Science Fiction & Fantasy

Moreno-Garcia_The-Beautiful-Ones-Lightspeed-728x90

Advertisement

Fiction

Carnivores

Finch pried himself out of the autocab midway down Jasper Avenue, where Carnivor gastro-bistro, the city’s most exclusive new eatery, skulked between concrete high-rises. He’d read up on the restaurant’s architecture when he and Blake first started planning the heist, so he knew it was a collaboration between a Bolivian artist and a decaying engineering AI, and that the swooping ridges of the façade, together with its calcium-spike stalactites, were meant to evoke the maw of an animal. For everyone with neural implants synched up to fine dining augreality, the restaurant’s name was slashed into the air in bright red.

Finch thought it was a bit kitschy. Blake, his partner in crime, thought it was bleeding edge haute couture and required Finch order a new suit that was not bleeding ugly. The Armani jacket already felt unpleasantly tight around his bookcase shoulders and thick-ribbed chest—a problem Finch was well used to. Not many stores catered to Neanderthal hybrid proportions.

The autocab squawked for payment. Finch licked his massive thumb and stuck it against the reader, then held the taxi in place by its door frame while he checked his appearance in the window. He ran a hand over his slicked red hair and adjusted the Full Windsor noose around his neck, wondering if the tattoos clawing out from under his cuffs looked professional enough in cobalt blue or if he should have masked them completely.

Finch let the autocab skitter back into traffic. It didn’t matter how he looked. The darknet CV Blake had done up for him was a bullshit masterpiece, and Carnivor’s proprietor, if her hacked pornstream was any indication, had a Neanderthal fantasy not uncommon among professional women. Finch inhaled. The cold air smelled like exhaust and something almost as pungent that his nose, tuned to Blake-imposed veganism, took a moment to recognize as cooking meat.

He made his way through the dilating doors into a mirrored entryway, where he was stopped by a bouncer who seemed to be mostly composed of HGH-pumped muscle and hair gel.

“Slow up, Red.” He tapped the neural plug set into the shaved side of his head, making his starched Mohawk wobble slightly. “I don’t see you on the facebook. In this modern day and age, you need to make a reservation, you know? And at Carnivor, we backlog up to three months.”

“I’m not a guest,” Finch said, sizing him up on old instinct. Scarred knuckles, crooked nose, probably fancied himself a boxer. The nametag scrolling down his breast pocket read Vick. “I’m here to see Ms. Carrow.” He tapped his own plug, down behind his ear, and shuttled over the Carnivor-red interview request.

A briefly hurt look flashed across Vick’s face before he regained his pre-set smirk. “Have to frisk you down, then,” he said, cracking his fingers. “You’re awful pale. Must be Irish, right?”

Finch stood scarecrow as the bouncer frisked. “Not that I know of. You?”

“You in the gravity gym a lot? What do you squat on standard?” Vick slapped one of Finch’s tree-trunk quads. “Big old haunches on you. Big veins, too, I got tiny veins, shitty circulation—”

Finch snagged the man’s hand tight enough to feel tendons rasp up on each other, then slowly moved it away.

Vick turned his grimace into a grin as he yanked his fingers back. “Your kind aren’t much for conversation, are they? More used to grunting.”

“You done?”

“Yeah, I’m done. Left your club at home, obviously.” Vick nodded toward the interior. “Right this way.”

Finch ran through a few ways to snap Vick’s neck as he followed him across a gleaming obsidian floor, past copses of smartglass tables and spiny organic sculptures. He watched a gaggle of Ghanaian businessmen wearing fashionably gashed suits put in their order while what appeared to be 2010s slaughterhouse footage played across their table. Finch shook his head. Kitschy as fuck.

While Vick was distracted by the swaying hips of a neon-lipped server, Finch scanned for fire exits, motion sensors, and small black cameras nestled in the ceiling corners. What he took to be the private dining alcoves were hidden behind a noise-cancelling black shroud.

Caught up in sending Blake the footage, Finch brushed against one of the shuddering sculptures and received a blast of hot peppery breath full in the face. He swore loud enough for Vick to turn around and give a hyena giggle. His eyes stung all the way through the silver-white labyrinth of Carnivor’s kitchens, where cooks doing prep-work shouted to each other in a thick blend of Tagalog, Somali and English. The smell of meat hung heavy, almost dripping.

