Aphelion Issue 238, Volume 23
April 2019
 
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Until We Part

by Rajeev Prasad




Yuki expects me to be at the Southern Gate of the Galient Research Complex at five pm. After sharing a bowl of noodles, we’ll have a cup of tea but never any drinks. Without fail, I'm always shocked that we don't run out of things to say. We end the night with a single kiss. Long and luxurious. Lips pressed so tight, I forget to breathe. It's that perfect, every time.

It leaves me wanting more of her, but by then, she's long gone. I've got another month to wait.

"Put a rush on that last scan, Jimmy," I say.

"Too early, boss, thirty minutes to go."

"Oh, I'm sorry, were you promoted to chief of security when I wasn't looking?"

He looks over his shoulder and I snarl back, encouragingly. Missing teeth. Missing eyebrow. Scars that healed as crooked as the serrated knife that carved them.

"You got us in trouble last month," he mutters.

Thousands of bipedal holograms pop onto the three dimensional grid of the Galient Research Institute, their biometric signatures instantly screened for security clearance.

They've got it all here: growing organs in Petri dishes, growing babies in ectowombs, modified bacteria and fungal decomposers for terraforming on Mars, and crossbreeding in the maximum-security plaza. Most crooks don't have a clue what they're trying to steal, but they know it'll fetch a premium on the black market.

Next, Jimmy pulls up the algorithms that detect any possible or incoming cyber-attacks. That's the real threat– the other Bio-companies. They parade above any rules, even the law.

Everything looks routine, until we both notice the little blinking red patch.

"Why isn't the infusion center coming online?" I ask.

"Looks like it's been down for an hour," Jimmy says.

"Whose orders?"

Jimmy shrugs. "No orders, Mack. Must have been Corporate."

Galient Technologies hired me on reference a couple years ago. They hadn’t cared much that my resume consisted of two lines: For-hire mercenary. I’ll track down anything or anyone. They handed me a security detail of a hundred cyber-trained guards ready to jump at the drop of a Petri dish. Corporate expects me to get the job done, but whenever they come around, they make things difficult.

"I'll check with the building security unit on my way home."

"So we're good for shift change?" Jimmy asks.

"Fire it up," I reply.

I sprint through the gray drizzle to the Infusion Center. Groups of researchers, benchies we like to call them, clock out for the day, and head back to their condominiums and holo-immersion pools. A lumbering transport vehicle, hidden by the rain and steaming fog, emerges just a few feet away and nearly runs me over. I raise my fist and curse, but the automated driver doesn't register. I message Jimmy to requisition the droid for maintenance. Then, I make a mental note to pick up a raincoat and umbrella for Yuki.

The infusion building, with ivy crawling over ornate stained glass windows, is intended to be altogether soothing, even hopeful. Holograms of flowery fields, cute animals, and families shimmer in the plazas and hallways. Those pictures are pictures of the living, and this place is anything but that.

It's really a sad sort of place. Little kids with prominent blue veins running all over their faces wait next to old cripples with terminal cancer. I hurry through the lot of patients trying to hang on, even when the hand they've been dealt is crap. I feel for them, but none of us can stop the game, even if the cards are straight lousy.

I flash my badge at the nurses who respond with a territorial stare. I keep my chin tilted down, and my eyes roving, out of habit mostly, and skate along to the security office.

That's when I notice that the first floor infusion hall is emptied out. The patients have been carted off in a hurry. I can still smell their departed bodies, ketotic and a bit astringent.

Something's off--my sixth sense starts to kick in. Actually, it's the five others enhanced with implanted stem-cell neurons and the electro-chemical stimulators in my spine. I was an experiment too once, back when I was a wee little thing. Over the years, those cellular tyrants have been my bane, my curse. They've enabled me to do things that I'm not proud of, but they do me good now and they never lie.

I peer through the doorway windows into the main infusion hall: empty beds, closed glass partitions, medical staff conspicuously missing. In the corner, I notice the doc with mustard hair and a grim smile. I enter my override code and the doors slide open.

The doc looks up, startled, like I've caught him torturing a monkey. He begins to close the curtains, but not before I spot her lying on a cot in the corner of the room.

Yuki, I whisper.

I take a few strides toward her. She spots me as the curtain closes, but her face doesn't light up with that smile that I've come to know, to need even.

