(Fiction) Appearances

andrey kamenetskiy

The town looked as if it had been bombarded from space. A black tarp was draped over the gaping hole in a barbershop dating from the early 1900s, according to the sign. Someone had been carting away the pile of fallen bricks with a wheelbarrow, which was now filled with snow. Two blocks down, the windows of the Dollar-SavR had been replaced with plywood, and the last row of spaces in its parking lot had cracked and fallen into the adjacent drainage ravine. In a city park just off main street, a leafless tree had left a three-meter crater in the ground when it uprooted and crumpled the metal siding of a sheet rock supplier.

Nio watched the town pass from the window of the bus. Its tires carved valleys in the slush as it pulled to a stop near a boxy 24-hour diner. The engine rumbled gently as the conductor announced a thirty-minute stop for those continuing to Jamestown. Nio lifted the strap of her rolled bag over her shoulder and stepped down with unlaced boots, her breath billowing over the nose-high collar of her puffy coat. She huddled into it for warmth. It was the fourth day of record-setting April cold. It was expected to last another four.

The few townspeople that had ventured outside looked like they were preparing for a hurricane. The sidewalk display at the hardware store was being pulled from the ice and brought inside. Next to it, a handwritten A-frame placard had been left in front of an old-style pharmacy: Closing early for Moving Day. A similar announcement was posted to the door of the diner.

Nio pulled out her phone as fellow traveler, a white-bearded man in jeans and a leather vest, hurried past her on his way to the bathroom. The last message she received had simply said Please. She scrolled through the thread and made sure she knew where she was going. She had neglected to bring gloves and the air bit at her fingers, just as it was doing to her ears. She tapped a grayed icon at the top of the screen. Nothing. There was no encrypted coverage in the little town, which meant her untraceable phone had no service. From here on out, she was committed.

The sidewalk was pockmarked in frozen footprints, like the fossil of prehistoric riverbed, and Nio nearly slipped at the corner, when she saw the hair salon across the street. A fishing boat with an outboard motor, likely from the dealer next door, hung inverted from the edge of the roof.

“Not something you see every day, huh?”

A tall, dark-skinned man, likely of mixed African descent, called to her from the front of the hardware store where he was loading large bags of fertilizer into the back of an old pickup truck. He was smart enough to wear gloves and a padded mechanic’s body suit.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“I don’t look like I’m from here?” she replied as she passed.

“That haircut would be enough,” he said, nodding to her recently shaved head. “But the jacket clinches it.”

Nio looked down at herself. The exterior of her knee-length puffy coat was a plain gunmetal gray, but the interior, visible only inside the high collar that circled her face, was bright orange.

“What’s wrong with my jacket?”

“Up here, folks wear the hunter’s orange on the outside.” He nodded to a round-bellied man in a ball cap who was crossing the street near the end of the block. He wore a light hunter’s vest over a camo-print collared shirt.

“Well, it’s reversible,” she said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You do that.” He tossed another bag with a grunt.

With no cell service, Nio had no map. As the sun dropped low enough to the horizon that its rays illuminated the town sideways, she realized it was on the wrong side for her to be heading north.

“What happened here?” she asked, hoping to disguise her gaffe as she walked the opposite way.

The man pointed down the road toward the horizon before sliding another bag across the icy sidewalk. She hadn’t noticed it before. Now that she did, she wondered how she could’ve missed it. The banded deep core mining platform straddled the earth like a four-legged god. Its massive pillars and broad, sail-like protrusions caught the red of the setting sun.

“Deep crust miner. Pulls up rare metals. Stuff with funny names.” The man in the mechanic’s suit grunted as he tossed the bag into the truck.

“Ytterbium,” she said. “Ferropericlase. Probably some others.”

The tall man stood straight and caught his breath. He looked to be in his 30s and in good shape. “You don’t look like a mining engineer.”

“What do mining engineers look like?”

“Usually got a lot more facial hair, for one. You work up there?” he asked skeptically.

“Nope. Never seen one before.”

Unlike its oceangoing cousins, which rose no more than a couple hundred feet in the air, the deep core miner was as tall as a skyscraper. But since it had similar proportions, the winds at altitude were a serious problem. Where an oil rig could be boxy and exposed, a deep-crust driller was louvered and aerodynamic, including two large adjustable metal sails that rose in parallel from its shell-like center mass. Red lights spaced evenly along their central masts blinked in alternating intervals.

“So you just know about funny metals?” he asked.

