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Chapter 4: No Season For Violettes

The emoji scrolling through my brain are sending mixed messages. “Stripper Girl,” “Blushing Hippo,” “Pumpkin Head,” and “Eff You” are clear enough; “Red Ninja,” “Juggling Polar Bear,” and “Walrus Birthday Party” a little less so. I much prefer the comments section of my shared consciousness. The sentiments are no kinder, but their meaning is never in doubt. Here’s what some of my siblings posted about my historic dress malfunction:

10:43, sent from Coexist neural, #ChloeTC transmittal, “Hips so gross, hope she kept the receipt.”

11:19, sent from Coexist neural, #DesireeTC transmittal, “Can someone CC me on rust head video, I want to scare my sister.”

11:24, sent from Coexist neural, #SebastianTC transmittal, “Funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Why is Tessa the only G-12 with no breasts? Must have designed her to be a t-shirt model.”

12:06, sent from Coexist neural, #DominiqueTC transmittal, “Ginger snap – the thing that happens when you take a redhead’s cookie. Thanks for the vid, sis.”

12:08, sent from Coexist neural, #RoyceTC transmittal, “Tessa looks mad, she needs to lighten up, by about 30 pounds.”

12:09, sent from Coexist neural, #DarienTC transmittal, “Bitch left me no choice. Lesson of the day – no one wears my clothes.”

And here’s what was said after my suicide note posted:

12:37, sent from Coexist neural, #SebastianTC transmittal, “Yikes, heard that Tessa jumped out the window, retract my earlier. Condolences, etc.”

12:39, sent from Coexist neural, #ChloeTC transmittal, “No tear catching, better dead than red. I’ll miss standing next to her for portraits though, she made me look really thin.”

12:50, sent from Coexist neural, #DominiqueTC transmittal, “True speak, gingers have no soul anyway.”

12:51, sent from Coexist neural, #MelbourneTC transmittal, “Careful, heard they never found the body. Dead rose gonna come back haunt ya. Happy ghosting.”

There are more, some even nastier, but you get the gist. No guilt. No anger. No self-reflection. Some eulogy. With a family like this, how did I not try to kill myself sooner?

But here I am, back from the dead. The family must know by now. Probably, they’re monitoring me this very moment.

I try to delete the remarks on my network, but pop-up marketing messages flood my synapses. When I try to close one, two more appear in its place, each spawned by a word pulled from my comments board: ginger bread, ginger ale, ginger pudding, weight loss surgery, rust repellant coating, and a psychic who promises to cleanse your home of unwanted spirits. All of it affordably-priced, guaranteed to satisfy, and available for a limited time only.

I hear two people arguing nearby, a man and a woman, but it’s too dark to see them. Where am I? Everything that happened after leaving the club is a blur. Maybe it’s the after effects of the synth, or the fact that news of my death already scored 853 hugs on the shared consciousness network, but I feel like I just slept for a thousand years. Even though it’s cold, I’m caked in sweat. My joints ache and my head throbs.

“Lights,” I say, but there must be an outage, because my command goes ignored. I slide off the bed and trip over something hard and flat, sending it rolling across the floor into a nearby wall. The space is small, I can tell by the way the sound bounces. It smells of hardened sap and powdered pigment. I get up and edge across the room, my shoulder bumping into a chain. I follow it with my fingers, lifting my heels off the floor as I reach. It must go all the way up to the ceiling. I lose my balance and grab the chain to steady myself, spraying the room with light.

A couple of critters, roaches I believe them to be, scoot across the floor tiles below, finding refuge in a lightless corner behind paintings stacked against the wall. Of faces. Rooftops. Starry skies. Gardens. The elm tree is the picture that stands out though. The leaves are red. Too red, almost like they’re burning. The tissue over the branches is pale and gashed and lovely. The angles at which the tree holds its delicate limbs over the crown make it seem a little weary. A lonely, lost soul. It smells as if it’s been recently painted.

The whole room is a relic. A withered artifact of a buried century. The long flat board on the other side of the room looks like an anti-gravity board, but with four small wheels stuck to the bottom. The dusty accordion-style books lining the shelf belong in a museum, not a dwelling. The screen over the old computer in the corner is encoded in binary digits, not quantum bits. But it’s the rounded, black case next to the bed I find most puzzling. I unlock the silver clasps and flip it open. Inside, a stick covered with six vertical strings is attached to a piece of wood sculpted in the shape of a pear. I pull one of the strings, shooting a deliberate vibration across the room.

