Tomorrow, Vivek Pratap will stop smoking.
He will stop smoking because it is bad for his gills, the luster of his new skin, and his sharpened teeth. The shark genes he had combined with his own were expensive; he’d hate to ruin those spent thousands with a five-dollar pack of smokes.
So tomorrow, Vivek will quit. Heâ€™s a new man, now
He also got muscle enhancements, as well as some bone-lengthening treatments. The new Vivek would tower over the old one. He had to get a new wardrobe, made of shiny, expensive materials. He’s kept a flannel shirt, though, his favorite. Used to be his favorite. But heâ€™s different, now.
Vivek had to move, to be closer to the ocean. This meant leaving a lot of friends behind, but Vivek was glad of that. He could tell when they looked at him, who they saw. And it just wasn’t who he was anymore.
The move meant an excuse to get rid of a lot of things. Vivek tossed out all the pictures of himself as he used to look, feeling he was better off without reminders. He did keep one picture, but it’s not on display in his new home. He keeps it in a drawer.
It’s the only picture he has of Czarina; she never did like seeing herself on film. She had broken up with him after his transition. She said she didn’t like the new Vivek. It was for the best, really. Czarina is a smoker.
Vivek likes the new him. which is why he’s going to take care of it. Starting tomorrow, he’s going to quit smoking.
Tonight, he is wrapped up in a a shirt that no longer fits, staring at picture of a version of himself that is wearing it. A version of himself whose soft, pink cheek is being kissed by a girl who has her arms around his small, hunched shoulders.
“Tomorrow,” Vivek promises himself. “I’ll change.”
The bottles should have lined her shelf, all shapes of the pastel rainbow, a tally of her pasts. Their numbers would be such that they overwhelmed the tiny space, and even by resorting to clever stacking methods and ingenious pyramids she would never quite be able to fit them all. The shelf was clear, of course.
The latest brand of moisturizer was not on Mikoâ€™s shelf, but in her purse. She slipped it out without thinking, squirting the oily mixture onto her hands, rubbing it in like a prayer. Away with the rough edges, the lines, the pockmarks of use. Smoothness was unity, and as she achieved it the clenched fist in her breast relaxed. She could breathe again.
Miko sat down before the perfectly neat desk on the perfectly placed chair and ran her finger over the perfectly smooth mahogany. So beautiful, the dark wood against the white walls, especially in the dim evening light. Her hand against the surface made it all the more beautiful, the perfect skin and perfect nails of perfect length. Her life fit together like an intricate puzzle forming a detailed, perfect picture.
When she was little, she never bit her nails. The girls who did, pudgy-faced and red-cheeked, were her inferiors; they knew nothing of grace, and were too stupid to think in the long-term. She despised them, and used to make snide comments behind their backs, just loud enough so that they could hear. She held nothing but contempt for them.
The desk was polished to a precise and even shine: not to the point of pure reflection, for that would detract from its own merits, but certainly enough to catch the scant light of the setting sun. Her fingers pressed against four invisible spots on the right-hand corner, impossible to find unless one knew where they were. In response, the center of the desk faded away, revealing the matte black of a computer console that emerged from within the structure. Her fingers danced over the keys, too fast to follow and dizzying in their grace.
“Wow, sixty-five words per minute. Impressive.”
“Who told you how fast I type?”
“Nobody. I heard you, just now.”
When she was very, very young–no more than three years, though of course she couldn’t place her exact age, not knowing her birthdate–some old hag on the sidewalk had seen Miko sucking her thumb. “Stop that,” the creature had croaked, “You’ll get buck teeth.” The tiny, dark-haired child had cried all night long for fear she had irreparably damaged her perfect teeth.
Miko could feel an errant flake of skin, rough and offensive, on her knuckle. This would not do. Out came the bottle once again. The thick scent lifted her prayer to the god she didn’t believe in, to the ancestors she never knew. The half-empty bottles, scattered in forgotten dumpsters and office wastebaskets, were the beads on her rosary.
“Did you design the mechanism?”
“The concealed chamber in the desk.”
“What the hell are you talking about? There’s nothing in the desk.”
“Yes there is. Right there, the four indentations, thirty-six centimeters from the right.”
Miko slammed the laptop shut, then breathed deeply and carefully smoothed her hair. Temper, temper. That wouldn’t do at all.
She’d hated his scar, and made no secret of it. It was vulgar, she’d told him, even lewd. How could he deface his body like that? Worse yet, how could he leave the evidence intact? She painted it as a crime against nature, and berated him for it whenever the opportunity arose. The day he’d removed the scar out of necessity had been a veritable triumph, and she’d known the instant he slunk in, meek and overthrown. She was right, of course, as always.
A clear plastic bag was arranged precisely in the sleek metal wastebasket. She had never changed the bag; there had never been a need.
