Heterocera

Heterocera Excision (2006): Part One

I don’t really remember very much of this particular short story. It was written for my BSFA Orbiter writing group and I suspect they and I are the only people who have ever seen it. I remember that the title caused some confusion as Heterocera is not a widely-used term, and not everyone has Google on-hand to query unfamiliar words.

Beyond that I don’t remember anything that happens in this story, except that it was probably me trying to do cyberpunk whilst missing the point of cyberpunk. You know what they say: if you’re short on actual ideas, just throw together some fancy tech, a bit of espionage and violence, and a few archetypes to navigate their way through all of that.

They don’t say that, but they probably should.

 

Heterocera Excision (Part One)

She walked into the pub where I was drinking, sashaying up to the bar and making herself obvious in my peripheral vision. It was only early afternoon and I had already been drinking for several hours.

‘It seems like we have need of you again, Clyde,’ she said, turning her gaze on me.

Pointedly, I kept my eyes focused away from my new companion. I raised a glass to my lips with no real intention of taking a sip. The alcohol moistened my lips.

Dubree smiled, disarmingly. I might have been disarmed if I hadn’t known her, or if I had been sufficiently drunk. ‘I can’t say I blame your attitude,’ she said, all buddy-buddy. ‘It must be said that we didn’t take care of you as well as we might.’

‘You might say that,’ I murmured, rolling the rim of the glass back and forth on my lower lip, gaze still fixed behind the bar. I affected to explore anew the all-too-familiar setting. The rank and file of spirits with names both local and exotic: Glenmorangie, Imperial, Nyarlothotep, Sailor Jerry, Moth Dust. There was nothing here that she would drink; nothing that any of her brethren would drink. It was a small defence against their presence, but really only protected my peace of mind. Ordinarily.

My gaze strayed to a filthy glass jar of ancient mobile phones. I had never found out exactly why or how the useless antiques had come to be there. Perhaps some day I would ask a member of staff, were I ever drunk enough to want to spoil the mystery. Next to the jar a grotesque and yet more archaic golliwog leered at me from behind the technological tomb. It was a hideous bloody thing, evidently the comic prize of some raider of car boots, some young craphound who had once worked here. It was falling apart.

I realised that she had spoken again and that I had no awareness of what she had said. This was dangerous. She was dangerous. Affecting to ignore her was one thing, but actually doing so quite another. I shut my eyelids for a few seconds and attempted to compose myself, realising as I did that the spirits had gotten to me.

I opened my eyes and, placing the glass back down on the bar, turned to face her. ‘Mademoiselle. I am unhappy you came to see me here. I’m unhappy you came to see me at all. If you could just get to the point, I would greatly appreciate it.’

Her eyes twinkled. This is not just a figure of speech; she made them twinkle. A little spark of light in pale blue eyes that was gone the same moment you saw it.

‘Dear Clyde, such formalities are unnecessary! Old friend-’ She stressed these words- ‘I think I should like to share a drink with you.’

I turned away but my words were still directed to her. ‘You don’t want to drink with me. You don’t even want to drink any of this.’ I made a vague gesture towards the bounty of the bar.

In turn she ignored me and snapped her fingers together. The barman, alternately studying a sheaf of university notes and browsing a tabloid newsrag, looked up and then dawdled over.

‘Gin and tonic,’ she told him. ‘In a clean glass.’ He nodded and set about fixing her drink.

‘There’s your problem, Clyde,’ she said to me. ‘Or one of them, at least. You never quite got your head around the idea that people adapt.’

That stung a little. ‘People,’ I replied, and took a sip of my drink. I think she smirked at that, although I would never be able to tell if I actually had flustered her. She and her fellows had two typical settings: unflappable and murderous.

The barman placed a glass in front of her and flashed his teeth in a wide, charming grin. She met his eyes and flashed her own smile back. His facial muscles loosened momentarily before resuming a smile that was more forced than before. He retreated to his papers as she flicked the slice of lime off her glass and snorted derisively at the little black plastic straw he’d included.

‘I didn’t realise your gingivitis was quite that pronounced,’ I said. ‘I know a good dentist, if you like.’

