Air limousines floated by like ghosts in a night filled with a jangle of sounds. A mad juxtaposition of chords, wailing voices and crooned-out tunes mangled by the sound of honking horns, curses and the cries of the desperate filled the dark streets. Cordoba’s End, home to migrants and refugees.
After their parents succumbed to the rot, Pyn and Sienna wandered the streets of Cordoba. Together, they trekked the back side of the posh quarter. Ecstasy street, Ilona’s Oord, Sonatina’s Point, the words tasted as exotic and beautiful as the places themselves.
“You think we’ll ever be rich enough to live on High End?” Sienna asked.
“I don’t know,” Pyn said.
“We could join one of the lotteries and win a prize,” Sienna said. “I’d wear a long white dress and violets. We could go to the fair, and I would push a trundle cart with my dolly in it.”
“You ever heard of anyone from Cordoba’s End winning a lottery?” Pyn asked.
She pretended not to hear Sienna’s sniff, pretended not to see the tears trickling down her young sister’s cheeks.
“Come on, Sien. Time to go.”
It wasn’t fair, Pyn often thought. It wasn’t fair of Mama to die and leave Pyn to take care of her younger sister. Mama should have stayed alive; instead, she’d chosen to yield to the rot. Pyn didn’t mind scrounging for herself, but it hurt her to see the bloom on Sienna’s cheeks give way to grey gray haggardness that made her look older than her ten years.
* * * *
Summer brought searing heat. Dust and flies abounded, and Sienna’s skin broke out in sores that heralded the onset of rot.
“It must have been something I ate,” Sienna said with a wan smile.
Pyn nodded, but it was hard for her to ignore the circles under Sienna’s eyes, and when she laid her hand on Sienna’s forehead, the low burn frightened her.
“You’ll be all right,” Pyn whispered. “Hang in there, Sien. You’ll be all right.”
She held Sienna’s hand, promising her chocolates, and lollipops, and a thousand other things she knew she could never give. She sang bits of remembered lullabies and when Sienna finally fell asleep, Pyn sat staring at her sister knowing she didn’t have much time.
Out in the street, the harsh glow of sun reminded Pyn that the recycle hounds wouldn’t be about until sundown at least.
“Take good care of your sister,” her mother’s voice came back to haunt her. There was only one thing left to do now. Squaring her shoulders, Pyn set off for Farrier Corso’s cubby.
* * * *
A low building with polished black walls housed the cubbies of agents to Procurers and Healing Masters alike. Farrier was a legend in Cordoba’s End. She’d once been owned, but luck had been on her side and her former owner had given her freedom. Farrier’s story had captured Pyn’s imagination. If she could find an owner just like Farrier had, she would still have a chance at a good life with her sister.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” Farrier Corso’s question jolted Pyn out of her reverie.
Pyn stared at the older woman, wondering whether it was the built-ins that kept Farrier looking young.
“Sien’s all I’ve got,” she said. “I can’t let her die.”
“Healing takes time,” Farrier said. “There’s no guarantee she’ll ever be wholly restored to who she was. Rot’s a cruel thing.”
“But a Healing Master can help her, right?”
“She’s got youth on her side, and a skilled healer may be able to restore her. But treatment comes at a high price, Pyn.”
“I just want her to get well,” Pyn said.
“Do you have the credits?” Farrier asked.
“I can get them,” Pyn replied.
“I’d help you if I could,” Farrier said. “But my own funds are limited.”
“I…” Pyn paused and stared at Farrier. “Can you wire Sebastian for me?”
“You’ll be one of the owned,” Farrier said. “Sebastian won’t extend credit without you signing a contract with him.”
“You found a way out,” Pyn said.
“I was lucky. Not all owners are so generous. Many of those who were bought along with me wound up on the scrap heap. It’s a truth you’ll have to face, Pyn.”
Pyn bit her lip.
“Sien’s only ten,” she said. “If I can get her cured, she can have a better life than this.”
Pyn waited as the older woman drew up the papers. She set her finger to the seal, and listened to the hum of the join boxes talking to one another. Farrier nodded as the boxes confirmed Pyn’s identity and the order was taken—one for speedy pick up.
Thinking of the order floating away in the ether, Pyn wondered if she was doing the right thing. She steeled herself. If Sien died, what point was left in living?
Farrier handed her a seal.
“Pick up when payment is confirmed,” she said.
“I’ll have the credit,” Pyn promised.
