With the new puppy, of course I have to share this chapter from ZERO SIGNAL.
Del was right. Everywhere Nio might want to go was five minutes away. Raffe’s Day and Night, on the other hand, was a further ten outside town. The sky darkened completely on the trip. The last glow in the west faded and stars appeared. Other than the occasional distant car or porch lamp, the twin rows of blinking red lights on the deep core miner’s sails was all Nio could see.
The self-driving sedan was a custom Maybach, a luxury vehicle with plush leather and numerous screens. The on-board computer cheerily announced their ETA every few minutes. It was meant to be helpful. To Nio, it seemed like a countdown. With a final satisfied ding, the vehicle pulled into a crumbling asphalt lot behind a tall windowless bar at the corner of a state highway and a numbered county road. The neon sign on the pole in front was missing several letters.
“Out,” Dalrymple ordered.
Enough salt had been poured onto the nearly-empty lot that little remained of the snow. At the back was a dilapidated fence separating the lot from the cluster of unmarked camping trailers in the field beyond. A four-foot gap between fence poles connected the bar with the trailers. The path between was worn to dirt.
A bouncer in a suit coat and turtleneck came out to greet them. He looked like a parody of himself. He even had slicked-back hair. He opened the door for Nio and held out his hand like she was a celebrity stepping onto the red carpet. Truly walked quickly inside, like she was in a hurry to use the bathroom. More of her skin had changed color.
Nio’s clothes were wanded for electronics. The paddlelike device chirped over her boots.
“Take them off,” Dalrymple ordered.
She looked down at the slushy, wet gravel under her feet. “Seriously?”
“Nothing wired,” he told her.
“They’re not powered. It’s just stupid smart clothes. I’ve never connected them to anything.”
“They can store data. Take them off and throw them in the dumpster.” He nodded to the solid steel behemoth resting obliquely in its own wooden cage at the back of the bar. It smelled like a landfill.
On one hand, it was ridiculous. On the other, some kinds of “smart” clothes recorded enough information about their environment that they could be useful for law enforcement. Some sensed ambient temperature, for example, so as to know when to tighten or relax. Others recorded it and sent it to an app where it could be cross-referenced with metabolic data, captured by smart watch or fitness bracelet, as part of a complex health monitoring algorithm—for weight loss or in preparation for pregnancy. Such data, all of which was gathered and sold, could be used to establish a person’s activity or impeach testimony. There was no way to know which articles were potentially incriminating. The simplest rule was to ban them all.
She slipped off her unlaced boots and tossed them one at a time into the dumpster. They resounded off the metal wall. Her socks were soaked instantly. Tiny pebbles poked her feet. She felt so much smaller.
The solid steel double doors were opened and Nio was pushed into a large square storage room weakly lit by fluorescent lamp. The seafoam-colored walls gave everything a sickly look, including the eerie rack of plastic-wrapped sex dolls. Despite that most of their proportions stretched to the ridiculous, some of them looked completely real. Any of the twenty or so leaning figures could’ve been a real body.
The doorway at the end of the room led to a hall paneled in faux wood. The open floor of the club was at the far end. Music thumped. The doorway to the kitchen opened on the left. A large-bosomed waitress dressed like a sexy referee walked out carrying food in a plastic basket. Halfway between the kitchen and the storage room, a staircase broke off to the right, but it was short—not tall enough to reach a second floor. At the top, past the closed door, was a dim, low office overlooking the interior of the high-ceilinged strip club from a wall of tinted, floor-to-ceiling glass. On the right was a large desk facing two chairs. Truly waited in one. Her skin was now completely magenta and her hair was following suit. Both seemed to glow in the UV light from the main stage. Her tail curled under the chair. On the left was a leather sofa and a short hall to a private washroom. By the light under the door, it was occupied.
“Have a seat,” Dalrymple ordered.
His head nearly touched the low ceiling. He seemed perpetually angry, like a sea monster permanently banished to shore. He pushed Nio toward the couch.
The back wall of the office was covered in framed pictures, none more than eight or nine inches across. Most held pictures of smiling patrons, and they recounted the entire 90-year history of the establishment, which used to be called The Day Club, then The Day and Night, now Raffe’s Day and Night. Hanging on the wall behind the desk, occupying the place of honor amid a cluster of recent photos, including several group pictures of all the dancers from a particular year, was a child-sized, bright pink Hello Kitty shotgun. It seemed ridiculous in the dim, masculine room.
“Pheasant,” came a young girl’s voice. It had a deep country accent.
