Though it was chilly, without even the sun for light, the man had his shirt off, the straps of his overalls tied around his waist. He had virtually no body fat on his frame, and more muscle in his forearm alone than I had in my entire body. Tattoos covered him, his arms and back an artist’s doodle pad of fish tailed goats, mermaids, and other scantily-clad women.
I watched as he lifted a crate onto the bed of a cart. The crate was filled with metal, and rattled, the cart’s end bobbing as it adjusted to the weight.
He was a ‘Bruno’. While Bruno was slang for a brute, a guy that was more strong than smart, it also was the term used most often to describe the men and the exceedingly rare women who went to back alley clinics and walked out with more muscle than they’d had when they started. Sometimes it was drugs, sometimes it was a rewriting of their physical makeup, and sometimes it was grafts, from vat-grown sources or from animals.
Most did it because the cost of the procedure was low, compared to the added dollars they could make being manual laborers. It meant a year or two to pay off the medical expenses, then a few decades of living like a king. Relatively speaking, anyway, in a place like Lugh.
But the drugs meant dependency and tolerance. The rewriting of one’s makeup always had other consequences in the long run. Grafts from animals meant possible rejection or having to take drugs, and grafts from vat-grown life didn’t always last that long, meaning more surgeries and replacements.
It amounted to the same thing. A shortened lifespan. Maybe a halved one.
Curiosity satisfied, I turned my attention briefly to Jamie. He was studying the man too.
When old Jamie had been erased, had that been erased too?
“Alright,” the man said. He turned and faced us. “First off…”
“Sparing you the time you’d need to go buy yourself something,” I said. I extended a hand into the bag Jamie had. I held out a massive hunk of fresh baked bread with stuff crammed between the two halves. Not quite a roll, but too crude to be a sandwich. We’d bought it and a few more like it at a stall further down the street, for maybe half the amount that I would have had to hand the Bruno to get him talking comfortably. Jamie handed me a bottle, and the man took that too.
He didn’t eat it, but put it on one corner of the cart for later.
“We’re looking for work,” I said.
The Bruno belted out a laugh.
Altered lungs, to go with an altered heart. Adding seventeen stone of raw muscle to your frame means needing more oxygen to that muscle, and a heart to push that blood around.
“I’ll give you the rest of my pay for today if you can even lift one corner of the crate over there,” he told me. “Either of you.”
“We’re friends with this girl, she was an Academy student. Smart as a whip,” I said. “We’ve been helping her out, she owes us one. She’s going to find work here, she’s going to get us work, helping. We’re helping look, to speed up the process.”
“Ah, my boy,” the man said. He took a seat on the back of the wagon. “Let me tell you, I think you’re in for a bit of heartbreak.”
“I think I’m more the heartbreaker type than the heartbroken type,” I said.
He laughed again, as if the idea of me being a heartbreaker was as ludicrous as me hauling a crate full of machine parts.
Jamie moved, beside me, and I glanced at him. But he was just shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He wasn’t making a point, reacting to anything, nor was he trying to signal me.
The Bruno’s laugh quickly became a chuckle.
Jamie had reminded me of something pretty dang close to actual heartbreak. I wondered if losing my best friend counted, or if it had to be romance.
If heartbreak by way of romance was worse, I wasn’t sure how the species had survived this far. Just thinking about Jamie in passing was enough to knock the air out of me.
It wasn’t hard to put an annoyed expression on my face. The trick was making sure the expression wasn’t too severe, or that it didn’t slip from annoyance to something else altogether.
“Girls are trouble,” the man said, as he finished chuckling. “You’re in for disappointment. It sounds like you gave your time and attention to the girl for a while, but nice and sweet as she seems right now, she’ll drop you in a heartbeat when someone says they’ll pay a fair wage, but they’ll take only her.”
It wasn’t so far off from the reality.
Lillian would leave. She would work towards her black coat and hopefully being an exemplary professor, one that bettered the world instead of butchering it, but she had that dream she was following, and the Lambs would be a distant memory. There was a slim chance she’d leave before the Lambs all expired, and with me being last to die, she would inevitably be leaving me.