Finch was still blinking away tears when they arrived at the door to Ms. Carrow’s office. Vick pointed him in without speaking, suddenly sour-faced, then stalked away.

“Thanks, Vick,” Finch called after him, flipping the bird to his turned back.

• • • •

Ms. Holly Carrow was in virtual conference when Finch stepped inside and closed the synthetic oak door behind him. Her dim-lit office was partially overgrown, with a faux-skylight shafting artificial sunshine onto the artful twists of branch and vine sprouting through the glass floor. Very envirochic, very expensive. It matched up with the utterly obscene amounts of anonymized money Blake had found flowing into Carnivor’s accounts, which in turn seemed linked to a mysterious bi-monthly delivery from a Brazilian medi/pharma company.

Very envirochic, very expensive, very warm. Finch did not do well with warm. Wasn’t built for it. He could already feel sweat prickling along his hairline as he approached Carrow’s desk. She was reclined in an orthochair, her dark head tipped back in its cradle. Neural plugs pulsed at her chemically smoothed temples. Her lips looked like a line of dried blood and her jawline was wide and perfectly angled.

Finch touched his own with some measure of jealousy, rasping his thumb along the coarse beard that helped obscure his Neanderthal lack of chin. As he stepped through the dappled light, a spindly-looking chair unfolded itself opposite the desk and blinked an inviting green. Finch sat gingerly; he’d done in their apartment’s cheap folding chair that morning halfway through Blake styling his hair.

Finch put his hands on his knees to wait, and realized the roll of his trousers looked like a miniature chub. Right as he was smoothing out his crotch, the restaurateur’s eyes flicked open. People always came out of a deep slice at the most inopportune moments. Finch tried to move his hand in a natural path to his knee.

“Sorry for the wait.” Carrow’s sea-green eyes tracked the movement like a laser. She gave a faint smile. “I hope it wasn’t making you . . . squirmy.”

“Not at all.”

“Good.” Carrow’s chair reconfigured, sliding her upright, and she extended a hand to make it all one sinuous motion. “Mr. Finch, I presume.”

Finch took it, finding it drier than he’d expected and strong. “Pleasure.”

“You have a very impressive CV, Mr. Finch.” She looked at the girth of his knuckles with more than faint interest—Finch remembered a few favourites from her pornstream and tried not to let it show on his face. “Private security coordinator for EpiGen. Paramilitary service in Pakistan and India. Very impressive.”

Finch blinked. “I do what I’m good at, I suppose.”

“Yes.” Carrow’s eyes roved down his chest, lingered a millisecond too long at his hips. Her cheeks tinted with a near-imperceptible flush Finch knew to look for. “We all play the cards we’re dealt. Genetically or otherwise. But I do wonder why a former CEO bodyguard wants to work security at Carnivor.”

Finch squeezed his kneecap. Blake had made the CV too perfect. He had that tendency. “I’m at the point where I need a position that’s longer term and lower risk.” Finch paused, then played the trump card. “We don’t live so long as you. Thirty-three is middle aged, for a neo. Cell decay will set in soon.”

The restaurateur leaned forward. “You’re a survivor from the original batch, then? From the Bangkok biolabs?”

Finch didn’t have to lie on this point. “Yes. Number 23.”

“I knew it,” Carrow breathed. “Well, ah, suspected. I’ve always wanted to meet . . .” She trailed off, trying to re-establish herself. “What they did in those labs was an atrocity. The experimentation. You should know I was a fervent supporter of the Diaspora Act. Referendum 88, as well. Neo rights are a bit of a passion of mine.”

“I don’t follow the politics.” Another thing he didn’t have to lie about.

“You don’t feel a certain responsibility to—”

“I’m me, first,” Finch cut her off. “Anything else, second. Including neo.”

Carrow’s dark red frown reshaped to a sheepish smile. “I’m sorry. I must sound like a paleochaser who’s side-windowing the wiki.”

“Not at all,” Finch said, sliding the polite veneer back over his voice. “I can tell when someone’s reading the wiki. You know, ‘you must have been so happy on August 16, 2055 when clone-grown Neanderthal-human hybrids gained full citizen rights.’ Shit like that.”

“Terrible.” The restaurateur rose; her orthochair reluctantly put its massage pads away. “I’ve been in virtual all day, Mr. Finch. Walk with me.” Finch creaked off his own chair and shadowed her over to the twisted trees. She wrapped her fingers around a moss-slick branch. “These aren’t real,” she admitted, sliding her hand up and down the length. “Real would have been too cheap.”

