Authors: Edward Ashton
For Bonnie. I wish you were here to see this.
'm turning away from the bar, drink in hand, when I feel a glass bump against my chest. I look down to see a girl with her mouth hanging open, a bright blue stain spreading down her white silk shirt. She's barely five feet tall, with curly red hair, shoulders like a linebacker, and biceps that look like short, angry pythons under ghost-Âpale skin. She looks up at me, and yeah, there's the brow ridge. This is not going to go well.
“Shit!” she says. “Shit! This was a brand-Ânew shirt, you asshole!”
She puts a hand to my chest and pushes me back. I hit the bar at kidney level, hard enough to leave a bruise. Beer sloshes over my hand and runs down my arm. By the time I look back, she's already swinging. I slip to the side, and watch her fist sail by. The bartender is reaching for something under the bar, and the bouncer is starting our way. My hands are up, palms open. If I have to hit her, it'll be a slap. I have no problem with punching a girl in principle, but Neanderthals have heads like bricks. She looks me in the eye. I can see the wheels turning. That wasn't as fast as I can move, but it was fast enough to make an impression. She straightens up, and drops her fists.
“I'm Terry,” she says. “Buy me a drink and call it even?”
o let me guess,” I say. “Dad wanted a football star?”
Terry leans her elbows on the table and takes a surprisingly dainty sip from her drink. She called it a parrot, but it looks and smells like blue Drano.
“Something like that, yeah. Didn't have the money for a real engineer, though. They even botched the gender, obviously. I was supposed to just get the muscles and the extra bone strength, but .Â .Â . well, you can see what I got. What about you? Manufactured for the NBA?”
“What makes you think that?” I ask, and finish my beer in one long pull. I'm not actually much of a drinker, but I'm still winding down from our scuffle by the bar, and I feel like I need to take the edge off.
“Come on,” she says. “What are you, seven feet tall?”
“Not quite,” I say. “I'm six-Âseven, and it's one-Âhundred-Âpercent natural. I come from a long line of giant, gangly Swedes.”
“Maybe.” She takes another sip and leans back in her chair, tilts it up on two legs and balances for a moment, then drops the front legs back to the floor with a bang. “But you'd be surprised how many times I've taken a swing at someone in a bar, and I don't usually miss that badly.”
I laugh again, a little harder this time. Alcohol-Âwise, I might actually be moving past taking the edge off at this point.
“Nah,” I say. “I wouldn't be surprised. If the original Neanderthals were as douchey as you guys are, it's no wonder we wiped them out.”
Her eyes narrow. I'd guess she's thinking about taking another poke at me, but instead she leans back in her chair and smiles.
“You're avoiding, my gigantic friend. I hang out with a lot of Engineered, and I've never seen anyone move that fast. Even the military exoskeletons are more strength than speed. I don't know if you're mechanical or biological, but you're definitely something. What did they give you?”
I raise one eyebrow.
“That's a pretty direct question.”
“I'm a Neanderthal. We're douchey but direct.”
She grins and takes another sip of her parrot. She has a wide, toothy smile, and I catch myself thinking that she's really kind of cute when she's not trying to punch me.
“My mods are biological,” I say finally. “I'm a genetic chimera, technically. They cut me with mouse genes. I've got something like eight percent type C muscle fibers.”
That earns me a flat, blank stare. Apparently, I need to elaborate.
“Ever try to catch a mouse?” I ask. “They've got tiny little legs. They ought to be easy to get hold of, right?”
“Sure,” she says. “But they're quick.”
“Right. Big mammals have fast-Âtwitch and slow-Âtwitch muscles. Little ones have a third type. Think of it as fast twitch plus. It's what keeps them a step ahead of the cat. That's what I got.”
Her smile turns into an almost-Âsmirk.
“But you don't have an entourage, and I've never seen you on the vids. So, I'm guessing there's a catch.”
I run a hand back through my hair and sigh.