She would be upset to do it, she would consider staying for us, whether us meant Lillian and me or Lillian and the Lambs, but she would go one way or the other. Even if I had to make her.
“It seems like I struck home,” the Bruno said.
“She’s nicer than you’re making her out to be,” I said. He seemed to want to see me as the naive child, so I would play that role.
“They all are,” the Bruno said. “Very few people throw themselves into bad situations thinking that person is an utter bastard, or that group is a rotten bunch of you-know-whats. They always make it seem like a good deal at first.”
I nodded slowly, as if I was taking it all in, then looked up, asking, “Have you heard about anything that might do? A place where she might have an in?”
He didn’t sigh or try to shake any sense into me. He did offer me a sympathetic smile. I could see that some of his teeth had been worked on. The color between them was slightly different, some very white, on contrast to his dark brown skin, tanned a darker brown somehow, despite the meager sun in Lugh. “A hundred places where she might have an in.”
The only thing worse than not getting an answer to a question was getting too many.
“She’s good, a lot of the critical stuff is fresh in her memory,” I said. “Do you know anyone good? The whole… thing there looks well done. Maybe the doctor who did it?”
The man smiled, looking down at his chiseled body. I was pretty sure the compliment had struck home, but he didn’t show it. “Uh huh, no, this isn’t top dollar work.”
I injected just a bit more of a childlike tone into my voice as I spoke, “It isn’t? But I’ve seen some people and it looks wrong, the way they fit together. They look ugly.”
“It’s not,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. Playing at being younger than I was meant I could be more persistent. “Could we maybe talk to that doctor anyways, then?”
“I don’t know if I want to send trouble to his doorstep.”
“Okay,” I said. If I pushed, he might get annoyed. “Drat.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“Can you point us in the right direction, at least?” Jamie jumped in. “Not your doctor, but any one of those hundred places you mentioned?”
“I can. You come in by boat?”
“You would have passed the market. Open space between the four towers, the ones that-”
I was raising my fingers, two fingers extended on each hand, pointing straight up. Two towers on each side.
“-Exactly,” he said. He reached down, using a thick finger to draw a line between my ‘towers’, “If this is the road, then you want to go to the back corner here.”
“He does back-alley work, more in the way of taking away than giving or fixing. For people who need money fast. A few coins for blood or for letting him scrape away some of your body fat, he’ll take a slice of your muscle for more. The deals he offers in taking away something more substantial, they sound good at first. I don’t want you lads to think letting him work on you is a good idea, alright? That’s not why I’m sending you there.”
“We’re not stupid,” I said, injecting some emotion into my voice. Decrying one’s maturity or lack of stupidity was one of the best ways to seed the idea in people’s heads.
“Sure,” he said, sounding utterly unconvinced. “Listen, if you let him take your blood, and if he thinks he can get away with it, he’s going to signal some others in that marketplace. You’ll stumble off, lightheaded, not as focused as you should be, and you won’t make it where you’re going.”
I let my eyes widen.
“The reason I recommend him is he’s easy to find, and he knows the people around town. Don’t trust him, get your girl and any other friends you can find together and don’t go unarmed, wherever he sends you. If he’s asking you to meet some people tonight or tomorrow or any time that isn’t now, assume he’s taken all that time to gather his buddies together.”
“This might not be a good idea,” I said, while thinking, this is perfect.
“Might not be, but I’m assuming you don’t have people to look after you?”
I shook my head. “Some of the other kids have parents, but…” I trailed off, gesturing in no particular way, as if it was too complicated to voice.
“Yeah,” the Bruno said. “I understand you.”
“Do you?” I asked.
“Not from experience. For me, it was being born poor, going to war thinking it could get me out of poverty. A woman was bound up in it too. I’m happier to put it all behind me. It’s good to be here, knowing that I’m putting food on my own table, sleeping in my own bed, and I know where I work tomorrow. Might be in Lugh of all places, but at least here the authorities are very reluctant to try drafting anyone. I don’t need to worry about going back out there.”
