by Sean Monaghan
Gemma felt the pain right away. She sighed, stretching, angling her limbs and hips, trying to find a more comfortable position. She blinked, looking at the Arhend side table strewn with folders.
Her Gadjet saw that she was awake and sat up, a message flashing on the screen. Alex had called during the night, and the Gadjet had let her sleep, waiting until now to show the message.
“Good results here,” the message said. “Promising prospects. Call you later on.”
Gemma smiled. He was in Laos, selling up large at a convention. With a little luck he’d get a break and someone would bankroll the next phase.
She waved at the Gadjet and the message faded. Resting a tired arm on the folders, she hoped the prospects were promising, that he wasn’t just making it up to buoy her. Alex, who’d sprung for the side table, still found it odd that she loved paper, loved keeping things in folders. He would show her whatever of his latest devices that held the world’s collected information in the universe and ask her why she bothered. She would point to the furniture he’d bought, all the other Arhends, the DeVilliers shelves, and the Kronos armchairs and she would smile. “We all have our eccentricities.”
With twinges in her knees, she sat up, reaching for one of the vials behind the folders. She clicked the lid and took one. Oxycotin, muted with Aspirin, sugar and traces of Codeine. Her own mix. She’d been ordering her own tailored pharmaceuticals since before pre-med.
The truth was she did like paper, liked to be able to sit up in bed and spread the sheets out in front of her. It was easy that way to associate symptoms and history.
No one knew what she had, and they were skeptical about her ability to find something.
The closest they had come up with was hypophosphatasia, but that didn’t quite match. It could be marrow-calci-elephantiasis, or simple cyst extension, or some bizarre combination of allergy, virus and genetics. Since the first inklings of stray diagnoses she’d become almost an expert on bones.
Feeling the warming sense of the painkiller, she swung her legs from the bed. The floor was cold.
“Warming,” she said. The coils activated, a trickle of warm edging into her soles.
Standing, Gemma grabbed her robe and walking stick and went to the kitchen. Soon it would be crutches, a wheelchair. The way her bones were wasting, she would be dead before she was thirty.
Switching on Alex’s Alessi, she got her coffee started. At least with his income she was comfortable, and had the resources to work on developing life extension. Alex marketed medical devices from catheters to nano-infusions to AI bonepins. Nothing Johnson and Johnson made was going to do her any good, though.
While the coffee brewed, she went to her study nook and did a routine blood test. A quick stab into her thumb with the pen and she squeezed. One drip each onto two stiff strips of card which she then slid into the machine’s slot.
“Hey,” her Gadjet called from the bedroom. “You’ve got a call.”
“Put it through here would you?”
“Gotcha.” A handset folded itself out of the kitchen table, Alex’s face on the screen.
“Hi you,” she said. Stepping over with a wince as her hips pinched, she tapped to connect, then touched the Gadjet again and tossed the call over to the main screen. The hub took a moment to process, then Alex’s image came to life. Gemma went to pour coffee.
“Gemma,” Alex said, moving back almost into darkness.
She grinned. “Where are you?” She sipped the coffee. Too hot. Blowing across the surface she moved towards the lounge easy chairs.
Alex looked around, then back out from the screen. “Just the hotel restaurant. There’s some kind of club right behind me, dancing, music, you know.”
“Sure.” She hadn’t danced for years. She envied his flexibility and agility. Envied anyone’s.
“This was the only table at the… look something’s come up.” He looked away again.
Gemma felt a chill. It wasn’t like their last chance, but the money he could bring in would fund her treatment development for a long time. Forever. He’d told her it was a sure thing. The technology sold itself. “No one’s buying?”
“What? Oh. Yeah, sure, there’s lots of interest.”
Gemma tipped her head a little, feeling a sensation like vertebrae touching. The oxy took the edge off. “But no one’s signed yet?”
Alex sighed, rubbed his chin. He sat back then sat forwards again.
In that moment she knew. He didn’t even have to say it. His hesitation was enough. He said it anyway. “I think we’ve run our course, Gem.”
“You met someone else.” Her mouth was suddenly dry.
Alex looked right into his Gadjet’s camera, unable to keep the glint out of his eye, unable to stop the little momentary grin creeping in at the corners of his mouth.
“Listen,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Gemma could picture the woman now. Limber, mobile, soft eyes, hair like a fountain. Could see her with a wine glass, laughing, touching Alex’s hand as he laughed too.
“You’re not coming home?”
“Be home in a day or two. I’ll send you some documents.”
Gemma blinked. For a moment she was determined not to let him see her cry, but then that might be all she had. “I should have seen this,” she said. “You kept giving me warning signs, right?”
“Gemma. I… was committed to you. But things can change fast.”
“The tattoo,” she said.
Alex nodded. “Just as well you didn’t get it, then.”
Gemma sniffed. “I’m still getting it.” In fact, now she had to. Her skin prickled as she realized that she still had to get it.
“You couldn’t tell me in person?” She felt angry. Insulted.
“I’d like to. But that would be inconvenient.”
“She’s there with you, isn’t she?”
“Who? What?” He feigned confusion.
“The little diversion who put you up to this. She gave you an ultimatum, didn’t she?”
“You call it off, or she was walking, right?”
“Gemma, you need to step away, become your own person now. The treatments will still be available.”
Avoiding telling her. Which meant it was true. Spineless.
“I’ll keep you in as a partner,” he said. “So you’ll be fully able to-”
“It’s my idea. I came up with it.”
Alex’s grin was long gone. His face scrunched up a little, all business now. “A vague idea, with some applications. Sure it came from your reading, but it was my connections and acumen that has got it market-ready.”
He really was a prick. “A partner,” she said.
On screen a woman came into view, bent down towards Alex. Alex’s Gadjet automatically muted.
“Hang up,” she told her Gadjet. The television blanked for a moment, then a momentary hurricane warning came up, replaced quickly by a view of the surf beach.
Gemma stared at the image for a long time. So sudden. On the Gadjet, yet. He didn’t even have the courtesy to tell her in person. Was probably back up in the hotel room with the woman already. The thought brought bile to her throat.
Her coffee was cold.
Getting up she went back to the percolator and poured another cup. It seemed very mechanical. Here she was in their apartment, surrounded by his things.
Not the oxy. If anything that was keeping her grounded. Less like she was slipping out of her body and watching from a distance.
Slugging back the coffee she went to check her bloods. Everything Gemma-normal. Iron all screwed up, calcium out of whack, hemoglobin ridiculously strong, white cell count too high. Nothing was holding her together.
Alex had left her.
Unsteady on her feet, more than usual, she went to the balcony, sliding open the door and staring out into the crisp clear air. Two miles away slivers of ocean rose to the horizon between tall condominium blocks, the glass shafts leaving narrower gaps between than their own widths. Pepper Construction was putting in a three-hundred-and-fifty-floor block to the south. If she had the money, she would move to the penthouse where the very slightly thinner air would help her condition.
She could just as well move to the Andes: to Quito or La Paz. Much more expensive though, with the explosion of the late-oil economies.
Staring at the buildings, she remembered the tattooist. Cory Something. Or Cody. She had a paper card somewhere. Two Devinie Plaza.
She hadn’t even discussed that with Alex, even though they’d worked on the tattoo together. The tattoo as distraction.
It was time. Easy enough to erase the Alex section from the design.
Taking another breath of the cool air, she slipped back inside, going to the office-lab. Technically it was the apartment’s second bedroom, but she’d set up racks of work and inline Gadjets to process data. And the Quoop centrifuge. She sat in her chair, immediately feeling the crisp micro-massage easing her muscles. If only it could go deep into her bones, shave away those tiny nodules. Still, it helped.
Fingering up a screen, she hardened it, waited a moment for it to grow its circuits and display then began tapping. The centrifuge whirred.
This last batch would do. She instructed the Gadjet arm to construct a mini-forge. It did so quickly, fabricating from the detritus of coffee grounds and old screens. Despite recycling everything they still had to buy raw materials every week.
After a moment the new screen flashed that the forge was ready.
From the living room her personal Gadjet rang.
“Take it in here,” she said without thinking.
A corner of the screen imaged up. Alex. He was sitting up in a bed, rubbing his eyes. “What are you up to, Gemma?”
“Uh-huh.” There was someone else in the bed. They had gone straight to his room as soon as she’d hung up on him.
“You gotta stop that. You’ll get your shares in due course.” The woman behind him turned and got out of the bed, disappearing into the gloom.
