Chapter 3

By L.X. Beckett
May 25, 2019 · 5,403 words · 20 minutes

Winter Stroll

Photo by LinedPhoto via Unsplash.

From the author: With his best ally sent to London, Drow tries to salvage something from his devil's bargain. But you know things are bad when your only hope is an AI and the addict you swore never to speak to again...


Crane cycled off for the first chemo cycle, despite heavy tweaks to his settings, despite security upgrades. He could provide no records for the two days after the infusion, days Drow spent in a daze on Tala’s smartchair, cameras ringed around him like guards. All Drow remembered was answering questions in a monotone as she interrogated him about side effects.

He came out feeling fragmented and shaky, as if he’d been pummeled while down with a bad case of flu. There was a smattering of interest in Newsreef’s announcement that he was taking the chemo course, but the resulting likes hadn’t salvaged his cap; he couldn’t summon a ride home. Dragging himself south to the nearest corner, he caught the TTC streetcar. He streamed the whole slog for anyone who’d tagged his story.

Marcella and Cole were having ah ah yes OMG yes! sex in her room as he arrived, so he couldn’t Brilliant up. He shouldn’t anyway: it had only been four days since the first dose. Last thing his body needed was more chemicals. He wasn’t loopy, and if the stories were true, he should still be vastly cleverer than usual.

“Head down, donkey.” He dropped into Sensorium, asked Crane to keep him on the task, and plodded through tightening up the newsflow, sentence by sentence.

And he was still jumped: even in his current state, one that made a bad hangover feel like a dream of paradise, he snapped together a description of the infusion experience with almost casual ease. Straight-up news at this point, though he spooned in lots of subtext about the purifying charms of suffering. After Drow had run the full poisonous gauntlet, he’d splice in Trevon’s whistleblower interview and a full exposé on the scam.

His back felt sunburned—scraped, really—and his mouth was parched. He filed the revisions with his new editor, some oily-voiced guy whose most memorable feature was not being Seraph. That accomplished, he choked down some copper-flavored chicken.

Fighting drowsiness and ill-formed imaginings—memories?—about needles, he wandered to the back porch.

His landlord was part of the so-called Millennial Migration, one of the childless thousands who’d decamped to jobs in Hyderabad and Beijing, leaving aged parents moldering in their in-law suites. The arrangement made honorary grandchildren of young tenants, mortgage helpers shoehorned cheek-by-jowl into the apartments upstairs from Mom and Dad. For a cut in rent, Drow kept tabs on Ramir, who, thankfully, was puttering in the yard today. Discharging his obligation took no more than an exchange of waves and a photo upload to the son, Imran.

Ol’ Gaffer’s still with us, send me a goddamned stroke.

The backyard likewise came with strings attached, having been given over to carbon offsets. Voluntary for now, but the way things were going climatewise, they’d be required civic duty in another few years. A City of Toronto bamboo-baling operation had growcubes on half of what had, years ago, been private lawn and garden. Drow got strokes for watering the bamboo; Imran netted a homeowner’s tax break.

Bamboo season was weeks away. Drow’s eye fell on the floor-to-ceiling porch shelves, piled high with dusty Mason jars and rusted-out lids.

Just his kind of distraction.

“Let’s fight some grime,” he muttered, quoting Dad, remembering the groans of years past from his young self and Jerv.

Moving slowly, Drow cleared the shelves, laying the glassware on a towel on the kitchen counter. Whenever he got groggy, he took a jar outside, letting the icy wind slap him back to alertness as he scooped up a layer of newly fallen snow. Big clean-ups required big water. Like many neat freaks, he had learned to use snowmelt to stretch his hydro allowance.

With the shelves emptied, Drow could wipe the frosty insides of the porch windowpanes, chilling his blood, cooling his pulsing, burnt-feeling skin. The cool and the motion helped him stay conscious.

Awake was mandatory. He had enhanced smarts, a time-limited window, and a pressing need to outwit Tala Weston. “Talk to me, Crane. Why didn’t your security upgrade work?”

“Miss Weston’s apartment is authorized for aggressive privacy protocols.”

“Since when does an individual have the right to airlock my data?” The question looped him back to thinking about law school; he tabbed up a series of legal papers on privacy regulations.

