By James E. Lalonde
No art on the walls. Patty Pond was gliding down a sterile white service corridor. A bright float in a solitary Krishna parade. Red hemp vest. Billowing genie pants. Blond hair. Shaved sidewalls. Puffed up on top. A single lonesome peacock feather fluttering off to one side.
The face on her badge was an orange traffic light blinking on and off. Relentless black eyeballs bulged overhead. Watching the show.
She stopped. Cracked her neck, left, right. The way a fighter does, about to step into the ring. Took a deep breath, in, out. She blew her feather into place.
“Ok, let’s do this,” she said.
The Seal watched her approach, a no-chit-chat colossus guarding the back door to the heart of the Infinity Brain Institute. The sanctum sanctorum. She stood before the man, like a suspect at some airport security station. Nothing needed to be said. She knew the drill.
Everything into the tray.
The man’s big hands danced over the tubes in the pockets of her massage kit and the old music player there. His nails were clipped tight. His finger, bearing a silver and black ring, an eagle swooping down upon an anchor, a rifle and a trident in its talons. His Glock clinging to his belt holster on his back, peeking at her like a black monkey. Patty stepped into the body scanner.
She felt the Seal admiring the muscular ghost beneath her clothes—scanning her lean frame and small breasts, long legs and strong arms—her asymmetrical face with a broken nose that never set right. A face some said was pretty.
"The hacksaw blade is in my sandal," Patty said.
The Seal stared down at her through his aviators. A flicker of light danced across the dark web glass. Patty saw the black nanotat protruding behind his ear. Listening. He smiled. Practically a conversation. He handed Patty her massage gear. Kept the rest. Patty’s badge turned green at his nod and the doors opened sesame.
Beyond the double gurney doors, she glided up to Nurse Wackenhut’s station. The final outpost. Checkpoint Charlie, Dr. Khursi had called it. Whatever. It was a crossing over into another world. On the other side, Wackenhut was a Nordic Valkyrie, wearing a nurses’ cap pinned to her head like an insect impaled upon a collector’s tray. Penny, Wackenhut’s redheaded assistant, looked up from a tablet, her translucent skin infused with the blunt Crayola-colors of the screen. She was a lipstick girl, prim and proper, with an obvious crush on Patty.
“Morning Moneypenny,” Patty said—and gave her the usual Bond wink.
Margaret blushed and suppressed a smile. Wackenhut stood nostrils flaring, frozen in place, a corona of hospital light around her head, guarding the last passage to The Room. The nurse’s face scowled from her badge. The badges had their own eyes and ears. They could open and close doors and take calls. See things their masters could not, things that weren’t quite there. Or were concealed. It was like having two Wackenhuts watching you. And Patty figured that was exactly what Wackenhut was there to do.
“Looking good,” said Patty, shouting into Wackenhut’s badge. "You do something with your hair?”
“Scrub before you put the gloves on this time,” said Wackenhut. “And lights on."
Patty was already gliding past.
“If I had my way…” Wackenhut fired the words at Patty’s back.
Patty was bullet proof. The dude who’d hired Patty, Dr. Khursi, and Nurse Wackenhut seemed to be in a competition to see who despised the other most. Godzilla meets King Kong. And the look on Wackenhut’s face when Khursi had instructed Wackenhut that Patty was not to be disturbed during these ‘therapies?’ Priceless.
Patty moved faster now, down the short hall to the prep room. The doors opened silently as though there were invisible attendants waiting for her.
She stepped in and held her breath. The same feeling every day. She whistled through her teeth. That he was real. The crazy thrill he gave her.
Nine floated in his vibrating harness above an articulated bed that looked like some kind of surgical altar. White lights kept a relentless watch on him. He was on display.
Patty hastily put on the loose blues. With her back to the camera, she made a show of not washing and drying her hands. She snapped on the purple gloves. The gloves annoyed her. Like massaging through a condom. Khursi’s rule. No skin in the game. She raised her arms and twirled for Wackenhut.
"Open the pod bay door, Hal," she said.
Patty stepped through the door and immediately turned off the main bank of spotlights. The room was suddenly a shadow play. The blue-green optical rain of the holocam pierced the gloom, capturing her every move as she went to him. There were no others around. She was sure, though. They were there. Whoever they were. This was no one-man show.
The air was sterile and light as a breath. Scentless and body temperature. Nine’s life signs glowed in the biometrics dancing on the floating displays attending him. An artificial placenta tethered him to the physical room. There was the human sound of respiration and of the soft mechanical rhythms of the machine kneading his flesh. And of course, there was the twinkling crown of fiber optics about his artificial cranium.
She swiped the remote to lower Nine’s body onto the sheet over the Thermoform. She peeled back the skin-tech web straps, but left the diaper and its catheters. Then she unrolled her massage kit on the stainless steel sidebar and laid out the disposable blue towels.
“So how’s it hangin’ Nine?” Patty said.
There was no reply from the impassive figure.
“Oh, me? I’m terrific,” she said. “Thanks for asking.”
He was maybe her age. Hard to tell. Striking though, beneath it all. Like one of those ancient statues. More perfect because it is broken. Your imagination restores the nose, replaces the missing arm and knows that they are there; sees, the javelin in the invisible cocked hand.
Sure first glance, you’d think fuck, a cyborg, out of some science fiction movie. Not that she had ever personally met a real cyborg. Then you saw his body, a soldier’s torn flesh stitched together like some Frankenstein.