Something pounds the other side of the wall, dropping books from the shelf. “Hey, it’s too early! I hear that guitar one more time, I’m shoving it down your throat,” the man yells. Guitar, at least I learned a new word.

“Leave him alone, Garrett! You go on and play, sweetie, it sounds just beautiful,” the woman responds, an equal fire to her voice.

The sound of rushing water and squeaking pipes drowns them out. I follow the sound to a bathroom door. The smell of chloroplasts culled from endosymbiotic cyanobacteria fills my nose, the same scent I picked up last night in the club. “Hello?”

I stare in through the keyhole and see the Rivegan boy standing there in the shower. He has a dark, restless dark energy, like the number five. There’s no curtain, just a thin cloud of steam hanging between us. He tilts his head back, letting the water roll down his neck to the crisp, broad lines of his rib cage. A tell-tale sign of a modified LRP5 protein. That means really strong bones. It’s a fairly common trait among coders.

The trait that’s much stranger lies in his hands: he favors his left when applying the soap, and his right when opening the shampoo bottle. Cross-dominance. In our world, it’s a mutation seen even less than red hair. “Hello? Can you tell me where am I, please?”

“What? I can’t hear you,” he says, turning to face me, exposing his, um… guitar to the keyhole. I feel the chemicals shuffling in my brain, dulling the activity in my frontal and prefrontal cortexes, cueing my pupils to expand and my skin to flush. This conversation, I decide, should continue with my back to the door.

“Where am I? And who are you?”

“You’re in Manhattan,” he says, a second before the shower cuts off. “And you already know who I am, the same way I know you’re a Tearcatcher.”

He smells sweet to me. Probably because the genetic code for the MHC area of the Rivegan’s immune system is so different from my family’s. “Don’t Rivegans have first names?”

“It’s Greymore.”

“Thanks for the help last night, Greymore, but I really have to go,” I say, peaking cautiously through the blinds covering the window. There doesn’t appear to be anyone watching outside. Not yet, anyway. A self-driving taxi zips past. Across the street, kids with hover skates strapped to their feet chase a floating disc across the pavement, batting it with a club when they finally get there. Things are louder and faster and brighter out here in the beyond.

“If it’s your biosensors that trouble you, I got rid of them. No one’s tracking you.”

“How did you do that?”

“Same way I got rid of mine. Don’t worry, I’ve done the procedure a dozen times. You’ll have no permanent damage.”

“No permanent damage? I assume you’re a doctor?” I ask, studying my scalp in a mirror above the dresser: there are no scars or bandages of any kind, just a tangled cyclone of hair.

“If it helps you, go ahead and assume it,” he says. There’s a knock at the door behind me. “Hey, can you get that?”

I crack open the door. A man in a sagging brown uniform with the name Walt sown across the pocket stands in the hallway, nervously mopping his forehead with his sleeve. “Who are you? Where’s Violette?”

“Who’s Violette?” I ask instinctively.

“Look, I have to reopen the shop in an hour, I don’t care if it’s you or if it’s Violette,” he snaps, breezing past me into the apartment. “But don’t think I’m paying you more just because you got a better ass than her.”

Greymore flings open the bathroom door and hurls himself between us, a towel slung around his waist. He pulls the toothbrush from his mouth, “Violette’s not here. Try the bar on West 49th.”

“West 49th, that’s five blocks away. Isn’t this one available?”

“Available for what?” I ask, desperate to shed some light on the conversation.

“No, she’s not,” Greymore barks, grabbing him by the elbow and shoving him back into the hallway.

“This is no way to run a business, kid, Violette’s not gonna like her next review on—” Greymore slams the door before he can finish, nearly slipping on the water pooling at his feet. He’s taller than what I remember from the club, when I first saw him in those baggy denims and that ridiculous t-shirt. The revolution has begun, it said. What revolution would that be? His muscles are more severe than I first thought, too, his eyes more intense.

“Who’s Violette?”

“She’s my tenant. I let her use the apartment when I’m not here.”

“Why does that guy want to see her?”

“What does it matter?” He hikes up his towel, shuffles his feet, and stares down at the floor. I let the silence hang there until he clarity speaks. “She tends bar at The Sonic Tonic. It doesn’t pay so well. Sometimes she brings a customer home.”

“She sells herself for money?” I ask, trying to expel the memory of sleeping in her sheets from my brain.

“Don’t kid yourself, we all do.”

“I most certainly do not,” I say, attempting to soften the edge in my voice, but the anger is welling up inside me.

