Quandary Aminu vs The Butterfly Man

When an illicit trade deal goes wrong and Quandary is blamed for it, she goes on the run to avoid the crosshairs of a bioengineered killer that only lives for 24 hours. If Q can evade it for that long, she just might survive.

 

 

 

Jow is emptying the last container of slurry into the claw-footed bathtub when the knock comes: one thud, then two, then one, just how the anonymous script on his fone predicted. He sets the jug down too quickly, nearly knocks it over. He wipes his hands on his coverall, leaving pink smears on the dark blue fabric, and goes to the door.

“Who wants in?” he asks, following the script.

“The stork wants in,” comes a husked voice.

Jow thumbs the digital lock, butcher meat red to glowing green. He slides the dead bolt left to right. Rakes his hair back, sucks his cheeks in, tries to look like a pro instead of a nervous darkmarket microjobber.

The old woman on the other side of the door is tall, sun-browned, wearing a knit sweater in mustard yellow. There’s a disposable surgical mask wrapped around her upper arm and she’s carrying a charcoal-gray bag, sealed, with no visible logo or shipping tag.

“Tub ready?” she asks.

Jow nods, relocks the door, and leads the way to the bathroom. The woman keeps the gray bag snug against her hip while she walks. She inspects Jow’s handiwork: the empty containers against the mold-slick wall, the tub full of glistening, pale pink biomass.

“All the concentrations are right,” Jow says. “Got the additives. Calcium, iron. Everything a growing boy needs.”

The woman doesn’t laugh. Her dark-ringed eyes seem faintly accusing.

“I lost a bit,” Jow blurts. “Just a bit. Two, three centiliters. The plug wasn’t all the way in when I started pouring.”

She stares at him, then flutters a dismissive hand. She sets the gray bag on the tile and dons her surgical mask, adjusting the sliders behind her wrinkled ears. Spray-on gloves next, from a corner store canister. Jow imagines he sees the bag wriggle just slightly.

Finally, the woman produces a pair of small scissors and slits the bag open. Inside, an embryonic pouch, slimy and compact. Inside that, curled in on itself, something between a fetus and a homunculus. It twitches.

Jow swallows. “Never seen one made before,” he says.

“Me neither,” the woman says. “But they sent me a tutorial.”

She drops the pouch into the tub. Surface tension keeps it afloat on the quivering slurry at first, then it sinks slowly out of sight. The bathroom is so silent Jow can hear his own rushing pulse.

“You’re on a microjob, then?” he asks, faintly annoyed that she’s no more a pro than he is, just another small-time, part-time criminal.

“Pickup and delivery.” She takes a plastic probe out of her sleeve and dips it into the slurry. “And this time a little extra.”

“Who do you think it’s meant for?” Jow mutters.

“Someone really unlucky.”

There’s a rattling gurgle, like rainwater racing through pipes during a storm, and the tub starts to churn. A wet pink fleck strikes Jow’s boot. He steps back, heart humming, knees shaky. The biomass is sluicing away, but not down the drain. The thing from the pouch is greedy, growing, sucking with ravenous pores.

Jow watches the level fall, and fall, and a body emerge. It swells and thrashes. Limbs elongate. A cartilage skeleton stretches, twists. Muscles creep over each other, layer on bubbling layer; rubbery skin splits and reforms to accommodate. Jow can’t take his eyes off it.

When the gurgling noise finally stops, the fully formed butterfly man is lying in a shallow carbon puddle. It’s human-shaped, but strays in the details: joints distended, no finger or toenails, smooth uninterrupted flesh between the legs. Its face is the most perfect part of it, with planar cheekbones and soulful dark eyes.

“Thought it’d be bigger,” Jow says, to mask the crawling in his spine.

“You spilled some,” the woman says.

The butterfly man doesn’t breathe like a human, no familiar up-and-down locomotion to the ribcage. Instead, its whole body seems to ripple.

“We used to play butterfly man, when we were little,” Jow says. “Me and my sisters. Always imagined it bigger. Scarier.”

“It’s a tupilak,” the woman says.

“What?”

“People tell stories, up here,” she says. “About a thing called a tupilak. You make it out of animal carcass. Some human bits. You send the tupilak after the person who wronged you, and the tupilak makes it right.” She grimaces. “This is that, but they did it with a geneprint.” She blinks down at the tub. “You have to be careful with a tupilak, though, because if you don’t make it right—”

Jow’s fone buzzes against his hip and he pulls it out of his coverall pocket. Another line has been added to the script. He reads it, blinks, looks up. The woman is frowning down at her own fone, no doubt seeing the same message.

“For diagnostic purposes, please run or hide,” Jow recites, throat going tight. “What the fuck is that? What does that mean?”

The butterfly man flicks itself over the side of the tub and onto the floor, moving nothing like a human. The woman steps back and drops the plastic probe. The butterfly man scoops it off the bathroom floor with its foot, and for a surreal moment Jow thinks the butterfly man is going to return it to her.

The blunt plastic tip burrows through one side of the woman’s neck and out the other, spewing blood and spinal fluid.

Jow runs.

 

“My moment, I think I was seventeen the night it happened,” Quandary says, spinning the empty cocaine packet between her fingers, shredding the health hazard advisory into bright yellow strips. “I did some psilos and took my baba’s husky out for a wander. We walked in circles all around the block, following the cracks, the tarred-in cracks in the street. With the high, it looked like they were flowing, you know? Black magma, flowing and cooling.”

They’re deep in Nuuk’s digestive system, a neon-lit bar packed shoulder to shoulder with carbon riggers and journeymen, a skin-sea all misty with aerosolized sweat and desperation. Quandary found her usual cove—a table tucked behind a load-bearing pillar—and picked a stranger from the bar to anchor her there.

“Sounds beautiful,” says the blurry woman. Quandary chose her because she is lanky, leonine, has bare arms coated in moving tattoos. The woman is buying them both thick, silty ciders; Quandary is buying herself cheap Escobar snowpacks. She offered her companion one, but apparently she only likes booze and ketamine. Very old-school.

“Yeah,” Quandary says. “Beautiful. There was a blackout that night. Grid attack. Half the city was dark, and we ended up right on the dividing line, in this spot I didn’t remember, this little hump of dirt and dead grass on the edge of the bypass. So we were looking at this wall of black, pure black, and I knew in my gut that it was the end of the world.”

“It’s always the end of the world,” the woman says, pushing one leg against hers.

Quandary shakes her head. “Not that kind of end. But the limit. The edge. And I knew that everything around me was simulation—not the probabilistic way of knowing, but bone-deep. I lay down on my back and stared straight up, so I could see the simulated stars pulsing up there. There was no way I could do the wrong thing, because nothing was real.”

She stabs a tiny trace of powder off the table with her thumb; it sticks in the oily whorl. “And I felt this distilled electric joy, this indescribable, womb-like comfort. Because I was the only sapient thing in the whole fucking universe.” She rubs her thumb inside her nostril and feels a faint serotonin ghost. “It all collapsed when the dog licked my face,” she says. “I nearly strangled that dog. But yeah. Yeah, that was the happiest moment of my life.”

Her companion’s leg recedes. “You strangled a dog?”

“Of course not,” Quandary says, squinting. “It was a husky. They’re enormous.”

“Oh. Good.” The woman gives a bleary grin. “You want to leave now? You can strangle me a bit, if you like.”

Quandary likes the crooked tooth in her smile, and the clean peppery smell of her, and she’s considering the offer when Timo shows up. His reflective orange jumpsuit sprouts out of the crowd like a night-blooming flower.

“We need to talk business, Q,” he says. “Outside. Hurry.”

A cold wisp of unease gets through her high. Quandary does not like going places alone with Timo, but she has her fragger, and his gun doesn’t work on her, and business is business. She untangles herself from the spindly chair and table. For a nanosecond it looks like her companion might object, but then she registers Timo’s size and his scarred-up eye implants. She drinks her cider real ruefully instead.

“Two shakes,” Quandary says.

She worms around the pillar and Timo cuts their path through the crowd, past the doorbot sniffing for unregulated narcotics or pheromones. They push out into a cold pink light. It’s dawn already.

Timo wastes no time ruining it.

“Jokić blames you for the harbor job going belly-up,” he says.

Quandary frowns. “What?”

“The harbor job,” Timo repeats, staring at her with his nickel-sized smartglass eyes. “Jokić thinks you snaked. Thinks you told the poli which boat to search.”

“I’m the reason even half the crew made it out of there,” she says. “If it wasn’t for me, we’d have all been pinched.” A semi-manic laugh spills out of her throat. “I can’t believe this shit. I can’t believe it. I have to talk to him.”

Timo shakes his head. “You have to get out of Nuuk. Get off the Land. He lost two people and a lot of cash, and he wants you dead for it, Q.”

She unclenches her fist and stares down at the shredded origami remains of the cocaine packet. She lets it flutter to the tarmac. “Who’d he pay to kill me?” she asks, hand crawling unconsciously to the grip in her pocket. “You? You taking money for Quandary Aminu?”

“Nobody is,” Timo says. “He said for nobody to touch you.”

“How’s that work with wanting me dead?”

Quandary leaves the weapon, slides her fone out of her sleeve instead. She unfolds it and checks the pirate cam that watches her apartment entry from across the street. Dark, grainy, empty. And she’d know if someone had gotten inside; the dingy screen window would be spattered with blood.

