“Dan, please, calm down.” Daniel had only been home for a few moments, but the slammed door and Daniel’s flashing eyes told Gabe that the results of the subpoena had been poor.
“How can you say that? How can you say ‘calm down’?”
Gabe pressed his lips together but didn’t protest when Daniel yanked off his jacket, dumping it in a heap on the floor. “What happened?”
“You know damn well what happened. You know what they do.”
“No, I don’t, Dan. When they brought me in for questioning, I cooperated. They asked me a few things and then let me go.”
Daniel scowled and threw himself down into the easy chair. Gabe winced a little as he heard it creak, but now was not the time to discuss the state of their apartment. He bit his lip. “Do you want some coffee or something?”
“That shit’ll just make me jumpy. If I’m gonna drink something right now, it’s gonna be something hard.”
Gabe’s eyes widened. “Danielâ€¦ you haven’t had a drink in six months.”
“Seven,” Daniel corrected. He slumped in the chair, the defensive gleam going out of his eyes. “Just get me something to drink, okay?”
Gabe swallowed and nodded. He didn’t feel right leaving Daniel alone, so he propped the kitchen door open just enough so that Dan could hear his movements and maybe catch a glimpse of his body. He poured a shot of whiskey into the wide bottom of a juice glass and brought it back out to Daniel, kneeling carefully beside the easy chair.
Daniel took the glass, but he didn’t raise it. He didn’t look at it, either; his eyes were dim and unfocused, staring at something beyond the off-white carpet that no one could see but him. “They used the new probe,” he said finally, the words drawn out slowly, like handkerchiefs from the mouth of a clown.
Gabe gasped. “Oh my Godâ€¦ Danâ€¦ I thought they only did that to the criminals, not witnesses.”
“Yeah, well, I guess they didn’t like my attitude. They didn’t like the fact that my address was the same as yours, either.” Daniel glanced at Gabe, then looked away again, squeezing his eyes shut. “It’s likeâ€¦ fuck, Gabe, it’s like nothing. I can’t even describe it. Like someone ripping through your brain, tossing shit around, tearing things up. It’s like cops without a warrant trashing your place because you live in the slums and can’t do shit about it. And then they wipe their dicks on your face afterwards.”
“Danâ€¦” Gabe reached out and took the drink from Daniel’s slack fingers, setting it carefully on the floor. Then he reached up and pulled Daniel into a hug, pressing the other man’s face into his chest and squeezing tight. He felt Daniel’s hands slowly raise and grasp the front of his shirt. “Are you going to have to go to court?”
“No. They got everything they needed. They’ll just pull it up on the screen for the jury. I don’t even have to testify.”
Gabe didn’t ask any more questions. He just stroked Daniel’s hair.
After a long time, Daniel spoke again. “I can’t find my memories,” he admitted in a small voice. “I know they’re there, and I know they can’t erase anything with the probeâ€¦ but everything’s all moved around. I can’t find it. Little things I remember, like how to get home or which shelf we keep the mayo on, but big things, important things, are just…” He buried his head in Gabe’s chest. “Iâ€”I’m so confused.”
Gabe swallowed. “Shh,” he told Daniel. “If you worry about it, it’s just going to make it worse. You’ll find it all eventually.”
There was another long silence before Daniel asked quietly, “Gabe?”
“I can’t remember how we first met.”
Gabe’s arms tightened around Daniel.
“Then I’ll tell you.”
By the time he was seven, Oman knew he wanted to be a pony. It wasn’t the pay. It wasn’t even the glory. He didn’t want to be a common pony either, the kind that tourists rent for a few weeks. No, Oman had a plan. He wanted to be a journalist. He wanted to change the world.
Oman underwent the conversion when he was twelve. His neural networks were recorded, analyzed, made available for foreign riders. He had this done in a small white room behind a weapons shop rather than a commercial ponyfarm so that he wouldn’t be included in the international database. That was important, of course. The cells could access the database. They’d know.
After that, after he’d been hooked up to a complicated, beeping, western device, he started. He spent hours in internet cafes reading emails and tracing ips, then following the residents of the given addresses. He learned the names of the enemy, the names that slaughtered his aunts and uncles, the names that turned homes into pillars of incendiary waste. He practiced, memorized the sacred texts, inundated himself in dogma. He made friends. He gained their confidence. They gave him more names. He traced the spiral to its core.
This was important. No foreign journalist would ride someone who wasn’t well-connected. This wasn’t a tourist gig, no way. This was the real thing. Oman was going to show them what it was like, show them how it was. Once they saw it, they’d have to do something. You can’t see stuff like that and not do something. He didn’t want bombs or troops or anything like that, though. Oman wasn’t sure how they’d fix it, but he knew they couldn’t just let it go.
