by Nan Craig
This bloke was as ordinary as you’d get. His own patches seemed good – seamless, no tics or sags, which gave me a bit of confidence. I wondered if he’d even done some of them himself. His surgery – because it turned out he was properly licensed for teeth and eyes – was as neat and rundown as he was. Burn marks in the carpet. The walls and chairs were grimy with fingerprints. The only clean thing in there was his kit, and for that at least I breathed relief. It was a residential house in Grangetown, with an ordinary looking dentist’s chair in the back room, letters of qualification framed on the walls. But he lead me through that room, and up the stairs.
I lay on my back on the grass and howled. No one was going to hear me up here, anyway, so I let go. I was no singer, mind, and the whiskey in me didn’t help. I started off singing something, something old, and then let it degenerate into yodels that swooped off into the overcast skies like gulls. I half hoped I could shoot something down with my wild yells.
I just wanted to forget. Forget what? Oh, everything. The last six weeks, the last six years, the whole of the sky and all under it. It was harder to get drunk than I’d thought, even on this 47% stuff. The wet grass soaked my t-shirt through to my muscles. They didn’t even ache, the bloody useless powerful things. There was no chance. No chance for nothing.
I’d thought no one could hear me shout, but then I heard an answering whoop. It could have been a bird, I guess, but I knew the voice already – it was Ioan. As soon as I’d registered that the wind stole all sound of him away from me for a few minutes and then I heard his breath again as he reached me, puffing a bit against the incline of the hill, hurrying. He stood over me, casting a weak shadow, and toed me gently with one boot.
“What’re you up to, now, eh? You look bare plastered. How have you even managed it? I thought you didn’t get drunk, Sergeant Major?”
I propped myself up on my elbows and took another swig.
“I’m not drunk,” I said. “I’m just trying to be. I’m an extravagant failure. At this. And everything else, so they tell me.” I gestured with the bottle down at the town below us. Port Talbot, sprawling and gasping.
He kicked me in the ribs then, not so gently, though we both knew I wouldn’t bruise.
“Anyway, it’s Captain,” I said. “And I’ll do a little private court martial if you’re not careful. Up here no one can here you scream.”
“Ooh, Sarge,” he said. “D’you promise?”
He was kidding. Helen wouldn’t even have cared. She had no reason to be jealous of me, sadly.
He sat down next to me and offered me a drag on his joint.
“Will it work on me?” I asked.
He looked at it, wrinkled his nose. “I dunno,” he said, “But it won’t do you any harm. Tailored for the plant boys. By Joey, at the chip shop. You remember, Adam’s brother.”
“Is Joey old enough to be doing that? He’s, like, twelve.”
“He’s nineteen. He’s gone into business.”
“God, nineteen? I have been gone long.”
We stared out over the town.
“Don’t give up, Nia,” he said.
When we were in school there’d been one girl who couldn’t keep up. No patches, not even the free, obvious ones. Her name was Mair. We all felt a bit sorry for her – felt sorry but at the same time left her out of everything and, occasionally, ripped the piss out of her as well. The two attitudes, pity and brutality, somehow weren’t incompatible. Her parents were some kind of hippies that had come down here from Carmarthen (and if only they’d stayed there, I’d heard girls in school twitter, bitchily, grinning).
Maybe a hundred years ago she’d have seemed clever – after all, she wasn’t as bad as another boy I knew who could barely programme his own breakfast not to come back up. You could feel that the teachers eyed them with distaste, and fuck knows how they were going to get jobs after school. Because they didn’t have the right startoff patches, any extra patches and tweaks were going to come out funny, and Mair didn’t seem keen to turn herself into some lumpy, gibbery It, once she’d reached the age of consent. So she was stuck; good for nothing, really.
I didn’t even know what had happened to her, and now here I was, suddenly thinking that maybe we were the same now. Scrapheap types. We’d lost the game – snakes and ladders, and my goodness, wasn’t it easy to slide down and not come back up?
