Zeth dry-swallowed the pill and shut his eyes, repeating come on, come on over and over again in his head. He hadn’t eaten for two days to make sure his stomach would process it as quickly as possible.
“You’re welcome,” the dealer, Alix, said sarcastically, fading into the background under his hood.
One of Zeth’s friends shouted something at him over the din of the music but he didn’t hear him. He didn’t even remember the guy’s name. He was already sweating, but pushed further into the furnace of the crowd and started to dance; anything to encourage it to kick in.
The music was indiscernible. He tried to focus more, pick out a groove or a tempo or anything, but couldn’t. The music was irrelevant anyway. He massaged his stomach as if somehow that would start proceedings. He suddenly wished he hadn’t had to come to a club to score. He didn’t want anything to ruin this moment.
Someone with long hair pushed themselves up against his cold, wet body and shouted: “We won it! 100 years of hurt! Never stopped believing!” right in his face, eyes slammed shut and rapturous ecstasy plastered all over his face. Zeth felt a pang of jealousy, but he had tried that one recently and it had left him apathetic. He’d never really been that much of a football fan.
No, what he’d just taken was the absolute peak. Nothing came close. But the waiting was killing him. Come on, take me up he thought. His fists were balled tightly shut and he was vibrating on the spot, out of sync with the music and the rest of the clubbers.
And then it hit him.
His eyelids slammed shut and a wave of light washed over him. He audibly moaned as his body relaxed.
He took in his new surroundings – a small, white-washed room, with a woman lying exhausted in front of him – and held his arms out. What came next he experienced as if for the first time, every time. That was what this newcotic gave you.
Into his arms was lowered a tiny lump of skin and hair, wriggling as it tried to process where it was. He felt a huge grin spread over his whole body as he slowly rocked from side to side. Tingles ran up and down his arms and spine, and tears welled in the corners of his eyes.
“She’s perfect isn’t she?” A voice cooed from the bed, just out of focus. “She’s yours, and no-one can ever take that away.”
Zeth nodded and stared into the ball of life now lying peacefully in his arms. This is just…there are no words for it, he thought. I must be glowing.
Zeth opened his eyes again and suddenly the club around him had changed. It was full of all of his best friends, rubbing him on the back and telling him how much they loved him. The walls were soft and furry and welcoming. The track pulsating out of the speaker-towers was his favourite song of all-time and he couldn’t believe they were playing it. He made eye-contact with the DJ, who winked and seemed to mouth: “This is for you Zeth. I knew you’d want to hear it.”
Bliss, he thought, I wouldn’t trade this for anything.
Zeth came round on the floor of his apartment, next to the bath, which seemed to be overflowing. He groaned and started to retreat into a foetal position. His entire skeleton felt uncomfortable, but that was it. He was mainly just empty. He wondered what day it was but then realised it didn’t matter. He had no desire to do anything. Well, anything other than find another score. He rolled onto his back and tried to formulate a plan.
“Call Alix,” he grunted to his grey apartment.
“Calling Alix,” came the monotone reply.
“Good afternoon, Mr Personality,” boomed through the apartment as Alix answered with a sigh. “Let me guess: you want to go for a beer this evening and talk to me about a girl you like?”
“Very funny,” Zeth said. “You know why I’m calling.”
“You need to give it a rest mate, seriously.” No reply. Alix paused. “Have you ever had a genuine feeling in your life?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You disgust me. As in, I feel disgust towards you. And pity. And sadness.”
“What’s pity?” Zeth asked.
Silence. Not awkward, just a fact.
“Look, can you help me or not?”
Alix sighed again.
“I told you I was out last time. Then I found one more for you and we agreed that that was probably that.”
“I don’t believe you. Whatever it takes, just find me one more. Money? Power? Fame? Name your price. You know who my father is.”
“I’m not holding out on you mate. I’m telling you it isn’t possible. It doesn’t exist. I understand that no-one’s ever said ‘no’ to you before, but please, listen to the words I’m saying. It can’t be done.”
“It can always be done.”
“How about something else?
“Not this again.”
“The first man to walk on Enledadus and stare back at the solar system?”
