Nio awoke in a box amid a tangle of limbs. Wide-eyed, she screamed and kicked and pushed them away—only to feel silk-smooth synthetic skin. A hairless sex doll stared serenely in the dark, inches from her face, seemingly resigned to whatever fate befell them. For a moment, Nio was mesmerized. The doll didn’t seem fake. Her skin wasn’t a simple slab of silicone. It had tiny pores and very faint hairs. It wrinkled slightly at her slender knuckles. Her gold and lavender eyes glistened as if moist and were speckled in beautiful imperfections. The dimples around her areola were varied and asymmetrical. She looked organic, alive even. But she didn’t look real. Her eyes were enormous, her nose little more than a pert knob on her face. Her full, supple lips smoldered in permanent pink. She didn’t seem real because she was hyper-real, her features unnaturally exaggerated to complete her inhuman allure. She was as perfect as a goddess, and rentable by the hour.
“I don’t suppose you can get me out of here.”
As her panic subsided, the pain returned. Nio grimaced and shut her eyes. Her head throbbed from the blow. She needed her pills. Ostensibly, they were still in her jacket, which was wrapped warmly around her. But amid the weave of limbs, some of which had been detached from their bodies, she couldn’t move, as if they had intentionally been packed tight around her. She struggled to slide her right arm up, but her elbow kept getting caught in the crook of an inhumanly perfect knee.
The heavy box shook then as if being loaded into a vehicle. When it kept shaking, Nio realized it wasn’t a vehicle. It was a conveyor. When it stopped, she heard a muffled roar. She felt the heat almost immediately.
She was being incinerated.
So realistic was the doll that Nio glanced to her instinctively as if to gauge her reaction to their shared predicament.
“You’re no help,” she said, struggling.
The smell of smoke hit her nostrils and she shut her eyes to keep from panicking completely. She pulled and pushed and kicked.
“Fuck!” she screamed, over and over, as if it were a magic chant to free her. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
She kicked and kicked and felt a searing heat around her socked toes. She pulled them up as much as the synthetic goddess allowed. The smoke gathered in swirls until she could barely breathe. When she couldn’t hold her breath anymore, she inhaled and coughed uncontrollably. Some part of her hoped she would suffocate before being burned alive.
The heat intensified and her scalp tingled. A glob of molten plastic fell across the face of her companion and melted away the goddess’s nose. She was hollow inside.
The box shook hard and Nio turned and fell with the limbs and bodies across the cool floor. She coughed and coughed, trying to catch her breath while at the same time get to her feet. Someone grabbed her and she struggled.
She saw Dalrymple flat on the warehouse floor.
“It’s okay!” Del said. “It’s okay. I got you.”
He let her go and she slipped to the ground again. They were in a small workshop lined in sheet metal. The ceramic-lined incinerator stood above the floor on six legs, like a steel insect. The side release was open and flames spewed like jet exhaust. Del stepped over to turn a lever and the door slid shut.
“You are officially trouble,” he said.
Nio was on her back coughing and panting for air. “Are—” She coughed. “Are you following me?”
“Yes,” he said, “and you can thank me later.”
She looked to the big man on the floor, half expecting his arm to shoot forward and grab her throat. She coughed again. “How’d you get the drop on him?”
“I got lucky.”
He grabbed her jacket. Before she could object to his explanation, he pulled her to her feet.
“No.” She pulled away and almost fell again. “They’re gonna kill her.”
“The alabaster girl. Becky-Beck-something. They’re gonna kill her and tell everyone she went back to Florida. We gotta call the police. We gotta—”
“Okay, but we gotta get outta here first.”
Nio was swaying on her feet, and Del reached for her again.
“Where’s your phone?” she asked. “We gotta call 911.”
“Are you even listening—”
Del covered her mouth and shot a glance back toward the open garage door. “Would you be quiet! The city cops all work for Raffe. Or may as well anyway. Folks around here know that if you get in trouble, you call the sheriff.”
