Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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I Drink the World Poison

by McCamy Taylor

I pull out a chair and sit down to breakfast. Roman greets me the way s/he always does.

"Fascist butcher."

You can tell what the other residents of the boarding house think about me by the way they respond to hir words. Tristan, the aspiring young racer smirks. Adeline, the art student shakes her head slightly and buries her nose in her history of orbiting sculpture holobook. The retired chronomaker, Lu Chin pretends not to hear. Grace, the widow who runs the boarding house glances at me to see if I will rise to the bait.

I never do.

Roman is a synth and an androgyn, which gives hir two reasons to hate me. S/he lost hir family in the civil war. Tantric healers, they were forcibly conscripted by the Nature to serve as comfort women. To make them more aesthetically pleasing to their captors, their male genitals were removed. As the end of hostilities approached and the threat of war crimes tribunals loomed, the Nature commanders ordered their captives exterminated. My job was to bury the bodies where no one would ever find them.

Roman asks Adeline for the fish sauce. S/he asks her twice, before the student looks up from her holo. "Rudy's closer," she mumbles.

Dead silence. Roman's upper lip curls. "I wouldn't take a life vest from that piece of crap if I was drowning." S/he is beautiful, when s/he is not scowling. Black hair smooth as silk, caramel brown skin, black eyes accented by kohl.

"War's over, in case you forgot." Adeline is not usually so talkative. "We won."

Roman raises an eyebrow. "Did we?" Slight emphasis on that last word. "I lost my whole family. How many of your kinfolk did the Nature kill?"

The art student bites her lower lip and looks down at her hands.

"Oh, that's right," Roman continues ruthlessly. "You're a natural. They did it to protect you from monsters like me."

Adeline is close to tears.

Grace intervenes. "Not at the breakfast table."

The healer's expression softens. Grace is one of the "good" naturals, a member of the resistance who offered shelter and protection to synths after the purge began. People like Grace are held up to the rest of us as models, proof that naturals are not necessarily bigoted and violent.

I am halfway through my breakfast when the Somat begins to wear off. The pain starts in my extremities, fingers and toes suddenly cold as ice. My hands go into spasm. I drop my spoon. Fire shoots up my arms. My sciatic nerves spark, sending two bolts of lightning straight up my spine. Ice, fire, lightning converge at the back of my skull. My head starts to swim, then pound as if someone is striking a huge metal hammer against rock. I close my eyes and count my breaths, the way my therapist has taught. By ten, the pain is a dull ache, just barely tolerable.

Somat eases the pain for a few hours, allowing me to sleep. But I cannot function during the day if I am doped up, and so I endure as best I can.

I catch Roman's black eyes upon me. S/he knows what I am going through. Many of hir clients have blue tinged skin, a sign of Poison, the biologic weapon which Nature developed in the last year of the war, when they began to run out of missiles and human fodder. Roman's specialty is tantric healing. If s/he was on fire, and my body was the ocean, s/he would not touch me--that is what s/he said to Grace when she suggested that s/he take me as a client. I can understand hir objection. I buried the remains of hir brother/sisters in the mountains, beneath an overhanging rock that bore an uncanny resemblance to a woman's white breast, full of milk, waiting for an infant deity to suckle. If I were hir, I would probably enjoy watching my suffering, too.

I mumble a quick Thank you to Grace then flee the kitchen. Grabbing my raincoat, I dash into the street. The rail is loading passengers. When my turn comes, the conductor slams the door in my face. My coat hangs at my side. I let the rain wash over me.

By the time the next train arrives, I am soaked to the skin. Standing room only inside the crowded car. A puddle forms beneath my feet. My hair is plastered to my face, hiding my mark of shame, the letter N on my forehead which stands for Nature. The naturals that did not participate in the atrocities object to being lumped together with war criminals, so the press has begun to call us Cains.

Since no one is watching me, I am free to examine the other passengers. It takes my mind off the pain. Half a dozen fishermen, synths with gills and webbed feet. They usually stay close to the docks. What brings them into the city? The rest are naturals, school children mostly, too young to have participated in the recent atrocities. One old man wears his hat pulled low. Shy or hiding a tattoo? Two other blue tinted faces. I recognize them. They are clients at the Somat Clinic. Innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, they caught a dose of Poison intended for synths. Poison was supposed to target humans whose DNA contained plasmid vectors, the marker of genetic engineering. But plasmids don't stay put. They multiply and spread through a population, carrying with them random bits of genetic material. And so, a natural will have a child impervious to radiation. Or a son who is also a daughter who is drawn to sickness the way that flies are drawn to crap--a healer, like Roman.

