A dark, fast-moving novelette about a high-tech heist in future Spain, planned by a professional thief interested in revenge more than money. The object in question is in the hands of a dangerous crime lord.
I want you to help me rip off Quini the Squid, I say, or at least that’s what I say in my head. It comes off my tongue as:
“Rebum lau kana’a chep fessum ninshi.”
Which would leave any linguist flabbergasted. But Nat understands exactly what I mean, judging from the disgusted look on her face. We’re speaking the same procedurally generated language, invented on the fly by blackmarket babelware in our implants.
“Yam switta b’lau bi,” she says, and the babelware feeds my language lobe an unequivocal Get fucked.
It’s for this reason I ordered her a steaming mountain of mussels in black pepper sauce. I know she won’t leave until she’s sucked every last quivering invertebrate from its shell into her small but agile mouth. Which gives me time to bring her around on the idea.
We’re in a wharfside resto on La Rambla, one of those polyplastic tents that springs up overnight like a mushroom and is almost fully automated, packed with sunburned tourists guzzling drone-delivered Heinekens and comparing their unhealthy Gaudí obsessions. It’s not the kind of place Quini’s thugs would hang around in, and if they did they would stick out like scowling, vantablack-clad sore thumbs.
But it pays to be paranoid in public in this day and age, what with the feds now legally able to hijack phones and implant mics. Ergo, the babelware. If I’m using ergo right.
“Dan tittacha djabu numna, numna ka’adai,” I say solemnly, which of course is Eat your seafood and let me explain.
“Yugga,” she says, which is actually a pretty good word for idiot.
I understand her reticence. Quini the Squid is everyone your mum ever told you not to get mixed up with mixed together, and also they used to bang. Nat and Quini, I mean. Not Quini and your mum—though he is in many ways a motherfucker.
He clawed his way out of some shithole town in Andalusia during the worst of the drought years, first pirating autotrucks transporting precious olive oil and later graduating to human traffic. God knows how he got Catalonia to let him in, but once they did he stretched his tentacle into pretty much everything: weapons, drugs, viruses, the lot.
Of course, me and Nat are transplants too. Catalonia’s secession triggered an economic boom that brought in all sorts of wealthy investors, and where wealthy investors go, thieves and scammers follow. Nat came all the way from a ghetto in Ljubljana. Her original hustle was small time but well polished: She picked up rich shitheads in classy bars with her Eastern Euro smolder and bone structure, got them somewhere private, then kissed them paralyzed before robbing them blind.
She showed me the biomod once, this tiny little needle under her tongue that delivers a muscle-melting dose of concentrated ketamine. I try to spot it as she slurps a mussel. She says the needle can also be loaded with party drugs just for fun, but I’d never trust her enough to risk it.
You hate him as much as I do, I say, and it turns into a series of clashing consonants in my mouth as our language evolves again.
Nat is stacking empty shells with blistering efficiency, but she pauses long enough to wipe her mouth with a napkin and give a clicking answer that becomes I hate salt water. Doesn’t mean I pick fights with the tide.
You’re really comparing him to the fucking ocean? I demand. He’s a puddle. At best a small pond.
“Shepakwat,” she says: He’s dangerous.
“Bu iztapti bu,” I say: No shit.
I stand to carefully peel my shirt up to my ribs, which draws a few stares. The violet bruises go from below my hips all the way up my side. Nat can’t quite disguise her wince, and I almost feel bad for darkening up the injuries with makeup. They were healing too fast for the effect I needed.
I heard about that, she says in two low syllables. The job in Murcia, right?
I sit back down. My jaw is starting to ache from making unfamiliar sounds. Yeah, I say. I was doing the hackwork for a break-and-enter. Owned all the cameras, all the doors. Then one of Quini’s clowns forgot to turn on his fucking faraday gear, and when he got pinged Quini put it on me. Did this right in front of everyone. Called me a maricona. Took my pay. I add the last one so she won’t know how bad the second-last one bothered me.
As soon as the bruises are out of sight, Nat attacks the mussels again. So this a revenge thing, she says, but pensive now, licking her fingers.
If that makes it more appealing to you, then sure. I want the money he owes me. I wrap my black scarf tighter around my neck. And some humiliation on the side would be a bonus.
Her ears go red, but also perk up. She and Quini didn’t split amicably. Humiliation is a soft word for what he did. You eating? she asks, and I know my foot’s in the door. You look skinny. Or something.
She can pretend zen, but I know she needs the money and wants the payback. And even though we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, I know she hates seeing me hurt.
Mine’s coming, I say. Now here’s the deal.
I lay it all out for her, all the blocks I’ve been stacking and rearranging in my head for the past three days, ever since I got wind of Quini’s little storage problem. Like I said before, he’s a well-rounded businessman: narcotics, guns, malware. Usually none of the product stays in Barcelona long, and while it’s here it’s circulating in a fleet of innocuous cars driving randomized routes.
But he recently got his suckers on something very rare, something he hasn’t been able to move yet, and it’s so valuable he’s keeping it in his own home. He even felt the need to get himself a new security chief to keep tabs on it. Which might have been a good idea, except his old security chief was awfully unhappy about her loss of employment.
I helped her get shit-faced last night at a wine bar and when the Dozr kicked in I dragged her to the bathroom and cracked into her cranial implant. She had some decently feisty defenseware, but I got what I needed—specs and layouts for the house, patrol maps, intrusion countermeasures—then wiped a few hours of data from her aurals and optics to cover my tracks. I also got confirmation on what exactly Quini was storing.
You heard what it is? I ask Nat. What he’s got in the safe room?
She picks over the last of the mussels. I know the rumor. People are saying it’s a Klobučar.
I’m not much for gene art, not much for sophisticated shit in general, but even I know Klobučar, the Croatian genius who struck the scene like a meteor and produced a brief torrent of masterpieces before carving out her brain with a mining laser on a live feed.
Anything with a verified Klobučar gene signature is worth a fortune, especially since she entwined all her works with a killswitch parasite to prevent them being sequenced and copied. But Quini is the furthest thing from an art fence, which makes the acquisition a bit of a mystery and explains him seeming slightly panicked about the whole thing.
Damn right it’s a Klobučar, I tell her. And we’re stealing it.
That’s not my area of expertise, Nat says. Like, not even close.
It’s mine, I agree. But you know Quini. You know his habits. And because you’re a clever one, I think you must have some of his helix bottled up somewhere.
She gives a low laugh in her throat. You think I keep a DNA catalog of everyone I fuck?
Probably only the ones that might be valuable later, I say. “Bazza?”
“Gazza,” she admits.
The safe room is coded to Quini himself, nobody else, I say. I can spoof the signature from his implants, but for fooling the bioscanner we need to get creative.
Nat takes a small sip of water and swishes it around her mouth. You know what he’ll do if he catches us, she says.
I know, I say. I’m not a yugga.
She frowns—maybe the babelware can’t handle that kind of callback. So long as you know, she mutters. I’m in.
