Science Fiction & Fantasy

LOST CHILD OF LYCHFORD

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Fiction

And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead - illustration by Galen Dara

Nebula Award NomineeThe mobster has a gun pressed to Rack’s forehead. The mobster has a god-shitting gun pressed to her partner’s fucking forehead, and the only thing Rhye can do is watch and scream as the man smiles at her and pulls the trigger and blows Rack’s perfect brains out from between his ears.

Rhye has her guns drawn before the other Ganymede fuckers can twitch, but it’s way too late — the damage is done and smeared across the walls and floor and ceiling. Synthetic blood and bone look exactly the same as the real deal. She puts three shots into the flesh slab that did it (he’s dead he’s dead gods fuck it no nononono) and then the rest of his pals are on her like the three-times-fucked human jackals they are, pulling her down. The room stinks of blood and gunsmoke and fear-sweat. For the first time in her life, those smells make Rhye want to gag. Her ears are ringing — whether from the gunshots or god knows what else — and it feels like the floor is falling away beneath her motorcycle boots.

She’s still struggling against their meaty fingers to reach Rack when the head goon breaks her nose with a squared-off fist the size of the moon he’s from. She barely feels the bone snap. He’s dead. He’s dead and the world is grayscale, all the color leaching from it to pool around her feet in a red puddle.

“He was trying to crack it, you fucks. The fuck is wrong with you? He was coming out, he was going to try again, it was just a fucking hiccup! Jesus fuck, do you think you’re going to get your cunting kid back now?” Her throat hurts from screaming. Blood from her nose is backing up into her sinuses, half-choking her. She doesn’t care. “I’ll kill you, I’ll fucking kill all of you. You’re fucking dead, do you hear me? Let me go, let me fucking go — ”

“We hired you and your partner to finish job. Nothing was ever said about quitting,” the man says. His voice is heavily accented, breath reeking of onions and vodka. “If pretty boy couldn’t bring what we need out, pretty boy is useless, like tits on bull or useless cyborg bitch. His consciousness can stay inside box and rot for all I care. But! — ” he pokes Rhye in the forehead with one of his blunt fingers — ”I think you care. I think you care very much, yes? Yesyes?”

“I’m going to kill you, you fuck.” She says it slowly, pronouncing every word with deathly clarity. “I’m going to shove my gun up your ass and blow a hole so fucking wide a whale’s prick wouldn’t fill the gap.”

“Not if you want partner back,” he says, throwing an uplink cable at her. “Plug in, get data out. Get pretty boy, too, if you like. Fail, and you die together. Is very simple.”

And because she does care, cares too fucking much, cares, and the sight of Rack slumped over in the chair with a neat round hole scorched into his forehead is squeezing at the heart she’s always claimed not to have, Rhye spits blood and hate in their employer’s face and jams the jack into the port at the base of her skull.

• • • •

The first time she meets Rack, Rhye’s fresh out of the army and fresh back from one of the meat-grinders the humans pay her kind to fight in. The children of wires and circuits aren’t worth a tinker’s fuck compared to the children of real flesh and bone, so far as the world’s concerned. The recruitment agents pluck her off the streets when she’s twelve and send her to a training camp and she’s good with linguistics and better at killing, so they keep her hands busy until she’s twenty-five and then they spit her back out again like a mouthful of cum. She has gray curly hair cropped short and gray dead eyes and calluses on the inside of her palms worn hard and horny from years of holding pistol grips. She’s small and lean, which makes people underestimate her, but she’s cool enough and don’t-fuck-with-me enough that most know to jump the fuck out of the way when they see her coming. The ones that don’t get flashed a warning glimpse of her teeth and holsters.

There’s nothing funnier than watching some drunken fleshsack piss his drawers when that happens. One minute he’s trying to grab a skin-job whore’s ass, the next he’s looking his own death in the face and wetting himself like a goddamned baby. It never fails to tickle the shit out of Rhye.

She bums around the city looking for something to do, gets in a moderate amount of trouble in every district she lands (her and the cops are on a first-name basis; it’s touching), and finally ends up at the deathmatches, fighting her own kind for a quick buck in front of a bunch of screaming yahoos. Rhye doesn’t really do it for the cash, although money for smokes is always nice. She does it because killing is the only thing she’s good at, and quite frankly, she enjoys it. If the poor fucks she gunned down didn’t want to be there, they wouldn’t be. They’re all fucked, everything is fucked, and the pain at least makes her feel something.

Then one night in the arena her foot slips and the hulking musclebound mountain of nano-technology she’s peppering with shots catches up and busts three of her ribs and one of her wrists. Rhye still manages to take him down one-handed, but even with the purse prize she doesn’t have enough money for a fixer. They toss her out into the alleyway behind the joint like a kid’s broken toy and there she lies, soaked to the skin from the oily rain that never seems to stop falling in this fucking gray ashtray of a city.

And that’s where Rack finds her, that clean-fingered, mild-mannered motherfucker. Why he’s even there in the first place is beyond her. All she knows is that one minute she’s huddling in a puddle, exhausted and hurting, and the next there’s a hand extended her way and a pair of sad brown eyes looking down at her (fucking puppy-dog expression, clean-shaven and thoughtful and for fuck’s sake he was wearing a tie and carrying a briefcase, can you believe that shit) and no matter how hard she glares at him, he won’t fucking go. Rhye shows him the grips of her pistols and he just looks at her, just fucking looks. That surprises her; she’s not expecting young Mr. Salaryman to be stubborn.

“Fuck off, White Collar,” she says. “Do I fucking know you?”

“No,” he replies, exasperatingly patient, “but I know what it looks like when somebody needs a hand. C’mon. Let’s get you out of the rain.”

She’s hurting too bad to put up much of a fuss. He loops an arm beneath her own and together the two of them limp back to his flat, her getting oily water and blood all over his nice white shirt the entire way.

If he had been smart, he would have left her where she lay. Fucking dumbass. Stupid fucking noble idealistic kind-hearted dumbass.

• • • •

Outgoing Connection detected!

Initializing Connection Handoff to Interpretive Interface . . . Handoff Completed!

(Hey, Rhye, c’mere. I made you something.)

