Tag: "artemis rising"

EP568: Dr. Mbalu and the Butcher’s Daughter (Artemis Rising 3)

Artemis Rising returns to Escape Pod for its third year! This month-long event highlights science fiction by women and non-binary authors. We have five original stories this year that range in topics from biotech to far-flung A.I, virtual reality, and nanotech.

AUTHOR: Megan Chaudhuri

NARRATOR: Laurice White

HOST: Caron J.

ARTIST: Ashley Mackenzie

about the author…

A toxicologist by training and a writer by inclination, Megan lives outside of Seattle with one husband and two cats. Her fiction has appeared in Analog, Crossed Genres, and Futuristica, among other places.

about the narrator…

Laurice is a theater graduate and long time theater student. She’s read stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod and for John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey on The End is Nigh and The End is Now – the first two volumes of The Apocalypse Triptych.

about the artist…Ashley Mackenzie

Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.

Dr. Mbalu and the Butcher’s Daughter

By Megan Chaudhuri

With a raspy pop, the cell sprayer in Rebecca’s hand sputtered one last drop of fur progenitor cells. Ignoring her stiff back, she leaned over the culture vat and daubed the cells onto the pink, gel-sculpted contours of a cheetah’s back muscles. The gel rippled; Rebecca held her breath as the reflexive shiver splashed the surrounding nutrient broth.

“Go in,” Rebecca whispered, her eyes hot and dry behind her goggles. Please, she prayed, conscious of the crucifix’s weight at her neck. Another reflex rippled the gel, as if the nerve matrix suddenly sensed the truth: It grew inside an old Gates Foundation lab trailer on the cheapest hook-up in Little Nairobi, rather than in the hide of an adult cheetah.

But the droplet disappeared slowly, the cells sinking into the gelatinous stew of serum and growth factors that—God willing—would ripen them into a furred skin.

“It’s ready for the fresh growth medium and antibacterials, Ming!” Rebecca called out. She palmed the vat’s control pad; the motor vibrated against her legs as she carefully lowered the cheetah’s contours beneath the broth. The pink fluid bubbled as it swallowed their unceasing work of the past months. Past years. Past one-point-three decades, actually, since the Tuesday when her mother’s partner had brought home an empty Kenya Wildlife Service uniform and a tiny, worn crucifix. The blood had been washed off its bone surface, but no one could repair the chip left by the poacher’s bullet.

Rebecca shook herself before her mind could follow its favorite bitter path—a path that lead from one dead poacher to, of all places on God’s green Earth, the lot next door. Her lot.

Rebecca turned towards the tiny walk-in fridge. “Ming?”

The walk-in’s insulated door was ajar. Chilled fog pooled on the vinyl floor.

“Ming? What’s—”

The fog parted as Ming staggered out, eyes bulging. Her gloved hands clutched a single plastic bottle of nutrient medium.

“Rebecca, look!” Ming thrust out the bottle. Behind the condensation, the fluid looked orange instead of blood red. Rebecca took it, the cold, heavy weight strangely distended in her gloved hands. Automatically, she turned it over to check the label: DMEM/F-12 Mammalian Tissue Medium (5% Bovine Serum Albumin, by Volume). EXPIRY DATE: 2068-04-01.

“It’s fine, we still have a month—” Rebecca gasped. Rotating the bottle had swirled up a cloud of thick white particles inside the liquid. One ragged sphere broke apart, trailing clumps of bacteria like a comet’s tail.

Rebecca’s body felt as cold as the medium. As cold as when she had been handed her dead mother’s crucifix. As cold as each time she stepped out of the trailer and spotted her, laboring and living while Rebecca’s mother was rotting. “Are—are all the bottles contaminated like this?”

Ming swallowed. “We must not have noticed. Between the condensation on the outside, and…” She trailed off, but Rebecca filled in the blank: working 18-hour days for the past three months, putting off anything that could possibly be ignored. “The seals must be faulty or maybe something happened during manufacture.”

“Faulty seals!” Rebecca swore. She glanced towards the shelf with the filters that could sieve out bacteria, but caught herself. Even if they had filters with the right pore size, the medium’s nutrients were gone. Forever.

Rebecca turned the bottle over, sensing the pressure built up inside, the waste gases exhaled by a billion bacteria as they had grown and divided and consumed the precious nutrients. As they had devoured her hopes for meeting her funders’ demands—for creating the world’s first in vitro cheetah skin—for flooding the market with her too-real fakes, destroying the world’s selfish lust for the hides of the beautiful beasts her mother died defending.

“Okay,” Rebecca said, her voice high-pitched. She met Ming’s anxious gaze. “Let’s be rational. We don’t have any medium. The skin needs an entire turnover into fresh medium in forty-two hours.”

“F-forty-six hours,” Ming said, “if we keep adding glucose and buffering against acidity. But the cellular waste products are going to build up too much beyond that time frame.”

“I haven’t done inventory in three months…Do we have the reagents to make medium from scratch?”

Ming shook her head. “We have glucose and the amino acids for nutrients, plus some concentrated salt solutions.” Her shoulders slumped beneath her lab coat. “But we don’t have any bovine serum.”

Rebecca inhaled sharply, feeling her surgical mask press against her nose. All of their gene tweaks optimized the cells to grow in bovine serum or plasma. Such a clever idea; she’d almost heard her mother’s praise when she first thought of it.

Rebecca yanked a pen out of her lab coat’s pocket and grabbed a paper towel from the stack by the disinfectant. “Okay. So we need thirty liters of sterile bovine serum- or plasma-supplemented medium in forty-six hours.” The pen scratched across the paper towel, mixing Mandarin and English into a mathematical pidgin. “If I SMS now and get an order rushed from Mombasa’s dockyard, it’ll cost…”

The number had many significant digits.

Ming sucked in her breath. “I guess we won’t be hiring an assistant after all.”

“No. We won’t.” Rebecca set down the pen with more precision than it needed. “I’ll ping the supplier and tell them they bloody well replace some faulty product for free. You’ll go to the bio department at the U of N branch campus and borrow some medium in the meantime.”

Ming’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. Rebecca could practically read her thoughts: Ming’s visa was project based. If the project expired, the young bioengineer had thirty days to leave Kenya. Thirty days to drag herself back to Beijing, to brave her mother’s disappointment that his eldest child had frittered away her education on some damn cats.