Under the table, I pump my fist. Then I finally ping the kitchen, which has been faithfully keeping my order warm, and the squid paella arrives in all its steamy glory, dismembered tentacles arranged in a beautiful reddish-orange wheel.
Then Quini is cooked, I say, raising my Estrella cider. Here’s to payback.
Nat raises her water glass but also her eyebrow. You don’t even like seafood, she says. You only ordered that to be dramatic. Didn’t you.
I shrug; we clink drinks. Nat eyes the dish for a second. Sniffs the spices wafting off it. She does her own shrug, then pulls the plate across to her side of the table as the little server purrs off with her mountain of empty mussel shells.
So, she says. You going to explain this new look you have going on?
No, I say, self-consciously adjusting my scarf again.
Okay. She spears the first piece of squid and stuffs it into her mouth. Her eyes flutter shut in momentary ecstasy. You always did find good places to eat, she says, reopening her eyes. Now. How soon do you need the helix?
“Andidana,” I tell her: Yesterday.
There’s a tight clock on this one.
Two bottles of cider later, I wobble out into the sunshine feeling pretty good about the whole thing. Even with the tourist quota imposed, La Rambla is fucking chaos, an elbow-to-elbow crush of holidayers sprinkled with resigned locals and eager scammers. I pick out the hustles as I walk:
The apologetic woman helping clean some kind of muck off a man’s trousers while she slides the gleaming bracelet off his wrist.
The smiling couple peddling genies, those little blue-furred splices that come in a cheap incubator pod and die a few days later.
The elderly lady groaning from the mossy pavement where a rented electricycle supposedly sent her sprawling.
One gent’s got something I’ve never seen before, a tiny prehensile limb that flexes out from under his jacket like a monkey tail and slips into every open handbag he passes.
It’s beautiful, really, this whole little ecosystem where the apex predator is a blue-black Mossos police drone that swoops in and sends everyone scattering.
Since I’m in the neighborhood I do a bit of window shopping, sliding past a storefront to see some new prints in from Mombasa. The mannequins track my eyes and start posing—I hate that. As soon as I get off La Rambla onto Passeig de Colom, I’m all business again. Nat is essential, and talented, but she’s not the only helping hand I’ll need for this job. It’s that final bioscanner that makes things so tricky.
Having Quini’s helix is only half the battle: We also need a body, and neither mine nor Nat’s fits the bill, in large part because we’ve got implants that are definitely not Quini’s. Masking or turning off tech built right into the nervous system is actually a lot harder than simply hiring what our German friends call a Fleischgeist.
It’s not as snappy in English: meat ghost. But it gives you the idea—someone with no implants. None. No hand chip, no cranial, no optics or aurals. Nothing with an electronic signature. In our day and age, they might as well be invisible. Ergo, the ghost part.
There are basically two ways to find yourself a Fleischgeist in Barcelona. You can go to an eco-convent slash Luddite commune, which doesn’t really lend itself to the skills I need, or you can go to Poble del Vaixell, which is where I’m going now, sticking to the long shadow of the Mirador.
The tower’s old gray stone is now skinned in the same green carbon-sink moss as everywhere else; the top has been taken over by a whole flock of squawking white seagulls. Beyond it, the Mediterranean is the bright rippled blue of travel holos. I order a rotorboat and it’s waiting for me when I get to the docks, jostling for space with an old man fishing plastic out of the water. The salt-crusted screen blinks me a smiley face.
“Bon dia,” the rotorboat burbles. “On anem avui?”
“Just take me out to the buoys,” I say, because technically Poble del Vaixell doesn’t exist.
The smiley face on the screen winks as if it knows. Then I climb in and we push off hard at the perfect angle to drench the fisherman with our spray. He sputters. I give him the apologetic hand shrug as we sling out into the harbor.
The waves are a bit choppy today but the rotorboat is up to it, dicing precisely through the traffic of yachts and sails and autobarges. We peel away from the coastline and head straight out to sea. The salt wind blows my hair all around, which I hate, and even with the gyroscopes I manage to slam my tailbone against the boat bench hard enough to smart. Fortunately it’s not a long ride out to the border buoys, a long line of gray columns blinking authoritative yellow hazard lights.
And just beyond them, Poble del Vaixell, a massive floating labyrinth that sometimes looks bigger than Barcelona itself. It actually is a little snappier in English: Shiptown. Originally composed of all the south-up migrants who couldn’t get through Catalonia’s vetting system, in the past decade it’s become a force unto itself. Plastic fishing, plankton farming, solar storage, you name it.
For a lot of people it’s the final jumping off point to Europe, but for a lot more people it’s home. I’ve done a couple month-long stints here myself when I needed to lie low. The rotorboat nuzzles up as close as it can to the border. I cover my face on muscle memory, even though the buoy cams were hit with a virus barrage last year and still haven’t recovered, then take a flying leap onto the polyplastic pier.
It judges my athleticism in mid-air and shoots out to meet me; I still nearly eat shit when my boots hit the algae-slimed surface. But I’m over the border, in Shiptown proper, and the rotorboat burbles goodbye before it skids away on a blade of foam. I wave, compose myself, and head for the downtown.
Shiptown’s original skeleton was a flotilla of migrant boats, some huge, most tiny, lashed or welded together in solidarity against the 3-D printed seawalls and aggressive border drones preventing them from reaching the coast. Since then it’s sprawled outward in all directions, an enormous maze that seems to grow by the hour, its web of walkways crammed with pedestrians and cyclists.
I go right through the market, where there are tarps heaped with dried beans and grasshoppers beside tarps with secondhand implants, some so fresh you can practically see the spinal fluid dripping off them. You can get by with a few different currencies in the market, but barter is still the go-to. I traded a designer jacket I didn’t want anymore for my Fleischgeist’s contact information.
His name is Yinka, and he’s waiting in a bar called Perrito that used to be a fishing boat called Perrito—the bit of the hull that had the name painted on is now welded to struts over the door. The interior smells like fish guts when I walk in and the biolamp lighting shows a few pinkish stains on the floor.
“Bones, com va?” I try.
Perrito’s bartender glances at me from behind a repurposed slice of nanocarbon barricade, then goes back to rearranging her bottles of mezcal and rotgut vodka. She doesn’t pull out a scattergun or anything, though, so I head toward the back. The only Nigerian in the place is posted up in the corner with an untouched glass of what looks like bog water but is probably bacteria beer.
I measure him as I sit down. Retro white buds in his ears are blaring some kuduro hit and he’s wearing a sleeveless windbreaker with a shifting green-black pattern meant to fool basic facial recognition ware. He’s even younger than I expected. Small, which is typical for a break-in artist, with wiry arms and chalky elbows resting on the table. Fashionably half-buzzed head, blank and angular face, hooded eyes fixed on the fresh-printed slab of a phone in his hands. Which I guess isn’t an affectation, since he’s got no implants.
He doesn’t look up, but his thumb twitches on the phone and the music volume drops slightly. “Yes.”
“You do good work,” I say, which is a bit of an exaggeration—he does work. “A few real slick jobs in Lagos. That one in Dakar. You ready to try something a bit harder?”
