I saw my first nano-head costume while people-watching, waiting for my boyfriend Jaymes to finish registering us for VictorianaCon. The con was held dirtside beside the spaceport, since the station didn’t have the architectural leeway to create such large continuous spaces. We got a lot of stationers staring at the high ceilings, and I liked to watch them while they weren’t looking. A gawker in the entrance hall had a silvery shimmer of make-up over the side of her face. It took me a moment to realize the woman had mimicked the pattern nanotech rapid regrowth created.
Jaymes wandered up, slotting his room ID chip into the holder on the back of his reproduction watch. We’d found the inspiration for the watch design in an old catalog, since we bothered to research our costumes. “Lin! Ready to go?”
“Think she’s making a political statement?” I asked, pointing out the faux nano-head.
Jaymes snorted, brushing a strand of hair away from my forehead. The upswept style always shed tendrils everywhere. “I think they think it looks pretty. Rebuild scars are much more delicate.” The way he said it made me wonder if a nano-head had come through the clinic, but he stopped there. It would be unethical to say anything specific, I supposed.
Not all nano-heads had rebuild scars, of course. Most didn’t. Nanites were simply supposed to encourage normal cell growth. But for wounds so serious that the cells couldn’t grow fast enough to heal them before the person died, the nanites built a partially inorganic scaffold that never faded.
I saw the next costumed nano-head on the way to the room blocks. The buildings were as ugly and functional as early spaceport architecture always was, but they were cheap for those who’d spent most of their money on the shuttle ride down here. This time it was a man, his tailcoat’s sleeve artfully ripped off, bare arm covered with silver lines, like an accident victim.
“It seems a little bit tasteless.” I put my gloved hand on Jaymes’s arm and leaned closer to his ear, keeping my voice low since my privacy shield was in my suitcase with my other tech. “Last I checked, the media was going on about how the nano-heads on Arnett had somehow ‘turned evil’, rather than being victims of brain damage. And now it’s fashion?”
“Arnett is light years away, and nanite-growth-induced neuro-tissue degeneration is hard to understand. It’s not real to them. Half the nano-heads on Arnett flip out one day and start killing everyone around them? That’s exciting stuff.” Jaymes shrugged, and squeezed an arm around my waist. “I thought you promised you were taking a vacation. Let the universe be tasteless or go to hell in a basket if it wants, for a weekend. You worry too much.”
I poked him in the side. “I do not. Anyway, if we’re on vacation, you have to stop saying things like neuro-tissue degeneration.” I mimicked his tone, the syllables rolling off my tongue.
“It’s a deal.” Jaymes grinned and offered his hand to shake on it.
I snorted as I shook. I supposed he did have a point. Working on security software tended to create worriers. The more holes in our software I predicted beforehand by thinking—well, worrying—about it, the better the software was on release. It would do me good to live in the moment a little this weekend.
I saw a mother and little daughter pair later with designs on the backs of their hands, but by then I was more interested in gawking at a bicycle contraption, built to genuine period specs. I joined the throngs clustered around to watch the simple gears work.
A woman jostled me in an attempt to see over a tall neighbor’s shoulder. I moved aside to give her space, then my breath caught at the tearing sound from where she’d stepped on my hem. The woman followed me as I pushed out of the crowd, expression creased with concern. “I am so sorry!”
She looked awkward, clearly someone who had been dragged along to the con. Her costume was just a blouse and a skirt, and the skirt wasn’t even cut right for the time period. A good effort, but it still stood out. No wonder she didn’t know how careful one had to be around people’s costumes. “It’s all right.” I couldn’t bend in my corset, but I bent my knees so I could reach the hem and brought it back up with me.
The woman peered at the rip. “At least it’s pretty straight? You know, I saw a splicer down that service hallway.” She pointed.
I meshed the two sides together experimentally. She was right, it should be a simple fix. “Thanks.” I headed for the hall. The woman called additional directions after me and I waved to acknowledge them.