Halfway to reaching her, I spot the pair of bio-designed towheads, wearing gray tunics, white hair creased neatly. Uniformly sociopathic, their brain architecture has been altered to mimic a homegrown towhead, fried on crank and neural transport. Unlike homegrown towheads, who turn anarchic within weeks, these bio-designed towheads don't go mad and die off.

Nobody uses those savages unless something heavy is going down. I've only ever seen them lurking in the shadows, personal bodyguards for VIP plutocrats.

Sure enough, someone in a silvery mesh suit, looking like an oversized fish waits by Yuki’s bed. I don't need to ask any questions. I already know what's about to happen.

I could just walk out and forget about Yuki. Erase every detail of every one of the fourteen dinners down to the mushroom broth in the noodles to the way she crosses her lean muscular legs under the table and lets her foot brush against my shin. I could scrub clean the memories of the way she runs the back of her hand over the scars on my face. Those kisses will be damn tough to forget, but I'll find a way. I've erased everything else in my old life. I could turn her into another casualty.

But is my life worth living without her, without the possibility of her and me, together?

There's no getting around the answer to that question.

The towheads in the corner haven't moved a millimeter. Taking on two of those freaks is suicide for an ordinary soldier, but I've got a few tricks up my sleeve.

The adrenaline pumps through my system, and the billions of accessory neurons in my body light up like a spaceport runway. My perception speeds up and the environment moves like slow-dripping honey. Every sound becomes crisper. Light starts to bend until I can see what's outside the normal human range. I pick up gentle reverberations, like heartbeats, and faint smells—like the cyanide in the doctor’s syringe.

"Hi, everyone," I say as cheerfully as my face permits. "Got a report of a disturbance."

Without bothering to stand, the silver fish plutocrat flashes the highest-level security clearance. He's untouchable. "Everything is under control. You're excused."

"I'm the security chief, sir. Mind if I take a look around?"

He minds, but I continue with the whole routine monitoring angle, as I take in the room.

"If I have to ask you again to leave, you won't be in charge of security any longer," the silver fish says.

"Sir, I'm just doing my job."

He motions to the towheads. He's had enough of the charade. The towheads stand up, each precisely seventy-five inches and two-hundred pounds of lean, enhanced muscle. Violent psychopaths who follow the rules. Their bleach-blond hair crackles under the floodlights. Red veins crawl through the whites of their eyes. They glide towards me.

I slow my pulse. I slow my breathing, so I can hear theirs, so I can sense their movements before they move. They're as calm as two sloths chewing on a banana leaf. They're killing machines--why would they be nervous? This is what they do.

The mustard doctor puts the syringe down and backs up behind the plutocrat. The towheads cut me off from Yuki. It's now or never.

"Excuse me." I point to a towhead. "Can I see your security clearance?"

He looks at me like I'm insane. He blathers something about how he doesn't need clearance. Towheads aren't the most articulate bunch. I've taken two more steps, and my right hand nears a metal saucer table.

The towheads get twitchy. I can feel their muscle tension peaking.

"Kill him," says the silver fish.

I hurl the metal saucer directly into the neck of the closest towhead. He goes down fast, but he's not dead yet. I didn't hear the trachea break.

Before I can react, the other towhead has struck me about ten times in the chest and face. He pulls out a deadly electromagnetic decoupler that's pulsing blue. I barely manage to knock it out of his hand before he fires. His follow up punch practically pushes my nose into my brain. Damn, these bastards are fast.

I pick up a metal chair and connect with his skull. Then, I launch it at the plutocrat. It catches him in the head and he falls back in a twitching silver heap. I leave the mustard doctor cowering in the corner.

Then the towhead is on me again, ready for the second round, but at this moment, with the millions of extra neurons coursing through my body, I'm a superior sort of animal. I've got his number.

A field of energy, like a dull yellow outline, ripples around him. When he strikes, the field moves first, giving him away. I hear each exhalation before he lunges. I can almost feel what's inside his head, the aggression and viciousness, and it's not pretty.

I wait for the right strike, using his momentum to off-balance his spine. Then I grapple him and lock him up from the back. With two whirls, I launch him out the window and he crashes to the courtyard two floors below.

I throw Yuki over my shoulder. Then I run like a fat kid chasing a cream-filled donut down the sidewalk.


* * *

Four minutes later, I duck into a place I call the pickling room--a scientific graveyard of sorts. Preserved stem cells. Mutated animals. Mutated embryos. The original betatypes of a variety of biological infusions kept still as tar. Once the front doors lock, there's no getting in or out without maximum-security clearance, but I know a back door route.

