The Future is Strange.

The bus pulled onto the shoulder to report the bleeder on the side of the highway. A car had clipped the man’s leg, which bent awkwardly to one side. His hands had frozen into fists and his feet were limp, and they wobbled over the asphalt as he dragged himself forward on his elbows, one after the other, as if fleeing for his life in slow motion. He felt neither cold nor pain, and his frosted eyes remained fixed on some distant salvation even as the gargantuan bus rolled to a stop behind him.

Nio and several of her fellow passengers leaned into the aisle to peer out the high windshield. In the distance, the overcast sky was beginning to retreat, leaving waves of cotton-ball clouds.

“I dunno why we gotta wait for this,” a white-bearded passenger announced from the back.

“It’s the law,” someone whispered.

The bus conductor, who tended the self-driving vehicle from a console, spoke softly into his radio as a pair of teenagers, too young to remember the outbreak, snapped pictures of the awkward, broken man now illuminated in the alternating flashes of the bus’s hazard lights. The tires of a passing car sprayed icy slush across the shoulder, and it struck the undercarriage in heavy clumps and doused the disheveled bleeder, who simply lurched forward again, pulling his legs limply along.

“That poor man,” a woman near the front told her companion. The bus had become so quiet from the awful spectacle that everyone heard it.

“He shoulda lined up like everyone else,” the bearded man declared. He removed his red cap and waved it like a banner. “Let’s get goin’ already.”

There was a click of static as the conductor announced over the speakers that they would be waiting approximately ten minutes for the highway patrol to arrive. The bearded man threw up his arms in frustration. Nio forced herself not to turn and look at him and instead unfolded her translucent phone, but being so far from a town, the custom device had no secure connection—nothing but commercial networks—and the last message she’d received was still Semmi’s.

I still think this is a very bad idea.

A second passing car honked at the bus’s partial blockage of the highway, and the noise startled the baby in the seat across from Nio, one aisle ahead. He began to cry, softly at first, but increasingly insistent. The infant’s mother rocked her child gently and tried to quiet him, but he was hungry or cold or had simply had enough of the bus and was letting the whole world know. Several passengers shuffled in annoyance.

“Shhh . . .” The young mother’s darkly complected face bore equal measures of patience and fear as she whispered to her child in Spanish.

Nio leaned forward across the aisle with one hand extended. “He’s beautiful. May I?”

The young woman nodded, happy at first to have an ally. She froze awkwardly a moment later when Nio pressed her hand to the child’s forehead, as if feeling for a fever, instead of caressing it tenderly. Almost instantly, the wailing babe stuttered. After another moment, his eyes brightened and he began sucking an invisible pacifier. Nio heard quiet exhales of relief. As she leaned back into her seat, more than one person turned from the front to peer at her through the gaps. She certainly stood out, with stubbly hair and heavy loops in her ears.

The colored lights of a police cruiser flashed across the inside of the roof, and Nio grabbed the collar of her puffy winter coat and turned it up nose-high. The patrol car parked at an angle and a trooper exited and waved the bus on.

“Finally . . .” the grisly man said.

The bus tires carved valleys in the slush as the big vehicle pulled onto the highway and began accelerating smoothly. Several passengers clapped. Nio watched from the half-frosted window as the broken man on the shoulder, still lurching forward, receded from view. In his stead was the bleak landscape of the North American high plains. Tufts of brown grass poked through a fondant of white. Low hills were cut into even barbed-wire squares. Nio had traveled nearly 400 miles since leaving her home that morning. Somewhere ahead, a young woman was dying, perhaps inexorably—the latest victim of a killer neither of them had met. Just then, it seemed he was going to get away with it. Again.

Nio took out the unopened letter from her coat pocket and stared.

Pasture and fields gradually gave way to repair shops and fast food chains, but it wasn’t until the bus passed a boarded Dollar-Savr that anyone noticed the damage. It looked like a tornado had hopped across the town on a pogo stick. A leafless tree left a three-meter hole in the earth after being uprooted and dropped onto a snow-topped house. A plump Buddha had fallen from its perch over a Chinese buffet and now golden-mooned passersby from the crumpled roof of a parked car. Ice-covered vehicles were scattered about the ditches and fields like a giant child’s abandoned toys.

The bus was passing a Christian school when a teenage girl half-screamed in surprise and pointed the other direction.

