Authors: Penny Publications
Tags: #Asimov's #458
For many years Sean Monaghan(
)tutored creative writing in his native New Zealand. He now focuses on his own writing, although he continues to work as an educator and librarian in a busy public library. Science fiction publications include stories in
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
Sean has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and has published numerous stories in New Zealand literary journals such as
The author's first story for
takes a gritty look at family life, alien medical tech, and...
Jenni had become a low-rent hooker by the time Den found her again. She was working out of the back of a ramshackle duplex two blocks off China Lake Boulevard, taking what she could get. She'd lost her right leg from the knee down on account of a festering abcess started from a track of needle sticks. Even after that, she was still getting high most days. If she could score. If she'd had enough clients to front the cash. With the missing leg, and her age anyway, the few clients she could actually get were either the kinky fetish guys who found the stump a turn-on, or officers who'd come up through the ranks, having known her since they enlisted, and felt bad for what happened. Not many of them, but they paid regular rates.
"Yep?" she said as she opened the door. She'd done her hair, done her make up. That made her look kind of classy. She had a second-hand plastic prosthesis strapped up around her knee. Den figured that was probably part of the whole thing. Clients would find out soon enough, and if they didn't like it they'd get violent, or storm out without paying.
"You don't remember me?" Den said. Even through her years of wear and tear, he could see the family resemblance. His father's eyes, his father's chin.
"Honey, please. Much as I'd like to be a sweetie and remember your face and your name, that's not a particular skill I have." She smiled, her teeth wide and straight, though a molar was missing and the rest were yellowed. "However, I'm sure I'll remember what you like."
Behind her a blue cat leapt up onto the table. It fixed Den with its eyes for a moment, then sat, focused on a paw and began washing its head. He could smell meatballs cooking.
"I'm your brother."
Jenni blinked. Her eyes closed and she put a hand up to the doorframe. "Dan."
Before he could respond, she corrected herself.
"Den. Yes. How old are you now?"
"Twenty-six," he said.
She nodded, a kind of wavering nod that began at her waist. She wasn't high, but she was probably coming back down. Probably looking for some Benzedrine or some amorophyl to take the edge off while she got it together to go to work or score again. "You were fourteen," she said.
"I've come with an offer," he said. Having seen the cat he knew she would be open to it.
Jenni laughed. "Well," she told him. "It's so very rare that I get offers." Her laugh went on.
Out on the street a car went by. Too fast. Jenni's laugh trailed off. She stared at him and frowned. "Little brother," she said.
He nodded and glanced out at the tail end of the car. An old Mustang. Probably owned by a seventeen-year-old enlisted man heading back to base from visiting one of Jenni's neighbors.
Jenni's mother had been killed by a car. Jenni had been eight, her mother twenty-four. They'd been walking home from Wal-Mart and a Corvette had been racing a Subaru, lost control and bounced over the sidewalk. Her mother's hand had been torn out of Jenni's. The woman went under the car. The car went through a fence and had been found the next day, burned out at the Inyokern city dump. The owner had reported it stolen, but not until hours later. Official documents showed he'd never left the base, though Jenni's father didn't believe that. The air force looked after its own. In a way.
The kid had died a couple of weeks later in a live fire exercise.
"You better come in," Jenni said. "You're scaring away business."
Den closed the door behind him. "Dad says hi," he told her. Their father was living in Caspar now, fly-fishing through his retirement. He owned a share in a bakery, and with his military pension he was doing all right.
"Yeah. You should tell him to send me some money." Jenni went to the kitchenette and pulled a juice bag from the electric cooler.
"I'll do that."
"It's hot out. You want some?" She held up the bag, reaching around for a plastic tumbler.
"I'm good," he said. "I can get you a leg."
"Got a leg," she said. She held out her good leg, balancing on the prosthesis. "And a spare." She switched. The plastic leg swung like a pendulum. She drained juice into the tumbler. "Mangorange," she said. "With watermelon."
"I'm not supposed to be here," he said. "It's supposed to be a lottery. Chaiston is looking for volunteers, but you have to go into the ballot. I want you to get on it. I can make sure your number gets pulled."
"The new organics they're making are perfect. Viable. They integrate." Den walked over to the cat and scratched it under the chin. It leaned forward into his hand, closing its eyes.
Jenni sighed. She put the tumbler to her mouth and drained the juice. "You know what I think? I think that you only ever went to work there because of me. I think you feel sorry for me. You feel sorry because your mother is still alive and mine isn't. Because you're closer to Dad. Because you're some Ph freaking D who makes two hundred and fifty G pipetting liquids from one test tube to another and I'm a lousy call girl with one leg. And yes, I do know all about you."
She knew some, he thought, but had plenty of details wrong. He kept himself framed, but also ran faux snippets with fake data.
"You think I'm not happy? You think that you can come in here and promise me a leg. How am I going to make a living? How do you think I'm going to get by if you get me a leg?"
