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Chapter 22: The Alchemist

Violet wipes down the bar with a rag. The sign in the window of The Sonic Tonic is dark, the doors locked. I stare at Violet through the glass until she notices me standing here on the sidewalk. She eagerly swings open the door, but I have no good news to tell her, and my face can’t hide it. Her gaze falls to the ground as she leans against the doorway. Greymore had a night you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, she says – shaking, sweating, and talking in nonsensical loops – but his fever broke with the dawn, and he’s thinking more clearly now.

I trudge the stairs to the apartment above, trying to decode my failure. Fallkirk and the rest of his team lie in hospital beds, three of the Congressman’s bodyguards on the autopsy table, and Sodalane, the little girl carrying the genes that could put an end to all this dying, is in the hands of an angry 14-year-old. It was a long night, and I can’t wait to see Greymore again. I just don’t know how to tell him I made a mess of it all.

Greymore is sprawled on the couch, one of his old comic books lying open across his chest. It’s the one me and Greymore always argue over, because, truth speak, why would an indestructible alien who holds the power to save the world from war and crime and famine waste precious time pretending to be a sheepish journalist and pining for a girl he could easily have if he would just remove his eyeglasses and slick back his hair?

Greymore’s eyes drift open, arching back and forth like search lights. They settle on me, and his face softens a bit, but he doesn’t look well. His skin has darkened, sinking around the bones, and his lower jaw has begun to sag. I kneel beside him, weaving my fingers between his, and tell him the whole story, about Darien’s baby, the Congressman’s wife, and his brother, Phoenix.

“Dreama’s a reasonable woman,” I say, caressing the back of his hand. “We can go to her now. I’ll show her my memory playback, and she’ll see what Phoenix has done.”

“Dreama is no longer CEO of the Rivegan estate.” Greymore sits up, resting his chin over his knees. “Phoenix has seized control. He convinced the board members Dreama has been too passive, that the family needs a wartime leader. It’s been his plan ever since Summer was killed. The massacre of your family at the restaurant, it was Phoenix acting on his own, none of us knew his intentions.”

I recalculate the equation in my head, swapping in this new variable. “Phoenix is still your brother. When he sees how sick you are, he’ll be compelled to help us find a cure.”

“You don’t know Phoenix the way I do. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for me, but he’ll continue to let the first drafts die just to make your family suffer. Phoenix has pure Tearcatcher DNA in his vault now, what happens next is not in question. He’ll replicate it, modify it, and use it to squeeze your family out of their every business interest. The Rivegans will own your family, and hold a near genetic monopoly over the entire economy of the province.”

I bury my face in my palms. Greymore’s right. Phoenix and Atherton, how did it come to this? We’re at the mercy of two spoiled children fighting over a chest of toys, and the whole world must live with the consequence.

“I won’t let that happen,” Greymore says, rubbing the back of my neck. “I have access to the Rivegan vault, and I can get her back.”

“You’re too weak. You can hardly stand.”

“Phoenix will bleed this province.” Greymore hoists himself off the couch, grabbing the table end to steady himself as he stands. “I didn’t set in motion this storm, but if I have the power stop it, I have to try.”

“You mean we have to try.”

“Tessa, the vault is covered in bio-scanners. You’ll never get in.”

“We’ll find a way, together,” I say, sliding his arm around me.

“Let me see if I heard you right,” Conrad says, running his hands through his long ropes of hair and tying them into a loose tail at the back of his neck. “You want me to go in there and help you buy genes from the Alchemist, one of the most dangerous black market dealers in the city, so you can sneak onto the Rivegan estate, perhaps the most secure strip of real estate in the whole world.”

Now that I hear him say it back to me, it is a lot to ask, but I’ve seen what happens when soldiers go into battle unprepared. We need someone on our side who knows how to make war, I told Greymore. We need Conrad. “Yeah, that’s the bones of it.”

“Lead the way,” Conrad says, sliding his long hands into a pair of tight black gloves and flexing his fingers. He told me not to contact him on the neural network he forged for me unless it was a matter of life and death. I guess this meets his criteria. Conrad smiles and follows me to the street. The quicker we get out of here, the better. The memory of the last time I stood in this alley still haunts me. We turn the corner and merge into a line of first drafts anxiously waiting to be granted entrance to the green door. It swings open, and the gatekeeper with the mirrored sunglasses and bright sneakers struts down the line sorting us all into bins of worthy or wanting.