Finch shrugged, ignoring the phallic tableau. “They’re nice.”

“Sometimes people have trouble with real and not real,” Carrow said delicately, releasing the branch. “Sometimes mere illusion is offensive enough to make people take real action. An all-meat eatery, whether it’s vat grown or not, attracts its share of critics. That’s part of the charm, of course. Being contentious. The restaurant business is all about novelty.”

“I tend to eat vegan, myself.”

“So do I.” Carrow smiled as she wiped her hands together, then turned serious. “For the past month, Carnivor has been receiving anonymous vitriol from an individual, or perhaps a small group, who take issue with our mode and aesthetic. They think it trivializes the horrors of the defunct livestock industry. Or something. I wasn’t much concerned with them until they started making threats against our clientele’s safety.”

Finch remembered the late nights with Blake, composing anti-meat rants and credible bomb threats over a bottle of Luna vodka and hash. They’d gotten quite good at it.

“We attract an influential clientele,” Carrow said, leaning back against the tree, managing to exaggerate the camber of her back with relative grace. “Movie stars, moguls, athletes. Bookings for our more exclusive offerings are often made months in advance.” She paused. “We take the privacy of our guests very seriously. While most come here to be seen, others come here for the opposite. That’s why I’m looking to improve Carnivor’s security. I’d like to ensure no dining experience is interrupted by anti-meat radicals or celebrity chasers. The only man we have now, Vicky, is a bit . . . unreliable.”

“I feel qualified to do that, Ms. Carrow,” Finch said, lowering his voice to a controlled rumble as he stepped closer. “Though I would, of course, like to negotiate upward on the salary.”

Carrow smiled again, the flush coming back stronger. “Well, we haven’t discussed a benefits package yet, have we?”

• • • •

Finch couldn’t resist unzipping his trousers once he was out the door, then doing them up again, noisily, on his way past Vick, whose face turned taut and ashy in a way that almost made Finch feel bad for the prick.

“She doesn’t fuck in her office,” the bouncer snarled.

“Doesn’t fuck you, you mean. Maybe it’s the haircut.”

Vick’s response was guillotined by the arrival of a designer-swathed couple smelling like cheap pheromone spray and expensive liquor. He checked them against the facebook with his jaw clenched tight, and gave a smile that was more grimace as a server led them off.

“Once she does fuck you, she’ll fire you,” he said. “She just wants some neo cock. Then you’re back out on your ass. She loves her little ironies.” He preened his Mohawk in the mirror wall, deadly serious. “And don’t even think about hurting her. I’ve always wanted a go at a caveman.”

That word still sliced into Finch’s stomach, even after all these years. He felt the tips of his ears redden.

“You’d have to buy me a drink,” Finch said. He looked Vick up and down. “Several drinks. And that’s saying something, since my gut’s got no enzymes to process alcohol. Pre-agrarian and all that.”

“What the fuck are you grunting about?” Vick smiled like a shark; he had a nose for blood in the water. “Caveman.”

Finch was squared to him without realizing he’d moved. “Say it again.”

They stood toe to toe until the air was all but stinking with testosterone, or maybe just the sliver of vat beef caught in Vick’s teeth. For a moment Finch was ready to throw the whole job, the weeks and weeks of prep, just for a chance to bash Vick’s face in. Then a notification flag popped up in his peripherals. He opened it.

Unit, you get the job or fucking what? I’m dying metaphorically over here. Save me.

Finch scrolled Blake’s message up and down, allowing a smile to ghost onto his face. He turned on his heel and headed for the LRT station.

• • • •

The dark apartment was mercifully cold when Finch let himself inside. Blake said his hardware ran faster near zero, and affinity for low temperatures was one of the reasons they’d got together in the first place. That, and a mutual talent for petty crime.

At the moment, Blake was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the carpet, surrounded by a maelstrom of biodegradable moving boxes, congealing cartons of Mai Pet Pad Thai, Finch’s magnetic dumbbells, and the remains of the snapped folding chair from earlier that morning. Finch switched on the solar lamp, throwing stark shadows onto the white stucco walls.