“Or, how about headlining LiveEarth in front of three million people all screaming your name?”
Suddenly Zeth had an idea. How have I not thought of this before?
“Shut up a minute and listen. I have an idea.”
Here we go, Alix thought.
“What if I find my own host and we harvest it directly from him? There will be someone out there about to experience it for real, desperate enough to sell it to me in exchange for lifetime security.”
Alix didn’t want to think about this. He was under no illusions where the newcotics he sold originated from, but still.
“Great. That’s settled then! You’ll find me an expectant father, make him an offer, and then I’ll get another hit. I’ll send one of my men to help you in case you meet any resistance.”
“I don’t need…”
Zeth hung up. He half-sat up and dragged himself into the living room, his mind starting to tick over.
“Play Her Date With a Chainsaw,” he said to the apartment. A screen lowered and showed a naked blonde girl tied to a table. She struggled, eyes darting from side to side.
Zeth turned the sound up and panic filled his apartment.
Now three masked men entered the scene. One put both of his hands around her throat, one slowly started to rape her and the third man held a running chainsaw menacingly close to one of her feet.
Who would invent such a torture device? He thought briefly, before realising he didn’t care.
PLEASE SELECT YOUR CHARACTER ZETH read the on-screen prompt, as the three men got into their stride.
Zeth stared out the window, already bored, and fell back to sleep, screams and splatter echoing all around him as the three men went to work.
“I ain’t hiring a fuckin’ Paki. Off you go now.”
Arshesh stared at the disgustingly overweight woman opposite him. He had expected this response, but nevertheless, it still hurt.
“Well, thank you for your time,” he said meekly.
“Fuck off,” she said, already turning away on the large swivel-chair that was also her car and her bed and her toilet.
He walked out the backdoor of the fast-food franchise and wanted to punch something, or cry, or both. He pulled out a piece of paper and slowly crossed the last name off his list.
Congratulations, he thought, you’re officially unemployable.
He started to walk home, wondering what to say to Dina. How can I be a man if I can’t even provide for my wife? He shook his head again, cursing himself. And how can I be a father if I can’t even keep a roof over the little one’s head?
“I could compete in the Fights?” Arshesh offered tentatively, hoping she wouldn’t think it was a good idea.
“Are you crazy? You’ll get killed! They shoot the fighters up with Allah-knows-what! Even if you somehow managed to win, I don’t want the father of my child full of the rage of a murderer!”
“Well, I’m out of options,” he said, sitting down dejected.
“Look, let me go out again and work a night or two on my back. It wasn’t so bad before.”
“Dina – my love – if you think I’m letting my pregnant wife sell her body for sex then you clearly don’t know me very well. The idea’s repulsive.”
“So’s being homeless!”
“What? It’s alright for you to kill for money, but it’s not alright for me to spend five minutes staring at the ceiling, stifling a yawn? I don’t care what they do because I know why I’m there, and I know that I’m getting more from them than they’re getting from me.”
“But.” Arshesh was struggling. “But I’m the man Dina.”
“Congratulations Arshesh, and I’m the woman. But together we’re a family, and I’d do whatever it takes to provide for us.”
“What, and I wouldn’t?” He glared at her, powerless and exasperated. “I’ve tried everything! This is no country for people like us anymore. What kind of land will advertise – advertise! – for a contract killer, and then turn their nose up you for being a minority? You should’ve seen the look on this fat whale’s face earlier. She spat the word ‘Paki’ out like it was a mouthful of shit. That’s what we are to these people! We’re just trying to survive dammit.”
He didn’t realise he was crying until Dina had him in her arms.
“It’s ok husband. We’ll think of something. As long as we have each other all is not lost. Me and you against the world, remember?”
She paused, racking her brain for anything else to avoid what she was about to suggest.
“I’ll call Gorge. We don’t have any other choice.”
“We don’t have any other choice.”
“And this is Arshesh. He’s a, er, friend of mine. Remember, the guy I told you about?”
A large man leaned half out of the shadows and looked Arshesh up and down.
“He’s Paki. This won’t work. You wasted my time Gorge. Again.”
