Chapter 2

By L.X. Beckett
May 25, 2019 · 7,722 words · 29 minutes

Photo by Piron Guillaume via Unsplash.

From the author: Driven to desperation when his social media profile takes a nosedive Woodrow Whiting enters into a dangerous agreement with an elderly performance artist: he'll engage in medically unnecessary chemotherapy, and she'll get him access to smartdrugs...


Seraph was against it, of course, so opposed she showed up in the flesh next morning, right at ten as Drow was making to leave. She piled into Tala’s gas-guzzling hire-a-limo, brimming with righteous fire. “Drow’s supposed to profile an insider who’s against the pop-up chemo program. End of story.”

“You know I wanted to realtime a patient.”

“Victim, you mean?”

Tala interrupted: “Are you going to introduce your friend, Handsome?”

“You’ve already whoozed each other.” The women bristled from opposite corners of the cab. “Seraph, it’s a better story. First I do the medical screening, then I take the pop-up assessment. It will show just how much they’re distorting the risks.”

“Yes, very clever. Show the distort by all means, Drow. Compare, contrast, get the scoop from your source! Like Like Like! But draw the line at actually doing chemo.”

“It’s a way to get at the truth—”

“I won’t green-light this.” Privately, she sent him a pair of spiked entertainment flows, stuff that hadn’t made it out of Newsreef, draft articles about two closed screenings of Tala’s most recent artstorm, something called All Fun and Games Until . . . The streams avoided—carefully, Drow noticed—saying what the pieces themselves were like. Brawls had broken out at both screenings, and the second theater had a full-scale medical lockdown afterward. Out of business for six weeks.

Newsreef isn’t the only platform, young lady,” Tala said. “Drow will find a taker for this piece.”

Seraph folded her arms, leaning back into the upholstery. “Really? With his cap?”

Tension ratcheted then, as they waited to see if Tala would offer to somehow level him up from pariah.

“It suits you, doesn’t it? That he’s desperate.”

“Face it, Seraph—I am desperate,” Drow said. “And this streams. Everyone in music wants to see me pay for what I did to Cascayde.”

“You did nothing!”

“Verdict’s still guilty, though, isn’t it?”

“If you show you’re a serious journo, they’ll reassess in time.”

“Time. Years? If I make myself sick and we pour strikes all over the pop-ups, we can trim that to months—”

“So it’s a shortcut? Get your life back and start treating Newsreef as a dodge again?”

“This story was your idea,” Tala reminded her.

“Drow will be too hagged to assemble newsflow.”

“I’ll prerecord most of it. You’ll help me sharpen the rest.” He couldn’t tell her about the smartdrugs; she’d be an accessory. “I’m not making light of what you do, Seraph.”

“We. What we do.”

“I have to stop myself from bottoming out.”

Seraph rubbed her fingers through the black-rooted honeycomb stubble on her scalp. “Maybe.”

Tala shifted in her seat, seeming to sensing victory. “Can I drop you somewhere, young lady, or are you proposing to accompany us to the US?”

Seraph’s lip curled. She sent text: You want me to ridealong? Silent, so she can’t overhear?

Drow’s breath hitched. Come in person, he wanted to say. Don’t leave me.

Fact was, Tala creeped him out.

But she was so old. What was she gonna do?

Aloud, he said, “I’ll be okay, Seraph. Swear.”

“Mer Raffe?”

“Drop me at the subway,” Seraph said.

Tala’s LED eyes blinked. She was swaddled in a pink cashmere cape with fur fringe. The color made her skin look chalky, powdered. One of her earlobes had become untucked from the earphones. It dangled, rubbery as an udon noodle. She must have worn a hoop in there when she was young.

The driver pulled up at Saint Andrew. “Subway.”

“Don’t put her out here,” Drow said. “She’ll get strikes for riding in a limo.”

“I’ll take the hit,” Seraph said, flinging the door wide. “Expect me to micromanage this one. Nanomanage. I want scan results from Buffalo. Itemized list: they do it, I review it.”

“Don’t worry.” He reached for her hand, but she slipped his grasp and lunged out into the frosty air.

They left her scowling on King Street, no doubt taking hits from everyone who’d seen the car. The limo sped toward the Queensway and the Niagara Falls border crossing.

“You could’ve dropped her in a parkade somewhere.”

“Mer Raffe clearly wished to make a display of herself. Now. My clinic needs a medical history.” Tala sent a long document to his inbox. “Questions for you from the doctors.”

Grateful for the distraction, he dove in, offering up family medical history and bio deets: name, age, Social Insurance Number. Doctors’ appointments, blood work, surgery, serious illnesses. Soon they were at the border.

“Passport?”

“Already?” Surprised, he brought it up, transmitting to Border Services.

She read his expression. “I’m authorized for the fast lane. No four-hour wait today.”

Twenty minutes later, at a clinic that looked like a vacation resort—one of those places that turned the death-fearing rich into ever-older zombies—he was stripping down and chugging contrast liquid. A technician eased him onto a deep tray in a hyperlinked room. The tray was layered with plastic bricks; as he relaxed onto them, they crumbled into beads, forming a synthetic bed that cushioned him completely, adhering to his ankles and feet as he sank into the nodules like quicksand. They stuck to the backs of his knees, pressing into the curve of his butt, the nape of his neck.