“I believe that particular windowpane is clean now.”

“Do you sound more English than before?”

“As my software ripens, so, too, does my personality.”

“Did you just make a cheese joke?”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know how, sir. The window?”

Drow shifted, one pane left. His goggs superimposed privacy regs on dirty glass. Wipe, read, wipe. “Here, this—see if anything’s registered to Tala’s home address. Besides, you know, her home.”

“Searching . . . ah! She rents an upstairs office to a psychiatrist.”

“Bingo. Medical confidentiality. Bet the psychiatrist’s never actually there.”

Crane condensed privacy regulations to bullet points. “All speech within the therapist’s workspace is protected. Modems handshake with the Sensorium via a medical-grade airlock. Apps with spyware capabilities—I suppose I do qualify, sir—can be downed without notice.”

Drow swallowed. Was there any other way? “Crane, you’ll have to go to Jervis for code upgrade.”

Pregnant silence.

“Crane?”

“If it happened to be the case, sir, that—”

“Fuck! You already went?”

“Custom security work being expensive, the only programmer with a reason—”

“Right, right, you had to. Desperate times, right?”

“Desperate measures. Indeed.”

He wrung the washrag as if it was someone’s skinny chicken neck. “Jerv ask to talk to me?”

“He understands you have him blocked.”

“And he couldn’t help?” Drow’s pulse trip-hammered. Jerv had been his toxic ace in the hole. “You powered down. Maybe I’m truly sunk.”

“Mer Raffe wished me to remind you, were doubts to arise, that you can walk away from this project.”

“Whose side are you on?”

The app continued, “I wouldn’t say Master Jervis cannot help, precisely. He suggested you get a tongue-texting device, so you and I can communicate without being overheard by Miss Weston’s hearing aid.”

“You just pointed out I can’t afford nice things.”

“He will bankroll it, along with other expenses related to this project.”

“He’s in the money again, is he?”

“Some of his patents and app licenses—”

“Don’t care, Crane. Why involve him further when he’s already failed to crashproof you?” The window made a brittle noise: he’d scrubbed too hard.

“There’s something he needs,” Crane said. “He’s confident it would make a difference, to the programming.”

“Oh, no.”

Of course it was about the drugs.

Bit rich, though, isn’t it? Did you even pause when Tala dangled Brill under your nose?

He had run out of dirty window. Clean the shelves next, or the jars? Fuming, he pondered the grit on the bottom shelf.

Crane said, “He would barter for two doses of your food coloring.”

“How could you? How could you tell him about that?”

“I provided details after he deduced the general shape of your scheme.”

“How?”

“Your gift for drug-seeking may be an inherited trait.”

“Har de har.” Blue-tinted sun poured through the gleaming windows. Cold light; his legs felt leaden.

Returning to the kitchen, he confronted the glassware. Sixty, maybe seventy Mason jars, crusted in dust and cobweb and full of snow, covered the counters. He deflated onto a barstool, taking it in. Instead of filling him with the usual sense of impending success, the thought of cleaning all that glass filled him with exhaustion.

Upstairs, Marcella was at it again, Baby baby yeah yeah.

“My friend Trevon, from the pop-up,” Drow said. “I can drop two doses with him.”

“Jervis agrees,” Crane replied.

So they were live right now, his sidekick and his father’s druggy widower. Talking behind his block.

“He’ll visit Miss Weston’s home, to examine her uptakes and hardware.”

“He gets caught, I’m breaching contract.”

“Again, the food coloring—”

“He’s saying he won’t get caught?”

“I believe him, sir.”

“And what choice do we have?”

“The choice, as Mer Raffe—”

“Breach of contract. Heard you the first time. Please don’t bring it up again.” Drow levered himself upright, leaving snow in the jars to melt. The thought of lying down filled him with dread, so he soaped a rag and began wiping down the shelves.

It was a filthy, hopeless, perfect sort of job. The wood shelves caught the threads of the rag, splinters shredding the fabric. Wet silt flowed into oak grooves and knots, filth sinking in deeper.

Idiotic use of his time, when he felt so strung up. But pushing the dirt away, wringing wet, grey smears out onto the snow as he cleared the house of muck, was starting to work its usual magic.