Tears blurred Pyn’s vision as she left the building. Memories of Mama on her deathbed came back to haunt her. Mama’s face wracked with pain, the endless retching, and the pus that seemed to ooze from every pore of her body.
“Mama, let me call the Healing Masters,” Pyn had begged.
“No,” Mama said.
“They can make you better, Mama. They’ll make the pain go away.”
“At what price?”
“There’s no price too great, Ma.”
“I can’t do it,” Mama had said. “Let me go, Pyn. You’re a big girl now. You take care of Sienna.”
“I’m fifteen, Mama. Please don’t leave us.”
But Mama hadn’t listened to her pleadings. Pyn curled her hands into fists. Mama would say it was Sienna’s fate to die, but Pyn would be damned if she let her little sister rot to death.
Ahead of her, the streetlight turned red. An air limousine floated past her, and a dilapidated land jeep screeched to a halt. She felt as if everyone on the street knew what she’d done.
Sien would be better, she consoled herself. Sien would get well and she’d live a fairytale life.
In her mind, she was already talking to Sienna.
You won’t have to scavenge for food any longer she said. You’ll be okay, Sien. And if the Virgin smiles on us, we’ll be together again.
So what if Sienna didn’t remember Pyn?
She shook her head. Even if Sienna forgot, Pyn would always remember.
She swiped at the tears pouring down her cheeks and hastened her steps.
“Everything will be all right,” she whispered. “Everything will be all right.”
* * * *
Hotel Usurpia simmered in the noonday heat. Light prisms cast rainbows of color over the entire street. Here was where the city’s top procurer touched base. Pyn stopped and fingered the card in her pocket.
Sebastian had come to Cordoba’s End one afternoon when Mama was still alive. He’d seen Pyn dancing on the street podium and, afterward, slipped the card into her hand. Mama turned white with fury when she saw the procurer, but he slipped away without answering her curses.
“He’s a parasite,” Mama said. “Feeds off others to enrich his own pockets. I don’t want you listening to his lies.”
Pyn had kept the card secret from Mama. Now, she stopped and stared at the tall building, willing her heart to stop pounding. Her finger brushed over the embossed ribbons and the lone dancer printed onto the face of Sebastian’s card.
“Talent and energy,” he’d said to her. “If ever you decide to leave Cordoba’s End, come to me.”
Of course, there was a price attached. Pyn didn’t need Mama to tell her that. She’d hidden the card away because it was the best thing anyone had ever said to her. Talent, he’d said, and he’d told her she could be one of the best.
She bit her lip, tasting dust and sweat. She was suddenly unsure. What if he’d forgotten all about her? Two years had gone by. Surely there were other talents on the planet. Despair gripped her heart. Since Mama’s death, there hadn’t been much time for dancing. Nevertheless, she didn’t dare back down now. There was only one chance left for Sien. The best she could do was try. If Sebastian had forgotten about her, surely there were others who would welcome a new girl into their fleet.
She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
“All or nothing,” she whispered. “Godson help me.”
* * * *
Nobody stopped her. Not the guards standing outside the carved crysallite doors, not the bright watch eye. She walked past them, conscious of the dust clinging to the hem of her tattered skirt, smelling her own fear and uncertainty.
“So you finally made it here,” Sebastian Uraro said.
Since she’d last seen him, his hair had turned silver-gray. He had grown a neat beard, and his skin changed color as he spoke.
“It’s a perk,” Sebastian said, when Pyn didn’t speak. “The latest innovation. I wanted to try it out. Do you like it?”
“It’s different,” Pyn said. She felt conscious of the layer of dust on her dusky skin, and she crossed her arms slightly.
“Farrier sent me your message,” Sebastian said.
“I need help,” Pyn stammered out. “It’s my little sister. She’s ill. I need to get her to the Healing Masters. She’s all I’ve got.”
She came to a halt, realizing her words sounded like a demand rather than a plea for help.
Sebastian snapped his fingers, and his skin returned to its own milky color.
“I remember you,” he said. “You danced when I was in Cordoba’s End. Your mother was quite upset. Does she know you’re here?”
Pyn shook her head.
Understanding dawned on Sebastian’s face.
“Gone, is she?”
Pyn lifted her chin, determined not to cry.
“It’s just me and Sienna,” she said. “If you can’t help me, I’ll find someone else who will.”
“Not so rash, young Pyn. I’ll take on your contract and provide the credits, on one condition.”