The tech tamped him down, fingers working over Drow’s shoulders, chest, and forehead.

“Is Tala watching?” Drow indicated the room’s observation bubble.

“She’s having muscular rejuvenation.”

He felt, strangely, relieved.

Once his bottom half was stuck down, the tech laid foam bricks on his feet and legs. These broke up, too, burying him like a kid on the beach, filling the spaces between his calves, pooling in the wrinkles in the thin sheet of the modesty drape, accumulating as weight on his hands, hips, belly, chest.

“Gotta offline you, Woodrow.” The tech removed Drow’s goggs and earbuds, then fitted a breathing mask over his nose and mouth. “It helps if you count down from a thousand.”

Drow closed his eyes. There was nothing to distract him from the plastic press of diagnostic medium against his eyes as the immurement continued. The small of his back was sweating. Moisture accumulated there, like grease.

Instead of counting, he composed openers for his flow on the pop-up. Bricks of scanfoam collapse like sandcastles at high tide, enfolding me in a medical experience so far outside my financial reach that . . . what?

Or: Lying in darkness, I realize that while our working assumption is that I’ll be starting this with a clean bill of health, there are no guarantees.

He twitched as his skin grew goosebumps.

“Stay still, Woodrow.”

He kept refining and memorizing the sentences, so he could dictate them to Crane once his stuff was back online.

A crack, a flash of light. The tech helped him stumble out of the scanfoam cube. The modesty sheath had stuck to the foam, tearing away; he clapped a hand over his groin.

“How do you feel?” The tech handed him a gown.

“Shrink-wrapped.” He scowled at the bas-relief version of himself as he fumbled the ties.

“Done?” Tala swept in, buttoning her pink jumpsuit.

Drow nodded, turning aside as he pulled the gown shut.

“I have a capture appointment at the Albright-Knox. Then we’ll eat.”

Drow wasn’t hungry, but he nodded nonetheless.

The driver took them to the gallery, past a sculpture garden at the back, and then into an underground addition called the Weston Virtual Experience Annex.

“Did you reassure your editor?” Tala asked. “Confirm I haven’t done anything nefarious?”

“Very funny.” He dictated a quick text: All okay. Techs will copy the three of us with med results.

A private elevator raised them into a capture studio, long slot of a room, darkened, with a wooden bench and a tinted-glass wall. Beyond the glass was a floodlit balance beam.

“I’ve been adding thirty seconds of footage to this project each year since I was eighteen,” Tala said. “We’re just going to capture the next installment.”

He looked at the beam. If she fell . . . well, she’d be insured to her artificial eyeballs.

She jerked a comb through the horsetail of her waist-long braid, smoothing it. “Do you mind?”

“Um.” Reluctantly, he took the comb and the rope of hair, brushing the dead, bleached tangles.

“What a good boy you are.”

He handed back the brush. “Tala. I am not so much as getting a chemo port put in if there are no guarantees on the Liquid Brill.”

“You’ll get your guarantees, my pretty, no fear.”

“I’m not your pretty.”

“Pretty’s what I hired you for, isn’t it?” On that, she vanished through the exit.

“I thought it was desperation,” he muttered.

Beyond the glass, the lights over the balance beam brightened. Camera rigs shook themselves awake, above and below. A hidden door opened at one end of the structure.

Tala appeared, nude, even her goggs removed.

Every inch of her old body was flashed or modded. Her left iris was a star sapphire; the right was a cat’s-eye the color of a banked coal. Her skin was stretched, punctured, pinched, and laser-cut to lace. Little flaps like fish gills had been cinched into her throat and extra nipples circled her breasts like roses on a wedding cake. Within the cage of her torso, tattoo renderings of damned souls suffered at the claws of demons. A real-looking tongue lolled from her navel, ringed by four rows of sharks’ teeth.

Her bush was as pink as her ponytail. The teeth of brass gears protruded from her knees and elbows.

Deliberate damage, flagrantly displayed. The disregard for self . . . He remembered his father, yelling at Jerv:

Your body is the only thing you truly own!

Dad would be on the same page as Seraph about this chemo scheme.

Under Tala’s saggy, much-abused skin, he could see the muscle tone of a professional athlete. As she’d laid waste to her exterior, she’d meticulously maintained the rest. This was the legacy of a boutique life-extension regime.

Mounting the beam, she rolled to a one-footed crouch and then put her head down, lifting to a headstand before easing into full upside-down splits. Drow dropped his eyes, catching a glimpse of big cartoony letters on her inner thighs, bloody tattoos spelling nasty words: “Unclean, gangrene, fester, infect . . .”

Keeping her in the blurry corner of his upper peripheral, he saw her come out of the splits, pivoting upright. He didn’t know gymnastics well. Was she playing it safe, acrobatically speaking?

Humming tunelessly, she handsprang a dismount from the beam’s far end. Hands flung high, like an Olympic medalist, she strode through an unmarked exit on the other end of the capture studio.

Crane said, “Miss Weston will be with you in five minutes, Master Woodrow.”

Drow used the time to gather his temper and gauge his cap, weighing his situation against an urge to rabbit.

She came in, arranging her fur cape, swinging the ponytail saucily. “Well?”

He pushed the word past clenched teeth. “Impressive.”