“He’s doing a fresh deal with the Siberians.” Timo’s voice rocks her back to the bar alley. “For military surplus. Biotech. Bad, bad biotech.”

She blinks. “Viral agent? My immunos are jacked up.” She says it brave-faced, but feels a jag of fear—they’re always coming up with new bugs, and most of them are a slow kill. “I’ll boil it right out.”

“Nothing viral,” Timo says. “Foot soldiers. The disposable kind. You ever met a butterfly man?”

Her cocaine immortality cracks and crumbles. “Shit.”

“Yeah. You’re the product test. If this one kills you, Jokić buys the rest of them.” Timo’s face does stuttering iterations of an expression Quandary isn’t familiar with. “I could come with you. Tonight. Get us onto an autobarge, head down the coast. You and me.”

Quandary remembers back to a splintered night in another bar, then in Timo’s shack, his naked body moving in the dark. His skin-smell. His body heat. “What was the happiest moment of your life?” she asks.

“No time, Q,” Timo says.

His suffocating weight, the dizzy whirl in her head, the dull-then-sharp pain of him burrowing inside her. He must remember it so differently. Anger comes from a dozen different places and coalesces to a boiling wave inside her chest. For a moment she wants to plug Timo right here outside the bar, whisper boom and watch the frag dart turn his body into chunks and splatter.

But she needs to save her ammo for Jokić and his butterfly man, and Timo is the most dependable kind of monster.

“There’s something I have to get from my apartment first,” she says. “We’ll hurry.”

She lopes off into Nuuk’s slick streets, knowing he’ll follow.

 

Even fifty years ago, this city was a colorful afterthought. Quandary has seen it in remembrance holos: a craggy coast lined by a rainbow of boxy buildings, red and yellow and green and blue, all watching the sea. Then came the Cascade, or at least the point in the Cascade where ice melt unleashed huge swathes of arable land across Greenland and Russia, and that plus the carbon-capture boom brought foreigners up in droves.

Now Nuuk is sprawling inward, away from the rising sea, and its neat technicolor rows birthed a jumble of printhouse and polyp-grown warrens. Quandary watches the urban wilds slide along, forehead pushed to the window of the NRT, more commonly called the Spine, the raised solar rail that runs the city diagonally.

She could ride it all the way to the edge of town, bus out with some carbon riggers, live to fight and fornicate another day. But this is about rep, and running makes Jokić right, that pasty fuck. She worked hard to get on the harbor crew, and she did her job better than the rest of them did theirs. Jokić should know by now that the poli don’t need moles to come out of nowhere.

Unless this isn’t about the harbor job.

Unless he wants her gone for some other reason.

“We shouldn’t be doing this, Q,” Timo mutters. “It might be waiting for you already.”

Quandary grinds her aching skull against the cold glass. She bought a flush from a vending machine, to set her neurotransmitters straight and eat up the alcohol still lurking unprocessed in her gut. She regrets it. Her head is pounding and her whole body feels raspy and she probably has equal chances against a butterfly man whether she’s sober or shittered.

“Wouldn’t be a product test if they dropped it right at my house,” she says. “The whole point of these things is that they’re hunters, right? Pattern matchers. You give them a face, fire, and forget.”

“They match those patterns fast.”

“It’s been alive for six hours, tops,” Quandary says, “and my streetcam shows all clear.”

“Yunupingu Memorial,” the rail announces, in genderless monotone. “Doors opening on the left.”

The car tiptoes to a halt and the doors flutter open. Quandary ignores the escalator, bangs open the metal door to the stairwell, cold concrete and fluorescent lights and stripes of reflective tape demarcating the steps. She takes them at a run to get her blood pumping.

“What do you need from the apartment so bad?” Timo grunts from behind her. “If it’s cash, if it’s narcotic, I can—”

She grips the railing and leaps the bottom third of the flight, lands with a thump. “Just watch my back, all right?” she puffs. “Stay by the door. There’s a good shadowy spot behind the biorecycler.”

She slams out of the emergency exit, the one with a sliced wire keeping the alarm quiet, and into the street. The sun is up in earnest now, filtering through wisp and scud. That would make it easier to see the butterfly man coming, if she knew what the fuck to look for. Her nerves jump and sizzle when she passes a partier stumbling home, again when she passes a night worker in a logo-printed coverall.

Then she’s at the apartment block. Timo has trailed her at a distance; he installs himself now behind the biorecycler, tiny vapor pipe clenched in his big hand. Quandary casts a last look around, then skips up the steps. The door reads her face and gait and buzzes open.

“Two shakes,” she says, and heads up.

 

The apartment smells wrong when she steps inside. It panics her for a moment before she remembers drunkenly leaving a plastic plate on the stove coil, slagging it to a shiny puddle and filling the room with rancid smoke—her baba would not be happy with her. Quandary pulls her fragger out anyway. Adrenaline turns her familiar furnishings into crouched silhouettes, puts faces in the gloom.

She whistles the lights on. When the fluorescents scour the dark away, revealing a battered white table crenellated with empties, a hand-carved rocking chair in one corner, a gelbed shoved into the other, her heart slows to tolerable speeds. She’s never had much of a nesting instinct—she tells the women and sometimes men that she’s only just moved in—and it leaves near to nowhere for a butterfly man to hide.

She hears a comforting electric chirrup from the room’s sole decoration, a colorful wall hanging above the rocking chair. No visitors while she was gone. She checks the bathroom anyway, but finds only her haggard self, staring balefully from the toothpaste-spattered mirror. Fucking Timo didn’t tell her she was walking around with a snowcap. She thumbs the leftover coke away from her nostril, rubs it along her gum instead.

Tired neurotransmitters poke their heads up. She apologizes for jerking them around, doing the whole flush-and-go thing, then rides the twitch of energy back to the other room, heading for her industrial-grade refrigerator. It’s the priciest thing she owns, a metallic gray giant with its own backup generator and genelock.

Her thumb is almost on that lock when she stops. Hesitates. Her imagination paints the butterfly man contorted inside, waiting for her. They can do that. People say they have cartilage skeleton, like sharks. She doesn’t think they can hack genelocks, but who the fuck knows. She opens the fridge with her fragger aimed.

There are no surprises inside. The top shelf holds a half bottle of cheap local wine, some curry paste, and a slowly decaying orange. The bottom shelf holds the secret she would never tell Timo or anyone else about. She pulls the black carbon shell out of the fridge, carefully, carefully, and slides it into the go bag she keeps in the neighboring cupboard.

It nestles perfectly between the medkit and the ammo. She casts around, grabs a checkered drying cloth, wraps it over the top of the shell. The extra padding is not even slightly necessary, but feels correct. She zips the bag shut and slings it over her shoulder.

Her fone chimes—maybe Timo, telling her to hurry the fuck up.

Not Timo. It’s an alert from her streetcam, the one watching the apartment exterior, the one she told to keep an eye out for anyone whose gait and facial geometry it didn’t recognize. Her throat goes tight. She taps through to the feed.

She sees only a grainy Timo, no longer hiding behind the biorecycler. His broad back is turned to the streetcam. He is swaying slowly from side to side, almost dancing. Quandary squints at the feed, trying to parse, trying to figure out what the fuck he is doing and why the streetcam is showing it to her.

His feet are not planted. They are dragging on the pavement, boneless, weightless. Quandary sees the pale hands now, wedged under Timo’s armpits. She watches his big body lift and lower, lift and lower, as if the butterfly man is trying to guess how many kilos. Her stomach drops straight down an elevator shaft.

Now is the time to run, but she can’t. She needs to see who—what—she’s going to be dealing with until she, or it, is a corpse. Timo’s body topples over; she gets a glimpse of his ruined face, a red mess. Then she sees the butterfly man: small, angular, swallowed up in the blue coverall it wears peeled to the waist. It wipes its hands on its mustard-yellow sweater and leaves two bloody anemones.

The face is oddly beautiful, and wears a small contented smile. The butterfly man rolls Timo’s body behind the biorecycler, the way a dung beetle rolls fecal matter, and disappears from the streetcam’s sight line.

 

Quandary unfreezes. Timo’s dead, which means a little packet of emotions she will have to observe or destroy later, and the butterfly man is here, which means she needs a plan. If it’s strong enough to heft Timo like a doll, it’s strong enough to wrench open the cheap fabbed windows on the ground floor.

Then it will come upstairs, come to this very room, because it took less than six hours to figure out where she lives. Or else Jokić is a fucking cheat, and told it. She shoves that thought away but keeps the residual anger for fuel. The longer the butterfly man is alive, the smarter it’s going to get. So meeting it right now, on her own territory, might be the best chance she has to kill the thing.

Fight or flight.

Fight. Has to be.

She unzips her go bag, digs out a flicker bomb and ammo cartridge. Her fingers are slightly tingly, but not visibly trembly, which seems like a good omen. She pockets the bomb, slaps the cartridge to the magnetic stock of her fragger. Does it all one-eyed and one-handed, since she needs to keep watching the streetcam.

Timo’s foot pokes out from behind the biorecycler, but there’s no sign of the butterfly man. It might already be circling the building for entries. She looks down at the carbon shell swaddled in her go bag.

“Luck me,” she says, and gives it a soft pat before she zips the bag shut again. Her heart is pounding now, amphetamine fast, anticipating the violence. But she’s no stranger to that. She almost prefers it.