“What the hell . . .” The bearded man got up from his seat and leaned over Nio to look out her window. He smelled like grease.

Some distance away, an enormous donut hung in the sky. The words Wonder and Land, written in sprinkles, curved around the top and bottom of the colorful confection. It seemed likely that somewhere nearby, a donut shop was missing its sign.

“How’s it staying up there?” a woman asked.

The fiberglass donut hung motionless 50 feet in the air. Everyone on the bus immediately raised their phones or tapped their lenses, triggering tags to appear on their screens or in their field of vision. Nio glanced around. No two devices seemed to give the same cause or description. Everyone on the bus was seeing the same thing, and yet none of them were.

The bus slowed and turned left, and the donut disappeared behind a derelict depot.

“Hey, this is the wrong way,” someone called from the back.

As the bus finished its slow turn, Nio noticed the policeman on the road waving vehicles to the side with an orange baton. His patrol car blocked the way, along with a sign announcing a detour.

The bus was directed to a gravel lot across from a 24-hour diner, where its hybrid engine rumbled gently as the conductor announced a curfew. He warned that only residents were being allowed into town and anyone getting off for more than a bathroom break should be prepared to show their driver’s license or other form of identification. The bus would be stopping for thirty minutes, he explained, before continuing to Jamestown, and anyone not scheduled to remain who wanted to stay on board should speak with him.

Nio lifted the strap of her rolled bag over her head and stepped down to a sidewalk pockmarked in frozen footprints, like the fossil of a prehistoric riverbed. Her breath billowed over her puffy coat’s high collar, and she huddled into it for warmth. It was the fourth day of record-setting April cold. It was supposed to last another four. From what she could see, it appeared the town had prepared for an inland hurricane. Storefront windows were taped in large Xs. The sidewalk display in front of a nail salon had been chipped from the ice and brought inside, where it barricaded the door. A handwritten note on the wall of a 100-year-old pharmacy announced that it had closed early for Moving Day. A similar announcement was posted on the door of the diner, next to the sign that declared it was for “Patriots Only.”

Nio checked her phone again as the old man in the red cap and overalls hurried past her on his way to the bathroom. The last message had simply said Please. She scrolled through the public thread to confirm the address. She tapped it, which brought up her map application, but it could only display the blue track of the 8-hour, 400-mile bus ride. The signal icon at the top of the screen was gray—there was no encrypted coverage in the town. Her state-of-the-art untraceable phone still had no service.

“Shit . . .” Her breath erupted in a cloud, and she shivered once uncontrollably. It was frigid. She hadn’t expected to be out in cold weather.

Another police car blocked the intersection near the diner. Its electric engine was silent but its heater ran continuously as the pair of officers inside kept watch on the crowd. Nio expected them to roll down a window as she approached, but they didn’t, and she knocked on the glass.

A male officer lowered the window four inches. “Town’s not safe,” he declared before she could ask a question.

“But this is very important.” She was practically dancing to keep her legs warm. “Someone I know is—is sick.”

“Sick?”

“She asked me to come. To help.”

“Did she call the city?”

“I don’t know,” Nio said. The cloud of her breath all but obscured the officer, whom she could barely see.

“You can have her call 911 and wait here. But my advice would be to get back on that bus. Bus company’s agreed to take folks on to the next stop.”

He rolled the window up.

Nio waited in front of her own reflection, but after a moment, it was clear the conversation was over. She could probably sneak past the barrier, she thought, but she didn’t know where she was going, nor how far she’d have to walk in the snow. She stepped into the diner in the hopes of getting directions—and warming herself—but was stopped by the hostess, who politely pointed Nio to the sign on the door. Turning as if she hadn’t seen it, she caught the officers’ watching her from the car. With their eyes squarely on her, she complied.

A tall, dark-skinned man sitting in the booth near the window paid for his coffee by waving his hand over an electronic token and walked out the front.

“You need a ride?” he called.

Nio turned, surprised.

“I heard you talking to the hostess,” he explained. He pointed toward the parking lot in back. “I’m heading into town if you want.”

“Why would you help me?”

“Yeah.” He looked down. “I guess that’s what it’s come to. Your choice,” he said and started walking again.

Nio closed her eyes and felt his bioelectrics. The hum 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.

“Variable Stack,” she breathed. By Vetrans of the Meem Wars.

“Excuse me?” he asked.