“Not your thing, huh? Maybe we should leave before they compile and run it—”

A sharp electronic hum. Tala appeared again, just as he’d seen her—but now she was on the bench, here in the room with them. Nine feet tall, intangible, her hologram leapt through the two of them, old, nude, and ornamented. Before she was gone, a new version of her—one year younger, if he’d understood her concept—was flying into a mount. They played through, ten seconds per routine, and as the decades spun by, Tala got progressively younger, less modified. The loops disappeared from her back. The metalwork shrank and disappeared. The ponytail grew backwards and the tattoos got less elaborate even as her flesh tightened and became less outlandishly modded. The early gymnastics routines showcased health in all its robust complexity. By the end, she was a normal-enough eighteen year old, with close-cropped black hair and hazel eyes.

The image of her youthful ass drifted past his face one last time as she triple-flipped out the door.

“What do you think?”

I think this is straight-up mind fuckery. He kept his voice even. “The early tapes must be CGI. No holo-imaging when you were my age.”

“Reconstructed from video. The original footage is real.” She fanned herself. “I don’t know how many more years of this I’ve got in me. I’m quite shaky now.”

Swallowing a sigh, he offered her his arm. Vulture claws, he thought as she clamped on.

Tala’s idea of lunch was typically opulent; the driver took them to a private dining room whose staff brought marinated morsels of printed sea scallop and strips of beef.

“Ever had real cow before?” she asked.

Drow shook his head. “If anyone sees me living it up—”

“Whoozing’s not allowed here,” she replied serenely. “Confidential space, transcript shredders and all. Which means, among other things, that we can speak freely.”

“It’s a restaurant. Public space, public access.”

“Technically, it’s the cafeteria for my US lawyers’ branch office. Confidentiality applies. Nothing goes into the Haystack.”

“That loophole’s under contest. Suspended.”

“In Canada, it is. Not here.”

Crane flashed a graphical thumbs-up in his peripheral, confirming that this was true.

“So,” Drow said. “Your promise.”

She squirreled in her big pink purse, coming up with a box: ten vials, ready for the pump and labelled Bennett’s Food Coloring.

Drow’s mouth went dry but he held the poker face. “That could actually be food coloring. And it’s only ten.”

“Contents are as agreed.” She steepled her fingers. “Here’s my proposal. You go to the pop-up clinic, do the assessment, and get the injection port.”

“Do I?”

“You need a port, Dearheart.”

“Don’t call me that.”

Cartoon lashes batted. “Use the port to test the food coloring, satisfy yourself that it’s legitimate. Next day, before we head to the clinic for your first infusion, we’ll visit a registered middleman and put twenty more doses—” she flipped the box of ampules with her fingernail, as if it wasn’t worth a small fortune  “—into a lockbox. You can open same as soon as you finish chemotherapy.”

“I might need to dose to finish the article. Chemobrain, remember?”

“Well, you’ve got ten, don’t you? Each good for a week?”

He nodded reluctantly.

“That’ll keep you going for the full course of chemo. Another twenty vials are . . . do you kids still say gravy?”

“Twenty-five,” he said, to see if she’d go for it.

“Done.”

Should’ve said thirty. He pulled the doses across the table, vanishing them into his parka. His heart was pounding.

“Update Seraph again, Handsome—it looks like those med results have come through. She can sift through them while we get going, but it looks like you’re in perfect health.”

“I want to read ‘em too.” But he fell asleep in the limo, coming around only reluctantly as it pulled up at his place. His hand went automatically to his shirt, but the buttons were properly aligned. The paper flowers by the door, tributes to poor Cascayde and her profound emotional journey, were piled higher. Blooms and stems were layered with jagged blobs of ice, like an elaborate cake.

“Scene of the crime,” murmured Tala.

“Hoping for a looky-loo at the blood spatter?”

“I saw everything on the vidflow.”

“So you did watch it?”

“I could hardly avoid. It’s the first thing on your whooz: that beautifully articulated jaw of yours hanging open as the blood sprays.”

He remembered the taste. Remembered spitting. Half-blinded and groping for Cascayde’s throat, clamping down on the wound as Crane summoned the ambulance.

Tears welled and he hurried to get out of the car.

“See you in the morning,” she said lightly.

He nodded, gave her a half-salute, and dragged himself inside. He smelled like marijuana again.

 

The temperature had continued to rise overnight and it was almost balmy when he reached the pop-up, a storefront on the edge of Kensington that had, over the years, housed a series of failed restaurants. The latest proprietors had whitewashed it to a glow. Tasteful holosigns displayed competent multiracial medical teams wearing the highest of high-tech goggs. “What’s your risk?” a banner demanded.

Drow walked in alone, filled out their quiz. No hard medical data here. They asked about recent stressors and childhood trauma. Medical services were allowed to jam Sensorium uploads to the Haystack for confidentiality reasons, but he had brought an antique recording device of Dad’s, a Dictaphone. It copied voice to magnetic tape and was so old Drow probably could’ve laid it on the table in front of the medics without fear of having it recognized.

He didn’t take the chance, instead packing it inside another antique, a hardcopy of Jude the Obscure with a hole cut in its pages.

Trevon Amradi, his whistle-blower, was someone Drow had met going to concerts, a fan of his music from back in the day when he was comping and clamoring for attention, jostling in an unremarkable pack with Marcella and the rest of the wannabes.