He stops and lowers his shades at me. “Baby gangster, welcome back,” he says, leading me to the green door again. Behind us, I can hear the c-reactive proteins, and other inflammatory markers, churning through the blood of those still in line. I’d love nothing more than to stomp my feet and tell this gatekeeper exactly what he can do with those bins of his, but I’ve got a bigger fight ahead. The gatekeeper props open the door, allowing me passage, then turning and planting his hand over Conrad’s chest as he tries to enter.

“Oh, this is my big brother,” I explain to the gatekeeper. “He worries about me. Is it okay if he joins me this time?” The gatekeeper squints at Conrad, and Conrad replies by doing that thing where he drains all the emotion from his face, and tells you with just his eyes that he could tear your limbs off, if he so desired.

“Not at all,” the gatekeeper says, taking a step back.

“You’re a sweetheart,” I say, pecking him on the cheek as I pass. “We’ll take the gutter synth, and we can see ourselves in.”

Conrad rips the sunglasses from the gatekeeper’s face, snapping them between his fingers and flinging the busted frames back at the gatekeeper. “You look ridiculous,” Conrad says. “Get yourself a real job.”

Me and Conrad step into the red light pulsing at the end of the tunnel, the revelers on the dance floor instantly separating us. A low metallic sound buzzes beneath the rhymes the DJ is pumping out. A flash of sleek lines and broad thrusters seep into my brain. I bite my lip to stop the smile from stretching my face. We’re all listening to an image of two bikini-clad models gracefully flanking Cortland’s new anti-gravity bike, processed through a spectrograph and encoded into the sound waves shuffling through our ears. They don’t realize it now, but when the first drafts see the motor bike in the show room window, the reward centers of their brains will light up like Time Square.

In the corner of the club, Zander leans across the table and presses a tiny canister into the outstretched hand of a first draft girl. She glances around the room, then quickly scoots out of the booth and disappears into the crowd. This is how black market genes are dealt? Not very discreet.

“It’s so hot in here,” I say to him, unzipping my sweatshirt and fanning myself with it. “Don’t you think it’s hot?”

A flicker of recognition spreads across Zander’s face, but it fades as quickly as it arrived. “There’s a chill room in the back where they keep it a few degrees cooler. Whaddya say?”

“Sounds like a good time,” I reply. Zander takes my hand and leads me past the restrooms into a narrow passageway. I run my tongue over my lips. “Mmm, I’m so thirsty.”

“Just relax, and don’t fight it. We’re almost there,” he assures me, sliding his arm around my waist. A dull cracking sound pierces the silence. Zander screams, his arm twisting behind his back. Conrad shoves Zander against the wall, the fingers of his right hand now bent in the entirely wrong direction.

“Okay, that’s enough,” I say, squeezing Conrad’s shoulder until he loosens his grip. “He wants to help us, don’t you, Zander?”

“How do you know my name?” Zander asks, crumpling to the floor.

“You really don’t remember me?” I ask. Zander rubs his hand and squints up at me. “It doesn’t matter. We require an audience with your boss. It concerns a business proposal.”

“The Alchemist? No, delete the thought from your head, don’t even trick speak about it.”

“She wasn’t asking,” Conrad explains, grabbing his other hand.

“Alright, you wanna talk to the Alchemist, I’ll take you,” Zander says, prying his hand away. “But it’s gonna be the last conversation you ever have.”

Conrad hauls him up by his shoulders. “We’ll take our chances.”

Zander guides us to an elevator blanketed with graffiti. “You know how many bodies I’ve buried for The Alchemist?” he asks, planting his hand over a DNA scanner on the wall, jolting open the door. “More than I can count.”

“So, more than five?” Conrad says calmly. “Shut up and take us to the Alchemist while you still have one hand left to count with.”

The three of us pile inside, and the elevator rumbles up three floors. The numbers over the door jump out of sequence, from three to five. “Where’s the fourth floor?” I ask.

“This is the fourth floor, we’re just not allowed to call it that, and don’t you either. The boss is tetraphobic. He doesn’t like the number four, doesn’t even wanna hear the word. Something about the symmetry of it scares him,” Zander says, edging to the back corner as the doors slide open. “Just one of his little quirks, but you’ll get it, once you meet him.”

Conrad shoves me behind him as he steps out onto the fourth/fifth floor, between the crosshairs of two ion guns aimed at his head. There’s a cyclone of limbs and particle beam flashes, and a second later, both weapons are in Conrad’s hands and fixed on the two bodyguards to either side of him. A third, however, emerges from the shadows and presses his gun against the back of Conrad’s skull.

