The man pulling music out of the old-world piano at this Fleet Street bar plays minor-key jazz melodies with killer hands.
Literal killer hands. His left is a chrome-plated work of art, the overpriced sort that catches the light with flashy metal detailing every time the fingers move. That design was trendy with corporate enforcer troops two seasons ago. The right is still flesh, the human skin well-tanned over long, lean bones. A classic musician’s hand, save the swirling red tattoo curled like a bloodstain at the tender juncture of his wrist.
I swallow cheap blue whiskey. The burn slides down my throat, while I drink in Killer Hands’ owner. He’s good-looking in an off-kilter sort of way: black-curled and black-eyed, aquiline nose just a little too strong for his razor-boned face, the stubble at his jawline the barest suggestion of a shadow. The hands, though—the hands are what you really notice. The hands are the reason I’ve been sitting in this shitty-ass bar, drinking its shitty-ass whiskey.
Killer Hands finishes playing his set, then raises inky brows toward the open hunger in my gaze. “See something you like, ma’am?”
I shrug. “Heard something I liked.” The cold whiskey glass sweats against my palm. The bar’s shady lighting makes the blue inside look black. “Bet all the girls tell you that.”
Loping over, he grins. “But it doesn’t get old.” He extends the still-human hand. “Renaire.”
“Jo.” If my glass-clammy grip bothers him, he doesn’t let on. “Un-ironic fan of good music and shitty bars.”
He chuckles, throaty, sliding on to the bar stool beside mine. “What about hot pianists?”
“Hey, ma’am, I wasn’t the one looking at the man on the keyboard like you’d have a better use for his fingers.” He waggles the digits on the chrome hand with demonstrative intent, impressively graceful for such an explicit gesture.
I let my eyes stay hungry. I’ve been watching Renaire of the Killer Hands for weeks, long enough to know he likes his lovers easy. “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Have a better use for your fingers?”
His long black lashes dip, considering. “Buy the man a drink first.”
I knock back the last of my shitty blue whiskey. The burn fills me up inside, as I spin the empty glass down the length of the bar. “Oy! Refill for the gent!”
“How’d you know we have the same drink order?”
“Because it’s the least awful hooch on offer at Fleet Street, and I never knew a musician who’d play a one-off gig here without getting plastered, much less a regular show.” My grin grows. “You are the regular show in this joint, aren’t you?”
A refilled glass of blue slides back across the grimy countertop. Renaire’s fancy chrome hand catches the drink. His eyes lock on mine.
“Ma’am.” He flirts with an old-world drawl that stretches his vowels out when he likes what he hears. “You’ve only seen my warm-up act.”
In long-lost days when the world was free, and the land still whole, there lived a man whose life was his country.
At least, that’s the story I swallowed, once upon a time. The man who fed it to me had his pick of stories, but he figured out fast that a shrieking orphan, plucked from the smoking remnants of a corporate raid, will gobble up a fairytale like nothing else. The way he looked—tall and fair and blue-eyed, just like an old-world storybook hero—helped him sell it. Folks are always keen to buy fairytales from someone who looks like he belongs in one. Especially when those folks are nine years old, covered in blood and rubble, and newly homeless.
You don’t question a storybook hero pulling you from your family’s collapsed corner-store. You let him carry you past the trigger-happy corporate enforcer troops. You bury your face in his fine crimson coat when he shields you from the crack of electric gunfire, and much later, when he wraps a blanket around your shoulders and cradles your face between the kindest hands you’ve ever known, when he says, very seriously, “I’ll take care of you,” you believe him. How could you do anything, but believe him?
He had this swirling red tattoo on his inner wrist, same color as his coat, like a rose blooming in cream. “It’s a promise,” he explained, when I asked. “For me, and for you, and for many others. When you’re old enough, perhaps you’ll have one too.”
Back then, in that moment, I wanted nothing more than one of those red, red tattoos.
Renaire’s mouth lands hungry on mine, the second the motel room door slams behind us. He’s as clever with his mouth as he is with his hands, which makes counting minutes harder, but I’m no amateur. I ease him over to the bed, straddle him, as together, we shuck his shirt. His half-mast lashes lift, amused, at the electronic click of the slender silver cable I shackle to his wrist, right over the curling red tattoo. “Getting kinky already, are we?”