I call the security office. "Jimmy, it's Mack. Got a major problem. Some guy is in the infusion center parading around as a VP. He's got a fake clearance badge."

"Mack, Cynthia from corporate called fifteen minutes ago. We've taken out our guards and shut off all the surveillance feeds. Corporate is doing something high-level."

"You idiot! It was a scam!" I yell.

"They had all the proper codes, Mack."

"Well, I just saw this guy eviscerate two babies."

That seemed like a nice touch.

"Holy neurons, Mack! What is he, a vigilante?"

"I think so— one of those environmental do-gooders."

"That's the worst kind. What's your position?"

"I'm locked down. Whatever you do, don't shut off my security clearance, or I'm a dead man."

"Mack, I'm getting a message now from corporate."

"Trust me, Jimmy. It's a sham!" I click off before he can respond. I figure that'll buy me a good five minutes.

I grab a cup of water and splash it on Yuki's face. She splutters but almost immediately falls back asleep. The hypnotic still owns her.

I get to the back and pry open an oversized Level Six waste bin. Something syrupy covers the inside lining. I run a quick chemical composition test. The metallic pen behind my ear emerges and my holographic screen pops up. A thin metallic antenna samples the fluid, and, within seconds, I get a passable safety test. It won't kill us. It just stinks.

I load Yuki into the crate and give her a kiss on the cheek. She smells the way she usually smells, like sweat and lilac perfume. She hadn't been gowned and sterilized, which is what I'd expect if she'd been prepped for a medical procedure. In fact, she's still wearing a metallic gray and orange kimono. A few splatters of mud ring the hem. The IV still dangles from her wrist, but it's blocked up with purple blood now.

I program the trash droid to transfer the bin to the outer premises, where the transport droids will deliver us to an adjacent decomposition site. As I finish up the program sequence, the alarms go off. I promptly take my computer pen from behind my ear, detach the electrodes on my skull, and incinerate the device in the magna-autoclave. Now I'm officially a criminal. Again.

I crawl into the crate with her. I wedge a wrench under the lip before it seals shut. My long knife is strapped to my calf, so I can cut us out once we're delivered to the decomposition site.

I stroke her forehead and wonder why I'm so nuts about this girl. Why I've thrown my life away for her. She's got a way of making me defy logic.

It started with a first glance at her more than a year ago. We made eye contact the way I might with any stranger, but her smile was a bit sad, almost accepting. I followed her glide, unmolested, like a splash of color, through the hurried traffic of the Galient research grounds. As she reached the road, I was about to turn off to my empty flat when she said, "Aren't you going to finish the job? That is what you do."

Her voice just cut me, as if she knew everything there was to know about my life. For the first time in forty years, I regretted everything that I'd ever been. Even before we had spoken, she knew that's what I needed. To repent, and only by sharing my regret, could I make it real.

"We've all got our secrets," she said.

"Not like mine," I replied.

"They're just shadows now. Weightless things that disappear when you shine the light on them," she said.

I walked her across the street that day and my whole life turned upside down.

The seal above my head completes with a high-pitched suction squeal. From where the wrench is lodged, a little rectangle of light lands on her neck. I can make out the fine pulsations. I watch her chest gently rise and fall to fight off the claustrophobia.

The crate starts to move. Jarring and sudden, it feels like we’re in a little submarine being tossed around in a typhoon. My head hits the wrench so hard that it dislodges. Then it's pure black. I fight off the panic. I grope and grasp in the little box until my fingers press on her face. I feel the thin, soft line of her lips, and reach around her head to cushion it from the blows.

Life in the shaking-grenade coffin lasts about fifteen minutes. It's hard to keep track while my head and face constantly hit the floor, or it might be the ceiling. I notice the change in smell first— the lemony cleaning reagents trying to mask the corrosive sulfur scents. Then the crate finally stills.

I unhitch my knife from my leg, which is now lodged underneath her body. I attempt to thrust the blade through the cover. It bounces back the first couple of times. My curses fill the coffin.

But as the panic and adrenaline surge, my accessory neural cascade kicks in. My tensile handgrip reaches two hundred-some percent of maximal. My shoulder unleashes and the knife passes through the cover. Within seconds, I rip the thing wide open.

Yuki mutters as her muscles twitch explosively. I lay her down on the slick concrete. The droids and cleaning robots ignore us and continue hauling massive crates of toxic waste. By now, the video feeds have picked us up. The guards will be here any moment.