He removed his hand.
“How long will it take him to get here?”
“Depends on where his people are. It’s a big county.”
“I thought you said we were five minutes from everywhere.”
“In town,” he said, dragging her out of the shop. “My truck’s parked around the block.”
“That old thing?” She pulled out of her jacket and trotted shakily, arms out for balance, back to the unconscious Dalrymple.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Del demanded in a stout whisper. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
Nio kicked him. When he didn’t move, she reached into his jacket and found the fob to Maybach. She pressed the button and heard a car beep and start its nearly silent engine.
Del threw her coat at her and followed her into the back of the luxury car.
“You sure it’s gonna listen to you?”
“Why not? I have the fob.”
“And where are we going?”
“Take us to the ranch,” she told the vehicle.
“Understood,” it said pleasantly. “Departing for the ranch.”
The car’s blinker flashed as it pulled to a stop at the street. Sensing the way was clear, it turned and accelerated evenly.
“Make it fast.”
“I’m sorry,” the vehicle said. “I am not able to exceed the speed limit.”
“This is an emergency.”
“Please speak or type your emergency code.”
“Screw this. I’m taking over.” Nio crawled over Del—who pushed her wet sock out of his face—and slid into the driver’s seat. She started jabbing the touchscreen in the center console with her finger.
“Do you even know what you’re doing?”
“Believe it or not, this is not the first time I’ve done something like this.”
“Oh, I believe it.”
The map to the destination remained on the center screen, and Nio followed it as Del called the sheriff’s office and told them the short version of what happened. As they left the lights of the town and disappeared into the dark of the country, Nio’s heart rate slowed. She could feel Del’s bioelectrics again. They had barely changed.
“What about you?” she asked as she accelerated out of a turn. The car made almost no sound.
“What about me?” he said leaning forward from the back.
“You don’t seem that nervous for someone who just attacked a guy.”
“Would you rather I freak out?”
“It’s not gonna take them long to realize something’s wrong. A car this expensive will have GPS tracking and anti-theft. Even if they don’t disable it remotely, they’ll know exactly where we are.”
“Then we need to go faster.”
Nio hit the gas and the luxury car accelerated so quickly that Del was knocked back. The wheels slipped twice on the ice and the car announced it was engaging four-wheel drive.
Eight minutes north of town, it pulled to a stop in the roundabout in front of a two-story coral-colored house with a white false colonnade. To the west was a four-stall garage, closed. Two cars and a Jeep were parked at an angle in the snow-covered clearing to one side.
A man opened the front door and shivered as he waited for whoever was in the car to exit. When nothing happened, he stepped forward and opened the passenger’s side door.
There was no one inside.
He heard feet on gravel and turned just in time to get whacked across the temple by a tire iron. Del patted him down and took his gun and his keys. Then he heaved the body into the back seat of the car, where it was out of sight.
He opened the trunk and Nio got out.
“That was a good idea,” he said.
Nio scowled. “It was yours.”
“Probably why it worked.”
She looked at the line of tracks across the wide snow-covered lawn. “How did you get here so fast?”
“I keep in shape.”
“That’s 400 meters through heavy snow.”
“They’re gonna be right behind us. Why are we arguing about how fast I can run?”
She thought for a moment. “Because it’s freaky.”
The front door of the house was still open and several Pomeranians appeared. One of them barked. Del and Nio darted to either side of the open door. He peered inside. There was no one. Judging from the panel in the wall, the house had a fancy security system, but it wasn’t engaged.
Nio saw the gun in Del’s hand. “Where did you get that?”
He motioned back. “Dude had it in his jacket.”
“You’re holding it properly.”
Del had one finger forward, ready to release the safety.
“Shooting’s kind of a thing out here.”
“Who are you?”
“I could ask you the same thing, Trouble, but we don’t have time. You wanna find the girl or not?”