We are doing it for the children, the leaders of Nature proclaimed. I have seen the bodies of children afflicted with Poison. They don't last long. As soon as they realize that suicide will end the pain, they take the easy way out. Often, their parents assist them. It is no longer a crime to help someone else take his own life, if he is suffering from Poison.

The rail stops in the hospital district. Four of us get off. The old man's hat conceals a blue tinted face. Now I understand his shame. Some people believe that Poison can be caught from casual contact like shaking hands or sharing a toilet seat, and so sufferers sometimes try to hide their affliction.

At the Somat clinic, I pee in a cup to prove that I am the one taking my medication. The nurse has me unbutton my shirt. My torso is the same shade of pale blue as my face. Junkies have started staining their faces and hands with berries in order to get a free fix. Everywhere I look, I see blue faces. Mine is the only one marked with an N tattoo. I am an oddity, a villain who is also a victim. Here, more than any place else, I am hated, reviled. The other patients spit at me. They try to trip me as I walk past them. They ask, loudly "Why does scum like that get Somat? Let him suffer."

As I am leaving the building, two men accost me. The taller one goes by the name of Mr. Slim. The short one calls himself Mr. Silent. As usual, Mr. Silent does all the talking.

"There's a rumor going around the Hall of Justice. New indictments are about to be handed down. You know anything about it?"

"Not a thing."

Mr. Slim moves a little closer. The streets of the city are crowded, but the other pedestrians give us a wide berth.

"Our sources say that the special prosecutor knows the locations of the mass burials."

I shrug, outwardly calm, though inside I am a bundle of nerves. "They didn't get it from me." I touch my forehead. "Would I still be wearing this if I was cooperating with the law?"

Mr. Slim and Mr. Silent do not wear the mark of Cain. Very few of the elite have been identified and even fewer have been convicted. Though Nature lost the war, they still control the banks and commerce, and many civil servants including the prosecutors are naturals.

"What's a letter?" Mr. Silent quips.

I can feel their eyes boring into my back as I duck into the mortuary where I am employed by the state. My task is to prepare the dead for burial according to the dictates of their faith. It is a job for which I am well qualified, given my experiences in the war. Death and I are old friends. When my time comes--or when I chose to end my time on earth in order to escape the never ending pain--I have no doubt that She will call me by name.

I head for the door marked "Eaters." There are thousands of officially recognized religions on the planet. The Eaters are unique, because they believe that the soul of the dead is doomed to walk the material plane forever unless a living human devours the corpse's heart. Traditionally, this act of ritual cannibalism takes place at funerals attended by family members and friends. However, no one wants to consume the flesh of a dead Poison victim, for fear of contracting the disease themselves.

There is a single corpse laid out for me today. A young woman, blonde hair, blue skin. Cause of death--jumped from a bridge and drowned. Probably hoped that her body would be washed away and never found. Eaters afflicted with Poison rarely commit suicide, but when they do, they try not to leave a corpse to burden their families.

For breakfast, I had agar porridge with dried fish cake. For lunch, I will eat a human heart. The chest cavity has already been opened. All I have to do is reach in and grab the organ--the major vessels have been severed. The heart of a Poison victim has a purplish tinge. It tastes of iron and has a chewy texture not unlike cooked octopus. My stomach heaves, but I force its contents back down. If I vomit, I will have to pick out the pieces of heart and eat them again.

My community service done for the day, I put on a hooded raincoat, the type that street cleaners wear. Many menials are Poison afflicted. Cleaning streets, clipping hedges, digging holes--these are the kinds of jobs a person addicted to Somat can safely perform.