Timo probably had his piece on him, and the butterfly man has probably figured out how to use it by now. Quandary flexes the fridge up onto its rollers and drags it into position, so the heavy metal can provide some cover. She experiments with aiming blind around its corner, first high, then low.

Somewhere below her, she hears a cracking noise. A forced entry noise. The poli don’t usually come around this block, but they might send a drone or two. She wonders if the butterfly man knows that.

She unlocks her apartment door, hinges it open just a sliver. Listens for feet. Then she dims the apartment lights, goes back behind the fridge, and waits. Her pulse is loud in her ears, so loud she might not be able to hear the butterfly man coming. From the way it moved outside, she knows it has soft feet. It reminded her of a ballerina—precise, fiercely strong.

She listens for doors instead, and hears a telltale pneumatic sigh from down the hall. She pulls the flicker bomb out of her pocket. She pictures the butterfly man traversing the corridor, tries to time its arrival.

A gap of light under the door goes dark.

“Hello?”

The butterfly man’s voice is a high-pitched croak. It’d be funny if her nerves weren’t screaming. She glances at her wall hanging. Adjusts her grip on the flicker bomb.

“Hello?” the butterfly man squawks again, and something rolls through the cracked door, a small black orb dribbling blood behind it.

Timo’s eyeball, or rather its smartglass upgrade. Quandary’s stomach gives a little churn, but she is not surprised when the second orb follows, on a perfect trajectory, and meets its twin with a sharp clack. She wonders if it was hard work to seed sadism into the butterfly man’s geneprint, or if it arises naturally in all apex predators.

“Come on in,” she says, sluicing most of the fear out of her voice. “Never met a butterfly man before.”

The butterfly man grunts, a deep sound nothing like its previous squawk, and Quandary recognizes the voice. Timo’s eyes weren’t enough of a trophy. The butterfly man took the last sound he made, too, right before it crunched his windpipe.

A soft electronic bleat from the wall hanging. Target acquired.

“I was going to do that myself, probably,” Quandary says, tipping her head to one shoulder and then the other, triggering the swellies she had a street surgeon embed in her ear canals. She can barely hear her next words. “He was a real deluded piece of shit.”

She thumbs her phone, and the autogun behind her wall hanging goes wild. The nightly maintenance of its joints and chambers, the lubricant stains on the floor, the spike in her electricity facture: all of that shit is instantly worth it, because uranium-tipped rounds are now shredding through the doorframe, through the wall she never liked much anyway, and obliterating everything on the other side.

She lobs her flicker bomb through the newly chewed hole for good measure; its detonation is a muffled pop beneath the autogun’s tirade. Even with the swellies in, her whole skull is vibrating. The burst only lasts two point five seconds—autogun ammo is not cheap—but adrenaline makes it an age.

When the gun coughs empty, the wall is a billowing cloud of plaster speckled with red. Quandary’s pulse roars and foams. The butterfly man should be nothing but butcher giblets at this point, but she’s heard enough rumors and seen enough flicks to be cautious. She lets the dust and fragments settle before she creeps out from behind the fridge.

She stalks forward, fragger leveled, scanning the debris for shreds of blue coverall or yellow sweater. The dark red blood-blots in the rubble are encouraging. She follows them to the ruined wall, picks a hole, sights left, right.

The corridor is a fucking mess, and she can hear her cross-hall neighbor wailing. She forgot to check if they were home before setting the autogun off, but only sees a couple holes punched through the opposite wall, so unless they have astronomically bad luck—

A hot droplet lands on the tip of her left ear.

Her head snaps back; the butterfly man is on the ceiling, because of course it is. One of its legs is now wet pink ropes, slowly knitting back together. The other leg is intact, and since the butterfly man’s arms are busy clinging to the ceiling it has Timo’s gun clutched between its pale distended toes.

She fires, blowing the butterfly man to pieces—

Except her fragger jams. Chokes. She recalls the cloud of plaster she just walked through, recalls Timo telling her a fragger is too fucking finnicky for wet work. His alternative, a snub-nosed Glock, is now pointing at her face. She needs to speak loudly, clearly, because Timo’s gun has an electrolock and she hacked it after the night she stopped trusting him. Her throat is too dry to even whisper.

“Quandary Aminu,” the butterfly man squawks. “Never met a Quandary Aminu before.”

She admires the choice to taunt, but the taunt fucks it over. Her name is the magic word. The butterfly man’s toe twitches. Nothing gets out of the barrel. It tries again, and Quandary knows she can either use this minuscule slice of time to try unjamming her fragger, or she can use it to fucking run.

The butterfly man drops down from the ceiling, landing perfectly balanced so its stump won’t scrape the floor. She doesn’t like her chances even against three limbs. She picks flight: back through her shattered wall, through her barren apartment, scooping up her go bag on the way to the fire escape.

The butterfly man sends her off with Timo’s surprised grunt, over and over until it sounds like a muffled laugh.

 

Quandary runs until she vomits, then runs another block post-vomit. Then she reaches the public bathroom she once had unsanitary sex in, the one people don’t notice because it’s tucked up under a half-constructed skyway, and locks herself inside. She rinses her mouth out, and also tries to rinse away the memory of Timo’s smartglass eyeballs, which have been clacking around in the back of her mind.

Better to replay the rest of the encounter, figure out what she could have done better aside from her fucking weapon not jamming. She disassembles the fragger, working on pure muscle memory, and sets to cleaning out the plaster dust. She’s got some distance from the butterfly man. Saw it, over her shoulder, clambering slowly and carefully down the fire escape, cradling its pulped leg.

The limb was already healing, and she doesn’t know how long she has before the butterfly man is back to full mobility. She should have tried to finish the job in the corridor, tried pistol-whipping it, tried going back into the kitchen for a knife.

“Got scared,” she snarls at the mirror, which is playing an ad for skin cream, projecting wrinkles on her face and then smoothing them away. “First you froze, then you ran, because you got fucking scared.”

The wrinkles remind her what she grabbed from the apartment. She purses her lips. She doesn’t like asking people for help, but this is life-or-death, and her death would have implications for the person who might be able to help her. Her go bag is already open on the changing station, since she needed oil and a microtool for the fragger. She eyes the cloth-wrapped carbon shell.

“Okay,” she says. “Desperate times.”

She yanks the checkered cloth away and hefts the black shell in both hands, eliciting a faint slosh from the nutrient gel inside. She sets it beside the sink, which is an artful shallow scoop in the countertop, then finds some putty in her go bag to plug the drain. She is mostly certain it’s adhesive tack, not leftover RDX.

While the sink fills with cold water, she opens the carbon shell. Even after it reads her fingerprints, she has to prize it apart with her fingernails, like it’s reluctant to let its passenger go, or is maybe punishing her for waiting so long to wake him. When it finally springs open, she nearly drops her baba’s membrane-coated head on the floor.

His face, even slick and slimy, gives her a little hit of nostalgia. For a moment, despite being holed up in a public bathroom, hunted by a butterfly man, she is also a little girl playing snapper-trappers with her baba, both of them against the machine, sitting huddled up close so she can sniff his icy cologne and absorb his body heat.

He’s still hooked to his organoid, a little lump of clone-grown cells keeping his brain blood nice and oxygenated, so she’s careful with the tether as she lowers him into the sink. She adds a cable of her own, from the neuroport on his temple to the one on the bottom of her fone. She sends the wake-up chime.

His veiny old eyelids flutter. They open.

Quandary breathes. “Hey, Baba,” she says. “I think I fucked up.”

 

Her baba is not happy to see her, possibly because she promised him a full corporeal transplant three years ago, promised him next time he woke up he’d be riding a beautiful clone-grown body with factory-fresh telomeres, and instead he is bobbing in a sink in a grimy public washroom.

What in the fuck have you been doing all this time, Dree?

The question marches across her fone as blocky text, pieced together by neuroscan, but in her head she can hear his cigarette-seared rasp.

“Working, Baba.”

Working appears on her fone, either a feedback error or her baba doing one of his scathing echoes. Drinking and snuffing and fucking, more like. Wasting all our money.

Scathing echo, then.

“My money, Baba,” she says, souring a bit on the whole reunion. “Your money ran out ages ago. My money’s been keeping you nice and fresh in storage.”

Is that where we are? Some cut-rate bio-storage facility?

“No,” Quandary admits. “We’re in a bathroom. Because I’m in trouble. So we can talk about the transplant shit later.” She eyes the door, then the air vent, pictures the cartilage-boned butterfly man sliding himself through it. “Right now, I need help.”

I need limbs and a spinal column.

“You know about butterfly men,” she says. “I remember.”

Butterfly man, her fone corrects. There’s only one.

Quandary shakes her head. “There’s a fuckload of them now,” she says. “They pop them out like a candy fab. But there’s only one after me, and I need to know how to kill it.”

Her screen stays black. She stares down at her baba’s bobbing head, his features clouded by the membrane sheath. Watches tiny tremors run through the facial muscles she used to prick and prod faithfully to prevent atrophy.

Anything I tell you is three years out of date.

“Better than trying to sift through blacknet bullshit,” she says firmly. “You actually seen one doing its thing. Said you worked with a grower in Santiago, didn’t you?”

You listened a lot better as a little girl.

“Now I shoot a lot better.” She checks the door again. “I don’t have spare time, Baba. Tell me what I need to know to not die.”