“I don’t have time Alex. I need to recover my-”
“I’m going to shut you out.” His hand grew huge as he reached for the Gadjet.
Gemma waved at her screen, grabbed at the air in front, shifting things around, trying to lock him out. Icons began disappearing as he started closing her down. He was much better at this kind of thing than her.
The centrifuge pinged. It was ready to begin the dump. Just a couple of moments and she could do that manually, as long as he didn’t disable the marble.
“Stop it Alex,” she said. “It’s my research too.” Fingers aching, she started grabbing almost random icons and tossing them to a micro-brick. Once things were on there, he couldn’t get them. She stayed away from the marble command.
It worked. Alex started focusing on the stacks of research, blocking her throws and fading the access back to his own Gadjet. Good, she thought, I hope he overloads it.
The centrifuge pinged again.
“What was that?” Alex said.
Gemma waved at the marble control and the centrifuge poured. She watched the inky liquid slip up over the tube’s edge and into the porcelain aperture. She could feel the shift in the air as the liquid moved, shimmering, as if the gases were reacting to a forced attack. There was that sound too, like something tearing. It reminded her of a jet landing with reverse thrust, the very oxygen screaming at the abuse.
“Gemma?” Alex said. “I hope you’re not…”
One of the internal cameras whirred and turned as he took command to see what she was doing. Gemma reached up and crushed it against the wall with her thumbnail. She felt exhausted. Too many sudden movements.
The centrifuge finished and withdrew. Quickly the marble forge sealed itself and began warming, a row of simple LEDs on the side indicating the temperature. Already over a hundred centigrade. Boiling. It would reach well over twelve hundred to bake the marble solid.
“This is not a good idea,” Alex said.
“No,” she said. “Being with you was not a good idea.” Now that the forge had started there was nothing he could do to turn it off, it had to complete its work.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Patent it, sell it. Screw you.”
“No,” he said. “The patent application is already filed. You can’t do anything with it. Give it up.”
The application was already filed? He’d been planning this. “You just used me,” she said. It felt like someone had jumped on her stomach. She might throw up. He’d just been exploiting her from the first moment. Ready to pounce and steal her ideas. She stared at the denuded screen, all the blank spots showing her stolen research.
“You have to believe I loved you,” he said.
She couldn’t listen to this. Her mouth was dry with a bitter taste. “This is why you’re in a hotel halfway around the world with some hooker.”
“Giselle is-” he cut himself off. “I loved you, but it has run its course. And there is the business to consider.”
The forge had reached baking heat. Not long now.
She suddenly realized the patent application would leave her out entirely. All her work gone. Quietly she said, “You did, of course, include my name on that patent, didn’t you? If you love…loved me.”
“I….” He rubbed his chin.
“See,” she said. “It was all just business to you.”
“You should have had offsite, offline backups, honey. That way you could prove precedence in court.”
She hesitated. “I do have offsite backups. Offline. Stored with Cory. I have….” But she realized from his expression that she’d hesitated too long. She didn’t have the backups. She didn’t have the expertise he did, to be able to mine data so efficiently. To be able to reach across the globe and erase someone’s work.
“Cory,” Alex said. “The tattooist?”
It was the first name she’d thought of. Stupid to try to bluff him.
“See, you’re a wonderful person, Gemma, but it was my savvy that has kept this going. You’d still be pottering away with tests and half-finished attempts. Quantum medication was a good idea, but without me nothing would have happened.”
The forge pinged. The marble was ready.
“Except,” she said, “for this.” Taking a pair of tongs, she reached in through the now open aperture and pulled out a small black sphere. A little wisp of smoke twisted away from it, but the marble was cooling quickly.
Alex leant closer to his Gadjet, frowning. “What are you going to do with that?”
“Nothing,” she said, slipping the marble into her robe pocket.
“Listen. You leave it right there-”
Gemma thumbed the connection, leaving Alex mid-sentence. She broke down the Gadjet stack, which would make it harder for him to data-mine everything. She was tempted to break some of them, holographic processes or not.
Taking her walking stick, she went back through to the bedroom to get dressed. As she pulled open a drawer, her Gadjet chimed again.
“Ignore,” she said.
But somehow he overrode it, and there was his face on her little screen on the bedside table amongst the folders.
“Hang up,” she said.
She could see her little Gadjet struggling to kill the call, the screen shimmering, but Alex must have been shoving illegal algorithms through it to keep the line active. “Listen,” he said.
“Done listening,” she said. “I’ve got things to do.”
“I’m getting on the next plane,” he said. “I’ll be there in…” he hesitated a moment. “Seven hours.”
Seven hours from Vientiane to Norfolk seemed impossible. She tried to think of schedules, realizing that he was bluffing. “Good luck with that,” she said.
“You better think twice about whatever it is you’re doing. Whatever you try, I’m going to rip it apart. I’ll have so much money and you’re not keeping me from it.”
“That was never my plan.”
He stared out at her. “I’ll see you soon,” he said. “Very soon.” He broke the connection himself this time.
Gemma picked up the Gadjet, squinting into the screen for a moment. “You, little buddy, should get yourself some better defenses.”
“Good idea,” the Gadjet said. It flashed a smiley face, then showed a ticking clock face as it sent tendrils out looking for defense programs.
Seven hours, she thought. It would take much longer than that. Twelve hours in the air, probably a plane change in L. A., another in Charlotte or Pittsburgh, customs and luggage to think about. Probably a full day, really.
Still, she wasn’t going to be here when he got in.
Turning she sat on the bed with a gasp.
He was coming home, but she had to leave.
She started crying then, head falling forwards into her hands. Bone needles jabbed her, but that was only physical pain. She could take another oxy. Would probably need one soon.
Falling on her side, she lay weeping until her eyes were dry.
Why did she always do this? Pick the lousy ones. The men with money and ideas and energy, the ones who got excited about her own ideas and encouraged her and then suddenly just called it off. How many times had she heard a conversation begin with Gemma, we need to talk? A dozen? More?
How often had she opened that conversation herself?
Never, Gemma, that’s how often.
It’s always them. And this little sudden chemical shift buried in her amygdala and lancing out into her frontal lobes tore her up more than any number of nodules and needle growths on her bones. She would rather climb the stairs to the top of one of those hundred-story condominiums with her knees scraping together, tearing apart cartilage.
Rolling on her back, she stared at the ceiling.
She would have to do it now. Would have to get out, find somewhere new to live, find a way to restart with the marble.
Unless the Quoop was ready.
Gemma sat up. Wiping her eyes she looked at the picture on the dresser. The two of them, Alex and her, fishing off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Laughing. They never caught anything, really, but it was fun, watching the serious fishers, seeing the traffic coming off the bridge and disappearing into the abyss, watching ships pass over the tunnel portions. Fun times.
She stood, picked up the picture and went to the balcony. “Goodbye,” she said, and flung the picture out. It spun, picking up air like a kid’s toy as it went, sailing out over the marina. She saw it clunk into the side of a fiberglass launch, break and fall into the water.
That felt better.
Back inside, she dressed, gathered up some things, packed an overnight bag. How long had she lived here, she wondered? Eight months? It had been April when she moved in. She was surprised how little she felt attached to anything. The pictures on the walls were Alex’s. The vases shelves, the coffee table books, the appliances. All mostly his.
She found Cory’s card and put it into a pocket. That would get her into the building. She was tempted to make an appointment, but perhaps that would give away her intentions to Alex? Better to just show up. At least she wouldn’t be here.
Slipping her Gadjet into her pocket with the card, she began scooping up the folders, putting her data collection together. Then she stopped. It didn’t matter any more, did it? She’d made the Quoop. Either it would work or not. Her next step was a clinical trial. She left the folders.
In the kitchen she looked at the coffee maker, tempted to hurl it out the window too. Tempted to take his clothes and slash them all. Tempted to just break everything of his, but it would take too much energy. She had her results. She just needed to go.
She took another oxycodone blend.
Outside a seagull screeched and Gemma leaned back against the kitchen counter, breathing. A wave felt like it was rising up in her, as if she was going to cry again. She looked at the time on the fridge. Twenty minutes since he’d told her he was getting on a plane. She had plenty of time.
Back in the office, she looked around for one of his micro-bricks. She had too much stuff in here. Everything was going to have to be rebuilt. She rifled through drawers and looked on shelves, finding one of the little Gadjet-like bricks. The brick would save her risking her Gadjet again. It was shielded from everything, could get on and process data at its leisure. Not very useful for most day-to-day stuff but handy to process offline data. She’d always wondered why he had so many – fifteen or twenty – but now it seemed more obvious: he’d been preparing to leave from the moment she’d arrived.