“Nice to meet you. Del.”

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

“Sharp.”

Nio guessed he was in his 30s. He was fit and had narrow eyes that were constantly smiling, even when his mouth wasn’t.

He unlocked a battered early 2000s pickup and leaned over to manually open the passenger’s side door, which squeaked. Except for a folded letter on the seat, the inside of the vintage car was immaculate. Del picked up the envelope and moved it to the dash.

“So,” he said as she shut the door, “where to?”

“The Cedars. You know it?”

“The apartments?” The name seemed to catch his attention. “You sure you wanna go there?”

“Something wrong with it?”

He paused. “It’s kind of a dump.”

“I’ll risk it.”

He shrugged. “Suit yourself. Just promise me you’re not lookin’ to score.”

The engine started with a rumble and Del backed into the alley. The interior of the truck smelled vaguely of earth and manure. Nio rolled her bare fingers in front of the vent, and they tingled in the coming heat.

“Keep your head down,” he said as they turned onto the main road.

Del waved as they passed the police cruiser. The traffic light at the next corner turned yellow and he rolled through it.

“Clear.”

Nio sat up and noticed a small boutique bakery with an NRA seal on the door. A pair of young women were chatting at a table near the front. A sign underneath them in the window said RED ONLY.

Del saw her looking. “Don’t worry. The Starbucks goes the other way, if you’re so inclined.”

“Is it far?” she asked.

“Far?” He laughed once. “In this town, you’re five minutes from everywhere. You got a name?”

“Nio.”

“Nye-oh,” he repeated. “Interesting.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Is it rude to ask what nationality that is?”

“I dunno,” she said. “You guys have a lot of rules.”

Us guys? Are you not from here?” Del studied her appearance. The high collar. The shaved head. The metal loops. The wide, sad eyes with lingering bags underneath. “What’s with the jacket?”

Nio looked down at it. The exterior of her knee-length puffy coat was a plain gunmetal gray, but the interior, visible only at the cuffs and inside the high collar, was neon orange.

“Out here,” he explained, “we wear the hunter’s orange on the outside.” He nodded to a round-bellied man shoveling his driveway in a heavy camo-and-orange hunting coat.

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

“What brings you to town?”

“Visiting a friend,” Nio lied.

“He can’t pick you up?”

“She’s sick. That’s why I came.”

“Nothing bad, I hope.”

They rolled through another intersection, and Nio saw boarded houses and a third roadblock and a fishing boat on top of a liquor store. A man on the roof had a hand on his head like he was trying to figure out how to get it down.

“What the heck happened here?”

Del pointed the opposite way. Nio turned and wondered how she could’ve missed it. Far away, on a bluff near the horizon, a banded deep core mining platform straddled a hill like a four-legged god. Its massive pillars and broad, sail-like protrusions caught the red of the setting sun.

And then it was gone. The truck exited the intersection and the platform disappeared behind more houses, half of which were empty. Nio could only catch glimpses of it between the trees and electrical wires.

“Deep crust miner,” he said. “Pulls up rare metals. Stuff with funny names. Bitterbase or something.”

“Bitterbase?” She almost laughed. “You mean Ytterbium? Or Ferropericlase?”

He studied her again. “You don’t look like a mining engineer.”

“What do they look like?”

“More facial hair, for one. You work up there?” he asked skeptically.

“Nope. Never seen one before.”

Unlike oil platforms, which rose no more than a couple hundred feet in the air, the deep core miner was nearly a skyscraper. But since it had similar proportions to its oceangoing cousins, 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 a shell-shaped center mass. Red lights spaced evenly along the ridge of the sails blinked in alternating intervals. Nio could just make out the white of a massive corporate logo.

“So, you just happen to know about funny metals?” Del asked.

“I know about lots of things.”

“Here for the big show?”

“Show?”

“Moving day.” He nodded again toward the intermittently visible platform.

“They move that thing? How?”

“Same way we got the amazing floating donut.” He reached for the letter on the dash and handed it to her. “We all get one.”

The embossed seal of the State of South Dakota sat proudly at the top. Nio unfolded the paper and read aloud.

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-five percent. Water and power services 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. Persons wishing to apply for relocation—

She stopped and folded the paper again. That at least answered the question of why the latest victim was way out in the middle of nowhere. It would be easy to hide in all that chaos.