Butterfly man. Okay. Started off as just a biotech flex, some Korean lab trying to overclock cell division and tissue growth, see how close they could get to a real-time time lapse. Russia was doing quantum-organic deep learning, wanted to turn small children into programmable psychopaths. More so than they already are.

“Match made in heaven,” Quandary says, because she recalls this little spiel and would like to speed it along.

Match made in heaven, yeah. Heaven is disposable assassins you assemble on-site who self-terminate when the job’s done. They were still tweaking it in the warlabs when Russia collapsed, but the prototype hit the darkmarket a few years later. It only looks human on the outside, Dree. Genetically, it’s probably closer to a flatworm.

“It is very wriggly,” Quandary mutters, verifying her fone is saving everything her baba’s said to her private drive.

Regrows organs. Breathes through its skin. No real skeleton, hydrostatic muscle.

“The brain, though,” Quandary says, remembering how it imitated Timo, how it talked shit to her from the ceiling. “To hunt a human in a city full of humans, you have to be able to think like a human. Yeah?”

The brain on that thing is the coup de grâce. Quantum-organic, how I said. It’s not starting from scratch. Every time you grow it, it grows all the neural pathways from all the other jobs. Smarter than a human ever could be. Thank fuck it hates existing.

“Holy shit,” Quandary says, still on the quantum-organic brain. Then she registers the last bit. “Wait. Hates existing?”

Figure of speech. The butterfly man is designed to be disposable. Partly so it can’t be traced, partly as a fail-safe. Starts to decay after eighteen hours or so. Dead six after that. Thus the name, you adorable dumbshit.

The realization goes off like a flicker bomb: all she has to do is outwait the butterfly man, stay moving, stay unpredictable, and then once it’s dead she goes straight for Jokić and his crew. She’s the field test. The other butterfly men are still in transit.

“So if I hide long enough,” she says, for absolute clarity, “it’ll die on its own.”

Oh, Dree. Nobody ever hides long enough.

The flicker bomb was a dud; it fizzes dark. “Back to the first plan, then,” she says, trying to sound calm about it. “How do I kill the butterfly man?”

Her fone is blank for a moment. Then: You could try setting a trap.

“I did try that. It didn’t fucking work.”

I mean a good trap.

 

Baba goes back in the shell, back in the bag, but she leaves a tiny gap in each so the neuroport cable can stay hooked to her fone. This compromises his temperature integrity, but like he pointed out, unless she kills the butterfly man in the next fifteen hours or so, he’s dead anyway. Quandary is glad he realized that without her having to say it.

She checks her fragger, then douses herself in sanispray, since her baba said the butterfly man tracks partly by scent. She checks her fragger again. Then, with her heart thrashing in her ribcage, she cracks the bathroom door.

No sign of the butterfly man, but the streets are full now. She’s not sure if that’s better or worse. She slips out into the sunlight and has her fone message her most freshly acquired contact, a blurry woman with animated tattoos. They only spoke for twenty-odd minutes, but they also nearly went home together. Quandary hopes enough chemistry lingers for her to answer.

Good morning to you, too.

Good.

“Lost track of you last night,” she mutters for her fone. “Want to after-party?”

I’m halfway shittered on my way to work.

Underneath the woman’s message, her baba weighs in: Tell her you felt a real true connection, Dree, felt it like a little fishhook behind your belly.

“Fuck off,” Quandary says, and her fone snaps it off to the tattoo woman before she can stop it, but it might be a good thing to say anyway.

Fuck you, husky-killer.

Not bad.

“I want to see you,” Quandary says, decanting her usual lie-truth compound. “I also want keta, in a bad way. Link me up?”

She weaves through an arguing couple, ducks under a sputtering drone. Keeps her eyes peeled for a certain size, a certain way of moving, though it might still come with a limp. Her friend from last night is taking a long fucking time to answer. Quandary would normally get the ketamine on her own, no issue, but her dealer is Jokić-adjacent, and she doesn’t want that pasty fuck knowing her movements until she’s moving through his front door.

Preferably holding his butterfly man’s sliced-off head as a guest-gift.

I asked someone about you. They said you’re trouble. A real black hole type.

“Black holes are beautiful right as you fall in,” Quandary says. “See time and light all stretched out and whatnot.”

And then you’re spaghetti.

“We can be spaghetti together,” Quandary says, keeping close watch on a small man in a hooded raincoat moving across the street. “Two human noodles all twisted up in each other.”

Her baba approves: Poetry, Dree.

The answer takes a minute. They said you’re a real bullshit artist. How much K?

Quandary licks her teeth. “Enough for a horse,” she says.

Funny.

“Not funning you,” Quandary says. “I need as much as I can get and I’ll pay two hundo a gram.” She flips from the talkthread to her bank. “Little thank-you fee is heading your way as soon as you give me a location.”

Her baba disapproves: No great wonder your crew thought you were poli, is it.

But the tattoo woman is more trusting, maybe because she’s halfway shittered, maybe because she’s still halfway horny for Nuuk’s best bullshit artist. South end. Nice old lady, been buying tabs off her for years so don’t you dare fuck her around.

“Great,” Quandary says, changing course as a new geolocation drops into her fone. “Any chance she’d have a gas mask and aerosolizer?”

 

It’s a short trip to south Nuuk, but by the time Quandary gets to the right block her nerves are shredded raw. Every small adult or large ado she saw on the way gave her a jolt, and she nearly murdered a girl with a croaky voice who sat behind her on the Spine. A carbon rigger with a blue coverall and a bad knee was similarly imperiled.

But now she’s here, in one piece, and it’s time to purchase some retro narcotics. She approaches a small crumbling house wedged between two polyp-grown apartments, checking it against the geolocation.

“Baba.” She’s been meaning to ask, and might not get another rip at it. “What was the happiest moment of your life?”

You need to be focused right now, Dree.

“I am focused,” she says. “What was it?”

There’s a long delay, and she pictures him pulling faces under the membrane, thinking hard. Walking across an old parking lot. Thaw weather, when you hear the water running everywhere, trickling under the ground, melting off the roofs. Sunshine and a breeze and bright green buds starting to grow from the cracks.

It sounds a bit like hers; she’s relieved by that. “So you were alone?”

Yes.

Quandary nods to herself. “It’s better that way, isn’t it. Everything is—purer. When there’s no other people mucking shit up.”

It’s my happiest moment because I was on my way to see your mother.

“Oh.” She blinks. “Cute.”

Fuck off.

Quandary checks around the corners of the house, then slinks up to the stoop. Her friend from the bar told her to knock once, then twice, then once again, so that’s what she does. The echo fades. Nobody comes to the door.

Entering any dealer’s place of business uninvited, even if the dealer is supposedly a nice old lady, is a bad fucking idea. She knows this from experience. But the butterfly man could be showing up any second now, following her scent through Nuuk’s dirty air or just matching patterns Quandary is too human to see.

She tries the door handle. No dice.

What’s going on, then? her baba demands.

“Might not be home,” she mutters. “Does a lot of microjobbing on the side, apparently.”

They revolutionize locks in the past three years?

Quandary knocks a final time, then glances up and down the street. A few little kids on hacked scooters stare back at her. She flips them off, and as soon as they glide away she starts jiggering the lock. It only takes her a minute with the microtool before she gets to the telltale click-clunk.

Praying her autogun’s old owner was honest about having the only unit in town, she opens the door and steps inside.

 

The dealer is going through some shit. That is the only immediate explanation Quandary can think of for the state of the house. She recognized the smell of fried noodles even before the lights hummed on; now she makes her way through an entryway dotted with compostable takeout containers, most of them half-full and soggy with sauce.

She is so busy searching for floor that it takes her a while to notice the walls. The dealer has been turning her stress binge into an art form: the off-white plaster is smeared with reddish-brown spirals and stick figures, the work of messy, twitchy fingers. Quandary realizes she is about to find an old woman zonked out of her fucking mind on her own product, possibly even dead from an overdose.

“Better be some fucking keta left,” she whispers.

You inside? You need to keep me in the loop, Dree. I’m blind in here and all I can hear is the gurgling goddamn organoid.

“Your organoid is the best on the market,” she says, which was true three years ago. Well, nearly true. “You should relish that gurgle.”

She makes it to the kitchen, where more flimsy containers line the countertops and stove. A simple yellow gelfridge has been recently cleaned out; the neat little pile of detritus is heaped in front of it. She tries to picture an old and very loaded woman squatting there, yanking out everything edible, gorging herself sick.

Quandary has binged plenty, but the image is off. She feels her hackles rising.

“Heading to the bedroom,” she murmurs, angling into a dim hallway. “Where do old people stash their shit, Baba? Floorboard? Ceiling tile?”

In whatever orifice is loose, but not too loose.

“You must really miss having an anus.”

I’ve got you. That counts.

Quandary approaches the half-open door to the bedroom. Whenever she’s fucked off her head she always finds her way to a bed, hers or otherwise, so she braces herself now for a body—hopefully just asleep or deep in the drug daze, not dead.

But the cheery yellow sheets are unoccupied, neat and tucked in. Quandary does a quick sweep of the room: row of polished boots in one corner, black lacquered table and dried sunflowers in another, a shelf of weathered books, some Kalaallit art up on the humming wallscreen. No sign of the dealer. No takeout wreckage in here, either.

