Originally published on Perihelion in March of 2017.
I wear the skin the job requires.
It’s supposed to be enough. This is my mantra, unassailable even now, my only tether in the darkness that fills my head, blunting all thought as I drift. Long enough to know something’s wrong, but not enough to care. Behind me, a metal door screeches open. I’m no longer alone.
Water slaps me in the face, forcing open my eyes. I rear back at the rush of cold, and an ache in my right temple kindles to life. Plastic zip ties halt my wrists, anchoring me to a straight-backed chair. My mind stutters. I was headed for a rave in the factory district, took a shortcut, but . . .
A naked bulb glares down, and my eyes water as I try to figure out where I am. Nowhere I’ve been before—I’d remember the meat locker vibe and the overwhelming stench of ammonia.
The water dribbles down my neck, collecting in the collar of my shirt. The restraints abrade my new tattoos. All I can do is shiver in the cramped little room and blink back the fierce light.
“Where’s your handler?”
The owner of the voice remains backlit, but I make out enough of his form—maybe a foot taller than me with linebacker shoulders. That’s right. He’s the thug who jumped me in the alley on my way to the drop. Was supposed to be at the rave by now, making sure to refill my glass at exactly 1:43 a.m. to alert the client to my presence. The skin would do the rest.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say through a mouth of sandpaper. Coarse grit. I wobble the chair back and forth. “Seriously, what the hell is all this?”
“Took us a while to pin you down. But we’ve been watching, Callie.”
My name sound like a curse on his lips, and a shudder tears through me, knocking my spine against the chair back. “You’re crazy. Let me go.”
My skin is perfect down to the last detail: blue-green tattoos wreathing my light brown forearms, metal cuffs studded with LEDs fitted across my shins and thighs, exposed by my floor-length skirt’s transparent panels. If I squint I can make out the faint glow of the bioluminescent protein grafted to the soft skin under my eyes. Jellyfish, I think. Everything Marco specified. Only he and the client that was supposed to approach me during the rave should know the combination of mods for this particular job.
But somehow this guy knows who—no, what—I am.
I’ve been compromised. That’s never happened before, and the novelty of it wars with the dead feeling in my stomach. Pushing past my headache, I try to access my implant. Offline. Hazy sensory impressions rise to the top. I remember a brief scuffle, a blow to the head, a sharp prick on my neck before the darkness came. The man must have taken care of my implant then. Marco probably doesn’t know what happened yet.
The man chuckles and steps closer. The light falls on the taser in his tanned hand. Blue electricity arcs between the contact points. He holds it up to my neck, where my silenced implant sits under my skin. “Cut the act. We know you know, sweetheart.”
Scalp prickling, I can only stare up at him. Bullet shaped head, a fake scar running below his right eye—too calculated to be real. Lots of thugs sign up for that particular mod to look tough without having to earn it. Hired help. But for whom?
Marco always said skins are an information courier’s best weapon. Constantly changing, they allow us to stump the cameras and operate safely in plain sight. He said it would be enough.
The taser starts to hum.
He was wrong.
“Well?” the parlor tech asked as he held the mirror in front of me. “What do you think?”
Long graphene rectangles had been grafted to both of my cheeks, along my collarbones, down my arms, the long line of my shins. My fingers tripped along the seam between skin and the digital plaques. Amazing. And mine.
The tech laughed at my silence. “First time, huh?”
I sheepishly nodded. It had taken me a long time to decide on this particular parlor. Reviews said they were welcoming of first-timers, and the warm wood-paneled interior had set me at ease as soon as I walked in.
“Well, you’ll be able to use your implant to program them to display . . . anything really, so have fun.”
I finally pulled my gaze away from my altered reflection and gave the tech a smile. “Thank you.”
When I got home, I dressed myself with care, selecting clothes that would keep the plaques uncovered as they shuddered through different colors according to my mood. Then I went back out.
Some people blithely drifted by, their implant’s proximity sensor helping them navigate the crowd as they synched. But others saw. They had to peer beyond the information clogging their view, but when they saw me, that little pause, the slight widening of the eyes, I knew I existed outside of myself.
A heady feeling. Despite the confusion, the disgust even, that cycled across their faces. But at least I didn’t get lost in the competing noise.
Across the street, a man watched me. Not a disbelieving stare or a furtive glance like the ones who’d come before—he didn’t look away when my gaze connected with his. For a moment, I thought he’d walk on. But no. His steps slowed, then he decisively turned and took the crosswalk to my side of the world.