Nio turned. What at first appeared to be a little person with fake boobs and permed blonde hair stepped out of the washroom. She was barely four and a half feet tall. Almost immediately Nio could see she wasn’t a little person at all.
“The shotgun,” she explained in her girl’s voice. “It’s for hunting pheasant. It was a gift from an old client. In my day, we had exactly two industries: Sturgis and the pheasant run. A girl had to make her year working those. I’m Raffela. And you are?”
Nio was too stunned to answer. She had heard about neoteny dilation, but she had never seen it in humans. Neoteny, or the retention of juvenile features into adulthood, had been a fad with pets a decade or so before. Although it was much less popular lately, neotenous pets—PermaPuppies by their trade name—were still available. Breeders knew they could make a fortune selling animals that never stopped looking like puppies or kittens. Since the onset of adulthood is mediated by a sudden rise in hormones, like a biological switch, it was relatively easy to create a cocktail of suppressor proteins that inhibited the cascade. Since PermaPuppies never achieved sexual maturity, they never had to be spayed or neutered, and the company argued they would result in a decrease in the number of animals in shelters. Buying a PermaPuppy, then, was supposed to be morally superior to rescuing because the latter only saved one animal, whereas PermaPuppies, being too adorable to abandon, would solve the problem of unwanted pets. In fact, the reverse happened. Because they never matured—or in some breeds, matured incompletely—neotenous pets were extremely difficult to house train and would often have lapses. Many developed odd psychological habits, what would be called neuroses in humans, including obsessive chewing and outbursts of sheer rage that lasted until the animals collapsed from exhaustion. As a result, a high percentage of people abandoned the animals after a few years and shelters soon found themselves forced to cull.
Amid the furor that followed, there were odd news stories about people who either had or planned to attempt neoteny on themselves, but Nio had never heard of it being successful. Plenty of people dreamed of looking like a teen forever, but the reality was complicated. The process couldn’t stop aging, which meant the inevitable loss of elasticity in the skin and subsequent appearance of wrinkles didn’t occur to a normal adult face but to a juvenile-looking one. The result was patently creepy. Raffela didn’t look like a teenager, although she did have a young girl’s stature. She didn’t look like the kids with premature aging syndrome. She looked like a ghoul, the resurrected body of some dead girl covered heavily in makeup.
“She didn’t have any ID, boss,” Dalrymple said. “Just the phone.” He handed it to the short woman as she passed.
Raffela took it with her to her desk, where she stepped up a custom footstool to her chair.
“Let’s see what we have here.”
She unfolded Nio’s phone and placed it on a small electronic pedestal, like a wireless charger, and waited for the data scrape. The device used the phone’s number to identify its owner and to collect all available information from any number of online data brokers—not just name, address, and vitals, but credit scores, hobbies and interests, sexual orientation, political affiliation, recent movements, social media posts, as well as traits and habits derived from the rest.
But there was no number associated with Nio’s phone, which didn’t access commercial cell towers. It exclusively used Parfait, a voluntary, peer-to-peer anonymizing network.
The pedestal beeped and turned red.
“Interesting . . . It seems you’re a ghost.” She turned to Dalrymple. “Where’s the kid?”
“Get him up here.”
Dalrymple nodded and poked his head out the office door.
Raffela stood elevated behind her desk and shook her head at Truly, who fidgeted in the chair. Her tail twitched like a cat’s.
“Darlin’, we were so worried. Couple more days and we woulda had no choice but to call the police. What were you thinkin’?”
“I don’t know,” she said, nervous.
“You could get into a lot of trouble, holding someone against their will like that. Whatever you two were arguing about, boys or whatever, I guarantee it wasn’t worth it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Truly breathed.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come!” Raffe called.
A teenager in tight jeans entered sheepishly. He was skinny. He looked Southeast Asian. His finely coiffed hair curled over his head like a breaking wave.
“Have a seat,” Raffe said. She waited for him to comply. “Did you know about this?”
The kid looked to Truly like he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say.
“It’s not his fault,” she said.
“Quiet.” Raffe waited for the kid. “Well?”
“The sequence musta been bad.”
“Where’d you get it?”
He hesitated. “Off the mod boards.”
Raffela made tsk-tsk sounds. “Now Guillermo, why would you do something dangerous like that?”
“I scanned it,” he protested. “I don’t know what happened.”
“What did you use?” Nio asked from the couch.
“Kitkat,” the kid said coolly. “And Base10. And a bunch of custom shit. I was careful. I know what I’m doing.”