The cable beeps as I lock Renaire down to the bed. “Just like that pervert Orange Corp exec you murdered in his bed last night.”
My quip transforms him. He goes stiller than a droid running a shorted-out battery. “What are you talking about?”
I climb off his lap, with some reluctance, straightening my skirt. “Don’t bother lying. You have—” I glance toward the glaring neon numbers on the standard-issue clock wall. “Two minutes and fifteen seconds, before the serum kicks in.”
He doesn’t say anything at all, for a couple seconds, as if his brain’s a computer still buffering the situation. Then he begins to laugh, low and bitter, muscles stretching taut beneath the vulnerable plane of his bare chest. “You want Marcellus.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, sweetheart.” I rummage through my purse until I find a pack of cigarettes—the old-world kind, because some things are worth traditionalism—and a cheap auto-lighter. I stick the cig between my teeth, and click the auto-lighter on. “Right now,” I tell him, “I just want a smoke.” It’s not even a lie.
“Which corporation you representing, huh? Orange Corp? Or one of their rival enforcers? Or are you some delusional govy fed, trying to give big government a comeback?”
I suck on the cig without answering, the smoke climbing rough and sweet through my lungs.
“I know you want Marcellus.” Renaire rolls his head toward me. Moonlight filtered through the window paints his skin paler than he really is, washes him out until he’s bloodless beneath the crimson ink on his wrist. “They all want Marcellus.”
I blow smoke at the ceiling. “Tell me about the Orange Corp guy.”
I roll my eyes toward the neon numbers. “Serum should be hitting about now. Truth’s gonna spill whether you like it or not. Popular flirt like you should be more careful about letting strangers buy you drinks, don’t you think?”
“Now that’s just cold.”
I take another drag. “The Orange Corp guy. Why’d you kill him?”
“Why’d I kill him?” Another bitter laugh rasps out of Renaire. “Why wouldn’t I? He sleeps with underage children. He assaults women. He embezzles money. The world’s better off without him.”
“So you’re an altruist.”
“Honestly, ma’am? I’m a killer.” This, Renaire tells me with relish, savoring each syllable. His arms, well-defined, flex against the shackle above his head. “And my single most useful quality is my complete and utter inability to give a shit.”
“Interesting.” I take a seat in an ugly neon-green armchair, propping my feet up on the bed, across from Renaire’s. “Why give a shit about sleeping with underage children, or assaulting women, or embezzling money, then?”
Renaire stares at the ceiling. “You see? I knew you wanted Marcellus.”
“Tell me the story.”
The man in the crimson coat, casting an exasperated glance toward the bed, ran frustrated fingers through his fair hair. “I literally just told you the story.”
I smiled my best smile for him, covers pulled up to my chin. “You could tell it again.”
“The entire point of telling you was so you’d go to sleep.”
“And I will,” I promised. “If you tell it again.”
He sat down at the foot of my bed. “I had no idea children could be so incorrigible.”
“Story,” I repeated, stubborn.
“If I tell you the story, you have to do something for me in return.”
“Go to sleep,” I parroted obediently.
He huffed what might have been a laugh. “Yes, that. But I also need you to do something for me tomorrow. I’m going to teach you to do a certain sort of job. An important job. Would you like that?”
Important jobs were for grown-ups. I tilted my head, reaching for the sleeve that hid the swirling red at his wrist. “Does that mean I’ll get a tattoo?”
His hand closed warm and careful over mine. “Perhaps. If you’re very good. What do you think? Would you like to try?”
“Yes.” I beamed. “But story first. You promised.”
He sighed, eyes rolling, but he didn’t bother hiding his smile. “Very well. In long-lost days, when the world was free, and the land still whole, there lived a man whose life was his country …”
“I didn’t find Marcellus,” Renaire insists stubbornly. “Marcellus found me.”
“He does that,” I say around the cigarette in my mouth. “Where?”