It’s like floating in black static, and all the pressure is sitting on top of Rhye’s head sumo-style, pushing her further down. Lines of code play across the insides of her eyes. Floaters are annoying; this is fucking maddening. And it hurts. She can’t keep a straight thought, scalpels of pain are slicing through her brain over and over and she fucking hates this cyberspace bullshit. It’s Rack’s thing, not hers. Rhye likes her shit concrete. Rhye likes having a body. North, South, East, West. You use your feet to walk in a direction and then you shoot some motherfucker at the end of it. Finding Rack in here is gonna be like finding a seed in an elephant’s ass, especially if he’s tangled up with the security system. He had sounded scared shitless over the comm-link before that waste of jizz up top had done what he did. Thinking about it makes Rhye’s currently non-existent asshole clench.

So. Find Rack, get him out of whatever pile he’s stepped into, and also somehow free up the data their employers want. Piece of cake. No problem. As soon as Rhye figures out what form any of that is gonna take, how to move forward, and which fucking way forward is, she’ll go ahead and do that. Should’ve paid more attention in school. Should’ve actually gone to school.

(It looks like a chip, a tiny little chunk of plastic and wire no bigger than a .22 shell. He drops it into her palm, looking like a cat that’s just robbed a canary store at gunpoint. She glances down at the thing, then back at him, the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth and the pride in his eyes.)

(The hell is it?)

Establishing parietal operculum loopback . . . SUCCESS

Establishing posterior parietal cortex loopback . . . SUCCESS

Something about the script is nagging at Rhye. A memory half-clouded by booze, disinterest, and the obscuring fog of being so embarrassed by something she had willed her brain to forget all about it. Good god, had she actually blushed? Like a fucking schoolgirl with a Valentine?

Rhye never has been good at accepting kindness. Being loved doesn’t suit her.

(It’s art. It’s art and it’s one-of-a-kind and it’s all yours. It’s an interface, like mine, but I cut out all the rendering hardware and installed a direct path to the somasensory cortices of your brain. You interpret the stimulus naturally, like poetry, or music, and — Rhye, there are no words for this. Here, hook yourself up to the test deck. Log in with me. You need to see for yourself.)

(Just say what it does in fuckin’ English, Rack, baby.)

(It develops metaphors for abstract environments. I put it together just f — )

(Oh. Huh. Well, that’s somethin’. You’re a sharp motherfucker, Rack. You want a drink?)

And she had slotted the thing away in one of the ports beneath her hair so his feelings wouldn’t be too hurt (not that she cared, of course) and turned away so he wouldn’t see her blush (fuck) and promptly gotten herself so completely fucked up on the cheap whiskey they kept in the fridge that the rest of that night was an indistinct blur. That he had wanted her to plug in with him was not something she dwelled on, not something she had let herself dwell on. Fucking sentimentality. It was that sort of shit that got you killed.

But it sure as fuck seems to be coming in handy now, this little gift of Rack’s. The static shudders and flashes and things begin taking shape. She has a body again, and guns, and she thanks her brain for that because she’d rather hop around in here on fucking stumps and hooks than be without some representation of her weapons. Another twist of the big empty and there’s dirt beneath her boots, a gray sky above and a river ahead, and —

Enhanced local motor/sensory homunculi detected, offloading rendering tasks . . . complete!

Filling input buffer . . . 60% . . . 85% . . . 100%!

Rendering buffer contents . . .

Dead trees, dead grass, and a skeletal ferryman in a boat, cowled and waiting.

• • • •

Joining up with Rack hadn’t stopped her from doing much of anything, at first. She played the part of the hired gun on whatever jobs he asked her to — beneath that quiet boy scout front was a mercenary mind the criminal underworld would spread their cheeks and wallets for, if and when they needed his skills — but Rhye’s time was her fucking time, and if she wanted to spend it getting blackout drunk or fighting in deathmatches until the street sweepers came out to mop up the hobo piss, that was none of his fucking concern. And, to Rack’s credit, he never gave her any shit about it. He just bundled her into her bed when she came staggering home stinking of bourbon and sweat, sewed up her cuts and swabbed out her wounds, and watched. Always with the fucking watching.

Maybe she got a little reckless (more so than usual). Reckless or sloppy. The outcome was the same: She went into the ring with two good eyes to fight some knife-throwing motherfucker and came out a cyclops, blood and goo leaking from the sliced-up socket like candle wax. She’s never been able to remember how the fuck she made it back to the apartment that night on her own. There’s a big “scene missing” card and then she’s perched on the bathroom counter while Rack dabs gently at the hole in her head, tight-lipped and trying so fucking hard not to let his concern show.

Neither of them says anything for a while. But a question is gnawing at Rhye, and she’s drunk enough and light-headed enough from losing all that blood to finally just ask.

“Hey. Rack.”

He wrings the washcloth out and a slaughterhouse swirls down the plughole. “Yeah?”

“Why the fuck do you care? About anything, I mean.” She shakes her head. Bloody water and antiseptic splatter the walls. “You know what humans say about us? We’re just fucking garbage to them. God created their ancestors, but ours were made by Tom, Dick, and motherfuckin’ Turing. We don’t have souls and they can just use us and throw us out” — she snaps her fingers, bang — ”like that. Better than ruining a real person’s hands in the factories, right? That kid on the assembly line, she’s just a goddamned piece of synthetic trash, she doesn’t dream about getting the hell out of the slums to somewhere better. So why give a fuck if that’s all the world expects out of you?”

A beat. “Do you believe them?”

“Fuck no. For one thing, there’s no such thing as their fucking God. Load of horseshit. The only things you can rely on are these babies.” She pats her guns, solid and safe in their holsters. “But they got one thing right. Our lives ain’t worth shit in a sewer, and mine least of all. So I’ll ask again: What’s with the caring act? What’s in it for you? You think you’re gonna fix me or something?”

“No, Rhye. I don’t think that.”

“Then why? Why give a fuck?”

He shrugs, shooting her that wry little smile that never reaches his eyes.

“Hey,” he says, finally. “Everybody needs a hobby, right?”

That was the last deathmatch Rhye ever fought in. She kept the empty socket, got an eyepatch, and aimed just as well with one eyeball as she ever had with two.

• • • •

She pays him in spent brass, the kind that gathers in your pockets and shirt cuffs after a day at the range or a night spent turning people into raw red meat. No reaper in Rhye’s head would ever bother asking for fuckin’ pennies. He stretches out a bony hand and the empty shells clatter into it like beer cans bouncing off a fence post, ting ting ting. Lead on, motherfucker, lead on. Down the river and through the woods and if the Big Bad Wolf jumps out, you give him a lead tampon in his pisshole before he can say hey baby, what’s shakin’.

