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Chapter 2: Shu Food

Aldo followed me outside into the night air and our shoulders brushed as we walked the dark streets. Even this late, there were plenty of people out. With the constantly rotating shifts at the mill, there was no universal sleep time like there was for the rest of the world. Night didn’t mean we were all safely at home in our beds. My morning was really early evening when I rolled out of bed and headed to Marv’s from 8 to 3. Then I worked my daily shift at the mill from 4 to 10 before heading home for some sleep and to start all over again. Some people chose to bundle their work at the mill, so they could have days off. I chose to spread everything out throughout the week, taking two hours off on Sundays. Since I’d gotten off an hour early tonight, I had a good two hours to spare before going to the mill.

Aldo and I meandered through the compound as I pointed out various hideouts and divulged the best places to get certain items. We got to Sasha’s, a place that served excellent Shu food and we took a table near the window.

“You ever had Shu food?” I asked.

Aldo shook his head. “I can’t say I know what Shu food is.”

I grinned. Shu food was new to everyone here in the compound. A group of Shu had been transferred here several years ago, and they brought with them the best food any of us had ever had. Shu stood for Shanghai Hospital Units, a research facility from overseas that agreed to swap information with our country. Several of our best prototypes were sent there and in exchange we got some Shu. I felt sorry for them at first, with their strange language and matching white t-shirts all with large SHU printed in red white and blue. But after several Shu set up food shops, they became the most popular and prosperous business people in the compound. I still had no problem spending my money if it meant a hot delicious meal once in a while. And I know many people agreed.

And so did Aldo. His face was exuberant as he bit into his first piece of fried wan ton, the creamy filling tangy and sweet at the same time. The bright colored sauces with so many different flavors in each bite, I think he forgot I was even there after a while. He dug in as if he hadn’t eaten in days. Which, if I thought about it, maybe he hadn’t.

“So, you have a lot of friends here?” he asked once he’d come up for air. He sucked down a huge glass of iced green tea and gave me an inquisitive look, his full attention on me.

“Sure,” I said. “I live with three other girls, friends I’ve had for years.”

“The girl from the bar? With the limp?” he asked, taking another sip of tea.

I narrowed my eyes at him, taking stock of his expression and mannerisms, trying to decipher if he was innocently curious, or if he had plans to rob us later or something. His hands were steady, his body relaxed. He kept eye contact, but not as if he were trying too hard to do so. His skin was a bit moist from sweat, but the restaurant was warm with steam coming from the kitchens. The question was innocent enough, but I remembered the odd way he’d watched Eiko walk away, as if he were studying her. I replayed the short exchange Eiko and I had had in the bar, Going home? I’d asked, implying ‘home’ was a collective place. Then she’d said I would be gone by the time she got there. It was basically implied that we lived together, so there was really no harm in confirming this.

“Yes,” I said. “That was Eiko. She lives with me, along with my friends Pina and Devin .”

Aldo gave me a small smile. “I had a friend named Pina back in Chicago. Pulmonary patient? Iron lungs?”

I gave him a surprised looked. “Yeah,” I said. “P191? How odd. I didn’t know they gave us all the same serials…”

Aldo shrugged, “I think her serial was P194.”

“Ah,” I said. I suppose that made sense, the number four somewhat resembling the letter A sometimes translated to an A instead of F.

“My friend Pina from Chicago was a bit of a drama queen,” Aldo went on, a faraway look in his eyes. “Always up for a fight.”

I let out a laugh. “Ha! That’s exactly how Pina is.”

“I bet their genes are similar, having the same prognosis. I’d like to meet her sometime, it might make me feel like less of an outsider. Give me a little taste of being home…” he trailed off, his faraway look going from reminiscent to haunted.

My heart went out to him, sadness twisting in my gut. I felt the need to fill the silence so I started babbling. “Devin is my third roommate. She’s the youngest of us, only fourteen and cute as a button. She’s a dental patient, born without any teeth so she has full implants. But she’s also a COSmedic subject, so she doesn’t just have teeth, she has retractable fangs. Apparently humans think fangs are sexy or something…” COSmedic subjects were new. With the advances the medical units had made with cybernetic bio-electrical research, cosmetic companies had started to do their own research in an effort to cultivate the new wave of plastic surgery. They started out just wanting to work on skin grafting the robotic implants, to make patients needing prosthetics look and feel human. But recently they’d started doing research on fashion implants, as in making cyber implants fashionable. In other words, there were billboards throughout the world with scantily clad women on them, wearing chrome and sporting synthetic fingernails that change colors electronically or a flawless looking face with the words COSmedic skin grafts, underneath. Devin (D879) having been born without tooth buds was the 879th subject with COSmedic teeth implants.