“A dive bar.” Renaire’s eyelashes return to half mast, like he’s reliving the day. “I’d just gotten kicked out of some corporate enforcer squad. Drunk and disorderly, multiple counts of insubordination, dishonorable discharge, blah blah, you know the drill. I’m no use at anything but murder or music, so I thought I’d give the second career a shot. I was playing a gig at the bar when Marcellus showed up, all in red, like nothing I’d ever seen. I think I knew, even in those first moments, what he really was.” Renaire’s chest shudders. “See, my new boss, turns out he’d been laundering money through corporate funds for a side business that dealt in … kids. You’ve read what the holo-rags all say about Marcellus. You can guess what happened next.”
“The job didn’t work out, I take it.”
“The piano gig at the dive bar? Nah. But Marcellus decided to keep me, after I helped him take care of my boss.” His smile’s more a twist of the lips than anything else. “Like I said, I’m good for two things. Music doesn’t always work out, but the other thing? That’s always hiring.”
“But you don’t do it for the money.” I’m eyeing the red at his wrist. “You do it for him. So he’ll keep you.”
Renaire shifts on the bed, shackle clinking. I feel him watching me—really watching me now, in a way he hadn’t before, even when he’d had his mouth on me. “Fuck me sideways. You’re her.”
Smoke settles in my lungs, saving me from speech. My eyes close, but I can’t shut out Renaire’s words.
“You’re the girl. The one in that old-world photograph he keeps.” Boisterous as he was at the bar, he’s quiet in this realization. “I didn’t see it at first. You were … younger, in the picture. But I see it now.” He laughs, soft and bleak, and repeats, “Of all the fucking bars in all of Fleet Street. You’re Josefina.”
“You’ve killed insects before, Josefina, have you not?”
The man cable-tied to the chair, silver cleaving into his wrists and gagging his tongue, was pale and blond, just like the man in the crimson coat standing behind him. They might have been brothers, but the bound man’s features lacked the other’s flawless, holo-smooth symmetry, his skin pockmarked with tiny, subtle imperfections that never dared tread over his captor’s. He looked afraid. I’d never seen the man in red look afraid, not once.
I shrank from them both. “That’s not an insect. That’s a man.”
“Are you certain? When a man sells human beings into slavery, when he funnels blood money into corporate interests, when he shows no remorse for the lives he destroys, is he still a man? Or is he an insect?” The man in red still wore a storybook smile. He knelt beside me, making himself small, so we were eye-level. “I know it’s frightening, the first time. I’m sorry for that, truly, I am. But let me teach you something.” He drew up his coat sleeve. “You asked me about this tattoo, the first time we met. Do you remember what I said?”
I hesitated. “You called it a promise.”
“That’s right.” With his other hand, he produced a laser knife, the blade blinking into existence with a telltale snick of the button. Before I could cry out, he’d opened the smooth, unmarked skin below the tattoo. It fell apart like old-world book pages, but no blood spilled.
Beneath the shorn skin ran a thousand tiny, entwined golden wires. “The tattoo was a promise from the people who made me, in the old world, the one that existed before you were born, before the nation’s capital fell.”
I stared at the exposed wire. I knew about cyborgs, of course. Old-world people had built cyborgs for all sorts of purposes, from running errands to fighting wars. But the man in red was the first cyborg I’d met who’d been built to look like a human storybook hero. “What sort of promise?”
“To live and die for the country,” said the man in red. “To serve its people, as my creators could not live to. To destroy the same evils that destroyed their old world, until the land is whole and free again. Would you like to be a part of that?”
I watched the man in red zip his skin back together, remaking the tattoo whole. “You said you had a job for me. An important job.”
“And I do.” Gently, he turned my shoulders, so I faced the man cable-tied to the chair. “The first of many.”
I hesitated, looking into the gagged man’s terrified, red-rimmed eyes. This man had sold people like novelty whiskey bottles, to be drunk up and tossed aside. Had they looked like this, when he’d caught them, terrified and weeping? Had he felt a twinge of regret, when reports emerged of their masters working them to death in corporation factories, or had he simply laughed and poured himself another drink?
“What do I do with him?” I asked.
The man in red smiled, and placed the laser knife between my fingers. “The lesson begins now, Josefina. I believe you’ll prove a quick study.”
“Can I bum a cig?”
Why the hell not? I amble over, and stick one into Renaire’s waiting mouth. He inhales slow, as I light him up. He could be an absurdist cartoon in a holo-rag, the way the cigarette dangles between his teeth, while his hands dangle from the shackle.
“Hey. Do I get a question?”