If only my mother was alive to be disappointed in me. Jealous, vile thought. Rebecca’s hands tried to run over her the bristly part of her afro, but found only a surgical cap. “I know, Ming. It’s going to be tight.”

With a nod that looked like it wanted to be a shake, Ming stripped off her gloves and dropped them into the biohazard bin. The smaller woman’s footsteps faded as she passed into the jerry-rigged airlock to change into street clothes.

In the company of only the cheetah skin and her thoughts, Rebecca clenched her hands tighter and tighter until her finger bones throbbed with pain. If only she had checked the medium earlier.

If only she had been sick and kept her mother at home that day one-point-three decades ago.

If only the cheapest lot in Little Namanga was somewhere else—anywhere else—than beside the shop owned by Mrs. Moses Ongoro, wife and widow of that damned poacher.

With the same precise movements she had used to seed the fur progenitor cells, Rebecca peeled off her gloves. Dropped them into the center of the biohazard bin. Ripped the label off the contaminated bottle, and followed after Ming into the changing room, her footsteps echoing off the trailer’s vinyl floor.

#

As Rebecca stepped out of the lab trailer’s electromagnetic shielding, she huffed and covered her nose. The trailer was wedged between Ongoro’s butcher shop, a mobile recycler, and an abandoned Chinese grocer, the fading characters barely visible beneath red graffiti proclaiming KENYA FIRST. The stench of offal was stronger than usual this early; without intending to, Rebecca glanced over.

No Ongoro this morning, thank God. In the widow’s place, her teenaged daughter was mucking out the empty, manure-filled pens behind the butcher shop. Rebecca could count each vertebra in the girl’s spine through her faded clothes. Only the poor worked in slaughterhouses; only the poor ate meat that grew on animals.

Good, Rebecca thought. Before the girl could see her staring—before Rebecca could struggle against the small voice of guilt that sounded, ironically and so painfully, like her mother’s voice—she turned away. With her mobile, she scanned the label’s QR code and pinged customer service.

“—hăo?”

Rebecca almost dropped the mobile. Eyebrows furrowing, she lifted it to her ear. “Nĭ hăo. Ah, sorry, I was expecting an auto-rep.”

“No, I am human,” came a woman’s voice, the warmth sounding as cultivated and precise as her Mandarin. “My name is Jing-Jing, and I am a technical services representative with Weibo-Thermo-Fisher. Am I speaking with Dr. Mbalu?”

“Y-yes,” Rebecca said, smoothing her skirt as if Jing-Jing—or whoever she really was, most call centers were in Mexico now—could see her. She took a deep breath and ignored the sounds next door of labored breathing, of a shovel scraping concrete, of the liquid plop of animal waste dropping into a bucket. “Jing-Jing, I am calling about some contaminated medium, even though the seals were intact and we stored it properly. The lot number is—”

“I have it,” Jing-Jing interrupted. “You were automatically routed to me because this lot was recalled last month due to a manufacturing issue. Dr. Mbalu, I do apologize for the inconvenience, and we at Weibo-Thermo-Fisher would normally be happy to replace the medium at no cost.”

Thank God! Rebecca grinned, but her face froze as she parsed out a key word. “‘Normally’?”

The silence stretched a second too long. “Dr. Mbalu, I do apologize, but when we emailed you last month with the recall notice, we could not have anticipated certain…logistical issues.”

Rebecca ran her free hand over her hair. The surgical cap had squashed the sides into matted felt. “Logistical issues,” she said.

There was the faint sound of typing, of somebody muffling a mic and speaking in rapid Spanish. From the butcher’s shop came the noise of a hose being turned on and sprayed across concrete. Rebecca maxed the mobile’s volume.

“—some transit issues occurring with our shipping contractors in Kenya right now.”

“Transit issues?” Could she only repeat what the woman said?

“A…disagreement, between local contractors and China Freight Co.”

A strike. Rebecca’s eyes focused on the graffiti slashed across the abandoned grocer, the words KENYA FIRST blurred where the red paint had dripped until it clotted and dried in the sun.

“Wait,” Rebecca said. “Don’t you have a manufacturer in Namanga?”

“Yes—”

“Thank God!”

“—but the Kenyan Health Ministry has ordered all medium to go to organ and blood culture facilities in hospitals and clinics.”

“Hospitals and clinics,” Rebecca echoed. The sounds of laborious cleaning next door had stopped. At least she had the small mercy of briefly, so briefly, pretending for one moment that she was not next to the tiny butcher’s shop run by the widow of the bastard who’d poached her mother’s beloved cheetahs—and then shot the first ranger who tracked him down.

“Yes, Dr. Mbalu.”

Ongoro’s daughter passed through her peripheral vision, the faded clothes replaced with a well-patched school uniform. Rebecca closed her eyes as she thanked Jing-Jing and hung up, her thoughts tangling around the phrase hospitals and clinics. The only clinic in Little Namanga that cultured red blood cells was the Margaret Kenyatta Public Clinic.

Ming. Rebecca tapped her mobile’s chat icon. There was a single SMS.

1 serum free bottle at u of n branch

Rebecca rubbed her face, feeling the grooves left in her skin by the surgical mask. They had one bottle of medium—without serum.

I could just stroll next door and ask for some fresh cow blood. Or she could sprout wings, flutter to Mombasa’s docks, and single-handedly resolve the shipping strike.

Rebecca tapped out a reply. Then she pocketed the mobile and scraped the mud off her sandals. The mobile’s slight weight bounced against her leg as she strode past the abandoned grocery and took a left, turning onto the narrow asphalt road that would take her to the clinic—and, God willing, thirty liters of bovine serum-supplemented medium.

#

The MK clinic was a long, low series of tin-roofed buildings, linked together by shaded walkways. The shade was crowded with patients and family. As Rebecca approached, the muted noise of their anxious conversations and the smells of sweat, vomit, and cigarette smoke rushed at her, the signals flooding her nerves and worming their way into the primitive part of her brain. For one moment she was a child, standing over her mother’s casket, trapped in place by the thick, wailing crowds of aunties and uncles and cousins.

She was breathing too fast. Rebecca halted, closed her eyes, and cupped her hands over her mouth, forcing herself to draw in the carbon dioxide-enriched air until her nausea passed.