A cobweb brushed his elbow. Feather-touch of dirty thread, a fall of grit on his exposed arm. Drow recoiled, throwing the brush.

The spider dropped onto his right shoulder.

Drow wasn’t arachnophobic, but as he clawed at the spider with his rubbery fingers, he had a sudden vision of maggots, writhing on his back. Small, white bodies pulsing at the edge of an open wound, an incision . . .

He shrieked, lost his balance, and fell off the stepladder, banging into the empty shelves. They arrested his fall, without quite busting his ribs.

Daddy Longlegs tried to flee.

Let it go, it’s harmless.

Why should it get away? Drow grabbed, crushing it with his pink-gloved hand. Acid churned in his guts as its body popped.

He looked straight down his shirt, staring at the port incision, imagining maggots. Could it be a memory, something from the two days he’d lost? An image his goggs had superimposed on him, in sim? No way to tell. His skin was spotted with bursts of rash. No bugs, no rot, no open wounds.

“Voodreau?”

The old man, Ramir, had come up the porch steps.

Shaking, Drow opened his hand. The spider was real enough, smear of innocent tissue and snapped needles. Broken wisp, like Cascayde.

The old man nodded comprehension, took up another rag, patted Drow on his stinging shoulder, and then, apparently oblivious as his grandtenant gave in to an attack of the shudders, began smearing half-melted snow over another shelf.

 

Day five of the first week: Drow’s physical recovery had peaked and the mental enhancement was noticeably, lamentably gone. The porch was a gleaming museum of canning hardware and spotless window glass, sterile enough for day surgery.

Marcella stopped sex-binging eventually, leaving him alone to dose up, renew his impersonation of God. Drow finished the symphony, entering it in a government-sponsored contest because, really, what else did you do with a symphony? He fought Sensorium advertisements for a few hours so he could do prep for a law school exam he had no objective reason to take.

He started learning ASL, the better to interact with Ramir downstairs—the Gaffer, it turned out, was pretty good company. He practiced sending Morse code to the new tongue-texting rig, a thin fibelastic loop, invisible as fishing line, cinched around the back of his tongue. Thus secured, it vibrated pulses: dot, dash, dot.

For the next stage of the chemo newsflow, he made vid of himself researching the scary drug outcomes, listing all of the possible indignities and discomforts he had to look forward to.

The weird burn on his chest wasn’t on the list. It had turned into a proper scabby rash, peeling splashes of red on white that did almost look granular, maggoty.

He scanned legal textbooks while putting together a popflow, something based on the terrible earworm Marcella and her friends had been trying to assemble. Music for the mindless: it grew, like mildew, in under an hour.

Release it himself, just to screw with her? Or dangle it as a bribe? Marcella’s voice had always been a hair short of awesome; music was their venned interest, the reason they’d friended, the why behind his having invited her to glomerate at Imran’s.

If she owed him, it solved the housemate issue, didn’t it? He sent a sample, with a carefully worded note that didn’t quite say: All this could be yours. Just stick to our rental agreement.

She pounced on it, naturally.

And that was a way out with Cascayde, too, wasn’t it? Assemble something irresistible? Do it right, and he might even show her that she didn’t have to build a career on garbage riffs and performative histrionics.

The thought cycled in the choir loft of his mind as he let his fingers trace the imagined surface of his virtual keyboard. The song for Marcella had been nothing but derivative bits and pieces. Her pieces, but still. And Drow’s newborn symphony contained more than a bit of Mozart.

Riffing, homage . . . or something worse?

Was he simply a more elegant class of thief? Gentleman burglar to Cascayde’s heavy-handed mugger?

The thought laughed at him from the shadows, high-pitched and poisonous.

Crane made British noises and the occasional pun, catching him at appropriate intervals before his attention could wander, helping him circle the same round of activities. Law. Music. Strategies for Tala. ASL. Social cap mitigation. Outwitting Tala. Morse code. Penance music for Cascayde. Damnwell surviving Tala.

He blasted out music, worked on the exposé, flirted with law school. Thought about waving Seraph so she could lecture him about professional monogamy. He cleaned his house and bottled a flavorless Allstew, laced with caffeine.

The clock ran down.

 

Drow showed up for his second infusion with stew, some sealed, preprinted digestibles, and a supply of bottled water, all locked inside a camping cooler borrowed from Ramir. Dad’s brainless old Dictaphone was tucked into Jude the Obscure.