He chose his cell carefully. Worked his way up. They were careful, shrouded in secret, like everything after the occupation. Still, they had plans. He helped develop them. They weren’t real plans, though. They wouldn’t actually work. Once Oman blew this thing open, America would know everything.
He found his journalist, Jason Skeinlen. The man was impressed by his planning, his foresight. The man believed in his need to change the world.
The first time Oman was ridden, he didn’t like it. He had trouble keeping his thoughts hidden. Not the important thoughts, of course, but the meaningless things, stuff like what he wanted to do to the gorgeous woman he’d seen walking into McDonalds. After a couple trial runs, though, he perfected his ability to keep two internal monologues: one professional, about the workings of his cell, and one secret. He didn’t have to worry about language, of course. They communicated by thought, by meaning.
He brought Jason to meetings, showed Jason with his own eyes. He listened to plans, listened to battle stories whispered across deserts and in the bowels of caves. He could feel Jason moving inside of him, feel him recording, feel him rephrasing Oman’s thoughts into eloquent soundbites. The first article was small. He was not mentioned. He couldn’t be mentioned. They’d know.
Oman took Jason to the meeting where they planned the Embassy bombing. It proceeded anyways, but Oman knew that Jason was just biding his time, waiting to break the story like you’d wait for a fruit to grow ripe. Jason watched it from a distance, watched the white rental truck force itself outwards in a rush of yellow and smoke while the sound reported from the faces of a thousand buildings. He heard the explosion through Oman’s ears. But Oman knew he was planning, waiting. There was strategy to this. Buses were nothing. This thing would only get bigger.
The bombing got 45 seconds of coverage on Fox. Oman watched the clip in an internet shop by proxying into a Lebanese newsfeed. When he recognized a few frames that had been filmed through his eyes, he was so proud that he could barely breathe. The cogs were turning. This was going to work.
No one could have foreseen this tragedy, the Arabic subtitles read beneath the well-coiffed newscaster.
Oman knew something was wrong as soon as he got to the meeting, but he rejected his instinct. Journalists aren’t afraid. That’s right, Jason transmitted somewhere above his spinal cord. You’re a good kid. Together, we can change the world.
When he was addressed by his teacher, Oman nodded in polite deference. When he was called to step forward, he obeyed. When the gun was shown, Oman felt the sudden scrambling dizziness behind his eyes as the neural connection wavered, twisted, and broke from the other end.
Oman squinted at the handful of men before him, trying to see their faces through the nausea of unexpected dismount. Two of them frowned. One smiled. One remained blank, unreadable.
Maybe they were being ridden too, he thought. Maybe one of them is recording this, sending this to the outside. Once they see, they’ll have to do something. You can’t just let something like this happen. Jason knew. He’d disconnected. He was probably calling his government right now, telling them that people were dying, telling them to send help.
As the teacher raised the gun, Oman knew he was changing the world. They wouldn’t let this happen, not over and over again. They’d have to do something. He was changing the world.
“I just don’t see what’s stopping you, Raylan.” Piper adjusted her thick-framed glasses before jamming her fist back into the pocket of her hoodie. Raylan’s show at The Xanadu Carousel had been over for awhile, but the rain outside had only now just stopped. Piper and Raylan didn’t own cars, and this wasn’t the first time they had shared each other’s company after a show.
“It’s the knives, child. The knives,” Raylan said. Piper was always impressed by the way Raylan managed to navigate the slick pavement in his high-heeled boots. Even in puddles, he continued to gesticulate and sashay just like he was still on stage. “Besides, I have a fan-following to consider. Why, those little bald men who always sit in the front row would just be crushed!”
“I don’t see how. I mean, you totally look like a real girl alre–”
Raylan cut her off. “And you’re a sweet pea to say so, Piper. God willing, I hope I hope I never look like poor Belieze. I don’t care how much chiffon you put on a linebacker…takes all kinds, I suppose. But anyway, I enjoy a certain amount of sensual border straddling in my life. Plus, there’s the knife issue, darling.”
“They don’t use knives.”
“Lasers. Whatever. You what a laser is? It’s a knife made out of light. And I ain’t letting any doctor get all Obi-Wan Kenobi on my nethers. Not for nothing, child.”
Piper jammed her tiny fists deeper into her pockets. She had transitioned relatively recently, and was still getting used to being smaller. Her slight frame was overwhelmed by her sweatshirt; it had fit perfectly a few months back. “It’s gene therapy. They alter a few chromosomes and the–”
“Messing with far too much of the Lord’s handiwork, you ask me. Why be ashamed of the way God made you?”