“Really?” Aldo asked, his eyes alight with interest. “Retractable fangs? That’s something I’d never seen.” I was so glad to see that the haunted look left his face, I kept talking.

“Oh yeah, they are a little scary. She pops those babies out whenever she gets a little angry, and you know to back the hell off. She bit through a guy’s metal arm once, bit it clean off.” I laughed.

Aldo smiled at that, and I found myself grinning in return. The more we talked, the more I felt myself gravitating toward him in a way I’d never really known before. He was undeniably handsome, but something about his features and mannerisms was so boyish that it offset the sternness of his jaw line and the intensity of his full brow.

“So, I know this is kind of taboo,” Aldo said fiddling with an egg roll, “but would you mind telling me a little about your synthetics? I mean, your eyes…” he trailed off, embarrassed. “I’ve just never seen anything like them,” he finished.

I took a deep breath. He was right that it wasn’t exactly something we talked about. Cybers tended to be a little territorial about their synthetics. I mean, it’s kind of like asking someone to tell you what kind of underwear they had on, it’s private and weird. But I could appreciate his curiosity about my eyes. As far as I knew, I was only the 198th specimen to be equipped with synthetic retinas in the entire 80 years of research. The surgeries had high risk of extensive brain damage and the synthetics themselves were pretty expensive to engineer. It’s not easy to recreate the human eye and the resources and research took years. But the medics hadn’t stopped with just recreating the human eye, they sought to perfect it. Taking elements from various eyes found in the animal kingdom the medics created their most recent model, which was now embedded in my skull. Not having bothered with an iris of any substantial color, my eyes were bright silver domes of various minerals and compounds with deep slanted pupils.

I watched Aldo’s face as I explained this to him, waiting for him to recoil or laugh. Waiting for the common joke, calling me a lizard with my ridgeback and reptilian eyes. But he seemed interested. He asked appropriate questions and marveled at how adept my eyesight had become.

Then he reached across the table and took hold of my right hand. He ran his thumb over the metal plating around my first three knuckles. “And this?” he asked. His hand was callused and rough, but his touch was gentle and lingered longer than necessary. A silly giddiness galloped around in my stomach. Breathe, Rane. He’s just a guy…a really hot guy. But just a guy! I pulled my hand away before answering.

“Ah, well…” I said stalling. The story of my knuckles wasn’t exactly the proudest moment of my life. “Just a fight,” I said lamely. “Broke my hand pretty bad, kind of beyond repair I guess.” What really happened is that I had joined a gang called The Kitty Cat Dolls when I was thirteen, a desperate attempt to get out from under Gigi’s thumb, and part of their initiation was stealing a bottle of whiskey from Arin, a crazy old lady who seemed harmless enough with her hobble and cane. But she’d caught me and cracked me with that cane so hard my knuckles were crushed. I’d walked around with a swollen hand for two weeks before the medics called me in, by then the damage irreparable. Somehow admitting that I was beaten up by an old lady didn’t exactly seem cool.

In an effort to change the subject I started babbling about my spinal cord. How I’d been born with a small case of scoliosis, a genetic defect the medics hadn’t anticipated, but fixed all the same with a poorly fitting robotic spine that was meant for another subject who died in surgery. It stuck from my back slightly, a bony ridge down the center, my skin stretched so tight it was nearly transparent leaving the metallic vertebrae clearly visible.

“The medics couldn’t pass up an opportunity to fix something, to test more of their theories. I guess I’m lucky they didn’t break my back for me.” I scoffed. I could still see them, gleeful behind their masks as they discovered the slight bend in my vertebrae. Now we have a place to put that spinal cord, the one that took years to build only to be thrown away on an unworthy subject. I was so young, but even then I’d hated them. Hated them with such a fiery passion that I felt my young tongue tightening in rage. I’d cried and screamed and they’d sedated me, deprived me of my own mind, and I woke up wearing a new body, a ridge jutting down my too small back with a medic shaking her head at the mistake, making notes on her portable screen.