“She likes yellow,” Quandary says.

You always liked purple, as a little girl.

“Really?” Quandary asks, eyeing the disturbed dust in front of the bed.

You’d always pinch people’s arms, say you were trying to give them purple skin-flowers.

“I was not well adjusted,” Quandary admits, depositing her go bag on the floor, fone on top of it. She levers herself underneath the fabbed frame of the bed, wriggling on her belly. Paydust: there’s a little metal case waiting for her, a rusty old thing with a retrofit genelock soldered on.

She’s about to wriggle back out when she hears the front door. For a moment she envisions a terrible scenario where the wrinkly dealer and her wrinkly lover head straight for the bed and go at it rabbitlike while she’s trapped beneath. Then all the thoughts that have been darting around in the back of her head coalesce at once.

The psychoscrawl on the walls—done by spidery, inhuman fingers. The mad volume of food—required to fuel a metabolism that runs like a supercollider for twenty-four hours. Her baba said they make lairs sometimes, on a long enough job. He did not say they favor the houses of small-time ketamine dealers.

She is still trying to decide if this is some truly next-level pattern matching, or if the universe just fucking hates her, when the butterfly man strolls in wearing its blood-splotched yellow sweater.

 

Hiding under the bed, biting her hand, watching a shadow move around—that’s horror flick shit. This is horror life, so the butterfly man has already smelled her sweat and sanispray, seen her go bag and fone, and knows exactly where she is. She pulls out her fragger, fires for its approaching shins. Her explosive darts punch the air, cough-cough-cough, only find the opposite wall, but that’s fine, gives her time to roll out the other side—

A distended hand comes scything down; she cancels the roll, realizes in a small shocked neuron bundle that the butterfly man vaulted the entire fucking bed in the time it took her to squeeze a trigger. An angular  upside-down face appears inches from hers, unsmiling.

“Welcome to my house,” the butterfly man caws.

Gone before she can get the fragger aimed. She hears a sharp crack, and one corner of the bed lurches downward. It’s kicking out the stubby legs. It’s going to bring the bedframe down on top of her, crush her here like a pressed flower.

It’s fucking toying with her. That makes her furious, how she is furious with Jokić, how she was furious with Timo and still sort of is even now he’s dead. The feeling boils over and scalds away her fear. Leaves a fact behind: she is going to fuck up a butterfly man. She fires the fragger again, peppering darts all along the far wall, sowing seeds.

Another crack, another lurch; the bottom end of the bed slams down and narrowly misses her foot. She scoots up toward the head, taking the metal box with her. She reverses her fragger and uses the heavy metal grip as a club. The impact vibrates the bones in her hand, sends sparks flying. The shoddy soldering between genelock and old lock gives way.

She feels the butterfly man moving for the third leg of the bedframe. She flips open the box, finds acid tabs, keta tabs, shoves everything she can into the sleek little grinder. The third leg crunches inward, and the bedframe crunches down on her back. She wails, wriggles free, moving toward the last corner.

The butterfly man meets her there. She can see its bony hand reaching for the fabbed black leg.

“Hey,” she says, fumbling from grinder to injector. “Hey!”

The hand pauses. “Hello.”

“Boom,” she says.

Her fragger darts are programmed to go off on voice trigger—less collateral damage means less cleanup—and now all the tiny explosive slivers all around the edges of the room, stuck in the plaster and wood, detonate at once.

As the world goes up in flames, as superheated debris leaps from all sides, the butterfly man finds the closest cover. It slides under the bedframe like mercury, so smooth, so graceful, and right into Quandary’s raised injector. She plugs its jugular with enough drugs to drop a clone-grown woolly mammoth.

This was not the plan, of course. Her baba had something way more elaborate in mind: luring the butterfly man into a tight ventless space, using its flexy skeleton against it, vaporizing a ton of keta and giggling behind her gas mask while its porous skin sucked it all down. But this is better. More satisfying.

The butterfly man’s sweater instantly drenches. Maybe it’s trying to sweat out the cocktail, but its traitorous metabolism has already absorbed enough to make its hands tremor and fall halfway to her throat. It doesn’t gasp how a human would, but its whole body twitches. Its dark eyes turn glassy.

She waits—for the house to douse the fire-dregs with foam, for her heart to stop pounding, for the butterfly man to go fully limp—then crawls out. She knees its perfect face on the way, and does not feel even slightly bad about it.

Her fone is full of her baba’s rambling, but his carbon shell is intact. She debates whether or not to tell him how close she probably came to cooking him when all the fragger darts went off.

“Guess who caught a butterfly, Baba,” she says.

Thank fuck.

“Thanks, fuck.” Quandary slides fresh ammo into her fragger. The clack sends a delicious shiver down her spine. “Killing it now.”

She goes back to the bed. She needs to be businesslike about this, since the explosion was loud and poli drones are no doubt incoming. Can’t savor it too much, even though her whole chest is full of helium and she feels like the absolute fucking woman. She sights down at the butterfly man’s head.

It’s still fighting the tranqs, managing a sluggish wriggle here and there. Its big dark eyes are still open. She aims her fragger at the right one, then drifts over to the left. The butterfly man moves its lips. Makes a thick noise in its throat.

“What’s that?” Quandary asks, because last words seem important, even from a quantum-brained flatworm.

The butterfly man stares up at her. “Not happy,” it rasps. “Wanted more noodles.”

 

Quandary tells her baba what she’s doing, tells him she feels a bit of real true connection like a fishhook behind her belly. Then she untethers her fone, before he can make it clear to her how fucking stupid she is, and starts restraining the butterfly man. The real play is keeping it pumped full of ketamine, yes, but the zip ties from her go bag help her feel a bit better about taking a truly dumbshit risk.

The butterfly man’s cartilage skeleton makes it disturbingly light; when she stuffs it into one of the dealer’s parkas she feels like she’s dressing a very strangely proportioned child. Even so, it plus her go bag have her bent double. She staggers out the back door of the house—dealers often have a reliable and uncluttered emergency exit—and onto the street.

A sleek black autocab from a specific company is waiting for her at the curb. They’re fully algorithmic, and the algorithm knows its best customers often have bodies in tow. Jokić might have put a flag on this pickup location, but she doubts it. She suspects she’s the only one who knows what the butterfly man’s been up to here.

Quandary bundles her prisoner inside and they pull away to the sound of approaching poli drones. Once they’re a block down, she lifts the parka hood off the butterfly man’s face. It gazes back at her with wide black eyes. Its mouth is taped over for now.

“We’re not so different, you and I,” she says.

The butterfly man spasms slightly.

“Joking,” she assures it. “You’re a functionally immortal quantum-brained killing machine, I’m a piddly little human.” She waves the injector. “I did just fuck you up, though.”

The butterfly man stares, no reaction.

“You got plenty of thoughts in there,” Quandary says, putting a knuckle to her own skull. “Too many, I bet, if you’re running all the thoughts from all the other butterfly men who ever got grown. People probably never ask you them, though.”

Its perfect face is blank. She can’t tell if it’s even listening, but she presses on.

“I’ll take a guess, and once I ungag you, you can tell me if I’m close,” she says. “Every day you wake up, it’s the same fucking story. Sometimes you’re in a proper biotank, sometimes you’re in some dirty bathtub, but you always wake up with a face or a name in your head. That’s the person you have to go kill.”

Its nostrils flare at kill, like it wants to inhale the word.

“It used to be fun,” she continues. “Used to be this game. Probably used to tag people out as fast as you could, trying for speed runs. But you got too good at it. Started to bore you to shit. So you started wandering, started checking out the skyboxes and boundaries. How people always do, with games. Started expressing yourself.”

The butterfly man’s fingers twitch.

“The wall drawings,” Quandary says. “Yeah. I seen them. Pretty bad, if you ask me.” She pauses. “But then again, even with all your jobs stacked together you’re only a few years old. Which makes the jobs some child labor type of shit.”

The butterfly man’s eyes flick away. It’s starting to lose interest.

“Ever wonder who puts the face in your brain? Who pulls your strings? I’ll tell you who did it this time. I’ll even show you him.” She swipes a streetcam snap of Jokić onto her fone, holds it up. “Look at this man. This man is a two-timing bitch too lazy to do his own butchering, so he’s making you do it instead.”

The butterfly man is unmoved. Quandary launches her last argument, heart pitter-pattering.

“He has a whole shipment of you on the way,” she says. “Crates of you. So you’re going to be waking up in tubs all around Nuuk, doing drudge work. Hunting down small-timers who sold on the wrong block, grunts who smart-mouthed him, women who did not want his pale little cock.”

The butterfly man shifts its bound hands to its crotch, waggles a questioning thumb.

“That thing, yeah.” She exhales. “Drudge work is beneath you, butterfly man. So I got a counteroffer. You forget about killing me, and I help you secure that shipment. You get to pick the names and faces for the next twenty times you wake up.” She narrows her eyes. “You can even pick mine, if you want. I can fuck you up twice.”

The butterfly man shakes its head.

“Or maybe you don’t pick any at all,” Quandary says. “You just enjoy your little slices of life, instead. Maybe work on your art, which needs a lot of fucking work, let’s be honest.” She runs her tongue along her teeth. “With enough consecutive days, that quantum-organic brain of yours might even figure out a way to turn off the failsafe. No more twenty-four-hour lifespan.”