She laughed out loud at this. Like everything about her, her laugh was exquisitely tailored and quite hollow. Then she leaned in close to me and said, ‘We want you to kill a Moth.’

She spoke these words as I was gulping down some whiskey and I sputtered involuntarily. Old instincts came into play as I re-composed myself and scanned the room for listeners. There was no-one unusually suspicious. Of course, Dubree would not have risked saying something like that if she weren’t confident we were secure… unless she intended to provoke something else. I sighed. Whether I liked it or not, she was drawing me back into the game.

Dubree watched me with a sly little grin on her frustratingly cute little face. I met her gaze levelly as I fired up neural applications long disused. Dormant implants booted and began passively monitoring my immediate surroundings.

‘My Lord, Clyde. You have a steam engine in your head!’ I frowned at this remark but she widened her grin and continued. ‘Do not worry. We are quite safe. My own countermeasures are more than enough to watch our backs. We will need to upgrade your headware for this task, although I think the old architecture will make a simply divine dummy. No-one will suspect someone with such antiquated implants!’

I kept my own implants running at minimum, wary now. ‘I haven’t agreed to anything.’

‘You will, Clyde. We intend to be oh-so-very persuasive! We are aware that you have run into some severe debts. We will attend to these for you. We will pay you well, and neither your debts nor the upgrades will cut into your fee.’

I grunted. Maybe it was the drink, or maybe it was the desperation I’d been trying to forget, but I was willing to accept her offer. ‘I want you to pay my debts, not “attend” to them. It would be awkward if my lenders turned up dead, or didn’t turn up at all. I want an observer of my choice overseeing any implant installation. I want my payment depositing in disposable accounts, untraceable credit. And after this I want you to leave me alone.’

‘Of course, my old friend. We always leave you alone.’ Dubree pushed the untouched gin and tonic towards me. ‘You’re right: I do not want to drink with you. Enjoy drinking alone. You will receive instructions shortly.’

The barman looked up as she sashayed out again, unashamedly staring at her ass. I snapped my fingers together to get his attention.

‘Don’t even think about it, kid. And I think I need more malt. Give me the bottle.’

#

Let me be frank with you. Dubree and her associates scare the shit out of me. I worked for them a few times when I was a little younger and a lot less wary, and then I got out. There’s something not quite right about them. I’m no conspiracy nut – in fact I think paranoid quackery like that detracts from the threats posed by very real conspiracies – but weird as it sounds, I’m convinced that they’re not quite human. They’ve never claimed to be, and my attempts to press them further have always been carefully evaded. They seem to like the stories people tell, though, about shapechangers and blood-drinkers and necromancy. Bloody vampires: goes to show how seriously people take my suspicions. But whatever they are, they’re not quite human.

I’m not talking about the Moth type of not human. They’re definitely alien to everything of this Earth. It was evident from the moment their ships flitted into sunspace and made instant communication with the fledgling United Administration from sixty-seven light minutes away. No, Dubree et al are human, but only to an extent. I don’t know where the cut-off point is but it’s somewhere short of compassion.

Apparently it stops just short of sanity, too. They want me to kill a Moth?

#

The next day I had two things. The first was one shit of a hangover. The second was a missive from Dubree, coded into my morning digital newsdump in an old-fashioned way. The latter instructed me to meet a certain surgeon at a certain address at a certain time. My hangover instructed me that the world could burn for all I cared.

It took most of my better judgement to force myself through the process of a shower and a shave, at which point I felt well enough to leave my flat. I had to visit an old friend who was familiar with Dubree, and see if he would help me out by overseeing the implant surgery. I hoped he wouldn’t take much persuading; the way I felt, I’d cave in any argument within seconds.

Mike’s place of work was located in a complex around the city centre; I walked there, hoping the fresh morning air would clear my head. Fresh morning air my ass: the current retro fad for drivers was for internal combustion engines, so by the time I walked into the lobby I had a hacking cough and my eyes were more blurred than ever.

At least the elevator up to Mike’s floor was unpolluted. The absence of any external irritatant or pollutant reminded me of what was going on internally, and I had to fight down my rising gorge. Not a good way to greet an old friend. He rose as I entered his office.