“How do you mean?” Aldo asked bringing me out of my internal brooding.

I hesitated before answering. I’d told people about my theories plenty of times, and the usual response was mocking disbelief, or a look that clearly said, this chick is crazy. I wasn’t sure I wanted that look from Aldo. But he was new here, and I didn’t want to leave him oblivious. I could give him a warning at least. Even if he didn’t believe me.

“Well, you know how the medics only operate on us if we need it, like if we’re born with some kind of problem or if we get hurt?” I waited for Aldo to nod. I wasn’t sure if he’d put those pieces together. Some people didn’t. “That’s a law,” I continued. “They can’t experiment on us unless it will improve our quality of life. So sometimes they have to improvise. Sometimes they have a new gadget ready but no one to use it on. That’s when they send in the Carvers.”

Aldo’s face registered surprise. “The Carvers are here too?” he asked.

I nodded. I didn’t know that there were Carvers in other compounds, but I suspected as much. In fact, I was only speculating on this theory, I had no proof. That is, except my knees. The Carvers were a street gang, known for jumping people and brutally beating them, sometimes carving out body parts with sharp knives and leaving their victims out in the open as a warning.

I brought my right leg up, displaying my prosthetic kneecap. I rapped my metal knuckles on it, a sharp ting against the steel. “Carvers’ work,” I said simply. “They jumped me a few years ago and cut out my knees. God, it hurt. I really thought I was gonna die. But then, what do you know, medics show up and whisk me away to surgery, these little babies just ready to go,” I gestured to the prosthetics.

Aldo gave me a doubtful look and leaned back in his chair. “You’re saying that the Carvers work on the medic’s orders? Like they are actually told to cut someone’s body apart?” He was shaking his head.

“Think about it,” I said, dropping my leg back to the floor. “They can’t operate unless they have to. They aren’t going to just waste our perfectly healthy bodies on one or two synthetics. So they do their trauma experiments on us. And they get the Carvers to do their dirty work.”

Aldo still looked skeptical.

“They break things so the medics can fix us. It’s the only explanation. Why not kill us otherwise?”

Aldo studied me, his brows drawn together in thought. Finally he said, “How do you know about the law?”

“What?” I asked, confused.

“The law. The one that says they can’t operate on us unless they have to. How do you know about that?”

I was taken aback. That wasn’t the question I was expecting. “I read it,” I said simply. Something about the way he was asking didn’t sit well with me. It was like he was challenging me, like he caught me doing something wrong.

“You read it?” he repeated, an eyebrow raised. “Where?”

I glared at him, suddenly defensive. “Listen, you can believe what you want about the Carvers, but I’m telling the truth about the law. I can show it to you.”

I stood up, our dinner finished. I tossed down a wad of cash and waved to the Shu behind the counter who nodded. “Follow me.”

I wove Aldo through the back streets toward the industrial sector and into my building. Up a flight of stairs and two lefts, past the broken drain pipe and an acid burn in the wall I unlocked my door with a set of keys I had attached to my body at all times. Inside I flipped on the flickering overhead light that cast an eerie yellowish gleam over the organized chaos of four girls living together. My corner of the room held a rumpled mass of mismatched pillows I’d gleaned from the fabric warehouse just outside the compound. If you were careful you could sneak over the fence and go through the shipments. I’d slung my hammock between the rafters in the ceiling. I liked to sleep up high to better avoid any creepy crawlies that might find their way into our space.

Pina had a fold-out cot along the wall, covered in her own woven blankets. She sold them when she had good materials. Devin made her bed on an old surgical table she found when the medics were throwing things out. The rest of us thought it was creepy, but she didn’t seem to mind. And Eiko slept in the opposite corner from me, also in a hammock hung from the ceiling. Though with her bad leg, I never understood how she was able to climb up there.

I sat Aldo down in my pillowed corner and he ran his fingers over all the books I had stacked against the wall. I had dozens. Aldo sucked in his breath. Books were rare in the compound. Basically antiques to humans, as everything was digitalized these days. Books were relics from the past. I’d gone through a lot to get my hands on what I had. And each one of them was precious.