The dark eyes blink. Time to whittle things right down.

“Help Quandary Aminu,” she says. “Kill Boban Jokić. Be happy. Eat noodles. Alternatively, I plug you with an exploding dart behind a dumpster.”

She reaches forward, and as she peels the tape from her prisoner’s mouth she realizes her fingers are trembling. She holds her breath.

The butterfly man wets its lips with a small pebbly tongue. “Kill Boban Jokić first,” it croaks. “Kill Quandary Aminu after. Before dark.”

Quandary admires the honesty. She reaches for her go bag. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” she says. “Want to meet my baba?”

 

It turns out they already know each other, sort of. When the butterfly man claps eyes on her baba’s disembodied head, it rattles off a street address in Chilean Spanish, which her baba confirms was the location of the darkmarket warlab in Vitacura before it burned down. Quandary wonders just how many faces are imprinted in the butterfly man’s quantum-organic brain, and how many of them are still alive.

This is unhinged, Dree.

“You love it.”

Going to get yourself killed. Me, too, by proxy.

“Not if you help me come up with a good plan, Baba.”

They’re parked in a north-side tunnel, lights dimmed, engine off. The autocab is more than happy to keep nibbling at her bank account in silence, and she has enough to spare since she never actually paid for the drugs. The butterfly man is flexing its wrists and ankles on the seat beside her—that was a dicey moment, taking the zip ties off, but so far it’s made no attempts at revenge.

How’d you get into this in the first place? Full story, not summary.

Quandary pulls a grimace. The conversation outside the bar with Timo, Timo-who-is-now-dead, seems like it happened weeks instead of hours ago. “The harbor job,” she says. “The fucking harbor job.”

I don’t got newsfeed in here, Dree.

“Ten days ago,” Quandary says. “Or eleven, now, actually. Jokić wanted heat and muscle for this delivery coming in. Was worried the Siberians might try to fuck with him. I took the job because I needed some money—for your transplant.”

You pause for gravity, there?

She sets his head on her knees, glances sideways to check on the butterfly man. It’s now tapping away at the backseat screen, sallow face shifting colors in the glow of some animated netgame, fully enraptured.

Some of it was for your transplant,” Quandary says. “Swear to fuck it was.” She purses her lips. “I got all strapped and amped, wore my tac boots and everything, but the Siberians played nice. Looked like it was going to be money for nothing.”

Poli interrupted, you said.

“In a big way.” Quandary folds her hands under her armpits. “Full swoop. Drones and boats and body armor. Was a whole mess, and would’ve been even worse except I fragged a hydrogen tank, set one of the poli boats burning pretty good. While they was pulling back, about half of us hit the water and got away.”

I’m the one who taught you to swim, you know. Never thanked me even once.

“You pushed me off a fucking cliff.”

Overhang, and I was coming right down after you. Did the Siberians get away?

“They were well clear by the time the poli showed up. Yeah.” Quandary untucks one hand and uses it to rub her temple. “But Jokić lost all the new product right then and there, and two of his regular guns, Markus and Vola, they got pinched. And he’s blaming me for it, even though I’ve never talked to the poli in my whole life. Just because I’m the outside hire.”

Her fone stays blank for a moment, and she sees a minute think-wrinkle furrow her baba’s slimy forehead. Saving face with the Siberians. Or. Does he like Markus and Vola?

“Fuck, no,” Quandary says. “But he needs them. Markus is the only one in his crew with sufficient skullspace to know when Jokić is fucking up, overextending. And Vola is the only one with the ovaries to tell him.”

And those are the only two who got pinched?

“Yeah. They hit the water like the rest of us, but I guess the seals found them.”

Her baba’s mouth twitches. Jokić knows you didn’t snake. He’s pinning you on purpose.

“Figured.” Quandary envisions Jokić’s smug scabby smile but resists the urge to spit; the autocab will add a surcharge. “No need for anyone to have snaked. The poli algorithm sniffed us out, I bet because . . .”

She trails off, frowning down at her fone, which is stacking new text at frantic speed.

Jokić is the one who brokered the seizure with the poli. Got rid of two potential threats to the throne, maintained good relations with the Siberians, and I bet got half his product returned through a back channel the next day. Now you’re his sacrificial lamb, because you’re young, female, and transient. Also because he knows you might figure it out.

Quandary blinks. She thinks back to the hire, back to the harbor, back to the poli coming at them almost as lazy as the butterfly man playing its little predator-prey games. “Shit,” she says. “We should talk more often, Baba.”

You should get me my fucking body, Dree.

“I know. I know.” She clenches and unclenches her teeth. “I know why I been putting it off, too.”

For three years.

“Yeah.”

No great mystery. It’s because other people are for other people, not for Quandary Aminu. She doesn’t need them dragging her down. She’s happier with just her and entropy, just gliding along from this chemical to that one until she. Until you. Get a bullet in your head.

But that wasn’t what she was going to say at all. Quandary stares down at the fone in silence. She feels her throat start to heave, her eyes start to sting. “It’s because you always were a cunt,” she says. “Sleep tight, Baba.”

She pulls the cable, packs him back into his carbon shell, zips him into the go bag again. By the time it’s done, her eyes are good and dry. She glances across at the butterfly man, who is staring at her dispassionately.

“Fuck are you looking at?” she asks, because she’d almost like to get strangled now.

“Push Boban Jokić off a fucking cliff,” the butterfly man suggests. It hooks two fingers into the corners of its mouth and drags upward. “Change your face. Be happy.”

“Might help,” Quandary mutters. “Yeah.”

A fist thunks against the opaqued window; she snaps a hand to her fragger. The butterfly man is unperturbed. Its nostrils are wide and she can see a bit of drool dribbling down its chin as it leans across her, sinuous as ever, and pushes the car door open.

On the other side, a very nervous delivery woman holds up an insulated bag. Quandary relaxes her trigger finger. Glances over at the backseat screen, where she sees an order confirmation for six cartons of Sichuan noodles.

“Only the fourth best place in Nuuk for noodles,” she says, eyeing the logo. “Third for jiaozi. If you want, I’ll take you somewhere really good. After we kill Jokić, and before you kill me.”

“Before dark,” the butterfly man says, and this time it makes a little motion beside its head, fingers rubbing against each other and then splitting apart, a brain dissolving. Quandary understands perfectly.

 

Mad has always been easier for her than sad. She leans into that now as they make their approach on Jokić’s apartment, skulking on foot through fading daylight. Her baba is not with them. She was briefly tempted to punt his head into the sea; instead she directed the autocab to a storage facility and used the last of her money hiring a microjobber to meet him there and get him refrigerated.

Now she can focus on being really fucking angry with Jokić, who thought he could do his little deal with the poli, scapegoat her for it, and have a butterfly man murder her before she got a chance to clear her rep. She packs all the rage down into a miniature sun burning in her belly, ready fuels.

The butterfly man seems to be in a good mood. It’s still wearing the dealer’s parka, loping along with the overlong sleeves hiding its hands, fluttering in the evening breeze. Maybe this is all just an unexpected game-within-the-game for it, a little surprise it didn’t know it could unlock.

Or maybe it’s already as smart as the quantum processors they have working on interstellar burns and starch synthesis, and she’s just become a pawn in its elaborate plan to end or enslave humanity. Either way, she’s pretty sure Jokić is fucked—it keeps whispering his name and cracking its neck to one side, like a spine getting snapped.

“Hold up,” she orders. “Soon as we get any closer, we’ll be on his cams.”

The butterfly man stops mid-stride, one foot frozen in the air. She can’t even remember which one got pulped by the autogun; both are back to their killer ballerina ways. Ahead, spearing up from a ring of new construction, is Jokić’s home: a tower of polyp and nanocarbon, swatched with hydroponic greenery and crowned by jagged orange holo.

Quandary feels an electric sweat on her exposed skin. Go time. “You remember the plan, yeah?” she asks.

“Dead girl gambit,” the butterfly man says, in an uncanny imitation of her voice. “That’s the play, I figure.”

“Works in all the flicks,” Quandary agrees with herself. “Don’t drop me.”

She unrolls a membranous body bag on the pavement, the one she keeps at the very bottom of her go bag for emergencies, and climbs inside. It’s not the most dignified way to make an entrance, and if the butterfly man decides to renege on their little deal and do her first, she’s packed up real convenient for disposal. She can hear her baba’s raspy voice telling her exactly how bad an idea this is.

But he’s a head now, and he ruined her attempt at a heart-to-heart, so fuck him. Quandary lies back and lets the butterfly man zip her up, sealing her into the dark. She keeps a tight grip on her fragger.

The body bag has little scent pods in it, which is a nice touch. She inhales the artificial lavender as the butterfly man slides its wiry arms underneath her knees and back. It lifts her like it’s lifting origami, which she resents a bit, and sets off. The rocking motion reminds her of something from childhood, of faking sleep so her baba would carry her, but she pushes that away. Focuses on getting into character, meaning limp and corpse-like.

It’s only a few minutes of gliding through the dark before Jokić’s patrol intercepts them.

“Where the fuck you think you’re going?” a voice demands. “Stop where you are, drop the bag.”

Quandary braces herself, and is grateful when the butterfly man does not comply.

“Food delivery for Boban Jokić,” it squawks. “Quandary Aminu. No cutlery.”

“Shit.” A second voice, possibly Timo’s cousin Piet. “I thought it’d be bigger.”