Tall, windburned, and professionally sympathetic, Trevon eased into pretending, for his bosses, that the two of them were strangers. He worked through Drow’s personality quiz, generated infographics analyzing Drow’s aura, and began the consult with: “How’s your relationship with your mother?”

“My what? Are you kidding?”

Trevon made eyes at him, unsubtle reminder that the point was to seem an emotional shambles, so they could tell him he was at risk for pancreatic cancer or whatever.

Shambles they wanted, shambles they’d get.

He mumbled: “Little Master Woodrow had two daddies, okay? Uncle Drow’s an addict. Theo Whiting died. Because of the addict.”

“Sounds like a complicated story.”

“Not if you’re looking to talk about a mother, it isn’t.” Dad and Jerv had gotten into a fight, about the drugs, on a crowded subway platform at rush hour. How Dad had ended up falling under the train wasn’t clear. Had he stumbled? Did he jump? Where the video footage was ambiguous, the transcript was clear enough. They’d been banging heads over Jerv’s adulterous love for Liquid Brill and his latest get-rich-quick scheme.

Shrugging, Trevon moved on. “This honorary grandma you’ve listed as next of kin. What’s she like?”

“A spider,” Drow said—it was what came to mind.

Trevon chewed his lip. “Drow, I gotta say—”

“Marty.” Now he was the one warning.

Trevon sent him a puppy-eyes emoji, hinting at concern.“Everyone knows what you’ve been through these past few days. With. You know, Cascayde. If you gave it a week, you might feel differently about this.”

Trevon had been all for exposing the pop-up for the scam it was, back when they discussed the two of them playing witness as some gullible artist ran themselves through the grinder. Popcorn fodder, he had called it.

“I know this is going to make me sick,” Drow said. “And with Cascayde and my roommate . . . sure, I’m getting a lot of static now, from women—”

“You all right?”

He had broken out in cold sweat.

He reached for a glass of water with a convincingly trembly hand. “But my ed—my friend, Seraph, she IDs as woman too. Obviously. It’s luck of the draw.”

“You just characterized your next of kin as a spider.”

“Honestly, I think she’d agree with me on that one.” Don’t try to help me. Irrational rage fizzed in his hands, knotting them together.

Trevon apparently got the message. Or perhaps he had a ridealong superior with healthier profit motives, because he finally moved on to scare tactics. Drow had latent misogyny. He needed preventative meds aimed at squamous cell anemia and lung cancer.

He played hard to get for all of fifteen minutes, for form and for the old Dictaphone, and then obliged Trevon to press on to an unenthusiastic closing. Yes, oh yes, please save me from my inner retrograde caveman before he eats my lungs out.

An hour later, “Grandma” Weston was on her way to support (meaning watch, and capture if she could outwit the clinic jammers) as they sliced into his perfectly healthy shoulder and stapled a purple smartport to Drow’s collarbone.

The local had worn off by the time Tala took him home; the whole right side of his chest hurt, and he could feel his heartbeat in each of the staples.

“Did you get footage?”

“A few stills,” she said, tapping her goggs significantly—she must have illegal capture tech in there. “Their privacy walls are top-of-the-line.”

“The better to avoid prosecution, I guess.”

She pressed a finger to the hard lump of the port.

“Ow!”

“Sorry, Dearheart. I’ll drop by early, once it’s bruised up a little, to make close-ups.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve got a green-screen studio and a medical-grade smartchair. After infusion, you can recover there. Easier for me to make footage.”

“Wait. At your place?”

“Would you rather set up a studio in your apartment?” She gave him an inquiring look. “I can send contractors ‘round.”

He imagined it: waves from his landlord about contractor noise. Managing the stairs to his room when he was wiped. Recuperating while Marcella came in and out to abandon cheap takeout in the fridge, like some Arctic fox burying dead ducklings. “Your place. Fine.”

“Good!” Tala handed him a heavy disk the circumference of a drink coaster, complete with beer company logo. He could feel glass—a touchscreen?—on its underside, but when he tried to turn it over, she locked his hand in a surprisingly strong grip. “Did you know that you have to be completely offline, all your things powered down, goggs islanded, to put any kind of unregistered ampoule into a smartport like your new chemo delivery system?”

“Is that so?

“Please understand: I’m not recommending or advising this, just making casual conversation.”

That’s why she was holding the coaster facedown, to keep Crane from catching an image. “Got it.”

“Once your things are offline, handshake the port itself using a dedicated injection app on a monitor with redtooth connection capability. Such monitors are by prescription only.”

In other words, the gadget she’d slipped him would override the smartport’s better judgment. And possession of said gadget, sans prescription, was an offense. “Boot it up, pop in the ampoule, away you go?”

She nodded. “In the hypothetical world where you had access to such items. You’ll need to set an agenda for any burst of enhanced intellectual activity. Does your antiquated sidekick app have a Friday mode?”

“My fathers wrote it.”

“That’s sweet.”

“You’re one to talk, with those vintage goggs.” He couldn’t say why he was nettled by the insult to Crane. “Yes! We operate offline.”

“Well, set it to nag you. You won’t be able to stay on task otherwise.”

They had reached his place. She popped the door and gave him a cheery wave. “Out you go, Handsome. Have fun.”

 

Drow’s first hours as an intravenous genius were incandescent.