Wiping her hands on her skirt, Rebecca circled the crowds and moved among the buildings, peering at doors and windows and the occasional unhelpful sign. She stopped at an unmarked door plastered with the telltale orange biohazard symbols. The techno beat of Nairobi dance music pulsed inside. A sheet of notebook paper was taped to the door’s glass, scrawled with sun-faded sharpie: Erythro Culture Techs – Keep music volume less than 30!!! Women are giving BIRTH next door!!!—Dr. Sankori

The door was locked. The doorknob vibrated with the music, its volume well over 30. Rebecca glanced again at the note, nodded, and turned towards the building next door. It was a twin of the erythropoiesis culture building—except people moved in and out. Lots of people, who seemed to get larger, to fill the world with their body heat and sweat and breath, as she moved into the clinic.

Light-headed, she listened to herself get directions to Dr. Sankori from a harried midwife. Felt her legs carry her down a hall and around a corner, towards the scents of bleach, shit, and fresh blood.

Red puddled on the vinyl floor. Drops had splattered up the nearest wall, the blood trickling down until it coagulated. An old woman in faded scrubs was swabbing the puddle and wringing out the sponge into a bucket.

Shot, Rebecca’s instincts told her. Someone had been shot in the head, neck, chest, where a bullet could just nick the edge of a crucifix that would be taken from the body, washed, and presented to another child waiting for her mother to come home—

“Are you the daughter?” said a woman in Swahili.

Rebecca looked up wildly. A middle-aged doctor in blood-stained scrubs had emerged from a nearby room and was closing the door on the faint noises within. The woman skirted the puddle and its cleaner, her movements tired but her voice brisk. “She was hemorrhaging some when we got her in here, but she’s stable on cultured erythrocytes. But we’re running low and need whole blood with platelets and clotting factors from a family member.”

“I-I’m not her daughter,” Rebecca said. The embroidered name on the woman’s scrubs was Dr. Sankori.

Rebecca took a deep breath of air that stank of blood and bleach-curdled proteins. “My name is Dr. Rebecca Mbalu,” she started, her eyes flickering between the hemorrhaged blood, the closed door, and Dr. Sankori. “I’m a local bioengineer working on, ah, a pilot project growing a cheetah skin…” Blood. Door. Blood. “S-so we can swamp the international poaching market and stop these rare megafauna from being driven extinct by our gr-greed but our culture medium’s contaminated and there’s a shipping strike going on so we can’t get any more even though we need it in forty and a half hours, and…I wanted to ask if…”

Rebecca swallowed, realizing she had been staring at the shrinking puddle of blood. She was surrounded by women, men, children who needed blood cells cultured in serum-based medium.

Would Mama have survived if—No. Her mother was dead. And the world’s first in vitro cheetah skin was withering as she dithered here.

“Yes?” Dr. Sankori said.

Rebecca wrenched her gaze from the puddle. “I wanted to ask if you can spare any serum-based medium.”

The fatigue lines deepened on Dr. Sankori’s face. “We can’t give away medium for non-clinical use,” she said, gesturing at the closed door. “We’re barely keeping up as is, and no one donates anymore. As if cultured erythrocytes are the only thing these people need!”

The exhausted doctor’s diatribe—something about the technical limitations of growing functional platelets and synthesizing clotting factors—gave Rebecca the chance to take several deep breaths, to pretend the blood puddle didn’t exist.

“Dr. Sankori, please,” Rebecca interrupted, lowering her voice to keep nearby patients and the cleaner woman from hearing. “We’re getting a fresh order of medium in the next two weeks”—God willing that the strike broke—“and I’ll replace everything. I-I’d also happily donate whole blood or go through apheresis if you need platelets and plasma.”

The doctor shook her head. “We need more than is in your entire body.”

Rebecca ran her hands over her hair. She had one final bargaining chip, although Ming would protest. But at least she’d protest over a healthy, growing cheetah skin.

“Dr. Sankori,” Rebecca said, “if you can see to it that we get medium…well, my colleague and I want to hire an assistant. Perhaps you have a daughter or a son you could recommend…?”

Silence stretched between them, a moment of quiet tension that dimmed the clinic’s noise to a murmur. Even the nearby sounds of scrubbing seemed to stop.

“My son,” Dr. Sankori said, her voice as flat as her expression, “has an excellent position with Weibosoft.”

Rebecca smoothed her skirt, looking away from the woman’s intense gaze. “Oh. I—”

The word see never emerged, because the nerves innervating her tongue—her entire body—were suddenly paralyzed as her eyes met the cleaning woman’s.

Oh, God, I didn’t recognize her in those old scrubs. All the heat in Rebecca’s body rushed to her face, leaving behind a chill that stood every tiny hair on end. This was the closest she had ever been to the poacher’s wife—widow. To her neighbor, Mrs. Moses Ongoro.

Without meaning to, without wanting to, her eyes drew in every detail. The premature gray streaking tight black braids. The brown eyes in a face even more exhausted than Dr. Sankori’s. The skin of her forehead darkened from exposure, creasing as Ongoro stared back.

She’d heard everything, Rebecca realized.

“—filters, instead.”

The doctor’s voice punctured the moment, and the world rushed back in a swirl of chattering patients, sharp-smelling bleach, and one cheetah skin slowly dying back in the lab. Rebecca staggered and caught herself on a doorframe.

“What?” Rebecca said.

“We have a box of filters. Point-six-micron pore—good enough for sterilizing any medium you make from scratch. They’re expired and we can’t use them for the clinic, but everything’s still sealed. They should work for you.”

“Oh,” Rebecca said. “That would…” She took a breath, trying to recalibrate, re-center, reset her expectations—all while Ongoro stared, stared, stared up at her. “Th-that’s great. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. They’re yours as soon as you can get me twenty units of platelets.”

“Twenty units,” Rebecca echoed. The sounds of patients and family came at her; already she could feel her breathing speed up. “But I’ll have to talk with all these people—persuade them to donate…”

“You’re a researcher,” Dr. Sankori said. “You’ve persuaded funders to give you money, no?”

I write grant applications, Rebecca wanted to snap. Not—go into a crowd full of anxious people who sound and smell and talk like a funeral gathering…

But without these filters to sterilize the medium she must somehow make from scratch…there would be no more grant applications.

And there would be no more cheetah skin.