Time to go.
“Get me a taxi,” she told her Gadjet.
“Destination,” it said.
She still had the card in her handbag. Pulling it out, she touched it to the Gadjet.
“Five minutes,” the Gadjet said.
Taking a look around the apartment Gemma sighed. She should have known this was coming, really, should have known he would do this at some point. At least she had the Quoop.
Stupid name. How could you market that? Quantum goop didn’t work, but Quoop was almost equally ludicrous. It needed a name that would sell, like Viagra or Selframe or Braehance. But it was different. Not a chemical treatment, didn’t need a chemical name. Still, she couldn’t ever see doctors writing with a Quoop pen on a Quoop notepad while they considered prescribing.
Gemma stopped at the door, looking around the apartment. She went back to the kitchen and opened a cupboard. Taking one of his Doltine coffee cups, from the set he’d spent as much on as some people spent furnishing a house, she looked at the deep translucent designs through it. Very nice.
She hurled it to the tiled floor. It smashed into thousands of pieces. She did the same with the other five cups. That felt better.
“These are my bones,” she said, looking at the shards scattered across the floor. “This is what I feel inside me every day.”
Leaving the door unlocked, she took the elevator to the lobby. Hobbling out, she found the taxi waiting by the valet cabin. The driver saw her coming and jumped out to open the door for her.
“You okay miss?” he said. Scandinavian accent.
“Rough day,” she said.
The man puffed out his cheeks. “Likewise.”
I bet, she thought, slipping into the back seat. She looked back at the building, the verandah facade, the doorman, the valet waiting patiently. All behind her now. She wondered if she was going to suddenly burst into tears again, sitting in the back of the taxi.
“You going to Devinie Plaza?” the driver said as he got behind the wheel.
“Two,” she said, thinking it was nice that some things still got done by simply speaking with another person, rather than letting the devices handle it all.
“Fare is one-eighty,” he said.
“Of course.” She tapped her Gadjet to the paycube, which had $180+15 lit on its upper face. The Gadjet pipped, then the paycube chirped a series of disagreeing beeps.
“Perhaps you have another account,” the driver said, leaning around.
For a moment she didn’t understand the problem. But then it came to her. Alex would have locked the accounts. Her accounts. “Give me a moment,” she said.
The driver shrugged. “I can take cash.”
Like she had cash on her. “Just a moment,” she repeated. Then she spoke to the Gadjet, asking it how its defenses were.
“Military,” it said. “It cost a bit.”
“Yeah. Can we siphon out of the trust account? Pipe some through to a new current?”
“Bank of America?”
“Count,” the Gadjet said. Its screen shifted to show four panels, each with a countdown as it set up the transfer for her. The longest, opening the new account, was counting down from twenty-five seconds.
“Not doing anything illegal back there, are you?” the cabby said.
“Not yet,” she said. If Alex had locked out more than just the money, like her id verifications, then she would need a whole new plan. No way she could walk across town.
The Bank of America count paused at fifteen seconds. “Problem?” she said.
“Waiting for the deposit,” the Gadjet said. “It’s still coming through.”
The top left corner flicked over from 1 to 0, then went blank. The Bank of America count began again.
“Really,” the driver said. “I’ve got all night. I’ve got a newspaper up here. Trouble in the Middle East, Wall Street causing problems.”
“Last week’s news,” she said.
“Why do we bother reading it?”
The screen finished its counts and a “Welcome to Bank of America” logo flashed up. “Opening balance $50,000.” Nice. She reached out and tapped the paycube, accepting the tip. Funny, she thought, how even with pre-paying a fare you also pre-paid the tip. Back to front.
“Okay,” the driver said, pulling his door closed. “Devinie Plaza.” He adjusted the speed lever and the car whirred down from the building’s ramp into traffic.
“Thanks,” she said to the Gadjet. It didn’t respond.
“Going to the doctor’s?” the driver said. “Saw you limping?”
Congenital, untreatable, progressive, improperly understood and only vaguely diagnosed bone disorder. “I’ve been to all of them already. I just live with it.”
“Ouch. I’ve got a cousin back in Stockholm, got some mine fragments in his leg. He fought, you know, back in one of those ‘remove the government’ operations. UN. Peacekeeping or something. Somalia or whatever. Mine went off, filled his leg with those little ferry metal things.”
“Ferric oxide pellets,” she said, barely even listening. Cheap African revolutionary weapons.
“That’s it. You know they have been into that leg so many times, maybe eighteen operations. Cleared out a lot, but he keeps limping.”
“Sounds terrible.” They stopped at flow lights, the semi beside them rumbling slowly, then accelerating into a coordinated gap. The cabbie accelerated, stealing part of the system’s meshing to get through. The meters would pick it up, adjust the other traffic speeds. He might gain a demerit, but he probably had that all figured out.
“My sister in Queens,” the cabbie said. “She came out just a year ago and already-”
Gemma’s Gadjet rang. “Excuse me,” she said, grateful for the distraction. She tabbed the answer key, seeing that it was an anonymous number. “Hello.”
“Pretty smart, huh,” Alex said.
“Alex.” She was surprised. Number unknown, it said. But the Gadjet should have known who he was, should have shown it. “How are you calling?”
“From the air taxi. I’m on my way to the airport. Why did you screw with the lab? And then stealing from the trust.”
“It’s my trust. I put it together. You blocked our account.”
“Of course. Until everything is split. It’s blocked for me too.”
“But you’ve go money for an air taxi. And flights. I’m just trying to pay for a cab.”
Alex hesitated. “Yes. Hmmm. Where are you going Gemma?”
“I have an errand to run. I’m out of milk.”
“And goodness knows you need to drink a lot of that.”
She almost smiled. It was an old joke between them. Milk was one of the worst things for her, just encouraged the bones to misbehave. “You’ve made it clear I’m not welcome,” she said. “So I’m leaving.” She actually stammered a little, finding it hard to get the words out. How could this bastard be the same man who’d once bought her tulips and calcium-free chocolate? A man she’d shared a bed with. Conniving, selfish prick.
“I won’t be moving back the apartment,” he said. “Once I’ve collected my things, you’re welcome to it.”
It would only be a hollow space then, she thought. Once he took his things, she would only see them. She would see the space where the Kronos armchairs had been, see the Arhends and the DeVilliers, even if they were gone. It could never be a home. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m going apartment shopping.”
He turned away from the Gadjet and spoke to someone else. “Look, we’re just coming in to the airport, so I have to get off the line. Don’t think this conversation is over.”
She felt anger welling up in her. He had the gall to throw her out, then try to negotiate access to her work. On his terms. “I think it is,” she said. She tapped to end the call.
“Boyfriend trouble?” the driver said.
“Something like that.” Ex-boyfriend trouble, she thought. Ex. She shivered. She felt suddenly adrift, lost. How could she have relied on him so much, for so long? How could she have trusted him?
“My sister,” the driver said. “She told me she’s done with men. This is two months ago. Now she’s with some guy from Denmark. Denmark.” They were crossing an arched bridge over one of the canals. A big launch motored along underneath, heading out towards the bay.
The driver rattled on, extending the story about his sister, how he sent her money, but still she kept giving it away. Gemma barely listened, letting him have just enough attention to try and take her mind off Alex. He was at the airport already? So he hadn’t been just threatening when he said he was coming. How could it be so important to him?
Then they were amongst the tall and shiny buildings and the traffic was heavier. The taxi crept along and eventually pulled into an entry bay. The driver parked the vehicle close to the doors. He got out right away, coming around the car to help her out. She almost told him she could manage – she could – but it had been wearying, and it was nice to have someone concerned.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Think nothing of it. Have a better day.”
He nodded and went back to his cab. Gemma looked at the building. It tapered up, its glass skin an iridescent sheen of blues and violets. From this angle she couldn’t see the huge Devinie sign that stuck up from the top. To her left she could see the coastal boardwalk and beyond that breaking waves with a few early surfers sitting up like black seals waiting for the sets. Dark clouds poking up from beyond the horizon.
From the pocket she pulled out Cory’s card. He was on level 72. Going to the doors she was stopped by a robot eye that wavered at her on a short stalk. “Business?” a speaker disk said.
“I’m here to see Cory Melhuit,” she said, holding the card up to the eye. “The tattooist.”