Nio walked in cautiously. Other than the dogs, which growled at her, she didn’t hear anything. She shut her eyes.
“How do you know?” Del whispered as he quietly shut the front.
“I just do.”
She could feel a strong magnetic field emanating from below them. They walked under a chandelier that hung from the second-story ceiling of the open foyer. The interior of the house was a nightmare in pastel. Everything was a similar shade of coral or taupe. A wide carpeted stairway rose to a sitting area under a dome skylight. Beneath the balustrade was a hall to a long living area. Nio could see a massive TV surrounded by custom shelves. Floor-to-ceiling windows at the back revealed the house had a pool, whose side-lit winter cover was topped in snow. Plugged into the wall near Nio’s socked feet was a small orange-and-white Canine Companion—a doggie love doll, a four-legged plastic receptacle designed to appease dogs with a humping problem. A sticker on the side said CLEANSAFE RESERVOIR. Across from it was an open doorway. Polished hardwood steps took a hard left and descended to a well-lit finished basement. At the bottom, in a custom-built nook, were a pair of large matching gun safes, both locked.
“Like an altar,” Del whispered.
The dogs barked again and wagged their tails from the top of the hardwood steps. But they didn’t move, as if they knew they weren’t allowed on the lower floor.
The basement was plushly carpeted and well lit. Around a bend was a long hall whose left wall was half glass. Beyond was a well-stocked maker lab. A blinking slab of angled plastic, a refraction panel, stood like a skinny white monolith near the all-glass door, scattering EM signals and making it hard for anyone outside to eavesdrop. Its presence suggested whatever they were doing there was worth a lot of time and money to conceal. It also gave Nio an immediate headache, despite that she had swallowed three pills in the car.
At the back of the lab, rows of IV stands dangled plastic bags linked to each other by looped tubing. Bubbles flowed between. They were brewing something. Three makers were set against the left wall, including an old glass-walled 3D printer, about the size of a commercial oven, that had been stripped for parts. It looked like an empty arcade claw game. On the right was a brand new sequencer. Three block canisters rotated on a central pedestal with control console. The box and sheet plastic the device had come in were crumpled in the corner.
In the middle of the room was a large reclining dentist’s chair. Beckham lay on it, naked and curled in a fetal position. Nio could see her blistered back. The cysts looked different. They were dark inside, like a cluster of insect eyes. Next to her, Guillermo sat motionless on a rolling stool.
Del pressed a button on the wall and the glass door slid open. Nio’s headache immediately worsened, and she grimaced again. She was breathing hard and sweating. She felt like she might vomit.
Guillermo turned. He didn’t seem at all surprised to see them. His face was blank, his eyes dull. He’d taken something.
“Anyone here besides the guard?” Del asked.
“Celine,” he answered softly.
He nodded. “She’s upstairs.”
“Any other way out of the basement?”
Guillermo shook his head.
Del lowered the gun and nodded to Nio, indicating she could go ahead and he would cover their exit.
“She was so pretty,” Guillermo said, staring.
“Was?” Nio stepped to the girl and felt her neck. She had a pulse. But it was weak.
Guillermo didn’t move. “Raffe wanted me to give her a third breast. Can you believe it? A real one. She thought we would get a lot of publicity. Beckham didn’t want a third breast. She didn’t want to be a freak. She wanted to be an angel. No one had done wings before. With feathers. I was sure there had to be a way. I asked around online. They would just be ornamental. She knew that. But they would be real. She was so excited. She wanted to be like a Victoria’s Secret model. We knew if we were the first to do it, we’d still get a lot of publicity and Raffe wouldn’t be mad. Becks was so beautiful. I—I just . . .”
“You wanted her to like you,” Del said from the door.
Guillermo nodded and looked down at his hands. He was holding a needle. It was empty.
“What did you do?” Nio asked, grabbing it.
He started crying softly.
“What did you do?” she demanded.