I feel the Somat packets in my front pants pocket, pressing against my thigh with each step. I am tempted to take a dose. However, my work requires a clear head. I push a broom along the sidewalk that leads to the Justice building. The streets are crowded--with the rising of the oceans and the loss of land mass, the population density on this planet has risen to almost 3000 humans per square mile. Most of the terrestrial animal species are extinct in the wild, "wild" being all but nonexistent. Those with money are fleeing to the lunar colonies. The rest of us would starve if not for the fishermen, genetically engineered humans with gills as well as lungs. Within a few decades, aquatic humans will outnumber air breathers. Poison was meant to reverse this trend, however the fishermen are immune to its effects. Rather than saving the world for homo sapiens, Nature accelerated the rise of homo synthicus.

People step out of my way when they notice my blue tinted hands. I see pity in their eyes. No revulsion. My mark of Cain is hidden by my hood. An old woman murmurs "Bless you, son" as she passes by. Her compassion cuts like a knife. I am guilty of crimes which few of them can imagine. If I devoured a million hearts, I could not atone for what I did during the war.

I loiter outside Justice. My contact is also dressed as a street sweeper. A career prosecutor, his soft, white hands look incongruous holding a broom. Unobtrusively, I drop a crumpled piece of paper onto the sidewalk. Quickly, the prosecutor snatches it up and stuffs it into his garbage sack. He will not examine it until he is back inside his office on the twenty-third floor of the Justice building. Today's map indicates the location where the bodies of mutilated androgyn healers were buried, on a hillside, beneath an overhanging white rock that looks like a woman's breast.

"That's the last one," I murmur.

"We can get you a new identity," he promises. Every time we meet, he makes this offer.

"This identity suits me fine," I reply.

"At least take off the N."

"Because I'm not a natural?"

"Because you aren't a war criminal."

He has no idea the crimes I committed during the war. Or maybe he does. Perhaps the government wants me to work for it again. Doing what I was created to do.

"Contact me if you need anything," he says before slipping away. I continue down the road. Each step sends a jolt of pain up my spine. I reach for the Somat packets in my pocket--

Mr. Slim and Mr. Silent appear beside me. Mr. Slim grabs my arm and hauls me into an alley that smells of curry and sour milk. Three families live in the narrow, dead end street. One occupies a dumpster. The other two make do with plastic sheets fashioned into tents. They take one look at my companions' black suits and dark glasses and vanish.

Mr. Slim stands at my back. Mr. Silent is in front of me. I smell garlic on his breath. "You dropped something. That other cleaner picked it up. What was it?"

"Somat," I lie. "I'm selling."

Mr. Slim's hand is like a metal vise on my thigh, crushing the Somat packets.

"I don't sell all of them," I mutter through clenched teeth. "You must have noticed by now that I don't take them during the day."

Mr. Slim relaxes his grip.

Mr. Silent is not convinced. "I've investigated you. You volunteered when the war was all but over. No one volunteers to join the losing side in a war, unless he's up to something."

It starts to rain again. The wind howls through the alley. A storm is coming. I am sick of the lies.

I push back the hood of my rain coat. Using thumb and index finger, I peel away the derma-film and with it the mark of Cain. My N tattoo is a lie, like everything else about me. I am sick of lies.

Quick intake of breath. "I knew it!" Mr. Silent exclaims.

"You know nothing," I reply. I open my third eye, the one that is usually concealed by derma-film. My face is reflected in his dark glasses. Thick wet clumps of brown hair tangled by the wind. Skin a sickly shade of blue. Deep set, dark eyes. Full lips smiling, teeth bared. And in the middle of my forehead, like a lighthouse beacon cutting through the night, a fire so bright that it blinds the eyes of those who stare directly into it.

Mr. Silent stands transfixed, his eyes behind the dark glasses wide, his jaw slack, his brain stem burned out, his muscles--including the diaphragm--paralyzed. He can already taste his own death. In eight minutes his frontal cortex will die from lack of oxygen. They will be the longest eight minutes of his life.

Mr. Slim sees my reflection in his partner's dark glasses. Sudden intake of breath. He takes a quick step backwards. For the first time since I have known him, he speaks. "You're a striker!" Striker, from the phrase "lightning strike" because that is how fast we kill. Mr. Slim covers his eyes with his hands. He is twenty centimeters taller than me and fifty kilos heavier, trained in martial arts, with a pistol under his coat and another strapped to his ankle, but he is too frightened even to run.

The storm is building. A lightning strike takes out the streetlamps, throwing us into darkness. In a narrow alley behind the Justice building all hell breaks loose.