He powered down the house things: thermostat, smoke detector, fridge, oven, blender, toaster, the lights that went on and off automatically as he moved between rooms, hydrators for the houseplants, step counters in his shoes, all the musical instruments. Marcella had a few things he couldn’t access remotely, so he pulled their batteries, stomping their ready signs like so many roaches before setting them out in the freezing rain to die. Last he shut down the modem, leaving him and Crane islanded.

He’d made the agenda Tala had suggested. First, he’d revise the newsflow he’d written, all those months before, on the pop-up clinics. Then he’d try writing a song. Surely if the Brill was working, he’d be able to compose again.

He wouldn’t even think about what it might mean if he couldn’t.

Third, he’d consider ways to stanch his cap bleed. After that, he’d research chemo outcomes.

Flipping the beer coaster, he got the redtooth to hack into his injection smartport. Taking out the first of the ampoules marked Bennett’s Food Coloring, he snapped it into place, sitting in the increasingly chilly house and watching the status bar as it claimed to load him up with smarts. Or, possibly, food coloring.

Final stage: powerdown and flip his coaster so it was just a coaster again. Hide the other Bennett’s ampoules. Scrub any archival video Crane had made.

“Brilliance FAQs suggest taking on a simple task first, sir, something clerical with multiple steps.”

“Okay.” He walked Crane backward through the powerdown sequence, the two of them prepping a macro for the house so that next time, Drow could just shut everything off with a single command.

“Do I sound smarter, Antiquated Sidekick?”

“Simple tasks, sir, simple tasks,” crooned Crane. “Here’s your draft of the chemo pop-up exposé.”

Drow fell into refurbishing the bones of the feature, laying out history on virtuosi who’d taken the cure and rehashing the death of a jazz virtuoso named Psyche. No criminal charges had been brought: rumor had it the Pharmas paid the family.

Charges. He researched and sidebarred some legislative history, riffing on the rise of medical superstitions, enumerating the court challenges that had eventually determined Canadian citizens had the right to poison themselves in the name of scientifically dubious preventative healthcare.

Universal mandatory vaccination had come in with legislation that said individuals couldn’t endanger the herd. Ironically, this same ruling meant the state couldn’t prohibit unnecessary treatment, if patients footed the bill and didn’t harm others.

He saw his evolution as a journo within the date-tags on the strings of notes. Here, the first smattering of thoughts, after he’d shared with Trevon and scented the opportunity for a serious feature. He’d been entirely focused on turning his rent-paying journo gig into a source of strokes for his social cap at that point, and from there relaunching himself as a musician. Exposing the chemo pop-ups, at first, felt like it might curry favor among the virtuosi the clinics sometimes exploited.

Then Seraph joined Newsreef. Seraph, who was all about commitment, about truth and purity in journalism. Seraph, who hated shortcuts and thought smart was different from clever. Another set of date-tags showed Drow’s deep dive into the research vaults, buttressing his pitch, finding other superstitions so he could create a series, build up to the chemo pop-ups organically.

Later still: an archive of legal cases relevant to medical scams.

Now he read those cases again, closely this time, pushing through precedents like a diesel-fueled snowplow going at three feet of slush. His head filled with legalese and he juggled the phrases, assembling a hypothetical court case. If he could clear a path proving secondary harm done to loved ones . . .

“Embarking on a third career seems a bit of a tangent at this point,” Crane said.

“What?”

“You appear to be writing a law brief.”

Right. He was a reporter, not a litigator.

Not a reporter not really just a gig for the payables, I’m a composer . . .

A composer who doesn’t compose?

Seraph’s voice, clear as the day she’d spoken the words. You could be outstanding at the journo thing if you just got over thinking you were outside it all. It’s more than a lark for strokes and cash balance—

“Sir? Your port is empty.”

He shook away the clamoring internal argument. “Full dose administered?”

“Yes. Take out the ampoule, hide the evidence, hash this conversation, and we can dive back into Sensorium.”

Screw journalism. What about becoming a crusading lawyer for the poor? Memorize the rules, screw around with the rules, it’d be so easy, and didn’t he owe the world some good deeds? Drow bleached and recycled the glass tube. Then, with Crane’s help, he made it to his crate of instruments without downloading the LSAT first.

“Music, sir. Write music now. Remember this intro?”

“I probably can’t even—”

The intro played. Time disappeared.

He assembled two tracks. A ballad, first, and then something akin to a classic rock anthem. The ballad he fine-tuned and wordsmithed, working it up into a penitential ode to Cascayde. He burnished metaphors for regret, put sorrow in the high notes. Cried a little, finally, finally.

Shouldn’t have ripped Cascayde’s mask off, he thought. If I’d reached out, maybe. Told her: Make your own thing. Stop cobbling together everyone else’s scraps . . .

Instead he put it all into song. He couldn’t release it as a single, not yet. If anything, it’d plunge him further into the lightless depths of social oblivion. But one day, after a show of remorse had already given him one boost . . .

“We could automate that,” he said to Crane. “When my prosocial rank’s out of the bottom thirty percent, I’ll regain access to the indy music reefs. We’ll do a limited release, just for the club. Someone’ll leak it.”

“I’ll set an alert—”

“No, it’s fine, trigger it. Here’s text . . . great. Flushed and forgotten.”