“I know about lots of things,” she said as she started backing away—in the correct direction this time. “Nice to meet you, Del.”

He looked down at his padded work suit. The name Del was stitched in fancy blue letter inside a white oval on his chest.

“You are sharp,” he said. “More proof that you’re not from around here.” He threw another bag into the truck. “Here for the big show?”

“Show?” she asked, taking tiny steps to extricate herself.

“Moving day.” He nodded again to the platform. It looked like a mountain.

“They move that thing?”

“All 800,000 tons.”

How?

“Anti-gravity.”

“I thought that was outlawed. Like chemical weapons.”

“It is. For people like you and me.” He hefted the last bag. The bed of the truck rattled as it landed on top of the others. “International mining conglomerates get special exceptions.”

Nio looked up and down the frozen street. Hardly anything traveled. “Is that why everyone’s packing up?”

“Yup. They say we’re not supposed to feel it down here, but we all get the letter anyway.”

“Letter?”

Del walked around to the front of the truck. He opened the glove compartment and several objects fell out, including a screwdriver and a pack of gum. He held out a folded slip of paper. Nio walked to the truck and unfolded it. The seal of the State of South Dakota sat proudly at the top. She read aloud.

The purpose of this letter is to remind you that from 11:00 p.m. on April 23rd until 3:00 a.m. on the 24th, Central Daylight Time, the gravity in the vicinity of Long Lake will be reduced between sixty and eighty percent. Water and power service across Brown, Campbell, Corson, Dewey, Edmunds, Faulk, McPherson, Potter, and Walworth Counties will be suspended from 10:00 p.m. in the evening until such time as the region is deemed safe. No evacuations are ordered. However, the Long Lake area remains closed and you are urged to secure any loose belongings weighing under 30 lbs. and to remain indoors.”

“Can’t even be sure of the ground under our feet anymore,” he said. “They can turn that off, too.”

She handed the letter back and he stuffed it into a pocket.

“There’s three of them.” He turned and pointed north in a clear effort to avoid staring at the six oval scars just barely visible under the flat stubble of her scalp. “One just across the border in North Dakota, one out west in the badlands, and that one, about fifty miles out.”

Nio ran a hand across her hair involuntarily. “It’s that far?”

“Takes an hour to drive. Ever since they came, there’ve been tremors. Couple weeks ago, we had the big one. Town’s not really built for it, so they’re moving it west.”

He pointed down a narrow side street to another collapsed wall. The hole was marked in caution tape. The unit had been emptied.

“Deaths?”

“Two.” He nodded. “Lotsa injuries. You sure you’re not here for the big show?” he asked skeptically. “Sometimes you can see the legs light up. Gotta stay up late, though.” He looked up at the overcast sky. “Wasn’t supposed to be this cold.”

“Sound riveting. But I’m not here for the big show.” She started backing away again.

“Good, then you’re free. How ’bout you let me buy you dinner?”

Nio smiled reflexively as her cheeks flushed. “Okay, that was pretty slick.”

“Come on,” he said, slamming the truck’s tail shut. “Otherwise I’m stuck with reruns of The Lowdown.”

“I’m glad I rate higher than reality TV.”

“So what do you say? Not counting anything with a drive-thru, you have your choice of two not entirely terrible restaurants.”

“A whole two?”

He shrugged. “Everybody else is closing.”

“It’s very flattering,” she said to the space between her boots.

“But?”

“I mean it. I’ve not actually been asked out in a very long time.”

“So say yes.”

“I can’t.” Nio started backing across the street again. “Maybe next time, cowboy.”

“At least let me give you a ride,” he called to her as he opened the driver’s side door. “It’s 12 below, in case you haven’t noticed, and getting colder as the sun goes down.” He blew fog to underscore the point.

“A ride?” she asked from the opposite sidewalk, her legs shivering slightly. “After shooting you down? Isn’t that like taking advantage?”

“How? This is Aberdeen. We’re five minutes from everywhere you could want to go. Besides, I get the better deal.”

“How’s that?”

He took off his dirt-tipped work gloves. “You’re the one who’s gotta ride with a guy who smells like fertilizer.”

Nio closed her eyes and felt his bioelectrics. The signal was weak at that distance, but the pattern was precise. Organized. He didn’t have the high-pitched urgency of a man on a violent or sexual prowl. He was calm. Curious. She could feel him modulating up and down evenly in a pattern common with athletes and soldiers—anyone in the habit of reacting quickly.

As usual, the modulation reminded her of a song.