You could still, just about, use Mair’s situation as an excuse to go on the dole, but they were phasing that out too, telling people if they weren’t going to make themselves ‘suitable for the job market’ by taking up patches, then they couldn’t carry on claiming. No exceptions, even if your parents had had the kind of ‘ideological objections’ that saddled you with a basic body, so that patches would make your hair fall out and your nerves twitch even as they made you smarter and adapted.
I remember Mair’s dad coming into school to talk to us once, on a parents’ day or something – god knows how they snuck that one past the staff. He started off making some rambling conspiracy theory speech, then after a couple of minutes he realised we were staring at him blankly, and stopped. Our teacher Miss Probert had already rushed out of the room to fetch someone, being too young and inexperienced to know how to shut him up herself.
He looked round the room and said, “Ah, it makes me laugh now, that old idea of the machine singularity. The idea of AI, leaping away ahead of us, enslaving us.”
He paused. “The Matrix? Hands up who’s seen the Matrix?”
One or two kids half-raised their hands.
“Yeah, well, your parents have. Fat lot of good it did us. Classic movie and all, but come on. Look at you all!”
I’d kept thinking about that, and of course by now I knew what he meant. We were the singularity. We were every one of us singular, and leaping ahead of each other, leapfrogging over each other, racing each other from one patch to another until the poor, sedate, badly purposed, unadaptive past fell further and further back. Unless you were Mair, or that sad kid Martin.
I felt even worse for her after that, because if her dad understood that then how could he have done it to her?
Anyway, I was alright, wasn’t I? I got my patches. I got my exams. And when I was old enough, in a stroke of genius, I joined the army.
I looked down at my legs resting next to Ioan’s, both of us in the damp short grass. You could nearly have fit his whole torso into one of my thighs. He saw me looking. Ioan’s Mamgu had been Italian, and he had sweet brown eyes like a seal, skinny arms, and the sexiest mouth I’d ever seen. I’d been in love with him since we were fifteen, not that he probably knew. I hoped he didn’t know, because he had gone off and married Helen anyway.
I was convinced now, having been a lot of places, that my home town was the ugliest place on earth. Also, the most beautiful. Ugly-beautiful, like me. Its ugliness was full of braggadocio. It was gorgeous and dramatic and scarred and dirty. I’d missed it more than I’d expected to, and coming back to it I thought I understood it better than I had before I left. When I was growing up here it didn’t have any character of its own that I could see; it was just the world. But having been away and come back I could finally recognise what it wasn’t. It wasn’t desert; it wasn’t a hot dry city of yellow stone. It wasn’t the restrained grey-and-graffiti of London or the flat limp grey-green of English fields.
It was weeds on concrete, drip-fed by forever-rain, tarmacked underpasses and overpasses, the estuary and the sky, the high heavy sides of the hills split apart down the middle by valley. When I’d left it had felt like it was dying. I’d thought I was doing the right thing, getting out.
Equality of opportunity was the tune on everyone’s lips. Because everyone had a chance, assuming your parents had had the sense to equip you with even a bit of a tune-up. After that, it was whatever you could afford, and as the adverts kept reminding us, every bit you saved was a step towards more money through better adaptations, assuming you made the right adaptations and didn’t pick something where the bottom of the market was imminently going to drop out.
If nothing else you could sign up for a job where they were always looking for more people, and then they’d even pay for your adaptations. Though the only one of those schemes round here was to join the army. Join up for five years, don’t get killed, and when you come back you’ve got hi-tech eyes, arms that can tunnel for days, and probably a decent strategic intelligence package. There would always be work for someone like that, they said at the time. I wasn’t the only one who’d picked that. Although I seemed to be the only one who’d come back. Lucky me.
