Sickening blackness and pain
“Lightbright? I’m at the target, but I don’t see the pick-up. Wait a minute–” Something moves in the garbage with a repulsive twitch. “Nope, nothing here but some slummy. He’s givin’ me the creeps. I’m gettin’ out of here.” I hate doing runs in the lower city, but any driver in their right mind does. The trash, the stench, that’s one thing. But the “people” that live down here? Quite another story. Mostly zombie-eyed freaks, screwed up beyond repair on black market chem. There’s still something to be said for what’s natural–
“That is the pick-up, Tosh.”
I do a double take and lean out the window of the levtruck to get a better look at the…thing wallowing in the rubbish. “Seriously? Man, I had no idea...you living up there in that hermetically-sealed bubble. Wouldn’t have expected you having a thing for trash. The things you learn playin’ errand boy–” Honestly, I can’t imagine Bright having a thing for anything. Anything organic, at least.
“You’re disgusting. He’s a business partner.”
“Damn, remind me not to go into business with you.” Keep it at odd jobs; the occasional pick-up and delivery gig, a salvage run here and there. Stay as far away as possible from whatever business this guy was in.
Pulling my bandanna down over my nose– anything to block out that horrible smell– I get out of the ‘truck and throw a spare blanket down in the back. My rig’s not exactly the cleanest thing on the planet, but I’m betting it ranks above the pick-up.
I stare at it– him– for a long minute and chuckle as he manages to drag himself out of the heap, tumbling face-first into the litter blanketing the sidewalk. I’ve got no sympathy for him, even if the poor bastard is mixed up with Bright. He looks comically pathetic, laying there on his face, one arm pinned under him, the other dragging across the ground in what can only be a senseless attempt to right himself. I give him a hand– or rather, a boot to his shoulder, and he flops over, half onto his back. “Aw, gross– he’s all covered in puke and blood.”
His face is gaunt, creased with lines. Blood trickles from his nose. He’s...older. The scene starts to slip from funny to depressing. His eyes are open, glassy and brown in dark, sunken circles– but it’s obvious he’s barely aware of his surroundings. There’s more blood, seeping from a gash in his temple, drying in matted clumps along his receding hairline. His hair is almost completely white, peppered with occasional darker strands, weirdly reversed. He’s a mess, but I’ve got a feeling cleaning him up won’t help much. I shake my head, and roll him into a seated position. “All right, buddy. Time to go see Brighty-bright,” I say, sing-song, like talking to a small child or a drunk. As I’m getting set to haul him back to the ‘truck, I take another look at the sad wreck of a body in front of me, and send to Bright, “are you sure you don’t want me to just ditch him? He…he doesn’t look like he’s gonna make it.”
Which is strange. With the all nanotech swimming in most people’s bodies, pretty much nothing is fatal. Looks like this dude’s got a few gunshot wounds, but dying isn’t as easy as it used to be. You gotta really mean it. Makes me curious what this guy’s deal is…but I know better than to ask Bright. She keeps me on a “need-to-know” basis, and it’s probably for the best. The less I know, the safer for me…and Polly.
“I want him alive, but either way– I need his body.”
She’s spared a lewd comment as I try to hoist him up by his armpits. Skinny bastard, but skinny don’t mean nothing to dead weight. As I’m throwing his limp, stinking body into the back of my truck, a thought occurs to me.
“Brightling– hey, are you sure you want me to bring this guy to your place? He’s kind of, you know…dirty.”
There's a moment of dead air, and I swear I can hear Bright retch. “Don’t remind me, Tosh. I don’t even want to think about it.”
“I’m here. Let me in. Your friend’s gettin’ heavy.”
“Still breathing? Yeah, fat lot of good it does me.”
I tell the doors to open, and turn on the lights that lead back to the lift. Just knowing they’re in the building sends a shiver down my spine, but I watch through the cameras as Tosh staggers down the dimly lit hall, Reilly thrown over his shoulder like a rag doll.
A bloody, germy, plague-infested rag doll.
I keep watching them, Tosh’s every labored step making my heard pound harder. He slumps into the lift, and I switch my view to the cameras inside, staring down at them from high in a corner. My usual vigilance is spiked with adrenaline and fear; a bystander's inability to look away. The lift comes to a halt. The doors open. Tosh shifts Reilly’s weight on his shoulders.
I’m letting them in. Two humans. Two filthy, organic—
“We’re up. How’re we doing this?” Suddenly, I’m frozen, my mind blank as my hand hovers over the cleanroom controls. They can’t come in here. I can’t go out there.
My face burns with shame, perspiration slicks my body. The whole scenario hinges on granting them access to the Inner Sanctum, and I can’t. What was I thinking? Even letting them in as far as the cleanroom…my breath starts coming in gasps, desperate, disgustingly human. The spiral of fear and self-loathing winds tighter and tighter, until—
the filth consuming me— bacteria covering my body, contaminants seeping into my pores—
I choke for air, my sight narrowing to tunnel vision as I struggle to ground myself.
“Bright— are you coming out, or are we coming in?” The sound of Tosh, so near that I can almost physically hear him shakes me; inducing another wave of hysterical visions.
insects creeping across my skin— invading— penetrating— rupturing flesh and festering wounds— the filth—
My eyes are welling with tears. “I don’t know!” I lash out at him and realize I’m speaking out loud. “I don’t know.” Impotence and anguish. “I can’t go out there. I—”
“What am I doing then? Do you want me to dump this guy back outside? Seems like a wasted trip.” He doesn’t bother trying to hide his impatience. I can feel it; I can feel his condescension, his frustration and pity.
It snaps me out of the anxiety attack. No one has the right to pity me. I’m not helpless. I’m not worthless.
I’m smarter, stronger, better, and I have resources most people don’t even know exist. I’m Immaculata Bright, for tech’s sake— idolized and feared by those that know my name...and soon, they all will. I have ways of getting things done. “Tosh, I need you to stay with him.”
“I need you to be my hands.” Think, Bright. Steady your swimming head and think about the situation at hand: one mostly dead Reilly, two bullet wounds, a body full of broken nanomachines—
“No way. I’m missing dinner as it is, and Polly is gonna be pissed—”
“Do you think I care? Boo hoo, your girlfriend’s going to be mad at you. Consider it a favor— maybe you’ll get to have make-up sex.” The words drop with a sneer. It’s a repulsive thought, but my revulsion gives me strength, reminds me of my superiority. Such base biological needs. I don’t give Tosh even a second to respond, to question who’s in control. “Does he have any other open wounds? Besides the obvious ones.” The last of the hysteria has been purged from my thoughts, the words come quickly, evenly, with the right sense of command and urgency.
Tosh groans and lowers Reilly’s inanimate body to the floor of the corridor. “I’m not a doctor, Bright, I’m a truck driver. I’m not doing this.”
His exasperation is plain. He still thinks he’s going to put up a fight. I’m amused. By now Tosh should know what he’s dealing with. Then again, most humans never learn.
“Do you really want him to die?” I cheat, and nudge his brain slightly, just barely...just enough to evoke some sympathy. He won’t know it’s me. He doesn’t even know that it’s something I can do. I don’t mind letting his conscience take the credit.
“I don’t even know this guy! This isn’t my problem—”
Anger, then a pause. I feel him lose focus. Checkmate. I watch from the security camera, towering above them, as he wipes the sweat from his face with his dirty bandanna. He shakes his head. “Ah, shit. All right.”
For the briefest moment, I indulge in human emotion. I smile.