“Name it,” Pyn said.
* * * *
Pyn genuflected in front of the altar. The enhancements around her waist affected her balance. She had yet to get used to the awkwardness in her knees and her elbows where connectors had been installed.
True to his word, Sebastian had arranged for Sienna’s pick up. Pyn had been to visit her younger sister at the Healing Ward, but Sien was in a coma and the Healing Masters said there was no waking her until the process of rejuvenation was done.
She sat at Sienna’s bedside, holding her sister’s hand until the ward sisters shooed her out and her beeper told her it was time to head back to where Sebastian waited with the Renovation Experts.
“It’ll hurt,” Sebastian said. “But without built-ins, there’s no shaping or wielding energy. Collectors won’t pay top money for a Dollygirl who can’t give or take a feed. It’s what makes you valuable–not your ability to dance, but your ability to project energy in waves the owners can feed on.
“A Dollygirl who can’t project energy is useless. Remember that, Pyn.”
He feeds off the misery of others, Mama’s voice echoed in her head.
Pyn gritted her teeth.
“I’ll do it,” she had said.
She had endured the awful sculpting of muscle and bone, borne the rearranging of the contours of her body to allow room for feeds to tap into her system. All through recovery, she had reminded herself that the renovations were only a means toward her goal of saving Sienna.
Pyn dipped her finger into the holy water and made the sign of the cross. The sun shone off the stone face of the grieving Godson.
“Godson, forgive me,” she whispered. “I don’t mind the renovations. But if you’re listening, keep me from the recycling heap.”
She touched the silver band on her wrist. Even if she wanted to, escape was not an option. She’d seen what happened to one of the girls who’d tried to escape after signing contracts. By the time the recycling hounds were done, even rejuvenation couldn’t save her from the scrap heap. If Pyn ran, there would be no mercy for her, and there would be no future for Sienna. She took a deep breath. It was time to head back to Hotel Usurpia.
A line of limousines hung static in the air when she reached the hotel.
“Just on time,” Sebastian said when she went in.
Pyn shuffled into a ballerina costume. She pulled on long white gloves, tied ribbons in her hair, and tied on her shoes. As she connected the feed to her built-in, she looked around for her partner.
Korian was a mute from Ayudan. Sebastian had taken Korian because his body type was a perfect match for Pyn’s. Their feeds were attuned, as were their bodies.
When they’d performed for Sebastian for the first time, he’d clapped his hands and wept with joy.
“It’s just as I envisioned it,” he said.
Pyn smiled, giving lie to the pain she’d experienced when she’d joined with Korian. Music seared through her veins like electric fire, and she pulled loose from the feeds.
“I can’t,” she cried.
You have to, Korian signed. It’s this or the scrap heap.
She read the fear in his eyes, and guilt coursed through her. She couldn’t jeopardize his life, and neither could she give up on the hope of seeing Sienna again. She’d gotten up from the floor and pushed herself past the pain into a zone where the burning was almost pleasure.
Sebastian’s voice summoned Pyn back to present.
“Connoisseurs and collectors, girls and boys. That means good owners and good money. Don’t let me down.”
Pyn maneuvered herself into the line, thankful for Korian’s hand under her arm. Even if he couldn’t speak, his touch communicated assurance and comfort. She pressed her hands together. She would do whatever it took to escape the scrap heap. No matter what they did to her, she’d still be in the same world as her sister.
“Ssst…” Sebastian’s hiss brought the line to attention.
One by one the air limousines disgorged their owners.
Here were the Originals. Descendants of the first settlers, there was something about them that wasn’t quite human. The sleek males in their long silver coats, and the females in their Basque-like skirts floated onto the tarmac. Sparks glinted from their feet as they glided onto the purple carpet spread along the length of the lobby and down the front steps of the hotel.
Pyn made her bows, keeping her face still and void of emotion. She was a Dollygirl now. A commodity to be bought or traded as her master wished. If she performed well, her value would go up. If she were lucky, she would find an owner who would eventually give her freedom instead of sending her to the scrap heap.
One of the females paused in front of Pyn. Her eyes were pale and heavy-lidded, the skin of her face pulled so taut there was only a bump where her nose should have been. She brushed her finger over Pyn’s nose, and Pyn controlled the shiver of fear that ran down her spine as she met the woman’s considering gaze.
“You’re new, hnn.” The female’s voice sounded flutelike. “Have you got enough amps on you, I wonder.”
