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"So, mathematical talent, emphasis on spatial logic.Grooming a nullspace architect, eh?" He cracked a plastic smile at thecouple, false courtesy forced by company policy and electrodes stamped on hisnerves. The sales rep clicked the information onto the form. "Now, for anadditional $600 ..." The man's lean face looked like chiseled pork, frostypink and blocky below his oiled Roman bangs. He slid his stylus down the blinkingglass pages as they flexed in his hand. "Eye color?Hair?"
Conrad started and glanced at his wife. She hesitated,reluctantly meeting his eyes. They hadn't even pondered these options. He leanedforward, rubbing his bristly chin. "How much are we up tonow?"
The man across the desk cleared his throat jaggedly, thestrained movement of aged muscles betraying his falsely polished appearance ofyouth. "If you really must place a price on your child's future ..." Heslid the sheaf of glass sheets with the Mbwe-Irving Biologics, Inc. mastheadacross the desk, rows of letters and numbers glowing gray from their paper-thinsurfaces. Conrad and his wife blanched as they looked themover.
"This is, of course," the man behind the desk began as hepulled a rapidly flashing pamphlet from his desk drawer, "an unadjustedfigure. We do offer a sponsorship program for the child ..." The man'sdisaffected manner seemed to thaw. "But think it over. It's a bigdecision."
Conrad looked into the sales rep's eyes as he accepted thepamphlet. "We will." They stood and bowed slightly; shaking hands wasfrowned upon. Not antiseptic.
As they left, Conrad could have sworn he sawa tear run down the sharp angles of the man's cheek. Glancing at the brightposters of the company's happy, genetically enhanced children playing in thecorporate creche, he crumpled the sponsorship pamphlet and threw itaway.
* * *
A brass-hued hookclipped under and up through Conrad's flesh. Bright blue heat spilled throughoutthe small of his back as he felt the skin pulling away. Sheets of flesh unraveledand spooled up inside the insectoid harvesting combine, and Conrad's visionblurred. He tried desperately to think of how each centimeter they took amountedto another thousand marks to pay them off, tried to think of his daughterJuliana's face, that it was all for her. But it was too much; his concentrationdissolved into pain, fear and the soggy realization that soon his back would besealed with dead, unfeeling plastic where living flesh once existed.
Theharvester clacked maddeningly. The hooks dug and the scissors slipped swiftly,slicing quick and clean. A raw hiss of steam from the thing's gearbox bellysurged over his exposed red musculature and a curdling yelp of agony died inConrad's throat.
"Just think of it this way, man." The clinicianpopped up in front of Conrad's hazed eyes, chainmail gleaming at his joints andspurted lines of dark-cherry fluid striping his black leather robes. He slippedhis pale, stick-like hands into baroque piston-branched gauntlets, long roundheadneedles jutting from the fingertips. Strips of flesh-tone plastic tape lay readyin the gloves' dispensers. "A stitch in time saves nine." The clinicianraised his gray mesh facemask and grinned. His glistening synthetic eyeballs boretiny teal and gold logos and the motto, "Property of Mbwe-Irving Biologics,Inc."
* * *
"Honey, wejust want to talk."
The door slammed shut on rusty hinges and flakesof plaster fell like snow. A teenager's exasperated shout was swallowed by animmediate blare of electronic noise threaded through a Bach fugue.
Conradglanced up from the kitchen table covered with work-related papers. He wassimultaneously attempting to correct a thesis by one of his physics students andtap at a thick banker's tablet, an application for another mortgage.
"So she snubbed the Digital Mercantiles kid?"
Conrad'swife nodded as she climbed down the final missing step, sighing. "I tried toexplain to her who his parents are at the DMC, about our mortgage." Shelooked around. "Such as this place is." Another sigh. "I can'tblame her; he was the most obnoxious, over-born ... But if only she couldappreciate where we are financially." She shook a blue pill from its caseand swallowed it. Calm overtook her and she regained composure.
"I'malso concerned about the company she keeps, why she won't take that job atMbwe-Irving or think about her future." She picked a scrap of paper - realantique wood pulp paper - off the floor. "J-A-N" was scribbled acrossit in rough feminine scrawl, underlined in zeros and ones and torn away after thelarge letter N. "And who is this Janno I'm always hearing her discuss withthose friends of hers?"
Conrad only sighed and slid the mortgageapplication into the recycling bin. "Application Denied" had begunwinking across its photosensitive surface before he had even finished filling itout.