Rebecca kept her gaze locked on the doctor’s, refusing to look at that closed door or the puddle of blood. Or Ongoro.

She nodded slowly. “You’ve got a deal.”

#

The next morning’s air was cold, and dew mingled with the sweat on Rebecca’s skin as she pushed the bike and its precious cargo to the trailer. The box of filters was light and she had only pedaled a couple kilometers from the clinic, but she was still woozy from yesterday. Some of the wooziness was the physiological consequence of donating a double unit by apheresis—but most of it was a social hangover from venturing among all those people to beg for donations, her lips pulled back in a smile over teeth clenched against the nausea.

Her breath came even harder as she thought of the murmuring, worrying, grieving crowds.

The padlock’s chain was cold and slick in her shaking fingers. Rebecca fumbled it through the bike’s frame and then untied the box. Clutching the damp cardboard, she unlocked the trailer and sighed with relief as the door swung shut behind her.

In the changing room, Ming’s clothes hung from the hook, her sandals lined up beneath. Rebecca recognized the shirt the smaller woman had been wearing yesterday, a faded paisley print with the words SAVE THE BENGAL TIGER stamped in English.

“What’re you carrying?” Ming said as she appeared in the doorway. She lifted a gloved hand towards her puffy, exhausted-looking eyes, but paused before the latex touched her skin. “Wait. Sorry. I mean, good morning. Is it morning?”

“These’re the filters,” Rebecca said. “Ming, did you spend the night in lab?”

“If it’s morning… technically, yes,” Ming said, her Mandarin thick and slow in the way of the very drunk or the very tired. “After I donated those units last night, I checked on the skin. There was a neoplasm.”

“Good God, Ming!”

“An early trichoepithelioma,” Ming continued. “One of the follicle progenitor cells we seeded must’ve had some rare mutations that slipped past the auto-screen. I excised it with a two-centimeter margin and took some samples for sequencing. The thermocycler’s just finishing now.”

“But—why didn’t you ping me?”

Ming nodded at the box Rebecca was clutching. “Because we need those. Rebecca,” she said, slumping against the narrow doorway, “we need medium. With bovine serum. Plasma, even. Otherwise the cells in the patch won’t take.”

Rebecca ran her free hand over her hair. Carcinogenesis was Ming’s forte, not hers. “How long before you need to patch?”

“By the end of today.”

“Today!”

“Yes. Otherwise the cell layers won’t line up and it’ll be this large, glaring defect e when we show the skin to the funders.”

Rebecca squeezed her eyes shut. All she’d wanted was to take the filters inside and discover that Ming had discovered some long-forgotten bovine serum at the back of the fridge. All she’d wanted was to watch the skin grow healthy and beautiful, the living incarnation of a decade’s dreams and hard work.

All she’d wanted was to never see the widow of her mother’s killer again; to stop being reminded every damn day of her mother’s death by Ongoro’s life, as she labored next door to the cheapest damn hook-up in Little Namanga.

Rebecca rubbed at her face with her free hand, feeling where the cold dew had condensed. Her hand slid down until it met the small chain about her neck, then followed it link by link until she found the crucifix. Her thumb pressed against the crucifix’s chipped edge until the flesh ached. A little more pressure, and she knew the skin would part.

She dropped her hand. Opened her eyes, and passed the box to Ming.

“I’ll get the serum,” Rebecca said, and turned to go outside.

#

Despite the early hour, the butcher shop’s door was propped open. The sounds of running water and something being sawed greeted Rebecca as she stepped inside, forcing her feet to move fast as if she could outpace the heavy cloud of anger, fear, and guilt that descended every time she spotted Ongoro.

But the cloud enveloped her the moment she spotted Ongoro’s back, the woman’s hands excising fat from fresh cow tripe spread across the battered surface beside a stained sink. Rebecca’s sandals scuffed the uneven floor.

Ongoro whipped around, the worn knife in her hand streaked with blood and yellow flesh. All of Rebecca’s hurried resolutions—to regard this simply as a business transaction, to treat Ongoro as nothing other than a poor butcher—dissolved in red haze.

“Mama,” came a teenaged girl’s voice through the door leading back to the pens. Ongoro and Rebecca both twitched. “Do you want me to go to the knackerman before school?”

Ongoro’s throat bobbed. Her reply came out thin and forced. “Yes, Joyce. Don’t wear your uniform; come back to change after you’ve delivered the cow’s blood.”

Cow’s blood. Rebecca started to step forward; Ongoro started to raise the knife. Neither woman actually moved.

“I…” Rebecca took a deep breath. Just a business transaction. “I would like to buy the cow’s blood. All that you have.” Her words came out thin, crisp, and cold as the grave.

Something hardened in Ongoro’s face. “We have forty-two liters from this old bull.”

The blood would be coagulated, and she would get plasma instead of serum after centrifuging it—but that was better than the nothing they currently had. Rebecca listened to herself coolly ask how much per liter.

Ongoro’s answer was quiet, precise, and had far too many significant digits.

Rebecca’s shoulders tightened. “But I can’t—that’s too much!”

“That is within the standard range for fresh blood.”

“Within the standard range?” Rebecca said, pulling out her mobile and fumbling through a search. She waved the mobile screen towards Ongoro, stabbing at the search results. “There are butchers in Nairobi asking for half that!”

“They are wholesale,” Ongoro snapped. “And I doubt they are supporting a child by themselves.”

“That is because they had the good sense to not marry a murderer,” Rebecca hissed, the words easily escaping her feeble resolution.

Ongoro’s nostrils flared. “That is because they did not marry a man who risked his life to support his family.” Her words had the sharp edge of thoughts well-honed over time. “Who risked being shot and jailed by some spoiled, rich bastards who value some damn cats over staving humans! Who would rather see a poor widow work two jobs and her child labor in a damn butcher shop!”

“At least her mother’s alive!” Rebecca shouted, her voice reverberating inside the tiny shop. Beneath the sun-roughened skin, Ongoro’s face was flushed, and her lips were drawn into a sneer. Rebecca realized her own teeth were bared, her jaw locked into a rictus snarl that refused to let any more words escape.

The echo of her shout faded. Rebecca realized she was trembling, her muscles strung with a tension that she had only felt once: when a splinter in her foot had become infected. It felt now as if a scalpel was probing some abscess deep in her, an infection growing in the wound she had taken when her mother died. An infection that had worsened every time she saw Ongoro, heard Ongoro, thought of Ongoro.