“I’m ready to hear about the money, man,” Yinka says. “We’re pinching art? My auntie did that once. Fence took everything but the crumbs.”
“We’ll be getting some very big crumbs,” I say. “Klobučar-sized crumbs.”
I put my hand out; he grunts and slides the fresh phone across. I tap it with one finger and my implant sends the rest of the job info, the stuff I didn’t want floating through Barcelona air, including the estimated value of Klobučar’s currently verified works.
He peers at the screen, then blinks. His eyes bulge for a split second. “Oh. Yeah. I’m in, then.”
“Good,” I say. “How are you with virtual?”
“Depends how much virtual. I get a little sick.”
“I already got pods rented here in Shiptown,” I say. “We’re cramming about a week of prep into eighteen hours.”
Yinka cocks his head to one side, still not looking up. “Eighteen hours straight, we’re all gonna be podsick. For guaran.”
I don’t get podsick myself, but I know how to counter it. “I’ve got the pharma to balance you out,” I say. “There’s no other way. We hit the safe room tomorrow night.”
He finally meets my eyes, and for a second I see the nervous kid hidden under the I’m a cold pro act, out here in a foreign country trying to hustle and not sure what he’s getting into. Reminds me of me, but I had a better game face even back then.
“Okay, man,” he says, gaze back to the phone screen. “But if I don’t like the feeling, I don’t go.”
His thumb slides the volume back up and I let the tinny clash of kuduro play me out.
Shiptown’s best quality virtual is in Xavi’s sex house, so that’s where three clean pods are waiting for us. It’s a lurid little place, scab-red carpeting and black-and-white pornography stills coating every inch of the walls, with a lingering scent of bodily fluids that the air freshener can’t quite mask.
I go in to check the pods—Yinka’s is modified with the old-school electrodes—and shake hands with Xavi, who owes me one for getting a bug out of his biofeedback interface and doesn’t know I put it in there in the first place. Then I come back out to share a vape with my just-arrived Fleischgeist while we wait for Nat to show up.
“Never been to Lagos,” I say. “There’s a lagoon, yeah? Must be nice.”
Yinka grudgingly turns his volume down, I imagine only because I’m smoking him up. “Hazy, man. Dirty.” He puffs out a blue-tinged cloud. “Shanties all around.”
“That where you came up?” I ask.
He passes the vape back. “Nah nah. I was born in a hospital.” He pauses, looking over my head. “My ma could afford the imps. She just didn’t want me to have them.”
He shrugs his bony shoulders. “She was in a death cult.”
Nat arrives fashionably late, just as the sun’s turning smelter orange and I’m turning antsy. She comes striding up the walkway with her immaculate black coat slicing open on long stockinged legs, and I can see Yinka get lovestruck in realtime, which is a perk of working with Nat and might be useful later.
“The bioprinter wanted to haggle,” she says, raking a strand of hair off her face. “Doesn’t usually run the thing overnight. We’ll be good for the pickup time, though.”
“Good,” I say. “Nat, Yinka. Yinka, Nat.”
“Pleasure,” says Nat. She looks him up and down. “Nice jacket.”
Yinka’s eyes don’t make it to hers, but they stick briefly on her bee-stung lips before they flit away. “Thanks. New.”
“You two are going to really hit it off,” I say. “Let’s get started.”
I usher them into the back, where the pods are levered open and Xavi’s setting up our extra hydration packs. Eighteen hours is a long go, and for all he knows we’re doing a marathon ménage à trois with the biofeedback on. I go over to my pod and poke my finger into the conduction gel.
“It’s clean,” Xavi says, sounding wounded. “I drained and refilled.”
My finger implant runs a little scan and agrees with him—no nasty bacterial surprises. We get Yinka set up first, helping him into the sensor suit that will compensate for his lack of implants and hooking it into a glinting spiderweb of electrodes. He lies back in the pod, head bobbing slightly in the gel, and shuts his eyes. Xavi shuts the lid.
Nat takes the pod beside mine, strips down, and climbs in. She’s run enough sex scams in virtual that the whole thing is automatic. I’m worried about Yinka getting podsick, not her. “You tell him?” she asks. “About fooling the bioscanner?”
“Broad strokes,” I say.
“Okay,” she says, and closes the lid herself.
That leaves me and Xavi, and I tell him to go watch the front. I wait until I hear him settle into his orthochair before I strip. Even then I keep an eye on the other pods, as if Yinka or Nat might pop up and start gaping at me. There’s a reason I only pulled my shirt up to my ribs in the restaurant, no higher. I don’t care about showing off the bruises Quini left me, but I’m a bit self-conscious about the work the hormone implant’s done in the past few months. Nat doesn’t know, and now’s not the time.
I fold my clothes and stick them on the flimsy plastic shelf, then climb inside my pod. As soon as the conduction gel hits my bare skin, my implants start to sing.
Quini’s villa on the edge of the city is, of course, a tasteless monstrosity. Basically he fed Park Güell and the Sagrada Família into an architectural AI and it spat out a cheap Gaudí imitation overrun with geometric lizards and fluted-bone buttresses. I’m floating in the sky above it with Nat on one side of me and a slightly blurry Yinka on the other.
“You ever ask about his decorating?” I mutter.
“He’s still trying to prove to himself he’s in Catalonia,” Nat says. “Still scared to wake up dirt poor back in the pueblo. But no. I didn’t ask.”
“Fortunately he worked a little Andalusia in there too,” I say, and pivot the view so we’re in the copse of twisted olive trees that shades the back half of the villa. “That’s our cover. We’re coming in cross-country.”
Yinka looks around. The motion of his head leaves pixelated traces in the air. “They got dogs?”
“One dog,” I say, and pull up the schematics I took from Quini’s sacked security chief. The dog materializes with us in the woods, right in front of Nat, who flinches a little. I don’t blame her. It’s a vicious-looking thing, all angles, long whippet legs and a sensor bulb head with a disc of glinting teeth underneath.
“That’s a power saw,” Yinka says. “He rigged a power saw to its head?”
“He likes things messy,” I say, glancing over at Nat. “But in this case, it’s a good thing. We’ll hear it coming. And I’m writing a backdoor into its friend/foe mapper. Once we’re past the dog . . .”
I glide us forward, out of the olive trees, toward the soft blue glow of the swimming pool. Tendrils of steam waft off it, frozen midair. The surrounding white tiles are etched with, I shit you not, lizards. There’s a walkway and glass door leading into the villa itself, and from there it’s only a short trip down a hallway to Quini’s bedroom.
Its main feature is probably the bed itself, a massive black slab floating in the air above a magnet pad. Other contenders include the sparring dummy strutting back and forth by the mirrors and mats, the holo on the ceiling of naked faceless bodies writhing together, and the oversized print of Quini’s own scowling face on the wall.
“That’s you,” I say, pointing it out to Yinka. “Or it will be. Here, have a better look.”
