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Fiction

Let’s Take This Viral

Default hadn’t been down in the nocturns for some time, probably half an orbit, but he had just dissolved the geneshare contract with his now-ex-lover and needed to get completely fucking perforated to take his mind off things. His lift was full of revelers all laughing and widecasting the same synthesized whalesong from Old Old Earth. Ancient aquatic groans were currently vogue, so Default grudgingly let his aural implants synchronize to it.

The lift plunged down the station’s magnetic spine and into artificial night. The nocturns were always dark, but never sleeping. Red splashes of hologram and crude argon signs bloomed in the void below Default’s feet and the other passengers pumped their fists in excitement, exchanged surgically-widened smiles.

Default was sort of wishing he’d updated his tattoos. Everyone else had checkerboard swatches on. Worse, it seemed like he was the only unit not nursing a cosmetic virus. He watched a pretty fem succumb to a sneezing fit, spraying mucus to applause and livefeed shares, and sullenly bioscanned his own immune system.

Untouched and utterly boring.

Default triple-checked to be sure Schorr was still meeting him. Schorr had been his most staticky friend for as long as he remembered. He’d have him party-synched in no time.

***

When the dilating doors spilled him out on mainstreet, Default resisted cranking up the brightness in his optic implants. To do the nocturns right you had to do them dark. Flyby lights poured grainy orange on streets still wet from a pheromone-laced rainshower. Swirling neon advertisements tugged his gaze in all directions, icy blues, radiation yellows.

If it wasn’t for the socialite tag, Default wouldn’t have even recognized Schorr upon arrival. For one thing, Schorr had changed sex and was now very much a fem, and an attractive one to boot. She was fashionably naked apart from a flock of flutterdroids that swathed her skin in shifting patterns. Default saw a tentative follow-cam bobbing along in her wake and realized that Schorr had been one busy unit. He could feel his social stock skyrocketing just from being in her proximity.

“Default, you steady satellite,” Schorr said aloud, chatting it simultaneously. “How long has it been? What have you been doing up there with the serious folk?” She embraced him and the flutterdroids whirred around them like a cloak.

“Half an orbit?” Default grinned weakly. “Longer. Last time I saw you, you, ah . . .”

“Trying new things,” Schorr said, languid. She raised one pale arm and Default saw something bumpy and pink underneath it. Before he could remark, her fingers had encircled his wrist and she was tugging him into the crush. Skin sliding on skin, static starching his hair. Default tried to enjoy the sensations.

“In a hurry?” he asked.

“Slipping the cam,” Schorr said, wagging a hand back toward the spherical cyclops. It was drifting over the crowd, trying to pinpoint them. “Bit of privacy is better for where we’re heading.”

Default craned his neck. The cam carved a dancing red laserlight through the throng of revelers. Schorr started to run, and Default, fixing the grin to his face, followed.

***

They pelted through the neon-swatched streets and Default felt lactic acids licking muscles that hadn’t burned in ages. They dashed down a row of flashing dream machines, in and then out of a slick-floored purging booth, past fleshfacs vending extra limbs. Schorr’s laugh danced ahead of them like phantom code. Default’s lungs were tight by the time they slipped into a dopamine bar, but it was a good feeling.

Schorr shed her flutterdroid swarm at the door and, gauging the dresscode, Default pulled off his thermal but kept his footwraps. They made their way to the bar, still laughing, and it wasn’t until they were seated with the plastic plugs snaking into their brain stems that Schorr asked about Memmi, about the break-up. Default exhaled long.

“She joined a fucking polymind,” he said. “Right after things ended. She uploaded to one of those polymind probes so she can spend the next few centuries chasing comets and contemplating entropy.”

“That’s a crippler,” Schorr remarked. A lopsided frown made her look exactly like his old self for a moment. “But you’ll find someone else,” she said. “You always do.”

“I do,” Default admitted.

Schorr shivered as the next chemical wave hit them, one arm trailing over her head. Default saw the bubbling pink protrusions again, and more he hadn’t noticed spreading across her collarbone, up her neck. He remembered, through the dopamine mist, that he’d meant to ask about it. He pointed his chin. “What’s this, then?”