“Raffe made me give her an OD,” he sobbed. “That’s what she meant. Take care of her.”
The tiny madame would have Guillermo then. She could hold that over his head forever.
Nio kicked the kid’s stool and he rolled to the corner. She stomped on the needle and started searching a wheeled glass-and-steel medicine cabinet.
“What are you doing?” Del asked. “We need to go.”
“She’s not gonna make it a mile! We need an opioid antagonist.”
“Shit,” he cursed. “I’m gonna go check the foyer.”
With two hands on the gun, Del moved cautiously around the corner.
“Ha!” Nio lifted the bottle with the clear liquid. She rifled through the drawers and cabinets until she found a needle. She measured a large dose and injected the girl in her arm. She followed that with a spinothalamic blocker. Guillermo didn’t move. His shoulders were slumped. He was crying.
“Beckham? Can you hear me?”
Guillermo stood suddenly. “What is that?” he asked, pointing.
Nio walked around the chair. The cluster of cysts on the girl’s back were moving. Something twitched inside each, like hatching eggs. Whatever they were, they wanted out.
Beckham’s marble body started shaking, rocking the chair.
“She’s having a seizure.”
Nio stepped to the medicine cabinet again and the girl went stiff as a board. She had extended everything—arms, legs, fingers. Her skin cracked and bled at several of her joints.
As if sensing she was in distress, the cysts on her back ruptured in every direction, spewing a long stream of clear mucus.
Del came running. “What the fuck is that?”
Strands of clear mucus spread like a web from the girl’s back to various points of increased temperature around the room. One sagging strand stretched from a baseball-sized blister to the back of a nearby computer screen, near the vent. Another stretched toward the door, but it was too far away and the strand had fallen to the floor. A third attached itself to Guillermo’s chest. The kid was frozen. He stared down at it, wide-eyed, as a black, translucent jellylike mass wriggled out the end and started crawling over him, like a hairy amoeba. He screamed and swatted it off and jumped back into the corner making noises.
Nio looked around the room. All of the mucus strands were slowly sagging as similar amoeba, each about the size of the cyst it had emerged from, began crawling over the walls, looking for an exit. The largest, the one that erupted from the middle, squeezed through a heating vent in the ceiling, near the back of the house.
Nio watched it disappear through the slats of the grate. “Shit!”
“What do we do?” Del was flustered.
“I can hear them . . .” Beckham breathed.
“She’s still alive.”
Del ran forward but stopped a few steps away. The empty red circles in the girl’s back were dripping pus.
Nio swiped the gun out of his hand. “Get the sheet plastic out of the box.” She pointed to the corner. “Wrap her up.”
“I can hear them . . .” the girl repeated.
“Hear them?” Nio asked. “Hear who?”
“Like . . . chanting . . .”
Del pulled the sheet free of the cardboard and draped it like a blanket over the naked girl.
“Take the car. Get her to a hospital.” Nio glanced to Guillermo. “Not the one in town. Somewhere else.”
“What about me?” Guillermo asked. His shaking hands were stretched out like he was afraid to touch himself.
“Strip,” Nio said.
She shot the wall behind him and he began to strip as ordered.
“What are you gonna do?” Del asked, heaving the girl up from the chair.
Nio looked up. “I gotta make sure whatever got out of her doesn’t get away.”
“What the hell are those things?”
“I don’t know. Just go.”
Guillermo stood with his arms crossed in front of his boxers. He flipped his hair out of his face.
“You too,” she told him.
“What . . . like, outside? There’s snow.”
She walked over with the gun raised. He cowered as she pushed the barrel against his forehead. “A minute ago, you were willing to let that girl die. You’re lucky I don’t shoot you, you little brat. Now, GO.”
With hands raised defensively, the kid scampered out and up the carpeted stairs.
Del followed with some difficulty. “She’s heaver than she looks,” he said when he saw Nio’s face.