Slowly, so slowly Rebecca did not notice it at first, Ongoro’s features smoothed out, her skin settling into its normal lines of exhaustion and worry. The woman took a long, deep breath.

“I will sell you the cow’s blood at cost,” Ongoro said, the words forced out one by one, “if you give my daughter the job with your lab that you offered to Dr. Sankori’s son.”

Of all the things Rebecca could have done—could have said–she just blurted out, “She’s too young.”

“My daughter already does a man’s work.” Ongoro said, and looked down at the tripe. “If her life is like her mother’s, someday she will do the jobs of two men, carving up dead animals during the night and cleaning blood and shit and vomit during the day.” The tripe wobbled as the knife snicked off yellow fat globules with more force than seemed necessary. “If her life is like yours, someone else will do the carving and cleaning. If her life is like yours”—the knife jabbed and probed for any lingering fat—“she will not marry a poor man. If her life is like yours, she will never be so desperate that she urges her husband to risk himself poaching one cheetah…and live the rest of her life knowing it is her fault when he kills a ranger, and then dies himself in prison.”

Rebecca watched the woman’s hands as Ongoro began to wrap the tripe in brown paper. Her eyes were too heavy to look up at Ongoro’s face. “But how can I hire and work with and trust your daughter? Why would she work at culturing cheetah skins, at flooding the black market, at stopping men like her father from poaching cheetahs?”

“You need cow’s blood. I have cow’s blood.” The paper closed over the tripe, cloaking the raw organ in a tidy package. Ongoro’s hands stilled. “I, who must bargain with the daughter of the woman whose death sent my husband to prison.”

In the quiet that followed, Rebecca could hear their breathing. As she exhaled, Ongoro inhaled; their lungs passing back the same stale air, as if there was not enough for both to breathe at the same time.

Footsteps broke through the quiet. Ongoro whipped around as her daughter walked in from the back pen.

“I will work hard and honestly for you,” Joyce said. The teenager’s face was a younger, rounder version of Ongoro’s, but her eyes were different. Her father’s eyes, Rebecca realized. “Because I want no one to lose their life over cheetahs again.”

Rebecca looked at the girl. At the widow of her mother’s killer, who had urged him towards the deed and carried the guilt ever since. At the confines of the tiny butcher shop. Through the back door, she could just make out a stretch of morning sky and the battered corner of the lab trailer, where Ming and the cheetah skin and all of Rebecca’s hopes waited.

She could take her knot of anger and hate and guilt back to that trailer, and nurse it to a greater size as the skin curdled and died.

Or she could leave it here on the worn floor of this cramped little shop, and take the daughter of her mother’s killer instead. Could train the girl to tend the cheetah skin. The skin that would live, and thrive, and grow.

Rebecca turned to Ongoro, and nodded.

#

In the trailer, Rebecca set down the first jug of cow’s blood. Curled up on a battered lab chair, Ming slept with her mouth open, oblivious as Rebecca powered up the centrifuge and brought out the filters. Rebecca reached out to gently shake her colleague awake, but paused with her fingers centimeters from Ming’s shoulder.

Rebecca withdrew her hand and turned back to the blood, the filters, and the waiting cheetah skin. She—they—would need Ming later, once the plasma was filtered and combined into the life-giving medium. Until then, the exhausted bioengineer could sleep. Until then, Rebecca could work in the company of just her own thoughts. Today, she would make the medium and feed the skin.

Tonight, Ming would patch the gap left by the tumor.

And tomorrow, Rebecca would open the door to Ongoro’s daughter, and begin teaching the girl what she knew about keeping cheetahs, rangers, and poachers alive.

Rebecca took a deep breath and, with precise movements, pulled on a new pair of gloves.

END

EP567: Baro Porrajmos, or Love in the Vardo (Artemis Rising 3)

Artemis Rising returns to Escape Pod for its third year! This month-long event highlights science fiction by women and non-binary authors. We have five original stories this year that range in topics from biotech to far-flung A.I, virtual reality, and nanotech.

AUTHOR: Eileen Gunnell Lee

NARRATOR: Marguerite Croft

HOST: Divya Breed

ARTIST: Ashley Mackenzie

about the author…

Eileen Gunnell Lee is an award-winning essayist, teacher, and graduate student. She is currently completing a PhD in literature focusing on science fiction, myth, and the environment, and editing her first novel. She lives in Hamilton, Canada, and tweets @eileenglee.

about the narrator…

Marguerite Croft is a professional writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s a recovering anthropologist and a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has read fiction for Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Escape Pod..

 

 

about the artist…Ashley Mackenzie

Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.

Baro Porrajmos, or Love in the Vardo

By Eileen Gunnell Lee

The day we left the Static was the best day of our lives. The Static had been squalid—a cold concrete building with perpetually wet floors sloping toward the drains. There had been too many of us in there, even without the men.

We celebrated the day we left the Static. We ate the rest of our rations, so certain were we that after that day we would forage in the countryside, or trade for what we couldn’t glean ourselves.

Freedom! Opre Roma, and all that.

EP566: Honey and Bone (Artemis Rising 3)

Artemis Rising returns to Escape Pod for its third year! This month-long event highlights science fiction by women and non-binary authors. We have five original stories this year that range in topics from biotech to far-flung A.I, virtual reality, and nanotech.

AUTHOR: Madeline Alvey

NARRATOR: Tina Connolly

HOST: Alex Acks

ARTIST: Ashley Mackenzie

about the author…img_3547

Madeline Alvey lives in Lexington, Kentucky and is a full-time student at the University of Kentucky, seeking degrees in both Physics and English, and minoring in Creative Writing. She has no idea what she’d like to do when she graduates, though luckily she has plenty of time. When she has it, she splits her free time between crafting; cooking; gardening; writing science fiction, fantasy, and satire; and doting on her four rats.

 

 

about the narrator…Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin fantasy trilogy from Tor Books, and the Seriously Wicked YA series from Tor Teen. Her novels have been finalists for the Nebula and the Norton. Her stories have appeared in Tor.com, Lightspeed, Analog, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily SF, and many more. Her first collection, On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories, is now out from Fairwood Press. Her narrations have appeared in Podcastle, Pseudopod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, John Joseph Adams’ The End is Nigh series, and more. She co-hosts Escape Pod and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake.

about the artist…Ashley Mackenzie

Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.