“This?” Schorr smiled and Default knew she’d been waiting for the question. “Just a little virus.” She leaned forward, conspiratorial. “You know how cosmetic viruses are the big spit now, yeah? Everyone’s got one. Everyone synched, anyway.”

“I noticed,” Default said. “Thanks.”

“Well, there’s this unit down here who makes the absolute rawest bugs,” Schorr continued. “He does viral, bacterial, everything. His stuff is going to go absolute nova. It’s really only a matter of time.” She traced the shiny pink bumps with pride, then looked up slyly. “Do you want to meet him?”

Default thought of thumping underground scenes, a meteoric rise in social stock, roaming the nocturns with Schorr nursing matching infections, and, for just an instant, holding her clammy hand in his own and exchanging chapped smiles.

“What’s he called?” Default asked.

“He has a slew of tags,” Schorr said. “Lately, most commonly, people call him the Plagueman.” She tugged the dopamine plug free with a soft plop and let it retract back into the bar. “He’s waiting for us in the basement.”

***

Still reeling from the dopamine, they threaded their way to the back of the bar and down a concrete gullet. Schorr stroked them past a touch-door and Default found himself blinking as his optic implants recalibrated. The lights were bright and antiseptic white.

A sort of bubblefab had been grown, still fresh enough to stick underfoot, and its membrane formed crude walls and a ceiling. Default saw red tubes snaked behind frosty glass, a mix-and-match genekit hijacked from some funlab, a small thinker core that couldn’t be holding more than a semi-sentient AI.

“Plagueman?” Schorr’s breath was a crystallized cloud. “Where are you?”

“Hold on,” came a distorted voice. Someone in a worksuit ducked out from behind a row of growth tubes and set down a spindly instrument. “Is this Default, then? Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Default returned, giving a polite fist bump. The Plagueman pulled off his cowl. Default saw a weave of red muscle over gray bone. Packed yellow in the cheek. Lids with no lashes. Flaying was occasionally chic—every few orbits, denizens enjoyed replacing tiny swathes of moisture-treated skin with transparent polysilicate—but Default had never seen it done to this extent.

“Got sick of it one day,” the unit explained, seeing the curiosity. “Decided it all had to go.”

“It’s potent,” Default assured him.

Schorr slung an arm around the Plagueman’s shoulders. “Maybe a little gauche,” she said, and Default resisted the urge to run a quick pheromone scan to determine if the two of them were fucking. Schorr would probably detect it, and then she would wonder why he was scanning her, and Default wouldn’t have a good reason.

“I’ve never seen this one,” Default said instead, nodding to Schorr’s infection. “Custom?”

“It’s a recreation, actually,” the Plagueman said, smiling liplessly. “A mild pox. Something from Old Old Earth.”

“Retrovirus,” Schorr joked.

“Not droll,” Default chatted her. She stuck out her tongue.

“The blisters should spread soon,” the Plagueman said. “It’s a really eye-snatching effect.” He looked up at Default. “Want to try it before it goes open market?”

Default looked at the frozen virus samples. Memmi wouldn’t have liked this; she hated most bodymods. Not that it had stopped her from uploading into that junky probe for a century of space sailing. Fucking hypocrite.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely I do.”

The Plagueman beamed, teeth far whiter than the exposed sliver of his jawbone. “Raw.”

“Needle or oral?” Default asked, now determined.

“That’s the best part,” Schorr said. “Our unit here makes real viruses, not those piddly things that die off an eyeblink after you buy them. They’re self-propagating.”

“All you have to do is override your immunity buffer,” the Plagueman finished.

Default closed his eyes and reached as deep as he could into his hardware/wetware interface, down past the cobwebs, and he found the immunity buffer pulsing in a sequestered corner. As he went to shut it down, an archaic warning message in radioactive yellow scrolled the insides of his eyelids. Default overrode it.

When he opened his eyes, Schorr was in front of him. She breathed a long slink of steam into the chilled air and across his face. His nostrils twitched.

“Feel sick yet?” she asked, then chatted, “It’s a no-pay, by the way. Thank me later.”

“Not yet.”

“It takes a little time,” the Plagueman said. “But you won’t need a bioscan to know when it hits.” Schorr was tracing the pustules with admiring fingers, and Default had to admit it looked potent. It was like her skin was strewn with tiny craters, like some ancient moon, and they glistened raw and wet in the bright light.