* * *
Phillip Conrad wouldbe dead in a year. Luckily, the medical examiners for the Buy 'n' SpendCorporation had either ignored or missed that fact, otherwise he would not havebeen able to secure his new job that would finally achieve financial security forhis daughter. The job had just paid off the loan to Mbwe-Irving and thus assuredtheir corporate lawyers would never come to repossess their product:Juliana.
He had sold his left kidney, one and a half lungs, both of hiscorneas and even the majority of his body fat. Any skin concealed by clothing hadbeen pawned and replaced with cold, sensationless nylon fabric.
His wifehad divorced him. They still loved each other, but desperately needed the taxbreak given to single mothers. His cauterized tear ducts welled feebly at thememory of their parting, the water repelled by his new plasticeyes.
* * *
So there he was atthe Buy 'n' Spend convenience store at the corner of First and Foundry, sprayingthe counter with carbolic acid so it would be antiseptic for each and everycustomer. His atrophic face smiled in a preprogrammed pattern whenever someonewalked in. A ribbed hose fed him constantly, pumping nutrients directly into hisdigestive system through a hookup in his belly. Each twitch of his misshapen facewas relayed to his senses as if through a mile ofcotton.
"That'll-be-thirty-eight-fifty-seven." He slurred thelast syllable of anything he said, an inescapable flaw in the speech software'salready wooden syntax. It was a schizophrenic feeling, he reflected from behindthe empty place in his head, the place the surgeons hadn't carved out in order toinstall antennas and microchips to run his body. Phillip Conrad sat behind hispale, failing flesh while unseen puppeteers pulled his strings according toprograms and company policy. His mind was shackled, a prisoner in a meat-forgedrobot. "Have-a-nice-day-and-thank-you-for-shopping-at-Buy'n'Spennnd."
A girl was at the Net hookup, looking itover and checking its interfaces against those of her own equipment. A few of herfriends wandered about the store, mulling over purchases. She looks familiar,Conrad thought, as she balked at the numbers on the hookup.
"Ahoy,shopkeep!" A frozen burrito smashed against the flimsy barrier betweenConrad's booth and the store. "I say there, ahoy! Are these," she saidand tapped the LED speedometer, "the bulliest rates you've got?" Thegirl's slang piqued more memories for Conrad, and something seemed to lock intoplace. He knew this girl. There was a relationship of some sort between them, anda name for her, if only he could remember.
For now the Buy 'n' Spendoperating system kicked in, his head turning slowly. "I'm sorry, shopper, weare currently connected at slow speeds while the system undergoes upgrades. Asalways, your best interests are in mind as we expand to meet the needs of thecustomers ..." His spiel went on and on.
Daughter. This was hisdaughter before him. Her name, damn it, what was her name? It was like thinkingthrough syrup, slow and warm and clogging what was left of his mind.
Oneof the males with her spoke. "You know, lassie mine, these shopkeeps've gottheir noggins wired clean up, quick to the Net." He flexed his arms then,showing incontrovertible evidence of genetic alteration by his parents."Fancy we get the bully click from this 'n's?"
Conrad wascertain that her name started with an "S." Or maybe a "G."His daughter. Why didn't she recognize him? He could no longer register theconcept that his appearance was dozens of wires and whip antennae jangling atophis metal-domed skull, far from his once-human visage as father,caretaker.
"Yes, yes, I fancy that'd do real bully then." Thegirl slid her knapsack down, reaching inside for something. The two other youthstrode to the booth, punching through the thin plastic with their gene-tweakedstrength and agility, inborn gifts awarded by loving parents who wanted so muchfor them to have the best in life that they were willing to give up fantasticsums and even more. Seeing the destruction of his cubicle, Conrad mentally notedthat everything would need to be re-disinfected, but the flood of memory andemotion that this daughter-person evoked soon pushed it out of hishead.
Dully, he sensed impact as his face hit the countertop. A sensationof splitting, twisting pain streaked away from his head as the girl applied apower drill to the screws on his head. The lid of his skull was ripped away andlight flooded the soggy innards of his hollowed-out skull. Fingers poked attarnished boxes and coiled electronic components, lengths of diode and resistorminiaturized and slipped in around meaty remnants of a chopped brain.
Thegirl used a small knife to cut and strip one of the wires slithering from hismain antenna, splicing it to her own Net equipment. A screwdriver prodded a hunkof frontal lobe, and a memory surfaced abruptly along with one of anauburn-haired child in his arms.
The girl's name was Juliana. And she wasgouging out his brain.