The sound of the creature’s claws scratching wildly at the entrance woke Jimmy in a panic. His body felt frail and clammy as if he had been sweating profusely. He could tell he had not yet fully healed by the inconsistency of his hearing. Pain shot through his side as he sat up but he bit down hard and pushed through it.
The restless clawing continued, only now he could tell it was coming from the elevator behind him. He didn’t want to look and so he inspected his wound instead. He had expected a torn mess of flesh barely kept together by invisible staples to prevent further bleeding. In a way, he would have preferred that.
The medgun Patricia had used had accelerated the rate of scarring over his abdomen and created a grotesque mound of scar tissue in order to seal the wound. Dried blood surrounded the mound making it look even worse than what he originally thought. It looked like lumpy boils stacked on top of each other, surrounded by the blood and puss of the ones that had burst below. His couldn’t help but be disgusted as he ran his fingers lightly over it.
He knew he should be happy of the fact that he was alive but he could not shake his vanity. He had worked so hard to keep himself beautiful. His physique was ruined. Even the best of surgeons would be incapable of fixing this atrocity. He would be forced to walk around as a freak. An abomination that everyone would be repulsed by, just as he was. His life as a sexual icon was gone.
“At least you’re alive, right?” mocked his grandfather’s voice.
He shook his head and called out to Patricia in a weak tone that hurt his side. He cleared his throat and tried again, refusing to turn around and look at the corpse that would glare at him full of judgement.
He had never been one to flaunt other women in front of exes but Jimmy knew that if Zoe were alive, it’s exactly what it would have looked like. She would have blamed him for her accident, accusing him of letting it happen so he could run off with some old hag.
She’s not alive, that’s not what happened. “Patricia!” he called out desperately. She was too slow. I reached out to her. I tried to help!
He grimaced as he turned his body around to search for Patricia. “Patricia!” he yelled again. His eyes were immediately drawn to the lone figure lying in front of it all. If not for the dark, nearly black, blood dried in streams and clots all around it, the body would have looked like a person resting on their stomach. He found himself unable to detach from the grotesque sight until Patricia climbed over the small wall and onto the platform.
“What’s going on?” she said.
He hadn’t realized he had been twisting his face. He looked down and masked it as he briefly nodded and looked back up with a weak smile. She tilted her neck just slightly as she observed him. His eyes must have briefly betrayed him, causing her to glance down at Zoe’s corpse. He hadn’t felt he had done anything different, but somehow she did.
“I haven’t found anything to cover her up,” she said as she walked closer to him and knelt.
“No need,” he lied.
She looked into his eyes, making him uncomfortable as he felt her reading him. He did the same to resistant customers at times to let them know he knew they were lying, even if they weren’t. He knew it was efficient but had never understood why. He looked away, immediately cursing himself for being so weak.
“Let me check the wound,” she said, dropping the subject. She reached out to his side but he instantly covered it.
“It’s fine,” he croaked out.
Patricia frowned. “We need to make sure there’s no overgrowth,” she said. He made no sign of moving his hand. “I’ve been checking it this entire time you’ve been out. It’s okay.”
He hated that she could read him so easily. It’s as if she was inside his mind somehow, listening to his thoughts and prying into his secrets so she could use them against him.
He let go of the wound and allowed her to lean in close. She reached out and put her fingers over the pink boily flesh. She tried to hide it but he knew what she was thinking too. Her face said it all.
He had gone from a sexual desire to a disgusting curiosity. Her fingers trailed over the bumpy surface and gently pressed in areas like a little girl finding a dead cat she found sickening but was nonetheless intrigued by, enough to grab her stick and poke its organs so she didn’t have to get too close.
“Were you two close?” she said softly without looking up.
“What?” he said as he was ripped from his thoughts. She tilted her head towards Zoe’s corpse. He needed to be careful what he thought around her, he couldn’t be sure. “Sort of.”
She looked up at him and raised an eyebrow.
He looked back at her, making sure to reveal nothing on his face. Why was she prying so much? Was she somehow still attracted to him even with the deformity at his side? “We dated for some time.”
She glanced between his eyes until letting her gaze return to the abomination. “I see,” she said, sending his mind into a loop. Had he said the wrong thing? She should have sympathized and offered comfort. “It must be hard seeing her like that.”