It looks like all the rivers and canals she’s ever known, choked with old shopping trolleys and used condoms and rafts of yellow-brown foam. Styx by way of The City, stinking, oily-slow, full of shit and bodies and about as good a metaphor for life as you could find. The only difference here is that all of the faces beneath the water belong to people Rhye put there. She’s not guilty — most of them deserved it — but it’s still a little fucked up. They stare at her with accusing, fish-nibbled eyes. Some claw at the bottom of the boat. She doubts shooting them again would help anything, so she saves her bullets, lighting a cigarette instead. The smoke is warm and fuzzy inside her chest, comfortingly familiar, like sucking down a carcinogenic teddy bear.

“Do many of those fuckers get out?” she asks Reaper Man. She can be fuckin’ polite, no problem. But Mr. Skullhead doesn’t give her a second look, not even when she offers him a smoke (less out of kindness and more because she’s curious to see how the hell something without lungs would manage the trick), so she scowls and stares across the water with the coffin nail dangling moodily from her lips, chin in hand. To entertain herself she starts trying to identify every dead person she sees.

There are foot soldiers and foreign agents, low-level punks and pirates and even a police officer or two. Other bounty hunters. Cartel bosses. The kid that couldn’t have been older than fifteen that tried to stick her up that one time, not recognizing Rhye for what she was. And yeah, even her first kill, the kiddy-diddling adoption agent with the wormy smile and the good-looking face. Nobody had suspected a goddamned thing. As long as they’re good-looking, they never do. Who the fuck were they supposed to believe, the street rat skin-job with a rap sheet at age nine? It had been his blonde-haired, blue-eyed word against hers.

He wasn’t fucking pretty with all that blood spurting out of his mouth, though, and he sure as fuck ain’t looking too good now with half his chin rotted off. Real or not, it gives Rhye some satisfaction to see him stranded like a rat in the aftermath of a wrecked ship. She reaches down, avoiding the grasping hands. Her cigarette hisses and sizzles as it grinds into his bloated forehead. He sinks back into the water like one of those poor amusement park androids, stuck on a rail with a beam up their ass.

“Waste of a fucking cigarette,” she says, and lights another. She actually feels kind of good after that, at least until she sees Rack’s face down there too. The drag curdles behind her ribs and sticks like grime clotting a gun barrel.

He’s not real. She knows that for a goddamned fact. But Rhye can’t tear herself away from those sad eyes, the round hole dribbling black blood and river water down his nose. She watches him as they pull away, until the distance between them stretches and he’s just another face in the crowd her hands have made.

• • • •

The river goes along, as rivers do, and then, out of fucking nowhere, like cockroaches circling the last can of cat food before a paycheck, suburban neighborhoods begin popping up along the banks. They stare down the bluffs with broken window eyes, yards gone to weeds and dog shit and strips of old paint. Who would have thought Hell had pink flamingos?

The ferryman lets Rhye out on a shore made of splintered bone and more spent brass. Why the fuck he needed that shit for a toll when there are dunes of it lying within easy reach, Rhye doesn’t know. She sets out for the houses without looking back. They’ll meet up again soon enough for real, she figures. No need for handshakes when she’ll be probably be back in the boat before her shelf life hits forty.

Keep moving. Keep searching. Wading through drifts of dead leaves and candy wrappers, glancing into doorways, further up and further in, uneasiness growing with each SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY sign passed and bombed-out, rotten-tired station wagon peered under. Rust, dust, plaster, Styrofoam. Two-story brick hulks sagging at crazy angles, their multi-car garages gaping like slack-jawed drunks at a nudie bar. Shadows everywhere: beneath grimy windshields, in the alleyways, stacked thick behind brokeback venetian blinds. Rhye’s been in friendlier combat zones; at least there you’ll spot the occasional buzzard or scuttling cat.

She’s being followed by something, but that’s not surprising. A good sign: If she’s suddenly interesting enough to be getting the hairy eyeball, maybe it’s the security system crawling out from under its rock to do some territorial pissing. She puts up with the peeping for another couple of blocks, then stops in her tracks.

“Look. You wanna ask me to the fuckin’ dance already instead of trying to peek up my skirts?”

Nothing. Not a big talker, her stalker.

“‘Cause, y’know, if you’re too chickenshit to give me an invitation, I’m just gonna go with the football captain, that motherfucker is dreamy and I hear he’s got a dick like a goddamned science experiment.”

Nada but tree shadows, all the way down the block. Nothing — and then, three or four houses down, a shape stepping out into the street. It stands there on the curb, watching quietly, silhouetted against the ashtray sky. The sharp, familiar scent of a lit cigarette punches through the stale air.

“Rhye? Is that you?”

But it’s not the figure speaking to her. This voice comes from behind, one she’s been wanting to hear ever since she plugged in. Her breath snags barbed wire. She half-turns to look back over her shoulder, against her better judgment.

“Holy shit, Rack! Where the fuck are you, man? I’ve been looking all over the place for you! Are y — ”

“No, look, look, Rhye, you need to get out of here. You need to get out of here right now. I made a huge mistake, I underestimated the security protocol, and she’s going to come after you, too, if you don’t go. Don’t worry about me. Rhye?”

The shadowy shape is walking towards her. Rhye’s pretty sure it’s not out selling cookies or spreading the word of the Lord. “That’s assuming I know how to fucking get out of here without you, man,” she says. Her hands are already on her guns. “And what the fuck do you mean by she?”

The purposeful walk has turned into a wolf-trot. The light still isn’t great, but she can see now that it’s a girl. About her height, about her build, same hair color, same way of moving —

Wait. Wait just one fucking minute.

“Rack? This security program. I’m just, like, seeing my subconscious or some bullshit again, right? Right?” The other woman is running now. “Because if you’ve done what I think you did — ”

“I, uh . . .”

Motherfucker.

“. . . I may have cribbed heavily from existing source material, yes.”

The woman grins as she sprints. Still has both of her eyes. Four years ago, maybe? A copy of her at her most bitter and burned out, thirsty for blood and not caring whose.

“Let’s do this, then,” she says, sighing, and then there’s no time for talk anymore.

• • • •

So there’s this skin-job kid that gets adopted by one of those high muckity-muck Ganymede mobsters. He isn’t exceptionally bright and he sure as hell ain’t a looker, but Don Whoeverthefuck has a bug up his ass ’cause his biological clock is tick-tick-ticking away like a block of C4 is tenderly bearhugging his testicles. Old fart needs an heir. All those years of pushing baby carriages into traffic ain’t gonna count for shit if he doesn’t have an heir to pick up the slack when his heart valves do their last dance with the extra-lard pork belly. He throws some money around, which is how he’s solved every other problem in his bloated life, and hey voila, instant son. The boy is dumber than a sack of skullfucked squirrels, but that just makes him fit in with all the real Mafioso squirts that came from ballsacks and bad decisions.