He looked so comfortable in his skin. His dark arms were bare, alive with electric ink. The tattoos writhed, changing too quickly for the eye to settle on any one design. They held me rapt as he came to stand in front of me.
“Well? Is it working?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
His gaze traveled from the plaques on my cheeks down my body with languid ease. “Performance art? Social experiment?”
Those terms were inadequate, but the truth seemed weak by comparison. “I just wanted to be seen.”
Something kindled to life in his liquid dark eyes. “Well, I see you.” A tattoo, not quite as chaotic as the rest of them, peeked out above the collar of his shirt. A small, ink-black tree, branches constantly fluttering as if stirred by an invisible breeze. Remarkable.
“Are you . . . Do you . . . ” feel the same, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
He shifted closer, allowing me to touch the warm skin of his arm. My fingers followed the lines of ink as they jumped over lean muscle, then got lost at the edges of his shirt. The tattoos were beautiful and bizarre, and I wanted.
“Where did you get this done?” I asked.
A grin lifted the corner of his mouth. “It’s a secret. What about yours?”
“No Regrets on Fourth Street.”
He nodded, a finger hovering out between us, before ever so gently sliding across the plaque mounted to my right cheek. My skin had fully healed, but it was still tender at his touch. “They do good work. I could get lost in your colors.” His voice was throaty with the hint of an accent.
Using my implant, I tried to see who he was, but his signal was cloaked. Smiling kindly at my disappointment, he handed me a card to a club—the Plastic Factory. He gestured to the people swerving to avoid us. “When this is no longer enough, come find me.”
Then he walked on, leaving my digital plaques in kaleidoscopic chaos.
My body convulses awake, the memory of static discharge still sharp in my mind. Must have passed out. I bite down on my tongue, willing the sensations away. The metallic taste in my mouth grounds me slightly.
I’m almost myself again except I don’t remember how I got from the chair to an exam table. An IV port interrupts the vines of blue-green ink wrapped around my left arm.
I lift my aching head. A high ceiling studded with skylights, walls of thin metal sheeting . . . some sort of warehouse? Air leaks out of my lungs when I see another exam table—a woman strapped there. Then another. And another. Dozens of them. All unconscious, but each with the same height and build as me.
A shudder rolls through me. Skins are convincing, but they can’t alter the frame underneath. They’ve been hunting for me.
My heart monitor squeals, and I jump.
I thought maybe I slipped up, or they got lucky. Not such a large-scale operation. Marco said a lot was riding on this job, but who—
A door slams open. The man from before looms over my table with his scar in all its fake glory. “Ready to talk?”
I try to look helpless. It’s not hard in my current state. “I don’t know what you mean.” If he’s still asking questions, then I have to believe they haven’t found the data. Yet. Maybe there’s still a way out of this.
The man sneers, his scar stretching across his cheekbone. “Marco. The jobs you do for him.” His gaze turns predatory. “We already know about the rest.”
Marco deals in information. The kind that can’t be securely transmitted through the networks. Which is all of it these days. Anything sent online can be tracked, cached, or reconstructed. Confidential data, classified intel, trade secrets, crooked books, communiqués between clandestine lovers . . . Marco doesn’t discriminate. Couriers never know what we’re carrying. We just get outfitted with our new skins, play pretend at being someone else for a few hours, make the exchange, and do it all over again.
I shake my head, if only so his gaze slides away.
He fiddles with my IV. “No matter. If you won’t talk, he will.”
A strange warmth washes through my body, the darkness calling me once more. “He won’t come. He wouldn’t be so foolish,” I say in a burred voice.
“We’ll see,” is the last thing I hear.
“Oh my god.” My roommate Aimee lurched off the couch as I entered our apartment and dropped my purse on the kitchen counter. “You look fantastic.”
I stood patiently as she circled around me. Horn plates trailed down my neck like vestigial gills. I ran a nervous hand through my new pixie cut. “What about the hair? Too much?”
“No, it’s perfect. Shows it off.” She touched one of the plates with the tip of her finger. “Feel that?”
“It’s muted, but yeah, I can.”
“That is so cool.” She flashed me a grin. “We should go out tonight. Celebrate your new look. There’s a place I heard about that’ll be perfect.” Aimee dashed into her room.
I followed after her, leaning against the doorframe as she dug through her closet. “What’s it called?”
“The Plastic Factory.”
I was suddenly very glad she was too busy deciding what to wear to see my reaction. It had been months since that day on the sidewalk. Still had the business card. It smelled of leather and springtime—evidence that the man was flesh and blood and waiting for me. Or not. Maybe it had all been an elaborate come-on.