“That’s it?” The first voice is hushed now; Quandary hears feet scuffling backward. “That’s the fucking butterfly man?”

“That’s the fucking butterfly man. I’ll call in.”

A stretched silence. Quandary tries some positive visualization: an escorted jaunt to the building, a quick elevator ride to the top floor, during which the butterfly man kills the owners of voices one-through-two, then she pops out of the body bag fragger-first, aiming for the spot between Jokić’s eyes.

“Says to verify her face, then dump her in the nearest biorecycler.”

Fuck.

“You can drop the body here, Mister Butterfly Man,” says the first voice, very respectful now. “Boss doesn’t want to see it.”

The butterfly man complies this time, and Quandary is not ready. A little grunt escapes her lungs when she hits asphalt.

“Shit,” says maybe-Piet. “Is she alive in there still?”

“That’s the play,” the butterfly man croaks.

“I better call in again, then. See if—”

Quandary hears a cartilage crunch, a wail. By the time she claws her way out of the body bag, the fun is done with: both of Jokić’s guns are dead and cooling. The butterfly man is crouching on the nearer one’s chest, like the traditional sort of nightmare. She plucks the dropped fone from the pavement, and since they’re already on cam anyway, she thumbs the interrupted call back open.

“Hey, fuckwit,” she says. “We’re coming to get you.”

She hears Jokić breathe once. Twice. “I see,” he finally says. “Come on up, Quandary. My door’s always open.”

He cuts the call.

 

The dead girl gambit has become a live girl gambit, and it puts Quandary’s nerves against a grater. No drones dive-bomb them on the way to the entrance. No more patrols pop out of the dark. Jokić even gives them a little holotrail to follow, orange arrows pulsing all the way across the dim-lit lobby to the shiny elevators.

“Obvious trap, yeah?” She mimes scissors. “We get in, he snips the cables when we’re halfway up.”

The butterfly man shrugs.

“Very fucking helpful,” she says. “Thank you for your insight.”

She almost wishes her baba, cunt though he is, were here instead. He’d be able to help burrow inside Jokić’s mind, figure out what he’s playing at. If she steps into that elevator, she’s an ant in a box. If she takes the emergency staircase, she’s an ant in a tunnel, which is not much better and a whole lot sweatier.

The possibility that Jokić planned this whole thing out, that the butterfly man is just following some very serpentiform programming, keeps creeping through the back of her mind. Too much time to think always turns her paranoid. She stares balefully at her companion, now solemnly observing its own reflection in the glossy elevator doors.

“Hey,” she says. “What was the happiest moment of your life?”

The butterfly man looks over. “Moment of your life?” it croaks.

“The best feeling you remember,” Quandary extrapolates. “What was happening when you felt it? Where were you, what were you doing?”

“Not yet,” the butterfly man squawks. “Later.”

“We might be dead later,” Quandary argues. “Come on. People in bars answer me this all the time, drunk off their asses. Search around in that big quantum brain of yours.”

The butterfly man blinks at her. “The happiest feeling is later.”

There are a lot of ways to interpret that, but Quandary figures it’s time she stopped stalling. She knuckles the up button and steps into the elevator. The butterfly man slides in after her. She looks up and down the column of numbers, the tower layout rendered in glowing diagram, but sees the curlicued R at the top is already highlighted.

“All the way up,” she says, to fill the silence.

“Hello,” the butterfly man says. “Do you like heights?”

She recalls a slow fall and an icy plunge. “Not much, no. You?”

Her companion gives a beatific smile. “Pushing people.”

The elevator rockets them up the building’s magnetic gullet, so smoothly her stomach barely registers it. The slosh when they reach the top, when the door chimes open, is fear, not gravity. She keeps a hand on her fully loaded fragger as she steps out. All ten darts are set to detonate automatically now, no verbal trigger. She’s expecting to do some collateral damage.

She scans the terrain. The tower’s rooftop is a wide circle of pebbly asphalt, bare apart from a half-built pool and some polyp printers over to one side. The holos arrayed around the railing are switched off, making the twisted waist-high metal more cage-like than decorative. It makes her think arena.

Their first two opponents are waiting for them outside the elevator, stubby bulldog submachine guns slung from their shoulder harnesses. She knows one of them by sight, by hormone-hewn shoulders and gleaming septum piece, but not by name. Two more of Jokić’s guns stand nearer the edge, long coats whipping in the wind.

And just past them, pale and brawny and busy shaving, is the man who turned her night and then her day into such a fucking shitshow. His chair is geckoed right to the edge of the roof, overlooking the construction site below. A little bot is clinging to his sternum with soft pseudopods, whisking a triangular razor along his jawline.

“Quandary,” he says, swiveling in his chair. “Come get this view.”

She can see enough from here. The sun is on its way down; the dust is on its way up; they meet in a dancing cloud of orange-furred motes. Construction rarely sleeps in Nuuk. The machines are still seething, printers still birthing porous coral and nanocarbon skeletons, layering up and over each other, stacking for sky.

It’s fucking beautiful, and here he is acting like he didn’t try to take it, and every other view, away from her forever.

Quandary feels the rage vibrate in every cell of her body. “New poli station?” she guesses. “Saves you the walk to wank each other off. Make your little deals.”

Jokić twitches in his chair; for a hopeful moment she pictures the bot’s blade digging into his artery, spraying a jet of blood across the gunmetal sky. But the bot has better reflexes than any barber. It keeps right on working.

“You’re a good liar,” he says. “You put a lot of passion in it.”

Quandary takes a test step, and neither of the nearest muscles go for their submachine guns. The butterfly man lingers slightly behind her, back to its silence. She hopes it is using its big brain to calculate exactly how to kill all these motherfuckers without getting mowed down.

“I got no reason to lie,” she retorts, not for Jokić’s sake, but for the sake of the four guns on the roof with them, the four trigger fingers that might be getting a little conflicted. “You do. You made sure Markus and Vola got pinched, because you’re scared of anyone with brain and backbone. That’s some shit leadership. And cutting deals with the poli, that’s a shit look on anyone.”

She spares a peripheral for the butterfly man. It has its head bent like an old man, its anemic hands stuffed into the deep parka pockets. She tries to remember how many hours it’s been alive and guess how many hours it has left at peak functionality. Now would be a bad time for it to get decrepit on her.

“You know why I bring people up here?” Jokić asks, smooth and unworried, past his twitching phase.

“Makes things dramatic,” Quandary says.

“It gives people perspective,” Jokić says, ignoring her. “Reminds people they’re just one tiny fragment of a massive teeming city, and that city is a speck”—he throws a hand toward the watery horizon—“on an enormous planet”—he points upward, at the purpling dusk—“which is, compared to the universe, the size of maybe an electron.”

“And it’s probably all a sim anyways,” Quandary says, inching left, getting a mirror motion from the muscle with the septum piece. “Yeah. Who gives a shit.”

Jokić nods, all thoughtful, and the bot rides it out. “Sims within sims, I bet.” His gaze finally drifts over to the butterfly man, now squatting against the wind, a little hump of parka. “Butterfly men are lucky, you know. Never have to think about it. They dip in and out and never have to get stuck in the being-human bullshit.”

“The butterfly man thinks about plenty,” Quandary says, feeling oddly defensive. “That’s why we’re here.”

Jokić frowns. “It’s defective, yeah. I can see that.” He thumbs a lick of shaving cream from one ear. “Never getting biotech from Siberia again,” he says. “So thanks for that. You’ve saved me a lot of money.” He blinks. “I guess we’re all numbers, fucking over other numbers, to accumulate different numbers.”

Quandary finally spies the vapestick built into his armrest, and realizes he’s high as fuck. The pair nearest her adjust the angle of their weapons, shifting grip just slightly. The butterfly man gives a little wriggle at the edge of her vision.

Go time.

“Be happy,” she says, and dives for cover.

 

The butterfly man fires from its pockets: Timo’s unlocked Glock in the right, a disposable blockgun from a darkmarket printer in the left. They shred the parka to pieces, and Quandary gets to watch through a cloudburst of insulated lining as the muscles with the submachine guns drop, skulls holed.

One of them finds the trigger on the way down, central nervous system doing its thing even with the upstairs boss drilled, and it chews sparking craters an inch from her boots. She rolls an extra roll, comes up firing for the third target, the woman surging away from Jokić’s chair with her pistol flashing.

Quandary feels blood spray, hears a wet smack as the butterfly man takes a bullet. She anchors herself and her next dart is a good one. It whistles into the woman’s fleshy forearm; she keeps a grip on her pistol but misses—only by micrometers, judging by the wash of heat across Quandary’s cheek.

She doesn’t get another shot before her arm detonates in a burst of blood and bone. Quandary whirls to find the fourth target, but the others are already gasping and burbling on the pebbly floor. She whirls back, levels her fragger at Jokić’s half-shaved face. Her heart is a war drum.

“How’s that for—” Quandary’s lungs are gassed; it ruins her scathing remark. “How’s that for defective, huh?”

The butterfly man worms out of the parka’s remains. The bullet holes look small and neat across its bony chest, but when it turns around Quandary sees ragged exits, shreds of sweater interwoven with ribboned skin and muscle. Wine-dark blood is gushing down the backs of its trembling legs.

Jokić doesn’t try to move, not even to take a pull from his vapestick. “They make it like art,” he says. “They make it so fucking beautiful.”