Her fingers felt cold against the curve of Pyn’s cheek.
“Warm,” the female said. She shuddered and her eyes opened and shut quickly. “So much passion for one so young.”
Down the line, one of the men had stopped in front of a Dollyboy named Anjo. There was no hiding the avidity and the excitement in the eyes of the Originals. Their voices rose and filled the hall with cooing and compliments.
“What a fine fleet of girls and boys, Sebastian,” one of the females crooned.
“Lovely, lovely,” a male said. “I might be tempted to add one more to my collection.”
Pyn watched from the corner of her eye as Sebastian bowed and smiled.
“You haven’t seen them in action yet,” he said. “My fleet has prepared a show. After you’ve seen it, you’ll remember why it’s well worth your time and your money when you come to Sebastian Uraro.”
* * * *
In the backroom, Pyn and Korian, shrugged out of their costumes. Strands of filament joined them to each other–an almost invisible line feed connected to the built-ins in their elbows and their ankles. Except for the gossamer threads floating about them, they were both naked.
Pyn knew the dance well. The renovations created the appearance of delicate grace and hid the effort behind the movements. Tiny holes along her ribcage opened up to the jacks allowing music to flow through her system. The feeds tapped into the energy produced by the dance, enhancing emissions. She’d practiced with Korian for months, going through the steps of coupling and disengaging until the slightest touch produced a constant surge of energy issuing from their combined strength.
Onstage, the light turned blue. Music fluted in through the walls of the auditorium. Pyn couldn’t see the audience, but she knew they were there. She felt Korian’s hand on her back, and she closed her eyes.
Her nerves shivered as music fed into her system. She felt the trace of Korian’s movements and allowed her body to follow in the patterns of the dance.
There was a brief moment of static when her hands pressed against Korian’s hands. Pyn opened her mouth to his kiss, felt the bloom of energy, heard the oohs and aahs from those watching as light rose up and dissolved into an illusion of birds and fire. She was on fire, fountains burst into sparks of flame around them.
A curse on your soul.
She brushed away the echo of her mother’s voice.
This is for Sien, she reminded herself. Her body opened up, flowered under Korian’s touch, their limbs entwined, coupled and separated, and the air reverberated with rainbows of color and light.
She heard gasps and shrieks as the assembled audience fed on the rays of ecstasy induced by their coupling.
* * * *
The pale-eyed female bought them.
“Sandusy’s a good owner,” Sebastian said. “She’s always taken good care of her property, so you two should be in good hands.”
Pyn was in no doubt about the profit to Sebastian himself. Sandusy had offered not only a large amount of credits, but she’d also offered Sebastian a large holding on the edge of the Siargao region.
“Better me than anyone else,” Sandusy said after negotiations were done. “I would’ve taken only you, but Sebastian insisted I take the boy as well.”
Pyn didn’t know what to say to that. She cast a glance at Korian. He was staring straight ahead, his face void of emotion.
The flat line that was Sandusy’s lips twitched slightly.
“I take care of what is mine,” she said.
For a brief moment, Pyn felt a twinge of rebellion. If not for Sienna, she’d still be free. She suppressed the thought. She’d made her choice. With the signing of the contract, her future was sealed and Sienna’s ensured.
* * * *
Fifty-nine beads. Pyn kissed her prayer necklace. Each bead on the necklace represented performances and alterations she’d undergone since Sandusy had bought her. She’d stopped counting years in service when the number of renovations she’d undergone exceeded them. With Sienna still in process, Pyn wasn’t sure if there was such a thing as redemption. At least, she wasn’t sure if there was redemption as far as her soul was concerned.
Still, she kept on saying the prayers.
She kept on praying because no matter if she no longer believed in miracles and all the religious crap preached on the streets, she had to hold onto the hope that everything she’d gone through hadn’t been in vain.
She kissed the statue of the Godson and dropped the beads into her pocket.
Sandusy was giving a feast to celebrate her retirement from public office, and her acquisitions were expected to be at their best.
She’d sent Pyn for renovations.
“You don’t have to, if you think it’s too much,” Sandusy had said.
Pyn had wanted to say no, but her pride wouldn’t let her.
“If Korian can do it, so can I,” she said.
“You don’t have to prove yourself to me,” Sandusy said.
“I’m not doing it for you,” Pyn said.
“If I set you free, would you stay with me?” Sandusy asked.
Pyn didn’t know what to say to that. A Dollygirl staying with an Original after ownership had ended was something she’d never heard of.