The main room’s noise faded quickly as I turned down the hall. I hurried as much as my boots would allow, scanning the bland walls for the icon I needed. I wanted to get back in time to see the contraption ridden.
I rounded the last turn to see someone using the privacy to give his costume a few finishing touches. He was an older man, a little heavy, who’d gone so far as to grow period facial hair. He had an eclectic medal collection pinned to his waistcoat, and what looked like a real antique playing card in his hatband.
The gun was the impressive part, though. A great contraption of a thing, it had a glowing ampoule instead of a cartridge. He wore one glove covered with metallic plates and gears, evoking period clockwork. On the whole, I rather liked the effect—I had seen too many shoddily made “Victorians of the future” costumes that only existed because people didn’t want to be without their wrist units or phones. This gentleman had worked the idea of a mechanical prosthetic in.
“Is the splicer down here?”
The gentleman looked up in surprise from manipulating the last kinks from his glove, and shook his head.
“Nice work,” I said, nodding to the gun. “Does it fire fluorescent paintballs?”
The gentleman grinned and unshouldered it, pointing it at my midsection. The weapons stamp visible on the barrel’s side proved it had passed inspection as harmless, so I just lifted my hands in mock-horror.
“I wouldn’t want to get any on your costume, though.” He chuckled and dropped the gun again. “I haven’t seen a splicer. Are you sure it was down here?”
“A woman said she’d seen it—” I stopped as he grabbed my arm with his ungloved hand. “What the hell?”
“You don’t want to be here,” he said in an urgent undertone, shoving me farther down the corridor.
I dug in my feet. He was right, I definitely didn’t want to be here if strangers were going to manhandle me. Another few seconds and I would yell for security. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Let go.”
The man growled under his breath. “They’re after me, not you. But you’re with me now. If they see that—I’m just trying to keep you safe.” He yanked me toward the line of a door in the wall. I couldn’t find my balance after that initial yank, so he kept just pulling me along. Damned heels. My taser was buried under layers of clothing, something I’d never considered when putting the costume together.
“Stop!” The man who pounded up behind us wore civvies, a rare sight in this building at the moment, but his gun looked police-issue, if you could believe the Cop feeds and vids. He pointed it at us. Or at the gentleman, but I was in the way. “You’re under arrest.”
My heart slammed into an even higher gear. Could the gentleman be right? Did I look like an accomplice? Anyone could see he was dragging me, I wasn’t going along willingly. I pulled away more urgently and raised my voice. “I’m not—”
The gentleman slammed his prop gun’s butt against the panel and the door jerked open. The police officer braced himself and his gun hand, the gentleman jerked me through the door, and I lost sight of the police officer.
Then someone stole all the air from the room. I gasped as my legs gave out under me. My back muscles felt like they’d been lit on fire. Shot, I thought with a sort of crystal clarity. That must be what being shot felt like. My foot slipped in something wet. Blood? I slumped onto the gentleman as he turned from smashing the door panel down to sparking wires. The door reverberated with a kick from the other side. I’d planned to run while the gentleman closed the door, but now it all I could do to keep from collapsing.
“One can only hope we’re near enough to the spaceport that the doors are blast-proof,” the gentleman told me, humor bitter in his voice as he braced his hands under my armpits. “Damned bystanders.” His face got very hard to concentrate on, but closing my eyes left nothing but the pain so I tried to keep focusing on him.
The door boomed again as he eased me to the floor on my stomach. He tugged off his glove and slid a thumb along a metal piece until blood welled up. Then I couldn’t see his hand as he held it over my back. After a moment he turned my head so he could check my eyes. The skin of his now ungloved hand caught my attention.
Just where the light hit it, there was a tracery of lines, a subtle shimmer of angular patterns.