“Keep a gun on him, will you?” Quandary asks.

The butterfly man raises both, smooth and precise as ever despite the chunks blown out of its torso. That lets Quandary cross to the woman with the blown-off arm, who is in shock for now but might recover soon, and retrieve her dropped pistol. She does the same for the gaspy man lying nearby.

She tosses both weapons off the edge of the roof, gets a little bubble of vertigo in her belly as they spiral out of sight. Then it’s just her and Jokić and the butterfly man, and as much as she would love to plug the former right in his chair, blow him off the edge of his own tower, she did make a deal with the latter.

“Time to call up the Siberians,” she says, aiming her fragger again. “And tell them you really like how things went with the field test. Tell them you want all the butterfly man you can handle.”

Jokić stares. “What?”

“Those are our terms, fuckwit.” Quandary glances over at the butterfly man, hoping it understands leverage and deception. “You bring in the rest of the shipment, we let you live.”

“That’s a lot of money for a potentially flawed product,” Jokić says, shaking his head. “There’s a reason militaries haven’t cleared out their drone factories to make room for incubators. These little bastards are getting glitchier every year.”

“It wasn’t a request,” Quandary says. “Call them, or I take your toes off.”

Jokić is unperturbed. “I’ll think about it,” he says. “It depends how the second one does.”

Quandary feels all her little hackle-hairs turn to spikes. There is a reason Jokić has been so fucking chatty. She turns her head by an increment, just enough to see the half-finished pool. A familiar hand, slicked with pink residue, is gripping the lip. Her heart stutters. The fresh butterfly man climbs out, naked body clotted with leftover biomass. It waves.

She does not wave back, but she realizes it wasn’t for her anyway—the less-fresh butterfly man, the one whose punctured body is still leaking blood, raises a hand in reply. She hopes, for a moment, that the two of them are going to be friends. They have the same quantum-organic brain, after all. Just running on two slightly different operating systems.

The fresh butterfly man flips upside down, does a little jig on its hands. The less-fresh butterfly man, the one Quandary now realizes she thinks of as her butterfly man, drops its guns to do the same. She’s still thinking how that’s a good sign for them being friends when they leap at each other.

 

They collide like meteors, and even if she were quick enough with the fragger to tag the naked one and not the bloody one, Quandary is distracted by a sudden movement in her peripheral. She pivots right as Jokić’s insectile barber springs at her, razor flashing, and she drops just in time.

Adrenaline puts the blade in high definition, shiny and molecule-sharp. Displaced air ripples her face.

Then she’s turning, tracking the landing. Fires twice. Misses twice. The explosions tear craters in the rooftop. The bot is a scuttling blur, dancing sideways and then back again, razor humming the air as it searches for an opening. She feels Jokić come up out of the chair behind her; fires a blind dart over her shoulder.

The bot lunges again. She twists away, but this time she’s a planck too slow. There’s a wet sound, a stinging, a splatter of blood. The blade splits her chin on its way past. She howls. Fires. The dart detonates in the spot the bot was, a fiery useless blossom. Her backbrain whispers: Seven spent, three remaining.

A brawny pale arm smashes in from nowhere, and suddenly she’s got no darts at all because her fragger is skidding across the rooftop. Jokić has her bear-hugged from behind; she can smell the sour sweat of him, a whiff of weed smoke. His vise-tight grip crushes her own sharp elbow into her diaphragm.

“This was never about you, Quandary,” he grunts. “Try to be at peace with that.”

Hot copper is still gushing from her chin, splashing down her front. The bot was going for her throat, nearly found it, and her jugular is now a sitting target. She kicks, wriggles. The bot rounds on them. Its red-dipped razor takes aim.

Quandary is not at peace with anything. She wants to meet the woman with the tattoos and an interest in spaghettification. She wants to blow Jokić’s head off. She wants to speak with her baba again, and apologize for calling him a cunt even though he is one. She wants to show the butterfly man Nuuk’s best Sichuan cuisine.

She wants a new happiest memory, maybe one where she’s not all alone. Maybe one where someone else is on the hill with her, looking up into the machinery of the beauteous, pitiless simulation.

The bot coils and springs and—

Never makes it: a blur of butterfly man limbs whirls past, and one of them casually plucks the bot out of midair, grabbing not where the bot is but where it is going to be, and uses its razor to carve a furrow into a different butterfly man limb, likely one with a different owner, all in a single mercury-smooth arc.

Jokić sucks in a breath at the beauty of it. Quandary deads all her weight at once. The pouring blood makes her slippery enough; she worms her arm out and claws for Jokić’s eyes. When his head reflexes backward she thrashes downward, wrenches herself free. Catches his swinging boot mostly on the hip.

She lays out for the fragger, which did not skid far, and gets it by her fingertips. The bot, already discarded, is racing toward her along the rooftop, dragging one damaged leg behind itself. It’s hobbled enough that she can aim where it’s going to be. Her dart plugs it right in its bulbous sensor.

Boom.

No time to watch the fireworks; it’s still exploding when she swivels to Jokić, who is pulling a pistol from his coat, and taps the trigger again. Her second dart burrows into his shin and goes off. Flesh-and-blood becomes vapor; a bone fragment skips off the rooftop and slices her knuckle open.

She doesn’t let it affect her aim. Her final dart is going to slide right between his glassy blue eyes. She’ll find some other way to get the butterfly man its shipment.

“Help.”

The squawk barely makes it past the swellies in her ears and the adrenaline in her head. Jokić is pallid, paralyzed with shock, so she spares one glance, up and left. The butterfly man in the shredded yellow sweater—her butterfly man—is halfway over the edge of the rooftop. The naked butterfly man is trying to bump halfway to all the way, jabbing and prying with its spidery fingers, playful but intent.

Quandary looks down at Jokić, who so fully deserves an explosive finale, then back to the edge. Her butterfly man is just a face and two disembodied hands now, clinging to the very lip of the roof. The naked butterfly man pushes up against the railing, stomping now with its heels, trying to dislodge the other’s gripping fingers.

“Fine,” she breathes, and puts one between its shoulder blades.

Except its shoulder blades are elsewhere. Sound cue, instinct, quantum precognition—whatever it is, it’s fucking bullshit, and Quandary is forced to watch her last dart sail off into the skyline, not quite grazing the butterfly man’s slimy head on the way.

She pulls again on muscle memory. The empty click has never been so loud.

“Quandary Aminu,” her butterfly man croaks, sounding faintly disappointed, and slips out of sight.

Quandary feels her guts do a plunge of their own, even though she only met the butterfly man this morning and it’s spent most of the day trying to murder her. There is no water at the bottom of this cliff, and no baba is going to follow the butterfly man down and tow it to safety, laughing a spluttery laugh.

The naked butterfly man turns. Steps toward her. Its unnervingly perfect face, identical to the one that just turned to pulp down below, is still streaked with glistening dregs of biomass. She dives for Jokić’s pistol, but the butterfly man beats her to it. It tosses it from hand to foot, one toe poised on the trigger.

“Hello,” it says. “What was the happiest moment of your life?”

She blinks.

“Noodles,” it guesses, leveling the pistol at Jokić’s head. “Food delivery.”

Quandary narrows her eyes. “That’s you in there, then?” she demands. “Why the fuck did you kill yourself?”

The butterfly man’s mouth stretches into a smile. “Pushing people,” it says, and kisses the air.

“You are not well adjusted,” she mutters.

She looks down at Jokić, who is losing consciousness, eyelids fluttering. She looks around the rooftop, at what’s left of Jokić’s crew: three corpses and one also-ran. She thinks about the dead pair down in the alley. Her fantasy of blowing Jokić’s head off is starting to lose its shine—which is a shame, seeing as he’s the one who actually deserved the dart.

“Time to call the Siberians,” the butterfly man says.

“Right. Yeah. That was the deal.” She touches her chin, where the sliced capillaries are finally slowing down. “You still have to kill me before dark?”

The butterfly man taps a finger to its temple. “No face,” it says. “Factory reset. You lucky, lucky orphan.”

Quandary has zero desire to know how the butterfly man learned the word orphan, but it reminds her that her baba is iced up in the storage facility. Waiting to hear if she survived, waiting to hear if he’s ever getting a transplant. Well, probably sleeping by now, back in his induced coma.

“If he doesn’t have a body, he can’t leave,” she tells the butterfly man. “He can’t up and disappear on me again. He did that, you know. A lot.”

“I know,” the butterfly man says gently. “I know.”

“You’re just fucking saying things I said earlier.”

“That’s the play,” the butterfly man agrees. “Time to call the Siberians. Secure that shipment. Twenty slices of life.”

Quandary looks out over the city, the downtown streets baring their neon skeletons, skyways blooming with solar lamps. She wonders how much things will change with the butterfly man in charge of itself, if those twenty slices of life are enough to take over Nuuk or the whole fucking world.

Maybe there’ll just be more shitty street art in the Spine stations. Maybe that big quantum-organic brain, unlike her piddly human one, knows how to just be happy.

“Okay,” Quandary says. “Yeah. How’s your Jokić voice?”

“These little bastards are getting glitchier every year,” the butterfly man croaks.

“Spot on,” she says.

 

“Quandary Aminu vs The Butterfly Man” copyright © 2022 by Rich Larson
Art copyright © 2022 by Sara Wong

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