But he’d been right about one thing. As time passed, I needed more elaborate mods to hold onto that feeling of liberation the simple digital plaques had given me.
Aimee glanced up from a daring tank top. “Well, go get ready. It’ll be fun. This is supposed to be your thing, right?”
I wasn’t so sure. Still wasn’t by the time we crossed town and passed through the doors of the Plastic Factory.
The place was full of people with increasingly outlandish body mods—mine tame by comparison. One woman had fiber optic hairs erupting out of her scalp, her braids winking as she shouldered her way to the bathrooms. Another man had stainless steel horns riveted to his forehead that could retract and expand with a blink. One area was cordoned off for the “Highly Evolved”—people with three or more different kinds of mods. Everyone was so covered in ink, piercings, and grafts, they stopped being individuals and became one with the phantasmagorical horde.
My skin itched at all the possibilities I’d been too cowardly to try.
I lost Aimee in the crush on the dance floor and consoled myself with a whisky from the bar. Here I was, yet I still didn’t feel like I belonged. Sure, I’d had some work done, but seeing everyone else’s absolute commitment to the mods was humbling.
When I reached the bottom of my glass, the man on the neighboring stool bought a refill. I turned to him in thanks, then froze at the dark ridges that covered the right side of his face like a mask.
I was already reaching out to touch when I stopped. “May I?”
He nodded, and my hand ranged over the surprisingly warm ridges that got lost in his curly dark hair. His fingers trailed down my neck along the smooth horn plates.
He leaned in, his breath tickling my ear. “When anything is possible, it is important to understand the power of restraint,” he said in a voice my body recognized over the music. He gestured toward the wild throng on the dance floor. “I find it refreshing compared to the alternative.”
His words were a balm on my bruised pride. He focused on my face for a long moment, a slight wrinkle in his brow. “Do I know you?”
Instead of answering, I held out my hand and counted the seconds until he took it. I towed him to the dark hall leading to the bathrooms, and when I let him back me up against the wall and kiss me, I was certain.
I inhaled one last lungful of springtime and eased back. “I see you.”
Breathing heavily, he blinked down at me, his dark brown eyes now even darker.
I tugged down the neck of my shirt, revealing the digital plaque along my collarbone shifting through colors in time with my erratic heartbeat.
“It is you.” He bucked his hips against me and pressed a kiss to the hollow of my throat. “We should celebrate properly.”
He moved away, and I slid back down to the floor. My body didn’t want to stop—I didn’t want to stop. “We don’t have to . . . We could . . . ” I grabbed his belt.
He crowded me up against the wall again. “Yes. But not here.”
I ditched Aimee. In that moment, it wasn’t even a question. He lived in one of the lofts above the club. We rode the elevator to his floor. The throbbing bass had faded, leaving only the thumping blood in my veins. When we passed through the door to his apartment, he finally uncloaked himself. Marco Addams, my implant told me. Twenty-six, only two years older than me.
The rest could wait as I kissed my way down his altered face.
Hot needle pain radiates though my arm. I struggle to lift my bruised eyelids. A med tech comes into focus as he futzes with the port on my arm. How did I get here? The rave? No, before that, in the alley. Then the man with the fake scar . . . The tech eases the IV out, and I hiss.
“Shh . . . ” he says to me.
I blink back tears and really look at him. Warm, dark eyes. Wide shoulders. He holds a finger to his lips through a face mask.
“Who sent you?” Do I look as pathetic as I sound?
The med tech doesn’t answer as he helps me sit up. Gunfire explodes from the next room. I can only cling to him as he carries me out of there and into the adjoining alley. I peer over the tech’s shoulder. Vision blurs as men with guns try to follow us, but other men with guns stop them. At least that’s what I think is happening. The concussive gunfire turns everything to a dull roar.
My eyes are slow to find the ink just visible under the med tech’s scrubs. A tree. There’s something off about it, but my head’s pounding and it’s safe and warm in the tech’s arms.
I’ve felt this way with only one other person. Even if everything smells like antiseptic. “Marco . . . ”
“I’m here.” His voice rumbles through me.
“You shouldn’t have come,” I say in a raw voice. “They’ll—”
“They can’t hurt us anymore.”
Late morning sun gilded the loft’s concrete walls. Marco left the windows uncovered, the view of the river breathtaking. He stretched, and I watched the play of ink across his chest. His closely cropped hair, his large frame, and the tree tattoo were the only things this Marco had in common with the man I had met on the sidewalk months ago.