“I wish there was another way to save you, but where there’s life, there’s hope.” He helped me sit up, though my head kept sagging down despite my best efforts. I tried to force my thoughts to move in straight lines, but the pain was giving way to sucking exhaustion. I just didn’t care. It didn’t seem I needed to, however. The gentleman hoisted me onto my feet and supported me down the service hall.
We stopped a few times, perhaps to let staff pass a junction without seeing us. I didn’t notice anyone else on our journey through the endless grey corridors. At last, we crossed into a hall with cheery paint on the walls. He dug in my purse, pulled out my ID chip, and let us into a room. My room. I could see my suitcase dumped beside the bed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He helped me collapse on the bed with some gentleness. The earlier pain was gone and I fought free of the exhaustion, a bitter battle for each piece of lucidity, each fact. I’d been shot. I’d slipped in my own blood but I wasn’t dead. The stranger had rebuild scars.
There were rumors a touch could transmit nanites, but it was scientific fact they could be passed by blood-to-blood contact. That was why the government hunted the nano-heads regardless of whether they were evil. They could spread themselves like a disease.
I fought for the ability to move my arms and pushed myself up. I had to see. The stranger made an annoyed noise, but he offered an arm to support me to the mirror in the bathroom.
I could hardly see the scars until I moved, and then they caught the light and shimmered in a swath from just below my shoulder blades to the deepest point in the small of my back. My dress was a gory mess, blood soaking through the charred fabric around the hole and staining the burgundy cloth black beyond it. “You infected me.” I wanted to jerk away from the stranger, but I couldn’t stand by myself. A feeling of unreality clung to me like vertigo. Maybe I was dreaming, inspired by all the costumes.
“I saved your life.” The stranger pulled me away from the mirror, eased me back to the bed. The most resistance I could muster was to sit rather than collapse again.
“To doom me later!” I spoke past a growing tightness in my chest, whether fear or anger I couldn’t tell. “Not only to have my brain turn to jelly, but to attack everyone around me as it does.” Jaymes flashed up in my mind. Would I attack him? Please, not him.
The gentleman spread his hands calmingly. “Do you have a privacy shield?” He stepped around the bed to rummage through my suitcase when I nodded to it. He punched the button on the privacy shield and tossed it beside my hip, settling the slightly teeth-aching hum around us. “It wasn’t the bloodtech, at Arnett. We were hacked. You’re in more danger from your own government now than from the nanites.”
I stared at him, trying to process that. Hacked? Any computer could be hacked. I knew that better than anyone. And what were nanites but little computers. But why? And who?
More importantly, did I believe him? Maybe his neurological tissue had already begun to decay, driving him to flights of paranoid fantasy.
The stranger sighed. “We need to be gone, Miss—?” He waited for my name for a moment before continuing when I didn’t give it. The pause evoked the polite manners some adopted outside in the con. “I know a safehouse. Come with me and I’ll teach you how to handle the bloodtech. You’re luckier than me—” He lifted his hand and wiggled the fingers. Light flashed down the traces like electricity following wires. “You can cover yours more easily. But there are certain scans you need to learn how to fool.”
The door beeped to indicate someone using their ID chip to unlock it. Jaymes. He saw me first as he opened the door, low-level worry in his expression changing to relief and then shock. “Lin!” He took two steps for the bed and then saw the gentleman. He groped for his taser, just as buried under layers as mine had been. Next con, we were getting a pair of the designer pistol-shaped tasers so we could wear them to hand.
The gentleman stepped farther from both me and where he’d left his prop gun on the chair, and lifted his hands high. Torn between me, and what didn’t seem to be a threat, Jaymes abandoned his search for this taser and strode to the bed instead. “You were gone so long—what happened?”
I tried to answer, but the words got tangled on the way out. If this was all real, there was a good chance I was now a danger to him. I should send him away immediately, but part of me sobbed in gratitude for his presence and support.
“She got caught in the crossfire,” the gentleman said, tone still polite, though he frowned. “I’m so sorry. I had no other choice.”