“I’m not a coward,” he said.
I shook my head. Saying virtually anything might have prickled him, dashing any goodwill we’d built up.
“Out there, far from a well lit city, the light from the lanterns only reaches out maybe thirty, forty feet, and a lot of the time it’s so dark you can’t see a damn thing beyond that. You know that if a fight starts, which it can, at any moment, then you and your buddies are just about the most vulnerable combatants on the field. Not worth it. Not for the pay, and not for the girl.”
“We-,” I started, “I know what you mean. About feeling that way, in a dangerous situation.”
He stared me in the eye, as if challenging that assertion.
Then he seemed to accept it.
“You be safe,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about giving blood to that rat-face bloodsucker in the market. You’ve got to protect yourself from the ideas others have, the ones they push down on you. Life’s too short to give years of your life to anyone but you. Not to an army, not to a boss, and not to a girl.”
So you say, but do you know how many years those muscles you bought are going to take from you? There are no old Brunos.
“Sometimes there’s no choice,” I said.
“Mm,” he said. “Worst of the girls, the armies, the bosses, they’ll convince you of that when it’s not true.”
I nodded. I let that go without a response from me. There was a part of me that wanted to play with that some, toy with my expression, convince him that he’d changed my mind or at least started to. It was the fastest way to win somebody over. People craved making an impact on the world, especially positive ones.
But he’d been more than fair. I liked him well enough.
When I next met his eyes, it was with my own, no act, no pretense. It wasn’t enough of a change to disturb or throw him off, but it was genuine enough.
“Tell you what,” he said. “If ratface tries to screw with you, let me know. I’ll set him straight. If he doesn’t, maybe keep an eye out for me, alright? Say hi, tell me how it’s going with that girl of yours, and that you’re alright.”
“Can do,” I said. “Thank you.”
“What’s his name, so we know him when we find him?” Jamie asked.
“Cecil,” the Bruno said.
“And your name? We’re Simon and James.”
“Adam,” the man said.
“Thank you, Adam,” I said, with my own voice, as I extended a hand. His hand enveloped mine, as he very gently shook it.
Jamie and I headed on our way.
We left the factory yard behind us. Half of the people present weren’t working at all, but were drinking, talking, or playing cards. Many had tattoos, or purely cosmetic changes to their bodies. Gills, changes to their mouths, teeth, and jaws. One had an arm similar to Mauer’s, though not so grotesque or non-functional. The branches that stuck out of it were flowering.
The attitude seemed to be one where the bosses didn’t care, so long as the work got done, and the employees seemed willing to do their share.
“That was easy,” Jamie replied. “You didn’t even have to manipulate him.”
“I manipulated him lots.”
“But you didn’t have to.”
I shrugged. “It’s about setting the right context. It’s late afternoon, bordering on evening, he’s got to be hungry. That animal inside all of us craves basic food, shelter, and comforts. If we meet those needs, we become happy. A man can create a sense of false love in a prisoner he controls by creating that happiness and confusing it. Give a hungry man a sandwich, frame things right, and that’s most of the work done already, just have to keep the greased wheels spinning.”
Jamie gave me a sidelong look.
“What’s the real answer?”
“You’ve known me for maybe half of the four months you’ve-”
“Five months you’ve been with us, while we’ve been shuffling and restructuring teams for whatever missions we wind up doing. I don’t think you’ve known me nearly long enough to be doing that kind of analysis of me.”
“Bullshit identification, you mean.”
“Whatever you want to call it.”
“Uh huh,” he said. “What’s the real answer? You got on with him pretty well there.”
“You can distract the others, and they’ll forget to keep a topic going. But I won’t forget, Sy. I can keep bringing this up. The books have answers and filled me in on each of you, but if there’s something I’m missing that makes me feel like I’d understand any of you better, you should know I’m going to go after it until I get answers.”
“But see, there’s a cost to doing that,” I said. “If you’re obnoxious, then you’ll do irreparable harm to the relationship between yourself and whoever you’re interrogating.”
