“Getcher cells,” says Szo to the stream of tourists. “New world, need a cell, get ‘em here.”
“Bought one on the ship.”
Szo opens his jacket, reveals a wall of buttons, cornrowed phones. “Come in handy if you get in trouble, mister.”
Some local shoves him; fast pecker his age in shiny shoes. “Why doncha leave with the other tourists, foreigner.”
Szo can’t afford trouble so he ducks his head, smiling. When the local goes by Szo nabs his cashflap. Swore to Mack that he wouldn’t, maybe, but that was before six months of taunts. Before it was driven home that honest hawking is a recipe for no food, no cash.
No ticket off.
Hand on his sleeve and he whirls, cell that ain’t a cell slicking out a blade, ready to take the thug if he has to. But it ain’t no regular thug, it’s double-job Jonny and that’s bad because the only time Jonny comes to see him nowadays is for Hawk.
“Whazzup?” Szo says, all cool. His hand retracts to his pocket. A likely mark walks by but he can’t go, not with Jonny draped and breathing hot on his collar.
“I’ve got apples in the stockyard,” says Jonny. “Fresh.”
Apples is code for comabodies, that one-half of one percent of off-world tourists that get the infection. They disappear, if Hawk is fast and the crematory’s slow. Stockyard is the freight shipyard, that’s easy. But he’s blocked out what fresh is.
“Got a good gig now,” Szo mumbles.
Jonny flicks a cashflap out and it’s Szo’s. Jonny always was better at lifting than Szo, even back when they were scrawny jerky kids, back before Jonny turned tricks and Szo was just learning to turn minds. “Eighteen bucks offa tourists?” Jonny says. “You know Hawk’ll give you two thou for an hour at the stockyard.”
“Cells,” says Szo to a fat tourist. “Getcher cells.”
Jonny slams his hand into Szo’s shoulder and there’s no knife there but the force of what Jonny holds on Szo. “This ain’t a negotiation, boyo,” says Jonny. “They’re fresh and Hawk’s in a lather, he needs what you do. You’re the only survivor in the city right now. Stockyard. 3:30.”
Then Jonny is gone and Szo is sick to his knees because he’s just remembered that fresh means awake and screaming.
“The fuck you been?” says Hawk.
It’s 3:31, after Szo spent the last hour looking for them. In the moonlight the shipyard is a mountainous dark, the whir of generators vibrating in his ears. It might cover the sound of fresh apples. He tries not to listen.
“Listen, boyo. Turn them for us fast, just like the old days. Jonny says you need the cash.”
The problem is Szo’s jonesing now. The touch of his mind into the comabodies is something he’s tried like hell to forget, but they press into his grey folds like a million firsts with a million new girls, touching his mind with vibrations hot and sweet and fleeting.
He’s been clean nearly half a year. So long, too long. The comabodies always come in waves, the wave of tourist season, the wave of Hawk finding new suppliers. There are five propped sitting against a hangar wall, leaning on each other.
They are screaming. The worst kind. Hawk’s got dirty rags in their mouths, but their cheeks are taut around it. At least someone’s closed their eyes, probably Jonny.
“What do you want them for?”
“Never mind that.”
Szo shoves hands in pockets. Hawk goes cagey when it’s a new venture, never mind that he knows the drill, never mind that he knows he’s got Szo over a barrel. “You know fuckall, Hawk. Are they for the waste, the minefield, what? I can’t code them right if I don’t know what you want them to do.”
“Fine,” Hawk says. “I need swimmers. I need them to seek out pearls in the sulfur pits where the heat blisters your arms and the gasses belly out your lungs. Rose-colored pearls, each coiled like the belly button of a giant.”
Jonny rolls his eyes at Hawk’s purple words and the boys grin. For a minute it ain’t tight-pants Jonny and weary Szo, for a moment they’re two kids playing pickpocket for Hawk and life is sometimes okay. At least they’re alive, you know?
That’s what Szo always thinks when he first touches the comabodies. At least I’m alive. He closes his eyes, savoring the last moment before he gives in. Jonny and Hawk walk away, fade away, and Szo touches the first one on the head and reaches.
Szo doesn’t think of much while turning; he can’t. But in that first moment he thinks of palm trees.
Szo barely remembers his home planet. He and his mom came here when he was four. Despite what she claimed, it wasn’t a vacation to the fabled water parks half-a-day south of here, the hot springs and waterfalls that kept tourists coming back. His mom was fleeing her old life. That’s something he only pieced together a decade later, he and Jonny flopped on Hawk’s couch, high on greensmack.