“You don’t have an appointment.”
She hesitated. “Can I make one?” How stupid was she? Of course she needed an appointment.
“Yes. Step into the lobby.” The glass doors slid open, letting her into the foyer. The outer doors closed, then another set opened and she went into the lobby proper. A tall tanned man in a wetsuit came towards her. Under his arm was a longboard, decorated with a big LSD logo. The suit was Body Glove. He went by her, out of the building.
Moving slowly with her stick, she headed for the security doors, expecting to be interrogated before she could make an appointment. She would have to find a public space and begin calling around, trying to find someone else who could take her today.
But the security door slid open, admitting her to a bank of elevators. One was open. She stopped.
“Level 72 is accessible,” a voice said, the same artificial voice as from the speaker on the outside of the building. “Please take the elevator.”
Stepping through the doors, she saw the list of floors. All greyed out except for 72. She couldn’t choose another level to get off. Strange security, letting her in without an appointment, but then locking her to a location. The doors slid shut. Almost imperceptibly, the car began moving, little spots lighting beside the floor numbers to indicate which level she was passing.
She was really going to go through with it. Really going to get the tattoo. As the elevator rose she took her Gadjet again and called up the design. At least he hadn’t taken that. If only he knew.
How long would it take? An hour or two, she thought. She’d often asked Alex about his small and specific tattoos, and he’d laughed, telling her it was no more than a tickle, taking little longer than getting a nightclub pass out stamp.
Hers was bigger than any of his though, and had grown more and more as it went. Her legacy. A way to defy her crumbling body. At least at first.
The elevator pinged and the doors opened. Gemma stepped out into a big lobby. Residential, not the office with a reception desk she’d been expecting. There was an atrium, at least two stories high. Tall black marble slabs, alternating with recessed blue-white plastic panels, reached up to frescoes against the ceiling. The lighting shifted slowly, growing more blue. Very subtle. A big vase of fresh-cut exotic flowers stood on a white marble table directly opposite the elevator doors.
The lobby narrowed to the left and to the right, into short corridors. A door at each end. A light blinked above the one to the left so she started down that way.
“Stop there,” a voice said when she was a couple of yards from the door.
“I’m looking for Cory Melhuit,” she said. She could see the little box at the edge of the door level with the handle. There would be a whole array of sensors in there, she thought, a camera, microGadjet, odor, IR.
“Tattooist. I have his card. I want to make an appointment.”
“To get a tattoo.”
“That,” the voice said, “I figured out already.”
The door opened a little. Gemma took a step forwards. She could see him silhouetted by light from outside. Medium build, thick hair. She couldn’t see his face. “I have a design,” she said.
“I’m sure. When did you want the appointment for, and why didn’t you Gadjet?”
“Phone problems.” Phone problems, ex-boyfriend problems, bone problems. Everything in her life could be put down to one problem or another. After the tattoo maybe she should get on one of those stupid positive living courses. Be yourself, be bold. Well, she was up to some of that anyway.
“Uh-huh,” he said. “As it happens, I’ve got a free day.” She saw him glance back over his shoulder. “I was going to catch some waves. I mean, if you wanted to do it right away. Assuming you’ve got stand-down documentation.”
He made a little grunting laugh. “Come in, let’s see if we can figure it all out.” He stepped back, opening the door wide. Light flooded around her.
Blinking, Gemma went inside. More marble and heavily recessed lighting. Tiles on the floor, cut in intricate patterns. Mosaic, but perfectly smooth, very expertly done. Not machine laid either; she could see some imperfections. A Monet on the wall.
He closed the door and led her along a short corridor to a big open plan living room-kitchen-dining space. And she’d thought that Alex’s taste in furniture was extreme. The sofa and two armchair suite looked like an art piece, all high curves and blended colors. It still looked comfortable. This guy was wealthy beyond measure.
Seventy-second floor. She should have known.
“Who’s the tattooist?” she said.
“Me.” He slipped in behind the kitchen island and dropped some fruit into a blender.
“I had no idea it was so lucrative.”
“Oh, tattooing is a hobby. That’s why I’m so free. Design is where I make a living. The furniture, the windows here. Have a seat; I’m in the middle of breakfast. Be right with you.”
She got a good look at him now. Early thirties, unshaven, but in a designer way, hair cut in a thick bob that had been popular last year. He had sliver-glasses, the thin line curving from one ear to the other across the bridge of his nose, the air refracting from the structure’s fields. An affectation. No one wore those anymore. She almost expected a baseball cap and riding chaps.
“You’re hurt,” he said as he moved across the floor.
“Bicycle accident,” she said. “Pulled in front of a taxi.”
“Ahh.” He raised the fruit knife, pointing it at her. “You must be very careful. We get so reliant on the automation of traffic that we forget that all these blocks of heavy fiberglass and solar cells are moving very fast. Mass times velocity. Very nasty.”
He laughed a little. “Noisy for a moment.” He flicked a switch on the blender and it buzzed the fruit to pulp. After a moment he shut it off and poured the liquid into a glass. “Would you like some? Very good for mending bones.”
Gemma tensed a moment, as he said bones. But of course he just meant bicycle accident fractures, not anything else. “I ate already.”
“Coffee, soda, water?”
“I…water, sure. Thanks.” She slipped onto the sweeping sofa, feeling the foam contour to her. It was almost an anesthetic in itself. If he designed this, no wonder he could live this way.
The seat provided a perfect view across the Delaware shore. She could just see the edge of the sand where the last of the foaming white runs of waves slipped up and back. People were walking along, feet in the water, seeming tiny and model-like. One of the surfers got up on his board, rode down the face of a wave, then tipped and crumpled, disappearing into the roiling water.
“Here,” Cory said holding out a stemmed glass with water, a slice of lemon across the rim.
“So,” he said, sitting down across from her in one of the armchairs. “What are we doing?”
It seemed so very informal and incongruous. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, exactly, but this wasn’t it. Perhaps a private room off an apartment with a couple of tattoo beds, and a bunch of equipment for inking and sterilizing and so on. She hadn’t been expecting to be ushered into some rich guy’s living room. “I have a design,” she told him.
“I’ve been working on it a while, with my-” her voice broke. She’d been working on it with Alex. Since she’d first seen his tattoos and had the idea. Why was she going through with it now? Some kind of latent attachment to him? This was the worst time to get a tattoo. In any other circumstance….
Cory sat forwards. “You okay there?”
“See this is why there is a stand-down. Like they used to have for guns. People get high, think they need a tattoo, wake up in the morning with The Birth of Venus across their backs and freak. We can do the paperwork today, but you can come back in a week.”
“I’m not high,” she said.
“Sure.” His face lost the look of concern, becoming more serious. “You have taken something. Not too long ago.”
“Just some oxy. For…” she trailed off and sighed. Any of her few friends would know why she’d taken medication this morning and momentarily she’d gotten comfortable and forgotten he wasn’t a friend.
He didn’t say anything. Gemma could see that he was just waiting for her finish the sentence. Another surfer stood, slipped down the wave, turned and went back up, then down a little, then over the top and sat back down on the board.
“How long,” she said, “do you think it takes to fly from Vientiane to Norfolk?”
“Austria? I guess about three hours. I don’t think there are direct flights, unless you’re on a private jet.”
A private jet.
That meant no harried flight changes, no tired lines of exhausted travelers. If he took a private jet it could be a direct flight. Her twelve-hour calculation would be way, way off. Alex could be here anytime. She pulled out her Gadjet and checked the time. 8:18. An hour since he’d called.
“No,” she said. “Not Austria. Laos.”
“Ahh, booming economy there.” He leaned forwards a little. “Faster planes, probably.”
She felt a surge of adrenalin. She didn’t have long.
“I’m sure,” he said, “that your Gadjet could tell you. It could even track a specific plane. Part of the whole congestion management system there. You know, get you to the airport the moment your friend steps out of the terminal. Very coordinated.”
“Like I said, I had a problem with my Gadjet.”
“Yes, you did.”
The Gadjet rang.
Cory smiled. “Still seems to take calls, though.”
Gemma nodded. She let it ring to go through to the message.
“I’m sick,” she said. “It wasn’t an accident.”
“I wondered,” Cory said.
The Gadjet clicked. Gemma’s voice came out, “This is Gemma. I’m tied up right now, leave a message, I’ll get back.”