“Turn to Stone,” she breathed. Electric Light Orchestra.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Okay, cowboy. It’s a deal.”

He got behind the wheel and opened the passenger’s side door, which creaked. There was trash on the seat, papers and wrapper, which he tossed behind the seat. Nio picked up the objects that had fallen out of the glove compartment and he took them and tossed them in the back as well.

“Which way?” he asked.

“I think it’s straight actually. Toward the freeway.”

The engine started with a rumble and he backed into the road. “First time in a small town?”

“No . . .” she said hesitantly, settling her rolled bag on her lap. “Not exactly.”

“But?”

The traffic light turned yellow and he rolled through it. Almost no one was out. The streets were crisscrossed in slush.

“First time in this part of the world,” she explained.

“And?”

“Not having the constant ad chatter is nice. The gun racks seem excessive.”

She turned to see if he had one. Except for an old sticker in the corner, the rear windshield was bare. They passed a small boutique coffee shop on the right. A pair of young women were chatting at a table near the window. A sign in the window indicated they were closing early as well.

Del saw her looking. “We got all the comforts of home. Maybe it’s good to get out sometimes and away from . . . New York?” he guessed.

“New York?” She made a face. “I’ve been there once.”

“Chicago?” Del studied her appearance with a deep scowl. The long, two-tone jacket with the high collar, the shaved head, the metal loops in her ears, the sad eyes with the hint of bags underneath. “Detroit.”

Nothing.

“You can’t tell me you’re from the West Coast. Not with that jacket.”

“What is it with you and my jacket?”

“Gimme a hint,” he said.

“That takes all the fun out of it.”

He laughed skeptically. “All right. Then how about telling me what ferroperiscope is, or whatever.”

“It’s a kind of iron oxide.”

Rust?

Nio nodded. “Same as on your truck,” she joked.

“I’ll have you know this truck is a classic.”

“Uh-huh. Keep telling yourself that.”

He scowled. “You’re telling me two people died so they could mine rust?”

“Sort of . . . Iron oxide crystallizes at very high temperatures and pressures. We’re talking like hundreds of thousands of atmospheres.”

“That sounds like a lot”

“The human body can handle, like, five. Deep in the earth’s crust, though, rust forms crystals similar to table salt, which conduct, but in one orientation only. In any other direction, they’re actually a good insulator. That’s really important in certain applications of solid state physics like quantum electronics.”

“Why? What’s so important that people gotta die?”

“Well, quantum effects are ‘slippery.’ Sort of. Ytterbium ions, for example, are really good at sharing electrons via quantum tunneling—basically, teleporting electrons through other materials.”

“No shit?”

“Statistically, electrons can do that at any time, but they tend not to if there’s an easier option, like regular conductivity. So if you bind ytterbium ions to an enzyme that encourages tunneling—”

“An enzyme? Like something organic?”

“Yeah. Similar to how hemoglobin binds iron. Then you put a single ion-enzyme complex inside tiny cellular cavities of ferropericlase crystals with walls three molecules thick, you can construct a circuit where you know when electrons move via tunneling and when they’re conducted classically. Biomechanical wafers like that, with ytterbium ion-complexes inside stacked crystalline layers, is how they construct the quantum matrices for the Shri-class intelligences.”

“So it goes to make AIs.”

“Well, probably not much. The number of AIs is controlled by treaty. No one really knows what the Chinese are doing, but I doubt they’re doing it with rare earths from North America.”

“So what are they using it for?”

“Some of it probably goes for research—designing the next class of AI. But the materials have other applications—large-scale data-transfer systems, for example, on the order of zettabytes or more, as well as—” She stopped. She smiled at the look on his face.

“You sure you’re not an engineer?” he asked.

“No . . .” She watched the snow-covered town pass. “What about you, cowboy? Been here your whole life?”

“Mom moved us here from Minneapolis when I was in junior high. Had a chance at 1A ball.”

He saw the look on her face. “You don’t know what that is.”

She shook her head.

“Wow.” Del stopped at a red light. He leaned back to examine her again in mock study. “You’re really, really not from around here. Come on, you gotta tell me.”

“I grew up in Taiwan,” she explained, almost in apology.

Taiwan?” At first he seemed perplexed, then skeptical, like there was a punchline coming. “You don’t look Chinese.”

“Neither do you.”

“You don’t have an accent.”

“It was an international school. All English.”

“Do you also speak . . . whatever they speak in Taiwan?”