Jaymes didn’t seem to be listening. The blood drained from his face, and he knelt up on the bed beside me. When his fingers brushed my back, I felt the touch as if through a thin ice layer I could only sense when it insulated me from his warmth. I shivered. “Jaymes—”
“I need to get her to the safehouse, before the government agents catch up and lock us both away,” the gentleman said, lowering his hands and taking a step for us.
“We need to get her to a med center.” Jaymes glared him back. “The sooner we can get her to help, the sooner they can start filtering the nanites out of her system.”
“No!” The gentleman ignored Jaymes to speak to me, gesturing emphatically. “They’ll lock you up. You know what people do to those with bloodtech on Union worlds!”
A painful spike of fear tightened my chest once more, but something in me wondered if maybe they should. Lock me up now before I could hurt anyone.
“Lin.” Jaymes clasped my shoulders. “They’re almost there, with the cure. I could never talk about it, but I know some of the people involved. You might have to be quarantined for a while, but it’s not forever. Everything will be all right.”
Something twisted in the gentleman’s face. “Oh, for the love of ancient gods.” He jerked on his glove, pointed at Jaymes, and an energy burst spat from the palm to the finger. Jaymes jerked and his legs folded beneath him. “Quarantine? Give me a break.” Gone was the polite polish to the stranger’s words, leaving him sounding like a spaceport thug. He stripped off the now melted glove and threw it away.
I half-fell to my knees and turned Jaymes over to see the bloody gash the energy had carved in his upper chest. It wasn’t deep, but it was bleeding all over his shirt, all over the carpet. Not Jaymes. No. No, no, no. It was too much. The fear and beginnings of grief crashed through every stage of panic and ended in ice-cold rage. This wasn’t happening. I refused. The man I loved was not going to die in my arms.
The large pin in my hair was decorative, the style’s real structure held by many smaller, anachronistic pins. But it was plenty sharp, and I pulled it out and dragged it along my palm. Only a thin line of blood welled up, but I smeared it across the edge of Jaymes’s wound. I lifted my hand, squeezed until tears popped into my eyes, and then smeared it again.
“Might not work,” the gentleman said, lip curling. “Depends if your levels have built high enough there’s enough in him now to work fast enough.” He kicked the destroyed glove under the bed harder than necessary. “He should have kept his damn mouth shut.”
He looked like he wanted to spit, but then he focused on me again. “Don’t kid yourself, sweetheart. You bear the mark of the bloodtech, they don’t ask questions. They just toss you into a hole so deep your friends will forget they ever knew you.”
Jaymes still breathed, but with a wet, labored sound. I found myself breathing more deeply like he could follow along. Please, let the nanites work. Maybe it was the wrong decision, maybe Jaymes would hate me when he was locked up or his brain began to decay, but I couldn’t look his certain and immediate death in the face and not choose immediate life and possible delayed death. I was too selfish. I could only hope Jaymes would forgive me.
With nothing to do but wait, I had to think of something else, or go mad. Maybe the government would lock me up—maybe they’d call it quarantine, maybe they wouldn’t. I trusted Jaymes they were working on a cure, but could I trust his source saying it was nearly complete?
And what the hell was the stranger’s motive in all this? I no longer believed he was trying to help an innocent bystander, not when he’d shot Jaymes when it looked like his careful story would be contradicted.
It came to me with the sudden bubble-pop feeling of an epiphany. There had been no splicer in that hallway. Of course, the woman could have been legitimately mistaken. But it was a strange coincidence that she should have mistakenly pointed me to exactly the hallway where the stranger lurked. And the police should have arrived exactly at the moment I was talking to him. And fired exactly at the moment I was in the right position.
“You staged all of this.” My voice gained strength as I spoke. Hearing it out loud made me realize nothing else made sense. “You and that woman. And probably the man who shot me.” I wanted to stand and slap the stranger, but Jaymes lifted his hand in a dazed way, so I laced my fingers with his. Already, the wound in his chest was smaller, ringed by shimmering lines.