“What difference does it make?” The weasely man said. “A kidney’s a kidney! No-one will know it’s from a Paki!”
“Trust me, they’ll know.”
The man started to walk off.
“Wait,” Arshesh shouted. “There must be something you want from me! Hair? Skin? Eyes?”
“Listen mate, I’m sorry but my answer’s the same.” He paused. “For the record, I’m not the one judging you. I really am sorry.”
Gorge scrambled after the man, trying to placate him, but Arshesh just stayed still and swallowed.
“What about newcotics,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
The big man stopped in his tracks and Gorge walked right into the back of him. He turned with a scowl, grabbed Gorge’s small face with one of his hands and pushed him back against the alleyway wall with enough force to knock him unconscious.
He approached Arshesh, still keeping his head concealed by shadow.
“Your mate’s a twat. You know that right?”
“He’s my wife’s cousin,” Arshesh said with a shrug. “I’m desperate.”
“I get that,” the big man. “So, what have you got for me?”
“What do you need?” Arshesh asked, already out of his depth.
“Ha! Anything and everything my friend. Variety is the spice of life, as they used to say. Any kind of contentment. Or passion. Concentration. Arousal.” He stopped mid-flow, reconsidering his surroundings. “Only, if you had any of those you probably wouldn’t be stood here would you?”
Arshesh stared at the floor, silent.
“Disgust? Jealousy? Rage? Any of these ringing any bells?”
“Well, I sure don’t like that guy lying up against that wall over there. Once he came to my house and slapped my wife in the…”
“Please,” the big man said, turning to leave again, “hate’s the only feeling anyone’s got left.”
“Great,” Arshesh shouted. “So now my son’s going to grow up without a father, in a world so corrupt and consumed with hate, that everything else is for sale!
“Or daughter,” he said, almost as an aside to himself.
“Hey, don’t put this on me!” The big man shouted over his shoulder. His voice boomed down the right alley, fired straight at Arshesh. “I didn’t…wait, say that again?”
Arshesh looked up at the man as he walked back.
“Say what again?”
“The last thing you just said.”
Arshesh racked his brain.
“Or daughter,” he said tentatively.
“You don’t know?”
“Well, he hasn’t been born yet. Or she.”
“There might be some business we can do after all,” the big man replied.
A smile crested the corners of Alix’s mouth.
Nyomy was distracted. She’d been awake for 27 hours straight, and working for 26 and a half of them. An emergency’s an emergency, she thought, looking at her hands and trying to remember which pipette was which.
“Display,” she said to the room. “Which one is ‘progressively molested by father and uncles,’ and which one is ‘scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final?’”
Wouldn’t want to get those two mixed up, she chuckled to herself.
“Molestation is green – in your left hand – and the World Cup is aquamarine. It’s also in that beaker you spilled in the sink,” came the distant, cold reply.
“Dammit!” Nyomy said, not sure whether to try and salvage the spilling emotion or let it linger down the drain.
Leave it, she decided, World Cup Winner’s two-a-penny. She knew it was one of her company’s best-sellers, so not worth jeopardising what she was currently working on for the Police force.
A strange feeling – sadness? – came over her as she ran through the logistics of what she held distilled in her left hand. This is the story of some poor bastard’s real life. And I’m making it so that some other poor bastard will think it’s the story of his. All for what? Get him to roll over on a couple of his mates?
“Dr Grey, time for your morning meds,” chimed the room’s robotic supervisor.
She’d been taking mood-elevators and stimulants for so long in the lab that she was more disturbed by the fact that it was morning again.
But what day? She thought.
“Hot off the presses,” the delivery cart chirped as she signed the release form with a pin-prick of blood from her thumb. “So to speak.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “Anything interesting?”
“Strictly top secret. European Army specifications. Freshly harvested from a host this morning.”
Nyomy flicked the cover sheet onto her lab’s display unit. It really was fresh; twenty-minutes-ago-fresh.
She was always drawn to the story behind the harvest.