Quini appears in the room with us, cobbled together from all the free-floating footage I could grab of him from the past two years plus the few unfortunate interactions I’ve had with him in person. Nat looks the composite up and down, frowning a little at his sinewy folded arms, but she doesn’t say anything so it must be accurate enough for her.
Me and Yinka walk a circle around him. He’s not big, Quini, but even in virtual he radiates a kind of ferocity, like a cat with its hackles up. His eyes are pouchy and bloodshot and his buzzed hair is bleached reddish-orange. His sun-browned skin is feathered with white scar tissue here and there, but no tattoos. Quini hates needles.
“We have the schema for the bioscanner,” I say. “It’s looking at height and weight first. We’re going to bulk you out a bit, add a couple centimeters to your shoes. It’s got some limited gait recognition, so you’ll have to get the hang of walking like him, too.”
I wave my hand and Quini slouches forward, toward the sparring dummy. Yinka watches intently.
“Nat has generously donated some of his genetic material,” I continue. “Which the printer is hard at work turning into a palmprint glove and a facemask. It won’t be a perfect match, but these things never get a perfect match. It’ll be enough so long as I’m spoofing his implant signal at the same time.”
Quini turns and starts walking back, loping steps, one arm a little stiff. I hope Yinka’s a good mimic.
“Safe room is through here,” Nat says, and I get the impression she doesn’t like hanging around with even the virtual version of her abusive ex. We follow her past the bathroom to a blank stone wall. The only sign of the bioscanner is a tiny blue light, blinking at eye level. Yinka goes up on tiptoes for a second to meet it. His hand pats at his pocket.
“And we don’t know what it is,” he says. “Just that it’s Klobučar.”
“We know it’s small enough to be transported in an incubator pod this size,” I say, holding up a clenched fist. “We know Quini didn’t even take it out of said incubator pod. So we don’t have to worry about dragging some kind of, I don’t know, giraffe-orca hybrid back to the car. You go in, you grab it, we leave the way we came. Five minutes in the safe room, tops. Twenty in the house, tops.”
“Quini’s where?” Yinka’s hand pats his pocket again, and I realize he’s feeling on muscle memory for his antique phone, which did not come to virtual with us. “While we’re doing all this shit. Where is he?”
I understand the question. I understand that even looking at Quini, you know he’s not someone you want home during a home invasion.
“It’s a Saturday night,” I say. “He’s busy at Flux. Nat will keep an eye on him while she sets up the spoof. So all we got for occupants is a skeleton security screw—four people, I got their files—and a cleaner.”
Yinka gives a slow nod.
“We’ll be good,” I say, trying to reassure both him and myself. “It’s time to start rehearsing.”
Seventeen hours later and we’re as ready as we can be. If you’ve ever done deep virtual, you know how time gets twisted. The longer you’re in the pod, the harder it is to tell if you’ve been in there for a week or ten minutes or your whole fucking life. Which is why I was a little worried for Yinka, but he seems to be holding up fine.
He’s even smiling; Nat’s telling him a Ljubljana story, some naked businessman chasing her through the snowy street behind his hotel. She’s always been good at making shitty things sound funny, and I also feel like virtual helps you bond. When everything around you is artificial, you have to lean a little harder on the real people.
I didn’t hear anything more about Yinka’s childhood, but he did confess he’s working on a few of his own kuduro tracks. That was sometime between the tenth and eleventh run on the house. I did some prep work alone while Yinka practiced being Quini under Nat’s tutelage, but mostly we ran the whole thing together. First with the patrols on their planned routes, then with minor randomization, then with disaster scenarios.
Nat has a job all her own, planting the spoof at Flux, but she knows that place like the back of her hand.
“All right,” I say, cutting her story short at the high point. “That last one felt good. Let’s run it one final time, then get out of here.”
Nat stares at me and the grin drops off Yinka’s face.
“We’re out, man,” he says. “We been out. You were the one who woke us up.”
I take a closer look at my surroundings. We’re gliding still, but that’s because we’re in the back of a car heading up Avenida Diagonal through the synchronized swarm of black-and-yellow cabs retrieving and depositing revelers. Through the window I see dark sky splashed with holos. Nat and Yinka are across from me—Yinka’s not blurry at all—and the duffel bags are on the floor. We’ve already been to the bioprinter.
“We’re on our way to Flux,” Nat says; then, on a private channel our Fleischgeist can’t hear: Up your dose.
I look down and see the baggie of speed in my palm, the pharma Xavi slapped into our goodbye handshake. Reality warps and shivers around me. I don’t get podsick. I never get podsick.
“You good?” Yinka says, voice pitching up, nerves creeping in.
“I’m fucking with you,” I say. “Gallows humor, Yinka.”
We drop Nat a block from Flux, and while Yinka’s looking away I dry-swallow as many pills as I can fit in my idiot mouth. A sweaty, skin-humming minute passes before things brighten. Sharpen.
I never get podsick. It’s a bad omen and I can’t help but think it’s because of the hormone implant, the new chemical messengers in my body messing with my metabolism, with my brain.
Don’t fuck this up, Nat chats me, and strides around the corner without looking back.
The copse of olive trees behind Quini’s villa isn’t more than a square kilometer, but at night, with a gut full of speed battling a podsick cerebellum, it seems big as a fairy-tale forest, a dark, dense thicket eating us whole. I’m trying real hard to keep my shit together.
“We trip anything yet?” Yinka asks.
“No tripping,” I say.
The perimeter is sewn with sensors, but I own those already. As soon as we were in range I hit them with a maintenance shutdown, courtesy of some malware written by a ten-year-old in Laos who really knows her shit. That’s the thing about this line of work: There’s always some tiny genius coming up behind you doing it better.
But the backdoor for the dog, that I had to do myself. The AI is a custom job, modified from a military prototype I’m not getting anywhere near without some serious social engineering, so I’m lucky the security chief had a vested interest in its inner workings. It only took one night of sifting source code to find a vulnerability. But we have to be in range.
For a second I can’t remember if we’re on the fifth run or the sixth. Then I look at Yinka, clear, not-blurry Yinka, and get a cold needle jabbed into my spinal column. Real. This is real, and we’re coming up on the dog. I can see its bobbing signal in my implant, and I can hear the soft whine of the saw. I tighten my grip on my duffel bag. Look over at Yinka again. He mostly trusts me now, mostly because he has no other options.
“I’m starting,” I say, and sit down.
The dog spots our heat through the trees. It comes running, loping along, the serrated saw humming. I’m in my implant loading the code, line after line of custom script. All I need is the handshake. Which is funny, because it’s a dog. Sit. Shake. Don’t maul us.
Yinka catches sight of it as it ducks around a twisty trunk. I hear him suck in a breath.
“My connection is slower than I thought,” I say, and I nearly say, Let’s try it again, before I remember that we can’t. This is real, and the dog is breaking into a run. The saw is a spinning blur. I can picture it ripping into my face, spraying the olive trees with bright red blood. My heart is a fist pounding at my ribcage; in another second it’ll bust right through.
“Man, it’s coming right at us,” Yinka says. “Get up. Get up, it’s coming right at us.”