Piper turned from Raylan and tried to hide even deeper in her hoodie. She started to run away, but didn’t get more than five steps before Raylan and his long legs overtook her. Piper felt swallowed in Raylan’s powerful embrace.
“Oh, honey, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean that. This mouth of mine just goes off on it’s own. You know that. You know that if I ever have a son, I’d want him to grow up into a beautiful young woman just like you.” Raylan removed Piper’s glasses and wiped off the moisture from their lenses. Raylan was taller than Piper even before the transition, and now with his height enhanced by six-inch heels, Piper felt extraordinarily vulnerable. Tears tumbled down her teenage cheeks.
“It’s just…it’s just you sounded like my–”
“Hush, honey. Hush. I know who I sounded like. And I am so sorry. God just made us different, is all. He made you able to change, and me perfectly content to wear a gaff for the rest of my life. It takes all kinds, All kinds.”
“Stupid hormones,” Piper said, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “I know I’m not a real girl…”
“Didn’t I just tell you hush?” Raylan petted Piper’s dark hair reassuringly with his painted nails, “You’re more of a girl than any of those painted tramps your age I see walking down the street, And you are my friend, which ought to make you real enough for anyone. Now, why don’t you dry those pretty blue eyes of yours and let me buy you a hot chocolate.”
Piper gave Raylan a weak grin. “Don’t try to butter me up.”
“Who said anything about butter?” Raylon said, hands on his hips. “You and I are going to get chocolated up, like real girls.”
Annabelle could have gotten stapled, pumped, sucked and tucked, but she had always been a bit of a herbhead, and she wanted to do it the natural way. It was more expensive, to be sure, but in the end, the results would be cleaner. She had looked for the hostess carefully, studying recommendations, medical reports and case histories. Olga Husker was her final choice, in part because of her excellent history with clients, but mostly because Olga was a natural blond, from the curtains to the carpet, and Annabelle had always wanted to be a natural blond.
They met for coffee. Annabelle had a lime cheesecake and hot chocolate and Olga had an unsweetened green tea. Olga emphasized that she was allergic to peanuts, so Annabelle had to be very careful when she selected candies. Annabelle had to sign a document that assured that she was liable for any damages, from sexually transmitted diseases to broken bones and her own body could be forfeit in case the damages were deemed to be too extensive. Olga was anxious to begin and agreed to a smaller fee if Annabelle would move the procedure up two weeks. She asked Annabelle if she could user her own clinic, and agreed to take another cut for it. Annabelle signed and authenticated the electronic transfer, and four days later they were in the clinic, prepping for the procedure.
Aside from the massive-two day migraine, there were no side effects after the surgery, and Annabelle was pleased with Olgaâ€™s tan and muscular body. She felt strong and sexy. She went out after the surgery and bought a beautiful new wardrobe of the tiniest clothes she had ever worn. Her husband was delighted with the change, and they spent two days in bed. At work, her co-workers asked to see the contoured stomach she had rented, and she obliged, lifting up her shirt to reveal the sculpted abs.
Olga had an intense workout routine, and Annabelle tried to follow it, hoping that she could stick to the workouts when she was back in her own body, but running was painful and exhausting, and the routines were a huge time commitment. After a few weeks, she gave up on the workouts entirely and just began enjoying Olga, eating whatever she wanted, confident that her body would be returned to her fit. Maybe then she would start the workouts for real.
The police picked her up a month after the transfer. Annabelle had been walking down the street when everything went silent. She recognized one of the polices noise bombs and saw the black van barreling toward her, but until it stopped in front of her and armed officers jumped out, she never once believed the thing was for her.
Getting her body exchange in the clinic was a mistake. Since there were no records of a transfer, it took the police three weeks to authenticate that Annabelle was really in Olgaâ€™s body, and by that time Annabelle and her husband had dropped their savings on legal representation to hold off medical interrogation. They let Annabelle go after she gave a full description of her body and released photographs of herself to the police. Olga was wanted for theft of government property.
Six months later Annabelle saw a still photograph of her body on one of the streaming screens in the city. Olga had been shot by the police trying to trade the stolen goods on Mars. Annabelle hardly recognized the slim woman on the screen, the face she had once seen in the mirror. It was dead, and it wasnâ€™t hers anymore.
“They’ll find you,” the chronomancer told me. “They always do. One day you’ll be sitting around sipping tea, playing Mah-Jongg, and BAM!” He slammed his fist on the rickety card table, nearly upsetting his coffee and definitely upsetting Sib. She moaned loudly and ran for the corner, then rocked back and forth and pounded her palms against her head as if the sudden sound had come from within. If he noticed her, he hid it well. People like Sib are easy to overlook.