I sit at the foot of the bed, cig between my fingers, and stare through our collective haze of smoke at nothing in particular. I don’t answer.
He’s undaunted. “Why did you leave?”
“Don’t know what you mean.”
“Marcellus.” The name, hissed, turns to a caress around Renaire’s cigarette. “Why did you leave him?”
“Sweetheart,” I tell Renaire through a dubious mouthful of smoke, “Marcellus is a literal terrorist robot who throws tantrums by murdering people. Is your question rhetorical?”
“God.” Renaire chuckles. “You’re a real piece of work. I must have looked at that picture a thousand times, but I’ve never really seen you, and lord, you’re exquisite. Old-world photography can’t capture it. I used to wonder, every time I saw that picture, every time he dropped your name. What makes her so special? How can one human girl matter this much to the world’s most infamous cyborg? I never saw it. I never saw you. But now I’ve kissed your lips and shared your cigs and gotten myself pumped full of your fucking interrogation drugs. Now, I see you. And I’m asking: why did you leave him?”
I lean across the bed’s narrow length, our proximity sudden and brutal. Renaire’s heartbeat flinches beneath mine, when I hiss, “For the same reason you’re here. Did he tell you his kills were righteous? Did he say that murder would save the country’s soul?” I stab the remnants of my smoke out on the bedside tray. “Did he promise you he’d never, ever harm an innocent?”
“No.” Renaire’s discarded cigarette leaves trails of ash across the ugly motel-issue comforter. “You still don’t get it. That’s not why Marcellus chose me. He needed absolute loyalty to his cause.”
I snort. “And that’s you, is it?”
“Wrong again, Josefina. Weren’t you listening? I don’t give a rat’s ass about Marcellus’s cause, or anyone’s. But I follow where he goes, and I’m not squeamish about his bloody hands, or mine. I’m loyal to him. That’s the same thing, far as he’s concerned.”
“So why aren’t you with him right now?” I ask. “Why the Fleet Street piano gig? Why all the shitty blue whiskey, the string of meaningless lovers for the past … let’s see, two and a half weeks now? What’s he planning, that you’re trying so hard to scrub from your brain?”
His expression goes strangely peaceful. “You already know, don’t you?”
“I have a hunch. But you wouldn’t be here, if I didn’t need confirmation.”
“Thorough, huh?” The grin he shoots me is savage. “Shit, you really are exactly like—”
“If you say that I’m exactly like Marcellus, I will punch you in the balls,” I say shortly. “Renaire. Where is he, and what is he doing?”
Silence unfurls between us. His Adam’s apple stutters, hard black gaze shifting sideways. And then, very quietly: “Central Headquarters. He’s going to poison the corporate-owned water supply.”
I’m already off the bed and moving before he finishes the sentence. Still, I hear his next words, loud and mocking. “You’re why he needed me, you know. He’d bury this rotten world in blood and shadow, if not for you. I could always protect him from anything—anything, except his precious Josefina. No matter how far I follow him into the dark, you’re always dragging him back into the fucking light.”
My hand pauses on the doorknob. “Just so you know,” I tell him evenly, “that whiskey I bought you never contained any truth serum, nor any intoxicant besides good old-fashioned ethanol.”
The air between us feels static. “You—”
“Lied? Yes. Marcellus taught me that, among other things.” I glance over my shoulder, just once. Alone on the bed, Renaire looks like a child, his eyes terribly wide in the dark. “This hard-drinking sociopathy of yours is cute, but you don’t fool me. Get off your cynical little high horse.” I kick the door shut behind me. “The key to that wrist-shackle is under your bedside ashtray, by the way, if you want it.”
The small, shocked peal of laughter hits my ears halfway down the motel corridor. By the time I reach the elevators, it’s turned to muffled sobbing.
I see the coat before I see the man. There’s something fitting about that, the stretch of crimson across the shoulders, beneath the machine-made mane of golden curls. He’s at work in the silent belly of Central Headquarters, bent over the water main, a spot of color amidst the grey-black grime of the underground pipes. He turns at the sound of my footsteps, mouth parting into an O around my name. “Josefina.”
The man in red hasn’t aged a day since I left him. A cyborg can’t. Photographed together right now, we’d look the same age.