I slowly sat up under the thin bed sheet, my body twinging with delicious tenderness. “Why the change?” I gestured to his face.
He trailed his fingers down the plates along my neck, his hand drifting lower. I nearly purred. “I could ask you the same.”
“You were right. The mods . . . they aren’t enough. But the people at the club? That’s not who I am either.”
“If I may ask, what were you trying to prove with those plaques in the first place?”
I blinked. “I wanted to defy expectations.” It sounded pathetic out loud but Marco just gave me a thoughtful nod. “Everything I was working toward, college, a career . . . It felt like a trap. At least with these,” I fingered the smooth horn, “people couldn’t ignore me.” The only way I could compete with the world around me, the only way I still felt real. By being that one disharmonious note in a sea of homogeneity.
I placed my fingers over his tree tattoo, dancing in time with his pulse. “Is that how it works for you?”
“Yes. It started out that way.”
He smiled. “Now I use the different mods to do my job.”
His fingers drifted across the plaque along my collarbone, so long I wondered if he was going to answer. “I facilitate offline data transfers, and to do that, my couriers adopt different skins.”
“Mods working together for a specific purpose.” He gestured to the ridges eclipsing half of his face. “What do you see when you look at me?”
“If I didn’t know you . . . defensiveness, self-hatred maybe, since your face is partially covered.”
He nodded. “Or perhaps it could signify overconfidence, aggression even, depending on what costume I wear, where you encounter me—say the alley behind your apartment instead of a club—changing your interpretation.”
“Context is everything.”
He leaned down and kissed the corner of my mouth. “Yes, but equally important is being able to match the mods to an environment in the first place so my couriers can operate in plain sight. It requires subtlety and . . . ”
“Restraint?” I asked, thinking back to his words last night.
He nodded. “You see? I was right about you. Normally, this would be the point where I’d ask you if you wanted a job.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because.” He rolled me onto my back. “I like this a lot better.”
“Why can’t we do both?”
He stilled. Later, I learned Marco recruited his couriers from the Plastic Factory since many of the club’s customers were already into pretty invasive mods. They were less likely to balk at the need to constantly adopt different skins to evade biometrics and other surveillance measures that could tie couriers to Marco, the clients, or both. But out of his recruits, I was the first he’d taken to bed.
After a moment’s deliberation, he leaned down and whispered, “If you could use skins to make a living—a good one—would you do it?”
I wake in Marco’s bed. The loft’s natural light surrounds me. It’s been too long. I snuggle into the covers, seeking out his scent. But all I can smell is laundry soap.
“How are you feeling?” Marco’s basso voice filters into my ears from far away.
“All right.” I sit up. “I missed this place.”
Once I started working as an information courier, my visits here had been few and far between—Marco said it was safer that way. If we were spotted together, it could ruin my ability to do the job. So we had to get creative for our debriefings, each of us adopting skins to meet up at various places across the city. It was fun, at first.
“What did you miss about it?”
I walk to the window. “This view. With the sun rising over the river, it makes the noise almost worth it when the club empties out in the early mornings.”
He cocks his head. “What club?”
“The Plastic Factory, silly.” I step toward him and give him a saucy smile as I run my hand along his chest, testing him to see how long he can stand my touch. “Remember when you nearly ravished me in the back?”
I still when my eyes find his tree tattoo. Static. Unmoving. A mere facsimile.
I stare up at not-Marco. He gives me a grin. “You’ve been so helpful, Callie.” The way he says my name . . .
Gooseflesh breaks out all over my body. “No . . . ” They tricked me. They must have . . . The edges of the room bleed together, colors desaturating, and Marco’s face—the one he was wearing when I first met him—melts into darkness.
Cellophane and the faint scent of burnt hair was the first thing I noticed when the parlor technician moved my bed into a sitting position.
Marco stood by, a dark goatee, gold studs rimming both ears, and a sleeveless shirt revealing overly muscled arms that had to be mods. He looked like a gothic gangbanger. He gave the parlor tech a sharp nod of dismissal. “Callie, listen carefully.”
“You should wear a gold cross necklace. Looks more convincing that way.”
His mouth pursed as he thought that over, then nodded. “So I should. But enough about that. We have only so much time before the rendezvous.”
He helped me to my feet. I giggled as I fell into him, his arms coming around me automatically. His sigh ruffled my new stick-straight ebony hair.