“Nova,” Schorr said. “So nova. Thanks for the dish, I know he’s going to love it.”

Default nodded. “Yeah, thanks for the freebie, Plagueman.”

“No issue,” he said, pulling his cowl back up. “When people ask, just remember who bug-synched you. I haven’t worked in a signature yet.”

“Come with us?” Default offered, hoping for a negative. He didn’t want to have to compete with a skinless unit who cooked amazing viruses.

“I’m working on a new bacterial,” the Plagueman said, muffled again. “Have fun. Get shattered.”

“You’re not supposed to work in the nocturns,” Schorr teased, but she didn’t look too upset as she turned back to Default. “Time to party,” she said with a grin. “See if we can’t wobble that steady fucking satellite of yours.”

***

They partied. Schorr introduced him to a slew of units, some of whom he recognized by tag, and then the whole pack of them speedtapped an amphetamine cocktail and took the freebus to an amphitheatre. Schorr was projecting her bioscan all over the inside of the bus, showing the spiky virus taking root in her body, and with a little prompting Default threw his up beside hers. Everyone cheered when he found the first lump on his neck.

“She always finds the best shit,” said a fem beside him, adjusting the static clip in her hair.

“He does,” Default agreed, remembering about a hundred orbits worth of Schorr’s misadventures, unlicensed hull-walks and clonefucking and all sorts of funtime. If they hadn’t come out of the same birthing tank, Default was sure he never would have snagged Schorr as a friend. Default was not vogue the way Schorr was vogue.

“Want to share?” the fem asked, running a finger over his lips.

Not usually, anyway.

***

The amphitheatre was wall-to-wall like they’d all been poured in through the ceiling. More whalesong, but Default didn’t mind that now, not with his head shredded by amphetamine. The crowd was roiling around them, a raspy skin-sea, and every touch felt electric. Schorr was the center of the hurricane, but Default was still soaking up more hits than he ever had in his life. Probes for his tag, probes about Schorr’s old sex, and always probes about the virus. They were clamoring.

He found himself with the fem from the freebus, recognized her tag and her bright green eyes and the camber of her bare back. It was too loud for airtalk, but she chatted him: “I want your bug, handsome.” The message came with a fleshflash of exactly how she wanted to contract it, and Default only thought of Memmi for a split second before they docked right there on heated floor.

When the party was about to burst, they went to the next one. Schorr chatted him; they wormed their way around the back through naked bodies, sweeping limbs, and they stumbled down the street to a fresh scene. Motion artists were doing a recreation of the Five, widecasting a link to the bird’s eye view, and with the drug singing in Default’s veins it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

Things blurred. They stopped at a dream machine, downloaded a hallucination that had them sprinting through alleyways to escape a swarm of blue-and-red tetragons. They ate sticky vatmeat until their unprepped stomachs revolted, then vomited in a purging booth and staggered back for more. The AI vendor offered to grow them a cannibal special if they provided a bit of helix; Schorr pretended to gnaw at Default’s arm.

Sitting on a curb, counting each others’ pox.

Trying to make two follow-cams collide.

Another party, this time underwater. Sleek monitor AIs swam in lazy ribbons and when Schorr caught one by the tail it bubbled emergency oxygen in beautiful wobbling streams.

***

The nocturns had no light cycles, but by the time they rented a bunk just off the mainstreet Default’s internal clock told him it had been days. Schorr was still bouncing from foot to foot, still party-synched. Default was exhausted.

“Wick, wick run,” Schorr said, because she was saying wick now instead of raw. The latest of their companions were stumbling off into the dark. Default rubbed his eyes.

“Same pod?” he asked.

“Don’t we always?” Schorr’s lopsided frown returned. “Oh. Would it remind you?”

“It’s fine,” Default chatted, too tired to speak, and slipped inside the sleep pod. The gel rippled a moment later as Schorr climbed in after him. It made Default remember a trip to the nocturns orbits and orbits ago for a Five festival, collapsing spent in a pod with Schorr beside him. There was only one difference.

“Why’d you change sex again?” he chatted.

“Still trying to find something different,” Schorr replied. Her shrug sent vibrations.

“Is it?”

Schorr shifted in the dark. “Not so different, no. Still bored.”

Default slept.