“How many scratches are in my desk? The one in my apartment?”
“Eighty-seven. Twenty-three on the top, sixty-three on the combined sides, and one underneath where you hit it with your chair last Sunday.”
Seven seconds of silence meant nothing more to her than a pause. Eight would have been precisely the same.
“…Why do you ask?”
She took everything with her–every pen, every note, every disk. Hardly a mote of dust was left; if anything, the lack thereof was the only sign that the desk had ever been used. The last rays of the setting sun made the almost-full bottle, tossed in the wastebasket, seem to glow.
Emeeki dove off the cliff, spreading her silver wings wide to catch the current of air, flying over the Sacred ground. This would put her quite a distance from her earth locked predator, whose yellow mane she could see moving in the grass on the golden plains.
The Sacred ground was a beautiful preserve and Emeeki wished she could spend more time here. Her partner, Brekki, had always wanted to explore the preserve in depth, but their diplomatic work had kept them off world, and away from familiar comforts.
Today was their consummation; she would be one with Brekki at last. They had almost given in to temptation once, during a diplomatic conference held on the flagship of an alien Coalition. It was late and they were meeting in her room to iron out a few last details of the presentation they would give to the Coalition. They were defining zoning lines in space, and territory was one of Brekkis passions. They had been tired, but filled with enthusiasm, about to bring back a contract that would create peace and understanding between the alien omnivores and themselves. It was a landmark, and perhaps, after this, they might join the powerful Coalition. Emeeki, only in her second molt, a bustle of red feathers, had hopped from her perch and spread her wings in the small room.
â€œWeâ€™ve done it Brekki! Joy! Joy!â€ she chirped, and without thinking, bounced close to him, putting her delicate wings around his tawny, powerful shoulders. He growled, and moaned in a low tone. Emeeki squeaked, realizing her mistake, and tried to pull away, but it was too late, he had already put a paw on her wing. He bit her shoulder, breaking the skin, the rush of his intoxicants spreading into her blood through his saliva, his tongue lapping at her tiny shoulder, she was falling under, into the black tunnel and then suddenly, he was across the room, running for the sliding door, scratching the carpet as he left.
They spent a few days apart after that, trying to regain a sense of control. Emeeki was terrified that Brekki would leave her. He had been a choice partner, and they had accomplished so much together, for him to leave would be devastating, and yet she felt a hanging guilt for putting him in a terrible position. She did not know how to apologize, but as always, Brekki was there to help her. He came to her with his claws clipped, a sign of shame, and begged forgiveness, after which she pulled out fresh feathers, and presented them to him as a sign of her guilt. They were both awkward for season, but this passed and they moved on with their career.
Emeeki flapped her wings, feeling the air slide through her feathers, savoring the feeling of lift and fall, the glory of the burn in her wings. She should have made the time for this. The tips of her wings tingled. She was told that she wouldnâ€™t feel the effects of the little vial her family gave her, but she had never felt her wings tingle like that before. Emeeki saw the grove of trees, a traditional spot for her family, and descended gently there. Brekki was far behind her, he did not run as fast as he used to.
She could leave right now and he would never catch her. She could take flight from here, or run to a different, more shaded grove. She examined her options, and imagined what her ancestors would have done. She may have a few seasons left in her, and she would very much like to see her daughterâ€™s hatchlings. She pecked at her feathers, and dismissed those thoughts. She had been spending too long off world, and those alien ideas were starting to infect her. Her people were not obsessed to silly notions of infinite life; it was the seasons, to which all things were committed. Emeeki waited.
â€œYou always arrive first.â€ Brekki pawed at the ground. â€œI believe the sacred script calls for something specific at this point. I did memorize it for you, if you would like to follow it.â€
â€œI thought about the sacred script.â€ Chirped Emeeki. â€œBut weâ€™ve never followed any script in our lives, I donâ€™t see why we should start now.â€ She hoped that the poison she had taken would not be painful for Brekki. Of course, even if he did suffer, she wouldnâ€™t have to see it.
Brekki pawed the soft dirt. â€œAre you scared?â€
â€œNot anymore.â€ She hopped down from the tree. â€œNow that you are here.â€
â€œI was trained to do this while you were running away,â€
â€œAh, yes. Well, see that you keep up with me, Elder.â€ she teased; Emeeki was a full season younger than Brekki.
Brekki folded his front paws and touched his nose to the ground. â€œI want you to be inside me, before I surrender to the planet.â€ He was always the somber one.
Emeeki cocked her feathered head. â€œThatâ€™s from the sacred texts.â€
â€œSo it is.â€ Brekki stretched his paws and waited for her reply.
â€œCatch me Brekki. I am ready.â€ She opened her wings, and hopped between the trees. Brekki growled and followed. It was, like all life, very swift.