I decide to hack through the fence at the outer perimeter and get down into the sewers. At least we have a chance there.

Scouting the perimeter, I find the narrowest portion of the electrical fence. Beyond the fence, a mile of no-man’s land stretches into the evening dusk. We’ll have to cross it and empty into the sewers.

The sirens start their wail. Maximal security breach. I've been chief of security for two years, and I've never gone maximal security, but if I were after me, I'd hit that switch for certain.

I put on a pair of rubber gloves and freeze the electrical fence with a sub-zero fire extinguisher. Then I cut through the icy metal with the wire clippers. Electrical charges crackle, sending my hypersensitive neurons twitching.

A few minutes later, I peer into the hole in the fence about the size of an entryway for a doghouse, but it's for a real small dog. It'll have to do. I sprint back to get Yuki.

But she's gone.

The hints of lilac still penetrate the sulfur. I feel panic and my heart starts to race. Something doesn't feel right.

I scout the area wasting precious seconds, but there's no sign of her.

The security detail will be here any second and shoot until I'm dead beyond a doubt. I'm giving up hope, when I feel it: the subtle warmth, the unique signature of her touch. The space between us isn't enough to prevent that exquisite sensation.

"Yuki," I say, "I can feel you."

After a few seconds, she emerges from behind a metal crate. She's still in the shadows, so I can't make out her face, but she's standing stiff and upright like she's just seen an axe-murderer.

"You okay?" I ask tentatively.

She doesn't answer.

"Yuki, we've got to run. I don't know what you did, but there are a couple of towheads and a whole security detail after us."

"Leave me," she says, in a voice I can hardly hear.

"Don't be ridiculous," I say. "I just busted us out of a coffin."

"How well do you really know me?" she says. "Run while you still can."

"Woman, I dream about you, and there's nothing you could do that would ever scare me off."

She immediately makes me regret that statement. She takes a few steps until she's facing me square. I gasp.

The roots of her long, bluish-black hair are tinged pure white. Pale blue circles ring her ordinarily rich brown eyes. Her facial muscles twitch. My heart instinctively races; I'm around something dangerous. I sense her enhanced muscle tension. I sense the supra-human metabolism. I'm facing a towhead.

"This is what I am, Mack," she tells me. "We all have our secrets."

This can't be. I can't remember the last time I cried, but right about now seems like an opportune moment.

"I come here once a month for an nano-infusion of Cellforge. It's highly classified. It's how they keep their bioengineered towheads from going crazy. It keeps me alive. It keeps me sane. It keeps me from becoming a killer," she says the last word with a whisper.

A thousand thoughts race through my mind, but only one matters. She's a towhead.

"I served my purpose for them. I got them hooked up in Electro-City. I got them the lab to process and prepare the infusion. They don't need me anymore, and I knew too much to keep around."

She picks up my knife from the ground. She flips it once and hurls it with tremendous speed at a trash bin. An orange liquid promptly oozes around the edges of the still blade buried in the rubber vat.

"I was such a fool to believe they would cure me! This time around, instead of the infusion, they came with the cyanide to make the whole thing look like an accident."

"Not as long as I'm around," I say.

"Mack, it's over," she wistfully murmurs. "The change is already starting. Within a few days, I'll be raving mad."

I shake my head side-to-side in denial.

"Mack, save yourself."

It's the same damn question. It keeps repeating over and over. I can run and make a new life for myself somewhere. Erase my past again. Live alone with my secrets. Bury my guilt. Or I can follow my heart, and my heart tells me that I love this woman. I crossed the road with her, and she's leading me to a better place.

She's a towhead, Mack. A towhead!

Big deal. I've seen worse.

Have you really?

Being honest with myself, no--I haven't, but I also haven't seen anything more beautiful than her.

"We better hurry, then, honey," I say.

"Did you listen to anything I just said!"

"Heard every word. I need to get you to Electro-City."

I reach out and grab her thin, strong fingers, which now lie in my hand like limp noodles.

"Electro-City?"

"That's where they've got the infusion. That's where we're going," I say.

She stares at me like I'm mad, but her fingers reach between mine, and, within seconds, she grips my hand tighter than ever before.

All in all, I feel pretty good when we crawl through the fence and race through the sewers. Because every chance we get, our hands seem to be magnetically drawn to each other's.


THE END


2015 Rajeev Prasad

Bio: Mr. Prasad is a physician and writer at work on speculative and literary stories. This is his first published tale.

E-mail: Rajeev Prasad

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