Things go on swingin’ as they usually do. Little Johnny Electronuts gets in his share of trouble, but Daddy is always there to yank his ass out of the fire with greased palms or greased dicks or a carefully administered dose of goon muscle to somebody’s knees and groin. Then, one day, kiddo gets the idea that he’s some kind of fucking hacker. He’s nineteen and he’s better protected than the Virgin Mary’s holy of holies and he’s got a chip on his shoulder and a hard-on in his lucky rocketship underoos just crying to fuck something up. He tries to bust his way into a rival family’s black box so he can crow about it to all his knuckle-dragging script kid buddies. This is what is known in the business as a Giant Fucking Mistake, ’cause the security system in this motherfucker was set up by another motherfucker by the name of Rack, and Rack is a goddamned super genius when it comes to that sort of thing. It grabs the kid by the short hairs almost as soon as he plugs in and slams the door behind him, and when the Don’s cavalry comes busting in to save his ass, their nuts land squarely in a bear trap. His consciousness is all locked up like a gold bar inside a treasure chest. They’ve got the box, but nobody seems to be able to get through to the toy inside.

Nobody but the motherfucker who designed the system in the first place, that is. They offer him money. They offer him a lot of money. And less because of the money and more because he likes a challenge, Rack bites.

And that’s where things get fucked up.

• • • •

Dodge for dodge and feint for feint and bullet for bullet they come together, the woman that was and the woman that is. The Not-Rhye is laughing like a kid at the circus as she spins her hand-cannons, laughing and twisting and breathing in that gunsmoke that turns your snot black like she’s a barracuda and it’s seawater. She doesn’t give a shit whether she lives or dies and Rhye knows this because it used to be her, and she suddenly realizes, with something like shock and something like mild disgust, that this is no longer a truth that applies. Something inside Rhye wants to make it out alive, wants to go home to the shitty-ass flat with the bullet holes in the air conditioner, wants to taste bourbon and cigarettes and go right on living alongside that dumbfuck brainiac like she has every day for the past five years. Dangerous. Very dangerous. The moment you start wanting is the moment you slow down. And the moment you slow down —

Not-Rhye lands close enough that Rhye can smell the burning wire and ozone stink of her over the reek of cordite and hot metal. She flicks one of the pistols like a gecko lapping up a mosquito and it coughs emphysema and tuberculosis and Rhye’s cheek is laid open to the bone even as she rolls behind a row of trash cans, ears ringing like pulled fire alarms. She’s a fucking idiot. She should’ve been scrapped at construction. She’s going to die here, soft and stupid as a human cop, and Rack is going to be trapped inside this box forever. The mobsters are going to be fucking pissed when nobody comes back. Good. Fuck ’em, and fuck their wives and moms and childhood pets for good measure.

“Were you trying to hit me, or did one of those pink flamingos do something to piss you off?” she says. If she can irritate Not-Rhye into making a mistake she might have a chance. Anything is worth a shot. “The neighbors are gonna talk, y’know.”

No response. Too smart for her own good. God damn she wishes Rack had held a less flattering view of her when he programmed this fucker. “Oh well. We’d have made shitty Home Owners Association members anyway. Rack! You alright?”

“I think so. I wasn’t exactly expecting this to happen when I went in. I thought — ”

“That was your first fuckin’ mistake, Rack baby. You do too much of that anyway.” She rubs her blistered, lead-stained fingers clean on her cargo pants and digs for a fresh magazine. “Is there any way for me to disable her easier than giving her brain airholes?”

You could hear a gnat fart in the pause that follows.

“Rack, say something before I come over there and do some kinky shit to your ass with this gun barrel, please.”

“. . . I don’t know,” he says. “I think I can do it, but you’ll have to free me up first.”

“Fuck a row of baby ducks, is that all? Lemme send Little Miss Red Rover a fuckin’ engraved invitation to move her psycho ass to a new neighborhood and I’ll be right over with a bundt cake and a goddamned meat loaf.”

But she’s already tensing to spring back into the line of fire, because of course she is.

Up and at ’em, knocking the bins over clitter-clatter like a fuckball of feral cats, and sure enough there’s her shadow racing to greet her, four years younger, one eye richer, and meaner than a limp-dicked drill sergeant. No time to fire off a good shot; she says fuck it and goes ahead and launches herself straight into the other woman’s knees and down the two of them tumble in a muddy heap of fists and flailing motorcycle boots like a pair of overturned shot glasses, the world reduced to rubber soles squeegeeing shins and knuckles glancing off grittywet concrete. Rack’s yelling something. Little-known fact, though: It’s pretty fucking hard to focus on anything but the task at hand when the task is trying to club your teeth out with the handshake-end of a pistol. She dodges the blow and it glances off her temple instead with a hollow thwonk. Gasoline stars and flat-tire sparks shimmy-shake across her vision.

No fucking way I’m blacking out. Her bone-sickle grin hangs overhead, the last thing so many other unlucky motherfuckers have seen at the end of a fight. Rhye focuses on that sliver, wills the darkness back with clenched fists and a gas leak hiss. The thing with her smile is still laughing, but it’s not some kind of mad villain cackle. She sounds like she’s having the time of her life.

“What the fuck are you laughin’ at, dumbshit? See something funny?” Not the wittiest thing to ever rasp its way out of her nicotine box, but whatever. Wit’s the first thing to go when you’ve just gotten pistolwhipped in the side of the head so hard your brain thinks it’s being skullfucked to death by a rhinoceros. The grip comes down again, misses her by an asshair, and judo-chops the pavement so that little bits of gravel spray up like buckshot.

If the girl-slash-security-system-that-was-her is sharp and not a dumbfuck, she’ll use these precious seconds to turn her guns around and shoot Rhye in the face, like she’s wishing she had just done herself. But oh, glory of glories, blessed be the almighty fuckin’ cockiness of youth. This little asshole right here — with her two dead eyes and her don’t-need-nobody jock walk — curls her lip back in an are you fuckin’ serious sneer and swallows the bait deep.

“Aw, come the fuck on, man!” she crows. “You can’t fuckin’ tell me the thought of actually going up against somebody who can give you a fair fight isn’t gettin’ you all tingly in your grandma-bloomers! Why the hell else would you come here? For him? Fuck’s sake, I’m you, aren’t I? You live for sweat running under your tits and blood splattering your face, not some soft-hearted fuckhead can’t tell which way a magazine loads.”