A violent prisoner called Wave Gobbs was unexpectedly released last night. Wave travelled back home – predictably – to find his loving wife unaware, and apparently straddling his best friend in his favourite lounge chair. He saw them from outside, through the window, and grabbed the nearest weapon to hand; an old-fashioned garden hoe. As he was about to kick the door in and slice both their throats, the Police officers, who had of course trailed his every move since release, moved in and harvested that precise mix of rage, betrayal, confusion and suicidal self-loathing.
Lovely, she thought.
And now it was up to her to turn that potent emotional cocktail into an aerosol, ready to be released above the vanguard of the Chinese army, currently stationed just outside Zagreb.
Just another day, she sighed.
Certain compounds – narcotics and newcotics alike – were banned by the 2025 refresh of the Geneva Convention, but as ever, loopholes were found.
A whole army thinking they’ve all just found their wife sleeping with their best friend. Sheesh. They’ll wipe each other out. She paused. Saves our guys dying though.
“Crucial news update,” boomed the display unit, flicking directly over to a live news broadcast and breaking her concentration. A reporter scurried over a battlefield somewhere to a man lying prostrate on the ground. As the camera drew closer you could tell that the man’s intestines were boiling up out of a hole in his stomach.
“How do you feel, son?” The reporter asked. “Tell the people that your country is really worth dying for?”
The man reached up and started to mouth something. It might’ve been ‘help me.’
“Boring,” Nyomy said to no-one in particular, leaving the lab to go get a sandwich.
She saw through the slit of darkness above the toilet stall that it was night again. Longest day ever.
“Incoming call from Alix,” she heard, piped straight into her ear.
“Howdy baby bro,” she said. “What’s shaking?”
“Can you talk?” He asked quietly.
“Let me just check,” she said. “Hey, I’m out of toilet paper,” she shouted. “Can anyone help me out please?”
She waited. No response.
“All clear. What can I do you for?”
“Still want to make some serious money?” He asked, his voice huskier than she remembered.
“Yeah…I mean, of course,” she stuttered. “What do you need?”
“I’m outside your lab now. Let me in.”
Fuck, she thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
She flushed the toilet and went straight to the medical bay for a belt of mood stabilisers.
“Alix, what the fuck?” she shouted. “Who are these two knuckleheads?”
“You wanted to make some money off the books, right? Well, this is what it takes. Meet Arshesh, our host, and Zeth, our client.
She stared at a terrified-looking Asian man in clothes that were falling apart. She moved to shake his hand and he cowered back in his seat. Next to him was an unpleasant young man, covered in gold and diamonds and gaudily-labeled clothes. His hair was slicked back and he had sunglasses on. She nodded at him but he just stayed motionless. She could tell he was a husk of a human being, and that this was a very bad idea.
“Listen up people,” Alix said, clapping his hands, and momentarily jarring Zeth from his trance. “This is my sister, Dr-“
Nyomy coughed pointedly.
“Right,” Alix said, “Sorry. This is Dr, er, Spock. And she is going to be taking care of this little transaction for us. She’s done this hundreds of times before.”
Not true, Nyomy thought.
“And she really wants to help you both out as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
Alix went over the finer points of a deal they’d clearly already discussed before arriving here tonight, and then the four of them all shook hands, in some oddly quaint ritual of trust, and presumably, sanity.
The actual birth was still more than a fortnight away – at least – which was plenty of time for Nyomy to ignore it, and pretend she wasn’t involved in anything untoward.
She’d never met a client before – end user, you mean – let alone an actual host. That’s because most hosts either don’t want to be a host, or don’t know they are! Christ, she thought, this is rough.
Her lab was nice and secure, and removed from the actual reality of what she did. She realised very quickly that she liked it that way.
Five million Euros is still five millions Euros though.
She wondered how much Arshesh was getting, and it didn’t take too much imagination to conclude that it was probably significantly less than that.
And he’ll instantly forget how it felt to hold his child; how it felt to form that bond; how it felt to be on top of his own private world.
Her eyes felt glassy in her head and she wondered when the last time she’d looked at herself in a mirror was.
She shook her head and turned the lab display on.
