It’s the first time I’ve been left alone since I entered the Corporation towers. I relish the brief solitude, even if it is pretense. Have I been here weeks? Months? It’s hard to judge. Even time follows different laws up here.
Underwater, I can hear two heartbeats. That of my own heart, which I am relieved to find is still human, and a tiny, racing beat lodged deep within me. I suspected I was pregnant. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t have time to think about it, and it wasn’t the reason I left the ghettos. I heard the Corporation was recruiting and I wanted in. I figured all I had to do was make myself found inside the city line. My class would be quickly flagged by surveillance.
I was right. Six heavily armed mercenaries, freelance security, cornered me like a stray animal. Voices boomed from within their sleek helmets as they circled. A rifle butt struck my temple, my wrists and ankles were cuffed before a sonic pop burst my eardrums and I blacked out. When I came to, I was inside the towers in one of the small cells that line the walls of the labs. Everything was pristine. Sterile, polished steel and porcelain. The bright glare hurt my eyes. The noises from the cells were not quite human and made me sweat.
The fact that I’m pregnant is not even top of the list of things to worry about. If I don’t perform well at the auction, I’ll find myself back in the labs, to be mined for flesh, organs, bones, and DNA, baby or not. The heartbeat means it’s still alive, but how I birth it with this body or what exactly will be born, I’m not sure. The genetic upgrades must have changed the fetus, too.
It won’t be the first time I’ve delivered an anomaly. The previous one was a plump blue ball that slipped out with ease onto a nest of dirty cloth. It rolled and wriggled and began to squawk, all mouth and bulging eyes, protruding belly, odd limbs not quite right. My mother gathered it up tenderly, as if it were a wonderful and precious thing. The human babies spawned in the ghettos are no prettier than the creatures designed in the Corporation labs. They usually perish. Their parts are salvaged and recycled like every other scrap in the garbage fields. The placenta is a lucky break and baby skulls score a good price with the hags along the harbor.
“If we are going to birth monsters, why shouldn’t we design them ourselves?” My mother stared at me in horror, her fingers deep in the slack mouth of a freshly decapitated drug dealer. I told her my plan, and we argued as she selected one tool from her spread of implements, then put it down, tried another.
“Do you know what they do in the towers? Do you know what they do?”
“Look at what we do! How much will you get for that gold tooth?”
She dropped the pliers on the table, covered her face with blood blackened hands.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“It won’t be long before we’re extinct like everything else down here. There’s nothing in your grimoires that can protect us from that.”
Her shoulders trembled as if she was beginning to cry, but my mother has never cried. I took a step towards her. She turned away and retreated to her dark little room, slamming the door behind her. Retreated to her charms and herbs and bones, refusing to admit that her magic is becoming powerless and irrelevant. It is dying as the Earth itself dies.
The only way forward is within the gleaming towers of the Corporation. Higher and higher they rise into the atmosphere with every blistering day, disappearing into thick clouds of pollution. Inside the towers, the light is artificial, but at least it doesn’t sear your skin. Terrible things are done in this light, worse than my mother could have imagined, but I want to stand in it.
The slam of heels against polished concrete, heading my way, breaks my train of thought. My muscles snap alert and I dart above water, tongue flashing, tasting the air. It’s Cadia.
Fingertips punch in code, doors slide open, and my agent strides in. Cadia is a haze of red and yellow with a fringe of green, her body is flushed with excitement.
“Are you ready? Aren’t you done? It’s nearly time to go. There’s going to be some real players tonight. You might even end up off-planet. You’re that good. Not much product has made it off-planet yet.”
As she speaks, she taps at a palm tablet. She slips it into her suit pocket, takes a white towel from the rack and holds it open for me.
I lounge in the tub and glare. My tongue rests against tiny fangs that have squeezed through tender gums, and I wonder if I’m venomous. Cadia offers me a hand. I toy with the idea of biting her. She seems to know what I’m thinking because she laughs.
“Let’s go, snake girl.”
“I’m not sure if I can do it or even how to do it,” I say as I step out of the bath.
“It will come naturally. Don’t worry. It’s normal to feel nervous the first time. I’ve seen it before.”
“You’ve seen what before?” My body recoils. I’m supposed to be the first of my kind. An original, an investment, a collector’s item. Nobody will bid for something they’ve seen before.
“Oh, nothing like you, love. You’re the real deal.” Cadia winks at me and pats me dry, careful not to rub my skin.