Is that what he thinks I thought? Shit. There’s a nasty little spoonful of glass to chew on. No time for guilt, though.

“You got one part of that right, sister,” she says, and jams her thumb into the girl’s left eyeball. It’s all executed in one smooth motion: jabtwistpull. And then she’s rolling across the wet ribbon of tarmac while her not-self flails and shrieks gurgling stray cat curses, rolling and back on her feet and bringing up her guns to make an end of this, but even in a considerable amount of pain the other her is fast in an unnatural, make-the-flesh-of-your-ears-crinkle sort of way, slither-snarling back beneath the rainy evening’s skirts before Rhye can give the triggers a good hard prom-night fingering. She starts to go after her, blood boiling.

Y’know what? A little voice in her head, the one that sometimes says things like are you sure getting into that gimp’s windowless white van is a good idea? or maybe we should go get that festering bullet hole checked out, or, of late, don’t punch Rack in the face, the poor bastard hasn’t done anything to deserve it this time. In other words, her inner killjoy.

What?

Fuck pride, man.

And just what is that supposed to mean, exactly?

Pride is for jackoffs who aren’t being hunted from the fucking shadows.

“Shut the hell up.” She says this aloud in a hissed whisper; hopefully the security system will laugh herself to death at Rhye having a conversation with her invisible friend and that’ll be that. “We’re fine. I can do this by myself. I don’t care what Rack says.”

Pride is for people who don’t have other people depending on them . . .

Rhye snaps to a halt like the bullet she’s been expecting just drilled her brain a peephole.

. . . So why don’t you try trusting your partner for goddamned once and get over there like he asked? Remember what we’re here for.

“Go fuck your own ass with a fish-hook dildo.” Her shoulders are slumping before she’s halfway through the word “fuck.” By the time she reaches “dildo” she’s made a u-turn and is vaulting the sagging picket fence that separates her from the back-alley leading to Rack, feet thwapthwap-thwapping the blacktop. She listens for the echo of a pursuit, but all she can hear is Rack’s voice reeling her in and her own one-woman ticker-tape parade careening down the path.

Warm. Warmer. Red-hot, veering back off the pavement, crashing through briars and dead weeds and old tires like she’s back in basic, up and over another splintered, gap-slatted privacy fence as weather-worn as a beer can in the ditch. It’s not a pretty postcard that greets her — more weeds, more broken glass, a swimming pool filled with water the color and consistency of baby shit. Rack is there, though, tied up on the patio, and that qualifies it for Garden of the Fucking Century, so far as Rhye’s concerned. She’s down and off her perch and across the yard before she can remember to lazily saunter in like she doesn’t give a fuck.

His face is a bloodied bedsheet, haunted eyes staring out from behind the bruises and stubble. Rhye wipes the blood from his split lip and they exchange a quick you cool? glance before she sets to work on the knotted ropes. It’s not some romantic, lovey-dovey, kiss your boo-boos BS; it’s just the kind of thing good partners do for one another.

“Been playing in Mommy’s bondage closet again, Rack-baby?” Tsk-tsk. “You got a lotta ’splaining to do if we get out of here alive, my friend.” She spares him another look from under her cocked brow, trying to keep it cool and even, wanting him to maybe twist in the wind a little. His expression is all thousand-yard stare and nervous bird herk-jerk, sheepishness and syrupy adoration. Portrait of The Nebbish As Grateful Penitent. He looks like he stuck his hand down a secretary’s panties at the office holiday party, got a handful of tentacles for his troubles, and wanted her all the more for it after that initial moment of cold water surprise. “For now, though,” she finishes, after re-locating her tongue and remembering how to use it, “we need to figure out a way to clean up this goddamned mess. No, sorry, my bad: Your goddamned mess, ’cause I sure as shit don’t remember giving you permission to turn my personality into a fucking security module. Can you see me? You’re lookin’ right at me, so I’m pretty sure you can see me.”

“We synced up as soon as you stepped into the area,” he says. “The chip, you know?” Rhye finally snake-charms the ropes into giving way and he pulls his hands free, rubbing each wrist gingerly. You could take fingerprints with the tired smudges beneath his eyes. “I always wanted the interfaces to work together. Yours is one-of-a-kind, but I gave mine a tweak, so — OW! What the heck was that for?”

“It’s lucky for you that we’re friends, asshole. Anybody else pulled some shit like this and I wouldn’t just sock ’em in the ear. How’s this gonna go down? Talk quick. She’s way too quiet right now and I have no idea how long that’s going to last.”

“It’s . . . tricky.”

“Tricky? What exactly do you mean by ‘tricky’? Did you or didn’t you say you could disable that fucking thing if I got you free?”

“I did say that, yes.” Rack stretches the last word out until it wobbles, full of more quivering “but” than a strip club. “I can give you a kill switch. Implementing it may require a little footwork, though, and I’m not sure how that will play out, considering our . . . environment.” He waves a hand to take in the garden, runs the other through his hair, and ends up looking like an insomniac hedgehog.

“Well, considering our only other option is getting bullet-fucked to death by a pissed-off, admittedly foxy-fine bit of code, I’m open to anything. What do I need to do?”

“We’ll need to execute two operations at the same time, and even then it doesn’t have a 100% chance of working. I hadn’t allowed for this. I can be sort of an idiot sometimes, as you are probably aware.”

Seeing him slumped there staring at his hands feels like defeat, and she’ll be fucked if she gives up that easily after coming this far. She punches him in the shoulder. “Hey, none of that sadsack shit. You fucked up. Everybody does. If you’re gonna wallow in it, I might as well’ve left you up there with your brains as pretty pink wallpaper. What the fuck will trying hurt, right?”

And that gets a slow, crooked half-smile out of him, which is all she really wants right now. It’s like her heart just snorted a line. “You’re right, of course,” he says.

“Goddamned right I am.” She offers him her hand. “C’mon. Let’s do this thing.”

Their palms meet with an awesome partnerly slap.

Now, this is where Rhye expects him to pull something cool out of his pockets — a couple of little red buttons, maybe, or a bundle of dynamite. Instead, he blanches. His hands fly up to his throat in the universal oh shit, I’m choking gesture. For a horrible fistful of seconds she thinks she’s going to have to do the Heimlich (and how the fuck does that work, anyway? Is that the move where you grab the other person from behind and give them a rough humping?) but thankfully he shakes whatever’s in his throat loose on his own. Something small and heavy bounces off the toe of Rhye’s boot. Another, like a fat brass raindrop.