Blake didn’t so much as twitch his close-cropped head, heavy lids half shut, lips half parted. His neural implants gleamed white against black skin, carving channels up his spine and all the way to his temples. Blake looked almost holy when he was sliced in deep. Like a monk, apart from the drool wending down his numb chin and dripping onto his Adidas trackies.

Finch peeled off his suit, deciding to burn off the last of his fight-or-flight adrenaline on the pull-up bar. Blake had nixed the squat rack due to space concerns. Most of the floor was taken up by their two foam mattresses, currently slung into opposite corners despite their tendency to migrate together in the evening. Blake’s was strewn with the colourful viscera of his half-unpacked wardrobe; Finch’s was bare.

After fifteen wide-grip pull-ups, Finch dropped to the carpet with the veins across his shoulders blue and bulging. Blake was still sliced in, seeing only code, so Finch used one of the hacker’s many shirts to sop the sweat from his springy red hair, then went to wipe the saliva from his companion’s chin.

Blake’s teeth snapped together.

Finch jerked his fingers back, dropping the shirt. “Fucker.”

Blake’s eyes winched fully open, beetle black. “Unit, you should have messaged me you were home.” He looked down, blinking. “Why’s my shirt wet?”

“You were drooling again.”

Blake sniffed at it suspiciously as he stood up, making the implants in his back click and clack. Then he broke into a grin and offered his fist for a congratulatory knock. “Carnivor’s new security consultant,” he said. “I’m so proud of you, Unit. Overcoming your checkered-as-fuck past. Wearing a slick-as-fuck suit. Which you have since discarded.”

Finch’s hand was a spade compared to Blake’s. “I could have shown up like this and still got the job,” he said, bumping fists and then enveloping Blake’s slender wrist.

The hacker grinned. “She was a paleochaser, huh?”

“Big time.” Finch tried to keep his voice light. “You homo sapiens. Trying to breed us out of existence all over again.”

Blake ran a playful hand down Finch’s arm. “Who can blame her, though, right? Your biceps look cancerous right now.” He plucked at the muscle. “You work out too much, Unit. Self-improvement is a short hop to, you know, self-obsession.”

“Try a chin-up. Maybe you’ll like it.”

“I hate sweating,” Blake said, moving to wipe the drool off his pant leg. “Shit’s undignified.” He gave Finch a sly look, then stepped out of the trackies entirely, leaving them pooled on the carpet. He rubbed one slim calf against the other. “You know, neither one of us has a uterus, so breeding you out of existence is pretty improbable. Chance you’re willing to . . . ?”

Finch cut him off with a bruising kiss before they maneuvered to the floor, managing to miss both mattresses entirely.

• • • •

After five days at Carnivor spent standing straight-backed and stern-faced in the entryway, or else circulating the restaurant to search for the early signs of aggressive drinkers, lovers’ spats, and general shitfuckery, Finch would have been ready to quit under normal circumstances. He’d cased out the place as best he could within the first few shifts, meaning most of his mental energy was spent tolerating Carrow’s increasingly unsubtle come-ons and Vick’s increasingly unsubtle jealousy.

But on the sixth day, when the delivery chime shivered through their implants, Vick’s face turned cagey. “I’ve got this one,” he said. “Remember, you don’t talk to guests unless they talk to you. And don’t call anything . . . kitschy.”

Finch messaged Blake, a tingle of anticipation finally worming up his spine. Special delivery. Think tonight’s the night.

The suspicion was all but confirmed when Vick returned in high spirits a half-hour later. “High-end stock fresh out the vat,” he announced. “But now what happens to the older cuts still taking up valuable freezer space?”

“You sell them on MeatSpin,” Finch guessed.

“I take them home, get out the griller, and feast like a fucking king all week long,” Vick corrected, grinning widely. “Me and the Somalis in the kitchen have a deal all worked out.” His smile shrank a few molars. “But I did let Cuaron cook one up for your supper. To celebrate your first week or some shit. So if you want to go eat, you go now. We’re going to be limelight tonight. Busy-busy.”

Finch unfurled Blake’s reply in the corner of his eye: Make sure, Unit.

“Alright,” he said. “Back in twenty.”

Vick was already back to his customary scowl. Finch split for the kitchens, winding his way through the smartglass tables, slaloming the quivering sculptures, swapping nods or knocks with harried servers. When he pushed his way through the doors with a practiced elbow, he realized he’d got used to the smell. In fact, his stomach was squelching hungrily.