“Wait.” She scowled. “Anti-grav emitters are outlawed.” It was half-statement, half-question.

“They are.” Del nodded. “But international mining conglomerates get special exemptions.” He squinted at her skeptically. “Sure you’re not here for the move? Protest, maybe?”

She smiled. “You think I’m a protester?”

“We get them, along with the odd tourist or two. Supposedly you can see the legs light up. Gotta stay up late, though.” He leaned forward to look up at the darkening sky. Light was fading. “When they planned it, it wasn’t supposed to be this cold.”

“Sounds riveting. But I’ll have to pass.”

“Then how do you know what ferroperiscope is, or whatever?”

She smirked at his intentional mispronunciation. “Interested in geochemistry or just making conversation?”

“Neither. I guess I just wanna know what’s so important two people had to die.”

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

“Couple arcs cut through town the other night. You shoulda been here. Can’t even be sure of the ground under our feet anymore. Now they can turn that off, too.”

He noticed Nio’s scalp then but quickly pointed north in a clear effort to avoid staring at the six oval scars just visible under the flat stubble of her hair.

“There’s three,” he explained as Nio ran a hand across her head involuntarily. “One across the border in North Dakota, one out west in the badlands, and that one, about fifty miles out. Ever since they started drilling, there’ve been tremors, which is apparently what triggered the emitter ‘anomaly.’ Or that’s the story. Two dead, though, so they’re moving it west while they figure out what to do.”

Nio watched the town pass. It seemed so ordinary. “That’s terrible.”

“So?” Del asked, waiting.

“So, what?”

“What is it?”

“You mean ferropericlase? It’s a kind of iron oxide.”

Rust?

Nio nodded. “Same as on your truck.”

“I’ll have you know this is a Chevy and it’s a classic.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So, wait, people died so they could mine rust?”

“Not exactly. Iron oxide crystallizes at very high temperatures and pressures, like hundreds of thousands of atmospheres.”

“Sounds like a lot.”

“The human body can handle maybe five. Deep in the earth’s crust though, rust forms crystals, sort of like table salt, which conduct electricity in one orientation only. Otherwise, it’s actually a good insulator. That’s really important in certain applications of solid state physics.”

“Such as?”

“Well, if you bind ytterbium ions to an electrosensitive enzyme that—”

“An enzyme? Like something organic?”

“Yeah. Like how hemoglobin binds iron. The enzyme changes configuration to either inhibit or encourage quantum tunneling. That creates a quantum logic gate. If you stack a bunch of biomechanical wafers like that, you get a 3D quantum matrix similar to what they use for the Shri-class intelligences.”

“I thought the big treaty said we’re not making any more of those.”

“Well, no one really knows what the Chinese are doing, but whatever it is, I doubt it’s with rare earths from North America.”

“Then what’s the big deal?”

“Research. Ostensibly, everyone’s cooperating to avoid another AI arms race, but they still want to be the first to design the next class. That’s all Shri Brahma does actually: contemplate consciousness on behalf of various research groups.”

After a moment of silence, she turned to see the smirk on his face.

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

“Ha. Would I be taking the bus? But what about you, cowboy?” she asked quickly. “Been here your whole life?”

“Naw. Moved here in junior high. Had a chance at double-A ball.”

It was his turn to notice the look on her face. “You don’t know what that is,” he said.

She shook her head.

“Wow.” Del stopped at a red light. He leaned back to examine her again in mock seriousness. “You really aren’t from here. Who doesn’t know about football?”

She shrugged.

“Come on. You gotta tell me.”

“I grew up in Taiwan,” she said after a heavy sigh.

Taiwan?” He paused as if to contemplate a missing punchline. “Can I say you don’t look even a little Chinese?”

“Because I’m not.”

“And 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.”

The light changed, and Del 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 hold on . . . Were you hitting on me?”

He laughed once. “That bad, huh?”

“No, it’s just . . .”

It was all wrong. He wasn’t modulating romantically, which meant that whatever he was after, it wasn’t a date. Nio had been warned not to trust anybody. But she hadn’t really taken it seriously. She assumed a town like that wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous as anything she was used to.

Del waited. “It’s just I ain’t got no game. That it?”

“No. I didn’t say that.”

Silence.

“Then what?”

“You were right.” She pointed ahead. “Looks like we’re five minutes from everywhere. You can let me out here.”