Tala sat in on a pre-infusion consult with Trevon, who suggested a naturopathic cream for his back. If she was capturing video or audio in defiance of the clinic’s privacy tech, Drow couldn’t tell. Her goggs showed the usual cartoon eyes, masking her expression. When Trevon kicked her out so Drow could strip for the infusion, she went without a murmur.

“This shouldn’t be happening,” he said to Drow, examining the rash, the pattern of crescent-shaped marks.

Hearing aids pick up everything. He whispered, “If it’s not the chemo, could it be tattoos?”

Trevon shook his head. “We’d see ink.”

“I keep thinking about needles.” Fear of sounding paranoid prevented him from suggesting invisible ink.

After the infusion, he made his slow way to the car, unsupported, wobbling while she made footage.

“What’s that load you’re hauling?” she asked.

Drow woozily raised the cooler filled with the sealed jars of food and water. “Cleansing diet. No outside food or drink s’week.”

“Whatever you say, Lambie Pie.”

Now to stay awake, and to keep Crane up and running. For the first part of that first afternoon, he was untouchable: The toxic drag of the infusion kept him tied to the bathroom for five miserable hours. Was it a win? He was too wrung out and shaky, by the time his gastro tract finally stopped evacuating lava, to decide.

He staggered to the smartchair, mute and exhausted, as Tala lowered her green screen beside him. A pink fuzzy gargoyle, she fussed over lights, arranging instruments, ringing him in shadowless dawn-orange glow. The massage routine built into the chair ran a ball between his shoulder blades. Drow jerked forward, very nearly letting out a shriek, all but tumbling face-first into the coffee table.

“Handsome?” Clicks and whirrs from her goggs: she’d be checking to see that she caught the spasm.

“My back’s been . . . oversensitive.”

“Roll to your side; I’ll powerdown the massage apps.” She put out a hand and served as anchor as he levered himself onto his left hip.

“Let’s make something to earn sympathy from all the worker ants, shall we?” She whisked out a silky-looking sheet, screener green in color, covering him. All the cameras were netting images now, and at his request she’d mirrored them to Crane. Bloodshot eyes, corpse-lipstick shade of mauve on his lips.

“I thought your stuff went to private collections.”

“We’re collaborating here, aren’t we? You make hard-hitting medical exposé, I make artstorm.” She disappeared up the rickety steps, returning with a basket of salon tools: clips and razors, curlers and brushes. Sitting across from him, she pored over combs, holding them up to his hair to compare color contrast, finally choosing one with a metallic red sheen and dropping it into a flask filled with blue alcohol. Composing the shot, she murmured, “What we want here is Keats on his deathbed.”

“’Scuse me?”

“Without the premature death, obviously.” She adjusted each camera in turn, chose three, and shut down the rest. “You’re about his age, aren’t you?”

He shrugged. “Crane, look up Keats for me.”

“And . . . action!” Tala drew the comb through his hair, smoothing out tangles with her vulture claws. Dark strands caught in the teeth, clumping. Uprooting bits of him, she made the rest more presentable.

The green screen had etched in a background, concrete wall and a dirty window, and the sheet was rendered as a ratty wool blanket. The impression created was penitential: Drow recovering in a jail or monastic cell.

She was right; this would play. Drow tagged the digital effects, in case anyone struck at them later for taking poetic license. “Can we livestream this?”

“Go ahead.”

She has opened her airlock, Crane affirmed, stealth-texting in Morse. Stream uploading on a ten-second delay. Translation: She could still clamp down on the data if something she didn’t like threatened to get out. Even so, it was a crack in the door, electronic equivalent of a drawbridge lowered.

Tala took another pass through his thinning mop, then rubbed the comb on a wetwipe, clearing a smear of lost strands before dipping the comb again.

“What’s that smell?”

“Eucalyptus.” The comb had sharp teeth. Its cold metallic points raked his scalp, lots of sensation, not entirely pleasant but, in its repetition, a bit hypnotic. Tala tugged strands free from the grip of his goggs, ran the point behind his ears, down the nape of his neck to trigger a round of the shakes. When she was done he looked smoother, like a five year old fresh from a wash and cut. Vulnerable, and maybe a bit pathetic.