But hey? These days, there were plenty of people out there who looked as bizarre as Nine. Her old gang, for example. The Roller Babes derby team. People called them freaks. Pushing the rules. Doping was passé. Nanotats were the thing. Web-cat eyes and nat-cams. Exoskeletons and screaming nanocrystalline holomasks.
But the Roller Babes were just wearing costumes.
Yeah. Nine was something else. Way.
These weren’t just wearables. This was a second skin. It was alive. And it was spreading—faster every day. The way her feelings for him grew stronger with each touch.
Nanotats covered half of his face, growing on him like a Phantom Menace mask. The black synthetic flesh seemed to be made up of pixelated prisms. The scars on his body were stitched with the black threads. Nine’s nano-skin flashed the way a salmon’s scales did when it rocketed from a river.
She leaned into his good ear. The flesh there was delicate and boyish, still human, save for the devilish stream of nanotats just beginning to flow like a toxic spill down the center of its canal.
“Who are you, anyway?” Patty whispered. Her lips brushed his lobe. Just barely. Just enough to take Patty’s breath away.
The same question every day. Asked with growing familiarity, tenderness—and urgency. She had the terrifying feeling that one day she would show up and the dark matter would have consumed Nine. Or worse, he would simply be gone. He would wake up without her. Be taken. Where? Why?
Her hand moved to stroke his head, but she was stopped by the fiber optics. The angel hair fibers were always flickering, synapses feeding his thoughts to some unseen beast. Or was the beast feeding Nine?
What the hell was she doing here, like really? Caressing this comatose cyborg boy? He was a massage client, right? Just a job?
They said he was some brain research project. She took a few deep breaths. She felt her heart beating, the way you feel it and cannot stop feeling it. The way she felt Nine’s heart beneath the skin of nanotats.
No. This was not a job anymore. Nine had one thing in common with the other cases she had worked on at the VA.
Nine might be comatose, a brain research science fair project, but she was certain—he was listening to her.
"Nine’s no name. You got to have a name?"
“Gimme some chill,” said Patty. The tiny music player filled the big chamber with a synthesized confection of sounds, chimes and water running. Naturopathic massage music from the classes at Bastyr.
Nine’s lips. Did they move? Was that just another of his involuntary spasms? Or was he trying to tell her something? The music? Was he telling her that it sucked? He looked more like a rock and roll dude.
“Right, right, you know, you’re right,” she said. “This isn’t a yoga class. Let’s bump it up a notch today,” she said. She blew the damned feather away from her face. “The Fourth of July is coming up. Let’s celebrate!”
“Gimme some Jimmy,” Patty said. The wild strings of Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar filled the room with the Star Spangled Banner. Patty dropped her shoulders and pursed her lips. Went with it. Did an air guitar riff. She moved close. Plucking invisible strings. Did a spin. Grand finale.
She looked at the scar tissue on Nine’s body. She shook her head. “Sorry. I guess you aren’t much into fireworks.”
She killed Jimmy, put on some real Lakota chanting. A soft choir of human voices joined them. She took a step back. Closed her eyes. Shook her hands at her side. Inhaled. Exhaled. Grounded her feet.
“So, OK. What do you want to talk about today?” she said.
She squeezed a fragrant unguent on her plasticized palm and rubbed her hands together to warm them. Ready to navigate the matrix of him.
“You have a mom?” said Patty. Shit. Great start, Patty, she scolded herself. “Sorry. Of course you do.”
Was Nine’s mom out there, wondering what happened to him? Did she even know he was alive? Or was Nine’s mother like her mom? Just took off one day. Was that why Nine was here, nobody else to care?
“My mom? Left me behind, too,” said Patty. “No, it’s ok, really. It’s a bummer not having a mom. Maybe we are the same that way? Anyway, you don’t always get a choice, you know? People just leave sometimes.”
Patty put pressure on his soles, as if that was a salve for being motherless.
She always began with the feet. She worked the nexus between his second toe and his heel, holding and releasing. Her eyes followed a pulse of blood up his leg, through the labyrinth of markings etched on his flesh.
“That’s what I remember most about my mom, really, her leaving,” said Patty. “I was like five, and I woke up. Just sat up in bed. It was weird, that spooky time, you know, just before dawn. I heard her leaving, her footsteps, in the gravel. Dragging her feet. I ran out. Saw this big ass old car door thumping shut. She didn’t even look back. I can still see her face, slumped against the window, you know, like she was too tired to look at me?
“Then this song comes on, like it was going to bust the glass. She was into all these dead rockers, you know? Hendrix. Morrison. Cobain. So you’d think? Like Nirvana? Right?”
Patty waited for Nine to not answer.
“No. The fucking Beach Boys. Good Vibrations! Good Vibrations? Morris, he’s my friend, he said she was probably headed for San Francisco. Chasing a dream she’d heard on the radio, that something was still happening there.”
Patty paused again. Let Nine digest this.
“Yeah, I know. People do weird shit. Anyway, I chased her car. In my nightie… Papa Earl found me. My grandpa. He said it was my bloody footsteps…”
Nine suddenly looked sad. No. He felt sad. She felt sad. The room was as quiet as that morning her mom left. Even the Lakota seemed to stop chanting. Was she pulling a Debbie Downer, or what?
“Hey. Really, I bet your mom misses you,” said Patty.
But she didn’t think so.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t leave you. I promise.”
She was quiet now. She lost herself in massaging him, gently one moment, digging deep the next, as she mapped her way up his body, connecting the acupressure points. Bridging wounds. She ran her oiled fingers gently over the scatter-shot, nanotated shrapnel scars. There were scars anywhere his boots and Kevlar body armor had not covered him. The wounds were proof he was human. Or at least, was once.