Del slowed and pulled to a stop in front of three blocks of aging, cheaply built ’20s apartments. A pile of planks and downed branches in the corner of the parking lot was topped in mounds of snow. Hanging inside a second-floor window, back-lit so it was clearly visible even at night, was the red, green, and yellow Kekistani flag.

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

“Worried about me?” Nio opened the door and stepped down carefully. Her heavy unlaced boots nearly disappeared in the slush.

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

“You’re not,” she insisted.

“So, you’re psychic, too, is that it?”

She waited for an explanation, but Del only shrugged.

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

He exhaled slowly and 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. “And now?”

He glanced to the flag. “Nothing good happens here. I mean it.”

“I believe you. See ya around, cowboy.”

She shut the door. But Del didn’t pull away immediately—not until the man buying drugs under the stairs of the adjacent building completed his transaction. He glanced once at Nio’s bare head as he left. Then he glanced at the man in the truck keeping an eye on her.

A cracked sign directed her to the top of a concrete staircase, where her destination, apartment 2A, sat facing the side street. Nio turned a corner and lifted her hand to knock. She stopped as soon as she saw the door.

It was open. Just a crack.

Del’s engine rumbled, and Nio turned her head just in time to see his taillights disappear around a corner in the dark. She shut her eyes. If she concentrated, she could just make out a single pulsing spiral emanating from inside the unit. Female, if she had to guess. Whoever she was, she was throwing off waves of nervous energy.

There Should Be Unicorns by The Flaming Lips.

Nio knocked weakly. “Hello?”

“Who’s there?” a young woman called from another room. It was followed by frantic scrambling and what sounded like the handling of a firearm.

“We spoke earlier. Online. You asked for my help.”

“How did you get in?”

“The door was open.”

There was a pause, and Nio slowly pushed the door. It creaked.

“I have a gun! Just . . . just go away.”

“I came a long way,” Nio urged.

After spiking, the woman’s cycles were gradually decreasing, and Nio took a cautious step in.

“I just wanna help.”

Nothing.

Please.” Nio recited the word. “That’s what you said. Please.”

A striking young woman with vivid amethyst hair appeared in the doorway to the bedroom. 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 she had short, blunted devil horns in her forehead. In her hands, she clutched a .357 revolver.

“Why would anyone come all the way out here just to help?”

She said it like a skeptical teenager. Nio guessed she wasn’t older than 20. She opened her arms instinctively to show she was unarmed.

“It’s kind of a long story. But I just want to help. I promise.”

The devil woman shifted nervously, and a blue tail appeared from behind her legs.

“Impressive,” Nio said. “Graft?”

She nodded once.

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-changing 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, which also meant very expensive. She was certainly showing it off, even in the cold, with tight cutoff jeans, heeled knee-high boots, and a tank top that wasn’t much larger than a bikini. Her arms were stuffed into a winter coat but she kept it off her shoulders, like she was perpetually about to disrobe.

“What happened to your head?” she asked Nio. “Did you have cancer or something?”

A bald man with translucent skin appeared in the doorway and stopped, surprised. Nio could see the orbs of his eyes through his eyelids, the shadow of his nasal septum through his nose, the outline of his teeth through his lips. His facial arteries throbbed like wriggling worms as they branched asymmetrically across the sides of his face. Same for the veins in his scalp. The rest of him was covered in black clothing, like a mortician.

“Squid protein,” Nio noted.

“Yeah,” he said like he was tired of people mentioning it. He glanced between the women like he wasn’t sure what to do. There was a bag of weed in his hands, and he stuffed it into his jacket.

“You left the door open!” the devil-woman snapped.

“I just went around the corner.”

She stormed over and slammed it shut. There were five locks on the inside. She turned them all.

“This is Jay,” she said finally, motioning to the translucent mortician. “I’m Truly.”

“Nio.”

“Nye-oh,” the guy repeated, in that way everyone did.

“She’s here to help.” Truly said. She motioned to the bedroom. “Becks is in here.”

Colorful Christmas lights had been tacked across the otherwise empty walls, and they gave the bedroom a neon glow. Judging from the empty fixture in the ceiling, it was the only source of light. A large purse sat atop a small duffel in the corner, and Truly tossed the heavy revolver on top. A lone winter coat hung in the closet. The only furniture was a mattress on the floor next to a space heater with throbbing coils. A large-breasted woman in jeans laid on her bare chest, motionless. Her hands hung over the sides of the bed like she’d been strangled. A cluster of empty water bottles and used tissues were scattered to one side. On the other, three rows of crystals had been laid neatly in a spoke pattern. A large quartz spire sat vertically at the focus of the arc.