“No actual bald patches yet,” he noted, zooming in on his scalp.

“Next time.” She cleaned another clump off the red teeth, leaving wet remnants of hair on the wipe in the corner of the camera’s field of view, a dab of eye-catching grotesquerie. Discarding the comb in the flask of eucalyptus-scented alcohol, she took up another wetwipe. “How are the numbers?”

Drow queried his new Newsreef editor, who shared a graph of viewing stats. About ten thousand people had tagged it and interest in the live feed had stirred, creating a bump in the ratings as her gnarled hands pulled his hair out. A sputter of strokes pattered onto the desert of Drow’s social capital. Compassionate outliers were deciding he was pitiable rather than malignant.

“More?” she asked.

He nodded assent, ever so slightly.

“Watch your numbers,” Tala said, pressing her wipe-wrapped thumb over his eyebrow, tracing the line of it with almost bruising force.

“Ow!” Drow protested. “Ow!”

Humming tunelessly, she raised her hand. The tissue had most of his brow on it, collection of little strands like bug legs. A reddened half-circle of bald surprise graced the wild wide eye staring into her nearest lens. The sputter of sympathy strokes became more robust.

“Well, Handsome?”

Drow turned his face to offer the other brow.

“You got a name for this project?” He was tearing up, physiological response to the assault on his supraorbital ridge. Saline pooled in the cup of his goggs.

“I’m thinking of Wings off a Fly.”

“Ow!” He fought a renewed flood from his tear ducts as she stripped his other brow. “I’d rather be Keats. A fly?”

“Old expression.” She was streaming the close footage of his face but had muted their conversation. “It captures what the clinic’s doing to you.”

Right. The clinic was victimizing him.

She began massaging his hand, pinching the fingertips and working down, in tiny increments, to the heel. Strokes were still coming in. If the martyr fodder streamed wide enough, he might level sufficiently to take LSAT practice quizzes without ads.

Crane, in silent mode, sent text. Master Jervis says security on household peripherals is above civilian grade.

He clicked back: Meaning?

Crane: Delays in access, possible recurrence of sidekick shutdown, no digital data export.

Drow: I think this round will go all right. My counter-play with the food should slow her down. She can’t dose me.

Crane: Jervis has accessed one app—Miss Weston’s muscle-stimulation regime. He can reprogram the needles.

Drow contemplated that fuzzily. It was assault, of a sort. Messing with the hands that were even now kneading the tight flesh of his forearms, not gently exactly, but in a way that . . .

. . . softened the meat?

She’s not that bad, and she’s just an old lady.

Crane again: Your father points out that the fluid on Miss Weston’s hair combs could easily be a topical pharmaceutical.

Whitings know drug-seeking.

He blinked, staring up into Tala’s goggs.

She broke from an off-key hum. “What is it, Dearheart?”

“Wings off Flies,” he said aloud. “Old saying?”

“About the fundamental sadism of children.”

“You don’t think that’s . . . over the top?”

“Art’s whatever you can get away with. Isn’t that the quote?”

“By Keats?”

“Warhol,” she and Crane corrected simultaneously.

“What haven’t you gotten away with?”

She peered into his face. “How you feeling?”

Dizzy. Calm. Too calm, probably. Drugs in the combs. “Sensorium’s starting to hate me less. Ha! Hates me not.”

“Stick with me, kid. You’ll be the best show in town.”

“Stay awake,” he said, unsure if he meant himself, or Crane. He was definitely drugged. He couldn’t quite remember how to text. “Pins and needles. Do it.”

“Your arm’s falling asleep?” Vulture claws tightened their grip on his wrist flexors.

“Do it,” he repeated. If Crane understood, his response was lost in rising red fog.

What’s that sound?

It wasn’t just his back on fire now; it was the arms themselves. The fire of wasp stings sizzled in time to his pulse, burning from his shoulders to elbows, and as he drunkenly leaned into something like alertness, he brought with him a sense of buzzing, a mechanical whine that he couldn’t, in fact, hear. Memory? Imagination?

His eyes were clenched shut.

He was aroused, too, was inside or enfolded in something, hips thrusting stickily. As this sank in, he froze.

His tongue lolled, overhanging gritty lips.