“I won’t be here after every procedure. You understand why?”
I nodded. “Because you’re a big important information broker, and I’m just a lowly courier.” I giggled again.
Marco rolled his eyes. “Close enough. I’ll tell the technician to dial back the anesthesia next time. You’re a lightweight.” He held out the knee-length dress, blue with tiny white polka dots. “Now tell me what you’ll do.”
I pulled the dress over my head and shimmied it into place. “I’m to go to the botanical gardens for the festival and sit under the cherry blossoms. I’m supposed to read . . . ”
Marco handed me a chemistry textbook. “ . . . this.”
It was the combination of mods, working in concert with costume and environment, that gave skins power. People saw what they wanted to—even more so with implants distracting them from the everyday.
“Then someone will approach me before the festival ends.”
He nodded. “They’ll scan a part of your body, and that’ll be the end of it. Come right back here. I’ll be waiting for you.”
I ran a hand through my new hair in front of the mirror. My cheeks were fuller, my forehead wider, my eyelids stretched. The structure of my face changed just enough to fool the cameras.
Marco smoothed the edge of my dress over my digital plaque. He insisted we keep one part of me consistent for identification purposes.
“There’s just one thing I don’t understand.”
He gave me a patient smile in the mirror.
“Why don’t I just carry the information on a datakey? Why does it have to be embedded inside me?”
“It’s a security feature. Anything can go wrong—lost or damaged datakeys, theft, detainment by the authorities, you name it. What you don’t know will keep you safe. That way my clients can be assured of their information’s security.”
I peered at myself in the mirror. The thought of some chip festering somewhere in my body . . . “Give me a hint. I don’t want to be molested in the middle of the park.”
He chuckled. “Don’t worry—the locations are randomized, but they’re almost always accessible, with minimum discomfort to you.”
This was it—my first job. A rush of adrenaline burned off the last of the painkillers, leaving my new body prickly and very much awake.
I turned around. “And you’ll be waiting?” I asked in a small voice.
“Always.” Marco pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Now show me what you’ve learned.”
“Wake her,” a new voice demands. The side of my neck with my implant stings. Tears lodge in my throat as I try to banish the image of not-Marco from my mind. Ice trickles through my veins moments later, turning into a sharp burn that cracks open my eyes.
“Ah, there she is.” A middle-aged Hispanic man leans over me, eyes glinting in the dull light. The thug from before guards the door.
I tremble. Did they find the data with whatever tricks they played with my implant? Worse, did they find Marco? I force myself to smile despite my chapped lips, despite everything. “Finally. I nearly despaired of only having Scarface for company.”
He chuckles. “Believe me, Callie, I’m happy to oblige.” Then with a flip of a switch, whatever friendliness he has in his face disappears. “Where’s the data you were carrying for Marco?”
“What data?” I try to say it lightly but my voice cracks from disuse.
“The data you had on you three nights ago.”
The man’s eyes crinkle at the corners when I have nothing to say to that. At least not right away. Three nights? Have I been here that long?
I lift a shoulder. “If you didn’t find it, I must have lost it in the scuffle with your boy there.”
I’m rewarded when the men exchange a glance, and Scarface shakes his head vehemently. Interesting. They know about me and Marco, but not the fundamentals of our operation.
“Datakeys do have a pesky way of getting lost,” I add for good measure.
I contract my leg muscles, wiggle my toes. Whatever they’ve been pumping me full of must pack a punch since they haven’t bothered with restraints this time. My body tenses as I run through my options. Jump out of bed, bash Bossman on the head with my IV stand before squaring off with Scarface. A tray table is to the side, gleaming with metal instruments. Might do some damage if properly applied.
The man chuckles and gestures to his lackey. “Look at her, trying to figure out a way out of here.”
Scarface grins. “Like a rat in a maze.”
Bossman looks at me again with a slight sniff. “We heard you were Marco’s best, but I’m disappointed so far. To think one smart-mouthed puta is all that stands between me and this city’s info market.”
Everything clicks into place. “You must be Basilio.” A low-level competitor. Marco’s never been too concerned about them since their data transfer techniques lack sophistication. After all, they still use datakeys. I snort. “And what, you thought nabbing me would get you in the big leagues?”
Something dangerous flashes in his eyes. “Guess we’re going to have to do things the hard way. I thought Marco would come for you—I was wrong. I see that now. You are disposable,” he whispers in my ear.
Skins are disposable. But not me. Not to Marco. I have to believe—
Basilio taps my neck and the implant there. “We have all the time in the world to take you apart and discover your secrets.”