He wished it was. The only thing hard about it was feeling like someone would think he was responsible. Like he would have been blamed for her own inabilities. Even the fat man had made it through this part.
“Yeah,” he said, “I wish I could have done more.”
She reached for his hand and squeezed it. He didn’t look up, not trusting that his eyes would betray his gloating. He was never wrong. “This may sound harsh, but people die,” she said softly, “sometimes there’s nothing we can do.”
He clenched his jaw as he read through the comment. She knew. She was throwing her saving him in his face. He glanced down at his wrist where Nee was dormant. Had she somehow spoken with Nee? Had Nee recorded everything and shown her?
“It doesn’t matter,” he said as he pulled his hand away and distanced the wound from her. “It’s dead.”
She frowned. Fuck. How did I let that slip? He could feel her analyzing him again, judging his choice of words. Concluding that he was indeed unfit to belong to society and she had made a mistake by rescuing him. She stood and walked toward the elevator.
Narcissist? Yes, he could relate with that. Nothing wrong with knowing he was better than the rest. It was funny how the follow up diagnosis had come only after he had crushed her heart. The only person who was dealing with deeply rooted insecurities had been her. Going as far as claiming he was sociopathic and a borderline schizophrenic. That had been low. It had taken him weeks to make sure she hadn’t tried to hack his AI and try to find something to incriminate him with. She had tried to play a game and should have known he was better. He had spent weeks telling her all about how good he was, after all.
“Why all the security weapons?” asked Patricia as she stood over Zoe’s torso.
“I don’t know,” he said, “probably to resupply.”
“Awful lot stocked up back there,” said Patricia as she squatted next to the corpse and lifted the arm suited with the unit.
“I don’t know the politics down here,” said Jimmy as he struggled to stand. “On the surface we only carry weapons when we are trying to push it on security forces.” He walked toward the edge of the platform and looked for a way to get down without straining too hard. “She may have known.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Patricia in a tone that made Jimmy glance toward her. She was twisting the arm over with no care of causing harm to the corpse. A soulless carrion digging through bins to find anything to fill its belly.
“What are you doing to, her?” he said, reminding himself to add the words.
“Her unit is different than yours,” she said.
“No it’s not,” he said in an annoyed tone, lifting his arm for her to see. “They’re X gen life units. Identical.”
“You’re right, they’re identical,” she responded as she twisted the arm in his direction. He imagined it popping and snapping with how carelessly Patricia was handling it. “See this here, though?”
Patricia pointed out a small bulk on the unit. He checked his own and realized he did not have it.
“Your other friend inside there had one too.” continued Patricia.
“He wasn’t my friend. I’d never met him before.” said Jimmy impulsively.
“Well whoever he was, he was important enough to have one of these.” she said.
“What? Expanded memory?” he said sarcastically.
“I think it’s a stand-alone network array,” said Patricia.
Jimmy laughed at her only to be quickly punished by the growth at his side. “You’re reaching for the stars there,” he said.
“Am I?” she cocked her head at him. When he said nothing she continued, “Yours hacked into my private system without hesitation.”
“Having an unlocked AI authorized by Lumis is not the same as having an illegal private network. They’d shut them down in a minute.”
“Not if it’s Lumis’ network,” said Patricia.
Jimmy was quiet as he turned the idea over in his head. He didn’t like the thought. Not that it wasn’t possible, but that they had chosen to give it to someone other than himself.
“So take it,” he said.
“It’s broken,” she said.
“Then take the one in there,” he said, pointing inside the elevator.
“His is crushed completely. I doubt it could be fixed if we tried,” said Patricia.
“Then why the fuck are we even talking about this?” he said.
Patricia tugged on the AI unit and a loud crack came from the corpse’s wrist. “Shit,” she said as she stopped and looked at Jimmy.
“Leave it,” he said, even more annoyed. “It’s useless if it doesn’t work.”
“It can work,” said Patricia, glaring at him. “We can fix it.”
“How?” said Jimmy. “Are you a tech builder now too?”
“We just need some parts,” she said turning away from him, “and I think I know where we can find them.”
“Having parts and knowing what to do with them is completely different,” he said. She began trying to release the unit, causing further popping sounds. It seemed to be dug into the forearm. She reached back to grab something. “Let me guess, you just so happen to know someone to install this shit too, right?”
