The girl was only on at night, like all of the girls on Bleeker. Her hair was a different color every couple of weeks, because it was so easy to change, but her eyes were always the same. They dressed her up in costumes depending on the season. In December, it was a red velvet miniskirt with white trim. A pilgrim hat in November. In July, small triangles of red, white and blue stretched over artificial breasts with perpetually hard nipples, inviting New Yorkers to celebrate their freedom. When there was no holiday on the horizon, they dressed her depending on their mood. She performed best with her golden wig and the Marilyn dress, standing on the subway grate with a glazed-over smile as she waited for the train to pass beneath her. Once, they dressed her as a mime, complete with white makeup smeared over rubbery skin. The makeup wore off after two jobs, and they couldn’t be bothered to keep touching it up. She’d done well, though. She was excellent at talking with her body.
When men spoke to her, she listened dumbly, nodding at carefully calculated intervals. Usually, they didn’t speak at all. Their business was done in a large loft, where curtains of sheets strung from twine sliced the space into private rooms. Hers was at the end of a white cotton hallway, and was two feet larger than the mattress of the futon. Although they washed the cover twice a week, it always seemed yellow beside the fluttering wall.
Once, after the job, the client asked her about her eyes. “Are they real?” he said with a slight Midwestern drawl. “They look like they’re glass or something.” Although she was capable of speech, the girl rarely answered questions. “I don’t know,” she said, her voice as dense as the well-packed mattress. When he left, he gave her a generous tip, though her service had been distant and uncomfortably rhythmic. “You should have those things looked at,” he suggested, and the hallway billowed as he walked away.
The talent was stored in glass vials, a class A controlled substance. The FDA regulated it heavily, fining doctors for excessive prescriptions and keeping the drug company on a short promotional leash. This was not to be available to the general populace; in fact, this was not to be known of by the general populace. Talent must be a rare thing. If too many people are talented, talent becomes commonplace and the prescription must be increased. It’s a slippery slope, said the ethics committee. They likened it to heroin, suggesting that an entire society could develop a tolerance for the substance.
There were slight variations in the chemical makeup of the talent serums. The qualities that make a good singer are not the qualities that make a good writer, and the enhancements reflected that. Some raised reasoning, allowing for quicker logic associations. Others weakened the neurological scripts that bound ideas together, easing the creation of symbolic connections for artists. Bodily coordination was enhanced, the capacity for language was enhanced. The serums were not offered to those without promise; they were offered to those who had already demonstrated natural aptitude.
The child’s fingers were light on the piano keys, filling the room with watery music. His rendition was criticized for its rhythm, the hesitancy with which the notes followed one another and merged, slightly off, like unsteady footsteps in soft sand that were licked away by the indifferent sea. This was never a piece about triumph, he told the reporter after the recital. The media criticized him for his unpopular interpretation, but the doctors rejected him for choosing the piece itself. A true artist would have created his own sonata, rather than recycling the ideas of a long-dead composer. It showed a lack of initiative, a lack of creativity. He was not a good candidate for talent.
Everything that can be accomplished has been accomplished already, the pharmaceutical company’s internal memo said. We’ve reached the limits of our natural skill, and true innovation is no longer feasible. In the first-year anniversary of the serum’s release, the company held an internal dinner. The CEO shook the hand of each member of the development team, smiling broadly, proudly. “Congratulations,” he said. “You may be the best artists of the century.”
It started at the SureSave on Fourth Avenue. Andy had been standing in line for nearly ten minutes, sweltering in the August heat that poured through the open doorway, before he dropped his basket onto the counter. Hair dye, promising 100% gray coverage. Baking-soda-infused toothpaste. A package of Freedom Day cards which should have been mailed two days ago. The clerk, a bored high-school kid whoâ€™d obviously never heard of the complexion pill, swiped his products and asked for proof of credit. Andy pressed his palm against the plastic panel, and the register shrieked.
The kid stared. Andy stared. The customers stared. The manager stared, then asked Andy to step aside. Andy did. The police arrived seven minutes later.
â€œWhereâ€™s your proof?â€ they asked him, and he offered his palm to their handheld reader. The reader shrieked. Andy was brought to the station. â€œI have plenty of credit!â€ Andy argued, but the officer merely lifted an eyebrow. He recited his work history to deaf ears.
The problem wasnâ€™t a lack of credit, as Andy had expected, but an excess of credit.
Herman Sylle was his name, and he was wanted for falsification of funds. Nine million dollars, to be exact. â€œIâ€™m not Herman Sylle,â€ Andy argued, but as the police pointed out, the records couldnâ€™t lie. His handprint matched up. His DNA matched up. The police database was completely secure, and there was no chance that anyone could have tampered with it.
â€œIf people canâ€™t tamper with the database, how do people falsify funds?â€ Andy asked. It was the wrong question, and it wasnâ€™t deserving of an answer. He was assigned a case number and put in prison to await his trial.