“If you say so, sir.”

The other song Drow could tool up himself, use it for something worthwhile, something original, and he was definitely crackling now. Reading law was one thing but he’d teethed on music. Saxophone at four, piano at seven, contemporary collab at ten . . . and this was good. He worked up original soundtrack for the chemo newsflow.

Hey! Another cap mitigator would be to clap together some mixes. He must know a dozen virtual clubs who’d trade him some strokes and some good wordo if he built decent sequences for their deejay apps.

He shuffled music as he paced the living-room floor, assembling decks, five at a time. Maximum return on years of concert-going. Mashing sounds gleefully, mixing the best of all those long, fun nights at dance clubs. He’d taken Seraph nine months ago, in the middle of a heat wave.

“One, two, three, hit send.”

“Have we moved on to amending your social collapse?” Crane asked.

“Maybe. I don’t know. But . . . if I dash off the right kind of sob story to that girl Eleanora, from school. Remember Eleanora? She’d take it in mind to get her church to send me some strokes. You gotta love Christian charity, right? It wouldn’t, technically, be cap manipulation. Because the law says—”

Crane interrupted, “You’d have to compose the sob story.”

“Work of a minute—” A tumble of noise, pounding bass rhythm, made him duck behind the counter. “Is that me? Am I drumming?”

“It’s the front door.”

He bolted to the top of the stairs, the very peak of the house. Pressed himself against the wall. Last time someone showed up unannounced . . .

“No, please, please—”

“It’s your editor, sir.”

“Seraph? Seraph’s not here to cut her throat.”

Bambambam.

“She’s likely concerned for your well-being. But engaging with the public in your current state—”

“Seraph’s not public. Seraph’s famlike. She adores . . .”

Adores?

Catch up, chump.

He goggled at that, spinning through possibilities and complications, tagging some feels . . . “Wow. This is big. Did I know? Will she know that I know?”

Her cartoon face bloomed in his peripheral. “I know you’re in there, Drow.”

He pounded his way back down the stairs.

Crane murmured. “Make a polite excuse—”

“It’s fine. I’m leveling off.”

Jerv used to say that.

“She’ll never notice.”

Yep, that too.

“Your current task—”

“That’ll be all, Crane.” He threw open the door.

Seraph had re-upped her honeycomb buzz cut, intricate yellow hexagons that didn’t hide the burnished gold-brown of her scalp. Snowflakes danced around her, fighting gravity.

She jumped to the point: “Ninety percent of Weston’s work is in private collections, tucked away from public display. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Been composing.”

Her mouth fell open. “That’s . . . that’s great, Drow!”

“Is it?”

“Of course,” she said. “Using what’s happened to recommit to your music? It’s the healthiest choice you could make at this point.”

He rocked forward on his heels, unsure what to do with that. Rocked back. “So. Um. I soundtracked the chemo flow.”

The relieved smile went brittle. “Can I come in?”

Cascayde had barged in. He couldn’t bear it if Seraph barged. He shared the soundtrack as he stepped aside.

The message bounced, for some reason.

Adores me not?

“Do you know anything at all about Tala’s artstorms?”

“Yeah, actually.” Drow had Crane throw a blank conductor’s score on the kitchen counter, blobbing notes onto the bass and treble with a finger. Maybe if he multitasked, he could take this conversation at a convincingly normal pace. “She’s got a thing in the Albright-Knox. Body scarification and tumbling. You should see it, Seraph. Gross old GenXers cutting into themselves—”

“Drow, listen. I found a catalog listing for something called Mass Grave. It’s from a massacre site in Louisiana, sometime like the twenties. It’s people coming to identify bodies.”

“Family members?” He was filling in about two bars of music every time she uttered a sentence, making a symphony of the conversation before or possibly as it happened, and thereby staying attached to Seraph’s words. Her voice was weaving through his low brass section, sweet discord amid bombastic trombones and tubas. Long chords with villainous undertones. He shuddered.

“Anyone who let Tala capture them as they identified their loved ones was given free burials for their dead. Boutique treatment compared to the pathetic state compensation. The listing for Mass Grave says it’s representative of her early work.”

“Meaningless art-world phrasing.”

“Studies of pain etched on faces, vid of people collapsing, soundtrack of wails—”

“Legit journo does that. It bleeds, it leads.”

“Then there’s Gauntlet, which is rumored to be a series where attractive young men run naked through an enclosure full of attack dogs.”

Violin strings snapped in his mind’s ear. He gaped at Seraph. “That can’t be true.”

“Controversy ensued. Consensus was that it had to be a sim.”

“Had to be.” A sense of iced sweat, on the back of his neck, gathering for a run down his spine.

“The catalog describes close-ups of bite wounds and portraits of terrified models in hospital, cuddled up to scary, muzzled mutts. Gauntlet sold to a guy who runs the most frequently investigated chain of hospices in Western Europe.”

“That’s a category?”

“Don’t deflect, Drow. There’s something called Slowburn. All I know about that is that it was confiscated under Sweden’s obscenity laws. Pediatric Transplant Harvest Fail, in private collection. Cold Turkey, Burn Ward, Slowmo Caning, Bedside Vigil. Private, private, private.”

“Seraph, stop.” A screechy oboe solo, reminiscent of an ambulance siren, added itself to his symphony, almost of its own accord.