I switch to infrared to read her better. Her body heat radiates in soft spikes, no tension. She seems to be telling the truth.
She scans my spine with her tablet.
“Looking good. Your epidermis is ready. Let’s do it.”
Cadia strides out of the room with a smile, expecting me to follow. She leads me along empty, gleaming corridors and into an elevator. We ascend for an uncomfortable amount of time, causing my head to throb and the floor to sway.
The city towers are bridged by platforms and tunnels, a lattice of architecture constantly under construction, a different kind of land emerging. The Corporation is building a new city, an oasis in the sky. In the ghettos, I heard rumors of shopping malls and schools, hospitals, and even wildlife parks, with real grass and purified water, where rare animals roam. Some of them are familiar species, their DNA salvaged from the dead Earth, and some of them newly imagined.
After the planet buckled and cracked, froze, blazed and flooded, we gave up on the idea of heaven on Earth, and with it, the hope of an afterlife, of heaven in the sky. The only thing left to capitalize on was survival. The Corporation is building an elite realm while the leftover Earth seethes with disease and chaos. Beyond the ghettos of garbage are desert wastelands where it is fatal to wander, impossible to breathe.
The elevator stops, and I almost topple over.
“You’ll get used to it,” says Cadia. “It feels different up here. Ready?”
I nod, and she leads me through another spotless maze ending finally in the green room of the amphitheater. The theatre is full, the chatter and rumble bounce off my skin.
There are a handful of hybrids in the green room, all scheduled for auction. They greet me with cold stares, but I ignore them with reptilian ease. I know they resent me. I volunteered for this.
My tongue is lashing furiously. They reek of fear, hate, despair. They were abducted from the ghettos and are sold from one collector to another, their features constantly enhanced and modified. They are a mess of fur, feathers, fangs. Some of them are obvious in design, others not so much.
One wall of the room is a mirror. I have caught glimpses of myself before, but this is the first time I see my full reflection. I am much taller and slimmer than I used to be, elongated. My enlarged jaws ache. I can open them unusually wide, revealing a long pink throat that could engulf a small mammal. My nose and ears have been pared down to tiny holes, my senses have been enhanced by other means. Receptors implanted in my cheeks perceive infrared, and my flickering tongue is like a tuning fork. It can sense vibration, scent, flavor, emotion. Everything is hyper-real, and I haven’t learned how to assimilate so much information yet. The strangest thing is my skin. My pores have been enlarged and stretched, refashioned into iridescent scales that flex and breathe. I am smooth from head to toe, hair follicles removed. Sweat collects in a slimy sheen on my skin, an uncomfortable stickiness under armpits and between thighs. I’m not permitted to wear clothes.
In infrared, I’m a haze of blue and purple, and within my orange womb, a little yellow blob gestates. What will they do with me if—when—they find out I’m pregnant? I have heard of human children born in the towers, though I haven’t seen one yet, a generation whose silken feet will never touch the rotten Earth, who will only know of it from stories.
A buff security guy shoves past me as he drags a siren from the stage, her wounded body leaving trails of blood like bad abstract art. He dumps her in a heap then heads back to the stage. The siren is bleeding from every orifice, but her agent looks pleased, and the audience is still applauding. The siren scored a high price. Singing until her organs pop is her appeal. Her body is designed to regenerate so that she can entertain again and again, a siren who sings herself to a violent death. It’s easy to see why the ghetto witches hate the Corporation so much. They take the magic of old and pervert it for pleasure and profit. They have fashioned our sacred beasts into docile and harmless pets. This is the fundamental flaw in their methods that I have come to exploit. They believe they can colonize our magic with technology, as easily as they have claimed all our other resources. What they don’t understand is that the very fabric of magic is rebellion.
Cadia leads me forward.
I feel panic. And grief? An urge I can’t really place, a feeling I can’t recall the name of. Perhaps I need to cry, but I can no longer produce tears and I don’t have eyelids anymore. My body drops to the floor in a coil. I hiss and twist, out of control. There’s a sharp jab in my neck.
Cadia’s face is hovering above me, that cherry red smile stretching wide.
“Calm down, snake girl! If you freak out, they’ll rewire your brain, too. Trust me, you don’t want that.”
Her voice echoes. I shake my head no, no, no. Everything slows down.
She holds a syringe, a bead of blue liquid on the tip. I watch it wobble and fall, sizzling on the floor where it lands. Cadia helps me up.