Finch maneuvered through spurts of steam and bilingual conversation, stopping at a bubbling pot where Cuaron whisked meat stock into briny liquid. She gave a start when she looked up, eyes wide and nervous. Some people never got comfortable around Finch.

“You just got a delivery, right?” he asked.

“Yeah. Yes. Just did.” She chewed at her lip. “Why?”

“Vick says to double-check the freezer door sealed. Says it’s been finicky.” Finch shrugged. “Last door on the right, isn’t it? I’ll go.”

“I’ll go,” Cuaron said. “I’ll go. You should eat. Plated you something.” She pointed a pinky finger back toward the battered white counter where a covered dish leaked steam in a long ribbon.

“Thanks.”

Cuaron called a sous-chef over to the pot, then darted away toward the freezer alley. Finch followed at a distance, leaning into the chilled corridor long enough to see her go to the one windowless door at the end that none of the staff seemed to ever look at. Then he doubled back to retrieve his supper.

The cutlet was beautiful, perfectly-seared, and the urge to eat meat had been creeping back to him over the past week. Blake still held that the ideal diet derived protein from almonds and kidney beans, but Finch didn’t have the same digestive equipment, did he?

Juice seeped from the meat as he cut into it, and Finch felt a responding spray of hot saliva under his tongue. Feeling only slightly guilty, he wolfed it down and headed back to his post.

• • • •

It was near midnight when the restaurant expelled its last diners into a chilled evening, and well after by the time the kitchen staff followed. Finch and Vick finished their final sweeps and activated the alarm system. Vick sealed the doors behind them with his thumbprint, then swaggered off to his waiting autocab.

Once the red tail-lights swished away, Finch buried his hands in his pockets and rounded the corner. Blake was waiting in the alley, geared up, trailing wires from his spinal implants and through his sleeves. He was already wearing a woolly balaclava, with a hole cut at the temple for his one neural plug, but Finch could tell he was grinning underneath.

“Time to find out what these fuckers are hiding, Unit,” he said, tossing the other mask over.

Finch rolled the wool beneath his fingertips. “Special sauce recipe, probably.”

“Ha.” Blake slotted a stray cord into his smartglove, wriggling his fingers experimentally. “My bet’s still on tetrameth. Imagine how much you could fit in a cow carcass.”

“It’s vat meat. They don’t grow the whole cow.” Finch pulled the mask over his head. “Ready?”

Blake solemnly offered his gloved fist, then remembered the delicate circuitry and swapped it for the other. Finch knocked, and they slunk back out of the alley with the static of a hacked police scanner fizzing in their ears.

Entry was easy. Finch stood watch for less than a minute while Blake, squatting in front of the door, performed a quick viral strike on the alarm system and snuffed the CCTV while he was at it.

“Some of the footage is encrypted,” he said, touching a finger to his neural plug. “Downloading it now. How much you want to bet they scramble the backdoor cams on delivery day?”

Then he pushed his smart-glove’s thumb up against the door to trigger the lock reset, and they were in.

It wasn’t their first break-and-enter, but Finch’s nerves prickled, and his breath came hot and fast inside his hood as he led the way. Through the main dining area, into the metal maze of kitchens, down the row of freezers to the windowless door. It had a physical lock, for which they had a prybar, and it came unsealed with a dull echoing crack. Cold air slithered out from underneath, billowing around their ankles. Finch shoved the door open and the lights flickered on.

Nothing out of the ordinary met them. The walls were furred with frost, and dark stains had seeped into the concrete floor. Six porpoise-sized slabs of pure vat meat, covered in filmy membrane, dangled from ceiling hooks. Finch sealed the door behind them, relishing the rush of cold.

“This must be the right freezer,” Blake said. “It’s the only one with a Faraday mesh.” He shook his head like a wet dog. “Fucking feels like someone stuffed steel wool in my implants. Can’t touch my cloud. Whatever’s in here, they don’t want anyone transmitting camfeed of it.” He folded his arms across his chest and shivered, breath coming out in a puff of steam.

“Guess we start opening them up until the candy falls out.” Finch stepped in close to the first slab, spun the prybar in his hand, and swung. Instead of cracking against frozen meat, the prybar sank several inches deeper into the gluey membrane than seemed possible. Finch yanked the tool free with a sucking noise and let it clatter to the floor. Then, digging into the top of the membrane with both hands, he peeled it away in sticky ammonia-smelling ropes.

