By James L. Sutter
They’re waiting for him when he comes out of the tank. Whether plainclothes or just another pair of clockers, he can’t quite tell, but the way they avoid looking in his direction tips him off in a heartbeat. When Ari Marvel walks by, you _look_.
They start drifting idly in his direction, and that clinches things. Reaching down into the lining of his pocket, Ari palms the whole batch and trails his hand over the edge of the bridge railing. The brittle grey modsticks crumble with ease, and by the time the two have dropped their cover and made the sting he’s moved smoothly into position, hands against the brick and legs spread wide. The pigs don’t even thank him for being so efficient. The patdown’s rougher than necessary, but after a minute they throw their hoods back up and move off down the street.
Ari runs his hands through his faded blue-green spikes, then takes the stairs down to the tube. A beginner might have lingered at the railing and thought about all the time and money now floating down the culvert, but Ari doesn’t look back. Necessary expenditures. Expected losses.
It’s just business, baby.
Back at the pad, Maggie’s waiting by the door. She looks like hell: hair in ratty dreads, shirt stained with god-knows-what. Crust in her eyes.
“Hey, Ari,” she says.
Ari slides his keycard into the lock, checking first to see if the hair he put over the swipestripe has been moved. Still there. It doesn’t mean that nobody’s been there, of course–just that if they have been, they’re good enough that there’s no point in worrying about it. You win some, you lose some.
Inside, it looks like he’s won. Maggie plops down on the couch, worrying a hangnail that’s started to bleed. Her foot taps on the coffee table.
“Hey,” she says again. He drops his coat onto the chair and moves into the kitchen to get a soda. She picks up the remote and begins flipping rapidly through the channels, then turns the set off again. Eventually he leaves the can on the counter and comes back into the living room, sitting down on the coffee table across from her and taking her hands.
“Maggie, look at me.” She does–or, at least, as well as she’s able to at this point.
“I’m only going to say this once. You’re welcome to crash here, but you’re not getting a fix. I won’t have that in my house. You understand?”
She nods–those wide doe eyes the color of egg yolk–then goes back to gnawing at her thumb. He stands and leaves her there, entering the bedroom and closing the door. Once it’s locked, he jimmies loose the bottom drawer of the dresser and flips a wad of sweaty bills into the crudely carved hollow. Then he drops fully clothed onto the mattress and covers his eyes with his forearm, blocking out the ruddy afternoon light that still filters in through heavy curtains. Out in the apartment, he can hear her moving about restlessly.
He’s doing it again. It doesn’t matter that he knows how it’ll end, that he knows how it _has_ ended more than once. It’s simply a given: she’ll show up. He’ll let her in. Things will proceed accordingly. He bears down with his arm until the muted red of his eyelids turns to black, and then to stars.
The worst of it is that even through the filth, he can still see her. Inside the shell of those dreads, her hair is still gold verging on white, so fine as to be almost intangible. Behind the bruises and bags, her eyes would still crinkle upward if she smiled. And if he opened his arms, she might still flow into them like water, sparkling and warm and full of life.
Ari is not a stupid man, but Maggie is an exception.
Eyes clenched tight, Ari curls up on his side and falls asleep.
Any idiot with a fifth-grade education can get into it. If X is the price you pay for the product and Y is the cash you get from the girl-boys and junkies down on Madison, how many hits do you have to sell to earn one for yourself? Simple algebra.
The problem is that so few people get beyond that phase. Buy the goods from a lifer like Mickey or C.T., sell enough to pay for the rest, then get blasted in an alley or flophouse and hope the pigs don’t raid until you come down. That’s the killer, right there–as soon as you stick that junk in your head, your profit margin drops immediately to zero. Do not pass Go.
Ari knew better. Where small-time boys like C.T. were just middlemen, Ari cut straight from the source code. Where Mickey would drop his stash and run at the sight of a pig, Ari tied his shoe and made the product disappear, only to have it back in his pocket by the time they rounded the corner. It was an art and a science, but always–_always_–a business.
It’s eight o’clock and she looks better, if one corpse can look better than another. Head back and mouth wide, snores threaten to shake apart her tiny frame. Setting his gear down, Ari gently takes the hand trailing onto the carpet and lays it across her chest, scrawny and thin as a prepubescent boy’s. She doesn’t even stir. He moves past her into the bedroom.
Slipping on a pair of thick glasses he’d never be caught dead in on the street, he unfolds the laptop and sets up shop. With the software loading, he spools up the burner and busts out a package of generic modsticks. Cheap, easy, and infinitely upgradable, whatever’s on sale at the pharmacy is usually fine. Tonight it’s anti-flu mods. He checks the make and model, then logs into the company’s network remotely and anonymously, sliding past the firewalls and into the secure servers.