“Play Cleopatra’s Court,” she said, looking down the hall into the other labs – all seemingly deserted – before locking the door. She rifled through a drawer until she found the pill she was looking for.
She picked up the haptic headset and slid into the haptic bodysuit hanging on the back of the lab door.
She looked down at her virtual body as it sat on jewel-encrusted throne. To her left and to her right were shirtless, muscle-bound guards smiling at her.
“Your majesty,” one of them said, with a bow.
“You two,” she said, pointing at two tanned twins with shaved heads, before getting on all fours on the tiger-skin carpet in front of the throne. “At the same time.”
She sighed as they entered her prone body.
“Arsh! Arsh! It’s happening! Our baby’s coming, my water just broke!” Dina screamed. “Call an ambulance!”
Arshesh called someone, but it wasn’t an ambulance.
“Dina, there’s something I need to talk to you about,” he said quietly.
Dina’s breathing was as erratic as Alix’s driving as jerked in, around and above traffic, his nitrous lateral boosters shooting them 10-feet in the air almost instantaneously when they hit a snag.
“Call Nyomy,” he said to the car.
“Little bro,” she sighed. “Calling to take me out for dinner?”
“No Nyomy. It’s happening now, get prepared.”
“Shit. Ok, ok. I’ll be ready. Bye.”
“Call Zeth,” Alix said, scanning his rear-view mirror for anyone tailing him. Can never be too careful.
“What?” Zeth sounded even further removed from reality than before.
“Charming,” Alix said. “I guess you don’t want this hit after all then?”
“No,” he panted. “Sorry. I didn’t know. Of course. Where are you? I’ll be there now.”
“Meet us at the lab Zeth. As discussed.” Alix wanted to be the one to hang up this time.
“Will he be ok?” Arshesh asked.
“I hope so. We all need to hope so.”
“What…the hell…have you got…us…into?” Dina puffed from the backseat.
Arshesh turned to look at her and all he saw was anger. He reached out to try and hold her hand but she snatched it away.
He thought, I wonder if that rage is worth anything, and then immediately felt like the scum of the Earth.
“Where is everyone else?” Alix asked as he wheeled a panting Dina in through the back door of the lab. “The car park’s totally empty.”
Arshesh ran along behind, struggling to keep up with Alix’s huge stride.
“I don’t know,” Nyomy said, genuinely confused. She tried to remember the last time she saw another person in the building, but couldn’t. She also tried to remember the last time she left the lab, but again, couldn’t.
Zeth arrived shortly afterwards, still wearing sunglasses. He looks terrible, Nyomy thought. Like he’s lost half in bodyweight in the last 10 days. He wore a designer leather jacket that barely bulked his now-child-like arms out.
Without saying anything he walked over to Arshesh, put a finger in the middle of his forehead and just smiled wonkily. He started to shake as Arshesh shrank.
“Let’s get this over with,” he slurred. “Open these two up so they can get out of my sight.”
“They’re not petri dishes,” Nyomy found herself saying, in a rare unconsidered and emotional response.
“Shut your cunt,” Zeth said, pulling something out of his pocket and lighting it.
Alix prickled, but thought of the money him and his sister were about to make. He shot her a look that conveyed the same. She nodded, barely-visibly, and then apologised to Zeth through gritted teeth.
“Fine. Whatever.” He exhaled some of whatever he was smoking and his head lolled forward like a string doll. “Just hurry the fuck up.”
“So,“ Nyomy said, trying to exert a bit of control over the ensuing chaos. “this is what’s going to happen. We’re going to take Dina into Lab 138, down that corridor; it’s sterile and I have all the necessary meds already prepared. Arshesh will of course join us. Zeth and Alix will wait in the Lab opposite.
“Now normally the way this would work is that we would harvest the emotion from our host, distill and refine it into a pill or a solution, but in this case, we can port it directly – from host to client, via the harvesting headsets.
“It should be the purest transmission of any newcotic in history.”
She felt a swelling of something inside her – pride? – but she dismissed it. Even she wasn’t delusional enough to think that doing something illegal for a huge pay-off could be defined as scientific advancement. Still, she thought, I should be documenting this.