The cat pulled away and jumped off the table. Its fur flashed iridescent for a moment, the roots showing red and gold. Greer-Klein had been pumping peacock feather genetics into felines.
"Now," she said, "this is where you tell me that this is no way to make a living. That I'm too old anyway. Did you know that I'm thirty-four? Thirty-four years old. I've been doing this for close to twenty years."
Den put his deck onto the table where the cat had been. The deck unrolled and booted.
"Fancy," Jenni said, stepping over.
He waved up the Chaiston menus and swept around to legs and arms. "Not real, you understand," he said, expanding to the below-knee grafts. "That would be kind of creepy. These are illustrations."
"Pretty creepy anyhow."
"This is what we're doing."
"How did you find out about my leg?" She waved at the screen. The Chaiston menus swirled off and she plucked at the piano icon. The keys appeared and the screen expanded left and right to give a full two octaves. With a ripple, the keys textured and lifted up. Not quite like a real piano, but the couple of millimeters difference between the white and black keys created a tactile distinction. "Nice," she said. She played a few bars of
and followed that with a classical piece he didn't know, running into something by Pink Floyd and changing into a music hall honkytonk rag. Perfect invisible segues. The music stopped and she lifted her hands away.
"I used to play," she said. "Be nice to have a piano again."
Den left the piano on the deck's screen. "You came up on the lists. Local amputees." She nodded. "I'm registered, of course." She squinted. "With a privacy frame." Den shrugged. "Sure. That's not so much of an issue for Chaiston."
"Well, that's just—"
"Because I know you. You're my sister. I overrode. You're going to want one of these legs."
"We pay you."
Jenni grinned. "That's what I meant."
"So you'll do it?"
She kept grinning.
It took Den a moment. "Thirty thousand."
"And if I don't like it?"
"You're going to like it.
Again she didn't stop staring.
"I guess you could take it off again," he said. "Maybe." He knew she wouldn't want it off after.
"Okay. And I want a deck like yours. With a piano."
"Let me get my things."
Again it took him a moment to realize what she meant. "Now? Listen, I was just trying to talk you into it. We can put you into a slot in a couple of weeks."
"A couple of weeks." Her eyes glazed.
Den nodded. "It's a full program."
"It's a medical program, right?"
"Mm-hm. Of course. It's—"
"So why are you talking about weeks? I might have changed my mind in another hour." She pulled up her sleeve to show him tracks.
Den didn't know how to respond. He'd pushed the limits of his clearance and called in favors to get her slotted in at all. If he tried to squeeze her in sooner he was going to lose his job. But now, standing here in front of her, he couldn't argue. She was right, and he was probably lucky to have timed his arrival for a moment when she wasn't either high or working to earn enough for her next hit. "This can help with that, too," he said. "Get your things."
"I'm ready to go," she said, picking up a big handbag from one of the dining chairs.
"Always ready. Where's your car?" She glanced toward the front door.
Parked out at the curb he had a Toyota rental from the Avis kiosk at Inyokern airport.
It was due back in the morning, but he'd planned on taking the next plane out. There were only two flights a day, both in little zippons, direct to LAX. But that wasn't going to work now. He needed time to think, and time to figure out how to slot her into the schedule.
He was going to have to call Melissa and see if she could be sweet-talked into switching some of the patients out.
"We flying?" Jenni said. She had the bag on her shoulder and was heading for the door.
"Thought we'd drive." Den thumbed the deck and it flattened, shrank and rolled up.
"Good. I need to run a couple of errands on the way."
"How long's this going to take, you think? Gotta find someone to feed my cat."
"Right." The cat jumped back up onto the table and butted its head against Den's hand.
Jenni locked the door behind them and came out to the car. Her swaying gait was odd to watch. "Nice," she said. "Yours?"
"Avis. I drive a Camaro." Inyokern was a small airport. The range had been limited.
"Of course you do, honey."
She nestled into the passenger seat. As Den pulled out, Jenni pointed ahead. "You make a left up here, before the main road."
Den eased the car around the high curbs, into another street of duplexes and trailer homes.
"Guess you earn a lot of money," she said. "Guess you're pulling a quarter mil?"
"Million and a half."
"Now see, I should be complaining you don't send me any money."
"You'd just put it in your arm."
"Yeah, well, putting it in my leg didn't work out so good." She pointed ahead.
"Straight through here, then make another left on Herschel."
The car cruised along at twenty on the back streets, reading the curbside markers. Some kids scooted by on wheelies. A crow danced around the middle of the intersection and the car slowed, easing by the bird.
"Tell me," she said. "Is this grafted limb going to fix me?"
"Fix you? Well, you'll be able to walk."
"Oh, I walk fine. After this left take the third right. What I mean is, my receptors.
This is that alien technology, right? Stuff from the stars? Super dynamic DNA growing stuff that will thread its way through me and make me a better person."
"It's vat-grown, if that's what you mean. It's not a donor limb."
"Donor." She looked at him, then back out the windshield. "Oh, yeah. Like someone from a wreck."