“Kitkat and Base10 are good,” she said.
Guillermo raised his hands. “See?”
“But?” Raffela asked her.
“But . . . off-the-shelf anti-virus apps only compare random snippets from a digital sequence with a library of known threats. And they reduce everything to an algorithmic fingerprint first so home computers can handle the complexity. It’s a good screen. It’ll catch most of your run-of-the-mill malnomes. But RNA isn’t like computer code.”
“I know that,” Guillermo objected. “Raffe, I—”
Raffe raised a small manicured hand and waited for Nio to finish.
“There are very difficult and ingenious ways of hiding malicious seqs. The coding strand can be read in both directions, for example. And there are snip sequences, junk bits removed after translation, that make it hard even to identify what the final coding sequence will be. To be fair to your artist”—she nodded to the kid—“the guy who posted that one is very clever.”
“Friend of yours?” Raffe asked.
Nio hesitated. “Not exactly.”
“Boss, just listen. I—”
Raffela shushed him. “I want you to go back to the ranch and take care of things. Do you understand?”
“But . . .” The kid looked to Truly, who was trembling and trying not to cry.
“We already had a fight in here last week,” Raffe explained. “The last thing we need right now is more trouble. Carl and Jim are at the house. You take care of the problem and they’ll make sure it goes away. Am I clear?”
The kid nodded.
“Good. Now go on.”
Everyone watched him go in silence.
Raffela turned to Truly. “You’re working later, are you not?”
“Then you’d better go get cleaned up. You look like a steer’s ass.”
Truly glanced once to Nio, terrified, and hurried out.
Raffe sighed deeply. She stepped back down to the floor and walked to the windows overlooking the club. The two small circular stages at the back, both with poles, were empty. In the corner, a human-sized holographic cylinder rose from a heavy base. It was unplugged and turned sideways. The 3D hologram craze had died almost as quickly as it had exploded. Now the once-expensive machine was junk.
The clubs’ main stage sent a runway into the center of the room. Twirling around the pole at the end was a pale topless woman with engorged breasts who appeared about eight months pregnant.
“Guillermo’s a good boy,” Raffela explained. “His mom is a doctor in town. Came over from the Philippines. Worked real hard. Her son is smart as a whip, like her. Graduated high school early. But he’s all she has and she spoiled him something awful. If he goes off to college or gets a real job, they’ll expect him to work. He’s never had to work. Whereas with me, he gets to be the envy of every teenage boy in the state. But he doesn’t have the stomach to keep with our line. One day he’ll realize that.
“Truly, on the other hand, is a pistol. She’s my Gogo. Real popular last season—after the movie came out. And she looks the part. I have to hand it to her, she went all-in. I admire that kind of commitment. That’s what it takes to make it in this business. Unfortunately, she’s hasn’t been at it a year. She hasn’t learned how fickle the clients can be. The novelty of that character will fade, but it takes the CRISPR, what, three years to completely wear off? I don’t pay for reversals. She’ll have to get the horns taken out herself. Her forehead may never look completely right. But who knows? They’re just soft plastic. Maybe she’ll get lucky.
“Roxie, on the other hand”—Raffela pointed to the stage—“is one of the smart ones. There’s a small but perpetual market for a pregnant dancer. Not everyone likes that kind of thing, but the fellas that do . . .” Raffe shook her head. “Rox realized that after she had her last kid. Made more money then when she had her figure. Guillermo’s really quite clever. He got online and figured out how to use a surgical printer to fit her with a plastic fetus in a saline sac. It even has a fake umbilical cord. As part of her act, she holds a light against the side of her belly so her clients can see the ‘baby’ inside.”
“What happens when they realize she never gives birth?”
“I think maybe you underestimate the power of fantasy. You met Beckham earlier. Stunning girl. She was gonna be my three-breasted angel. Came up from a club in Florida and was all-too happy to change her appearance. My guess, she’s hiding from an ex-boyfriend. Some of my girls don’t have the best taste in men. Not that I blame them. It’s getting harder and harder to tempt the little perverts out of their caves. They’re catered to online—every possible fetish. Our only edge is to offer them something they can’t get digitally. Something they can actually touch. Still, if it wasn’t for the mining platform, I wouldn’t have a business. Men come up from Texas and California for seasonal work and get tired of being stuck in the barracks. I know it isn’t much”—she looked around the room lovingly—“but without this little place, a lot of my girls would get pushed into a seedier trade, if you know what I mean.”
“Isn’t that what the trailers are for?”