 

Honey and Bone

By Madeline Alvey

With each step she took, the girl’s leg hissed. Thump, hiss, thump, hiss, thump, hiss. Whenever she lifted her leg, the knee joint extended. Her thigh and shin pulled apart unsettlingly, reminiscent of something deeply broken. Her gait was slow, round, loping. She didn’t move with any expedience. It was a speed without rush, or any desire for such.

Her footfalls themselves were soft, a quiet – thup, thup, thup. Soft leather covered her feet as she padded along, her hissing knee the loudest sound there. Once, it had creaked, a creak reminiscent of breaking metal – or perhaps, nearly as much, a rusty hinge. Before that…she didn’t remember.

EP523: Artemis Rising – Windows

by Beth Goder
narrated by Andrea Richardson
with guest host Kate Baker

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Artemis Rising

a celebration of women and non-binary authors
author Beth Goder

author Beth Goder

about the author…

Beth Goder worked as an archivist at Stanford before becoming a full-time mom to wonderful twin girls. Now she enjoys writing speculative fiction stories about archives, memory, records, and the relationship between the past and present. She has a degree in information science from the University of Michigan and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

about the narrator…

Andrea Richardson is a British singer and actress.  With extensive stage and film performances to her name, she began narration and voice over work fairly recently, but enjoys using her existing skills in a different way. You can find Andrea at www.andrea-richardson.co.uk and www.castingcallpro.com/uk/view.php?uid=507734

narrator Andrea Richardson

narrator Andrea Richardson

Windows
by Beth Goder

After just three years, most of Gurt’s downtown was nearly unrecognizable. Roldan Street boasted a new tea shop, and the roads had been repaved with greenish eco-tar. Even the old sign at Marta’s Bakery, which had been shaped like a pink cupcake, was replaced with sleek blue lettering.

Score another one for the prophetic soup.

The library sported new windows, stained glass whorls of teal and gold, while Grocery Plus had removed the panoramic window which used to overlook the river. That was the first thing I noticed when I came back, the windows.

I’d spent a lot of time looking out of windows, back when I lived in Gurt. I couldn’t go outside during the dust storms, because of my asthma, so I’d waited inside wherever I happened to be when the storm hit. But dust is all the same, just one blank, swirling vortex, so instead of watching the storms I started looking at the windows. Marta’s Bakery used to have the most beautiful violet windows, circular, like a morning bun with icing on top. Not that I eat morning buns, anymore.

I promised myself when I moved away from Gurt that I’d never come back, not after Sara left me at the altar. On the day of our wedding, I waited for hours at the church window (clean, but with the latch rusted off), fingering the beading on my beautiful white dress, while all of the guests snuck out, except for my family, who had transported in for the ceremony. Dad enveloped me in a hug, while Mom said that she had never liked Sara anyway, reminding me of the time Sara had ruined our trip to Seldar by whining about the swamp smell. It helped, but not very much.

Artemis Rising 2 Print Available Now

Artemis Rising is the month-long celebration of female and non-binary authors in genre fiction run across three Escape Artists podcasts PodCastle for fantasy, EscapePod for science fiction, and PseudoPod for horror.

In a couple days, Escape Pod will be releasing its first Artemis Rising 2 episode. At the same time, we will be starting a thread here to track the AR episodes from all of the Escape Artists shows so you can get links to them all in one place that you will be able to refer back to easily for as long as this site exists.

This year we have commissioned a special art print by legendary illustrator Galen Dara. The print will be available for purchase through Society6 until March 31, 2016.

Artemis Rising 2 FINAL
Galen likes monsters, mystics, and dead things. She has created art for Uncanny Magazine, 47North publishing, Skyscape Publishing, Fantasy Flight Games, Tyche Books, Fireside MagazineLightspeedLackington’s, and Resurrection House. She has been nominated for the Hugo, the World Fantasy Award, and the Chesley Award. When Galen is not working on a project you can find her on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, climbing mountains and hanging out with an assortment of human and animal companions. Her website is www.galendara.com plus you can find her on Facebook and Twitter @galendara.

EP484: That Tear Problem

by Natalia Thodoridou
read by Hugo Jackson
guest host Rachael Jones

author Natalia Theodoridou

author Natalia Theodoridou

about the author…

Natalia Theodoridou is a media & theatre scholar based in the UK. Her writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Find out more at www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or just say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

 

about the narrator…

Hugo Jackson is an author with Inspired Quill; his first fantasy novel, ‘Legacy’ is available from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He has acted and performed stage combat for years, having appeared in various film, theatre and TV productions, including The Young Victoria, Diamond Swords at Warwick Castle, Cyrano de Bergerac (Chichester Festival Theatre, 2009)  Romeo and Juliet (Arundel Festival, 2005), The Worst Jobs In History, and Ancient Megastructures: Chartres Cathedral. See him at www.hugorjackson.com

narrator Hugo Jackson

narrator Hugo Jackson

 

That Tear Problem
by Natalia Theodoridou

“Now flex your arm,” the controller said. Her voice sounded dry and mechanical through the speakers.

“The real one or the other one?” I asked and immediately received a neuro-ping: You are real.

“Both your arms are real, soldier,” she said.

I always thought of her as a woman, but really it was just a voice. There was no way to tell gender.

Focus.

“Right. Which one do you want me to flex?”

“The left one.”

I flexed my left arm. It’s one of the limbs they rebuilt after the accident. The Neuropage pinged me again, just in case: You are real. All this is real. I wondered if they figured out I had found the glitch. Was that what prompted this ping? But it couldn’t be; the pager was supposed to be entirely incorporated into the nervous system. No outside access available.

Unless that was a lie, too.

“Now the other one,” the voice said.

“How much longer is this going to take?” I asked, flexing my right arm. I could feel my legs getting fidgety. They always did that when I was strapped down for long chunks of time. Ever since the accident. Fidget fidget fidget. Even while I slept, the legs fidgeted. I would much rather sleep floating around, but that set off the security alarm. I had found that out the hard way, on my second day at the space station.

“The muscle-tone examination is complete,” the controller said. “Now on to the neural routine.”

“The neural routine. Of course.”

If she caught the irony in my voice, she didn’t show it.