He doesn’t know which planet it was, or what the whole of it was like. All he remembers is a swatch of green grass with a palm tree. Occasionally other things float back, words or faces or sayings. The image of the palm tree is what he calls home, though for all he knows it wasn’t even on his planet. Maybe it was something he saw on the ship over. Maybe it was a cardboard palm tree, a carpet of plastic grass and maybe he sat there and waited for his mom to come out of the ship’s bar.
He tries all these images on till the palm trees disintegrate in swimming and pearls and pure white nothing, and he still doesn’t know.
Last comabody turned and now the five are all turned, ready to dive for pearls for Hawk. Szo’s full of buzzing aftermath, his mind panting like he’s jizzed all over them. Hawk drops a wad of cash that thunks his shoulder. Sure he grabs it, but it’s nothing compared to the fierce relief that floods his brain.
He limps down the long road from the shipyard, blood dripping from a bitten tongue. He thinks he’ll avoid the street for a few days, lie low, score some greensmack, anything to take the edge offa wanting to do more apples. Maybe two thou is enough to get him on a ship himself, get him off the planet. If everything was different, Szo could stay clean.
It’s cold out here in the early morning. The greensmack is quick to come by. The pee stink outside his squats hardly bugs, not while he’s all strung on comabodies. If he had another fifty in the alley he’d do them all, but instead he rolls up the greensmack under his tongue and flops on the mattress.
The greensmack makes him sad; it always does. It ain’t most punks’ drug of choice, but it’s Szo’s. This time on the greensmack he remembers how he and his mom got infected. The first he knew something was wrong was his mother asleep standing up, pouring whiskey over a mug and onto her hand. She woke up once, and then she fell into a coma. He remembers toddling around the hotel room, before he fell asleep too. His dreams were beautiful, dreams of something orgasmic that was a new sensation at four. Gorgeousness lush and happy, and when he woke, he was sweaty and starving and his mother was flopped on the hotel bed.
Szo can’t forgive himself for toddling out to find food, for inadvertently reporting her. Because white blurs of grownups and coats took her away. He traded her for a ham sandwich, that’s how he feels, and here and now on the greensmack he cries snot and spits more blood.
That’s when the poli comes to his crappy squats, and hauls Szo himself away, still crying like a four-year-old.
They don’t even give him a ham sandwich.
At the brick station, Mack stretches and sighs. “Give us the details, Szo. You might as well.”
“You already know what’s up, why do you want me?” Szo hunches around his knees. There’s bits of glass on his pant leg from the shipyard tarmac. He flicks them onto Mack’s desk, which Mack ignores.
“We know it’s Hawk, we know this supplier. We know it’s five or six bodies. We don’t know where they’re going and jesus Szo, we’d like to track them down. Don’t you think your mother would’ve liked that?”
“Keep talking about her and I won’t tell you anything.” Truth is, he hates to disappoint Mack. Mack picked him up the first time he was caught. Eight years old and he’d already turned fifty-three bodies for Hawk. Fifty-three because he remembers each one. Mack cleaned him up and got him in a foster home, a decent one where they didn’t hit you, but when Hawk came to him with more apples, Szo went straight back.
“I know you’ve been clean half a year, Szo,” says Mack. “I was rooting for you. What’s Hawk got on ya that you can’t resist?”
“Just the money,” Szo lies. “I need to eat, don’t I?”
“Join up with us,” Mack says. “Help us hunt down the guys like Hawk, rescue other tourist kids who survived and got caught up in this. Don’t you wish you’d never known what it was like to touch their minds?”
Of course he does, but so what? “If I worked for you, they wouldn’t tell me what they were up to, duh,” he says.
Mack rises and cracks his back. Looks out the window at a grungy building a meter away. It’s painted red brick like so much of this port city, like a fleeting bright color will slick over decay. “There’s a rumor,” Mack says, “that a kid like you—except better than you, a fighter—has managed to undo the damage.”
Szo’s heart pounds so hard he thinks he can’t hear Mack. “A-all?”
“All. Wakes them up.” Mack’s voice does that measured thing. “She says it hurts a bit, but the rush comes later. Like a stalling afore the pleasure.” He twirls a pen. “Too bad she’s in East Enland—they ain’t letting her past their borders for cash nor love. It’d have to be the guy we know here trying it.” His eyes catch Szo’s.
“To heal them . . . “
“There’d be cash for each one you turn. From the general missing persons stockpile.”
Awake. Alive. Okay.