The dogs were waiting at the top. Nio shooed them out the front, where Guillermo shivered in his boxers.
“Cavalry,” Nio said. “And not the good kind.”
Car lights were approaching. Fast.
“Where are you going?”
Del was walking through the snow toward the garage. “They can disable that thing, remember? Dude had keys in his pocket.”
“Fuck.” Nio glanced to the approaching lights before running in her socks through the snow.
Nio opened the Maybach, where the guard was slumped unconscious. The keys jingled as she pulled them from his pocket. They had the Jeep logo on the flat. She opened the vehicle and helped Del lay Beckham in the back. The approaching vehicles crested a nearby rise. Their engines roared. Two SUVs.
“Get her out of here!” Nio yelled, running back into the house.
“What are you gonna do? They’re gonna be here in a minute!”
She ran through the living room and around to the kitchen and opened the cupboards until she found a bottle of vegetable oil. She trotted to the stairs and tossed some down the wall, at the very center of the house, and poured a trail across the hardwood to the hall, where she set the bottle on the floor. She yanked the Canine Companion from the wall and smashed it. Inside, the electrical cord was attached to a long heating prong. Dogs liked a warm companion, it seemed, just like people. She plugged the cord into a socket and inverted the prong into the half-empty bottle of oil. Then she ran upstairs.
The dancer, Celine, was in a bathroom. She had lit candles and placed them around the tub. She had music buds in her ear and was signing country music while smoking a joint. Nio pushed in and shot the ceiling. The girl yelped in the water and splashed. She pulled the buds from her ears and curled her arms in front of her naked body.
“Who are you?”
Nio saw the lighter next to the candles on the tub and grabbed it. “You need to get out of here.”
“I live here. Who the hell are—”
Nio shot the wall behind the tub three times. Bits of tile flew as the young woman screamed repeatedly and ran from the bathroom, slipping once on the tile. She stopped once and reached for the robe on the bed and Nio shot the bedroom wall. She heard the woman screaming all the way down the stairs to the front. She grabbed the bottle of hair spray next to the sink and stuffed it in her pocket. She heard car doors shut. The SUVs had already stopped in the roundabout.
“Shit.” Nio ran to the stairs.
“—but she’s still inside,” she heard Guillermo say.
“Go after them,” ordered another voice.
Nio backed down the hall as the second car left to chase Del in the Jeep. She heard heavy footsteps enter the foyer. At least three. She ran to a bedroom and looked around. By the kid-sized clothes in the walk-in closet, it was Raffe’s. True to form, she had an antique full-length mirror. Nio rifled through the drawers for a pistol, but Dalrymple came up the stairs and she had to duck into the opulent private bath, which had a second exit on the far side. She tiptoed to the door in her socks and quietly, slowly unlocked it, but there was a noise and she dropped with her back against the fancy tiled wall, listening to Dalrymple search the two bedrooms closest to the stairs. They couldn’t know where she was. If they were smart, the other two men would be guarding the front and back doors. If she was in the basement, then she was trapped and they would find her eventually, leaving Dalrymple free to start at the top.
He turned down the hall and froze when he saw her reflected in the mirror in the bedroom. She heard him stop, noticed the reflection, and jumped up as if to escape. Dalrymple extended his artificial arm like a battering ram and punched through the drywall. He would’ve snagged Nio easily—if she hadn’t disguised her location with a second mirror. Whether from haste or stupidity, the big man hadn’t noticed that she was facing the wrong way in reflection. His mechanical arm punched through the wall and grabbed air. Nio looped the hair dryer cord around it and turned it on, completing the circuit. Every light in the house flickered as Dalrymple screamed and went down.
The breaker flipped, the current stopped, and the lights resumed. Nio heard movement and heavy breathing. The big man was still alive and struggling to his feet.
“Shit . . .”