***

When he woke up, Default had a mass of updates sitting in his skull. Sleeping for a few days could easily take you out of the know, but it looked like Schorr had charitably cut him into her own feed. There was no way he’d already made that many new friends.

“Ready to go?” Schorr asked. Default glanced over and realized that the pockmarks on her skin were slowly healing. He wondered what his own looked like. He combed through the updates and found an invitation from the Plagueman.

“Back to the basement?”

“You scan my mind. He’s been chatting me about something new.”

The pod gave them a send-off in the form of exfoliation and amphetamine injections, and then they were back in the street. It was dark and loud and wild and as if they hadn’t left it. Bands of revelers passed and Default saw runny noses, puffy eyes, but more than anything he saw shiny pink blisters. Schorr was right. It was going nova.

“How long have we been alive, Default?” Schorr asked as they stepped onto a freebus. She had traded her now-unvogue-flutterdroids for swirling fabric and spray-on, but her eyes were still ringed dark and seemed suddenly serious.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, from the instant we were genemixed . . .” Schorr moved her finger in a slow arc. “. . . to this moment here on the freebus. How many orbits have elapsed between?”

“I’ve never calculated that,” Default admitted.

“I did,” Schorr said. “692.3487 orbits. We’re old.”

Stars are old.”

“We’re old,” Schorr said firmly. Then her face broke into a grin as the freebus passed a familiar vendor. “Vatmeat? I’ll buy.”

“I’ll vomit,” Default said, glad the mood had passed.

“Deal,” Schorr said.

***

Pox was over, bacterial was in. Preferably, in both lungs. Default and Schorr lay side by side while the Plagueman, who was now called Epi, injected them. They clasped clammy hands.

“You’re going to feel this one,” Epi promised. “Really feel this one. It’s like nothing else.”

And Epi was right. Before they even hit the next party, Default and Schorr were coughing at each other and wheezing laughs between alcohol eyedrops, suddenly short of breath. Default’s ear canals felt permanently plugged and the world was surreal, almost soundless. They chatted instead of airtalk for the whole duration. Default had never felt so curiously detached, so . . . floating. It was intoxicating. They stumbled through the streets in their own personal world, a soundless world where fever crept across their foreheads and every breath was dredged.

Default gave it to a select few, sometimes with Schorr’s approval first, sometimes not. Only a small handful of fems and sirs and neuts rode the razor-edge of the bacterial trend. Those without connections were left mimicking the effects, walking bent double and faking coughs between words.

***

There were more bugs, and Schorr wanted them all. At first Default thought he was following because he’d always followed Schorr, because he’d never had social stock this high or funtime this exclusive, but no: There was something else drawing him to the bright white basement where Epi, now No-Skin, did his work. Default was breaking his body down so thoroughly, so deeply, that he knew himself in ways he never had before. In ways Memmi never had either, but Memmi was distant now, a dim thought on the periphery.

Sometimes the infections hit so quickly Default and Schorr couldn’t even leave the basement. They collapsed against each other and No-Skin apologized, talked about reducing potency, but when they were entwined on the floor with entropy swimming their veins they couldn’t hear him and didn’t care. Sometimes they stayed there with No-Skin for days on end instead of spreading the word, spreading the vogue, but he seemed to enjoy their company. They shivered and groaned and reveled in pus from a new orifice, an interesting discoloration of the gums, a bone-deep ache.

“How did you learn to make these?” Default chatted on one of these occasions, half inside a fever dream. They had their own closed web at this point, him and Schorr and the newly-christened Bugwright. The Bugwright pulled down his cowl and shrugged.

“Practice, unit,” he said, breath steaming. “Practice in other places.”

“Schorr never told me you were a pilgrim,” Default chatted. He glanced over to where Schorr was lounging, eyes crusted.

“I’m not forthcoming with it,” the Bugwright admitted. “A lot of people don’t like pilgrims. They like to just think their station is the only station, you know?”

“I had an ex who always wanted to hop stations,” Default chatted.

“You see a lot of things,” the Bugwright said. “I’ve seen a lot of things, and all of them end.”

“Tell him about the finale,” Schorr chatted. Default hadn’t known she was lucid.

“When it’s ready,” the Bugwright said. He pulled the cowl back up over his skinless face and returned to work.