She reaches down and carefully picks up two 9mm bullets, bright as change in a gutter.

Rack peers down at the lumps of lead and metal he just hairball-horked onto her boots. If he wore glasses she just knows he’d be adjusting the fucking things for a better look. “Huh. I guess it makes sense that they would take this form.”

“So these are, what, special? Magic bullets?” They feel like normal rounds. They even smell like ’em, which is to say, metallic. She rolls them between her fingers, warm from the heat of her hand. “Kill switches, whatever the fuck you called ’em?”

“Correct. Ideally you’ll discharge both simultaneously, shutting down the security system completely.”

There are pros and cons to knowing somebody — really knowing somebody, how their face looks when they cry or come or drool in their sleep. Rhye understands what Rack means immediately: You’re the fighter, you’re strong, so of course you’ll take care of this on your own. She could say no. She could open up her chest with a scalpel and let him see the tender bits — I can’t do this alone, she’s too good and I care too much and quite frankly I’m scared shitless, for you and for me — or she could tell him, hey, clean up your own goddamned mess, I ain’t your fuckin’ nanny.

But she knows how this has to go down, truthfully, and it doesn’t involve telling Rack to piss up a rope. She’ll save that for a later date. Instead, before she can second-guess her decision, she pulls one of her pistols, ejects the magazine, thumbs one of the kill switches inside, and shoves it into his hands. There. Done.

Rack stares down at her sweet, lethal baby like she’s just handed him a dead cat.

“She won’t be expecting you to have one of my guns,” she says, by way of explanation. Her voice is hoarse. Chopping off one of her hands would’ve been easier, if less useful. “I sure as hell wouldn’t, if I were her. Safety’s off and it’s ready to go; all you gotta do is point and pull. Careful your thumbs aren’t behind the slide, unless you wanna get bit.”

Does he understand what this is costing her? In pride, in trust, in all of that stupid emotional stuff? He looks back up at her — stunned doesn’t begin to describe the expression on his face — and his eyes are wet and glassy.

“Rhye . . . I can’t . . .”

Yeah. He knows.

“Aw, hell. Don’t go getting all wet cereal on me, man,” she mutters. Making sure her remaining pistol is loaded and racked suddenly becomes very, very important. “Just make sure you’re close when you fire, alright? I don’t — ”

(Pop)

Of course Miss Security doesn’t come over the fence; why would she bother? The only warning is that soft, sudden pop, like a blood bubble bursting on a dying man’s lips, and there she stands, herniated out of the nothing because oh right, she is the fucking nothing. Rhye has just enough time to grasp that they’ve been played and just enough time to push Rack down and back and no time at all to do anything else but brace for impact as Not-Rhye slams into her and they take a backwards trust exercise straight into the pool.

It’s in her nose and her ears and her eye socket and it’s warm, which is somehow the worst part. A warm green slurry pressing against her skin, turning everything to frogs and fungus and body temperature pea soup. Fingers scratching at her throat and her one good eye, looking to throttle or blind or both. Spots wriggling tadpole trails across her vision. She pushes out in slow motion, catches her attacker in the chest, tries using the momentum to pull away. No dice; it’s like karate-kicking an amped-up octopus. They sink deeper, the light fading to darkness, seconds rubber-banding to grim, doubtful decades.

And this is what I’ll get for trusting Rack with my back. Should’ve gone with my instincts. Trust fucks you. It fucks you every time and puts a knife in your windpipe while it’s at it. Lungs already beginning to ache. Can’t grab for her gun, ’cause both her hands are busy keeping Not-Rhye at bay. Nobody’ll come to save you, idiot. Or if he does, he’ll get here about ten seconds too late. Let this be your final lesson about going home with strangers.

The security program’s good eye glitters in the gloom, black and triumphant. Gotcha, you fucker, it says, and it’s the language of sharks she’s speaking now, no mewling monkey noises needed. Don’t even have to waste a bullet. She leans closer (Rhye has a sudden nightmare flash of her opening her mouth to show double-rows of pointed teeth, all the way back to the place where her jaw hinges), eager to choke, to rub out, to self-destruct. Rhye would keep fighting but there’s seven feet of scummy water overhead and a tangle of grasping limbs dragging her further downward and god fucking damn she’s tired. She can’t even spit in her rival’s face.

It is at this perfect moment of physical and emotional exhaustion, with her arms pulling the fire alarms and her legs turning to full clips of concrete, that Rack chooses to dive into their underwater cockfight, like a toaster hurled slots-down into a bathtub. He arrives with a muffled splash, churning up bubbles, froth, muck from the bottom, algae from the surface. Now it’s Not-Rhye’s turn to be surprised. She spins around to face this new threat

(occupied she’s not paying attention to me my hands are free)

lip curled, shoulders hunched, NOT a happy camper, she thought this was gonna be a one-on-one and turns out it’s a threesome. She’s all over his shit faster than you can say piranhas in the kiddie pool.

(and now the grip’s solid in my hand it’ll fire it’ll kill if we’re close enough I believe in you baby air air AIR)

The water’s a whirlpool of bodies and spume. Rhye is dying by inches now; another half minute and her lungs will burst. But not before she does what she came here to do. She pulls that heavy, heavy gun up, the weight of a lead cannon in her hands. She waits for visibility to clear. And when the bubbles finally part and Rack’s eyes meet hers

(she’s got her hands around his throat but he’s letting her so calmly and she’ll never notice the pistol kissing the underside of her jaw until it’s too late)

she shoves the muzzle of the 9mm snugly against Not-Rhye’s back and sends a prayer to Lady Luck, that goddess all gunslingers kneel to.

Rack and Rhye squeeze the triggers as one, the way good partners do.

• • • •

They find the kid balled up in a basement jail cell, groaning and bitching about his head. It looks an awful lot like the one Rhye spent her formative years gracing, but Christ knows what the kid sees. Good looking, late teens, perfect teeth and hair and body model. There’s something wrong with the expression, though. Even confused and fucked up in the middle of a strange system he’s sneering an entitled sneer that makes Rhye’s fists curl like dead spiders beneath a radiator. I always get what I want, it says. Why wouldn’t the world bend over and give it to me?

“Sorry about the wait,” Rack says. “Ran into a little trouble.” He fumbles in his pocket for a key. “Doing alright?”

The kid’s eyes dart wildly. “A little trouble?” he says. “You call this a little trouble? I can’t fucking move and you think that’s a little trouble, fuckface? Suck both of my balls, man. Hey! Hel-lo? Are you still there? Are you listening to me?”