“Taiwanese.” She smiled again. “Yes. I do.”

He drove in silence for a moment. “I blew it, didn’t I?”

“Blew what?”

“You’re smart and know about geochemistry and shit and I don’t even know what folks speak in Taiwan.”

“I know very little about geochemistry. But you were right.” She pointed ahead. “Looks like we were five minutes from everywhere. This is me here.”

“The Cedars?”

Nio nodded, and Del slowed and pulled to a stop in front of three blocks of aging, early-2000s apartments. Behind him, an even bigger truck gunned its engine and pulled around, spraying slush into the bed of Del’s truck and over the sidewalk, which someone had previously shoveled.

“Asshole.” Del scowled. he leaned forward to study the complex through the windshield. A pile of planks and downed branches in the corner of the parking lot was topped in mounds of snow. “You got friends here or something?”

“Or something.” Nio opened the door and stepped down carefully. Her unlaced boots nearly disappeared in the slush.

“You sure I can’t interest you in a not-entirely-terrible dinner? This town’s gonna get really dead in a couple hours.”

“Why are you so worried about me?”

“How do you know I’m not just trying to get in your pants?”

She smiled. “You’re not.”

“I see. You’re psychic, too.”

“Call it intuition. So what is it?”

He shrugged.

“Come on,” she urged. “I told you where I was from.”

Del exhaled slowly. He looked down the road. “I saw you get off the bus. People like you come out here, they’re one of two things: lost . . . or trouble.”

“Which one am I?”

“I was hopin’ lost. Why you think I offered the ride?”

Nio smiled. “See ya around, Del.”

She shut the door and stepped carefully up the snowy bank and down into the parking lot. She didn’t turn, but she heard the truck’s engine and the sound of the tires in the slush.

Her instructions had said 2A, a second floor apartment at the top of an open set of concrete stairs. Most of the units seemed empty. The building’s vertical siding was cracked and moldy at the base. The owner had masked the rest with ample applications of paint.

Nio knocked, and the light from the small circular viewer in the door dimmed. Aware she was being observed, she smiled weakly.

“Who is it?” a woman’s voice called.

“We spoke online. You asked for my help.”

There was a pause, and Nio closed her eyes again. There was little electrical interference on the landing, and she could feel a single surge on the other side of the door, like a turning spiral. Whoever she was, she was throwing off waves of nervous energy.

There Should Be Unicorns by The Flaming Lips.

“I sent you a message. I changed my mind.”

Nio held up her phone. “Yeah, sorry. I run Parfait. I don’t have a signal. Since I’m here, can I at least take a look?”

“Show me your ID,” the woman said.

“I don’t have any.”

“You’re lying. Who doesn’t have ID?”

“Look, I came a long way because I thought we might be able to help each other.”

Nothing.

Please.” Nio recited the word. “That’s what you said. Please. Just let me take a look. I just wanna help.”

She heard the rattle of several locks and the clink of several chains. The door opened to reveal a striking young woman with amethyst hair. Her sky-blue skin had just enough lavender to keep it from looking like a joke. Her eyes were solid fuchsia, as were her lips and long fingernails, and she had short, blunted devil horns in her forehead.

“Wow,” Nio said. “That’s legit.”

She pulled Nio in and shut the door. “Did anyone see you?”

“Other than the nice cowboy who gave me a lift, no.”

The blue woman looked out the viewer again, and Nio could see her tail, which moved.

It was a kind of semi-permanent cosplay. She was meant to be Gogo Ichigo, a digital persona popular with post-pubescent boys. Gogo, whose last name meant strawberry in Japanese, was a color-chaning succubus that bounced around in revealing clothes as if oblivious to the effect it had on her fans. A movie had been released the previous year in which she fought crime with her sexual-occult powers. The young woman’s mod was completely realistic. She was certainly showing it off, even in the cold, with tight cutoff jeans, heeled knee-high red platform boots, and a tank top, not much larger than a bikini, that bulged around her smooth blue cleavage. Her arms were stuffed into a winter coat but she kept it off her shoulders, like she was perpetually about to disrobe.

For a moment, she pressed her palms together like she wasn’t sure what to do.

“Hi,” Nio said.

“She’s in here.” She led Nio all of ten feet to the bedroom.

Other than a single lawn chair in the living area, there was no furniture in sight. A bare mattress lay crooked on the bedroom floor. A young woman in jeans and no shirt lay on her stomach near a space heater. Empty bottles of water and used tissues clustered around her head. There was a purse and a small duffel in the corner and a lone winter coat hanging in the closet. Crystals had been laid in a spoke pattern in two arcs around her. A large quartz spire sat vertically on the floor by her head.