Then Alex. “Listen you, we’re in the air. If you do anything, negotiate any deals, anything like that, I’m going to rip you so flat you’ll be living on the beach. Hear that? No money. You think you’ve got problems right now? When we touch down you can just hand over your results.” Then the sound of glasses clinking, and a muffled cabin announcement. The call ended.
“Boyfriend?” Cory said.
“Got yourself a little raft of problems here, it would seem.”
“I can afford the tattoo.”
Cory waved a hand at her. “I’m sure you can. There are many questions, though.” Then he shrugged. “Moot point though. There’s the stand-down. Then you’d need to pass a medical. And-” he pointed at her Gadjet, “-you seem to be mixed up in some domestic problem and I don’t want to be tangled up in that.”
“Tattooing is a hobby,” he said. “But I’m not interested in losing my license to do it.”
“Where can I go?”
“Nor could I recommend anyone who might accommodate you. There are rules to the profession.”
“I thought you said it was a hobby.”
“Hobby in the sense of I don’t have to do it for a living. I’m still bound by the same professional standards.”
Gemma sighed. “Of course.” Of course it wasn’t going to be so simple. She’d known most of this anyway, intellectually. In the time with Alex he’d gotten himself a couple of tattoos, just walked in and had them inked, then come back out, showing her in the evening. But he must have already done a stand-down for the first one. She had forgotten completely about having to wait for a week.
“I can get the documentation for you,” Cory said. “Then we can make a time for you. A week from now.”
Alex would be back this evening, or earlier. A week was never going to work.
“I’m dying,” she said. “This was kind of one of my ‘ten things’ list.” She reached for the Gadjet and pulled up tattoo file.
“Ten things to do before I die. Skydiving, swim with whales, visit Antarct-”
“You don’t look to me like you’ll be doing a lot of skydiving.”
“There you go.” The file came up, the image rotating on the Gadjet. “Have you got a screen? I could show you the design.”
“No harm.” He put his juice on the coffee table, then made a bubble screen, pulling a string from the table’s corner and drawing it up into a rectangle. As soon as the end of the string touched the table’s far edge the bubble shimmered in and a line of icons filed up the left-hand side. Cory touched one of the icons. “Toss it over.”
Gemma closed her hand above the Gadjet, grabbing the image. She flicked it at the screen, as best she could with her finger bones grinding. The bubble caught the file and expanded it to almost fill the screen. The tattoo rotated, hanging in the space above the table.
“Well,” Cory said. “That is nice. Complex.” He stood up and took the top two corners of the screen and pulled it wider and bigger, turning it as he went so that it expanded to the table’s long axis. The tattoo grew to twice the size of her arm.
“Nice. Helical.” Cory waved his hand in front of the bubble screen and the arm turned upright, then rotated, showing the whole pattern.
“You did this?”
“It’s a story,” she said. “Kind of personal. Private.” It looked different on his screen. She’d spent almost a year on it, working with Alex, making a long line of images and carefully tuning it so that when it was wrapped up into a tube, each part related not only to the pieces next door, but also to those above and below.
At the beginning a seed, a tree, becoming a sperm, then a woman in a cave making a cave painting. Gemma liked that, it had given her the early confidence to keep going. The idea of an illustration within an illustration gave the piece an extra element. And the cave paintings – an ox and a raven – moved into the next row, and into the next, as a bird in a tree, with the same roots as the first, and as a bullock pulling a plow. In between all that were people making medicine, building pyramids, exploring in ships. Women, standing in the New World. Eventually she came to her own family, the later rings done as sepia photographs, fanciful and active, not the actual photographs themselves. Then her grandparents, motoring along the Pacific Coast in their new 1963 Buick, on their way to conceive her mother. Her parents having a fight at a Red Sox game – not because she liked the conflict, but because of what came after. They always made up, and that time they made her.
“You’re writing your identity,” Cory said.
“What makes you think it’s me?”
“Come on. You would put someone else’s story on your arm?”
The end, though, looked wrong. She had erased Alex, but it left a gap. She stared at the image, wondering if it was such a good idea. It had been begun with him, making something unique, but in its way matching. He was tattooed all over. Not so densely, but there was no way to turn his body that you couldn’t see one or more of his tattoos. Even when he was dressed in pants and sleeves, there were still flames licking the back of his hand from the dragon that coiled down from his elbow.
“It’s very cool down here,” Cory said. “The way it kind of goes right up to yesterday and there’s a natural end, but also still space for more of your story.”
“Yeah.” More of the story, even though she’d been erasing parts of it. She watched Cory and could see he was more than intrigued. He was impressed. She flicked her eyes around the room, reminding herself that he was a designer. Probably not that easy to impress.
“I would like to do it,” he said. “It’s exquisite. Absolutely. You really have no tattoos already?”
“It shows such an understanding.” He frowned a little. “It’s shoulder to wrist, right?”
“It fits my arm. I have a scan. The image mimics that fully.”
“Of course. You have a talent here. You ought to be designing professionally.”
“Other things on my mind.” It was good, though, to hear him say that. Alex had helped, but all through the work she had felt that he didn’t quite understand it. He just got images, with meaning, but separate and distinct. He’d never quite understood, nor had the aesthetic chops to be able to really see the depth to it. She remembered him questioning the business of getting a whole sleeve. “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” he’d said. She’d begun explaining what it meant to her, but he’d glazed over and she’d given up, letting him get back to checking the markets.
“Really,” Cory said. “If you have a mind to do others, I’d have clients.”
“I just want to get this one done. Maybe after that I’ll consider it.” She might be in need of a job if Alex stripped everything from her.
“Did you bring a recent scan?”
Gemma grinned to herself. She had him hooked. He might just overlook the stand-down. “Yes.”
“Good, we’ll need that for the machine. How old is the scan?”
Gemma almost laughed. She was at the doctor’s every couple of days, had enough medical equipment of her own to monitor just about everything. “Forty-eight hours,” she said.
He squinted at her, breathed out through pursed lips. “Good.”
Wavering, she thought. “It’s kind of my legacy,” she said. She needed to take a chance. She’d never been that good at influencing people. Not like Alex, who could manipulate his way into or out of anything. “I’ll probably still be alive in a week. But a year? I’m not going to-”
“I can see that you’re not going to regret this. Not at all. This is not someone arriving with a Celtic knot torn out of a library book. You’ve worked hard on this.”
Gemma looked at the tattoo image, still slowly spinning on the bubble screen. From the right angles you could see the tree reaching right through from the bottom to the top, the tendrils of roots and bark and leaves interwoven through the whole thing. Then the snake, its scales right from bottom to top. She wondered if wearing a snake was such a good idea. Perhaps too much a reminder of Alex.
“How long?” Cory asked.
“Eighteen months,” she said. “We’d been together about a year when I first seriously considered it. I didn’t want something like his almost random tattoos. I mean, they all meant something, but they were scattered, one on his shoulder, on his calf and so on, nothing unified.”
“That’s not you.”
Cory nodded. “A tattoo is a reflection of who you are.”
“That’s what he said.” It made her smile now. Alex’s tattoos were scattered and unlinked, kind of like how he had his life, aspects kept apart and distant. Business interests in Asia, vacations in Manhattan or Pittsburgh for the galleries, building model planes, flying to Tampa for the Superbowl. Nothing holistic about it. They were very different.
Cory touched the image, spreading lines through it and breaking it apart. “It will take four sessions, I think.”
“Can’t we do it in one?”
“I just want it done.” It had to be finished before Alex made it back. How long now? A private jet. Maybe only hours. “How long will it take, all together?”
“How long? We need to talk about this idea of a single session. It’s not that painful, but a work of this size, your body needs time to recover. We do it in sections.”
“My body can handle it.”
Cory sat back. “That’s right, you’re on oxycodone, aren’t you. Somehow you distracted me from that.”
Gemma said nothing.
“So you think that’s your out? Be medicated, do a single session?”
“My disease,” she said, pausing. She breathed and looked out over the ocean again. There were tankers out there, heading in towards the bay, their shapes a little hidden in the haze.
Cory sat waiting.
“My disease is progressive. And painful. My bones grow nodules and little needles. Almost microscopic, you’d barely notice them. Unless of course they’re rubbing through cartilage and muscle. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re on fire from the inside. It’s taken a long time to process a medication that can let me function anything like a normal day. I used to work for a couple of hours, then take stronger stuff, spend the rest of the day in bed.” Alex had helped, she remembered. So understanding, with such good connections in the pharmaceutical industry. He’d been a good man. Now that she reflected, though, there had been a level at which he’d been working that should have been obvious to her. Checking in with medical companies, calling universities, keeping up with his Asian contacts more often than she’d thought he needed to. His enthusiasm for the patent application and making sure that he was on it. Little things that she should have been able to add up.