“Yeah, there's a catch. It turns out there's a reason that only tiny animals have type C fibers. I can jump through the roofâÂbut only once every six weeks or so, because pretty much every time I try, I pull a muscle or break a bone. I played ball in high school and for a year in college. I was one of the first Engineered to play at that level, and for a while there was actually some fuss about whether it was fair for me to compete with the unmodified kids. I gave it up after my freshman year, though. I got tired of getting crap from the other players, I got tired of having to be careful all the time, and I got tired of hanging out with the trainers.”
She leans back, and laces her fingers behind her head.
“Did you ever ask them what they were thinking?”
“What who were thinking?”
“Your parents. You look like you're about the same age as I amâÂnorth of twenty-Âfive, south of thirty, right?”
I nod. I'm thirty-Âsix, but she's close enough.
“So,” she says, “germ-Âline mods weren't even legal in most places when they cut us. And even where they were, nobody knew what they were doing.” She looks down at herself and scowls. “I mean, obviously, right? So, what were they thinking? You wouldn't buy the first model year of a new car, would you? But they took a flyer on the first model year of a new species.”
I shrug. She's right, of course. And the fact is, I did once ask my dad why he did it. I was nineteen then, in the hospital with a shattered femur, the morning after my last basketball game. I was bitter and sulking, blaming Dad for the fact that I was hurt, that I hadn't been able to keep a lid on it, that I hadn't been able to stay under control.
He probably should have just smacked me in the back of the head and walked out of the room, but he didn't. Instead, he said, “I knew we were taking chances, Anders, and I'm sorry that things didn't entirely work out. But even back then, I could see what was coming. Twenty years from now, unmodified kids won't be able to make a high school basketball team, let alone play in college. Twenty years after that, unmodified kids won't be able to get a job. That's where we're going, son, and I thought it would be better for you to be one of the first ones of the new breed than one of the last ones of the old.”
And you know, I get that. I really do. Dad was afraid of being left behind when the species moved on. He was probably right, honestly. He was just twenty years too early.
At least he had plenty of money, so I didn't have some dipshit grad student cutting DNA on me like my new friend here apparently did. Even with that, thoughâÂthe best-Âlaid plans.
Of mice and men. Get it?
Terry pushes back from the table and heads over to the bar. I take the opportunity to check messages. Nothing. I was actually supposed to meet someone here tonight, but as far as I can tell, she never showed. Or maybe she did, and when she saw me mixing it up at the bar, she bolted. Doesn't matter. I only knew her through the nets anyway, and my track record with transitioning virtual relationships to real ones is pretty poor for some reason. I pocket my phone. Terry sits down again, and sets another beer in front of me.
“So,” she says. “Are we on a date now?”
wake up. The sun is red through my eyelids, and I can't feel my right arm. I open my eyes. The reason I can't feel my arm is that it's pinned underneath a redheaded bowling ball. I lift my head and look around. This is not my bedroom. I'm in a twin canopy bed with lacy pink curtains. The sun is pouring through the half-Âopen window and boring a hole through my brain. I close my eyes and let my head fall back again.
Terry coughs. A spray of hot spittle hits my chest. She groans and rolls away from me. I take the opportunity to pull my arm back. It flops across my stomach like a dead fish. I lift the covers and take a quick glance down. I'm naked. Terry's wearing a pink tee shirt and panties. There are ugly purple bruises on both of my thighs.
I close my eyes again. My head is throbbing, but I don't know where Terry keeps her painkillers and I don't have the energy to try to find out. As I drift off, I half-Âdream a sound like a bird scratching at the windowpane. I try to open my eyes to see what it is, but at this point even that's too much effort.
wake up again. The sun is higher now, making a bright rectangle on the floor instead of on the inside of my skull. My head is pounding, and my mouth feels like someone put little fuzzy socks on each of my teeth. I'm alone in the bed. I sit up slowly. The room spins once or twice around before settling back into place.
The door swings open and Terry comes in, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans now, looking freshly scrubbed. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She tosses me a water bottle. It bounces off of my forehead and drops to my lap.