He’s right. The dog hurtles toward us and I dimly feel Yinka yanking under my arms, trying to haul me to my feet. Client and server collide. The code shuttles across.
“Shake, motherfucker,” I say.
The dog skids to a stop in front of us and wags its plastic tail. The whine of the saw makes my teeth ache in my jaw. It didn’t do that in virtual. We sit tight for a second until it trots away, then both of us breathe. The fairy-tale forest swells and contracts around me. I pop another pill, not caring if Yinka sees it.
“Well done, man,” he finally says, and gives me a hand up.
My legs are shaking when we come out of the woods. I’m still waiting for the speed to kick my head clear. Real, real, real. We can’t run this again, and that means I have to be perfect. We pad across the bone-dry tiles, past the steamy swimming pool, and Yinka stands watch while I crack the door into the villa. I’ve done it so many times it feels like a dream.
Not a dream. Real. I’m podsick, and I need to keep my shit together.
“After you,” I say, as the door slides open. I’m in the house cameras. Three of the four guards are in the kitchen with a vape, one is fucking the cleaner in the guest bathroom, both of them muffling their grunts with soft white towels clenched in their teeth. I run my tongue around my mouth, thinking how much I’d hate that. Lint and whatnot.
Yinka leads the way down the hall to Quini’s room, the way he’s done eight times at least. He’s a little jumpy. I want to tell him to relax. Tell him we could run down the hallway screaming. It’s only virtual.
Podsick. Podsick. Podsick. I have to chant it in my head. The speed should be balancing me out. Maybe Xavi gave me some real stepped-on shit. It’s working for Yinka, though, and I hope to God it’s working for Nat. Maybe my tolerance is too high.
The cleaner hasn’t made it to the bed yet; the sheets are a tangled mess hanging off one end. The sparring dummy sees us and starts shadowboxing, reminding me of the mannequins on La Rambla I hate so much. I flip it the finger as we walk past. The door to the safe room is still invisible, a thick stone plane, the scanner winking innocent blue at us.
I set my duffel down; Yinka drops his.
“Okay,” I say. “Time to check in with Nat.”
Nat is in the bathroom of Flux, and because she’s cutting me into her eyefeed there’s a blissy moment where I am her, where the reflection in the smart mirror is my reflection. The geometry of her dark hair hitting her perfect collarbone is so beautiful it hurts. She puts a pill between her puffy lips and washes it down with a slurp of water from the faucet.
We’re at the safe room, I chat her.
The rental timer on the stall behind her expires; the electronic bleating almost drowns out the sound of the occupant vomiting.
He’s on the upper level, she chats me. Can you reach?
She drops her defenseware, which we both know is a polite fiction—I installed that defenseware. Her body becomes an antenna, boosted by the graphene conduction pads she taped to her dress, and I can suddenly see every implant in the club. Quini’s are tagged a bright red, but I can’t touch them.
Bathroom must have a concrete ceiling, I chat her. Get out in the open.
The smart mirror makes a read on her body language and throws up a filter, unfurling blackened wings behind her shoulder blades, turning her into an avenging angel. It probably thinks she’s about to pull or punch someone. I put another five minutes on the stall for whoever’s puking.
Nat slices past the vending machine, where a couple girls are already printing up cheap flats for the stumble home, and plunges out into the club. This is her element in the way I’ve only ever pretended it’s my element: She moves through the crowd like a fluid, depositing precise air kisses and brief embraces where she has to, never getting caught in conversation.
In another world, I can hear Yinka moving beside me, putting on the bodysuit designed to give him Quini’s almost exact proportions.
Nat’s eyes scan the upper level and suddenly there’s Quini, wearing a specifically tailored spidersilk suit, arm wrapped through the railing. He’s got his chin to his chest, laughing at something that makes the people around him look vaguely uncomfortable. She ducks behind the steroid-pumped bulk of a bouncer to break line of sight. The signal flares strong.
Got it, I say, and I start the spoof, using Nat’s implants to mirror Quini’s and send the signal, by rented pirate satellite, all the way to the villa.
The bouncer moves, and for a second it feels like Quini is looking right at us, but then I realize his eyes are squeezed shut. There’s a glimmer of tears on his face, sickly green in the strobing lights. Nat slides away into the crowd.
Please don’t let him see you, I chat her.
No shit, she chats back. You tell Yinka yet?
“Man, they fucked up,” our Fleischgeist says, not in my head but in the air beside it. His whisper is hoarse. “The suit’s missing one sleeve.”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s the thing.”
I drop Nat’s eyefeed and come back to the safe room door. I should have told him back in the car, or back in virtual. But I couldn’t. Not after he said that thing about his ma being in a death cult, and then me hacking his phone and using a police timeline AI to figure out which cult it was, and then me finding out their main thing was dismemberment. Me finding out the sting caught his mom standing over him with a machete. Even ghosts have traces.
“What thing?” Yinka demands.
So instead I modified the virtual Quini, and I lied. It was a hell of a coincidence, and way too late to find another Fleischgeist.
“Quini’s nickname, ‘the Squid’?” I stroke my finger down my duffel’s enzyme zipper. It peels apart to reveal the refrigerated case and the surgical saw. “It’s one of those ironic nicknames.”
I show him an undoctored image of Quini, projecting it from my finger implant onto the stone wall. He stares at the wrinkled stump where Quini’s right arm used to be and sucks in air through his nostrils.
“He’s only got one tentacle total,” I say. “He had a bad time with some drug runners when he was a kid. Stole a pack of cigarettes from them, is the story. So they did that. Even after he made it out, even after he made money, he never got a new one grown. Never got a prosthetic.”
I can’t tell if Yinka’s listening. He’s looking down at the surgical saw with his mouth sealed tight. I wish Nat were here, to look at him through her lampblack lashes and make Yinka feel like the whole thing was his brave and beautiful idea.
“It’s temporary,” I say. “Five minutes in the safe room, remember? We take it off, put it on ice. You get in, get the Klobučar, get out. Twenty minutes, we’re back to the car—there’s an autosurgeon waiting in the back—and it gets reattached en route with zero nerve damage.”
Yinka looks me right in the eye and enunciates. “You fucking snake.”
I try to shrug, but it ends up more like a shudder. “Tight clock. You do it and we walk away rich as kings, or you dip and we did all this for nothing.”
Yinka looks away again. “How much time you set aside to convince me?”
He curses at me in Yoruba—my babelware only gets half of it—then grips his head in both hands. He stares up at the ceiling. “Nat. She knew too.”
“It’s temporary,” I say. “I’ll bump your take. Forty percent. How’s that?”
“How high you gonna go?” Yinka asks dully.
“You can have my whole fucking share,” I snap. “It’s not the money for me. It’s personal.”
Yinka stays staring at the ceiling, not blinking. “Your whole share,” he finally says. “And if the reattach goes bad, I’m going to kill you with one hand, man.”
“You’ll have to beat Quini to it,” I say. “But yeah. It’s a deal.”
