Authors: David Farland
A dusty gray hovercraft floated to a stop in front of
my booth in the feria. As its door flipped open an emaciated woman
struggled up from the shadows within and into the stabbing
daylight. A strange feeling swept over me, the physical shock one
feels upon recognizing an old friend whose face has been marred by
tragedies. I searched my memory for an elusive name.
Her head slumped and rolled from side to side as she
moved. Sweat stained the armpits of her black skinsuit, and blood
dripped from the bandaged stump at the end of her right arm. An old
mestizo woman lurched away from the craft, made the sign of the
cross, and muttered "¡Qué horror!" A small boy gaped at the thin
woman and moaned "¡Una bruja!" and the crowd murmured in agreement
that this walking skeleton must be a witch.
She staggered to my booth, shouldering past curious
peasants, and thrust her bloody stump over the counter. I opened my
mouth, hoping my tongue would find the name my mind couldn’t
supply, as she demanded in English, "Are you Señor Angelo
I nodded, relieved that she didn’t know me, secure in
the knowledge that her husky voice was unfamiliar.
She braced herself on the counter, trembling. "Can
you fix this ... this body?"
"Sí—yes," I said, gently prodding the stump at the
end of her arm. "Do you have your hand? Perhaps we could reconnect
Her wound was fresh, but would soon be infected. "A
new hand will take months to grow—months more to be usable. Might I
suggest that a prosthesis would be fast—"
"Do a hand. Now! And bones too. I need bones." She
talked with the quick, commanding voice of the rich refugiados from
the Estados Unidos Socialistas del Sur. I thought she must be a
criminal from Guyana or the American colonies in Brasilia
Independiente. I studied her closely: The slope of her shoulders
and her narrow cheeks indicated that she’d been born with a small
frame, but even if she had bone disease too, the two factors
couldn’t account for the small diameter of her joints. "How long
were you in low-G?" I asked.
"Never been in low-G," she lied.
"You should be in the hospital," I told her, afraid
to deal with a criminal. "I am only a poor pharmacologist. And my
drugs are not as miraculous as people sometimes claim."
"Fix me!" she said. "No hospitals. No questions." She
pulled out a computer crystal as long as her hand and slipped it
into my palm. Its smooth, non-glare surface was virtually
invisible, except for the packet of liquid RAM at one end. It was
fine crystal, Fugitsu quality, worth a small fortune, perhaps even
enough to buy a rejuvenation treatment. I had never been able to
afford a rejuvenation, and needed one badly.
"You need a place to rest—a hospital bed," I
She leaned forward, and I saw she was young, much
younger than I had first imagined; her black hair fell in front of
her deep-set, black eyes and her sweaty face paled with genuine
terror. "If you ball me over, I die," she said.
In that moment when she showed her terror, I thought
she was beautiful. I felt a strong urge to help her, to comfort
her. Telling myself she might not be a criminal, I got out of my
booth and locked its rusted aluminum door, then escorted her back
to the hovercraft. I gave the driver my address in Gatún and told
him to go by way of Avenida Balboa. He drove slowly through the
crowded feria, and soon the thin woman closed her eyes and curled
into a ball and breathed in the wheezing manner of those deeply
asleep. We floated past crowds of mestizos selling bright dresses
and macaws, fresh fruit, cheap Thai microchips tumbling from
Everywhere their hungry eyes and gestures beckoned
the merchant sailors from Europe, Africa, and Asia who searched the
backwaters of Panamá for high-tech and contraband items.
The local peasants became angry with my chauffeur for
driving in a pedestrian zone and refused to move, so he flushed the
hovercraft’s thrusters, blowing hot air and dust into the crowds,
burning the naked legs of the children. Their curses and cries of
pain came to me distantly through the thick glass of the windows. I
felt dirty and sinful to be in that craft, and wished I hadn’t
agreed to take care of the thin woman. I jacked in a call to
Uppanishadi-Smith Corp. and ordered a limb-regeneration kit, an
osteoporosis rehab packet, and a self-regulating canister of
fluothane. I wetted my lips with my tongue and searched the faces
in the crowd for a friend.
On the border of the free zone, the crowds thinned
and I found Flaco, a good friend who did not mind dealing with
criminals as much as I did, and had the driver stop the limo. Flaco
stood with some arms dealers who haggled with four guerrillas over
the price of used body armor.
One of the guerrillas pulled off a helmet, and I saw
by his oversize, misshapen ears that he was a chimera—one of the
genetically upgraded supermen General Torres had created in Chile
before the socialists overthrew his regime. I watched the chimera
search through the armor for a better helmet.
Although he was short in stature, his frame was huge.
In Haiti men had engineered ten-kilo fighting cocks with spurs long
enough to disembowel a coyote, and no one had raised an eyebrow.
But when Torres announced that he was engineering chimeras so they
could live on other planets, the news caused fierce riots in
Concepción, revolt in Temuco. I remembered a picture shown to me by
a peasant from Talcahuano: he smiled as he and a fellow rioter each
held the wingtip of a large brown creature, half bat, and half man.
He told me he’d clubbed it inside one of the engineering compounds.
The Alliance of Nations had lodged formal protests of the work done
The chimera finally picked the best helmet in the
lot. He had a broad, pleasant smile, and I was happy he had come to
fight the Colombians.