â€œâ€™Scuse me, is this the sunbound dock?â€
Harrison started and nearly dropped the bouquet he was holding. He hadnâ€™t heard the woman approach. â€œUhâ€¦ yeah, it should be.â€
â€œThanks. Is this seat taken?â€
He shook his head mutely in response. Vibrant. It was the first adjective that popped into his mind, and it stayed there as she sat down and pulled out a compact. Every movement was sure and determined, as if she knew precisely what action she planned to take and followed through every time. He watched in awe.
â€œAre you going to Prime?â€
The unexpected question reminded him of his manners, and Harrison quickly averted his eyes. Prime was the first colonized planet in this system, and by this point it was entirely city, filled with excitement and flashing lights. â€œAh, no. Not all the way.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a shame. Nothing else interesting along this flightpath.â€
Harrison was shocked at her casual attitude. He couldnâ€™t imagine saying such things to a stranger. â€œI, uhâ€¦ I guess not,â€ he agreed lamely. Serenaâ€”the intended recipient of the flowersâ€”lived on one of the residential planets in the system, zoned to keep it from growing too congested but with regulations that prohibited any sort of bad neighbors.
â€œCanâ€™t see the point of suburbs, personally.â€ The woman pulled out a red lipstick, applying it expertly, even while speaking. â€œIf I want a city, Iâ€™ll go to the city. If I want the country, Iâ€™ll go to one of the outer farmworlds instead. Trying to compromise, trying to have everythingâ€”it doesnâ€™t work. In the end you wind up with nothing at all. Not worth it, really.â€ The thick chemical smell of the lipstick pressed against his senses, and Harrison found it impossible not to notice how smoothly it went on as she rubbed her lips together, never taking her eyes off of the mirror.
What he said was: â€œThatâ€™s a very interesting point of view.â€ What he meant was: Serena never wears lipstick.
â€œI like to think that all of my points of view are interesting.â€ She capped the lipstick and rummaged in her purse for a moment, coming up with a light green compact that she offered to him. â€œHere you go.â€
Harrison blinked. â€œUhâ€¦ what?â€
â€œItâ€™s makeup. For your black eye.â€ She turned and looked at him for the first time. The whoosh of air signaled the approach of the next ship on the outbound dock, and she raised her voice to speak over it. â€œYour skinâ€™s about the same tone as mine, and this is the foundation I use to cover things like that. I figured you might appreciate it.â€ She inclined her chin, indicating the bedraggled roses. â€œAnd so will she.â€
Two ship gongs sounded, one from the transport pulling into the station and one from the trnsport that would arrive momentarily to whisk this woman away. Harrisonâ€™s cheeks flared red. He hadnâ€™t realized the bruise on his face was that obvious. â€œWhat do you mean, â€˜sheâ€™?â€ he asked, quickly trying to change the subject.
â€œThe woman you brought those flowers for.â€
The station was filled with noise and clatter, filtered through the air systems. On the opposite dock, passengers were unloading, but Harrison didnâ€™t pay attention. He picked up the roses. â€œActually, I brought them for you.â€
The road lay before me like the body of an overdosed hooker; all valleys and plains and nameless geography. My hand stroked the air from the window of the pickup as the wind smoked my cigarette and left me with ash. This could work, she’d said. We can make this work.
Behind us, the dome shrank and shimmered in the ozone-laced sunset. My overeducated freelance cab driver droned on about something forgettable, something like music he’d liked as a child. Claire was five miles behind me and counting. By this point, I knew that the feds would have noticed my absence. I pictured her in a white interrogation room, angles and pale skin and cocky syllables in the face of bodily decommission. This had been her idea, of course. Everything good was her idea.
â€œ-totally captures the alienation of the human experience,â€ the driver said. The radio sputtered silence and noise. He’d gone to Yale. This was a rebellion, I’m sure. The type of rebellion that only the rich can afford. â€œSo what’s your story?â€ he finally asked when his thoughts on Bob Dylan had become less than captivating.
â€œDon’t have one,â€ I said, which wasn’t entirely a lie. Most people don’t have stories worth telling. The problem is that they very rarely recognize it.
â€œYou’re outside of the limits,â€ he said.
â€œSo are you.â€
â€œYeah, but I’m getting paid for it.â€
Seven miles, now. I pictured her blond hair traced with blood, her body curled up on the interrogation room floor. She wouldn’t tell them anything, of course. I wished that she would tell them something.
This isn’t how it should have been, I thought to her. Next time, I won’t let it won’t come down to this.
The cab driver flicked up his control panel, and I turned around to watch the last spark of the silver bowl disappear into the horizon. We were far enough away for the rockets. We were beneath their radar. Decades beneath their radar.
â€œAll strapped in?â€ he asked as he entered a code into the ancient keypad. I nodded. I was more strapped in than I’d ever been before.