“Bust it, Unit,” Blake said through chattering teeth. “Dig that shit.”

Finch grunted in reply, working himself into a rhythm, breathing clean cold air. A shape was emerging beneath, something vaguely familiar, and then—

The lights flicked out.

Blake turned his yelp into a nervous laugh. “Oh, fuck, Unit, that scared me,” he said. Finch heard his hand scrape against the wall, and a second later the fluorescents sputtered back on. “Someone put the timer to five minutes. I’ll dial it back . . .”

Finch blinked. Hanging from the hook in front of him, with the last shreds of membrane dangling off it like tentacles, was a plastic-wrapped human body.

Blake fell silent for a second, then put both hands on his head. “Fuck me,” he muttered. “So she’s doing mob work. Shit, Unit, this is bad shit. Maybe we should gut check. Maybe we don’t want to blackmail someone who does disposal for a family.”

Finch barely heard him. There was something unnervingly familiar about the slope of the shoulders, the shape of the skull. He only had to peel a corner, letting a tuft of red hair escape, to know. But he kept peeling until the face came clear. A wider nose, a thinner brow, maybe. More or less, it was what he’d seen in a mirror at fourteen, back in the biolabs where he’d played host to all the viral and pharmaceutical trials that would have been illegal to perform on a full human. The clones who died and were sent for dissection looked an awful lot like this on the gurney.

Finch thought back to the black-shrouded alcove. The restaurant business was all about novelty, Carrow had said. She loved her little ironies, Vick had said.

“The cameras.” Finch swallowed. “Is there any footage from the private dining?”

Blake blinked stupidly, still staring at the hanging Neanderthal. “Uh. Yeah. Yeah, it’s that encrypted shit. I’m just putting it . . . together.” He squeezed his eyes shut, working his neural plug. His mouth wrenched downward. “Unit, I don’t think you want to see this.”

“Show me.” Finch’s voice came in a rasp he barely recognized as his own.

Blake wordlessly spread the fingers of his smart-glove and set a flickering projection against the blood-stained floor. Finch found himself looking down at a half-dozen diners wearing designer fashions and party masks, most of them drinking too quickly from their flutes, laughing nervously. The smartglass table, unwatched, was playing out a snowy scene with small black figures.

All the masked heads turned as two white-clad servers wheeled in the naked upright corpse of a neo, limbs spread like the Vitruvian Man, muscles waxed and airbrushed. They’d used a nerve clamp on his face, giving him wide eyes and a feral grin. The recording was soundless, but Finch could imagine what the server was saying as she highlighted a pectoral, a thick thigh, a denuded cock. All excellent cuts. Finch realized he already knew what it would taste like when cooked.

He managed to yank the balaclava off before bile spilled up his throat and sinuses and out, searing hot. Blake hopped backward to avoid the splatter. When it was over, Finch breathed in. Deep. Blew a clotted chunk out of his stinging nostril.

“Unit, you alright?” Blake’s voice was wavery as he switched off the projection. “That’s so fucked. So pure fucked. You eat something with cheese today? That’s probably why you hurled so hard. Fuck.”

Finch clutched at his abdomen like he might be able to claw it out entirely. He spat again and again, but supper’s aftertaste kept coming back.

“I mean, all the old labs got shut down, right, but that genome’s still floating around, right? That company in Sao Paulo, must be a front for some scuzzy black market operation, some warehouse thing.” Blake had pulled off his own mask, was running an anxious finger around his plugs. “Sticks them into the system as medical cadavers, ships them up here. Neo a la carte, right? Brazil hasn’t done up Referendum 88 yet. It might even be legal there.”

Finch gathered himself, looking from the steaming puddle to the hanging body to Blake, who was shifting foot to foot, clutching himself against the cold. For a moment, the air seemed to shiver and warp.

“I’ve got the snaps.” Blake tapped his temple. “Recorded you being sick, too, just because, you know, it makes it seem more real. This is so fucked, Unit. So, so fucked.”

Finch slowly nodded. His head was coming clear, the heat in his stomach replaced by a ball of black ice. He was going to murder Vick. He was going to murder Carrow, too.

Blake’s next words jarred him out of the revenge fantasy. “Unit, think how much Carrow will pay to keep this quiet.”