“All of us coders, I mean. We profit from our bodies the same as her. We just get paid infinitely more.”

He’s got a point, I suppose. I turn away, so he can’t read my face, and wander along the paintings leaning against the wall. “Did you paint these?”

“An extra copy of the DEC2 gene was added to my generation. It means –”

“They altered your circadian rhythm. How long do you sleep? Two hours a night?”

“Give or take. The nights get long. I need something to still my mind.”

I stop, letting my eyes fall on the elm tree. “When did you paint this one?”

“Last night, after we got back.”

“Is it a picture of me?” I ask weakly, regretting the question as soon as it left my mouth.

He crinkles his forehead. “No, that’s a tree.”

“Yeah, a tree, of course it is. I think I’m still woozy from that synth.”

Greymore swipes a glass container from the kitchen and empties the oily contents into a mug, then passes it to me. This will help, he says. I hold it to my nose. The aroma is pleasing enough.

I grip the cup with both hands, taking a few sips. It burns on the way down, and I spit the rest back into the mug. “Oh, that’s terrible, what is it?”

Greymore clutches his throat, gagging. He’s mirroring me again. “It’s, uh, coffee. The first drafts drink it every morning.”

I swing my gaze around the room, looking for a cue that might change the subject. I pluck the strings of the guitar again. A sound wave echoes through the room at 440 Hz, touching off a harmonic chain reaction at 880 Hz, 1320 Hz, and 1760 Hz.

“I could teach you to play that.”

“What? Oh… no, I couldn’t do that.”

“It’s easy, let me show you. You just pick it up by the—”

“No! Really, I mean, I just don’t want to.” I quickly swing the black case shut. A puzzled look slips across Greymore’s face. “Does, um, this place really belongs to the Rivegans? Where are your bodyguards?”

“I never said it belongs to the Rivegans. It belongs to me. No one else knows about it. My business brings me to the city a lot. When I get sick of those babysitters, I slip my security detail and come here.”

“You must hold an important rank to be allowed city privileges.”

“No, it holds no importance at all,” he replies, with a defeated look on his face, as if he were being weighed down by a heavy mask. “You ask a great many questions.”

“I… um, I do that when I’m nervous.”

“I have one for you: why choose the gutter synth? Palace synth would have been the logical choice for a girl like you.”

“What do you mean, a girl like me?” I watch him struggle for an answer, before I realize I’m asking questions again. “I don’t know why I chose gutter synth. I’ve been walking on clouds my whole life, I guess I just wanted to see what happens when you fall.”

“You crash,” he says, a smile creasing his face. The weight seems to leave him for a moment. “Then you edit and play again. Welcome to your remix.”

“Um, I don’t know what that means, but I should go.” I step to the door. This has encounter has run too long already.

“Wait, where will you go? Things are different out there. Instinct is everything. And yours have been a little… off.”

“I have an IQ of 342. I have PhDs in molecular biology and genetics, and an M.S. in biochemistry. I think I can figure out how to survive out there with the first drafts.”

“That’s a lot of letters. Do they make you happy?”

“You’re very strange.”

I twist open the door. Greymore plants his hand over mine, gently pushing the door shut. His skin is warm and cold at the same time. Like drifting through a pocket of sunlight on a winter morning. Fire and ice. Spinning me through shades of violet I’ve seen before. My hand shakes. I bite my lip to distract myself from the unexpected vibration of his skin. He gauges my reaction and takes his hand away.

“I didn’t mean… Look, going unnoticed is harder than you think. You can’t just use a thumbprint to pay for things, you can’t post to Coexist anymore, and you can’t show anyone how smart you are. There are rules to surviving out here. You have to be a ghost. I can teach you.”

“Did the scavenger do that to you?” I ask. He glances down at the jagged red line carved into his forearm and draws in his lips. “Logic think. You’re a Rivegan and I’m a Tearcatcher. We shouldn’t even be sharing the same air. Our families would burn us alive if they knew we were alone together.”

“Our families aren’t here. No one’s watching. It’s just you and me. What do you want to do?”

“I took gutter synth. That coffee tastes like acid. I slept in a hooker’s bed. And you’re certain that tree isn’t a picture of me?” I babble, catching sight of the elm tree painting again. He just stares at me, but I already know the answer.

The messages my family posted scroll through my head again. Hips so gross. Better dead than red. She needs to lighten up, by about 30 pounds. Gingers have no soul. Dead rose gonna come back haunt ya. “Okay,” I say. “Teach me to be a ghost.”

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