“It would have much easier for you if you’d believed it,” the stranger said, voice flat. He began wiping off his beard. Not like it had been a false one, but like all the hair had spontaneously fallen out at once. He opened the door to the trash and flicked it inside.
“I told you we were hacked on Arnett. We need someone to close the security holes. If you’d just panicked like a normal person, and he’d kept his mouth shut—” He pulled off his jacket, and then the two shirts underneath it. He bundled one into the trash. He looked much thinner, especially in the face, even accounting for his bare cheeks.
He caught me staring, and smirked. “You’ve got a lot to learn about bloodtech.”
Jaymes coughed, sounding almost healthy. I hovered my free hand above the complete swath of delicate lines that marked him now too. “I have only your word any of you were hacked.”
“You don’t need my word on what they do to nano-heads. Even he admitted that.” The stranger nodded to Jaymes. “And they’re going to get us all if we don’t get moving. The others won’t wait long. We’ve wasted too much time already.”
I got Jaymes’s arm over my shoulders, and pulled him up so he could sit on the bed. He still looked like shock had fuzzed out his mind. I remembered the feeling, and didn’t push.
He focused on me. “Lin—”
I kissed his forehead. “It’ll be all right.” A lie, probably. I had no idea if it would be all right or not. I knew I should wait, ask him what he wanted to do, but we just didn’t have time. I could see that myself, never mind what the stranger said. I slid off the bed to make sure my suitcase and his were still packed. We couldn’t stay here.
“You’re coming, then?”
I paused, resting my forehead against the bed. “Away” and “with the stranger” were two different things. Did I want to go with him? He was right, he had so much information I needed. Vital information. Combine that with what I would be able to find from the government before they closed off access at my old job, and I might be able to judge who was telling the truth, and how much of it. “You’ve said the nanites can be hacked?”
The stranger nodded curtly. I stood, and gestured for him to take the cases. “Well. If I’m going to fix the security holes, I’m going to have to find them. And when I find them—” I held up a single finger, pointing to his chin like I might point a gun. “Think about what I might have you do, once you’re under my control, if you ever hurt me or Jaymes again.” If he had told the truth, maybe I’d stay and help them. If he hadn’t, Jaymes and I could go our own way once we had the information.
The stranger stared at me, and anger flickered on his face before he turned away. “Fair enough.” He retrieved his glove, but it crumbled into pieces as he picked it up. It must have gone brittle as it cooled. He slammed it back down again. “Dammit. We can’t go anywhere looking like this. I need gloves.”
“No, you don’t.” I almost laughed. Too easy. I picked up his gun and popped out the fluorescent green capsule. “Is this poisonous?”
He hesitated several seconds, as people do when they know the answer, but have to puzzle over why the question was asked. “Wouldn’t matter if it was.”
“Good.” I dipped my pinkie into the liquid and dabbed it over Jaymes’s wound, then the side of his mouth. I did my mouth next and coached Jaymes into putting it on my back. Then I popped the cartridge back in, and handed the gun to the stranger. “Chase us down the hallway, and everyone will be so busy noticing us they’ll never notice it’s real.”
The stranger hefted his gun. “Smart.” He sounded almost approving.
I pulled Jaymes’s arm over my shoulders again. I suspected I would have to be, in this new life.
When she’s not writing, Rhiannon Held is a real live lab archaeologist. The “lab” part means that her job of analysis begins when the others come back from playing in the dirt. The “real” part means that fedoras, bullwhips, aliens, and dinosaurs are in short supply. Saying she helps her employer assure that developers are in compliance with federal and state cultural resource management laws might not have the same ring, but she’s happy to indulge her imagination in her own worlds instead. She recently sold her urban fantasy novel, Silver, to Tor and the first book in the series will likely be out in 2012.