I pulled a book out and passed it over to Aldo who read the title out loud, “The United States Medical Ethics Manual: Cybernetic Testing Federal and State Laws Updated 2089.”

I took the book and opened it to a dog-eared page. “Here,” I said, passing it back to him. I watched as his eyes scanned the page, and I recited the words in my head, having memorized them long ago. Section 8 Article 10: No medical procedure shall be done to any cybernetic bio-electrical research subject without just cause; including but not limited to surgeries that do not directly improve the subject’s quality of life.

Aldo nodded to himself as if something he’d suspected was now confirmed. He shook his head a little, and I saw a small look of exasperation on his face. But then, it was gone before I could be sure. He began thumbing through the book, stopping to read bits and pieces. I grinned proudly. My book collection was my pride and joy, I ran my hands over the covers, still marveling at the knowledge they contained. Aldo was already inspecting my other volumes. He read out the titles of several more, and I began explaining each one. Robin Hood and King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austin’s entire collection. Several more obscure titles flashed off his tongue.

I found myself smiling sadly, thinking about how other’s received my obsession with the human world. Many cybers saw my collection and gave me that sidelong glance, that pitying look, as if saying, you can try to be one of them all you want, Rane, but it will never happen.

For as long as I can remember I’d known that being a cyber was a bad thing. The medics ingrained it within us, referring to us as synthetics meant to help the ‘real humans.’ I watched as others simply accepted this, accepted these limitations, that we couldn’t escape the compound. Ever. We would live out our miserable lives within a shell of our man-made bodies, being poked and prodded, sliced open and sewn back up with strange additions that either helped us or killed us in the long run. Our bodies, while genetically modified to have the ultimate characteristics for research, often rejected implants, which either made us very ill or killed us off completely. I’d read countless discarded medical and research reports that I’d found in the trash outside the medic center. Each one more terrifying than the next. I had several biology and anatomy books stowed away within my collection that became very useful when studying these reports.

Something in me refused to accept that this was all my life would ever be. That I would someday die within this compound, on the table as my body cracked under the strain of another eye surgery. I read these books, knowing there was a great world outside and that someday I would get to experience it. The only problem was, the rest of humanity saw surrogates as soulless evil creatures without conscience or impulse control. The propaganda was staggering. We were advertised as lab animals, a necessary evil to better the human race, to better medical science. There were protests by the liberals to treat us humanely, as one might do a dog or a rat. But never to free us.

Aldo had stopped talking and was watching me. Our eyes locked and I kept still as he leaned forward, his mouth inches from mine. I watched his impossibly long eyelashes flutter closed a millisecond before he crushed his lips to mine. This shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected considering that we were alone in my bedroom, but for some reason my dumb mind froze and I could do nothing but watch as my body responded to him with embarrassing enthusiasm. My lips parted and his tongue slid in and out of my mouth with tantalizing slowness, his hands lazily roaming my back and arms. I pressed myself closer to him, to touch all of him, to get inside him.

I’m not exactly sure how long this went on. I think it’s safe to say we lost track of time. Once I saw faint morning light filling the lone window, I broke away and glanced at my serial. “Shit, I have to be at the mill in ten minutes.” I bit my lip, swollen from Aldo’s pressing lips.

Something flashed in his eyes when I spoke and he stood up quickly. He visibly roused himself, a slight tremor wracking his body, as if a spell was suddenly broken and he was waking up. “Yeah, I—I should go.” He looked around for his shirt. Huh, I didn’t remember taking it off. I admired his body before he slipped it back on. He had a tattoo on his right shoulder that I couldn’t make out.

Aldo followed me through the narrow hallways of the building and out into early morning. It was still dark out, and the neon lights from the awning glinted off the metal in his face. He gave me a peculiar look, as if he was battling with himself about something. He bent down and kissed me lightly on the cheek, his metal jaw cool against my skin. My stomach fluttered violently and a tingling spread throughout my fingers. I looked up into his eyes, noticing for the first time how green they were, his lashes full and dark. An egg shaped lump suddenly lodged in my throat.

“I’ll be seeing you,” he said before turning on his heel and walking away. In the quiet of the morning I could hear the hiss of his mechanical joints, marking each movement he made.

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