“Thanks,” I say. Or try to, anyway. What comes out is more like a croak. I open the bottle and drink half of it down without stopping to breathe.
“You're a late riser,” she says. “I wonder if maybe you had too much to drink last night.”
“Maybe.” I rub my face with both hands, then use my knuckles to dig the crust out of the corners of my eyes. Terry clears her throat.
“So,” she says. “You got big plans this morning?”
“Uh .Â .Â .”
“Don't misunderstandâÂI'm not asking you to stay. I'm asking you to leave.”
I take another long drink. She watches me expectantly.
“So,” I say finally. “We hit it last night, huh?”
She rolls her eyes.
“Yeah. Pretty disappointing. Apparently, you're super fast at that, too.”
She smiles. My head is still aching, but for some reason I smile back.
“No, not really. You passed out before I could get your pants off.”
I take another quick glance under the sheet.
“Oh. So why am I naked?”
Her smile widens until it's almost a leer.
“I didn't say I didn't get your pants off. I just said you passed out first.”
I finish the water bottle. My mouth still tastes like ass.
“Any idea how my legs got bruised?”
“You fell over my coffee table.”
“Ah.” I rub my face again. “What time is it?”
She glances down at her phone.
I groan and swing my feet off the bed and onto the floor.
“I actually do have somewhere to be,” I say. “Think you could hand me my pants?”
t's a perfect spring morning, cool and crisp, with a deep blue sky and just a hint of a breeze. Terry's apartment is on Thirty-Âthird, not too far from JHU. I need to get to a diner on North Charles, up closer to Loyola. I give a few seconds of thought to pinging for a cab, but I'm not supposed to meet Doug until noon, and I'm thinking maybe the walk will do me some good.
Baltimore's always been a pretty town. The sun dances on the glassphalt on West UniversityâÂsomething I'd appreciate a lot more right now if every glitter didn't feel like an ice pick in my brain. I cut through the Hopkins campus and turn up Linkwood, past the student housing and into the professors' neighborhood. The trees here are old and thick limbed, leaning out over the sidewalk, and the houses are neat and clean and well maintained. I'm basically a squatter in a run-Âdown townhouse on Twenty-Âeighth. I'd love to move up here, have a little bit of yard and a deck, but I'm not a professor. I'm a part-Âtime instructor at three different schools, which is not the sort of career that supports the good life.
My mother calls me every week or so. Almost every time, she asks me when I'm going to get a real job, when I'm going to start my life. It's a valid question, and I haven't come up with a valid answer. Honestly, I'm not sure what a real job is at this point. I don't know anyone who does anything that she would recognize as work. I have a friend who makes a bit as a product promoter, and one who does temporary art installations for parties and weddings. I know a Âcouple of guys who live on government credits, and one who works for his dad, but never actually seems to do any work.
And then, there's Doug. I have no idea what Doug does.
I walk into the diner at 12:04. I don't bother wondering if Doug is here yet. I know that he walked through the door at precisely 12:00. I glance around, and there he is, just being seated by the hostess at a table near the back. I'd prefer a booth, but his exoskeleton doesn't fit into the bench seats very well, and when he kicks your shin under the table, it really, really hurts. I walk over. The hostess has my place set up across from him, but I pull the chair around to the side of the table.
“Hey,” he says. “You look like crap.”
I drop into my seat and rub my temples with both hands.
“No doubt. How're things on the far side of the singularity?”
“Good,” he says. “I just ordered waffles.”
“Awesome. With your brain thingie, you mean?”
“Don't be a dick, Anders. It's a wireless neural interface. You know this.”
“Did you order anything for me?”
“Depends. Are you going to call it a brain thingie again?”
I wave a waitress over. She's a PrettyâÂflawless skin, white-Âblonde hair, eyes, nose and ears symmetrical to the micrometer. She looks me up and down, then rolls her eyes at Doug.
“I can take your order,” she says, “but you know you gotta tip for him, too, right?”