“I’ll take the alteration,” was all she said. She pretended not to hear Sandusy’s sigh. Her owner favored her, she knew that, but she didn’t understand what else Sandusy expected of her.
She’d taken the alteration, ignoring the signs that her body was no longer as young or as quick to heal as it used to be.
“Maybe you shouldn’t perform,” Sandusy said.
“I can perform,” Pyn insisted. “I won’t give you an excuse to send me to the scrap heap.”
She regretted the words when she saw the way Sandusy’s eyes refracted.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
But Sandusy was already turning away.
“I’ll be waiting in the practice room,” was all her owner said.
* * * *
Pyn’s elbows and ankles hummed and sent waves of pain through her body. She hugged herself and waited for the spasms to pass. The intensity of her body’s reaction told her what she’d refused to admit. The constant upgrades were taking their toll.
She straightened up, holding onto the wall for support.
Korian would be waiting for her. They’d been practicing with the newest feeds all week. Mangled music sent rivers of pain tumbling through Pyn’s veins. The new routines were torture, and Sandusy wasn’t satisfied with anything less than perfection. Micro-sized boosters upped the production of their energy. Every move sent fresh burn through Pyn’s body, but the waves of color—the release of evoked emotion was stronger than any they’d ever produced before.
Pyn stopped, her breath coming in short gasps. Sandusy might just decide to gift them with freedom. She could feel it in her bones. She hugged herself and whispered a prayer to the Godson.
Through the open door, she could see the sun shining on the smooth green curve of the front lawn. An air limousine swooped down and hovered above the gleaming driveway. Sandusy’s valets rushed out to welcome the new arrivals.
Whoever they are, they’re early, Pyn thought.
Then her thoughts ground to a stop. Sienna, her eyes gleaming with excitement, hair shining black under the light of the reflectors, descended from the limousine. Beside her, a woman wearing the badge of a state keeper twisted her hands in nervousness.
“Sienna,” Pyn whispered.
She watched as Sienna moved on past her.
“We shouldn’t be here,” the woman said.
“I want to see the Dollygirls,” Sienna replied.
“We’ll have to wait for Sandusy,” the woman said. “That’s what the letter said. Wait for Sandusy.”
Sienna’s laughter tinkled, as she skipped alongside the keeper. Pyn fought the urge to reach out her hand and touch her sister.
“Here, that won’t do at all,” the woman said. “Sandusy won’t be pleased.”
”Sebastian said something about a surprise,” Sienna said.
“Well, Sebastian isn’t here yet.”
Pyn’s breath came in shallow gasps. She watched her sister walk carelessly over the smooth floor.
“Sienna,” she whispered.
Tears pooled at the edges of her eyes and trickled down her cheeks, as she stared at her sister. Sienna’s skin was smooth and unblemished, her limbs were strong and firm, and she moved with a supple grace that told Pyn her younger sister had never gone through renovations.
“Sienna,” her voice rose slightly.
She waited expectantly as Sienna turned.
“It’s me,” Pyn whispered.
She watched as Sienna came toward her. Saw the look of wonder cross her younger sister’s face.
“You’re a Dollygirl,” Sienna said.
Pyn smiled and nodded, waiting as Sienna reached out her hands. Her fingers felt cool as they traced the rigid landscape of Pyn’s forehead. Pyn winced as Sienna’s fingers probed the connectors recently installed along the line of her brow. But she stood still, allowing her sister to explore the ridges of her cheeks where new software nestled under sculpted tissue.
“Do you remember?” Pyn heard the tremble in her voice. “Do you remember Cordoba’s End? Sonatina’s Point? Ecastasy Street? Sisters?”
“Sisters?” Pyn saw the confusion in Sienna’s gaze. “I don’t understand.”
“Sisters,” Pyn insisted. “Don’t you remember? You said you’d wear a white dress with violets…”
Sienna shook her head.
“I don’t have a sister,” she said.
“It’s the rejuvenation,” Pyn said quickly. “They said this would happen. But you’ll remember. I’ll help you.” But Sienna was backing away, shaking her head in denial.
Desperate to keep her sister from leaving, Pyn forgot about the surgeon’s admonitions to be careful. She stepped forward, felt the full weight of her body come down on her left foot, heard the crack as new bone gave way under unexpected pressure. As if from far away, she heard the skittering of beads as the prayer necklace fell out of her pocket and hit the hard stone floor.