I put out my hand to shake and he ignores it, which is, you know, understandable. Instead he lies down on the stone floor and lays his right arm out flat. His face is expressionless but his chest is working like a bellows, ribcage pumping up and down. He’s terrified.
“Try to relax,” I say to both of us, sticking anatabs up and down his arm.
Yinka’s nostrils flare. “I’m not saying another fucking word to you until my arm’s back on.”
The tabs turn bright blue against his dark skin as they activate, deadening his nerves. The limb goes slack from his shoulder down. I wrap the whole thing in bacterial film, to catch the blood spray, and mark my line above the elbow.
Now it’s time for the bit I practiced on my own, the private virtual Nat and Yinka were not invited to. I switch on the saw and the high-pitched whine makes me gooseflesh all over.
We do the amputation in silence, even though when I practiced it I practiced mumbling comforting things, explaining the procedure—bedside manner and shit. The saw is so shiny it hurts my eyes. Everything is too bright. Too sharp. If I take any more speed I’m going to OD.
But my hands are still steady, and I know this is real. Virtual doesn’t get smells quite right, and right now I can smell the sour stink of fear coming off Yinka’s body, contaminated sweat leaking out from his armpits. When the saw bites into his flesh another smell joins it: hot, greasy copper.
The film does its job and seals the wound on both ends. Not a drop spilled, but my stomach lurches a bit when I transfer the severed arm—Yinka’s arm—to the refrigerated case. He’s already getting up, bracing carefully with his left arm, levering onto his knees and then onto his feet.
He stands stock-still while I slip the bioprinter’s mask over his face. It’s alive the way a skin graft is alive, warm to the touch, and the lattice of cartilage underneath approximates Quini’s bone structure. It would never work on its own, but there’s also the glove, more live tissue coated in Quini’s DNA and also etched with the exact ridges and whorls of his palm and fingerprints.
And now Yinka’s got the right proportions, too.
“Just how we practiced,” I say. “I’m sending it the open-up.”
I back away, dragging both duffel bags out of the sensor’s sight, leaving Yinka standing eye level with the blinking blue light. Nat’s signal is still coming strong from Flux, meaning Quini’s signal is also coming strong, and now all I have to do is bounce it to the safe room sensor with a simple entry command.
Yinka’s swaying on his feet. I did my research. I know field amputations can send people into shock, knock them out entirely. But I made sure there was minimal blood loss, and I stuck his nerve-dead stump with a cocktail of stimulants and painkillers. He should be feeling weirdly good, and alert enough to remember procedure.
We can’t run it again. The realization jolts me for the hundredth time.
The stone wall slides apart, offering up a palmprint pad. Yinka leans forward, slightly off-balance, and slaps his remaining hand against it. I watch the bioscanner deliberate in real time. The wall becomes a door, swinging inward. Yinka hunches against the bright light for a moment, then heads inside with Quini’s exact swaggering stride.
Five minutes is a fucking eternity during a break-and-enter. I start checking the cameras again. The three overpaid security guards are still in the kitchen, learning to blow smoke rings from some net tutorial. The pair in the bathroom are still fucking, still clutching at each other and at the towels.
I get a tingling at the nape of my neck, and it only gets worse when Nat chats me: Quini’s leaving.
I go back to the kitchen camera and check the timestamps. Masked. I peel them out the hard way, and the tingling at the nape of my neck becomes jagged ice.
Nat, we’re burnt, I chat her. Get the fuck out of there. We’re burnt.
I’m opening my mouth to tell Yinka the same thing when the barrel of a scattergun shows up in my peripheral vision.
“Hush,” says a man’s soft voice. “Let the Fleischgeist finish his job.”
I shut my mouth. The man pulls something out of the folds of his jacket, and suddenly my head is stuffed with steel wool. I lose contact with my cranial implant, with Nat, with everything else. I feel the faraday clamp attach itself to the back of my skull, digging its tiny feet in. I’m blinded. But I was blinded before too. I was watching a fucking loop on the house cameras.
“So you don’t make any more mischief,” the man says. “My name is Anton. I’m Señor Caballo’s new security consultant. I believe you met my predecessor in the bathroom of a shitty wine bar.” He rests the scattergun on my shoulder.
“You had a trail on her?” I choke.
“Yeah. Been waiting for you ever since. Pawns move first.” He exhales. “Tonight’s been very educational. We’re going to make some major improvements here.”
Yinka emerges from the safe room with a tiny incubator pod cradled in his hand. He stops short.
“Sorry,” I say.
He says nothing back, which is understandable. Anton holds out his hand for the incubator. Yinka gives it up. Anton motions with the scattergun. We start walking back down the hallway, through Quini’s room where the sparring dummy clasps its hands over its head, victorious. All I can think about is my conversation with Nat in the restaurant, about seafood and salt water and how I am a yugga, yugga, yugga.
I know this is real, because now I can smell my own sweat. I smell terrified.
The drugs are wearing off and Yinka’s face, no longer hidden under the Quini mask, is contorted in pain. We’re outside by the steaming pool with Anton and two more armed guards. Anton has his pants rolled up and his feet in the water, swirling them clockwise, counterclockwise. I can see his leg hairs rippling.
“He needs medical attention,” I say. “Come on. He’s a fucking kid.”
“You cut his arm off,” Anton says. “He’s a fucking kid.” But he tips his head back, blinks, and I can tell he’s looking at something in his implant. “Reattachment should be viable for another five hours. Since it’s on ice.”
Yinka sinks slowly to his haunches. Neither of the guards try to make him stand back up.
“I fucked up,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Quini arrives just as dawn is streaking the sky with filaments of red. His eyes are bloodshot and his grin is amphetamine-tight and he’s not wearing any shoes with his tailored suit. His arm is slung around Nat’s shoulders. I try to make eye contact with her, but she’s not making eye contact with anything.
“Afterparty at my place, and nobody fucking tells me,” Quini says. “Not even Natalia, mi gitanita favorita. Who tells me everything.” He kisses her cheek; her lips flex just a bit in return. I want to tell her we can get out of this, somehow, somehow, but my implant is locked up and seeing Quini does the same thing to my mouth.
He leaves Nat to go over to Anton, who reaches into his jacket for the incubator pod. Quini takes it—he doesn’t look happy to see it, more disgusted—and puts it in his pocket. Then he comes to me.
“And here’s my favorite hackman,” he says. “How are you?” He throws his arm around me and I can’t help but flinch. The last thing my body remembers about him is him beating the shit out of me. This time he’s exuding a cloud of sweat, cologne, black rum. He makes a rumbling noise in his throat and gives an extra squeeze before he steps back, cupping my face in his hand, beaming at me.
“My three favorite people all in one place,” he says. “Me makes three. Him, I don’t know.” He looks over at Yinka, who’s still crouched, clutching his stump. “Who are you, negrito?” He rubs his thumb on my cheek and his eyes flutter shut for a second. “Your skin is so fucking soft, hackman. You moisturize that shit.”
Then he goes to Yinka, who isn’t wearing the mask but is still wearing the suit, and squats down across from him. He puffs out half a laugh.