“You stopped talking,” Cory said.
Blinking, she came back to the room. “I think that’s enough.”
“I don’t get how the tattoo relates.”
“As you see, I have all day.”
So she told him about meeting Alex, about how she was more mobile then, almost limber. “There were some treatments that worked on the symptoms. I was no dancer, but I got around okay. I was doing pre-med; he was doing his MBA. I saw him each day outside a campus coffee shop. I liked his eyes, we got talking.”
“Uh-huh,” Cory said. “Pre-med because?”
“You’re going to analyze me, right? Girl with a chronic disease is naturally drawn to medicine.”
“Does it fit?”
“I guess. But I was good at it.”
“Search for a cure?”
Gemma hesitated. “Fruitless, but yes.” She could feel the marble in her pocket. Not quite fruitless, but Cory was the last person she was going to tell that. Second-to-last.
“That why he left? He couldn’t figure out how to monetize a fruitless line of research?”
“He left because he was a rat.” Had it only been a couple of hours? She felt like she was lost in a void. Perhaps standing on a pinnacle with thousand foot drops on each side. She looked out the window, trying to enjoy the view. “We’re back over in Carson,” she said. “We have – had – a view of the sea that was just a slot between your building and the one next door.”
Cory nodded. “Sorry about that. Enjoy it now, perhaps?”
She would have shrugged, but had long-since trained herself out of unnecessary movement. “Why not. Nothing else to do while I ‘stand-down’.”
Cory stood and went to the window. “I’m very lucky,” he said. “Privileged. If you live in Carson and you can see any of the sea at all then you’re fairly wealthy yourself.”
“Alex,” she said. “He played the markets. Smart, patient. He said we would live here one day, even if the research proved… fruitless.”
“Mmm.” Cory stood, staring for a moment. Her tattoo continued its slow spin in his screen.
Gemma waited. Cory fidgeted a little, his fingers playing with a pen, his foot tapping occasionally. She saw a double jet ski zipping into the waves, ducking down then bouncing back up. Someone with triple-decker kite glider was skimming low over the water, turning up sometimes to do their own flips too.
Cory turned to her. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll start the tattoo today.” He pointed the pen at her. “This, I’m risking my license over, so don’t take it lightly.”
“Why would you risk your license?” Shut up, she told herself. Don’t discourage him. Get the tattoo started.
“Because I can see that you’re genuine. I’ll get you to sign the documentation, then keep the machine offline as it tattoos you, then recalibrate its date.”
“Okay. It has to be a single session.”
Cory shook his head. “Four sessions, at least. Depending on how you respond. Come over, I’ll show you the table. I guess you want to start right away?”
“Please. And I’ll pay up front.” She stood and followed him across the room.
“That’s a given.”
“And I want it all done at once. Non-negotiable.”
Cory laughed. “It doesn’t work like that. With something so big, what is it, something like two square feet?” He slid back a tall closet door she hadn’t seen and began pulling out a cushioned easy chair. “With so much area we’ve got to take it slow, let the skin heal, let the body recover. It’s progressive.”
Like my illness, she thought, and she had to deal with that full-time. “Okay, I understand all that, but don’t you think that after all the procedures I’ve been through that my body knows what it can do?”
He adjusted the chair and indicated for her to climb on. “You’re taking painkillers.”
Gemma rolled her eyes. “Part of the point too. You know they opened me up and took out marrow to see what was going on? You know, perhaps a marrow problem?” She moved onto the chair, feeling every shift as she went. Unfamiliar movements were the worst.
“You’ll have to take off the sleeve,” he said. “The whole blouse or just the sleeve, however you’re comfortable.” From the closet he brought out a tall trolley with several shelves filled with equipment. “Don’t they just take marrow samples with a needle?”
“They were serious. They didn’t know what was wrong with me. Still don’t. You think I don’t know about pain and recovery?”
Cory sighed, began setting up the equipment. “I think there’s something else. Something behind this urgency. And I think it has to do with that Gadjet call. Your boyfriend, right? Or soon to be ex-boyfriend? On his way back here.”
“You said. Some results you’re supposed to give him?” Cory took out a thick flexible band and wound it around her armpit and over her shoulder. “That’s the first part, the needles. It’ll take a little while to put it all together.”
“I wouldn’t want you to rush.” In a way she did. She wanted to be completely out of town by the time Alex arrived. Where was she going to go?
“Sure.” Cory attached more parts to the band, some fingerlike probes with rubber feet that stretched her skin out, a series of tiny tracks like miniature bulldozers, on both sides of the band. He moved the ink trolley over and connected in a series of tubes – blue, white, black, yellow, red. Then he plugged the whole contraption into the table with a long draped black cord. He pulled out a smaller screen and waved at it, pulling up her design. “Nearly set. Just confirm for me that this is the design you want on your arm.”
Gemma looked at her lineage, scrolling on his image. Her image. “Yes,” she said, “that’s the design.”
“The machine will work away on its own. The fail-safe means that it won’t make errors, or injure you.” He handed her a piece of plastic with two switches, hardwired to the bands. “This is your personal fail-safe too. The orange switch pauses the process, if you’re feeling nauseous or anything. The red stops it if there’s any other problem. That’s serious, though, you know, for an earthquake and the building’s falling down, stuff like that. Once it’s partway through a session it’s tricky to recalibrate.”
“But it’s okay to end a session partway through?” It sounded contradictory to her. “I mean you want to do this in four sessions.”
“The machine figures out the start-stop points for a session. If you stop arbitrarily then it just takes a little longer to reposition next time. Trickier.”
“I get it.”
“Okay. I’m going to start it up.”
“Good.” Gemma felt a shiver. Her stomach clenched. Even her mind felt like it was trembling. Was this fear? Terror? It was just a tattoo. Lots of people had them. Alex had them. She had wanted one anyway, since before she’d met him. Just because he’d helped her with it, helped her with so much, didn’t mean that she should back out. It still had meaning for her. Perhaps someone else would come to fill in those last places at her wrist. And it was more than a tattoo. If it worked, she would be healthy.
Cory put his thumb on the screen.
The machine whirred.
Gemma felt the first little twitches like a strip of sandpaper being pressed into her skin, lifted and pressed again. Rapidly. The little bulldozer tracks crept along and the finger probes jostled, keeping her skin taut as the needles worked.
Cory went to his wet bar and got himself a soda. He cleaned up the bench and rinsed the blender. Seeming to remember her, he held up the glass of soda and called over, “You want something? I can do cocktails. Wine.”
“No thanks.” The band had already moved far enough that she could see the top of the first line of the tattoo. Just a couple of millimeters, a little bloody and raised like a welt. She thought she could see colors and lines, but the abused skin was hiding the design still. She knew that would happen, to a greater or lesser extent. Alex had told her about it, about the clear kitchen wrap that would be decorating her arm to follow, about how it would hurt, but as an intriguing ache rather than having to go through any real suffering. It did sting, a little.
“Soda?” he said.
“Pepsi White.” She didn’t expect him to have it, but went to a fountain and pulled a glass for her. She took the marble from her pocket and cracked it against the inside edge of the needle tunnel. The marble split and the Quoop robotics flowed out like spilled coffee. As they moved they flowed, following the lines of the white plastic, filtering in through gaps and pores. After a moment she couldn’t see them.
“I wouldn’t have expected that to be your drink.”
The milky liquid lapped the edge of the glass as he put it on a cup holder the table extended. “Lots of things about me I don’t even expect. Here I am getting this tattoo.”
“You didn’t expect that?” Cory comes around and looks at the progress the machine is making along her arm, and he nods.
“We’ve got all day.” Cory sat in one of his lounge chairs and leant back, took a sip from his beer.
So she told him about Alex. About the cafe where he sat each day with a latte. She’d been there with her soy-mocha, not every day, not even at the same time. Sometimes he would be leaving when she arrived, sometimes he would arrive as she was finishing. His smile was like raindrops sparkling in the sun. It took two months before he’d spoken to her, asking for her sugar crystals.
“I’m out, over here,” Alex had said, holding up the empty sugar container.
“Not using them anyhow.” And she’d passed him the basket filled with little brown, white and blue sachets.
He’d made some joke about her not needing any sweetening up.
“Believe me,” she’d said, “I’m anything but sweet.”