They can’t know, can they? Fear clamps down, overriding my lethargy. If I’m going to make a play, it has to be now. Basilio glances at Scarface.
That’s when I launch off the bed. My feet hit cool concrete, and my legs nearly buckle. Am I so weak? Basilio doesn’t move, just watches me with cold assessment as he waves Scarface forward.
No no no. I back up, the IV pole lurching with me on its casters. I reach back for the tray of tools, hoping for something sharp, pointy… My hip catches the tray’s edge and it falls, dashing any hope of making a stand.
I don’t fight Scarface as he bundles me back onto the hospital bed, Basilio watching on impassively.
“Your resistance is quite. . . admirable. Especially when Marco’s closed up shop. His loft was already cleaned out by the time we got there. I’m not sure I’d be so loyal if I were the one left holding the bag.”
“Closed up shop?” No. He would have told me. I’m supposed to . . .
Scarface draws straps tight against my chest, binding me to the bed. Then he adjusts my IV fluids. No. Not again. I spit in his face.
His fist strikes out, and I find darkness once more.
/Callie, get out of there./
Marco’s voice filtered into my head via my implant. That he broke radio silence on a job a rarity.
/But I’m supposed to stay in position for another ten minutes./
Some jobs didn’t require data transfers. Sometimes the combination of mods was information enough. A red blouse instead of green. Blonde hair instead of black. The minute changes imbued with meaning for whoever was paying attention and paying Marco to make it happen.
Today, I wore a maroon pea coat I got second-hand over a pair of faded jeans. The mod parlor had made tweaks to my facial structure, and my newly installed hair reached the small of my back in near-perfect ringlets. The bulk of it was bundled into a large updo secured with a bright yellow scarf—that was the key. I had commandeered a stretch of wall in front of the art museum where I pretended to sketch, occasionally pitching breadcrumbs to the pigeons.
I was supposed to hold my position for two hours, time enough for whoever to get the message my skin signified.
/Now. Cops received a tip and will be on the scene soon./
I didn’t ask how he knew that or what could happen if I was found there. I simply gathered up my belongings and tossed out the rest of the breadcrumbs for the pigeons to fight over.
/Good. The Carleton, in a half-hour./
Then he cut the connection.
There was enough legalese in courier-client agreements to absolve me and by extension Marco of any wrongdoing. Eventually. But that didn’t mean law enforcement couldn’t make trouble for us. Or our clients once they found out the deal went sideways.
The subway dumped me out a few blocks from the hotel. When I arrived, the concierge gave me a smile. “You are in Room 1644, miss. Have a nice stay.”
Marco bounded off the bed when I entered the hotel suite. Without preamble, he wrenched down the neck of my shirt, and grunted at the sight of my digital plaque, quiescent whenever I was on a job.
His shoulders relaxed, his frame screamed Marco, but the color of his eyes and the blond highlights in his hair seemed all wrong. There was enough of him in his mannerisms as he began to pace.
I took off my coat and set my bag on the dresser.
He whirled toward me. “When I give you an order, you do it, no questions asked.”
“Ten minutes, Marco. I had everything under control. Besides, I didn’t pass one cop on my way to the train.” I was still riding the high of another job pulled off under the noses of virtually everyone, and he was all about the buzzkill.
He ran a hand through his hair, drawing my eye to the unnatural highlights. “And the next time? What happens if you guess wrong, Callie?” He stepped toward me and put his hands on my shoulders. “I can’t lose you.”
I laughed bitterly. “You just don’t want to lose your best courier.”
Shrugging him off me, I pulled back the curtains to stare out across the city. He stood behind me. Close enough I could feel the heat of his body even though we weren’t touching.
“Callie, these are the rules we agreed to when all this started.”
I cocked my head, neither agreeing with nor refuting his statement. “I’m tired of the rules, Marco. All this sneaking around . . . it feels like I’m your dirty little secret.”
“How can you say that? You know what could happen if we—”
I ducked my head. “I know, I know.” Things between us had happened so quickly, we skipped over so many steps, and I hated how insecure that made me. “I’m just tired of hiding what I feel.”
One of his hands came up to rest on my hip, the other smoothed away the collar of my shirt so he could place a kiss on the back of my neck. “You don’t have to hide it now, not with me,” his voice rasped in my ear.
“What if that’s not enough?”
He tensed. I felt it from the back of my thighs to my shoulder blades. “You love this as much as I do.” He pulled the scarf from my hair, and it fell down in heavy waves. “No matter what skin you wear, that I wear, this . . . connection between us remains. Recognizable despite everything.”