Szo can’t breathe, can’t think. Because the hold that Hawk’s got on him is his mom, coma-cold and alone and digging waste out in the desert.
He hadn’t known that Hawk had his mother for a long time. Hawk had been using another kid back in those days. A girl, stranded here. Her parents had been cremated quick; Hawk hadn’t gotten them. The girl lasted a few years. Then she tried to wean herself from comabodies with street drugs and lost. That’s when Jonny found Szo, his hair and skin a dead alien giveaway.
Getting infected makes your brain rewriteable. Surviving makes you able to rewrite. Not everyone gets it; most natives are immune and even many tourists are. One-half of one percent is a low enough number that tourists flock in by the thousands, through the major port city and down south to the waters. The adults that get it are in a coma within 24 hours.
It’s only kids who sometimes survive.
By the time Szo saw his mother, he’d turned nineteen minds for Hawk. He remembers the first one particularly, like you remember a first girl or first trick. But he remembers all the others, too. “Don’t know why you would,” says Jonny. “I don’t remember all the men.” But Szo does, and he clings to each one, proof that somehow he is not like Jonny, not like Hawk, not like himself. This is all temporary and so it’s changeable, rewriteable.
Szo doesn’t know if he recognized his mother the moment he saw her. He wants to say yes, but the truth is there was this moment when he saw this smelly, skin-rashed woman and a moment when he saw his mother, and the two seem to be laid on top of each other, vibrating.
Five whole days on the streetcorner, and Szo’s only made twelve bucks and two fistfights before Jonny comes back.
“Apples at the cellar,” says Jonny.
“In the cellar,” says Szo.
“Fancy words, Szo,” mocks Jonny.
“A cellar is a basement, so if cellar’s your code you should say in, not at.” He’s too eager, and strange words, strange memories, spill forth as he tries to hide his jittery hands. “Cells, getcher cells,” he says, turning, aping his former self.
Jonny slugs his ribs, bruising him via the phones in his jacket. “We don’t talk about codes,” he says, and his breath is sweet with cherrymint. “Midnight.” He’s gone, whistling through the crowd and Szo pats Mack’s wire in his sleeve, pats his ribs. When neither is broken he says “Getcher cells” until Jonny is vanished.
Cherrymint’s nice, it floods your mind with sweet and your breath with sugar. But it ain’t touching the hot rush of comabodies. It’s the drug of choice for people like Jonny, who spend their nights getting it up.
That’s a fucked-up job, Szo thinks. Maybe his life sucks sometimes, but he ain’t Jonny. Szo’s had sex exactly twice, and he doesn’t seem to be cut out for it. If he could meet that girl from East Enland he’d ask her what she thinks. Cause for him this thing that everyone wants ain’t so great, it’s a millionth of what it is to be hot inside the comabodies. It’s pale and localized and hardly worth the anxiety. Maybe that girl would know what he means. Maybe the two of them could figure it out together, could trick out their own substitution for the drug they can’t resist.
For now it’s just one more thing that makes him feel alien and alone on this planet, as much as the grey tint of his skin, the silky texture of hair. He wants a jolt no one else can do or understand, and he doesn’t want a joy that fills everyone else.
It touches on his own work, sure. There ain’t a big trade in comapussy but there’s some, like there is for anything. Szo saw one alone once, a young girl with hair like a cottonball and lipstick smearing off. She was sat down at the corner by some local who tore off in a hurry. She was probably tracked by the pimp; he probably had a detector set to send someone out for her. Too witless to run, and her brains were coded by Szo or someone like Szo.
Szo crept along the alley. She was crooning. Not rocking, not coiled. Limp against the building, singing a song about a sparrow.
He didn’t recognize her face. But, checking, slipped his mind in and then was sure he didn’t know her, hadn’t done her. He was doing her now though, her brain hot against his, slipping through the vibrating folds. She rocked her head back, still singing, staring at the moons.
Szo recoiled then. There was an instant of pause and then he rewrote her. Rewrote her to walk down to the shipyard and stand under a shuttle.
Now, thinking back, he thinks—could I have saved her? Woke her up? No matter how much life sucks sometimes, Szo likes it better than the reverse. He’d a granted that to the woman, too, only back then everyone knew comabodies were dead in all but their meat.
At midnight, Szo pats his wire and drops into the cellar. It really is underground—Hawk packs in and out every time he uses it, slipping in and out by dawn. The wire is for Hawk’s sake. Hawk knows he’s been with Mack a lot, and Szo has never been good at hiding jitters. It’s why Jonny is a better pickpocket than he is, and a better trick.