“Time’s a big place,” I said.
“Not as big as you’d expect. You think you’re the first one to come up with this idea?”
I didn’t respond. The chronomancer exhaled a long, low note and pushed his fingers through his mop of wild white hair before taking off his glasses and polishing them on the edge of his greasy shirt. “All I’m saying,” he continued, “is that you’re not just going to vanish. Wherever you go you’ll stick out like a black cat in a snowstorm. You’ll get myths and legends built up around you. At worst, you’ll show up in history books, and they study that stuff. Anachronists, they call you guys. It would be hard enough if it was just you, but…” the chronomancer’s voice drifted as his eyes focused on the girl in the corner, “you’ll never be able to get away with that.”
His tone lowered at the final syllable, like mentioning Sib was a breach of etiquette. “You have something on your chin,” he might have said. “Your fly is down.” I stood up and stepped over the piles of paper and gears that littered his workshop to gather the small girl into my arms. “She has a name,” I told him.
The chronomancer pushed his glasses back onto his face and squinted at me in the dim light. “They’ll find you,” he repeated.
“We’ll take that risk.”
Sib’s small fingers grabbed at the collar of my shirt and she buried her face into the point where my head met my neck. She smelled like hospital, and she was still wearing the blue robe they’d given her when they tested her for genetic abnormality. The chronomancer watched her squirm into position.
“Do you have kids?” I asked him. He shook his head slowly.
“I applied, once, a long time ago,” he said. “I’m not made of the right stuff.”
“Neither’s she,” I said as I brushed my fingers against the space between her shoulderblades.
Again, he sighed that same note, though this time he slid open a metal filing cabinet under his table. The chronomancer withdrew a manila envelope and flipped through the papers with a grimy thumb. “Do you speak Greek?” he asked.
“I can learn.”
“We’ll find a place for you,” he said slowly, running his fingers over the page. “I’m sure we can find a place.”
“Diggs! C’mon man, we gotta keep this moving or we won’t find squat for real dirt by the end of the day!”
‘That had to be Brennan yelling over the drill tube. He’d been at work
on that machine, trying to suck up the dry mud and debris, hoping for a
better chance at the pure stuff.
Diggs wiped his brow, tugging the tube up out of the dirt to stop production. â€œEh! Boss says we got to crank this up a notch, people, letâ€™s strip this land and move on.â€
Brennan shifted his ball cap over his head as the the light of the sun beat down on the dying meadow. â€œSay, Diggs, I know you gots your kids birthday today. Howâ€™s abouts you go home early?â€
â€œWhat? And miss a shot at gettinâ€™ some real prime planet core? Bren, you gotta be outta that thick skull of yours. The fuzz ainâ€™t makinâ€™ you nervous are they? You know weâ€™re miles from the cops. Besides, weâ€™re busy. We got two more areas to suck up after this one and-â€œ
â€œLookâ€ Brennan started up, swinging his clipboard back around in a wide dramatic gesture, â€œI ainâ€™t tryinâ€™ to steal goods from ya, just thought Iâ€™d suggest. Sheâ€™s a real primer, this one. Just, be careful.â€
â€œAw, Bren, Iâ€™m gonna get all misty. You ainâ€™t still worried about what happened to the McClennan boys are you?â€ Diggs had taken the time to make mocking smirks at his boss and life-long friend.
â€œIt justâ€¦ it ainâ€™t right. Like, the ground or somethinâ€™ just ateâ€™em up. They left the tools and ate the people, Diggs. I ainâ€™t wanna see the same happen to you.â€
Brennanâ€™s friend just shook his head and turned back on the A34 Soil Remover. The buzz turned to a low hum and soil started to pour through out onto the ground next to him. After Brennan left, Diggs remembered the reports. First, things had gotten real quiet, they read. A few of the soil-miners freaked and the rest were never heard from again. The activists got all up in arms, saying that it was punishment from God or maybe nature fighting back. Hell, it was already illegal to poach earth, but they did it anyways. That was all crud according to Remy Diggs.
â€œDamn, just got three good ones! Haha!â€ The soil-miner kept it up, feeding the suction into the ground to have the particles sopped up through the tube and analyzed.
This little machine was amazing, Diggs thought. It could sort out the moisture content in every grain of soil and then, when all was said and done, the same scientists who opposed the “raping of the land” had to bow down to the pure energy brought by a single unidentified element formed in one of three billion grains of soil. Sucker could power Vegas for ten years on just a handful of juiced grains. Ah, and the money sure did roll in.
Diggs was paying so much attention to his device, he didnâ€™t even notice that things had gone real quiet, real fast.