He raised his eyebrows, looking over his spectacles at me.
“What?” I asked.
“Think long and hard about what you just said.”
“I beg your pardon, sir Jamie, but I’m far from being obnoxious. I’m playful, clever, I challenge-”
He cut me off. “You’re obnoxious. Sometimes.”
“Often enough,” he said.
I held out my finger, pointing it at him, ready to retort. He reached out, and pushed my hand gently down.
I didn’t want to jump away like I had earlier, when he’d tried to pat my shoulder on the ship’s deck, and in my recollection of that moment and all the negative emotions that had been bound up in it, I lost the retort I’d been planning.
He seized that moment of weakness. “What’s the answer to my question? What was going on there?”
I sighed. He smiled.
“He’s like us,” I said. “Close enough.”
“You’re talking about the shortened lifespan, with work of that scale.”
“An excellent doctor won’t run into that problem,” Jamie said. Before I could make a counter argument, he provided it himself, “But he said it wasn’t top dollar work.”
“So he’s like us, but not just because of his short lifespan.”
“He talked about the trap he fell into early, being born poor, seeming to only have one path ahead of him, joining the military, but he made it out to be a mistake. That he had a choice and he didn’t see the alternative. I don’t think that’s true.”
Jamie was silent.
“The need to feel free is like the need for food, shelter, and companionship,” I said. “At best, we do what he did, and tell ourselves that we’re free. Or we let people convince us.”
“Giving a hungry man a sandwich,” Jamie said. “Earning his devotion.”
I nodded. I smiled a little, “It’s kind of funny. He was treating me like he was the master, teaching the student. Probably thought I was similar to how he was as a naive youngster. But here I am, and I’m thinking he’s the one who’s a few years too early to realize that while he was complacent, someone else went and built walls around him to enclose him.”
We turned onto the main road that led down to the market.
I saw members of one of the other families. The father was trying halfheartedly to get the attention of a couple walking down the street. I made eye contact with the two girls that were with him, one of whom was the one I’d sniffed. I beckoned.
“Are you trying to convince me or yourself, Sy?” Jamie asked, quiet.
The family started to make their way across the street. With traffic mostly flowing up and down the road that sloped down in the direction of the harbor and the dead sea monster, they had to stop frequently to wait for a chance to pass. It was all the more difficult because they didn’t want traffic to cut between them and separate daughter from father or sister from sister.
It got more difficult as a coach parked at one spot on the street, the man and the cases stacked on the top blocking light from one of the few streetlamps nearby. It wasn’t night, but it wasn’t easy to track what was happening in the immediate vicinity while also watching one’s step for puddles, horseshit, and holes.
I didn’t answer Jamie’s question.
At least, this time, he seemed willing to let it lie.
The family joined us. Father and daughters. It was more numbers, dealing with someone more unscrupulous. He might see us as less vulnerable.
“Just stick with us for a minute, let me do the talking,” I said.
The market wasn’t far, and it, thankfully, was well lit by the people trying to sell goods. Food was predominant, and much of it was food of a very dubious sort. Slabs of meat were laid out on racks, and meat-like substances laid out on more. The vegetables in particular looked very questionable, handled enough that bruises were omnipresent, and this place was far from any nearby farmland, from the looks of it.
There was art, too, and one table of books that saw a surprising amount of attention from the crowd. At two stands, in areas that were partially curtained off, artists worked to tattoo people, while others looked on.
I passed by the table of books, and I glanced back at Jamie. There was a whole row of dime store novels, and more serious texts. I let my fingers trail the illustrated covers. The Monster’s Games. The Red Haired Girl and the Killer Witch. Mousetrap. I felt like there were a half dozen conversation starters on the tip of my tongue.
But Jamie had no interest in the slightest. His attention, instead, was on the nearest tattoo artist.
I wasn’t sure why it hit me as hard as it did.
I tried to regulate my breathing. Deep breath, exhale.
It was such a small thing, so minor. I should be able to deal with it.