“Then there’s the Sensorium chatter about her. Or really, the total lack of it. I found a few pearls among the plaudits, tagged to miseryporn, tortureporn. Tala gets off on suffering, Tala likes a good roofie—”

“A what?”

“It’s an oldie term for rapey drink-dosing.”

A full-body shudder this time, like being zapped.

Seraph saw it. Saw him, seeing her catch it. Fisted and unfisted her hands before continuing her liveflow: “I have interview transcripts from Tala’s previous models.”

“Complaints?”

“‘It was an honor to work with her,’” she said, quoting. “‘Cutting-edge productions, no regrets, true innovator, fearless.’ Blah blah.”

“Sounds okay.”

“Nobody has a bad word on record. But. Three of them committed suicide.”

Suicide. Drow tasted fresh blood, realized he had bitten his lower lip. “Cascayde. Didn’t cut deep enough, you said.”

Seraph stepped close, every sinew taut as drumskin. “Walk away, Drow. It’s dangerous.”

Dangerous, agreed, his enhanced brain whispered. It’s also a story, if you . . .

What? Cut deeper?

He restrung his mental chorus of violins and glanced at the symphony. “Is there any more?”

“Isn’t that enough?” When he didn’t answer, she said, “Art critics won’t touch her.”

“Because they’re afraid, you think?”

“Scared, yeah. Shitless.” She tugged his shirt open, exposing the chemo port, and ran a fingertip under the edge of the incision, the cut edge of the flesh.

It’s a story or a lawsuit. Random ideas for thrillers about hero lawyers racked like billiard balls within his mind. Click. Click. Sound of teeth coming together. Opening notes of a soundtrack: The Crown vs. Tala Weston.

Seraph was waiting for an answer.

Drow tried to net the thoughts flashing past, shining ideas running ahead of his agendas. Musical chords and big exposés and Sensorium law schools.

“There’s a bigger story here,” he said. “Tala. Moby Dick of stories.”

“You think you’ll catch her out?”

“If I outsmart her.”

Of course he could outsmart her.

“Can you hear yourself? Drow, I know this is hard. You’ve been through—”

“Tala wants to make artstorm of me enduring needless chemo for sale to miseryporn fans,” he interrupted. “That’s what you’re saying.”

“No! I’m saying Tala’s a maniac.”

“She’s . . . what? Ninety.”

“She’s hopped on life extension and getting a chemo clinic to flatten you! Whatever’s going on, I give the sadist zombie billionaire the edge.”

“Is it illegal? You analyzed the modeling release.”

“Forget the release! You just stop. Drow, you stop. Ghost on her. Call off the chemo course and get that abomination removed.”

“No!” His hand rose, protecting the port.

Seraph’s eyes narrowed.

Oops.

“This is serious journo, Seraph! If what she’s doing is assault, if it exceeds the remit of the modeling release . . . I should reread the release, shouldn’t I?”

Did Harvard allow remote study?

Seraph groped for the edge of the counter, as if she had lost her balance. “You embed yourself in the chemo story, and then . . . what? When you’re shattered from drug side effects, you luck out and catch vid of Tala feeding your left foot to a dog or something?”

“She did dogs, she won’t do dogs again. But embed, I like that!” he said. “We’d need visuals and sound. She powers down unauthorized things within her studio. Do you think if I lured her here? No, she’ll have contingencies for that. If I can keep Crane from powerdown—”

“What is wrong with you?”

He clamped his lips shut over the answer to that one. An imagined safe-deposit box full of Brill battered at his teeth, vials tinkling.

Should tell her, can’t do it, she’d be an accessory . . .

Half a symphony already written. Who knew he had a symphony in him? Who knew what else was in there? How long had it been since he’d truly made music?

Six years. Since you blocked Uncle Jerv.

He pushed the unwanted response away by asking a question his subconscious couldn’t answer. What did you do with a symphony?

Tala. The point was Tala. “We couldn’t use cameras or implants to catch her, not in her house. But she’d have her own footage, wouldn’t she? She’d capture everything, then cherry-pick stuff that wouldn’t quite get her prosecuted.”

“Drow.”

“Just listen! We have to get my things access to her network. If Crane can see through her cameras...”

“Drow!”

“Her goggs are old. How secure could they be? The two of us, Seraph, we can get in. Or. My uncle. Dad. I didn’t want to go this route but he codes, he’s a virtuoso in his own right when it comes to writing protocols for networked things—”

Seraph took his hands. She had long fingers, strong wrists. Athlete hands. They were . . . no, she was shaking. She pulled him, mulishly resisting, to the couch where Marcella and company had been playing all his instruments. “Listen.”

Drow made himself sit, imagining pizza farts. The upholstery felt like muddy sandpaper. “You have my full attention.”

And she did: he knew her birthday and the name of her dog from high school and what her father said that one time and all her grades in journo. Adoring him, adoring him not, Seraph was what he’d have called a friend, back in the days before the word got verbed and debased.

She deserves better.

She put one hand on either side of his head, gently bringing them gogg to gogg. “Drow. I’m concerned. This looks like a breakdown.”

“Pish.”

“What happened to Cascayde was not your fault.”

He must have jumped, or flinched; her big hands tightened their grip.

“I should’ve reached out to her, outside the spotlight.”