I waved to Flaco. He came to the hovercraft, stuck
his narrow face through the window and raised an eyebrow as he saw
the thin woman.
"Hola, Angelo. So, you have taken to dating dead
women?" he said, laughing. "Good idea. Very classy! Very
I got out of the hovercraft, embraced Flaco, and
walked out of the thin woman’s listening range. "Yes," I said.
"She’s quite a catch for an old man. Not only is she beautiful, but
when I’m done with her, she’ll make fine fertilizer for the lawn."
Flaco laughed. I handed him the crystal. "What is the value of
Flaco rolled it over in his hand. "Any software on
"I don’t know."
"Maybe 400—500 thousand," he said.
"Will you check its registration code? I think it’s
stolen. Also," I whispered, "I must know who this woman is. Can you
get a retina scanner and bring it to my home tonight?"
"Yes, my friend," Flaco whispered. He glanced
at the woman in the floater. "Once, I saw a spider with legs that
thin—" he said, "I stepped on it." He patted my shoulder and then
I got in the hovercaft and left the free zone. And as
we floated down the highway on the outskirts of Colón, we rolled
past the evenly spaced rows of banana plants. Because I’d never
floated down that road in a fast car before, I noticed for the
first time how perfectly ordered the plantations were, with each
plant three meters from its neighbor. I lost my eyes while serving
in the army in Guatemala as a young man, and had them replaced with
prosthetics. They register colors in the infrared spectrum as
shimmers of light, something like the sheen one sees glimmering off
platinum in the sunlight. And on this day the dark green canopy of
the banana plants shimmered with infrared light. Under the canopy
of leaves were jumbles of hammocks, burlap lean-to’s, tents,
cardboard boxes and old cars—squalid, temporary shelters for the
refugiados who were fleeing the socialist states in South America.
The refugiados were afraid to brave their way through Costa Rica to
the north, so they huddled together, waiting for ship passage to
Trinidad or Madagascar or some other imaginary capitalist
I looked at the homes among the plantations and
thought it strange to see such disorder among order. It reminded me
of an incident from my childhood: a family of murderers called the
Battistas Sangrientos had been caught selling body organs outside
When the police caught them, they took the family to
the beach to execute them in front of the whole town so people
would know what a despicable crime had been committed. Three boys
in this family were only children, perhaps ten to twelve years old,
and it was rumored that when gutting victims these boys often raced
each other to salvage the most precious organs. But all the
Battistas swore the boys were innocent. And when the police got
ready to shoot the family, the Captain told them to form a line,
but the young boys clung to their murderous father and refused to
leave. The policemen clubbed the boys, and it took a long time for
the police to get the family to stand in line. And once the family
was standing in a line, it took a long time for the Captain to give
the order for the firing squad to shoot. I have always believed
that the Captain waited just so he could enjoy that moment of
watching them stand in line. And as the bullets tore through the
children I wondered, Why could the Captain not shoot them while in
a huddle, clutching their father? What difference did it make?
When we reached my home, I carried the thin woman to
the cool basement and laid her on a blanket on the floor. I checked
her pulse and was looking at the bandage on her stump when I heard
a foot scuff on the carpet behind me. The limo driver had brought
in two small bags and set them down. I paid him for the thin
woman’s fare, and it took all of my cash money. I escorted him from
the house and asked if he would drive me to Colón for free since he
was going that way. He said no, so I walked the eleven kilometers
back to Colón to pick up my drugs at Uppanishadi-Smith Corp.
I enjoyed the walk back home. My house was old and
the plaster walls were crumbling, but all the other houses in the
area were also in poor repair, so it didn’t look bad by comparison.
Some people even thought it was a rich person’s house because it
was on the lake and because they couldn’t imagine a morphogen
dealer not being rich. But I had once hustled rejuvenations in the
penthouses of Miami, where people never seemed to overcome the
boredom of their hollow lives, where a person’s obtainment of a
rejuvenation treatment was often the prelude to suicide. I would
sun myself on my rooftop in the afternoons, and dream of a simple
place where people lived lives of passion. I found that place when
I found Panamá.
By the time I got back home the sun had just set. The
air was getting cool. Flaco lay under the papaya tree in my front
yard, watching a large brown fruit bat gorge on the uppermost
papayas and spill dark seeds to the ground. "¡Hola¡ Angelo," he
called when he saw me. "I brought that thing you wanted. Spider
Legs is inside. She’s awake now. I brought beautiful yellow roses
for her. She likes them as much as that bat likes papayas. I think
her nose is stuck to the flowers."
"So, you have met her?" I asked.
"Yes. I told her I am a doctor, and that you called
me in to administer medications."
"Did she believe you?"
"Oh yes, I am a very good liar," Flaco laughed.
"Also, that crystal did have software on it—old military
"Yes. A reality program for a brain bag."
I had once heard a doctor at a convention give a
speech on reality programs. The military attached them to brains
when they needed to store them for transplanting. The reality
program kept the transplantee from suffering sensory deprivation,
so he wouldn’t become paranoid or psychotic. It locked him in a
dream where he ate, worked, slept, and did other routine things,
unaware he was separated from his body. But the reality program can
only tap into existing memories and vary scenarios by merging
portions of those memories. The brain bag then monitors the brain’s
reaction to the scenarios and keeps it from becoming surprised or
shocked. I asked, "Is it stolen?"