Back in the day, this would have been an all-night affair, chugging coffee and stayawakes as crack after crack failed to breach the infrastructure. Now it’s down to a simple login–as long as he never shifts stuff around, the nanoceutical corporations never notice him. A ghost among giants.
Once the modstick’s code downloads, he begins the real work: slicing and fusing lines, carefully reprogramming to remove certain safety features and incorporate his own. It’s more than just tripping the right biochemical switches–there are the secondary effects, the sweet afterglow that gives his mods the edge over everyone else’s. For a minute, he forgets about the business and lets himself be carried away by the beauty of it, the purity. Just code. No junkies. No pigs. No cash. Just code.
He inserts the first stick and cues the burner.
Cutting was everything. Amidst all the bullshit, the simple act of cutting was the one part of school that Ari truly enjoyed, and it showed. Time and again the teachers would hold up his latest creations and ask why he couldn’t apply the same level of commitment to, say, physics or history. How was he supposed to explain it to them? They might appreciate his code, but that didn’t mean they understood it. When one of them uploaded a bioexe, they saw expediency. Function. Utility. They never saw it in the way that he made it. Codecutting was _art_. Efficiency wasn’t enough–it had to be elegant.
He’d been nicked jacking the editing software from the educational consoles, but that was only to be expected. He wasn’t a hacker like the petty script kiddies that filled the labs, joyriding across systems and leaving their graffiti everywhere. For him, hacking was a means to an end, and once he’d hidden the backups he handed over the software and did his time in juvie like a man. At eighteen the smear was wiped from his record, and Ari “Marvel” Magnusson was free from the stigma of youthful indiscretion.
God bless America.
It’s not like he was doing anything immoral. The nanoceuticals you bought at the store already ripped you apart and reformatted you according to their programming. He just removed limitations, changed objectives. Where a conventional nanocyte loaded with a bioexe might give you improved defenses against the common cold, his offered voluntary control of adrenal glands and fat storage. The ability to control involuntary muscles and speed up reaction times, to stop smoking or orgasm at will–Ari gave you all of it, and for a reasonable fee. It was amazing what circumventing the FDA made possible.
It was the voluntary serotonin reuptake inhibitors that paid the bills, of course. The happy sticks. Cut the brain’s natural ability to reabsorb the right chemicals, and pretty soon your frontal lobes are floating in a euphoria cocktail. Add in the ability to switch the effect on and off at will, and pharmacological drugs start to look as barbaric as leechings and lobotomies.
Like all modsticks, bliss hacks were a temporary fix–cells produced that way were invariably mules, incapable of normal reproduction beyond the nanocyte’s activation. Once the program ran its course, half a million years of cell memory took over again and things went back to normal. For the anti-cancer sticks or the athletic performance upgrades, that was usually that.
The bliss kids, however, were another story. Use often enough, and your body forgets exactly where it left your natural set point, leaving you with a full-on case of the jones: sweating, shaking, mood swings–the whole nine yards. Addiction, baby, of a purity not seen since the opiate days.
By itself, binging and jonesing was mostly harmless–as long as you had another mod headed your way, you could keep going indefinitely. Some of the rich kids–and their parents–did just that, blissing out to a ripe old age. The problem was always the cash. Bio hacks were _expensive_–maybe you started out buying top-grade stuff like Ari’s, but once the need got its claws into you, standards started to shift. You started to take what you could get, and sooner or later a clocker slipped you some bad code. The results could be seen in doorways and gutters up and down Madison or Seventh, when they hadn’t been rounded into a public health van and whisked away to finish festering in a nice quarantine somewhere.
The whole thing was beyond stupid. Ari never touched the stuff.
She’s cooking when he wakes up. From the doorway to the bedroom he can smell the eggs blackening, hear them growing crumbly and bitter on the Teflon coating.
She smiles, a little shakily, but her eyes are clear and steady. The dreads are clean, and she’s found another shirt somewhere. He drops his coat and wanders into the kitchen. To his surprise, the eggs don’t look as bad as they could–as they would have, once upon a time. A pepper lies minced on the cutting board, waiting to be sacrificed to the flames.
“Hey, Ari,” she says, and the smile makes her face a little rounder. She looks like she wants to say something else, but before she can he moves forward and wraps her up from behind. Her head nestles into the gap between his collarbone and neck, and their breathing slows into unison, eyes closed. Her hair smells like his shampoo.
He reaches out and turns the burner down.
“Thanks,” she whispers.