“Are they helping?” Nio asked.

The woman was sweating profusely. Her pure white skin was snaked in dark veins. It looked like she was made of marble.

“That’s worse than the pictures you sent.” Nio unsnapped her jacket in one pull and unrolled her bag.

“What is that?”

“An old army surplus medic’s kit.”

The young woman’s frosted blue-white eyes seemed to take no notice of the stranger near her.

“Are her eyes part of her mod?”

“Yes.”

“Same for the alabaster skin?”

“What’s that?”

“Skin that looks like porcelain.”

She nodded.

Turning human skin a primary color was easy. You simply injected the upper dermis with a CRISPR solution that caused the epidermal cells to express an otherwise harmless enzyme that acted on any of a number of naturally occurring carbon-rings—reducing them or adding a methyl group as necessary. But primary colors were loud and unsightly and people only used them to roleplay Star Trek aliens. Subtle secondary colors required mixing. Vividness and opacity were achieved by including operons—genes that control the expression of other genes—in the modified DNA to regulate the amount of each coloration enzyme. In the blue girl’s case, it meant light methylation with the barest hint of hemoglobin reduction. It was a real art, largely developed by home modders, and easy to get wrong. The internet was full disaster pictures: kids with more ambition than sense who downloaded specs for someone else’s skin tone and turned themselves an awful shade of puke green just in time for prom.

“This is Becks,” the blue woman said nervously. “I’m Truly.” She was rocking back and forth slightly on her red platform heels. “I . . . I didn’t know what else to do. When she started growing those things on her back, I just took her and ran. Raffe would kill us if we went to a hospital. Can you help her?”

“Here.” Nio held up a surgical mask. “Put this on.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Just a precaution. Looks like you guys might’ve downloaded a little something extra.”

“Like a virus?”

The upper right side of the girl’s back was swollen in an oblong dome at least three inches high at the center. The tissue was riddled with several round translucent cysts, like giant fever blisters. The largest was in the center. Nio could see swathes of shadow inside but no discernible shape or pattern. On the left, surrounded by a pentagram of handwritten hexadecimals, a two-inch fleshy stub erupted from a round wrinkle over her scapula. It dangled white downy feathers like autumn leaves.

Nio slipped a mask over her face and latex gloves over her hands, then she pressed a needle into a rubber-topped glass vial.

“What is that?” Becks asked, eyeing the needle.

“It’s just saline. I wanna see if there’s a reaction first. This might hurt a little,” she told the girl on the bed, who didn’t respond.

Nio inserted the needle to one side of the cluster and the girl drew breath sharply. Her skin wasn’t soft. It felt tight. Nio squeezed the plunger and injected a small amount of saline. Nothing happened. She removed the needle and felt the girl’s back.

Stiff. Extremely stiff. Like cartilage.

“It’s calcifying her.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means the reason she’s not reacting to anything is not because she’s in a stupor.” Nio leaned close to the girl’s face. Her eyes were bright. They moved just slightly toward Nio. “Jesus . . .”

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“It’s probably very painful and difficult for her to move.”

“You mean she’s awake!” Truly covered her mouth.

“How long has she been stiff like this?”

“Since this morning.”

“Do you have any lotion?”

“In my purse,” she said excitedly. “A lot, actually. I need to keep my skin moist or it changes—”

“Get it. Is she on any medication?” Nio put the needle back in the bag and prepared another.

“I got her some oxy,” Truly explained as she walked to the bare kitchen. “For the pain.”

“Did it work?”

“I don’t know. I think so.”

“Do you know if she has any allergies?”

When there was no answer, Nio turned. Truly was staring at her friend and swaying back and forth. There was a large bottle of Cetaphil in her hand. She shook her head and wiped the tear that fell. The drop was luminescent, as were the pools under her eyes. If she were true to character, all of her bodily fluids would glow in the dark.

Nio noticed the girl’s neck and cheeks were beginning to turn magenta—another of Gogo’s colors. It was a fancy mod indeed.

“What about drugs?” she asked.

“Black dust. Last weekend. And weed. Almost every day.”

“Alcohol?”

“Not since last night. No, wait. Two nights ago.”

Nio cleaned the needle with an alcohol swab and prepared another injection.