Raffe held up her small hands. “Honey, what happens in the private trailers is nunna my business. I merely rent ’em to consenting adults.” She gave Nio the once-over. “So now you know all about me. What brings someone like you all the way out here?”
“No reason. Stopped here heading west.”
“What’s your interest in Beckham Carter?”
“I don’t have one. The girls asked for my help. Whatever the kid injected her with is calcifying her soft tissues.”
Raffe turned and walked around her desk in thought. “And the cysts?”
“Dunno. But whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen in the next few hours.”
“Well, all I can say is that I’m so glad you brought her back to us. I hope you’ll let me give you a small reward.” She opened a side drawer. “How does five thousand sound?”
Nio sat back and the leather couch creaked. “You’re gonna pay me five grand to forget I came?”
“No, I’m gonna give you a reward for helping bring one of my girls back.” Raffe set the crisp stack of bills on the desk. “Just let Mr. Dalrymple know, and he’ll take you wherever you’d like to go.”
“That’s very generous.” Nio stood and walked toward the money. “Thought I’d see the town—since I’m here.”
Raffela covered the cash with a hand. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
“Oh? And why’s that?”
“Why, because it’s moving day, of course. Everything will be closed, silly. But we can take you up to Fargo. Lots to see up there.”
“Is that right?” Nio and Raffe looked each other in the eye. “And what’s gonna happen to the girl?”
“Which one?” Raffe asked with a vapid smile.
“I promise we will do everything earthly possible to help that poor girl. I really can’t thank you enough for your concern.”
Nio glanced to the money, then to Dalrymple, who stood silently with his hands crossed in front of him. She turned and walked to the windows.
“Only six guys out there,” she said.
“Well, it is a Thursday, you know.”
Nio did the math in her head. Even if they had a hundred times that on Friday and Saturday, at 50% profit, it would still take Raffela six decades to afford the Maybach.
“Cash business,” Nio said. “Not many left.”
Who’s to say how many men showed up that day? Who’s to say whether they dropped a thousand in bills or ten times that much? Big cities had vice squads and forensic accountants, but out there . . .
“How many cops does the county have?” Nio asked.
“What does that matter?”
“Five in the city and 12 with the county sheriff.”
“You know them all by name? Donate to the fraternal order? Renew your liquor license promptly every year?”
“I’m not sure I like what you’re implying.”
“Modding is illegal in South Dakota, isn’t it?”
“It’s illegal to purchase and it’s illegal to provide, but it’s not illegal to possess, as long as you got it elsewhere. Can’t exactly turn our fellow citizens away at the border, can we?”
“In other words, if it came out that you were providing illegal mods, it would give law enforcement a reason to take a hard look at this place.”
Whatever else she was running—prostitution, at least—Raffela was also laundering money. If she got in trouble with the police, her silent partners might start to wonder what she would say to avoid a felony charge. That meant the business with Beckham had to quietly disappear. Raffe had even told Nio how. Beckham was from Florida. Who’s to say she hadn’t returned suddenly? Turnover was high in a job like that. It seemed well known Beckham was running from a violent ex. If she disappeared, he would likely be the first suspect, especially if there was any evidence she had made it back to Florida—say, if her credit card was used at a gas station there.
“You’ll like Florida,” Nio told Dalrymple. “Very pleasant this time of year.”
Another drawer opened. Raffe set a pearl-handled .22 pistol on the desk.
“This doesn’t need to be any more difficult than it already is,” Raffe said softly. “Those two have already made me one helluva mess. Truly is impulsive but she knows how to take care of herself. Guillermo is another story. He’s young, and that makes him cheap and pliable—traits I admire in an employee. But it also means he sometimes thinks with the wrong head, especially around girls that know how to turn it. His momma is my ace. She’ll make sure his name is never attached to anything criminal, which means I don’t have to worry about him either.
“You, on the other hand, are a conundrum. No driver’s license. No credit card. No public data file.” She picked up Nio’s phone. “I see from the little icon here that you’re running Parfait. Maybe you didn’t think us country bumpkins knew what a layered encrypted communications network was. It’s interestin’, though, for what it tells me. This little icon tells me you thought it’d work out here. But since it doesn’t—probably not since Sioux City, I’d guess—that tells me there’s not a soul on God’s green earth that knows where you are right now. Ain’t that right?”
Dalrymple stepped forward and put a hand on Nio’s shoulder.
“Get rid of her. Make sure there’s nothing left.”
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cover image by Mack Sztaba.