I wanted to write a sequel to 035 - Hold My Hand but this wasn't quite what I had in mind. It's there, though, and done now.
I'll admit that this is a little loose. There's too many places, it's too bitty, I'm not really sure why Shania came back to see John and it ends with someone's nipple being forcibly embedded in a person's back. But hey, I wrote it and it's staying that way. I'm feeling tired and cold and slightly feeble, and I don't want to go back and rewrite it.
037 – Eyes
It was later, much later, when I reeled out of Denny’s. Everyone else had gone home much earlier; Shania had taken James back to the lab to check out a tiny vibration in his little toe, or something equally asinine. I’d watched them go, hand in hand, then picked up another beer. It wasn’t as if I’d be in the mood to take Shania to bed, or even capable of it. In fact, it was going to be a close thing as to whether I could get home safely or not.
The journey passed in a series of impressions; rock walls badly faced with cheap Terran steel, then the bright neon of a tattoo parlour. The long featureless corridors of the residential sector, known affectionately as Eggbox City, then somehow the soft bed.
I didn’t feel at all rested when the alarm woke me. My back ached, the sides of my knees were tender and I began to notice the small grazes on my fingers from where I’d done… something. My tongue appeared to be carpeted in finest Axminster.
“Lights,” I managed on the second attempt. The room responded by bringing the lights up to full brightness and I squinted against the sudden glare.
Like all of them, the room was small and white, with a fine layer of Martian dust covering everything. The little washette was through a small arch, and it was there that I finally managed to feel human again. The showers were about the only perk of living in Eggbox City; the sheer number of homes meant that the water pressure had to be ridiculously high, meaning glorious power showers.
As I combed my hair, a soft chime rang through the room. Doorbell.
“It’s Shania. Are you ok?”
I licked my lips and glanced quickly around the room. It was tidyish, so I put the comb down and walked to the door.
“Come on in,” I said, touching the doorstud.
She was dressed the same as the night before, looking incredibly tired. Her hair wasn’t tied up and she was wearing the same grey overall.
“Did you… did you stay up all night?”
“Yeah,” she said, sounding a bit guilty. “I went to the lab with James.” I raised an eyebrow. “Look, I came to apologise,” she continued, “I shouldn’t have gone off with him. But we got back to the lab, and one thing lead to another, and-“
“You slept with James?” I said. The last few grey clouds of my hangover evaporated in red hot fury. How could he do this? And Shania, how could she, with him? I realised she was staring at me in shock.
“Sex? No, John, how could he- No. We just stripped him down and sorted out a few mechanical glitches he’s developed.”
“You… you stripped him?”
Shania narrowed her eyes and bit her lip. “I think we need to have this conversation another time, when you’ve calmed down. And I’ve got things to do back at the lab.” She suddenly yawned, and leaned over the threshold to kiss me gently on the cheek. “Goodbye, John,” she said, then turned and left.
I watched her go. “Bye,” I said lamely, too quiet for her to hear.
James wasn’t in the staffroom that morning. He hadn’t signed in, when I checked with Marn, and he wasn’t answering his vidphone. I checked the chit; it was a heavy-duty assignment, two- or three-person job, changing the fanblades on Vent 37a, and there was no way I could go without him.
Marn looked at me over the tops of her glasses.
“You’re gonna haveta go get him, John,” she drawled. “Can’t pay ya ‘til you start, though.”
“Can’t you send anyone else with me?” I asked, thinking about Shania bending over James’s ‘stripped’ body, investigating his mechanical glitches firsthand.
“Nope. He’s certified for the job. Android’s worth two men, y’know.”
I pressed my lips together thinly in what I hoped was an unimpressed expression. “Looks like only the humans turn up on time though, Marn.”
She shrugged and I gave up. Dumping my tools back in their locker, I walked briskly back towards Eggbox City.
He wasn’t answering the doorchime either, and my irritation started to turn to concern.
“James. You in there?”
No response. The door next to his opened and the shortest miner I’d ever seen waddled out. It was a cliché, but suddenly I felt the urge to laugh or call him Grumpy or something. I swallowed the urge and called out again.
“James, man, you in there?”
“He didn’t come home last night,” the dwarf said. Damnit, even his voice matched the idea in my head, sort of squashed and grainy. “He not turn up for work this morning?”
“No,” I said, then cleared my throat. “No, but thanks for the heads-up. I’ll check elsewhere.”
“He’s gone a bit weird, you ask me,” the dwarf said, the trundled off down the corridor.
I thought back to what Shania had said; they’d gone to the lab. A mere five minute walk away, the S-Corp Laboratory (Making Science Your Friend!) was a squat white building with absolutely no windows at all. There was no official sign, but a pair of drunk miners had gone on a bender one night and spraypainted a Labrador stencil onto the doors, and no-one had ever bothered to remove it. That had been a good night.
The receptionist there could have been Marn’s clone. The way the corporation played with human life, she might have been.
“Y’here to see Shania? She’s in Lab 5. Sign in here,” she said, thrusting a tattered book towards me. I grabbed the pen and scrawled my name, then moved off down the deserted corridor. As I approached the door, though, Shania came out.