The old steelworks, which for years had been nothing more than a historical curiosity with little plaques saying which bits were which, the towers lit by night by artifical flames, were suddenly bought up by Castra, a bioengineering company from Lagos. They integrated the new factory into the shapes of the old cooling towers and chimneys, and they keep a light burning at the top of the gas exhaust tower the way it always has been, burning a blue-orange flame that’s almost invisible during the day but like a beacon from twilight onwards.
And there it was: a source of work, of patches and money and inward investment, as they say. Suddenly everyone in town was getting patched for that. But now I’d come back and I was too late for it all. I’d been everywhere and now I wanted to live here and I was wrong; I was out of date. No one needed physical power any more. I’m not sure they ever had – possibly all the stuff my teachers and parents had thought about the desirability of Forces patches had been a bit misled. I tried to avoid letting my parents think about that. I kept things light and funny when I went round there. They kept asking me, with gentle confusion, when I thought I might find a job.
I’d been down to the Centre that morning for another interview.
The woman planted behind her desk told me, officially, definitively and annoyingly circumnavigatorily, that I could go fuck myself. I was too old for any of the newest patches they needed applicants to have, and I was too well-patched to qualify for any kind of support. All my infantry patches were up to date, bar the last few weeks, and the woman looked at me like I’d been a total div to leave in the first place. When I pointed out that I’d gone into the army at seventeen, and maybe some of the things we choose when we’re seventeen aren’t the things we would choose half a dozen years later, she rolled her eyes and told me plenty of people would kill for the kind of patches I had. I gave her my best Look, perfected on the fields of oh-bollocks-duck-and-cover-here-they-come-again, and pointed out that none of those people lived around here, did they, and if they did they would have to be eating air or working in some lucrative but invisible manual industry that I had failed to notice all the job adverts for. Could she point me in the direction of some of these people, so that I could get their advice on which jobs to apply for which would require muscles like steel camshafts?
She told me that if I moved to Wakefield I could have a free upgrade to work in a nano-mill that was opening soon, and needed staff.
“You don’t get it,” I said. “Listen to me: can you get this through your thick skull? I want to live here. I left before. I don’t want to do it again. This is home. You can tell me as much as you want what I have to do but aren’t people sometimes allowed a choice? I want to stay here.”
There was nothing, nothing to be had if you didn’t have the right patch for it. There were reskilling grants, but they’d recently got rid of those for ex-servicepeople, having decided that we had been well-served enough. The patches were supposed to be their own reward. Besides, there were too few of us for anyone to kick up enough of a fuss. Only a few thousand people were still in the field, fighting alongside drones and crawlers, leading them, coordinating attacks. I was smart, too – you don’t get far without being patched for that – but I wasn’t the right kind of smart for the factory. For that I needed precision hand-eye coordination, x1000 eyesight, bio-resistance. Things Ioan and all my old schoolmates now had.
“So, Miss Huws,” she said. “What are your transferable skills?”
“Well, there’s dismemberment,” I said. “How transferable is that? Can you find a job where I’d need to be able to kill fifteen people in fifteen seconds? Because I’m really good at that. Promise.”
I tried to look wide-eyed, innocent and keen. Instead I probably looked psychotic. I decide to throw in a bit more enthusiasm, so no one can say I didn’t try.
“Can I show you?” I said, with as much adorable enthusiasm as I could haul up.
Even with her specially phlegmatic physiology she did a little involuntary hop in her seat, as if she was about to jump up. There was a little squeak as her chair scooted backwards.
“No need. It’s all – um – in your file.” She patted the air in front of her, where my info was scrolling.
I saw a lump move in her throat, the vein at her temple tick a little faster, and her palms sweat a little. She was patched for office work: thickened corneas so her eyes never tire of staring at the screen; bones and muscles that barely need any exercise; a reduced appetite, and an extra-padded arse. Which probably explains why these chairs were so fucking hard and uncomfortable for anyone without that patch. Or maybe they just like to keep people like me on the edge of our seats.