Rack doesn’t look up, just calmly keeps on doing what he’s doing. Rhye can feel her molars grinding together. “Rack, can you hurry it the fuck along? I don’t know how much longer I can put up with this shit, get what I’m saying?”

“Absolutely.” A click and the door to the cell swings open. Rack steps back and nods at the kid, so irritatingly professional Rhye can hardly stand it. “Someone will be by to collect you shortly, I believe,” he says. “Your body is waiting outside.”

“Goddamned right it is, you no-nuts bitch.”

“Kid, you talk to him like that one more time and I’m going to blow both the balls you’re so proud of off in a place where they ain’t pretend and don’t grow back, fuckin’ got it? I don’t care who your daddy is.” Rhye can feel a headache gathering behind her eyes. Time to get the hell out of here and go the fuck home. Her mattress is calling. “C’mon Rack, let’s go. Compress your ass. My headspace isn’t what you’d call flying first class, but it’s better than the company in here.”

There’s a sound like bacon hitting a skillet, loud enough that the kid’s bitching is blessedly drowned out. A glowing door pops up at the end of the row of cells. She’s gotta hand it to Rack, he’s nothing short of a goddamned wizard when he’s free inside a program. Rhye grabs his hand and gleefully sets off for the exit, feeling more cheerful than she has all day. A little nervous about letting Rack piggyback inside her melon, maybe — there’s shit in there she doesn’t want anyone poking at, even her partner — but mostly too relieved at having him back to care. He lets her pull him along. Doesn’t say a word, just smiles and follows, tie flapping like a pirate’s banner in the weird wind pushing from the entryway.

The light from the door is the cold, flickering white of a fluorescent bulb burning in an abandoned department store. They stand there staring into the static for what seems like ages. She doesn’t let go of his hand. He doesn’t let go of hers. Rhye wonders if it’ll hurt, or feel weird, or if she’ll be the same once it’s done with. She sucks in a breath. Now or never, woman. Leave it to Rack to wait for a second fucking invitation.

“Well?” she says. “You waiting for me to buy you a ring or what?”

And that’s when she finally catches the look in his eyes, the sadness of the little smile quirking the corner of his mouth like a fishhook. She knows that fucking expression. She hates that fucking expression. He’s not telling her something, and that something is going to sting.

“Rack?” she says.

“Rhye. It doesn’t work that easily. I can’t just compress myself without a console and a body to work the console. That’s beyond my capabilities.”

For once, Rhye is at a total loss for words. She gapes at him, mouth hanging open like a second useless asshole. It takes a full minute for her to push anything out. “Bullshit,” she manages. “Stop fucking around. You’re some sort of goddamned superhero in here. You unlock things, you make doors, you designed this motherfucker. There’s nothing you can’t do.” Panic creeping up her spine with tiny naked rat feet. Can’t shoot her way out of this one. “There’s gotta be something. A trick, or a program, or — ”

His voice is infuriatingly gentle. “Without a body? Compression is tricky. If I did it wrong, even assuming I could from inside a system like this, one of us could get hurt. You could be erased. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll come back, then. I’ll get you a new body and come back.” He’s slowly shaking his head even as she says it and Rhye’s pissed, at circumstance and the mobsters and Rack and everything that hops, crawls, or breathes on this godforsaken planet. “I’m not leaving you here, you colossal fuckhead. Do you KNOW what I’ve gone through to fetch you out of this box?”

“Once they’ve pulled the kid, do you really think they’re going to let you back in for me? They’ll erase everything on here just to teach their rivals a lesson.” He sighs. “Look. There’s a locker in Brickton. The combi — ”

“Fuck your money, Rack. And fuck you, too. Did you not hear me the first time?” Stop looking at me that way stop looking at me that way stop looking at me that way. Her heart is clawing its way through her sternum like a bum plowing through a back alley trash bin. She’s got him by the tie, hands shaking, throat aching. “Take the risk,” she says. “Do it.” And then: “Please.”

“I can’t. I’m sorry.”

They’re nose to nose and forehead to forehead and now it’s Rhye who’s shaking her head. She can see a way out and she knows he won’t agree to it, but fuck him and fuck a world without him, that’s not a decision he gets to make. “No,” she says. “No. You ever hear anything about those old ships people used to sail? Protocol for wrecks and all that shit?”

His brow furrows into confused little wrinkles. She’ll miss that. She’ll miss a lot of things about him. “What does . . .”

“I’m tying your ass to the mast. You’ve got no say in this, Rack. When you get done with my body, put it through a woodchipper or something, all right?”

Rhye’s push carries him over the threshold and into the white before the stubborn asshole has a chance to argue. His tie stays wrapped around her fingers, fluttering the goodbye she couldn’t bring herself to say.

• • • •

Unlike his partner, he’s not prone to bouts of rage and profanity. She explodes all over the place at intervals you can almost set clock hands to, like a geyser or a volcano or some other natural phenomenon. Beautiful to see, if potentially life-threatening to anybody within close range. Rack, though? Rack’s different. If Rhye is Old Faithful, Rack is a glacier: cool-headed, steady, and inevitable. Excesses of emotion do not become him.

When he comes to inside her body, the first word that bursts in his head, like a soap bubble giving up the ghost, is SHIT. A great big neon SHIT, all four letters glowing the lurid red of a 3 a.m. traffic light on a stretch of empty road.

The dimly lit warehouse is full of equally dim goons. Six of them are alive. There were seven when he plugged in, but that dark smear on the concrete floor suggests Rhye’s been engaged in some basic subtraction since then. All of them remain armed and extremely twitchy. A roomful of semiautomatic-carrying cats in a rocking chair factory, ready to pop off if so much as a moth flutters near one of the grimy windows. Rack knows how trigger-happy they can be; the slumped cicada’s shell of his body in the corner is testimony enough, if any were needed. The big boss’s foot is tapping out a patent-leather Morse code that, roughly translated, probably comes to something very impatient and vaguely threatening.

The Kid’s still stretched out on his hospital gurney, dead to the world. The mess of wires and cords connecting him to the black box on the desk makes Rack think of a kitten hopelessly entangled in a ball of yarn. A scruffy, obnoxious kitten, in desperate and immediate need of drowning. Rack would be happy to oblige — there’s an unfamiliar emotion that came along with the big neon SHIT; he’s reasonably sure it’s cold anger building towards fury — but all eyes are on him.

“Done?” Big Boss sounds like a side of beef being dragged down backcountry gravel. Rhye’s eyepatch splits him into dual hemispheres, the seen and the unseen. Disorienting enough suddenly being in a new body — her body, no less, with a mysteriously bloody nose — without adding visual impairment to the mix.