“James,” she said in a cold, dry tone followed by menacing glare. “Shut the fuck up.”
Jimmy’s was taken aback. He was offended, angry, confused, sad. He had never expected that from her. His mind raced to find something in response but fell behind every time. He was so good at having quick remarks when it didn’t matter, now he had nothing. He wanted to fight, to tell her off in the most emotionally destructive way possible but knew even if he managed to do so, he needed her. He was useless to her and if he offended her and she left him, he had nothing. He couldn’t disrupt the water but he needed to protect his ego. At least come up with something, and yet the more time passed the less he could say, until eventually he said nothing.
She used the laser scissors and widened them to the point it would fit between the edge of the forearm. With no hesitation Patricia severed the arm, causing Jimmy to grimace as he saw it flop to the platform. He had expected a stream of blood to follow but one look at the pasty color of the body should have let him know there was no blood left in it. Patricia picked up the forearm and with the base of the tool she had used scooped the meat off of the unit.
Jimmy watched in disgust but said nothing. It didn’t take long for Patricia to give up. She revealed a bag he had not seen previously but instantly recognized.
“That’s my bag,” he blurted out.
She looked up at him over her brows, “I know,” she said, proceeding to stuff the entire forearm into the sack.
He watched the bag as if trying to see through the material.
Patricia scowled as she cocked her head He was not fond of the way she had been looking at him lately. “Don’t worry,” she said, mocking. She tapped the bag, adding salt to the wound. “Your stuff’s still here.”
His head came down without thought as he began to feel like a ridiculed child. He forced his head up and positioned his body on the edge of the platform, his legs dangling off. He was not about to continue fueling that fire with her.
He was tired of needing her help. Gods need no help.
“James wait,” she called out as he wedged himself closer to the edge. He braced himself for the pain that would come, listening to her footsteps growing close. “You’re going to hurt yourself. Let me-”
Jimmy fell through the air and landed hard over the transparent ground. His legs instantly gave out from under and the rest of his body to followed. His elbows came up just in time to protect his face. He expected pain from the impact but the agony that he focused on was from the initial stretch of his skin around the deformity. He cried out, clenching all of the muscles in his face as he braced himself for the second wave of misery. The embarrassment of his own stupidity.
He remembered his grandfather and father working on fixing an antique vehicle. They had become frustrated with each other after his father had proved to be too incompetent for the task. Jimmy’s grandpa had made sure his son knew it, and he had not held anything back.
It had been the first time Jimmy had seen his father look so hurt. He had always believed his father to be incapable of emotion but here he was, showing Jimmy how useless and unappreciated he felt. The big man who had achieved fame and glory through his artistic talent had been reduced to ashes by mere words.
Jimmy had watched his father trying to mask his pain through rage. When he had called to Jimmy and Jimmy had protested that he wanted to stay, the man had yanked him off his seat and stormed off. Jimmy had never understood how words could wreak so much havoc in someone, but he had come to realize that it was never the words themselves. It was how they were turned over in the mind until they destroyed you from the inside out.
The old man had dug himself under the vehicle only to have it come crashing down over him. Jimmy’s father had rushed back, his embarrassment on hold, and raised the pillars to lift the vehicle. Jimmy had thought they would find the old man crushed with his last words vile enough to torment his father forever. Instead they had found the old man with a face full of black oil. He had spit it out of his mouth and cleared his eyes before bursting into laughter that became so contagious all three of them carried it for an eternity.
“You alright?” said Patricia. Heart of gold on this woman to still be worried about him after the way he continued to act.
He started to chuckle as he felt her hands over his shoulders, urging him to flip over. By the time he had, he was in full blown laughter. He was unable to control it to the point where eventually he didn’t know why he was even laughing anymore but he had infected Patricia and they seemed to fuel each other’s laughter continuously.
It felt great, sharing a laugh with her that in no way felt forced. It didn’t matter if she could read his mind or if Nee could scan it, all they would find was laughter.
His abdomen began to burn from the nonstop contraction. The laughter pumped away over time like a steam powered train coming to a halt, an occasional chuckle escaping them.
He gazed into her eyes.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” she said as she met his eyes. She reached her hand out to help him up but before she could pull him up, he held her in place.
“I think I know where we can find us that finger,” he said.