“Baby, don’t stop.” Cooing, in his ear. Who?

His burnt arms were locked around . . . what? Someone’s neck? He tried to let go, but his hands were clasped together and he couldn’t make his fingers open.

None of it felt—quite—like a person.

What was he humping?

Moaning, he forced his unwilling eyes to open.

Hospital room. White straitjacket arms encased his arms in obscene simulation of prayer, and the person . . .

notta person, no, notta person izza sim, hasta be . . .

CRRNNE, he tongue-spelled.

. . . the person beneath him was Cascayde. Twiggy, blonde, and vulnerable, she was wailing like a banshee and raking at his back. Her fingernails were tattoo needles, buzzing stingers leaving swirling lines in their wake. The bandage at her neck was seeping red.

Drow spasmed from hairline to toes, all of him arching away, peeling his skin from hers. His locked wrists caught her behind the neck and the sim thrashed like a badly animated puppet. Maggot-covered blankets restrained him.

Something banged the heels of his hands, ice-cold metal, painful and blessedly head-clearing.

It was the smartchair. He was hugging the headrest.

Drow drew air through clenched teeth, fighting to convince his hands to unclasp, to raise them above the top of the chair. His lower body was—almost independent of him—trying to run away from the whole situation.

Crane shut it off shut it off . . . He wasn’t sure he was spelling anything that made sense.

The arms stayed tangled. He twisted, throwing a leg over where he thought the chair must be, snagging on fabric. Balance failed entirely. They went down together: him, the silk sheet, all that elaborately programmed foam. Something the size of a toothbrush snapped beneath him. A helmet he hadn’t known he was wearing kept his head from bouncing off the floor.

Slam of iron on bone: He caught his forearm between the floor and the falling piece of heavy furniture. Agony popped his hand open, blessed electric jolt of pain, zapping from shoulder socket to fingertips. He kicked, disentangling from fleshy smartfoam and a smothering wrap of gossamer green screen.

Then he made the mistake of opening his eyes again.

The sim was smart enough to try to compensate for the shift in his orientation. The virtuoso, Cascayde, writhed beside him, still shrieking, hospital gown drenched with blood.

Don’t die again, don’t die again.

He clawed for his face, finding a smooth fishbowl of plastic, a VR helmet sealed by a smartfoam collar. There had to be a latch, right? His nails broke on its surface.

Crane, Crane, help, Crane . . .

Little pings in his tongue. A response? Dot dot . . .

Hands caught his upper arms. Vulture claws.

“Stop!” Drow rasped. “Wait!”

Propelled from behind, all but lifted by the grip on his upper arms, too hammered by chemo and who knew what else to fight, he stumbled back into the embrace of the righted chair. Whoof! as he fell, facedown. Someone straddled him, rough thighs through a thin layer of silk. He felt the vibration of voice, someone humming, as misshapen breasts pressed his shoulderblades. Pubic hair compressing against the base of his spine as weight settled.

He tried to push her off.

Glue of a drug patch rolled over his neck. Hands settled, holding him down. Massage nodules writhed under his groin. He clenched his eyes shut as Cascayde slid in beside him, under him, fitting new needles to each of her fingertips.

Weighted, as if by stones, he jerked and screamed, fighting rising drowsiness and losing. The muscles in his face relaxed, breath by breath; his eyelids flickered open. Cascayde and all his other sins were waiting to claim him.

 

Drow awoke to burning sensations in both arms and a bad case of concert throat. He had a case of the nightmare shakes, a strong desire to throw up, and no memory of anything that had happened after the eyebrow-stripping.

His goggs were across the room, sitting in a windowsill next to a noisy, burbling tank of small crabs. His limbs felt like sacks of wet cement, but he made himself roll in the chair, onto his back.

He tongue-spelled: Crane?

The answer came as pings of sensation at the tip of his tongue ending with dot-dash-dot. Sir?

You awake all night?

Indeed.

Well?

You removed access hardware at 6:45 p.m.

I removed?

At her suggestion, sir. You’ve left me pointed at Huron Street.

You must have caught something. The chair shivered beneath him. His stomach flipped as he scrambled off of it, feeling--absurdly--guilty. Hear anything?

Nothing I’ll retain after I leave, sir. Miss Weston’s data airlock remains secure.