* * *

Night comes early, thanks to the storm. I keep my head lowered, my eyes on the gutter as I walk home. Despite the rain, there are still traces of blood on my coat, face and hands, and I still smell, very faintly, of excrement from Mr. Slim's large intestine.

It is three hours past supper when I finally climb the stairs to the second floor landing of the building where Grace lives. Her apartment was designed to house a single family. With living space in short supply, the rooms have been divided, and it is now home to six people who have nothing in common with each other, except that we all survived the war. I smell sea cabbage and crawfish. Grace is waiting for me. "I saved you a plate."

"I already ate."

She recognizes the signs. "Oh, Rudy," she sighs. "Here, give me your coat." She searches the pockets. "Where's your medicine?"

I am strung tight as wire. The pain in my limbs is intensified by the fire burning a hole through my head. "Leave me alone," I mutter. I move past her towards my bedroom, but Roman blocks the way. S/he is looking at me the way that Grace looks at me, and I know that she finally broke down and told hir, though I made her promise that she would keep my secret.

"You're getting blood all over the carpet," Roman says sternly. "Come with me."

The apartment's single shower is adjacent to hir room, since hir clients often want to bathe before a healing session. S/he helps me peel off my clothes, and I step under the running water which is only slightly warmer than the rain outside. Sweat, blood, and mud swirl down the drain. My teeth begin to chatter, not from cold.

The towel Roman uses to dry me off smells of sandalwood and vanilla. S/he has unfastened hir hair. It flows down hir back like a curtain of black silk. S/he is wearing a velvet skirt and a sheer blouse that reveals two small breasts. Hir feet are bare. A delicate gold chain encircles hir right ankle. If my body did not ache so badly, I would find hir attractive--

No, I must not give in to temptation. S/he thinks s/he knows the truth, that I am a tragic hero. Reality is much more complicated than that.

I stoop to pick up my discarded pants. Roman knocks the Somat package from my hand. "Why didn't you say something?" s/he asks gruffly. "Told me you were undercover. If I had known, I would have--"

"You don't know anything."

"--helped you. Grace told me. You joined Nature to spy on them. You've been helping the war crimes tribunal--"

"You. Don't. Know. Anything," I repeat, enunciating each word. When I have Roman's attention, I continue. "I'm a killer. A striker. You can't begin to imagine how many naturals I killed during the war. Some of them little more than boys playing with guns, and before the war, I did assassinations for the government. It's what I was created for." I pick up the battered Somat and my discarded dirty clothes. "Excuse me."

Roman flinches as I brush the hem of hir skirt in passing.

Grace is standing in the hall. Eavesdropping? I escape into my room. My fingers fumble with a plastic Somat packet. I pour the powder straight into my mouth and wash it down with vodka. Sitting on the edge of my narrow bed, I rock back and forth, hugging myself until the pain eases enough for me to lie down.

Sleep is a long time coming, and it leaves too soon. By the light of the moon, I stare at the water stains on the ceiling. Will Nature connect their missing assassins to me? I should take Justice up on its offer of a new identity, but if I disappear, who will take my job at the mortuary?

A knock on the door.

"Go away Grace," I call.

The door opens. Roman is wearing a gauzy robe and moonlight. The smell of sandalwood fills the air. Hir hand is cool against my brow.

"Healers and strikers were created at the same gen-lab, did you know that?" Hir third eye is open. The color of a healer's third eye has been compared to that of a black hole, a darkness so intense that it absorbs light. They say if a healer and a striker stare at each other, the powers of each will be extinguished, light burning away the darkness and darkness overwhelming the light. As far as I know, no one has ever tried it.

Roman runs hir fingers through my tangled hair. "I can take away the pain," s/he murmurs, hir mouth next to my ear.

That is what I am afraid of.

Hir touch draws the Poison from my body like a thread, nerves unraveling, muscles relaxing, my mind as still and empty as the moment when the struck bell goes silent. The healer and I lie face to face, lips, hands, hips touching. I am a bow unstrung--

I am not a killer. I am not a monster. I am homo synthicus, the sum of human dreams and fears, and I drink the world poison so that my makers will not have to.


2014 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here.

E-mail: McCamy Taylor