“I get it. You’re me.” He champs his teeth together—twice, three times—dentin clacking. “You’re me! You’re Quini. That’s how you got into the safe room.” He points at the stump. “He really did you like that, huh? He really took your fucking arm off?” He tips back his head. “Ha! My four favorite people. Me twice.”
Yinka doesn’t react. Still in shock. Better that way, with Quini. I’m cycling through the disaster scenarios we ran, but with the faraday clamp freezing my implant it’s only memory and it’s jumpy, erratic. Fear keeps bullying in.
“You want to know the real story? How I really lost it? You’re me, so I can tell you.” Quini sits down cross-legged on the tiles. He rubs his hand along the pattern. “I was just small. Just a little cabroncito. I grew up during the droughts. You’re African. You know. Getting food was tough.”
I don’t want to hear this story. I know it’s dangerous to be hearing this story. I can tell from the look on Nat’s face.
“My family used to work the aceituna. The olive trees. Always had Africans up to work, too. You from Senegal? They were mostly from Senegal. But one year the trees stopped producing, because the new gene tweak didn’t take, so people started chopping them up for firewood instead. It gets cold in Andalusia. People up here don’t know that. So, me and my brother, we were chopping firewood.”
Quini’s eyes turn wide and gleeful, like he’s a kid recounting his favorite part of a flick. “He thought I was going to pull my arm away! I thought he wasn’t going to swing! And just like that, gone. Oh, I was angry. Even back then, even little Quini, he got angry. But my brother was family, you know? And it was an accident. Nobody’s fault. Just the peristalsis of an amoral universe. You like that word? ‘Peristalsis.’
“But then, years later, years and years, I heard my brother was talking. Was saying he did it to teach me a lesson. Saying he’s the only person that makes Quini the Squid flinch.” Quini snorts. “So one night I went over to his house—his house, qué tontería, I bought him that fucking house—and I brought an autosurgeon with me. And I made things right. First I took his arms, then I took his legs.”
I can hear the whining of the blade all over again. My gut heaves and for a second I can’t look at Yinka, can’t look at anything except the backs of my eyelids.
“I cried while I did it,” Quini says. “But when it was finished, my anger was gone. Gone! We were brothers again. I bought him a chair—you know, to get around. A really fancy one.” He gets nimbly to his feet and heads over to my confiscated duffel bag. He grins at Nat while he gropes around inside. The saw emerges with Yinka’s blood still spattering the casing. “So who wants to go first?” he asks. “Hackman, how about you? You’re quiet tonight. I remember you like talking. I’m surprised you’re not talking yet. Trying to save your skin.”
I’ve done the thinking and I already know. Quini blames me for the job in Murcia going bad. He pulled my contracts for any other hackwork. Now he’s caught me breaking into his house to steal the one thing he cannot afford to have stolen.
“Nothing is going to save my skin.” I can’t keep my voice from quavering. I look at Nat, then Yinka. “I blackmailed both of them,” I say. “I took Nat’s bank account, and I poison-pilled his Catalonian citizenship request. Forced them. To help.”
Quini nods, inspecting the saw blade. “Okay. Sure. But what’s this all about, hackman? Why did you do this to me?”
I look straight ahead, not meeting his eyes. “I’m a big Klobučar fan.”
Quini stares at me, then barks a laugh so loud one of his guards jumps. “You too, huh? I’m starting to feel real uncultured, you know that? Everyone loves this shit. Me, I wish I could get rid of it. Swear!” The saw clangs onto the tiles. He pulls the incubator pod out of his pocket instead and waves it in the air, arm swinging dangerously close to the edge of the pool.
I can see Anton’s wince. “We should get that back in the safe room, Señor Caballo.”
Quini ignores him. “I’m working with some Koreans now. Some serious hijoputas until they get liquored, then friendly, real friendly. We’re in Seoul and the boss, he starts talking about Klobučar, how visionary she was, how killing herself was art. That was art! Bullshit.” He tosses the incubator pod up into the air, watches it, catches it. “But one thing leads to another, we seal the malware deal, and he says he wants to loan me his favorite piece for a month. One month, and it’ll change everything, he says. Doesn’t tell me it’s worth a billion fucking Euros until I’m babysitting it.”
He clutches the pod tight and rubs his face in the crook of his arm. “Makes me nervous, hackman,” he says, walking back toward me. “If I somehow lost it, no more deals with the Koreans. And there would be a bunch of ninja motherfuckers in chamsuits trying to knife me in my sleep. You knew that, I think. You knew it would hurt me. So now I’m going to make what I did in Murcia look like a tickle.”
My throat winches shut. I can feel the ghost of Quini’s boot swinging into my ribs. I can hear his men laughing.
“But I’ll give you a look first,” he says. “So you can decide if this was ever really worth it.” He thumbs the pod open.
He scrapes his finger around the inside, and the first thought in my fear-fogged brain is that I do not understand art, that I am just as uncultured as Quini the Squid and I’m going to die that way.
Then his eyelid starts to twitch.
I can see my reflection in the pool and it’s uglier than ever, a faceful of processed meat, every centimeter of skin either split or swollen. Blood keeps burbling out of my mouth and down my chin, more blood than I ever realized I had. All I want to do is topple forward into the pool and drown, but the guard behind me has his arm around my waist.
Nat is on one side of me; Yinka on the other. They’re making him stand. He looks like he’s about to be sick, then swallows it back down. After the initial flurry of anger, Quini lined us up by the pool and stuck one of my anatabs to his skinned knuckles. Now he’s walking up and down the tiles behind us, bare feet slapping the ceramic, and he has the surgical saw tucked under his stump.
“Where is it?” he asks again.
“Don’t know,” I try to say again, breathing broken glass.
“Natalia, mi amor, where is it? You know I don’t want to hurt you. I love you.”
I’m praying Nat will stay silent, how she’s been since arriving, but the words break her ice and she blinks. “Get fucked, Quini.”
He hurls the incubator pod against the tiles and it smashes apart. Then he comes up behind me, enveloping me in the cloud of sweat and alcohol, and his breath is hot in my ear. “I do love her, though. Still. You know, hackman, if it wasn’t for her, I never would have hired you the first time. We wouldn’t know each other.” He balloons a sigh. “I bet she feels bad about that. I bet that’s why she agreed to help you.”
I shake my head, making the faraday clamp throb. “Blackmail.”
“I’m trying to decide now. Who I start cutting.” Quini hefts the saw. “The negrito, he could use a break. So between Natalia and the hackman, I think it’s you. I think she cares more about you than you care about her. So even though she hates me, she’ll talk. To avoid seeing you flopping around in the pool with no limbs like some deformed fucking manatí.”
“Señor Caballo.” It’s Anton. I almost forgot about him. For a moment I think he’s going to save me, but he’s only being businesslike. “We should search him first. If it’s on his person, you don’t want to damage it by accident.”
Quini shrugs. “Go.”
Anton pads over to me, chasing the guard away. I stand spread-eagled, arms straight out, and think for the first time about not having them. He frisks from the bottom up, and as he’s checking my coat lining he pauses.