‘Morning, Clyde,’ he said, a smile blooming on his face. ‘So who’s on your back?’

I stopped in the middle of shutting the office door and looked over at the man standing behind a desk bigger than some aircraft carriers. ‘What?’

The easy grin on Mike’s face faded a little. ‘Didn’t mean anything, bro. Just looks like you’re in the, ah, doldrums. You look glummer than the last noob I laid off.’

‘Oh,’ I said, and shut the door behind me. I sat down facing Mike, the vast expanse of machined wood between us feeling like a barrier. Power changes people, and these days I’m never sure if Mike is still only pretending to be a wanker. He looks the part well enough, with an expensive hand-tailored suit, a two hundred pound corporate haircut and a perfect set of bleached-white teeth. Christ. When did my best friend become a cliché?

‘Look,’ he said, leaning forwards. ‘I’m sorry, buddy. I don’t even know what’s troubling you, and I’m making light of it. Can I get you a brandy?’

‘I don’t drink brandy, Mike, but I’ll take a cigarette.’

He slid a thin tin over the desk to me and said ‘Cigar.’ I grimaced, but cracked open the tin and slid one out. Mike had turned away from me, reaching for a tumbler and matching decanter, so I bit the end off the cheap smokeable and spat it on his carpet. Then, remembering why I was here, I picked it back up and slipped it into a pocket, lighting the cigar with a disposable lighter.

Once he was settled with his tipple in hand, Mike leaned back and sighed. ‘Okay, Clyde, buddy. Tell me what’s up. You know I’m here to help you.’

‘You’re not going to like this,’ I told him. He grinned an inane businessman’s grin at me.

‘I’m doing another job for Dubree, and I need you to oversee the installation of some new headware.’

That did it. His corporate smirk was gone, replaced by an altogether more honest frown. ‘Megashit, Clyde. That was a long time ago.’

‘Was,’ I repeated. ‘I need to do this.’

Mike put his grimace through a variety of minute permutations as he chewed this over. Then he sighed. ‘I believe you. I had heard that you were in a spot of bother.’

A spot. I suppose to the person Mike had built himself into, that amount of money really was just “a spot”.

‘So you’ll do this for me?’

‘As long as I’m just watching. My involvement ends there. More than that could compromise my position, and I know you wouldn’t want to do that to me, buddy.’ He threw in a cheeky wink here, but it was too obviously forced.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I appreciate it. A lot.’

He shook his head at me. ‘The company you keep, I’m sure you do. Now get out of here. I have clients to see. Important men, Clyde! Very important.’ Here another wink, and this one was far more Mike. He adapted pretty fast, even when he wasn’t trying to hide anything.

‘I’ll be in touch with secure details,’ I told him. I stubbed out the barely-smoked cigar in an ashtray shaped like a post-pomo architectural monstrosity. It looked like my head felt. ‘Be seeing you.’

‘Be seeing you,’ he agreed.

#

Several days later the two of us were stood in a backalley surgery, staring at its only occupant. Mike had ditched the expensive suit in favour of a slightly cheaper set of threads. He wore a plain coat over the top of it along with a set of designer mirrorshades, but his desire for anonymity had not extended so far as spoiling his hair with a hat. As for me, I was wearing the same cheap, beaten outfit I always did when not on a job. I’ve been told more than a few times that I dress like a teenager. Or a tramp.

The implant surgeon was a neat and well-trimmed little man; his bones stuck out beneath his robes as though out of joint, and what little hair was visible was trimmed right down to the skin. He regarded me with an impression of unspecific disdain, which I accepted as behaviour typical of a private sawbones. Mike was at the receiving end of a sharp nod and ignored from that point on. A small measure of respect, I suppose – the wealthy recognising the wealthy. Maybe they can smell money, or maybe it was the cut of the suit, or maybe the surgeon’s headware could detect traces of pure cocaine and expensive saliva around the crotch of Mike’s dry-cleaned trousers. Hell, I’ve no idea how the rich pull this shit off. It might as well be gravity for all I know.