His first sale had him sweating bullets. What the hell was a nineteen-year-old suburban kid doing out on Madison after dark, lurking in the shadows with the crazies and the whores? The worst were the genuine clockers–leather-clad punks covered in piercings that street superstition said messed with the pigs’ alloy scans. If they had known that the ‘burb rat was trying to clock, not a mark there to make a purchase, they probably would have handed him his ass in a second, but the sweat on his forehead must have convinced them he wasn’t serious competition. Honestly, Ari didn’t think he belonged there either, but cutting equipment kept getting more expensive, and delivering pizza wasn’t going to do the trick.
He’d only been there half an hour when he spotted his mark–a kid his own age, in slacks and a sweater, looking even less appropriate than Ari. Sensing a kindred spirit, the boy hustled over.
“Hey,” he whispered, “you holding?”
Ari leaned back against the rail and did his best to play it cool, hoping the damp patches in his armpits weren’t showing.
“Hell no, man,” he spat. “I’m a paperboy. What you need?”
The kid thrust a fistful of notes in his direction, whispering the laughable street name of a sexual performance mod. What a lack of imagination these kids had. Ari snatched the bills.
“Get out of here,” he growled. “You think I do that trash?” He shoved past the boy, hard enough to knock him over. From the mud, the kid started to protest, only to realize partway through his tirade that his right hand now held a tiny gray stick. Down the street, Ari allowed himself a quick smile. He turned the corner.
A stinking mass rose up and slammed him against the wall before he could cry out. Pinned by his shoulders, all Ari could see were yellow teeth and eyes. As his breath returned, so did his focus, enough to make out the pustule-covered face an inch from his own.
“Whatcha think you’re doing, boy?” The old black man pinning Ari to the wall twitched with rage and withdrawal. “You think this is fun?”
Ari shook himself, and little flecks of the man’s arm came off on his shirt. He fought the urge to vomit.
“Please,” he gasped. “It’s not like that. I don’t do that.”
The old man pressed harder against him. “Oh, really?” he asked, sliding his diseased cheek against Ari’s, letting him feel its oozing warmth. “You think that kid out there deserves to end up like this?”
“No, please, no, I–” This time Ari did retch. “I don’t do that, I’m a good cutter, clean, I wouldn’t let that happen, I-oh-please-I-god…” Tears began to leak down Ari’s face. With a final shake, the old man let him drop, and Ari stumbled forward and past, sprinting to the end of the alley before turning back. The old man sat where he’d collapsed, blood oozing from open sores where his hands had held the soft fabric of Ari’s shirt. He put his head down on his knees and wept like a baby.
Ari turned and ran.
She’s not there when he gets home, but he can smell the remains of breakfast in the sink. Setting his coat down on the couch, it takes him almost an entire breath to notice that the door to the bedroom is open. Dishes clatter as his hip slams into the corner of the counter, but he doesn’t feel it, scrambling across the linoleum toward the doorway.
She’s on the floor next to the computer chair, limbs twisted at strange angles by contracted muscles. He drops to his knees and puts an ear to her chest, listening for any flutter, but her skin is already cool and the drool on her cheek is a dry white trail. Her eyes are closed, face taut with a pleasure beyond bearing.
He wants to scream, to cry, to explain, but realizes as he opens his mouth that he has nothing to say. Instead he kneels over her bird-thin frame and cradles her head in his hands, rubbing swollen eyes through clean hair and breathing it in with each shuddering breath, as above them the computer hums softly with lines of sloppy code.
They’re there by the bridge again, still thinking that a jacket and dyed hair can cover up the way they carry themselves, years of pride and academy training. Ari leans back against the rail and casually scratches his groin as they approach through the crowd, feeling the modsticks in his pocket, ready to be palmed, rubbed, and dropped.
Choreographed, all of it. Just a flick of his wrist, and he’s free to walk away. Every day, the same dance.
He leaves the sticks where they are and moves his hand away.
Up against the wall, the pig jerks in surprise at the shapes in Ari’s pocket, then slams Ari’s face against the concrete and reaches for his cuffs. A voice in the background calls it in to the station. From his place on the sidewalk, Ari stares past the railing at the gurgling water in the culvert, endlessly carrying away the grime of the city. He smiles.
It’s just business, baby.
About the Author
James L. Sutter is a co-creator of the Pathfinder and Starfinder Roleplaying Games. From 2004 to 2017, he worked as an editor and developer for Paizo Publishing, starting on Dungeon Magazine, moving on to do foundational work for Pathfinder, and eventually becoming the Creative Director in charge of launching Starfinder, as well as the Executive Editor of the Pathfinder Tales novel line. In 2017, after guiding Starfinder through the most successful game launch in Paizo’s history, he resigned from the company in order to write full-time.
James is the author of the novels Death’s Heretic—ranked #3 on Barnes & Noble’s Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel—and The Redemption Engine, which won the 2015 Scribe Award for Best Original Speculative Novel. In addition to a wealth of award-winning tabletop gaming material, he’s also written comics, video games, and essays and short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death.