“What do you mean, keep this quiet?” Finch croaked. “This isn’t some money laundering thing. She’s butchering them. Us. For meat.”

Blake put his ungloved hand on Finch’s midsection, knowing better than to try for the out-of-reach shoulder. “Finch. Unit. I didn’t see this coming. I swear.” His voice turned wheedling. “But we have to remember the plan, Unit. This is ideal blackmail material. This could be a kingmaker.”

Finch jerked him toward the open freezer, harder than he’d meant to. “Look at him, would you?”

“It looks like you,” Blake conceded, wresting his gooseflesh arm away. “But it’s not you. Hundreds of people look like you, Finch. They’re not you. For all we know, this one had its brains blunted as soon as it came out of the exo-womb. It could be a frozen fucking vegetable.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Finch said. “Doesn’t matter. Carrow’s getting fucked for this.”

Blake moaned. Stamped his foot against the concrete. “Unit, you don’t care about politics. You care about your gravity gym, and your beard, and getting laid, and getting paid. Right? That’s what we’re getting out of this. Paid. She’ll cough up a fortune to make this go away. A fortune.”

Before Finch could form his slip-sliding thoughts into a reply, a voice came from the door.

“Bullets are actually pretty fucking cheap.” Vick had managed to stuff his Mohawk into the camosuit, but it flopped limply across his scalp as he pulled off the hood. His head floated over a vaguely man-sized shimmer in the air. A handgun hung suspended in front of it. “Supper didn’t agree with you, Finch? Can’t believe you actually ate it.”

Finch was halfway to his throat before Blake wrapped around his arm from behind, clinging like a bird.

Vick grinned. His lips were tinged purple. “This your little fucktoy? No wonder Ms. Carrow couldn’t get a rise out of you. Maybe that’s the real reason Neanderthals went extinct, huh?” He drifted the gun from Finch to Blake and back. “Personally, I think we just hunted you all down like animals.”

Finch swallowed. “Your boss loves neos so much she could just eat one up, is that it?”

“She’s a fucked-up woman,” Vick admitted. “And too trusting when it comes to knuckle-draggers. I knew you were shifty from day one. Hands on the wall, both of you.”

Finch’s swirling head was finally beginning to crystallize. Things seemed clear and bitingly sharp as he crossed to the wall and pushed his palms up against it. The cold stung his hands red. Beside him, Blake followed suit. He was shaking.

“I’d put that gun down if I was you,” Blake barked. “Everything in here is uploaded to my cloud. Soon as you pull that trigger, it’s everywhere.”

Finch didn’t have time to warn him before Vick smashed his face into the wall. When Blake brought his head back upright, his eyes were cloudy and blood bloomed from his nose.

“Faraday mesh,” Vick said. “You can’t send shit from in here. Now, in Ms. Carrow’s absence, I’m going to make an executive decision and pulp the two of you.”

“You really just camped out here in camo on the off-chance I was planning a robbery?” Finch asked. He saw Vick’s handgun wobble slightly in his peripherals.

“I told her you were shifty.” The handgun steadied, but Vick’s teeth were half-chattering when he spoke. “Told her you were from some radical fucking Neo Rights paramilitary. Told her someone must have tipped you off about Carnivor.”

Blake’s forehead was pushed hard against the cold concrete and he was licking blood and snot from under his nose, tears tracking slowly down his cheeks, but Finch forced himself to laugh. “That’s what you think? Paramilitary? I’m a criminal, shithead. We thought your boss was muling meth, and we were going to blackmail her.”

The handgun trembled again when Vick shivered. “Then you’re a fucking idiot for not figuring it out sooner. Caveman to the core.”

“How about you and me go bare knuckle?” Finch suggested. “You always wanted a try, remember? Anyone can put a slug in a skull. Not anyone can say they fist-fought a neo. Come on, Vicky.”

Finch was ready for it when a forearm slammed the back of his neck. “I’m going to eat you, caveman,” Vick hissed in his ear, burrowing the gun under Finch’s shoulder blade. “I’m going to eat your corpse. Think about that. Maybe a bit stringy. I’ll still eat it.”

“Vicky,” Finch repeated. “She call you that when she throws you around in bed? Does she make you dye your hair red and get your skin bleached?”

The gun slid up to knock against the back of Finch’s skull. He tried not to shudder. Blake’s beetle black eyes were wide and he was mouthing what looked like shut up, Unit, shut the fuck up.

“You’ll never be a real caveman, though,” Finch said. “Poor circulation. Good luck in the Ice Age.”

He slammed his hand backward into Vick’s wobbling wrist, flinging himself away from the wall. The gun went off; he felt the sonic clap like a bludgeon to the skull and for a wild moment he thought he’d been shot. The lights flicked out—Finch remembered they were on a timer, remembered Blake had dialled it back—then his hands found Vick’s neck and he forgot about everything but crushing his trachea.

A leg hooked him down and they fell to the floor; his sole slipped off the frozen vomit, and his kneecap cracked against the concrete. Metal bounced against his elbow and skittered away—the gun was gone. Vick scrabbled at his hands, clawing with manicured nails, but Finch held tight and tighter until the kicks became sluggish and Vick made a ragged vibration deep in his chest and the cartilage finally gave way. The puff of dead man’s air caught Finch in the face. He retched.

“Unit, you going to throw up again?” came Blake’s brittle voice, swimming through the fading keen in Finch’s ears. “He dead? I been sitting on his legs. Unless that’s you. You dead?”

“No. You?”

Blake’s fingers found Finch’s face in the dark; Finch found Blake’s numb lips and kissed them softly.

“Unit,” he mumbled. “Vomit breath.”

• • • •

They left Vick crumpled on the freezer floor and stumbled their way to the fire exit, Finch limping, Blake stubbornly trying to support some of his weight. The street outside became a silent movie as Finch’s hearing slipped away again. He could mostly hear his breathing, and blood swirling in his inner ear as they staggered down the block. Blake’s voice was tinny and indistinct. It took him a while to realize what he was saying.

“It’s uploaded, Unit. The clone in Carnivor’s freezer. Those cams from private dining. Everything Vicky said. All in my cloud now.” Blake raised his gloved hand and pressed a fingertip to Finch’s plug. “Look.”

Finch shut his eyes and saw the events of the past half hour race past in digital. Peeling back the membrane. Watching the smart-glove projection. Vick’s disembodied head. The gun. He found his good leg trembling.

“All you have to do is disperse it,” Blake said. “If that’s what you want. I figure blackmailing someone as psychotic as Carrow is a shit plan anyway.”

Finch hesitated for only a second before he selected dispersal and watched the web traffic begin to swell. The snaps and captions and visual/audio recordings began to expand outward, link by link, blooming like argon across forums and news recyclers. By morning, it would be everywhere.

“Of course, we need to get the fuck out of Dodge, now,” Blake admitted. “Unless you think you can stand up to, you know, legal scrutiny and shit. We can swing down to the coast. San Diego again. You go back to bouncing, I leave off net scamming and try to find something legit. No more B&E, no more blackmail, no more getting mixed up with units who kill units.” He paused. “You know. Boring shit.”

“West Coast might not be far enough,” Finch said, opening his eyes. “We’ll be famous after this.”

“Unit, I know.” He blinked. “Autocab’s on its way. It’ll meet us up on the corner.”

They staggered on in silence. It had rained while they were inside; the sidewalk was slick. The lampposts flickered on in sequence as they passed underneath.

“Brazil is pretty far,” Finch said slowly, watching their shadow hobble along on long dark stilts. “Sao Paulo.”

Blake stared at him, incredulous. “You mean go find that illegal clone factory, right? You trying to be a hero or something? Going paramilitary on me?”

Finch exhaled a long plume of breath into the cold air as the autocab pulled up to the curb. “That list you made. The things I care about. You should have been on it.”

Blake fixed him with a piercing look. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Up near the top. Beard-level, maybe.” Blake laughed; Finch tried to grin. “And under that, I think it’s time to make room for some other shit.”

“Hero shit, you mean,” Blake said, leaning back on the autocab.

“I’d view it more as self-improvement.”

“I’ll think about it, Unit. No promises.”

Finch opened the door, Blake bypassed the payment screen, and the cab slid off into the night, flashing nearby attractions and restaurant suggestions on the upholstery. They watched in real time, without speaking, as Carnivor dropped off the list.

Rich Larson

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Canada, USA, and Spain, and is now based in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of the novel Annex and the collection Tomorrow Factory, which contains some of the best of his 150+ published stories. His work has been translated into Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Romanian, Portuguese, French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. Find free fiction and support his work at patreon.com/richlarson.