“John. How pleasant to see you,” she said, her face serious.
“Is James here?”
“James? Erm, well,” she said, nervously playing with the buttons on her overall. I noticed they were done up crookedly, as if she’d had to do them quickly.
“Is he in there?”
“No, John, you can’t-“ she began, but it was too late. I pushed through the door.
The walls were covered in computers banks, small screens and glowing telltales showering every surface in a cool glow. There were several spotlights on angled arms, all focusing on the table in the middle of the room, and laid out on the table was a body.
It was James. He was naked; several long hooked wires pulled parts of his skin away from the machinery underneath, and I could see into the intricate circuitry of his chest cavity. There were a million tiny lights flickering in epilepsy-inducing patterns, and I was glad of the distraction. Seeing a friend, even a fellow man, flayed open like this was sickening.
I found my eyes creeping down his body; his body hair was perfect in detail, but the penis and testicles seemed to be a single solid lump. One of his legs was whole, the other was missing from the knee downwards and the stump ended in a small claw wrapped round with wires.
“Who’s there?” his voice came, slow and slurred, burring into the air. I looked into his eyes, and finally found the limits of what I could take in. I turned away.
“It’s John, isn’t it,” he said, burring tones echoing slightly. “I think… something’s gone wrong, John. Shania, she said…”
“I said I’d fix you, James, and I will,” Shania said, coming to my side. “It’s just a little more complex than I thought it would be.”
“Shania, where are his eyes?” I hissed. I risked another look at his face, so smooth and emotionless but with gaping cavities where his eyes should be.
“Oh, they’re right here,” Shania said, dipping her hand into her labcoat pocket and pulling out two small spheres of glass. “Here, check this out; they’ve got tiny visua-focal lenses which connect directly to the opticamera-“
“Shania, what have you done?” I asked.
“Well, like I said earlier, one thing lead to another,” she said, slipping the eyes away again and walking round to the other side of James. “I only usually work on toes, but the chance to put some of my other designs into use? Besides, James isn’t really feeling any of this; I disconnected his pain centres a long time ago. He’s only an android, anyway.”
All I could see was the man on the table in front of me, pinned down like a butterfly in some collection. He wasn’t moving anything but his lips, which seemed to be trying to form words all the time without success. Then I looked at Shania. Her eyes seemed alight with excitement and calculating desire, like a child with a new toy. Even now she was mentally phasing me out, finding new things to poke and prod as she dissected my friend.
“Can you put him back together?”
“Huh?” she said, then looked back up at me. “Probably. I mean, I’ve got a lot still to do.”
“Do it now. Put him back together.”
“John, I can’t just-“
I leaned over James’s body. “Do it now.”
She held my gaze for a moment, then let her head drop. “Fine,” she muttered, and came back around the table. A large red button was set into the end of the table, and she pressed it reluctantly, then stood back. I took a step back as well.
Four articulated arms whirred out from under the table and began to undo the damage Shania had done. The skin was carefully moved back over the chest cavity, then sealed with a laser; the leg, which had been leaning against the edge of the table, was reattached and sealed; finally, Shania placed the eyes down on the table and the delicate pincers lined them up for reinsertion. I looked away as they were slotted into place.
When I looked back, James was sitting up on the table, rubbing his head as if nothing had happened.
“There,” Shania said. She sounded pissed off. “Happy?”
“James, are you ok?” I said, ignoring her glowering expression.
“Yeah,” he said, his voice back to normal. “I’m fine, I guess.” His hand suddenly froze halfway through the motion of smoothing his hair down, and then his right arm dropped off at the elbow.
Shania let out a little scream, and my heart suddenly seemed to be two sizes too big. James’s arm spasmed for a moment on the clean white floor, then rolled under the table and lay still.
“James?” I said, but as soon as I looked into his eyes I knew there was nothing of James in there right now. They had gone completely black, not just dilated pupils but orbs of obsidian.
The laser cutter that lived in his left wrist suddenly fired, melting his other hand into a pink liquid that hissed as it came into contact with the floor. The laser continued firing, burning a hole the size of a penny into the plastisteel and on into the rock below. Shania ran to one of the control consoles and began pressing buttons.
“Shania, what the hell is going on?” I yelled over the hissing sound of burning rock. I stared at the green liquid that suddenly seemed to congeal out of James’s sweat glands, and smelt the alluring scent of shampoo.
“Something’s gone wrong, I don’t know what!”
“I can see that,” I called back, then slowly circled round to the back of him. Several of his vertebrae seemed to have exploded out of his back and were waving around like tentacles, evidently looking for something. A small access hatch on the back of his head exploded off and I ducked as the scrap of hair-covered skin whizzed into the corner. Several other small eruptions rocked the android body that used to be James.
“We have to get out,” I shouted, then began to back towards the door. Shania wasn’t answering; she was bent over the console with hunched shoulders.
“Shania!” I called, then, over the gathering smoke in the chamber, I realised that she couldn’t respond. Not now, not ever; one of James’s nipples was embedded in her back, attached to a long needle. She slumped down, finally, crumpled in a heap.
I stared around the room and my nerve finally broke. I bolted into the corridor and ran for it.