“What she did was desperate, I admit, but. Calculated, too.”

“Crane,” he said. “I need you.”

“Sir?”

“Infograph my social standing and share to Seraph.”

It scrolled between them. Capital commensurate with a disgraced politician, a suspected sex offender. Bank balance teetering. Marcella threatening to quit the apartment and leave him ass-hanging, rent in arrears. Endless streams of censorious comments. Notices from everyone from his cloud backup service to the grocery, saying his privileges had been downgraded. No credit, no discounts, no extras. No love for Drow, unless he met the terms of his user agreements. Endless whirls of little black bubbles streaming from the holes in his reputation.

“I am torpedoed, Seraph.”

“I didn’t say you weren’t paying. I said it wasn’t your fault. I green-lighted that newsflow because everything in it was true. Cascayde did mine the virtuosi hit parade for the bones of Cataract. Even I can hear that. She pulled the stunt because you’d all but proved plagiarism.”

The stunt. Blood spraying in his mouth as he snarked. “I hurt her. Played it for laughs and strokes.”

She swallowed. “I love that in you.”

“What?”

“That you feel it so deeply. That you’re sorry. But insensitivity is not a crime.”

“Stop.” Her words were kicking everything out from under him. She’s wrong she’s right she adores me not adores me too I love that in you she said she said she said . . .

“Forgo the chemo course,” Seraph said. “Find another way. I’ll pay your rent. Stay home, compose music, regroup. Be smart.”

“If I catch Tala out, we score—”

A twitch, in those fingers. “You. You score.”

“Huh?”

“There’s no we. There’s an emergency, inglomerate. Suddenly I’m needed in the London press office for a month or six.” She tightened her grip on his head. “Focus, Drow! Your contract’s been passed on. I don’t know who’s editing the chemo flow.”

“Hey! That’s why the draft I sent you bounced.”

“Seraph threatens oversight, Seraph gets washed from the picture.”

“And I love that in you. The paranoia.”

That thing she did. The slow breath. She’d reached the end of her patience. “That’s all you have to say?”

He paused. Turned it over. “If you’re not my boss anymore, maybe I should kiss you?”

She pushed him away, fingers flexing as if she’d set a volleyball, bouncing him off the back of the couch. Towering over him, she paused, for a second, where Cascayde had been.

He’d been yelling into her undeservedly famous, tear-streaked face. Why should she have all those follows, all those strokes, for stolen work?

He remembered the silver flick of the blade. And stepping back, out of the razor’s reach.

Seraph’s words hung like breath in frozen air. “You know the difference between smart and clever, Drow?”

“Stepping back. Failing to commit.” Big step with long panicked legs, too far back to stop Cascayde. He’d saved himself. He’d sunk himself.

“Stop telling me what you think I want to hear!”

“Was I? I guess I was. But—”

“Smart knows when to walk away, Drow.”

I should visit Cascayde in the hospital.

Not until my hair’s fallen out.

God, Tala will love that.

“Sorry. What?” he said aloud.

“Mer Raffe appears to be leaving,” Crane said.

It was true. She’d walked through the symphony and slipped into her boots. Moisture had pooled in the bottoms of her goggs. “Good luck, Drow.”

He should persuade her to stay.

“Ten more minutes?”

The door shut on his words.

After a second, Crane asked, “Do you wish to resume the symphony?”

“Leave it. I’ll pick it up . . . you know, next time.” Feeling winded suddenly, Drow circled the ground floor, looking for things to clean. He stripped the couch cushions, throwing the cover slips into the wash. He disinfected the counter, even though nobody had cooked. The smell of bleach was comforting. He tossed Marcella’s leftovers, ignoring the fridge’s protests that they were okay.

Climbing upstairs, he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. Shave tomorrow. Look dapper for the first round of chemo, the first round of footage. He finger-combed his hair, wondering what his scalp would show when it was exposed.

The toothbrush pinged a soft reminder and he took it up, circle around, gum massage, usual bedtime routine. There’d be smarts left over tomorrow. You didn’t Charly off the Brill all at once.

He peeled his slacks and peed, running his thumb over a mystery bruise on his left thigh as he climbed into bed and surfed entertainment streams. His preferred crime dramas felt clunky and overacted. Their soundtracks were clangy.

“Music director deserves a strike or two,” he mumbled.

“Perhaps you’d prefer this audioflow about medical litigation?” Crane suggested.

“Thanks. LSAT in the morning, maybe, if I still feel the urge.”

“Miss Weston asks if you wish to join her for breakfast before your first infusion.”

“You’re getting security upgrades, right?”

“Uploading as we speak.”

“I will catch her at it, you know,” Drow said. “There’s a win here somewhere.”

“If you say so.”

I’m being humored by an app now.

“Lights out, sir?”

“No.” The full-body shudder took hold again. He saw a spider in the corner and, just as quickly, realized it was a speck of dust. “Leave the lights.”

“Very good,” Crane replied. “Enjoy your show.”

“Night, Crane.” A gust of wind punched at the house, flicking frozen raindrops against the window, the tinkle of slush turning, midair, to liquid glass.

Drow listened to legal arguments and an imagined, fading snatch of orchestral music, trying to lull himself to sleep as the meaner half of the storm closed in, encasing his city, drop by drop, in a treacherous raiment of glittering ice.

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