I can’t waste more time. “Where’s the poison, Marcellus?”
Marcellus’s lips twitch, like they’re trying to form his old storybook smile, but can’t quite manage the expression. “You found Renaire. What have you done with him?”
“I haven’t damaged his hands, if that’s what you’re worried about. He can still murder anyone you select, if he still chooses to follow you.”
“If he still chooses to follow me,” Marcellus echoes, cold and contemplative. The clear blue eyes in his perfect, machine-made face seem sad. Can cyborgs experience sadness? Can they experience true emotion, in the human sense, or only what their programmed mandate dictates? Maybe I should have asked when I still lived with one. “I knew you’d get to him, one day. I trained you too well.”
“The poison, Marcellus.”
“Josefina.” Marcellus rises, his symmetrical features a study in disappointment. “You wanted to heal the land and free the country, once. You wanted a better world. What changed?”
“What changed?” I demand incredulously. “I grew up. That’s the one thing I was never supposed to do, right? As long as I was a child, I’d follow you off a cliff, kill anyone in your way, play the good little soldier in your crusade. As long as I was a child, I never had a choice. You sculpted me. You made me into what you needed. I had no friends, no hobbies, no life outside of your cause. I grew up into a robot with a laser-knife in one hand and a gun in the other, programmed for your goals, and then I malfunctioned.”
We’re almost nose to nose. I didn’t notice my feet carrying me toward Marcellus, but he doesn’t back away. His eyes burn cold and narrow into mine. “You left, you mean.”
I laugh, a little hysterical, hand over mouth. “Not you too. You sound just like Renaire. As if flying the nest is such a crime. How many times did I beg you to stop? How many times did you catch me crying in the bathroom while I washed someone’s insides off a new dress you bought me? I figured it out eventually: you’d never stop killing, and I’d never stop helping you, so long as I stayed. I did the math, and made a choice. That’s all.”
“It’s not that simple,” says Marcellus.
“It’s not—” My hand drops from my mouth. “What the hell’s not simple about poisoning an entire city’s water supply? Innocent men and women, children—”
“And the corporate enforcer execs,” Marcellus finishes grimly. “Every last one of them lives in this city, along with the heart of their business operations. This takes them all out in one blow. Just think of that. The ones who bombed your family’s home.”
“Don’t talk about my family. What happened to defending the people? This is mass slaughter.”
Something strange flits behind the cyborg’s eyes. “Chess games are won all the time with sacrifice plays.”
I feel sick. “You don’t believe in this. Please tell me that.”
“I’m doing what I was made to, Josefina. You can help me remake the world.”
“Or you’ll what, Marcellus? Kill me too?”
His eyes cut down at me. Even full-grown, I’ll always stand a little shorter than the man in red. “Did you know,” he says, his words slow, “you were the first human child I ever spoke to?”
“I will never be a human,” he interrupts, haltingly. “Not in the organic sense. But being with you makes me feel like one.”
It’s like being punched. It’s like blue whiskey drunk too quickly, hitting all at once. I swallow hard. Breathe. Then I look Marcellus in the eye, and whisper, “I don’t think you get to put that burden on me.”
The man in red studies me for a long moment. Then he produces an empty drug vial from his coat sleeve. Something like regret steals across his face. “It’s already done, Josefina.”
The world blurs before me. The entire life I shared with Marcellus distills into a single moment. Here’s a final exam to end all lessons from the man in red, reduced to a multiple-choice problem set. He taught me to lie. He taught me to kill. He taught me to sacrifice. Here are our skills, our programming, our purpose, passed from cyborg to human: the hinge on which the city rests.
My laser-knife drops into my hand, flashing into existence in the same instant I duck Marcellus’s too-late blow. The empty vial smashes on the floor, forgotten. I parry his next punch with my free hand, slip under his shoulder, and slice the sleeve of his crimson coat open from elbow to wrist.
The tattoo gleams crimson over alabaster flesh. My knife cleaves through its swirling center, laser digging deep through the wiring. Marcellus screams, just once. A sloshing, green-liquid vial falls from the compartment inside his arm. I catch it, and throw myself legs over shoulder, rolling out of Marcellus’s grip, vial in hand.
The man in red chases me. Time slows and speeds all at once. He’s screaming something I can’t hear. So I guessed correctly. He lied. I wasn’t too late.