“Enough, it’s too early for blood and brain bits, I haven’t even had my coffee yet.” A short wide-bodied man stands up from behind his desk and gazes past the tangle of bodies blocking his view of the elevator. “Alexander, would you kindly explain this intrusion?”

Zander nudges me with his elbow. I edge across the room and stand in front of his desk. The paintings all around me are messy kaleidoscopes of lines, shapes and colors, their meaning a mystery to me, just like the man who owns them. “Your trepidation squanders both our time,” the man behind the desk says. “Come and sit, let us verbalize a proper outcome before our trigger-happy friends reupholster the room in a most visceral fashion.”

The man scratches at thick blotches of red skin covering his face. Chronic inflammatory dermatosis, probably an over-expression of the IL-23/Th17 pathway. Certainly, the Alchemist would possess DNA in his catalogue that might correct it, or reverse the refractive errors in the lenses of his eyes, yet he remains a pure first draft. “You’re the Alchemist?” I ask, easing into the chair across from him.

“Ah, the Alchemist. It’s an imprecise moniker, but one that’s served me well,” he says, pushing his thick glasses high up on his nose. “Hmm, quite the specimen, aren’t we?”

“Excuse me?”

“Vanessa cardui, the painted lady.” He tilts his nose down at the glass box sitting on the desk between us. A butterfly folds its wings, giving me a dorsal view of her lovely orange and black shades. “You know why they fly in a corkscrew pattern?” the man asks, swirling his finger in the air. “Look who I’m asking? Of course, you do, you know everything.”

“Why do you keep her locked up?”

He holds up his hand, then spins his chair and plucks a mouse from the cage behind him, holding it up by the tail before dropping it into the box imprisoning the butterfly. “You know why I don’t like coders? You tweak this gene, you upgrade that one, but when’s the last time you introduced something that’s actually new? All you do is repackage the same combinations under a different name.”

The wings of the butterfly turn bright red as she sprays the mouse with a viscous chemical that makes it twitch and squeal and claw at the glass. The mouse rolls onto its side and goes quiet. Toxic butterflies, that’s a new one for me. I’ve seen aposematism in butterflies before. Some will mimic the evolutionary responses of other animals, like poison frogs, who change color as a warning sign to predators that they carry lethal defenses, but it’s always just posturing. I guess this hybrid on his desk is the Alchemist’s way of letting people know he doesn’t believe in empty threats.

“It’s a lesson I learned long ago, pretty things can sting you the worst.” He taps his pitted fingernails over the glass and smiles. “Tell me something, little coder, what makes you think you can fly into my lair and puff your bright colors at me? What’s to stop me from dragging the two of you out by your toes and stripping you for parts? I mean, you do understand what sort of business I conduct here?”

“We’re Tearcatchers. In case you hadn’t noticed, our genes are difficult to counterfeit, think of it as our lethal defense.”

“I do this for a living, I could certainly find a way to hack your little anti-theft gene.”

“May I ask a question of you now?”

“Answering a question with a question, not really the etiquette I’d expect from someone of your breeding, but go right ahead, just keep talking, something intelligent is bound to come out of your mouth sooner or later.”

“How’s business right now? Not the synth club business, that other one, the business that secretly keeps the music playing down there. I’m guessing not a lot of customers want to buy their doses on the black market these days. With all that infected Tearcatcher DNA floating around, it’s sort of like gambling with your life, wouldn’t you say?”

“Look at that, maybe you have fangs after all. Go on, little coder, I’m listening,” he says, jutting his chin at me. I glance over my shoulder. Conrad and the three bodyguards are still arranged in a grim pose. “Don’t concern yourself with men like them. Their red hands are perfectly comfortable just as they are.”

I slide a scrap of paper across the desk. “You give us what we need, I can make this infection disappear, and you can go back to dealing your harmless second rate genes. People have a short memory, the spatial pattern of our neural activity depends on it.”

“Two DNA maskers, an H-flush, and a molecular breach. This is all you need?” he asks, motioning one of his bodyguards, who lowers the pistol from Conrad’s head and takes the scrap of paper from the Alchemist.

“We have an agreement then?” I ask, extending my hand over the desk.

“I’ll fill your shopping cart, but those fangs of yours better not be made of glass. My customers may have a short memory, but I do not.” The Alchemist studies my hand for a moment, before waving it off. “Fly away now, coder, I’ve allowed your exquisitely-mutated DNA to contaminate this office long enough.”

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