***

Time had passed; the nocturns had changed. Every unit in the universe had a bug to show off, and bioscans were everywhere you looked, sprayed onto walls and tattooed onto skin. Signature viruses, custom infections. The freebus had divvied into personal transportation pods for units who were no longer walking, or for those pretending they no longer could. The air was swimming with disease.

“We started this, you know,” Schorr said. “How’s that feel? You’re not the steady satellite anymore. You’re nova.”

They were in a corner supshop, squeezed into a booth that was doing its best to massage their back muscles. Default was burning off a mild fever, hair fashionably sweat-slicked. He didn’t know what Schorr was running. Probably something subtle. Discharge was getting too obvious, she thought.

“It feels good,” Default said. Schorr smiled and patted his face. Default caught her hand and held it there. “But I’ve got a lift leaving soon.”

“You want to go back topside?” Schorr asked, incredulous. “Why?”

“It’s time, that’s all,” Default said. He judged his next words. “I want you to come with me.”

“I want you to stay here.” Schorr tugged her hand back and pointed out the wide window. “This is different, unit. This is finally different.”

“You’ve found things like this before. Different things.”

“But this is the last thing, Default.” Schorr looked hurt. “The biggest thing. I was hoping you would do it with me.”

“Do what?” Default asked, heart thumping. They had been docking more often lately, less often with other people, and if she wanted a contract . . . well, Default wanted one, too. He felt Schorr open up a private line.

“Do you remember the Five?”

Of course he remembered the Five. The memory was entrenched in every brain on the station. There was a hundred orbits’ worth of art, music, and gene-shares dedicated to the Five and their ill-fated hull-walk, to the malfunction that let a micrometeorite slip through the station’s detection system and plow five units into blood and carbon dust.

“What do you think happened to them?” Schorr asked.

Default frowned, unsure where the conversation was headed. “They ceased.”

“What do you think it felt like?”

“It’s impossible to know that.”

“Not impossible.” Schorr peeled back the sleeve of her thermal and raised her arm. Default saw something black and bubbling underneath.

“A different thing,” Schorr said in the air. “A new thing.” She looked sad.

“I thought maybe you meant something else.” Default stared at the infection and remembered a conversation with the Bugwright. Bubonic. Old Old Earth. Fatal, whatever that entailed.

“But I wanted it to be me and you, Default,” Schorr said haltingly. Her eyes roved all the way around the supshop, everywhere but on him, then finally landed.

“Why?” Default asked.

Schorr shrugged. She smiled. “Because then you’d never have to find someone else.”

Their hands entangled, and as they kissed Default dropped his immunity buffer all the way down to zero.

***

Memmi/Others had missed Default, she/they really had. The polymind probe had circled the edge of the galaxy, watched the decay of a red dwarf, catalogued a crude bacterial life-form on a thawing moon. Memmi/Others had marveled at the vastness, the chaos, but she/they had not forgotten the station, either. It was harder to re-locate than expected, no longer buzzing with wave communication. Maybe something new had been developed, some new frequency the outdated probe instruments could no longer detect.

The probe docked and gave Memmi/Others a troubling report: The station was empty. She/they floated through the station like a ghost, jumping from monitor to monitor. The AIs were dormant, running only the most basic maintenance protocols. The lifts were stalled in their berths. The multihouses were derelict. She/they went down to the nocturns.

Nothing. The holos danced on in the dark streets, music was still relooping and evolving, but the revelers had vanished. A lone autocleaner was still wandering, still shoving debris, and Memmi/Others recognized the dull yellow of old bone only by the probe’s logs. She/they retreated to the station’s main thinker, trying to make sense of it, trying to evaluate.

One ship had left the station. Memmi/Others saw the trajectory like a laser, and she/they directed the probe to follow it. She/they slid through black space for a century. For two. The probe arrived at another station, this one slowly orbiting a double sun. Memmi/Others requested docking. No answer.

The probe sailed on to the next station, and the next, and as desperation grew and then ebbed there came a slow realization: She/they had missed the party.

© 2013 Rich Larson.

Rich Larson

Rich Larson

Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and now writes from Ottawa, Canada. His short work has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon, featured on io9, and appears in numerous Year’s Best anthologies as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Apex. He was the most prolific author of short science fiction in 2015 and 2016. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.