He’d smiled again. Then they’d talked about the weather, about Canada, about the swollen Brazilian economy. Light. The next day he was there again, more talking about the world and a little more talking about each other.
“See,” Cory said, “that’s how it is for everyone. The meeting is nice, but then there’s the way it makes you feel, even after. Especially after.”
“Giddy,” she said. “Alive, violent, sleepless.”
“We went up to Toronto, then north into the ice. We went to a lake where he’d skated as a kid. It was so cold.”
It was on the first trip north when she’d spied his tattoo. “Well, the first one I’d spied. This was before he got the dragon down to his wrist. There were still lots. I didn’t understand how he could mark his body that way.”
“Ahh, the body is sacred.”
“Something like that,” she said.
They hadn’t gotten naked together for weeks, despite several other trips. Gemma liked exploring, venturing out north of the border, into New England, flying to Veracruz, and so did he. Alex wanted him to take her to the places he’d never been, places from her childhood too. Then, when she was beginning to think it was long term and they were staying at the Grand Canyon and he stripped, in the evening when they got back from their rim tour. “He was illustrated,” she said.
“Not quite like that. Not all over, not butted up, but piecemeal. And there were stories to them. All of them.”
“Sorry to tell you, plenty of people have stories.”
“Yeah, but I guess I was naive about that. He seemed very unique.”
“I’m still not quite sure why you’re going ahead with it, though. Shouldn’t you give yourself some time to get over it, to reassess. You know this doesn’t come off?”
“Okay then. I have a few other things to take care of. I’ll be across the room. You need something to read?”
“I’ll just enjoy the view.”
“Okay then. Holler if you need anything.”
Cory had a last glance at the band working its way down her arm then went across the room to a workcube. He stood for a moment inside the three translucent sides, then sat and started moving his hands. She couldn’t see whatever he could, but imagined that he was designing his next piece of furniture.
The sea below glistened with the morning sun. She had to lean forward a little to see the shore below. There were more surfers now, but fewer people walking along the beach. A lifeguard’s pickup trundled slowly along the sand.
The building was not right on the beach, but stepped back almost a full block, the angle just right to be able to take in the sea, or look down and see the actual beach.
As the little machine buzzed and crept down her arm, she watched a helicopter fly low, then land on top of one of the smaller buildings further along. Planes swung around, lining up for Norfolk airport.
She wondered if there was some way to get her Gadjet to track Alex. If she knew how long she had, then she could plan leaving. Slipping it from her pocket, she asked it to try locating him.
“Alex,” the Gadjet said.
“I’ll see what I can find.”
Watching the sea again, she felt more relaxed than she should. The needle tunnel kept working, and she knew her system would be releasing endorphins in response to the tiny punctures being made in her skin. Together with the lingering effects of the oxy, and the lulling of the sea it was almost soporific.
“Look,” the Gadjet said. “I can’t find him. I guess he’s got better blocking on his Gadjet than I’ve got on me.”
“Didn’t you just upgrade yourself?”
“Okay.” She looked at the display, saw that more than thirty minutes had passed since she’d asked it to search. Looking over at her arm, she could see the first band and part of the second. It was hard to tell that this was her design, the skin red and raised.
Cory was still in the workcube, sitting and watching something on the walls.
Gemma dozed. Dreams of waterfalls and spinning Catherine Wheels sparking across the walls of her old apartment. Alex walking down a road away from her as she called. He wouldn’t turn around.
She woke with a start. Her Gadjet was ringing.
“Guess you’d better take that then,” Cory said. He was out of the workcube, coming towards her. He came closer, peered at the machine then went back to the window.
She realized that he’d changed clothes and she wondered how long she’d been asleep.
The Gadjet kept ringing.
Alex. She accepted the call, held the Gadjet to her ear.
“I guess,” she said before he had a chance to speak, “that you’re already on the ground and on your way to pick up your stuff.” As she said it she imagined that he might even be calling from the apartment. She glanced at her arm. The machine was at her elbow.
“Still in the air, honey. But we’ll be on the ground soon.”
She looked at the time. Almost midday. Surely he couldn’t be here already. He had to be screwing with her. One of his clever traits, the ability to get inside her head like this. “I won’t be there,” she said.
“I know. What I’m calling about is that I’m just wondering why you’re still at the designer’s place. If you’re trying to sell him patents or any of the designs, we’ll sue.”
“How do you know where I am?”
“Your Gadjet hasn’t moved for hours. Easy enough to figure where you are.”
But he thought she was selling designs. A quick denial would be stupid. “I need to know what I can separate out,” she said. How could she be thinking so quickly like this? It wasn’t the Quoop. Just last night she’d been looking forwards to him coming home, now she felt like she was engaged in battle with him. Suddenly he was a stranger.
Then she realized that she could feel it in her bones. Or rather, couldn’t feel. It was changing things.
“Separate out? I think you’ll find that my name is on all of the documents.”
“That’s what’s showing up,” she said. “But it’s worth looking. Our conversation is done.” She disconnected.
The tattoo machine kept buzzing. It seemed like it was working more slowly as it passed over her elbow. Her upper arm felt pummeled and pounded, the skin stretched and tense. It was as if she’d had a deep tissue massage focused just on those two muscles.
“This man continues to give you troubles?” Cory said, coming over.
“Yes. I fell asleep?”
“You did. It’s not unusual.”
Gemma squinted at him a little. “You didn’t stop it. The design is more than halfway through.”
“You said you wanted a single session. If you’d shown signs of distress, I would have stopped it.”
“I didn’t show distress?”
“You were asleep. That’s perhaps the best indicator of feeling comfortable.”
She smiled at him.
“So what will you do now?” he said.
“You mean after this? Head north I suppose. See what I can salvage from my life.”
“You had plans already, I think.”
“I guess.” How much longer would she have lasted with Alex anyway?
“You could work for me. On a trial basis, of course.”
“Work for you? How? I’m a medico, I’m not trained in… well, this.” With her free arm she gestured at the furniture through the room.
“Tattoos,” he said. “Medical tattoos.”
She tensed a little. The tattoo band hiccupped then resumed buzzing.
“Do stay still,” Cory said.
“Of course. What do you mean by that? Tattoos I guess I could design, sure.” She realized she was speaking fast, tried to slow down. “But this was personal, very personal.”
Gemma kept going. “I mean, I don’t know how I’d go with trying to interpret someone else’s story.”
Cory turned and went to get one of the upright dining chairs. He carried it over and sat next to her, so that he was almost at eye level. “Listen. There are two things here that I’ve been going with. Quite aside from the riled boyfriend who seems to be tracking you, and might well arrive at any moment.”
Gemma glanced at the door.
“It’s all right. He can’t get up here.”
“You’re sure of that?”
“No.” Cory stared at her for a moment, eyes narrowing. “You weren’t honest with me to begin with. Something about a bicycle accident.”
“That became clever, because you came clean. It was almost as if you’d planned that to distract me, to make me less wary. But then I spotted this.” He held up his hand, spreading his fingers out, revealing a bubble screen. The image was grainy, but it was a video of her, taken from an odd high angle. The screen was correcting for parallax, but it was clear that she’d cracked the marble against the machine.
“Quoop,” she said.
“Hmm. I guess that will take some explaining.”
“Why didn’t you just throw me out, immediately?”
He smiled a little, looking slightly away. She wondered if he was shy. Good grief, was he attracted to her? Was that why he’d let her stay? Why he’d offered her a job?
She waited, watching him. No, he wasn’t attracted, she didn’t think. He was just a businessman. Talented, probably nice. Nicer than most, but his design talent carried him. That was why he hadn’t thrown her out.
When he did speak, he surprised her. “As I said, medical tattoos.”
She squinted at him a little. “Okay,” she said. Then she told him about the Quoop and how it worked. A mix of quantum physics, pico-technology, and chemical delivery. How she and Alex had spent months working at it, but how both of them had brought years of their own ideas to it. “Mostly my ideas.”
“Don’t you need a particle accelerator to do that kind of thing?”
“And a fully-funded lab? I’m thinking a cyclic track the size of New Jersey and an industrial complex that would put Pfizer or Glaxo to shame.”
“The spare room in our apartment.”
Cory raised his eyebrows.
“The quantum part is more a fudging. Not like we were trying to split bosons. There’s so much public domain technology out there. Electrical sparking, reasonable containment and we stabilized it. Centrifuge it out, drain it, then contain it in the marble.”