But the scream was enough. It called the other two, who came running up the steps. Nio darted to the window over the jet-tub and dropped with socked feet into the snow on the back lawn. The vent in the basement had faced the rear of the house, and she immediately saw the trail near a snow-covered patio set. It undulated like no animal track she’d ever seen, turning end-over-end as it wobbled toward an adjacent field, just beyond a line of bare windbreaker trees.
Nio looked up. But instead of shooting at her from the window, the men inside had discovered that the house was on fire. Once the oil ignited, it spread across the hardwood and up the wall of the stairs. Soon the entire structure would be burning. With her pursuers momentarily distracted by their own safety, Nio risked breaking cover for the field. Her socks crunched through the piled snow of the ditch on the far side and she sunk to her knees. The trail passed through a row of leafless bushes to the open field beyond—a giant square bounded by straight lines of windbreaker trees on all four sides. In summer, the field would’ve been pitch black on a moonless night, but now it was covered in a foot of snow, which faintly reflected the light from the lamps around the house and along the street, giving everything a twilight glow. It was empty except for three piles of railroad ties, stacked in alternating layers, and an enormous grooved metal loop, like a discarded magnet from a supercollider—at least a hundred feet across and well rusted.
“Way to go, Del.”
There was only one, and it was still quite distant—sound carried far in the still, cold air—but it would be there in a few minutes. The fire department would take longer.
The track in the snow arced right to the railroad ties. As Nio approached, shivering, she could see they were stacked irregularly, and although not rotted through, they were deeply weathered and fraying. That gave the creature plenty of places to hide.
Shivering and with toes so numb it was becoming painful to walk, Nio stepped cautiously toward the dark stacks of ties. Her breath seeped like smoke signals from her nose as she flicked the lighter and held it on. The odd track rolled into the space between the piles, where it turned quickly toward the stack on her right. Nio knelt slowly and extended the tiny flame. There was no telling how the organism might react to heat or light, and she had visions of it launching itself out of the pile and squeezing down her throat. It had no skeleton, which meant it could squeeze through nearly any gap—even, presumably, her nostrils.
But there was nothing, just a small pile of snow on the third tie from the top. In squeezing between the ties, it seemed, the organism had lost a bit of snow that had clung to it. Nio walked, flame in hand, around the stack, looking for signs of an exit. She saw the organism immediately, immobile in the snow. It was no longer dark and translucent. It was whitish and opaque at the edges. It was freezing.
Nio stood over it.
“Homeostasis for the win, bitch.”
She raised the can of hair spray and burned the amoeba-like creature in the snow. It popped and shrunk like plastic as it boiled. She waved the flame back and forth as it turned brown and briefly caught fire. The flame went out and there was nothing but a few thin tendrils of black.
Nio collapsed against the ties. Her socked feet were no longer numb. Now they were burning. Despite that she was hidden by the stack of ties, she had left an easy trail for anyone to follow. The odds that she could out-pace someone with proper footwear through deep snow was practically zero. She dropped to her butt and sat cross-legged with her frigid feet pressed between her thighs and the tail of her open jacket. She pulled the flaps around her. Raffe’s house, now a fireball, had been built on a small rise, almost certainly to give it a view of the plains out back. Through a gap in the bare trees, Nio could see the deep core miner in the distance, its massive column-legs aglow in spiraling light, like tornadoes of blue fireworks. It was distant but beautiful.
A few light flakes fell through the still air, and Nio held out her hand to catch one as a speckled trout landed in the snow with a plop. It twitched twice and lay gasping.
Nio looked around, but there was no one who could’ve thrown it. She looked up in time to see another fall from the night sky some ten yards away. A moment later, a third fell through the tree line and made a ruckus.
“It’s raining fish . . .”
She heard the crunch of snow and turned to see a woman in an octagonal hat some 20 yards away. Her uniform said Brown County Sheriff. She appeared to be Native. She had a hand on her belt and looked in silence at Nio’s shoeless, shivering feet. Behind them, a column of flickering smoke rose into the night sky.