I realised straight away that it wasn’t going anywhere. It was my fifth interview in as many weeks, and it was realistically the last one. I accidentally pushed the chair over as I got up and regretted it, because the woman behind the desk flinched again, and this time I hadn’t meant to.
I got out of there and took off, running down the street, turning down sidestreets to avoid scaring people, heading for the old docks and the shore where I could run for hours.
I suddenly realised Ioan had been talking.
“Sorry,” I said. “Say that again?”
I was distracted, I admit. I was patched for high energy, after all, and all the running on this mountainside couldn’t extinguish the fact that I was desperate for sex as well. It was a sort of side effect of being this physical. Because it was so tricky to patch that out of people, in the army they just gave us lots of contraceptives laced with appetite-dampeners so that we wouldn’t be too busy humping each other to fight. Once you were decommissioned, though, all that was left to itself. Sometimes I was so paralysed by desire that I couldn’t get up in the morning, and just lay there rubbing myself till I was bored and sore and, annoyingly, still horny.
“I want to help,” said Ioan.
“Come off it. I’ll eat you out of house and home.”
And god, the eating was almost as bad as the sex-hunger. I literally ate like a horse – in volume if not in actual substance. I mean, I couldn’t survive on hay or anything. That would have been easier, and I could have spent all my days up on the hillside, where I wanted to be. Instead I craved meat, fat and salt, and because I couldn’t afford to buy takeaways every three hours I had to keep popping home to devour bowl after bowl of chilli from a vat I kept simmering on the stove. At least I knew how to cook. There’d been men and women in my platoon who could barely peel the lid off a microtin, let alone make construct an edible meal from bare starches and proteins.
“There’s got to be some way I can help.”
“Well, have you got any drone armies I can command? I’ll go freelance.”
He laughed and took another drag off his rollie.
“Can’t you, though?” he said. “Security, for the plant?”
“Tried it,” I said. “They freaked out at the sight of me. They want people with a few extra muscles, and not too many brains. I’m overkill, literally.
“No. I’ve got three options left: move to Wakefield and get patched for free, or some other town with a newly-opened factory that’s willing to shell out for patches to tailor its new workforce. Or, I could re-enlist, but I don’t want to. Or, I don’t know. Killing spree down the job centre? I suppose that would get a bit of frustration out, and I’d probably end up in Cardiff prison. You’d come visit me, wouldn’t you?”
He laughed. “There’s another,” he said, “but I kind of don’t want to say it because I hope you wouldn’t consider it.”
“What? Scrapping? DIY?”
“Yeah. Not good though.”
“No. Although I heard there are some guys in Cardiff, Russians. Ex-army too, which as you know fills me with comfort and faith.”
“No, Nia. Seriously. I’ll think of something. We’ll think of something.”
I looked into his lovely brown eyes, and then dodged his gaze and looked back out over the sea.
“Yeah, mate. I’m not mental. I think the killing spree might be a more sensible option. I don’t want to end up sloshing around the bottom of a plastic sack in a wheelie bin, bound for the tip in Rumney. Do I?”
“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “I knew you’d know better than that. Forget I said it.”
The room upstairs is chilly, and the window looks out over the most innocuous street of pebble-dashed terrace houses that I think I’ve ever seen. It looks just like the street I grew up in.
I was right about them being Russian. That’s a good thing. We exchanged a few slightly garbled messages. It was partly due to the bouncing – scrambling letters and punctuation so that, in one message, all the vowels were replaced with ampersands – but it was also clear that English wasn’t his first language anyway. But that’s all fine. He’ll understand what I need. Like I said, his kit looks clean.
There’s a noise outside on the street, carried up here on the wind, and I can’t tell if it’s a seagull or a child. But it’s some living thing, some singular surprising living thing.
About the Author
Nan Craig holds an MSc in Global Politics from the LSE and worked for the social enterprise Participle, and as a freelance editor, before becoming Publications Director for the Centre for Global Studies.
About the Narrator
Cat Rambo writes a lot of fiction.