“And it does what exactly?”
Gemma looked out over the sea again. There were ragged, tall cumulus clouds looming far off, the bases below the horizon. Perhaps that was the hurricane blowing itself out. She imagined squalls running in through the afternoon. “Cures me,” she whispered. How fanciful, she thought, to imagine that this might be a cure.
“You don’t know that at all, though?”
She shook her head. “It’s a chance.”
Cory glanced at his palm again. The video was cycling. Gemma breaking the marble; the Quoop running into the machine like vapory oil. He closed his fist, screwing the screen up. “Why not just swallow it? Just take it as a tablet? Or through an IV?”
Gemma’s Gadjet rang again.
“I guess that’s him,” Cory said.
Gemma nodded. She didn’t even have to look at the screen. “Probably has landed and wants to give me a last chance to come clean.”
The tattoo band had passed over her elbow now. It worked fast on her lower arm; she could almost see its progression. Like watching the minute hand on an antique clock.
“So there’s time for you to explain the other thing. I don’t understand the medical process, but I’ll accept it. Though it does concern me, that a potential employee would be willing to be a test subject for unproven medical procedures.”
“It had to be trialed somehow.” The Gadjet kept ringing.
“Of course. I’d like to see the documentation, then perhaps we can proceed from there. Assuming it works.”
Gemma nodded again. “Assuming that Alex will-”
A heavy knock came from the door.
Cory’s head whipped around. He stood and went to a console, pulling up a screen. He turned it to her. “This your boyfriend?”
Alex. Standing outside the door in the marble corridor. He was looking up into the camera. Her stomach clenched. A tangle of emotions seemed to tighten through her chest. Desire, anger, disappointment.
As she watched, Alex leaned forwards and thumped on the door again. His mouth moved, but she didn’t hear anything.
“This raises lots of questions,” Cory said.
“I suppose so.” She was running through them herself. How could he possibly be here already? How had he gotten into the building? Why didn’t Cory know he was in the building?
“It would be impolite to leave him out there, don’t you think?”
She felt frozen. As soon as he walked through the door she was going to feel something. She didn’t know what, but it might well be overwhelming. Rage? Resignation? Despair?
Blinking, she looked up at Cory. Her eyes were getting moist. She wasn’t going to cry. “Let him in.”
Cory moved to the short internal hallway and waved at a control. The door opened.
“Where is she?” Alex shouted.
“I’m in here,” she called.
“You should slow down,” Cory said.
Alex stormed past him. He stopped by Gemma. She lay on the chair, staring at the ceiling. She could feel his energy radiating. Anger, impatience.
“You’re getting a tattoo?” he said.
The machine kept buzzing along her arm. “I’m not putting life on hold just because you’re stealing my work.” She still couldn’t look at him. She kept staring at the ceiling. Even that was designer, with a subtle tile pattern that mirrored the floor. The lights hung on long hair-thin cables. “How did you get here so fast?”
“Just give me the marble.”
“I broke it.” She held up the shell-like pieces of the porcelain sphere. “It’s gone.” Now she looked at him. “I guess you weren’t in Laos at all were you?”
Alex turned, looking at Cory, then back at her. “You lost it? Lost the contents?”
“I could make more.”
“You don’t have access to the lab,” Alex said. “You’re locked out. And the data is stripped from your accounts. You accuse me of stealing, but it was all my resources that you used to develop it. My input and ideas.” He glanced at Cory who was just standing back watching. “And,” Alex went on, “I was in Laos. Surely you’ve heard of supersonic jets?”
“New York to Moscow.”
“Scheduled flights. Private flights are point to point. Most places are only a few hours from Norfolk.”
“If you have the money.”
“And I do.”
“So why steal my stuff just to get more? How much is too much?” She was aware of the band on her arm, the little caterpillar tracks slowly creeping, the needles rapidly injecting her skin.
Alex held his hands up, indicating the apartment. “Look where you are. I’m a pauper compared to this man.”
“I don’t think,” Cory said, “that someone fresh off a private supersonic jet from Asia ought to be suggesting that they are any kind of pauper. No matter whom they’re comparing themselves to.”
“I…” Alex stared at Cory. “Very soon, I’ll be…” He left off and looked around the room again.
“Alex,” Gemma said. “Take it. You’ve got all the data already. I’ll start again.”
“Then I’ll just buy the treatment when it’s available. You should just leave.”
“Give me the marble. For what it’s worth.”
Gemma looked down at her hand. “There might be some residue in there.” She held it out to him, knowing there wasn’t, but also knowing that he would know that too. The marble was containment. Quoop wouldn’t stick to it.
“Anything else I should know?” He took the fragments.
“I might have wrecked some stuff at the apartment. Don’t take it personally, it was entirely malicious.”
“If there’s damage in the lab, I can rebuild it.”
“I know. You have my notes.”
Alex nodded. He opened his mouth as if about to speak, then turned for the door. Cory stepped back. Gemma’s eyes met his, and she saw him glance at her tattoo. The band kept on buzzing.
Alex opened his mouth again. “I have this sense that there’s something else. Something you’re not telling me.”
“Something I’m not telling you? Oh please. You are a rat. A philandering, thieving, heartless, emotionally retarded rat.” She had more words she wanted to use. Devious. Sick. Greedy. She could go on all day.
Alex glanced down at the small pieces of shattered ceramic in his palm. His mouth pursed. “You know, I am kind of sorry. You’re nice enough. Smart. But seriously, ask yourself, how long did we really have left together. Any cure is years away. This-” he held up the fragments “-is a start, very close, lots of potential, I know that. Actually with what I’m going to do now, with better facilities, it will come on stream faster. A couple of years perhaps.”
Think fast, Gemma. “That quickly?” she said. She had to suppress a laugh. “What I hate, though, is that you pity me. I’m happy. Sure it would be nice to have healthy bones, but my work makes me happy.” She glanced at the tattoo. Halfway from her elbow to her wrist. “You, on the other hand, will never be satisfied. Never be happy.”
He squinted at her. “So this is all for the best, then?”
“You got what you came for. Move on.”
Alex glanced at Cory again. Cory nodded.
“All right then.” He headed down the hallway again, Cory following. At the door Alex looked back, still scowling a little. A slightly superior look, she thought, but still with just a little bafflement to it. Good. Good if he was baffled.
Cory closed the door and came back into the room. “Nice company you keep,” he said. “Perhaps we should dispose of your Gadjet and any other electronics that are leaving a Gemma signature all over. I wouldn’t want him interfering with the work. Your work, I mean.”
“You still think I should come and work for you?”
“Especially now.” Cory pulled up one of his screens. Alex getting into the lift. Cory tapped some points on the screen. “I see how he got in. Your boyfriend is very well resourced. But we can fix that. For now, anyway.”
“What do you mean especially now?”
“He knows he missed something, but he doesn’t know what. I don’t quite know what, but I suspect. I mean, I know you’ve put that stuff into yourself, so that two years development at some high-tech lab is nonsense, but you don’t have any samples, right? Or notes. I guess we could extract samples from you?”
“Perhaps. It’s quantum, so, hard to find. Parts of it operate on a different kind of physics.”
“How is it a cure, though?”
“I guess I’ve found a thin line joining what’s going on at a micro level in my bones with how something at an atomic level links with below atomic. I could show you my notes. But Alex has data-stripped me. I’m an informational vagrant.” She smiled at him.
“Except that you have all the notes anyway, don’t you?”
She nodded and glanced at the tattoo band as it slowly approached her wrist. “I hid it right in front of him. It’s all coded in here.”
“Medication delivery and information protection all in one. And you were steely-eyed when he barged in.”
“Ready to crumble, actually.”
“It’s a tiny, tuned design, right?” he said. “I think that it’s almost coded to individual cells. Everything coded into the tattoo?”
The buzzing stopped and the tattoo band beeped once, fell silent.
“I’m not so sure,” he said. “Perhaps I should be the one working for you.” He reached over and unclipped the band. “We’ll need to get the last of that wrapped. We surely don’t want it damaged.”
Gemma swung her legs around as Cory went to get the wrap. She slipped off the table and walked to the window. Without her walking stick. She could still feel them, feel the nodules and burrs, but they were already beginning to fade. Even if it all went horribly wrong, at least she would have some moments of ease. She glanced back at Cory, realizing as she did that her neck was turning smoothly. He was smiling coming over with the wrap. Perhaps, she thought, looking at him, she might have more than just ease; she might have moments of pleasure.