Damn Gordon, for making me do this with Jamie. I knew his reasons, he liked to brute-force solutions. Jam us together, make this work. If it couldn’t, it couldn’t.
But I couldn’t breathe.
I wiped at one eye, and to make sure it wouldn’t look weird, I ran my hands through my hair. The drizzle from the sky was thin, not enough to make my hair wet much faster than it dried on its own. But there was moisture enough to pull my hair back. I stared directly up.
Jamie seemed to notice me looking skyward. “Getting darker.”
“Yeah,” I said. I managed to say it without sounding funny.
It was as though there were three Sylvesters in one body. One that sounded and acted mostly normal, one that wanted to cry, and a third that wanted to overturn that table of books and do as much damage to as many things in arm’s reach as possible.
Anger at this situation, that Jamie was gone and yet still here. Anger that I was having a conversation with him and there was no heart in it. Every time we talked it was like he was challenging me, sticking me with the hard questions and situations.
As if that last conversation I’d had with old Jamie kept coming back to haunt me. As if he’d never forgotten it.
Are you trying to convince me or yourself, Sy?
I managed to take in and release a breath without a hitch.
It wasn’t a question of convincing, but it might have been a question of conviction.
But there were other things to focus on.
That part of me that wanted to hurt things lingered, frustrated, latent, looking for an outlet that it would probably find.
It wasn’t the best way to approach Ratface Cecil.
The booth was where we’d been told it was. He was in the process of picking bits of chicken off of a bone, while two bodyguards stood on either side of him. One bodyguard ate, the other leaned against the base of the squat, blocky tower, his arms folded. The one that was eating looked augmented. He had claws on one hand.
This damn city. There was no grace to it.
Cecil in particular, looked like the inverse of a proper doctor. His nose was small, his mouth and teeth large, and he didn’t seem to have enough forehead between his thick eyebrows and his hairline.
That said, I wasn’t particularly inclined to like him from the get-go, so my perception of him might have been skewed.
‘Ratface’ choked down his food, scooting his chair forward, eager to see to a customer. My eye roved over the tubes, tools, and syringes that lay on the table behind him.
“Blessings on you,” he said, in a way that came across as very insincere.
Religion. Well, it would flourish in a city like Lugh, where the Academy held less sway.
“Blessings on you as well,” I said.
There must have been something in my voice, because I saw Jamie’s head turn in my peripheral vision.
“Well,” he said, “Look at you, look at you. I don’t know if you have much to spare, with what I buy.”
“I was hoping to have a talk,” I said.
“So long as we’re talking, customers might be keeping their distance. It’s a fact of the trade, people don’t want it to be widely known they need money, it’s why I’m tucked away in this corner, accessible but off the beaten track. Now, if you have a complaint about a friend or family member of yours…”
“No,” I said. “A business opportunity. I want to sell someone.”
His eye turned to Jamie. His head cocked. “Slightly more substantial, I could draw a bit of blood without worrying about taking it all. Are you a boy or a girl?”
“I’m a boy,” Jamie said.
“And he’s not for sale,” I said.
“One of them? All of them?” Cecil asked.
“I’d like to sell an acquaintance. A girl with Academy training. She’s been asking around, looking for work. If you arrange a buyer for her talents, I’ll set her up.”
Cecil studied me, and his eyes met mine. The anger and frustration was still there, simmering beneath the surface, and I suspected he could see it.
“To my clients, this would be, how to put it,” Cecil said, “More economical, because her services wouldn’t be paid for on an ongoing basis? Are you old enough to understand what that means?”
I nodded once.
“It’s possible,” he said.
As I’d done with Adam, I now spoke to Cecil in Cecil’s own language, reflecting the way he most likely saw the world, in terms of opportunity.
It wasn’t pretty, there were loose ends and issues to cover, but it would get the job done fast and cut straight to the meat of things. We couldn’t dig through a hundred different back-alley doctors and groups to find what we were looking for.
I couldn’t do that, not like this. Not with moments and things catching me off guard.
We’d start at the top, with the most unscrupulous person who had the most money and power, then keep carving away until we found what we were looking for.