I uncork Marcellus’s vial of poison, and pour it down my throat like blue whiskey.
Cold fills me up inside, ice melting down my throat, filling my belly. Then darkness swallows me whole.
Consciousness returns to me, which I’m pretty sure isn’t supposed to happen after you chug enough poison to kill a city of thousands. I’m staring up at a concrete ceiling. The ass end of Central Headquarters. So I never left. Great.
Something’s pricking into my left arm. I turn, still hazy, and take in the bright golden cable dangling from my arm, linking it to—
I scramble up on to my elbows, nearly dislodging the cable between my forearm and Marcellus’s. He’s smiling at me, the expression tired in a way I’ve never seen. His pale face is grey at the edges. “What the hell happened?” I demand.
“The short version?” His eyes drift shut. “You thoroughly ruined my plan to poison the city’s corrupt elite by swallowing the entire vial yourself.”
“Ruined—” I start, enraged, but he holds up a hand.
It trembles slightly. “The city will live. The corporate enforcer execs. And the innocent men, and women, and children, and ordinary citizens. I don’t know if that’s worth it. I don’t know if my creators programmed that kind of judgment into me.”
I eye the tremor in Marcellus’s hand. “What’s wrong with you?”
His eyelashes lift. Faint slits of clouding blue smile at me. “I have, perhaps, no judgment at all. But I couldn’t let you die. I promised,” he adds, nonsensically.
I’m cold inside again, following his fading gaze toward the thin, shining cable that links us. “Marcellus. What did you do?”
“The poison you swallowed doesn’t only destroy humans. It destroys artificial life as well.” He tries to look at me. “I wanted to be thorough. My downfall, I suppose.”
“Shit.” I try wrenching the cable free. “Shit. Shit. You’re taking the poison into yourself. You—you stupid robot! Marcellus!”
His hand clamps over my wrist, holding the cable in place. The cyborg’s pale fingers lie stark against my darker skin, covering the swirling red of my own tattoo. “The old-world engineers who made me wanted so many things,” he muses. “To destroy evil. To remake the country whole. To defend its people. I have failed, I think, in many ways.”
“I don’t care,” I babble impulsively, reaching for his face. His cheeks are smooth as ever between my hands, his ancient features horribly youthful. “I don’t care what they wanted. I’m not ready, Marcellus. I’m not ready for you to—” The words expand inside my chest, unable to find my tongue.
“Josefina.” He blinks. What pulses through the failing wires inside the cyborg crumples the man’s expression. “I failed in many things. But I promised you. I promised you.”
“I don’t understand.” My chest hurts. Everything hurts.
“I promised. I promised I’d take care of you.” He blinks again. “Josefina. Did I do it right? Will you live? I promised; I said, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ I promised—”
Inside my head, I’m nine years old again. A flash of red blinks at me through the grim grey ruin of what used to be my parents’ corner-store. The man beneath the crimson coat pulls me from the rubble, shields me from gunfire, and says—
“I’m alive,” I interrupt. Aloud, to make the words real. “But you …”
The man in red smiles, even though I don’t finish the sentence. Wires shutting down inside him slow his words, but he makes them heard, all the same. “The story. We ought to tell the story.”
“Marcellus.” If you’re nine years old inside your head, it’s not your fault when you start to cry.
“Just once. And then I’ll go to sleep. I promise.”
“All right,” I say. “All right. In long-lost days …”
In long-lost days, when the world was free, and the land still whole, there lived a man whose life was his country. But countries are fallible, and poor substitute for companionship. Years passed. The world grew darker. The man became lonely, and forgetful of what precisely his life was for.
One morning, he happened across a sharp-minded young girl. Her clever questions pierced through his gloom like light. They became fast friends, and the man rejoiced, for he wasn’t lonely anymore. Slowly, now, he remembered his life’s purpose.
“But why?” asked the sharp-minded young girl. “Why live or die for country when it’s failed you so horribly? The country is only land. It offers no warmth, no affection, no companionship.”
And the man, smiling, said, “This is untrue. The country is more than land. The country lives in its people. I forgot that, until I met you.”
“Me?” asked the girl. “Why?”
“Because,” said the man, “My life has more than land, now. My life has you.”