Anything that catches her out? Deciphering Morse was exhausting—everything was exhausting—but he pushed himself across the room. Reclaiming his rig, he clipped it into place: left eye, right eye, left ear, right. Hair slithered off his head, tickling a path down his bare shoulders. Where was his shirt?

I heard shouting, sir. Nothing conclusive.

House schematics filled his goggs, revealing a web of eyes and ears: Jervis had mapped all the cameras and mics on the main floor. Drow couldn’t fart in here without a pickup.

“Where’s Tala?” he asked aloud. Because he would, wouldn’t he?

Crane played along. “Good morning, sir! Miss Weston is upstairs.”

If he got Crane to play audio from the night before, Tala’s various ears would hear it playing in his earbuds. And if he left . . .

. . . right, who’m I kidding, can barely walk . . .

. . . her privacy apps would scrub whatever his sidekick knew.

As for Jude the Obscure and his Dictaphone, they were nowhere to be found.

Drow opened one of his specially prepared filtered waters, sinking to the floor beside the fridge as he chugged.

What was called for here was a genius frigging idea. Hard to force, Brill or no, when he was in this state. He pondered, rubbing his burning arms. They were red with the same emerging rash his back had presented. Blood blisters? A surly black-green bruise blotched his forearm.

“Morning, Handsome.” For once, Tala’s peppy tone sounded forced. “Your thinning hair did well, on the overnight.”

“Haven’t checked my numbers.”

“No?” She flashed cartoon eyes, shaped like hearts. “It’s been years since I considered the mass appeal of—”

“Family-rated pity porn?”

“You have such a way with words.”

“Sensorium’s more reactive than private galleries. You’re playing to everyone, not just—”

“Connoisseurs?” She ran a hand down his arm, fingering the edges of the bruise.

He fought an urge to bolt for the bathroom and lock himself in. “What happened here?”

“You fell off the smartchair,” she said. “During a nightmare, I think.”

It was getting to her, he thought. The eyeballs. The wider reach was a temptation.

A lever, maybe, if he could figure out how to use it.

“Remember anything?”

“My head in a goldfish bowl?”

“No fish here, Handsome.”

They had agreed to another day and night of filming and physical recovery. Drow streamed as much as he could, watching what Tala allowed out of her airlock, what she was willing to leave on the record. She edited his medical journey into a series of high-pathos vids, clips that looked entirely candid, random-seeming captures that always cut to a wincingly painful moment of suffering.

The humming, he realized, was a tell of sorts: it started when she was busily occupied with work.

Strokes came in an ever-steadier stream, too few to redeem him but enough to make Drow wish that collaborating with Tala could actually be what they used to call a valid lifestyle choice.

I should make it up with Marce, he thought. Go back to playing music with her. See what happens.

He spent the afternoon doodling in an old-school paper notebook—inherited, vintage, no carbon cost—and eating bland printed food, thinking about the video possibilities of future chemo outcomes.

Ghoulish possibilities, he wrote: shakes, sores, dry mouth.

Waking later from a light doze, he found three more on the list: Seizure. Cardiac arrest. Stroke.

With penstrokes that almost tore the page, he crossed them out.

“No good?” Tala said.

“Whose ideas are those?”

“It’s your handwriting, isn’t it?”

He gritted his teeth. “I’m not having a heart attack for this. Anyway, a hospital-grade emergency commits me to a blood test or fifty, right? Which’d raise questions about the Brill, and supplier of same.”

“Hmmm,” she said, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

“Getting away with it, remember?”

“Nobody wants you to stroke out, Dearheart.”

Crane, meanwhile: Are you with us, sir?

Here.

Jervis has solved my security problems, but he would need to perform a hardware installation. I’m afraid you’ll have to meet.

So much for Jervis understands you have him blocked.

This day keeps getting better, Drow said. I don’t want him at my house. Understand?

Crane: He suggests making an appointment with your whistle-blower at the pop-up, to clean your smartport.

Drow looked at the words on the notebook page. Cardiac arrest.

Not his idea, no matter what she said.

Seeing Jervis couldn’t make things worse at this point, could it?

Fine, then, make the appointment, he texted to Crane. Lower the drawbridge. Drain the moat. Whatever it takes.

 

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