“Yeah,” Rack says, only it comes out in Rhye’s voice, and that (as she would say) is a whole dump truck of what the fucking fuck landing on his senses. “All yours, Chief. You gonna send your tech in to collect Junior’s code so I can get the hec — fuck out of here already?”

A sharp, all too familiar click from the dark side of the mook. Ten to one it’s not a wedding band he’s holding in his unseen hand. “You will be doing this as well. Seeing as how you felt the need to — what are the words? — earlier retirement my computer-man.” He nudges the shiny toe of one shoe at the stain on the concrete.

Oh, Rhye. How would you have gotten out of this one? You couldn’t access a code for brine in the middle of the ocean. He’s neck-deep in a slurry of anger, frustration, fear, and love. So much for his much-lauded control. The valve is broken, the water rising.

“Sure,” he says, after another long, soupy moment.

Because Rack is not entirely human, he can see all the possible ways this lock might turn. A shootout. A hostage situation. Piles of dead mobsters, lakes of blood, the hard-bitten damsel in the box safe and saved and — could it be? — possibly even grateful. Reach out and twist the meaty wrist. Hear that satisfying snap of bone like a cheap plastic chair leg bending the wrong way, a metallic clatter as gun and floor slug it out. Be an action hero. Take the shot. Use her body like the weapon it is.

Rack’s not big on weapons or violence. Before today, he’d never fired a pistol or snapped a man’s wrist. Rhye, as she would quickly tell you, is no fuckin’ damsel, nor is she any person’s gun but her own. Trying to use her would inevitably blow up in their faces like a cartoon birthday cake studded with sticks of dynamite. Instead — gods of gratuitous violence and swaggering machismo be good — Rack spins the tires of his mind until they throw twin rooster-tails of oily muck. Trigger-bitten fingers tango across the keyboard, coding a different future. He may not be any good at murdering mobsters, but he’s a goddamned pro at killing time.

I hope I’m doing the right thing.

The problem with making any move, of course, is that you never know what the outcome will be until the chips have fallen, even if you’ve got a brain manufactured in a factory crèche and a childhood’s worth of experience cheating card sharks out of their greasy retirement funds. A guess, however educated, is still a guess. A white-collar criminal adjusts his tie in the heart of the City (because it’s goddamned hot and the AC’s gone out and there’s nothing to drink but rye whiskey and if his partner sheds one more article of clothing he’s going to go outside and club his crotch to death with a loose brick) and a tenement flat 300 miles away collapses into rubble and rebar and a bloody jigsaw of limbs. At the long, dark end of things, hoping for the best is all you’ve got. Rack breathes out letters and numerals and hope through their fingertips, clickity-clickity-clack. The screen fills up with green and black.

The Kid twitches on his slab.

He’s Frankenstein. He’s a zombie pumped full of chemicals. He’s a greasy-haired son of a bitch with a face no factory in its right mind would take credit for, sitting upright on his bed at the cost of the only person Rack’s ever loved. Every head in the joint swivels to watch him as he blinks and gapes. Is it man, machine, or goldfish? Rack feels something heave in the direction of his (her) stomach, like a wet dog giving itself a shake. Keep it together, boy-o. For her. For both of you.

Big Boss, like everybody else, seems too stunned by the sight to even give the Kid a hand. He stares at his beloved progeny as if the boy’s just sprouted a pair of assholes where his ears should be.

“Son,” he says. A slow, joyous smile creeps up the coffin length of his face, hands-down one of the most disturbing things Rack’s ever seen. “Son! How are you feeling, my darling boy?”

No response from the Kid. His legs are dangling over the side of the gurney now. The pearl-handled grips of the big expensive pistols strapped to his sides play peek-a-boo beneath the fabric of his coat, dancing in and out of Rack’s limited line of sight. Show-off guns, Rhye had scoffed when she first saw them. Kiddo probably had a prick like a bedbug and the aim of one of those drunken seven-year-olds that used to hang out behind the apartment dumpsters.

Even with Rhye’s less-than-charitable assessment of the punk’s skills ringing in his memory, there’s something about the pistols that keeps dragging Rack’s eye back. He watches them and he watches them good, holding his breath.

Trailing wires, head down, the Kid lurches to his feet. His daddy’s goon squad unfreezes and rushes to catch him before his delicate ass can hit the floor and catch a bruise. He shrugs off their hands; the gentleman will be seeing himself out, thank you. With precarious, rubbery grace — the kind baby animals and drunks possess in spades, the kind no sober adult has ever been able to accurately mimic — he pulls himself upright, takes a step forward, and lifts his head to get a better look at his surroundings. He scans the room, expression becoming more and more confused. Takes it all in — mobsters, brick walls, bare bulbs, bloodstains — and finally reaches Rack, at which point his brow ceases to furrow and begins sinking a mine shaft to his frontal lobe.

“Wait,” he says. “What the fucking fuck? Rack? What in the fucking piss just happ — Oh.” A light bulb flickers behind his eyes. Scratch that; it’s more like someone throwing the breaker on an entire row of houses. “OH.” He pats his sides like a man looking for his keys. He finds the twin lumps nestled beneath his armpits. He takes a peek under the coat — just to make sure they’re not vibrators or candy bars or bibles — and then he looks back up at Rack, grinning a slow, impossibly wide cartoon shark’s grin.

“You son of a motherfucker,” he says, admiringly.

Rack knows that grin. Even on someone else’s face, he knows it. His heart bucks around so wildly he’s afraid he might black out. And then he’s suddenly locked in a kiss — she’s fast, never mind the unfamiliar body — and the weirdness of the situation isn’t even registering for either of them, it’s all adrenaline and relief and a sort of drunken, invincible glee. There’s greasy hair in his good eye and stubble against his lips. She tastes like a chain-smoking asshole that just underwent a malt liquor enema. Fucking perfection.

And now she’s pulling away, yanking those pearly white grips out of their sockets like a dentist riding a meth binge, and the Ganymede crew never even knows what’s hit it.

Brooke Bolander

Brooke BolanderBrooke Bolander is a chaos-sowing trickster girl of indeterminate employment, half-tornado, half-writer. Originally from the deepest, darkest regions of the southern US, she attended the University of Leicester from 2004 to 2007 studying History and Archaeology and is a graduate of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. She enjoys loud music, peaty scotch, drawings that move, and anything pumpkin-flavored you might happen to have on hand. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Reflection’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed.