Authors: Wasserman, Robin
“You have to weigh Brother Savona’s past behavior against his expressed willingness to repair the damage.” The script had been easier to memorize than it was to choke out. “Brother Savona’s voice obviously has a wide reach, and now that he’s had his revelations—”
“You’re referring, I assume, to his statements expressing regret for the way he treated the skinners, and his pledges of tolerance? You believe he means what he says?”
I believed that there was nothing anyone could do to Savona now that BioMax had decided he made a better savior than he did a martyr. He’d signed back on to the Brotherhood as an unofficial consultant—right-hand man to his former right-hand man—and the rest of us were supposed to forgive and forget.
“We prefer to be called mechs,” I told the interviewer. “‘Skinner’ is derogatory.” Out of the corner of my eye, and just beyond the camera’s sightline, I saw Kiri raise a hand in silent warning.
“Of course,” the interviewer said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I know.” No one ever
. “And to answer your question, Brother Savona and Brother Auden have a message of tolerance and equality that I’d like to think we can all believe in. All I want is to show people that mechs are no different from anyone else—we’re regular people. If the Brotherhood can help get that message out, then I’m all for it.”
“You’re a very big-hearted girl,” the interviewer said.
I could have reminded her about the wireless power converter nestled where my heart should be. But I didn’t.
Not going to make it.
“You skank!” Cally shouted, and launched herself at Pria.
“Not my fault you couldn’t give him what he wanted!” Pria screeched, squaring off to face the charging blonde. She crouched and grabbed Cally around the knees, flipping her head over heels. Which put Cally in the perfect position to gnaw on her thigh.
Pria went down.
Hands clutched at tangles of blond hair, yanked. Violet nails raked across pale skin. They hissed, they slapped; teeth were bared, backs were arched, saliva was sprayed. There was
some very unladylike grunting. Soon the two interlocked, writhing bodies rolled across the mansion’s marble floor, a monstrous eight-legged beast.
Sometimes these fights ended at the hospital; sometimes they ended in bed. (Or in the closet, the pool, the shower, the rug—any and every conceivable surface.) Whatever the audience wanted.
, the voice commanded.
“You’re both brainburned,” I said. “You want to kill yourselves over Caleb? Go for it.” The voice gave me the storyline, but—usually—I made up the words myself. A miniature measure of freedom in my zombie life. “You know who’ll really love that? Felicity. Because then she gets him all to herself.”
The writhing creature froze, then separated itself into two discrete bodies again, every eye, ear, and molecule trained on my next words.
“Of course, she’s already got him,” I said.
“I’ll kill her.”
“Not if I kill her first.”
first, if you try that.”
The truth: Felicity had never touched Caleb. I didn’t know if I was lying because I wanted him for myself, because I wanted Cally or Pria for myself, or because I wanted trouble. The voice would tell me, soon enough, and then that would be the new truth.
The fight temporarily over, and Felicity marked for death, we were free to move on to more pressing concerns.
“Mini or maxi?” Pria demanded, hanging the two dresses over her curvy frame. “There’s a rage at Chaos tonight and we are
“Maxi,” I said. “Definitely.” Because that day I was supposed to be hating on Pria, and the billowing black and white gown made her look like a pregnant cow.
!” Cally spit, grabbing it out of her hand.
Pria looked clueless, but only for a moment. Then her face transformed—narrowed eyes, tensed muscles, slight upturn in her puffy lips. A masterful dose of pure spite. “So what if it is?” she snarled. “Looks better on me, anyway.”
the voice decided.
So that’s what I said.
Then I added the part about the pregnant cow.
And then I was on the ground, with my hair in Pria’s hands and my artificial flesh beneath her nails.
Good luck breaking the skin,
I thought, gifting her with a light sucker punch that would give her plenty of material for the cameras.
It had been made clear to me that the audience loved a fight.
Especially when the skinner lost.
“Every skinner—I’m sorry, mech—has an understandably conflicted relationship with the Brotherhood, but I think it’s safe to say that yours is more conflicted, or certainly more
than most,” the interviewer said. “After all, its current leader,
Auden Heller, is a former classmate of yours, isn’t that right?”
You know it’s right, you disingenuous bitch.
I should have known better than to believe Kiri when she said the interviewer had agreed to my terms. Easy to declare a subject off-limits when you’re backstage—so much the better to launch a sneak attack once the cameras are rolling.
“Yes. We were in school together for about ten years.”
“And you were close?” she said.
“Until that day at the waterfall—”
“I don’t talk about that.”
“That’s understandable,” she said, sounding sympathetic. She patted my knee.
I let her. I even let her regurgitate the story of the waterfall, and how Auden had nearly died trying to save me, the skinner who didn’t need saving. My fault, and so—in his mind, and the minds of the Brotherhood’s brainwashed masses—the fault of every skinner.
“It must be
for you,” she said. “I’m sure you wish you could talk to him, apologize for everything that’s happened. Is there anything you’d like to say to him now?” she asked, eyes hungry. “Anything at all?”
I wasn’t about to ruin everything by exploding on camera. Two weeks of misery were
going in the garbage just to give myself the luxury of self-pity. Or privacy. I’d given the latter up for fifteen days, and the former up for good. But I couldn’t play along.
I glanced off camera. Kiri’s lips were moving, and, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, the interviewer began to speak. “Looks like we’re out of time,” she said, stiffly. I was surprised the sweat running down her face didn’t harden to ice. “It’s been a pleasure to have you with us. Please come again.”
I smiled like I meant it. “Anytime.”
Maybe I was the better actor after all.
“You survived.” Kiri swept me off as the interview ended. That was code for
You didn’t screw up.
I didn’t know whether she meant the interview or the whole two weeks; I was too tired to care.
One more night and I was free.
I couldn’t thank her for the save—not without revealing her interference to the vidlife audience. So I just raised an eyebrow, and she mirrored the gesture with her own.
“She wanted me to talk about myself,” I chirped. “What’s better than that?” Code for
I know I’m already dead … but kill me now. Please.
“Ah, the Lia Kahn we all know and love,” she said. “Sure you’re not too tired to hit this gala tonight?”
A star-studded night with the crème de la crème of high society, pretending not to notice that the crème was made with soured milk? We both knew there was only one acceptable response.
“Me? Miss a party? As if.”
• • •
No one told me the party was underwater.
A transparent bubble sucked us below sea level. The orgs were intrigued, pressed against the clear walls, watching fish meander by and algae lick at the glass. This was all new to them, an adventure. But I’d stroked through the deep; I knew what it was like to lose myself in the silent dark of the water.
I knew what was hiding beneath the ocean’s surface—I’d seen the dead cities and their bloated bodies, and I knew that only algae and jellyfish could survive in the bath of toxic sludge. But the transparent dome was surrounded by an elaborately fake ecosystem, sparkling water clear enough to show off rainbow coral reefs and fluorescent schools of fish. It was the perfect match for the garish undersea spectacle that lay
the dome, synthetic algae undulating from the floor, sparkling lights floating in midair, stars hung so low you could flick them with a finger and watch them float across the room, as if we were all buoyant, gravity temporarily suspended. Holographic reefs and ridges projected from every surface, the illusion broken only when the occasional dancing couple floated right through it. Literally floated, thanks to the buoyancy generators beneath the floor that lifted them on a cushion of air. The party was a gala, which normally would have meant fairy-tale finery, but this time, apparently—for those more in the know than I—demanded a more nautical touch. Mermaids drifted by on hovering platforms, their hair architectured to float above their heads. There were org-sized sharks with gnashing teeth
and of course the obligatory skanked-up efforts, in this case nude body stockings wired to project shimmering scales across bare abs, chests, and asses.
I wandered, waiting for my orders, wondering what all these people would do if they saw what life underwater was really like, how the ocean had transformed the org world: the pale, swollen flesh, the rusted cars and broken windows, and all the detritus of life interrupted. And then I imagined the transparent dome over our heads cracking, a spiderweb of broken glass spreading across our sky, the water trickling down, like rain, and then breaking through, a hail of glass and a gush of water washing everything away. I imagined the costumed mermaids writhing and flailing, trapped in their tangled hair, their cheeks puffing with one final breath, bubbles streaming out of their mouths and noses until there were none left. I imagined their corpses floating slowly to the surface, leaving me one by one until I was alone with the wreckage. It would be like being the only person left at the end of the world.
I shoved the vision from my mind. That wasn’t my fantasy; that was
. Jude’s. A world purged of orgs.
he would have said. I didn’t want to think about the things he would have said, or the things he’d dreamed about, but I did, more than I would have liked to admit.
Which is probably why, at first, I thought it was my imagination.
A shock of silver hair bobbing over the crowd. The razor-sharp cheekbones, the unbearable smirk. Slitted golden eyes,
resting on mine for an impossible second, flickering away, and then he was gone.
I told myself, and danced. My mech mind processed music as little more than syncopated noise. There was none of that wild abandon I’d once felt, the loss of body and self in throbbing notes. Only silent commands, from brain to limbs.
Twist. Turn. Jump. Wave. Shuffle. Shimmy.
The motions looked seamless; I knew, because I’d practiced in a mirror. It turned out there was nothing too hard about building a smooth surface for yourself. If you knew the steps, if you knew which muscles to move, if you knew how to smile and how to speak, if you knew your lines and played your part, then it didn’t matter what lay behind the pose.
The hands that slipped over my eyes were cold.
The whisper in my ear was familiar.
Remember they’re watching.
I grabbed his wrists, dug in my nails. Knowing it would make him smile. Then turned around slowly, fake smile fixed on my face. He had one to match.
“Didn’t expect to see you anytime soon,” I said casually, lightly.
Because he was a fugitive, accused of trying to blow up a laboratory full of orgs. He was guilty; I knew, because I’d helped him—and because I’d stopped him. Not exactly the safe, harmless face I wanted to present to the world.
He nodded, his eyes flickering toward the fly cam hovering above my shoulder, and his full lips curled upward.
“I’ve been around,” he said. “Maybe you haven’t been looking.”
Riley would be watching this, I realized, keeping my face blank. Riley, who knew only the story I’d told him, a fairy tale in which he’d never betrayed Jude, never seen cold hatred in his best friend’s eyes.
You were supposed to stay gone forever,
The skank fish spotted him and began to swarm. Girls distinguishable only by their hair color rubbed up against him, and he let it stretch on, grinning at the lame flirtations, complimenting one on her scales and another on her elaborate wings, forgoing what I would have thought would be the irresistible urge to point out that fish don’t fly. He was weirdly good at it, juggling them with an oozing grace, meeting their eyes with a gaze intense enough to convince them of their special place in his heart, fleeting enough to leave hope beating in the hearts of the rest.
He’s what you want tonight,
the voice commanded me. Then it gave me my first line.
“Want to dance?”
Before I finished the question, Jude’s arms were around me, and we were floating across the dance floor.
“So you’ve decided the high life isn’t so bad after all,” I said carefully. Jude twirled me out, our fingers linked tightly so I couldn’t escape.
“What’s not to love?” We turned and turned. Lights flickered overhead, mimicking the effect of sunlight on water. “I can see how glad you are to have me back.”
I couldn’t see anything in those cat-orange eyes. I only knew that he wanted something, because Jude always did.
This is all for us,
he’d always said. The good of the mechs, not the good of Jude. Just a coincidence, then, that they were so often the same thing.
“We’ve got a lot to talk about.” He dipped me so low that my hair brushed the floor.
“I’m not much for talking these days.” I shot a mischievous glance directly into the camera buzzing over our heads.