“Attach the red electrode to your left arm. Good. Now let me know if you experience any pain.”

A moment passed, but nothing happened. “I don’t feel anything,” I said.

“OK. How about now?”

I waited. My eyes started to tear up. I felt the moisture form into little beads around my eyeballs.

“I don’t feel anything in my arm, but my eyes sting like hell. It’s that tear problem again,” I said.

Tears, apparently, don’t flow in microgravity. The little fuckers just stick to your eyes like liquid balls, refusing to let go before they get to be the size of small nuts. Bottom line is, you can’t cry in space. They always get that one wrong in the movies. Who would have known?

“You are reacting to an imaginary stimulus,” the voice said. “Your brain thinks you should be hurting, so your eyes tear up. Hold still. You can wipe them in a minute.”

Maybe the controller was a man, after all. Maybe it wasn’t a person at all at the other end, just a machine.

I waited for a ping, but got nothing.

“All done. You can unstrap yourself, soldier,” the voice said. “Same time tomorrow. Do not be late.”

“The Neuropage will make sure of that,” I muttered, but she had already signed off. She, it, whatever.

The first thing I did was dry my eyes. Then I freed my legs and stretched.

Time to eat, the Neuropage said. One of the scheduled pings. I ignored it and propelled myself towards my compartment. It would ping me again every few minutes. I knew it would get on my nerves–a pun? really?–and I’d have to eat, eventually, but it felt good to ignore it for a while. It was my small fuck you very much to the system. Harry would have tut-tutted at my attempt to play the rebel, he always did, but I think he secretly liked it.

Harry. Right.

I had to do this. I had to test the glitch.

#

EP483: Boris’s Bar

by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
read by Kaitie Radel

author Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

author Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

about the author…

I was raised in New Haven, Con­necti­cut.  I attended the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut for a cou­ple of years but left to marry my hus­band of more than twenty years.  I have three beau­ti­ful chil­dren, who like most chil­dren these days, far out­strip their par­ents in intel­li­gence and cre­ativ­ity.
My days, my con­crete life, are spent car­ing for breast oncol­ogy patients as a reg­is­tered nurse.  I love work­ing as an oncol­ogy nurse.  It keeps me grounded and forces me to remem­ber the tran­sient beauty of life, and the impor­tance of doing what one loves while one can.  It also keeps God fore­most in my mind as I jour­ney through this brief life, that my choices might be accord­ing to His will.
My less ordered life (Don’t we all live mul­ti­ple sep­a­rate lives?) is spent mostly in my head.  I am always attempt­ing to order the mul­ti­tude of ideas that rise unbid­den in my mind when I least expect them.  To some peo­ple this makes me look deeply spir­i­tual and wise, to oth­ers I look angry.  I assure, I am nei­ther.  Some­times the voices of half-formed char­ac­ters speak to me, beg­ging to be recorded for pos­ter­ity, that we might learn from them, or them from us.  Some­times the voice I hear is my own, remind­ing me of my oblig­a­tion to this life.  Unfor­tu­nately, I rarely have time for any of the voices cre­at­ing the chaotic din in my head.
narrator Kaitie Radel

narrator Kaitie Radel

about the narrator…

Kaitie Radel is a music education student and aspiring voice actress, has been voice acting as a hobby for two years.  In addition to this project, she has participated as both a VA and administrator in several fan projects such as The Homestuck Musical Project and Ava’s Melodies.  She can be contacted at kaitlynradel@mail.usf.edu.

 

Boris’s Bar
by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

 

“Orani, tell Boris what is wrong.”    

I told Boris about Enoch and our shared dreams, about how he abandoned me.

“He said I was frigid,” I confided, my head on Boris’s shoulder, his hand stroking my back.

Boris nodded, “What else?”

“He said that for all the credits in the system, I would never learn how to love.”

I’d been drowning in loneliness when I contracted Boris to help me recover from losing Enoch. After two years of long distance communication, Enoch had traveled from Earth to be with me, only to later decide it was a mistake. “You’re not the human being I thought you were,” he said, which was rich because he wasn’t a human being at all.

When I was spent of energy and tears, Boris lifted me into his arms, like steel support beams, and carried me to the bathroom. He undressed and washed me. He kissed my tearful eyes. He rubbed my skin with oil. With Boris I finally felt warm and safe.

“Orani, you are worthy and lovable. I want you to know this,” he murmured to me as he carried me back to bed. “I want you to feel like a little baby.”

“I don’t remember what that’s like,” I told him.

#

EP482: Chimeras

author Julie Steinbacher

author Julie Steinbacher (image is © Folly Blaine)

by Julie Steinbacher
read by Jessica Dubish
guest host Gabrielle de Cuir

about the author…

Julie Steinbacher is fully human, whatever that means. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she is an MFA candidate at North Carolina State University. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Workshop, and her fiction appears in Terraform. You can follow her on Twitter @jofthewolves.

 

about the narrator…

Jessica Dubish is a sophomore Theatre Major at George Mason University. George Mason University; The Merchant (Gypsy Busker), Women and Wallace (Victoria), Slumber Party (Nancy), The Blue Room (The Girl), The Vagina Monologues (My Angry Vagina), Dido, Queen of Carthage (Cupid). Jessica is a Teaching Artist at Acting for Young People.

narrator Jessica Dubish

narrator Jessica Dubish

 

Chimeras
by Julie Steinbacher

You’ve heard going chimera is addictive. You’ve never done any hard drugs, so you’re not afraid of what this means. The “Free Consultations” sign on the clinic has drawn you in, not for the first time. It’s raining lightly in the city and droplets cling to your long hair and your nose. Bumps rise on your bare arms. You have the money for the first operation–savings you were going to put toward an apartment just for you and him–and the time: your whole life. You push open the door.

#

The waiting room is full of people. Some have only subtle modifications, pigment alteration to suggest stripes, lengthened earlobes, eyes that shine in the low lamplight. There are others who stare at you with unblinking reptilian irises, or who run sandpaper tongues across pointed canines. And then there are the other naturals like you, all huddled in one corner, stinking to some, probably, like fear and nerves. The bravado leaks out of you, but you force yourself to the desk, where you add your name to the list.

Then you find a place to sit in the center of the room and avoid eye contact with everyone, natural or not. You’re not going to lose your nerve now. You’re making a choice, going against all the promises you made to T–but then, he broke his promises to you.