He kissed the hollow below my ear, then my cheek, turning me around to face him. He knew what he was doing to me, the way my bones seemed to melt at his touch. And yet a small voice protested.
“I can’t do it. This with you now, the jobs.” I thought we could do both, but I was wrong. I wouldn’t make him choose between me and his first love—the skins that had brought us together. “After tonight, I’m a courier only.”
He hissed. “Callie . . . ”
“I mean it, Marco.”
His gaze shuttered at that. Then he kissed me, hard, possessively. I pulled him closer. He stopped too soon, leaving me aching, my lungs starved for air.
He stepped away from me a stranger. “If that’s what you want.”
I can barely move. I’m still in the warehouse. Gunfire just like before filters into my ears. But this time smoke and metal fills my nose. It’s another dream, they’re trying to extract more information from me. I have to be strong. I have to—
Basilio slams into the room, looking a lot less confident than before. Scarface follows, firing into the hallway behind him. Then he goes down, blood leaking out of his chest in gouts.
Swearing, Basilio gets the door shut and barricades it with a chair. Advancing to my bed, he rips away my restraints and pulls out my IV and the electrodes keeping me tethered to the machines.
Pain burns down my arm. “Leave me alone.”
“Not gonna happen. You’re the only one who can tell us where the data is.” He yanks me to my feet.
I clutch the IV pole with trembling hands to keep from falling over. “I told you already. I don’t know.”
Gunfire draws his gaze to the door. Somehow, I haul the pole up and around, ramming Basilio in the back of the head. I stumble back, scanning the room for anything to defend myself with. My gaze lands on Scarface, and the gun still held in his blood-slicked hands.
I reach for it at the same time Basilio pulls himself off the floor. He hollers something, then slams into me. I fall back against the concrete floor, the gun twisting between us. Everything narrows into this one moment. I squeeze the trigger, the discharge rattling through me. Basilio goes still, his lifeblood seeping over my body.
Somehow, I’m still breathing.
I push him off me and gain my feet, the gun still clutched in my hand. Dimly, I hear someone banging against the door. The plastic and metal chair gives way, and the door groans open. Another man with a gun.
I crouch behind the hospital bed as he moves through the room ripping the smocks off the left shoulder of each woman. I keep the gun trained on him as he—Marco—approaches my side of the room. This version is even more convincing, his eyes, the hard line of his jaw . . . He hasn’t bothered with a disguise.
When he sees me, a bright flash of relief passes over his face. “Callie, thank god.” Then he sees the gun and goes still a few feet away. “It’s me.”
Even his voice sounds right. “Prove it.”
Slowly he pulls down the collar of his shirt. My eyes focus on the tree, dancing and jerking across his skin. Let it be real this time.
He steps closer. “Now you.”
The gun wavers as I slide the smock off my shoulder. I close my eyes as he reaches out, his hand passing over the digital plaque along my collarbone almost reverently.
“It’s going to be okay.”
Another man bangs into the room. “You found her? Hurry! Basilio’s men are regrouping.”
“We’re coming,” Marco says. He looks at me, tentative, as with a wounded animal. “Right?”
The gun’s still pointed at his chest. With shaking hands, I finally lower it. He pulls me into his arms, tucking my head against his neck. I breathe Marco in. Springtime and leather. The fidelity is even better this time.
I shed the rest of my doubts. “Did they get it?”
“No, the data’s safe. You’re safe. Well, once we get out of here.”
Marco helps me into an idling car in a nearby alley. No sooner than the door closes, gunfire pelts the exterior. A man I don’t know in the passenger seat yells, “Go go go.” Then, “God, what did they do to her?” as the car lurches forward.
I reach for my face, but Marco takes my hand and squeezes. “Callie, don’t. We’ll fix it. We’ll fix everything.”
I took up position underneath the one tree in the park, an old elm heavy with leaves, and settled in for a long wait. A couple of hours past sunset, but people still lingered, sitting on benches and staring off into space or walking the same circuit around and around again as they synched with friends or did whatever they did with their implants. Marco could have been any one of the men in the park. That he was there without me knowing sent an illicit little thrill through me even if I wouldn’t act on it.
What skin would he come to me in this time? Slightly crossing my eyes, I tracked the visitors. That way I didn’t get caught up on individual details and could just focus on the overall shape of the person. I narrowed down the candidates, but none of them would dare touch the steel points that traveled my spine and flanked my shoulders. The heat of Marco’s fingers transmitted directly to my nerves, and I shivered despite the humid summer air. Fooled again.