“Just out of curiosity,” he says. “How loud can you whistle?”
For a split second his hand passes over the faraday clamp. Then he finishes the frisk, finding nothing, and steps away. Quini grunts, like he expected as much. He switches the saw on. Cold sweat starts trickling from my armpits down my ribcage. I feel the whine in my teeth.
“We’re starting with the right,” he says. “That’s the trend. You will fit right in. Natalia, cielo, feel free to start theorizing. About where my fucking artwork is.”
“I wasn’t fucking here,” Nat says. Her voice is brittle. I hate that. I hate it when she’s hurting too much to hide it. “I was in Flux. With you. Remember?”
“We’re all in flux,” Quini says solemnly. “You know? Lie down, hackman. Arm out.”
“It’s all right, Nat,” I mumble through my torn lip. “We’ll just run it again.”
I lie down on the cold tiles, extending my arm the way Yinka did, and look up at the sky. It’s beautiful. The red’s faded out to one stripe of soft pinkish orange, and above that the morning light is breaking through a wall of cold blue cloud. I don’t have to look at any of Quini’s ugly architectural choices.
I do have to look at my choices, though. I’m about to get my limbs amputated by an unbalanced criminal, and there are no anatabs. No painkiller cocktail. These are probably the last few moments I’ll get to think about anything except screaming, and at some point in the very near future I’ll bleed to death.
Maybe it’s not just the peristalsis of an amoral universe. Maybe it’s what I deserve. For lying to Yinka and for a hundred bad things I did long before that. What I hate most is that I won’t even be dying as myself. I should have at least told Nat.
I squeeze my eyes shut, as if I can open up our private channel by force of will. Quini is muttering to himself in Andalusian Spanish, too fast for me to catch without my babelware. The whine of the saw intensifies.
Suddenly I understand what Quini’s saying. The steel wool in my head is gone. My implant comes unfrozen and I see the backdoor in my mind’s eye. The friend/foe mapper. I make the signal, the whistle, as loud as I possibly can.
Someone is screaming; maybe it’s me. The whine of the saw is a furious buzzing centimeters from my face. Hot liquid splatters my neck.
I open my eyes in time to see Quini sundered from hip to shoulder. The dog is up on its spindly carbon hind legs, saw spraying blood in all directions, tearing Quini’s flesh into pink ropes. It seems to go on for an eternity before the blade stutters to a halt on splintered bone. There’s a bang. Another. The dog drops to all fours. Quini sways.
“Mi cachorrito,” he says, not unfondly, then falls backward into the pool.
Nat yanks me to my feet. Her other hand is clutching Yinka. I look around, still lost, and see two dead guards, Anton reloading the scattergun. Quini is floating in the water, a red cloud billowing out around his shredded body.
“I don’t actually like Klobučar’s later stuff,” Anton says. “She got self-indulgent. I like money, though. And I liked your hackwork tonight. Very creative.” He produces an incubator pod from his jacket, identical to the one Quini smashed, but probably less empty. “I was stumped by that bioscanner.” He shakes his head, rolling his eyes, smiling a bit. “Stumped. Don’t forget your bags.”
Then he’s gone, off into the villa, scattergun propped on his shoulder. That leaves me and Nat and Yinka huddled together on the red-slicked tiles. Somehow none of us are dead. Yinka looks closest; he leans over and heaves.
“Can you walk?” Nat demands. “I’ve got your arm.”
Yinka heaves again, giving up a thin bubbly vomit and then something dark and solid that splats against the tile. He scrabbles for it with stiff fingers. We all stare.
Cupped in his shaking hand is a miniature human heart. Its beat is inaudible, but I can see it pumping and imagine the sound in my head. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Alive. Alive.
“Let’s dip,” Yinka rasps. “Before he figures out his pod is empty, too.”
I get Yinka under his undamaged arm and Nat grabs the refrigerated case. Then we all three stagger off into the olive trees, Quini’s gore-smeared cachorrito trotting along behind us.
When do you leave? I ask, but we’re talking in public, out on the beach by Pont del Petroli, so it comes out more like:
“Napta imo yun,” Nat says: Tomorrow night. She toes a hole in the sun-heated sand. We’re sitting just out of reach of the tide’s soft gray pulse, watching runners move up and down the length of the bridge. Barge out of Shiptown, she adds with a tangle of clicks and plosives.
You see our Fleischgeist there? I ask.
Nat nods. Talked to him, even. Arm looks good. She pauses, turns her head to look at me. He never wants to see you again, though.
“Vensmur,” I say: Makes sense.
For a while we sit in silence. The tide pushes and pulls. Gulls wheel and shriek out over the waves. How about you? Nat finally asks. Where are you going?
Been looking at some clinics in Laos, I tell her. Been planning some changes.
Nat nods. I saw that. See that.
I finally did something with my hair, and I’m wearing one of those new prints from Mombasa. Makeup is hiding the worst bits of my face. It’s too bad I have to let it all heal up before I can have a more qualified surgeon mess with it.
So this is you, she says. Not just a fresh way to hide from the feds.
It’s me. And it’s sort of the opposite of hiding.
Nat grabs my hand, and I release the breath I didn’t even realize I’d been bottling up. Good, she says. Good. You want a scan of my nose?
I blink. “M’mut?”
You want my nose, Nat laughs. You can admit it. Whenever we’re drunk, you say how perfect it is. She suddenly frowns. That shit will be expensive. The clinics. And the lying low. But you gave Yinka your whole share.
Yeah, I say. We made a deal back at the safe room.
Nat narrows her eyes. So it really was just revenge?
I take a heavy breath. He knew. Quini knew about me. He was a lot of things, but he was sharp. He saw it before I wanted anyone to see it. So when he beat me. When he called me a maricona. Laughed at me. It was personal. I chew the inside of my cheek, hit a suture and immediately regret it. I wanted him hurt, I mumble in nonsense. I don’t know about dead.
I wanted him hurt, too, Nat says, staring at the sea. Never thought about dead. But the world’s better off. Net total.
The silence swells until I can’t take it anymore. That was her heart, you know, I finally say. What we stole? It was grown using her cells. She had the whole thing automated. For after she killed herself. I looked it up. It’s the last Klobučar.
Nat raises her immaculate eyebrows. No wonder me and Yinka are so rich now.
Don’t rub it in, I say in one nasal syllable.
She wanted to live forever, maybe, Nat says. With people fighting over her heart. Buying it and selling it and killing for it.
Maybe she wanted us not to, I say. But knew we would anyways, so she did it on her own terms.
Nat stands up, brushing the sand off her pants. Fucking artists, she says. You hungry?
I could eat, I say. Good pintxos around the corner. Good curry a block down.
“Unta da unta,” she says: Both.
We’ve got time. At least a bit of it. And hopefully after a year of lying low, we both end up back in Barcelona. There’s lots more shit I want to do here as myself.
“How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar” copyright © 2020 by Rich Larson
Art copyright © 2020 by John Anthony Di Giovanni