“Are they helping?” Nio asked.

The woman on the bed looked like a sculpture of a corpse. Except for the upper right side of her back, the whole of her skin was unnaturally white and pocked with dark veins, giving it an uncanny resemblance to marble statuary. But there was some kind of large lesion over her shoulder blade. The flesh was red and swollen and had erupted in a dome of large, opaque cysts, like fish eyes, the largest of which was two inches across.

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

“What’s that?” Jay asked.

“Army surplus medic’s kit,” she explained. “Picked it up on the way.”

She studied the young woman’s face, which was stunningly beautiful. She seemed catatonic. Her pale, blue-white eyes were open but took no notice of the stranger examining her.

“Are her eyes part of the mod?”

“Yes,” Truly answered.

“Same for the alabaster skin?”

“What’s that?”

“Skin that looks like porcelain.”

Truly 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 Truly’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 of 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.

“Here.” Nio held up a pair of surgical masks. “Put these on.”

“Why?” Truly snapped. “What’s wrong?”

“Just a precaution. Looks like you guys might’ve downloaded a virus. Who was the artist?”

“Just this guy we know.”

Below her left shoulder, a two-inch fleshy stub erupted from a round wrinkle over her scapula. It dangled downy feathers like autumn leaves preparing to fall. It was surrounded by a pentagram of handwritten hexadecimals.

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?” Jay asked meekly.

“Just saline. I wanna see if there’s a reaction. This might hurt a little,” she told the girl.

When she didn’t respond, Nio inserted the needle to one side of the lesion. The girl drew breath sharply but didn’t flinch. Nio wondered how much she could feel. Her skin was stiff and dense. Nio had to squeeze the plunger hard to inject even a small amount of saline. When nothing happened, she removed the needle and felt the girl’s back with her fingers. It was stiff and rubbery, like cartilage.

“It’s calcifying her.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means she’s not 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?” Truly asked. “What’s wrong?”

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

Truly covered her mouth with both hands. “You—you mean she’s awake!

Nio nodded. “How long has she been like this?”

“Since last night.”

“Do you have any lotion?”

“In my purse,” she said excitedly. “I need to keep my skin moist or—”

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

“We got her some oxy,” Jay explained as Truly walked to the 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 tiny bottle of Cetaphil in her hand. She 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.

“We’re gonna need a lot more than that,” Nio suggested.

“I think there’s some in her car,” Jay said in place of his friend. Nio could see the muscles of his lips contort when he spoke. The pulsing arteries of his face revealed his heart was beating fast. “I’ll get it.”

Nio could tell he wanted an excuse to leave. She heard the jingle of keys followed by the sound of the door opening and closing. That time, he locked all five locks.

“What about drugs?”

“Black dust,” Truly said. “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,” she told the girl on the bed. “You may feel a little sleepy in a moment, but I need you to try and stay awake, okay?”

The girl blinked as if in slow motion, and Nio tried not to grimace on her behalf. She inserted the needle in several places around the cyst, injecting a little each time. Past the hard skin, the girl’s flesh felt normally soft, which suggested the altered keratin was only being expressed in her dermis and the rest of her organs might be working fine.

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

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

“Beckham,” Truly breathed.

“That’s pretty.”

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

Dancers, Nio thought. Hardly anyone else used cash.

“We can talk about that later. Let’s get the lotion on her and get her to a hospital.”

Truly didn’t move. “We can’t go to the hospital.”

“We can’t leave her like this.”

“You said you could fix her!”

“I said I could help. She needs a hospital. They have machines that can sequence an anti-retro-viral.”

Nio poked Beckham’s hard skin several times with a 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 8-inch metal tip onto the injector.

“What are you doing?”

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

There was a loud blow on the door, powerful enough to break several of the locks, and Truly jumped back. Nio heard a chain fall loose and dangle over the wood. A second blow immediately followed the first. Nio stood as Truly ran for the duffel.

The third blow ripped the hinges from the wall.


Intro to The Zero Signal, a Science Crimes Division Mystery, available May 2021!