Hawk pulls the wire out of Szo’s jacket with a snap, laughs at Szo’s expression, and tosses it on the ground. “I’d be mad but you’re too lame,” he says, and grinds it flat. “Come on, there’s apples. Code them for waste.”
Szo reaches in and when he touches the first there’s all that mad rush of vibrating brain. All that buzzing that usually makes it so easy to code the apple to do what Hawk wants. But now, following Mack’s instructions he’s going to take out the buzzing.
It takes fumbling. It isn’t natural; it’s like swimming upstream. Until it clicks, and then every place he feels the buzz that lets him hook in, he reverses it, until the apple drains. The infection he’s cutting out, it seems to fill him. It’s a horrid wrong and he twitches with it, trying to dispel the notion. At last the hook is less and less and Szo has next to nothing to hook into, then nothing and he’s locked outside. The apple’s eyelids flutter and Szo quick leans down and whispers “Play dead.”
The man seems to obey, and Szo quick tries the same reversal on the second, the third, slogging through as his brain tells him it’s stuffed with the comabodies’ infection. It does hurt, he does want release, but he keeps going. Holding back seems a deserved punishment, Szo almost feels holy with it, which is another word from the past. But before Szo can start the fourth, number two spasms.
“I remember, I remember, I know—” he screams, and Hawk and Jonny come running. Jonny’s belt’s undone, Szo realizes later. But right now it’s all the stupid fat number two, and number three’s too twitchy to play dead next to that. Number two runs on shaky legs, yelling for the poli and his wife and Hawk shoots him. Number one stays stiff, but number three bolts and is shot.
“What the hell did you do to them?”
“I dunno, I dunno,” whimpers Szo, like he’s four again and piss-scared.
Hawk’s eyeing Szo, but what distracts him is Jonny says “I know he did it, he did it somehow.”
“And how the hell would he do that, huh?” says Hawk and he smacks Jonny upside the head. “Just cause you wish you could do his job instead of your little pervy one. It must be a mutation. You”—and he points into Szo’s face—”figure out how to adapt to this, or you’re dead.”
He stalks off, and Jonny with a crumpled face hurries after.
Number one’s eyes go to him. Szo doesn’t know if it’s like looking at someone he killed or birthed, but either way he can’t stand the intimate touch of the man’s eyes. “Back door’s past the stairs,” he says, and then he hurries out before he can be any more responsible, for anyone.
At the red brick station Szo says: “Two were shot, but. I saved one. It worked,” and Mack believes him and hands him cash, just like that. Mack doesn’t ask the awkward questions, like what the man’s eyes were like or how Szo feels now, stuffed taut and bursting with a mind full of infection. Szo squirrels the cash away with the rest of Hawk’s money.
“Ready to try it again? I’ve got a lead on four prostitutes we haven’t rounded up yet.”
“Any time,” says Szo, and the thought is fine. If this keeps working, maybe he doesn’t have to flee the planet like he longs to. Maybe he could play both sides and come out smelling clean. The thought’s a relief, here with his mind still thick with the swarming of the comabodies’ infection. There must be some way to let that go, but it hasn’t drained yet. But he’ll figure that out, he’s sure, here with bright hope flickering.
“No time like the present,” says Mack, and he shoves his chair back. “Unless you know somewhere else we should go.”
Hope floods a crowded brain. “Hawk’s taking one to the desert,” says Szo.
After Szo found his mom, he started sneaking back to be with her. Not right after a comabodies rush, but two, three days later, when the high had worn off. Then he watched his mother trundle over buried nuclear waste, and didn’t know what to feel.
He hated the idea but he tried it anyway: if he can rewrite comabodies, why not rewrite his mom? And so he laid his brain alongside hers though the vibrations were awesome and disgusting. He overlaid her with ideas of mother and son and hugs and palm trees. And when he backed out she bent down and gave his exhausted body a hug. Then trundled back into the waste, scanning with her monitors and smiling on one side of her face. Most miserable thing ever, sent him running straight for Jonny’s couch and the greensmack.
But today, he doesn’t have to run. Szo says desert and Mack knows right where to go. Waste cleanup is one of the uses for comabodies that the poli don’t do anything about; officially it doesn’t happen. Few minutes out here isn’t going to hurt anyone, and Mack and Szo thread through the few lone figures, past the red-painted bunkhouse, until Szo says “That one.”
“Your mother?” says Mack, and Szo, stunned, nods.
Mack knows, then. Szo had thought he might, but that Mack hasn’t done anything with this knowledge opens up a black wedge between them.