“This is an anesthetic. You may feel a little sleepy in a moment,” she told the girl on the bed, “but I need you to try and stay awake, okay?”

The girl blinked slowly but otherwise seemed catatonic. Nio inserted the needle in several places around the cyst, injecting a little each time. The deep flesh was soft. The sequence must have altered the keratin in her epidermis, which didn’t harden until it dried at the surface.

The room was quiet as Nio waited for the anesthetic to take effect.

“Becks . . .” Nio repeated the name. “That short for something?”

“Beckham,” Truly breathed.

“That’s pretty.”

“She’s gorgeous. I—I didn’t know what else to do. I have money.” She pulled out a wad of bills from her jacket and held it out like it was the plague.

“We can talk about that later. As soon as she can move, we have to get her to a hospital. Can you put the lotion on her joints?”

Truly didn’t move.

“What’s wrong?”

“No hospitals.”

“We can’t leave her like this.”

“You said you could fix her!”

“I said I could help! She needs to go to a hospital. They can sequence an anti-retro-viral.”

Nio poked Beckham’s skin several times with a stiff finger. There was no response, which suggested the anesthetic had worked. She dug in her bag for an aspiration needle, which came in two pieces. She screwed the long metal tip onto the injector.

“What are you doing?”

“I need to drain the cysts, get whatever is in there out of her.”

There was a loud blow on the door, powerful enough to nearly break the locks, and Truly jumped back. A chain fell loose and dangled over the wood. A second blow immediately followed the first. Nio stood.

The third broke it down.

A large man in a trenchcoat and high-laced boots appeared in the bedroom doorway. What remained of his once-blond hair poked up from his scalp like cactus needles. His neck was covered in tattoos of writhing octopus tentacles, like he had a mane of them. There was another man behind him. He looked Native.

The first man looked at Truly. “That’s the problem with being blue, beautiful. Everywhere you go, people notice you.”

He had a deep Scottish accent. He touched her hair and she pulled away. Her magenta coloration spread over her face and arms.

Nio was trapped by the second man in the door. He was smaller than the first but still quite a bit larger than her. Both were armed.

“Who’s this?” the big man asked.

“Just a friend.”

“Is that right?”

He looked at the unrolled medic’s bag on the floor. He picked up Nio’s jacket and squeezed it between his bulging hands, feeling for contents. He pulled her phone from a side pocket and made sure it was off. He put it in his own pocket. Then he pulled out a small bottle of pills. He rattled them.

“I get headaches,” Nio explained.

He glanced at the scars just visible under her buzzed scalp and patted the coat more. He pulled out an official-looking letter, unopened. Nio had taken it to read on the bus but hadn’t found the courage.

“That’s private,” she said.

The big man replaced the letter and threw the coat at her. Then he pointed at the white woman.

“Take her to the ranch,” he ordered the second man. “I’ll bring these two to Raffe.” He smiled at Truly. “Time to go, beautiful.”

She paused for the briefest of moment before complying without argument. She didn’t even look at her friend on the bed, as if she were already gone.

“It’s cold outside,” the big man told Nio. “Better put that fancy coat on.”

She paused and felt his bioelectrics—a staccato shriek.

Shingles by Frantic Frenetic.

A sleek luxury sedan waited in the parking lot. Truly walked to the passenger’s side door but stopped and turned.

“Mr. Dalrymple, if you just let me—”

“Stop,” he ordered. “Tell it to Raffe.” He put a giant hand on Nio’s shoulder, like they were old pals. “Get in.”

The sun had set. Only a distant glow remained at the horizon. Dalrymple opened the door and the interior light shone. The second man appeared at the top of the stairs. He had Beckham in his arms, wrapped in his hunting coat, and was carrying her with some difficulty.

“No rideshares,” Dalrymple called. “They have back seat cameras.”

The second man stopped. “Then what am I supposed to do?”

“Call Carl. He’s not working doors tonight.”

“What do I do until he gets here?”

“Wait, asshole.”

The second man bleated in protest and walked back inside with the young woman.

Nio thought about running while the men spoke. The man called Dalrymple seemed to sense it and tightened his grip.

“Get in,” he repeated.

Nio complied. She scooted over as Dalrymple got in right behind her. Sitting directly behind Truly, he had quick access to either woman. The driver’s seat was empty. The fancy car would drive itself.

“I’m sorry,” Truly breathed.

 


revised first chapter from the new book, part of the project I’ve been calling Science Crimes Division, although that will not be the title

cover image by Andrey Kamenetskiy