“Good to see this works. It’s been designed just for you. Just something to calm you down when your sensors overload. Remember, just take your time, be natural, you’re unique, they’re going to love you when they…”
I can’t focus on her voice. My body is dry, tight, itchy. My skin feels heavy, the desire to shake it off is building and it’s confusing. It’s my first time and I don’t really understand what I am yet or what I can do.
The stage has been wiped of the siren’s remains, and the auctioneer begins speaking again. It’s a feminine voice, slow and monotone.
“Item. Ten. Forty. Nine. Gorgon. Model. Four. Four.”
I hiss and recoil as security approaches me. He grabs me and drags me to the podium.
Under dim spotlights, I stand tense and alert. My human eyes can detect only vague shapes in the audience, but my sensors are inundated. I can perceive every molecule in the air, every vibration and frequency. I hear loathing, greed, lust. I taste the beading of semen and sweat. I can smell botox, silicone, titanium. Some of the bodies in the audience are pure human, some are organic hybrids, and some are flesh fused with metal, lubricated like engines.
“Enhanced. Infrared. Security. System. Module.”
The audience stares and waits, expecting me to impress. I look to Cadia backstage. She is giving me two thumbs up, which only agitates me more. I close my eyes and try to control my breathing. I remember a tray of ice beneath my body, a team of cosmetic engineers working on me, methodically peeling away my old skin in long strips, then adhering the new. I remember the genetic scientists peering down at me, their faces expressionless behind clear surgical masks, while they pushed fine needles into my bones. Their mouths moved as they spoke, but they made no sound.
“Enhanced. Pleasure. Delivery. Module.”
Pleasure. That is the trigger. I am designed as an infrared security system, but most of all I am a luxury item, a fetish.
It begins with a tingle at the top of my spine. I roll my shoulders. I buckle and twist and feel a tiny tear open and run down the nape of my neck. I reach back, run my fingertips along the split and flinch. The sensation is not pain, but a strange discomfort. The exposed skin beneath is cool and wet. I inhale, then slowly pull the fine layer of scales over my shoulders and scalp. It stretches away like dried glue. I pull it down over my face, peeling off a mask, it plucks off my eyeballs with a soft popping sound. My old face hangs from my chin. The audience is one collectively held breath, still and silent. I roll my skin down, over my shoulders, free my arms as if removing gloves, plucking each finger. Shimmy it off my chest, stripping it away from my breasts, peel it over my stomach and hips, and slip it down each leg. I step out one foot and then the other from the dull husk of a dead self. My new layer of skin is bright, supple, iridescent. I shimmer.
“Bidding. Commencing. At. Two. Million. Dollars.”
Cadia startles me as she walks on stage. She picks up my skin and holds it up to the audience. There is shuffling, clearing of throats, and then the bidding begins. She elbows me with glee. The bids go up and up, the current bid on the screen above me increasing quickly.
“Gorgon. Model Four. Four. Human. Gestation. Nine weeks.”
Commotion in the amphitheater peaks and the current bid jumps by another million.
Cadia stares at me in surprise.
“You’re pregnant? Why didn’t you tell me? Amazing!”
She can’t contain herself. She jumps up and down, waving my skin. Her commission will be huge.
I panic for a moment then sense the energy in the theatre. Fascination, intrigue, arousal. The baby has made me even more desirable.
I don’t know who will purchase me or what awaits me in the towers, but I know I’ll never have to set foot on Earth again. I feel the scrutiny of surveillance through every lens in the room. The Corporation doesn’t realize I bear something even more valuable than a human baby. I carry an unbroken lineage of sorcery that stretches back generations, back to the lush jungles that once thrived on Earth. A mystery and power in my bloodline that their technology can’t extract or control. At least not yet. I had resented the baby, thought it would be an obstacle, but it dawns on me that it will have its own role to play.
My mother understood what I was doing, although she feared for me, she let me go. She knew I was right. The only way we can survive is by seeding our magic within the Corporation.
The audience scramble with their bidding and I smile, flashing rows of tiny sharp teeth, meeting their hungry wave of desire and ambition with my own. In infrared, they are nothing but colors to me. I hold my belly like a bashful mother to be.
There’s a hint of something new in the air, something delicate yet complex. My abilities are developing exponentially. I can smell dissent from a future timeline. I feel the cells of the fetus multiplying. I can hear the magic whispering deep in my bone marrow, its snake-like essence gathering strength.
Copyright © 2019 Casilda Ferrante