â€œDo you have anyone who can verify your identity?â€ his attorney asked him, but Andy was a freelance web designer, working from home for clients all over the world. It was rare for him to meet a client face to face, and when contacted, none of the clients could recall details about his appearance. Heâ€™d never married, and heâ€™d been the only child of a couple that went into retirement-stasis at the age of 60. The law forbid the subpoena of retired citizens. â€œConvenient,â€ his attorney said. He tried to log into his records to find the contact information of the few friends he kept, but his proof was locked out of the account. When the police tried, they found the files empty.
“How much money are we talking?” Jake asked.
“Fifty thousand dollars.”
Jake couldn’t see the doctor’s face, but he’d developed a mental image of the man over the past few days and was certain that he had grey hair, a white jacket, a mustache, and an utterly blank expression. His voice carried as much energy as a hypoderm of sedative, and he made a shuffling sound when he walked.
“And what’s the interest rate?”
“Our reports say that your credit isn’t sufficient,” the doctor said.
“But I earn twice that every year!”
“As a graphic designer.”
Jake was silent.
“Your credit line is dependent on your projected income,” he continued. “Without your eyesight, you won’t be-”
“I’ll have my eyesight back, if I get these implants.”
“Unfortunately, that’s a technicality.”
Jake inhaled slowly, smelling the still air of of the room. He’d only been blind for nine days, but he already felt that his other senses had heightened. Beneath its antiseptic tartness the hospital concealed thousands of odors: chemical, human, and several that could have been either. Right then, the room smelled like body odor, bleach, and metal.
“There’s an alternative, though,” the doctor continued. “Are you familiar with bio-ads?”
Jake shook his head.
“Jenson Pharmaceuticals has been working on it for years, and they’re in the final stages of testing. The display would take up less than an eighth of your field of vision.”
“I don’t have a field of vision,” Jake said.
“You will. The display is embedded in a top-tier implant, which they pay for in full. All you’re responsible for is the aftercare.”
“They’ll just give me fifty thousand dollars worth of hardware?”
“In exchange for a captive audience.”
For the first time since the accident, Jake grinned. “And all I have to do is watch their ads?”
“That’s it,” said the doctor. “About forty years of them.”
Doctor Bell crouched behind the bulkhead as a burst of plasma fired past his head. His friend, Basil Casa (the renowned “consulting detective” for the Galactic Yard), scrambled out of Engineering and took cover next to him. “Well, this is a fine predicament, Mr. Casa,” Dr. Bell said despondently. Using the fingers on his right hand, Bell began to tick off several irrefutable facts. “The reactors will lose antimatter containment in five minutes. We are millions of miles from Earth. There are three of us left on this ship, and there are only two escape pods. And to top it all off, our greatest adversary, Professor R.T. Mori, is the only one with a weapon. And, tell me Mr. Casa, why in the name of Sol didn’t you take one of the escape pods when you were in Engineering? There’s no sense both of us dying at his hands of this maniac.”
“Poppycock, old man. I wouldn’t think of leaving you behind. Besides, who else would chronicle our little adventures in the Subspace Times? But, fear not. You know my methods. All will be well.” Casa cupped his hands on either side of his mouth and yelled, “Hallo. Professor, I’d like to discuss the terms of your surrender.”
Three quick bursts of plasma ricocheted off the bulkhead. A few seconds later, Professor Mori stood up and slowly walked toward Engineering, keeping his plasma gun aimed toward Bell and Casa. “I can’t say I envy your bargaining position, Mr. Casa. Nevertheless, I am inclined to turn down your generous offer. Surely you see that an intellect as great as mine will never tolerate incarceration. However, I will make you a counter proposal. I consider your lesser mind the second greatest in the universe, and would hate to see it vaporized. Therefore, I will leave you the second escape pod. You can choose to save your friend, or to avenge his death by saving yourself in an effort to ‘bring me to justice.’ Personally, I hope you chose the latter, for I would miss our little cat and mouse games. Cheerio, gentlemen.” With that, Professor Mori ducked into Engineering. Bell and Casa raced after him, but they arrived only in time to see the escape hatch slam shut, and hear the whoosh of decompression as the hatch jettisoned into space.
Dishearten, Dr. Bell turned toward Casa. “I absolutely refuse to take the last pod. You are the only one who can catch Mori. You have to save yourself.” Dr. Bell had never seen such a mischievous grin on the face of his old friend. He knew something was afoot. He tried another tack. “At the very least, we should draw straws.” Bell would fix it so the Casa got the long one.
Casa broke into a fit of laughter, put his arm around Bell’s shoulders, and led him toward the far wall. “Thank you for your kind offer, Dr. Bell, but it is not necessary. We will take these two perfectly functional escape pods over here.” He motioned toward a set of unopened escape hatches.
Flabbergasted, Dr. Bell stuttered a response. “B-b-but, I don’t understand. I saw Mori enter a pod. I heard it leave the ship. Were there three pods all along?”
“No, only these two,” Casa replied nonchalantly.
“It was simplicity itself, Dr. Bell. When I was in Engineering earlier, I switched the identification signs. It appears that the ‘Universe’s smartest human’ inadvertently ejected himself out the antimatter disposal chute. Now, let’s hurry along. We must make good our escape before the ship explodes.”