Magazines litter the end tables to make the room look more homey. Animal women are on their covers, or beautiful animal men. There are interviews in Fur & Scales with a handful of celebrities on their personal journeys to chimera. The season’s fashions are highlighted on a page–lacy webbed fingers, dappled rumps, prehensile tails. Your name is called and you furl the magazine and put it in your purse.

#

EP481: Temporary Friends

by Caroline M. Yoachim
read by Caitlin Buckley

author Caroline M. Yoachim

author Caroline M. Yoachim

about the author…

I’m a photographer and writer currently living in Seattle, Washington. I’ve published about two dozen fantasy and science fiction short stories, in markets that include Asimov’sLightspeed MagazineInterzone, and Daily Science Fiction. In 2011 I was nominated for a Nebula Award for my novelette “Stone Wall Truth,” which you can read online here at my website.

For a list of my publications, see my writing page.

about the narrator…

Hey – my name is Caitlin Buckley, and I’m narrating this week’s episode. I’ve been voice acting for just over a year, but talking funny for my entire life – and I think it’s just such fun. If you want to see other stuff I’ve been involved with, I keep a blog with all my work: https://caitlinva.wordpress.com/. Thanks for listening!

narrator Caitlin Buckley

narrator Caitlin Buckley

 

 

Temporary Friends
by Caroline M. Yoachim

The second week of kindergarten, Mimi came home with a rabbit. Despite numerous mentions of the Temporary Friends project in the parent newsletter, I wasn’t prepared to see my five-year-old girl cuddling a honey-colored fluffball that was genetically engineered to have fatally high cholesterol and die of a heart attack later in the school year.

“I named him Mr. Flufferbottom.” Mimi told me. I glared at Great-Grandpa John, who’d been watching her while I finished up my shift at the clinic. He shrugged. My gruff maternal grandfather wasn’t my first choice of babysitter, but he needed a place to stay and I needed someone to watch Mimi after school.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to name him, honey?” I knelt down and put my hand on Mimi’s shoulder. “He’s a completely biological rabbit, and this kind doesn’t tend to live very long.”

“Teacher said to pick good names for our rabbits,” Mimi said. “Besides, you put new parts on people, so if Mr. Flufferbottom breaks you can fix him.”

Replacement pet parts were readily available online, and the self-installing models could be put in by anyone who could afford the hefty price tag and follow simple instructions. But replacement parts defeated the purpose of the lesson — research showed that children needed to experience death in order to achieve normal emotional development. Aside from the occasional suicide or tragic accident, there weren’t many occasions to deal with loss. Schools were required to incorporate Temporary Friends into their kindergarten curriculum in order to get government funding.

The school couldn’t control what parents did, of course, but the parent newsletter strongly discouraged tampering with the damned death pets in any way.

“Mimi, sweetie, that’s not how it works this time — I know we get a lot of extra parts for Graycat, but your Temporary Friend is only until…” I tried to remember from the newsletter how long the rabbits were engineered to live. Six months? “Only until March, and then we’ll say goodbye.”

I expected Mimi to put up a big fuss, but she didn’t. She took Mr. Flufferbottom to the cage we’d set up in her room and got him some food and water.

EP480: To the Knife-Cold Stars

by A. Merc Rustad
read by Mat Weller

author A. Merc Rustad

author A. Merc Rustad

about the author…

Hello and welcome! My name is Merc Rustad and I’m a queer non-binary writer and filmmaker who likes dinosaurs, robots, monsters, and cookies. My fiction has appeared in nifty places like ScigentasyDaily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. (More at the Published Fiction tab at the top of the page.)

I’m mostly found on Twitter @Merc_Rustad and occasionally playing in cardboard boxes. The site is updated with publication announcements, completed short films, and occasional blog-like essays. (For more semi-regular blogging, I hang out on LJ and DW.)

narrator Mat Weller

narrator Mat Weller

about the narrator…

<<text redacted>>

Mat last Read for EP episode 466: Checkmate

 

To the Knife-Cold Stars
by A. Merc Rustad

When Grace opens his newly crafted eye, the first thing he sees is wire. Thick cords of braided wire snaking like old veins up the walls. It’s dim inside the surgical unit, but for all the black metal and mesh shelves, it _feels_ clean, even in the heat. The air still has the unfamiliar taste of crude oil. Sweat sticks the borrowed clothes to his skin. He blinks, a flicker of pain in his head as the left eyelid slides down over cool metal buried in the socket.

He’s awake and he’s alive.

The anesthetic hasn’t worn off. It’s sluggish in his blood, an unpleasant burn at the back of his throat. It blurs the edges of his thoughts like too much bad wine. But it doesn’t dull the deep-etched fear still unspooling through his gut. He survived the demon, survived his own execution. It’s a hard thing to accept, even days later. He wants to touch the new eye, this machine part of his body, the forever-reminder what happened. Doesn’t dare, yet.

“Back with us, eh?” says a raspy voice muffled by a respirator.

Grace turns his head, slow and careful. He dimly recalls the wire-tech mumbling about whiplash in his neck and the horrific bruising along his ribs and back where the welts are still healing. “Guess so.”

The tech is a small man dressed in heavy surgical leathers that are studded with metal sheeting. Old blood speckles the apron and gloves; the metal and rivets are spotless. Only the skin on his forehead is visible under thick embedded glasses and a breather covering nose and mouth. “Nearly died on us, you did. Venom went right into the blood.”

The demon’s venom. Grace doesn’t reach to touch his face where the sunspawn’s claws took out his eye and split flesh to bone. He doesn’t look down, either. A new shirt and worn jeans cover whatever scars the demon left on his belly and thighs. He shivers in the heat. He doesn’t know if he can ever look at himself again; what will Humility think–

Humility.

Grace trembles harder. Humility will never see him again.

_Don’t think._ Harder a self-command than it should be. _Don’t go back there._

“He’s tough.”

The second voice jerks Grace’s attention back to where he is. He turns his head again, wincing. He craves more anesthetic, and hates that he wants it. Numbness is just another way to hide.

Bishop stands near the narrow doorway, leaning against corded wire that bunches like supports along the wall. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, dressed in travel-worn leathers with a breather mask over the lower part of his face. His mechanical eyes gleam dull green in the surgical bay’s weak florescent glow.