fumes. Me and Anton went quiet as shadows, the sled gliding along behind us, us not speaking, and I thought for a moment how maybe this was all about Marina, maybe because she knew the brute was getting bigger and she wanted it gone.

We heard the putter of construction equipment at work before we rounded the corner. As we did I saw the big automated dumper hunch down over the hole, corroded yellow joints rasp–rasp–rasping on each other. Gray quickset cement started to vomit in. Anton was walking more and more slowly as we approached.

“Forgot how dark things get,” he muttered. “How slow everything is.” He looked down at the incubator and scratched himself, hands reaching under his coat, around his back. Our toes curled at the very edge of the pit. The dumper must not have had much in the way of safety protocol, because it didn’t stop pouring.

“Alright,” Anton said. “Into the hole.”

I should have dumped the whole incubator, but I couldn’t. I had to see the thing one more time. The lid slid off and the brute rippled weakly inside, groping tiny tendrils. I thought how if there was one thing I did better than Anton, it was being alright with letting someone else run things now and again. The brute clung to my arm as I lifted it up, but it was still cold from the nitro, still limp.

The cement churned and gurgled, impenetrable–looking gray. I looked up at Anton, saw his eyes wide and feverish in the dark. I held my arm out over the pit and that’s when Anton suddenly lunged, I think to stop me, or maybe because he knew I wasn’t going to drop it on my own, and then the three of us were on the ground. Anton was clawing at my arm, my shoulder, the sky somersaulted as we rolled back away from the hole, the splashing cement. I hit back, right and then left and connected with both. His head snapped away; blood and spit smacked my scalp. The brute was on the move, up my arm, under my sleeve.

Anton’s wild eyes, Anton’s reaching fingers, and then it was my fingers, Anton’s throat. Bitter smell. He gouged at my face and his feet kicked. The brute was wrapping around my hands. Anton’s breath came scalding hot. He lashed out with a hand and I saw oilspills behind my eyes. His nails ripped down my cheek, made me lean harder, my elbow on him now. Push, and push, and —

Everything went still. The dumper had stopped, work complete, brain whirring silently to a satellite for the next task. The quickset had settled. Anton had marks the size of my thumbs imprinted purple under his jaw, no breath coming in or out. It felt like the hot cement had all poured into my stomach.

“Anton,” I said. “Anton. Anton.”

Anton said nothing. The brute stirred on my back.

“Anton. Anton.”

He didn’t twitch. The brute spread, sliding over my skin.

“Help me,” I whispered. The brute touched a raw filament to the back of my neck and I felt it sting, like a jellyfish.

§

The apartment door was still gene–coded, so I went up the side. The red suckers on my fingertips clung staticky to the glass surface, let me shuffle up nice and easy. I climbed to the barred window and looked in. Empty again.

“I need to stop coming back here,” I said, hoping this time it would stick. The weather had turned cold in the past week, but the brute was thicker than usual and it compensated with pulsing warm tendrils around my limbs. I pushed my face up against the glass. Scattered tools and equipment on the floor. A cylinder of what might have been liquid nitro. In the corner, the dull green shards of something vaguely familiar.

“Every act of creation,” I said, as if somebody had said it before, maybe whatever ghosty kept dragging me back here. The brute rumbled, and I could almost think it was in assent. I’d never talked to myself this much before. Good to imagine that the brute was listening.

The apartment was empty, so I dropped down to the sidewalk. The brute was heavy today. More muscle. I felt like God.

When I walked past the door, the scanner blinked at me, just once.


More from Rich Larson:

image002Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and Edmonton, Alberta, and at 22 now works in a small Spanish town outside Seville. He won the 2014 Dell Award and the 2012 Rannu Prize for Writers of Speculative Fiction. In 2011 his cyberpunk novel Devolution was a finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. His short work appears or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, DSF, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, AE, and many others, including anthologies Upgraded, Futuredaze, and War Stories. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.

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