“I confess, I’ve developed a fascination for these studs,” Marco said in a heavy voice.
I faced him. His hair was slicked back and he was clean-shaven. He wore a suit that belonged on a used car lot. I arched a brow. “And the rest?”
His eyes drifted over the facial piercings, the bleached butch-cut hair, the contacts that made my eyes all pupil. Then he tugged at my neckline, checking for the digital plaque grafted to my left collarbone.
Merely a formality at this point. But I leaned in and pressed my face to his neck. I found the tattoo of the tree, winking with electronic ink. I also breathed him in. This was the closest I allowed myself to get to him these days.
He pulled back and shrugged, an elegant lift of his shoulders at odds with the sleaze radiating off his skin. “I think the eyes are the worst part.”
“But I got into the biker rally.”
A genuine smile graced his lips before he pushed it away. “So you did.” I could still make him proud.
He stood next to me, our shoulders brushing, then he pressed closer, a folded piece of paper slipping into my pocket. “Your parlor assignment.” By now I knew each one in the city. “They’ll know which mods you’ll need to pass.”
He was all work tonight. “What is it this time?”
“Now, now. You know the rules.”
“You’re no fun anymore, Marco.” I meant to be flip, but it cut too closely.
His eyes flashed, then reverted back to practiced indifference. “You’re the only one who can change that.” His hand slid back down along the studs, and I hissed. “After this,” he said, “we should talk.”
“I haven’t changed my mind. Whatever you have to say, you can say now.”
My voice pitched higher than normal. If he noticed, he didn’t press his advantage. Instead he merely inclined his head. “Fine. You should know this is the last job.”
“What? You’re firing me?” That was low, even for him.
“No. And keep your voice down.” He ran a hand through his hair and grimaced at the product that clung to his fingers. “I’m getting out. For good. I can’t give you all the details yet, but you get this one right, and we walk away clean.”
His gaze returned to my back. A gusty sigh escaped him. When he faced me again, the rawness I saw in his eyes hollowed me out. Our break was hurting both of us. He took my hand. Not a touch to cajole or capitulate. Just pure contact. My breath hitched when he squeezed.
“Come to the loft when it’s finished. Please?”
I turned to go. Any longer, and I wouldn’t be able to behave myself.
“And Callie, be careful on this one.”
Something in his voice made me stop. “I’m always careful.” I gave him a quick smile over my shoulder, then strode out of the park.
The plasticky smell of new mods fills my lungs. No. Not again. My body tenses, expecting restraints, but I can move—slowly but under my own power.
I claw the gauze off my face. Not the warehouse. Instead, the warm wood paneling of No Regrets greets my eyes. My body relaxes before my brain catches up.
Marco stirs in the chair next to my bed. How fitting he brought me here. This must really be it. The end of an era. He looks exhausted but more like himself than ever before—what remains when his former skins are stripped away.
My hands go to my face—my face—free of mods. “They snatched me on the way to the meet. They wanted you. They were after . . . ” I shake my head. “Your apartment. I told them . . . I didn’t mean to. I—”
“Callie, it’s okay. They tampered with your implant to extract information. It’s not your fault.”
The burning pain along my neck, the fact that they couldn’t recreate Marco’s tattoos or his scent. They could access my memories, but they needed me to put them into context, translating them into concrete information they could use to track him down.
I gasp, my hands checking over my arms and legs, the common places the information disks were embedded. “And the data?”
“Safe.” Marco takes my hand. “A few weeks ago, the authorities approached me after investigating one of my long-term clients. Said if I turned over what info I had, they’d be able to protect us. When the competition found out I was trying to close shop, they started sniffing around for my records that weren’t supposed to exist for the last three years. If not for you—”
Some of that hardness from before comes back into his eyes.
He squeezes my hand. “I almost didn’t take the deal with the feds, but it was an easy way out. No more danger of being discovered, no more hiding. And I thought . . . ”
“What?” I hold my breath as he struggles for words.
Finally his eyes meet mine. “That we could start over. Do things properly this time.” There would be no more sneaking around, no more hiding what we felt. “But I’m not sure what’ll happen when we get bored of being invisible.”
Tugging him close, I trail my hand down his neck, along the tattooed tree branches dancing under my fingers. I breathe him in, chest tight with possibilities. “I don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”
For right now, at least, we’re exactly who we need to be.