‘She has not sent anyone?’ I asked, breaking the silence. It was the first thing that had been said. Mike and I had stared into a camera outside the address I had been given, and after thirty seconds the door had opened. A narrow corridor led to the surgery and the surgeon.

‘We conferred earlier,’ said the surgeon. ‘I am Dubree’s representative in this.’

Mike spoke up: ‘And what’s your name, doc?’ This met with a tight frown of disapproval, and Mike got the message.

‘The process,’ the surgeon said, continuing as though Mike had not spoken, ‘Will not take long. I am very good at what I do. Even with having to work around your existing hardware, installation will not take more than three hours.’

I grinned as a thought occurred. ‘Are you good enough that I won’t have to go under?’

He glared at me. ‘No.’

It was worth a try. I touched Mike on the shoulder and he bobbed his head. ‘Let’s get started,’ I said, looking at the low chair and the mask that would clamp my head in place. Arcing above it like a scorpion’s tail were an array of probes, needles, vacuuming implements and sundry other devices. I almost began to feel some of the first-timer’s fear; it had been a good few years since I let anyone get inside my head.

‘Into the chair,’ said the surgeon, and I obeyed. Mike seated himself in a simpler model facing me, and crossed his arms.

There was a faint tingling as the surgeon rucked up my sleeve and slid a needle into a bulging vein. My vision began to shrink in on itself like an old-fashioned CRT signal fading. The last thing I saw was a tight little smile on Mike’s face. I think he was watching the surgeon, not me.

Then there was light. And it seemed so much brighter than it had a moment ago.

My vision returned faster than my mental faculties did, so for several minutes all I could do was twitch my head from side to side, gawping and drooling at the lights and colours. Then, with a silent explosion of comprehension, everything clicked into place. I was still locked into the chair. Mike and the nameless surgeon were stood in front of me, looking at me.

‘There we are,’ said the surgeon. I realised that his intent stare was not actually at me, but rather into the components of my eye. ‘The prodigal idiot son is conscious again.’

It was so damn deadpan that it took me a second to realise that he’d made a joke. I was still too groggy to glare, so I suppose it didn’t matter all that much anyway.

‘Fuh,’ I said, stumbling over the syllable. I tried again. ‘Fuck.’

‘You gave him Tourette’s,’ said Mike. I grunted. Yes, I was definitely alive. Mike’s jokes were as bland and uninspired as ever.

‘Tourette’s is a hereditary neurological condition, you fool,’ snapped the surgeon. Then he returned his attention to me. ‘Okay. I’m going to run some diagnostics. Hold still and remain calm or you’ll skew the results.’

He walked to one side, moving into my periphery, and his fingers began to dance over a computer terminal. I forced myself to breath slowly and deeply, and fixed my gaze on Mike. He must have removed his shades while I’d been under.

There was a brief feeling of disconnect, as if my cortex had been violated, and then the sensation was gone.

‘Done,’ said the surgeon. ‘The new implants have taken successfully, and the old are still functioning at sub-optimum efficiency.’ He sniffed in a parody of disdain, still stooped over the keyboard. ‘That is exactly as they were before.’

I closed my eyes and tried to cast around for the connection to my enhanced neural systems. There was nothing.

‘I’m not getting anything here,’ I said, trying to look at the surgeon.

‘Of course not,’ he replied, and looked over his shoulder at me. ‘I have no desire to allow you the opportunity to subvert this medical equipment.’

‘Wow,’ said Mike, and clearly meant it. ‘That’s some pretty impressive hardware.’

‘The best,’ replied the surgeon. He flicked a switch and I felt a series of vibrations as the last of the probes and surgical implements withdrew from my anaesthetised scalp and neck. Mike helped him release the restraints that held me in place. I stood and turned to offer the surgeon some thanks, but he shook his head at me, removing his external headware and focal scope.

For the first time I saw that his eyes were different colours; one was a dull crimson, and the other was grey.

‘Just go,’ he said, ‘and forget that you came here.’

#

[‘Heterocera Excision’, Part One, Shaun Green, 2006. Cover image from Google Image Search.]

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