“The second we capture Arshesh’s response, we move across the hall, and connect the two of you together.”
She looked over at Arshesh and felt like giving the small Pakistani man a big hug. No-one said anything and she found her mind drifting off elsewhere.
“Right,” Alix said, “best get on with it then.”
Dina gave birth, without complication, to a perfectly healthy baby girl, and as the robot antenatal nurse passed the child to Arshesh, he was already flooding with tears. He held the child so tightly and so closely that Nyomy started to worry that the little thing might get smothered.
Arshesh stared into her gestating eyes and smiled. The tiny girl casually stretched a hand out and gripped his thumb. Arshesh started to shake and looked up to see his wife also now in tears, but grinning at him. She mouthed “I love you.”
At that exact moment Nyomy said “now” under her breath.
Two tiny needles flew out of the sides of the headset Arshesh was wearing and injected a series of nanobots straight into the various pleasure-centres around the brain. The chemical releases, the sensory information, the memories beng written, the bloodflow patterns, the neuronal and electrical reponses – everything – were not only captured, but removed from Arshesh’s brain. He had been harvested, and in the moment that the light left his eyes, he knew something had happened. He looked down at the bundle in his arms and seemed disorientated. Before he could say anything, Nyomy intervened.
“This way please,” she said.
Zeth was lying down waiting, overburdened by so much excitement that Alix had had to restrain him.
“Do it, do it, do it,” he said, spit flying out in every direction.
Nyomy sat Arshesh down and plugged the back of his headset into the panel in between their two beds.
“Give it to me,” Zeth shouted.
“You might feel a small prick,” Nyomy said, hitting a button on the console next to her. It felt strange to not use a voice command, but needs must.
Zeth’s headset lit up and needles inserted themselves into his head. His grin overtook the bottom half of his face and he panted in what would’ve been sexual ecstasy, had he remembered what that felt like.
Nyomy hit another button, which released nanobots into Zeth’s head. She stood, not breathing and staring at the two men lying down in front of her. A minute passed and she looked at Alix. He gave her the ‘what are you doing, girl?’ look that is the stock of all brothers.
“Where is it, where is it?” Zeth muttered.
Nyomy slowly raised an iron wrench that she’d found in an old cleaning cabinet near the car park, and slammed it into the side of Zeth’s head, knocking him out cold.
Arshesh’s eyes widened and he started to shake his head from side to side.
“No, no, no, no,” he chattered.
“Oh what have you done this time sis?” Alix said.
Arshesh’s face lit up, and the tears came pouring back out as he remembered everything about his daughter’s birth, relieving it again. Like the first time, every time – exactly what the advertising would say, if it had any.
“But,” he said, “I don’t understand.”
Nyomy opened her desk drawer and handed him a stuffed envelope full of Euros.
“Something for the university fund,” she said, smiling the most involuntary smile she could remember having. “I gave you back what I’d just harvested, and instead sucked out his overwhelming excitement and anticipation.” She nodded towards the still-limp body of Zeth.
“Not quite as big a pay-day, but it should fetch a decent price,” she said to Alix. “Let me just filter it a bit.”
Alix stood motionless, trying to process what he’d just seen. He saw how happy Arshesh was as he tore the headset off and ran next-door to be with his family, and shrugged.
“We’ll be ok. I imagine a few middle-of-the-road sportsmen wouldn’t mind a hit of what he was cooking up there, get them fired up for Sunday league like it’s the FA Cup final.”
“Do you hate me?” Nyomy asked.
“Of course not.”
“Do you think he’s going to hate me?” She asked, nodding towards Zeth.
“Probably. But he should thank you! I expect that without the feeling that’s in those bots, he won’t be addicted anymore.”
“That was the idea,” she said, with a self-deprecating shrug. “But I’m not going to hold my breath.”
They stood in silence, just existing alongside one another.
“Hey!” she said. “Bated breath. You should call it Bated Breath. Could be a real big money-maker!”
“Could be,” he sighed, picking up his huge frame off the wall and getting ready to leave. “After this I’m done.”
He wondered if even he believed that.