Szo tumbles out of the car, backs away from Mack and towards his mom.
“Don’t do it,” says Mack. “It’s been thirteen years, mate. She’s gone.”
“How do you know?” says Szo.
“Rumor. That girl like you in East Enland, she couldn’t wake ‘em up right beyond three years. Their minds were too dead.”
“I don’t believe you.” Maybe this girl is a fantasy, he thinks, a made-up ideal for Mack to prod Szo one way or another.
“I’ve got the file with her notes. Let me grab it,” says Mack, and Szo watches his mother pace the site. She’s in that same brown shift and her arms and hands are cracked and red and white. Her bare legs are brown and green. It’s like any other day out here, except this day has a different ending.
But there’s a whistle behind him, Jonny’s. From the bunkhouse.
Szo idles that way, on guard. “What are you doing here?”
“You’re in trouble, boyo,” says Jonny. “I told Hawk he should punish you but he says you’re worth even more to him if you just come back. Or something.” He studies Szo and sighs, all the air whooshing from his thin frame. “Is it true you can wake ‘em up now?”
Szo nods, and Jonny kind of pats his shoulder, doesn’t slug him or arm burn him.
Then Hawk’s behind Jonny and he says, “Get your poli back here and I’ll kneecap him.” He’s got a rusting iron bar that he draws up. “We’ll take you back, don’t worry.” There are two comabodies wandering around the bunkhouse, both in those brown shifts. One is so diseased-looking Szo assumes he’s too far gone to wander around with a monitor, even for an apple. Hawk practice swings. “Is he coming?”
“You’re small-time, aren’t you?” Szo says. He hadn’t realized it, growing up in it, but the constantly shifting locations, the raising young boys like Jonny . . .
Hawk swings at him, but he jumps back.
“You don’t own me,” says Szo. “Not like Jonny. You never did.”
Hawk swings again, slashing wildly at Szo, but Mack’s there behind him. He tasers Hawk and throws the handcuffs on him.
Jonny backs away. “I ain’t done nothin, nothin.”
Mack breathes. “Honest, Szo, I wouldn’t try waking your mother.” She’s there behind them, trying to hug Jonny.
“You knew she was here.”
“What could I do about it?”
But that floods Szo’s mind with the image of the young comabody whore with hair like a dandelion. He grabs his mother’s blotchy wrist, holds it tight, tighter, and leans in. Then he’s gone, in this strange new method of pulling things out and into himself. Pulling in the rotted bits, pulling in the mechanical bits, taking them into his own self. It hurts, yes, but when he’s done there’s that holiness in it too, and he sags onto the ground, painful in every bone, on edge.
His mother doesn’t move.
“I’m sorry, Szo,” said Mack, but then her eyes open.
Her eyes are lopsided and she looks at him, her rat’s nest of hair falling over and like a lightning burst she croaks, “Boy.” Then she collapses, falling limb by limb to the whitened ground. Her eyes whiten, and her pitted hands search aimlessly for her monitor. Slower they search, and slower. Her nose presses into dirt.
Szo can’t look at Mack, knows the pity on Mack’s face. “I’m sure it’ll get better,” Mack says, and this is the first time Mack’s lied directly to him. Mack knows it too, and he flinches, burly shoulders twitching.
“Loser,” rasps Hawk. His shoulder twitches from the tase. “Shoulda woke her up when you were four. Course then you wouldn’t a got to fuck them all, which I let you do. Wouldn’t a got to spend your life making cash for screwing them over . . . “
Szo hurls himself at Hawk, knocking the manacled man backwards, and before Mack can pull him off Szo punches out at Hawk, not with his fists but his infected mind. It sears out, taut and bursting, it’s all been waiting to be released and all four infections he’s scored pour into Hawk and knock him cold. Cold, but screaming; Hawk’s fresh all right, unawake and crying on the ground.
They are all stunned, all but Szo’s silent-still mother.
Szo’s shocked and twitching and he runs, lopsided, stumbling with the spent energy. Full of strange highs and horrible thoughts, he takes Hawk’s car through the desert and back to the city. Mack doesn’t come after him, nor Jonny, not in the next twelve hours, which is what it takes to come down from the high and the shock and count his cash from comabodies.
He can get to palm trees, he thinks. If he knew where they was and if he should go.
Cause there’s East Enland too, and maybe it seems to him that a tourist is a guy who never interacts with his own life. Never slips into the deep.
Szo runs hard to the port, where he breathes hard and fast. He watches the heat waves of the shuttles, ships in flight.