Chapter 1

By L.X. Beckett
May 25, 2019 · 5,662 words · 21 minutes


The night Woodrow Whiting lost all his social capital, a storm blew into Toronto. Blue-black fists of cloud reached across the lake from the US, shaking fat clusters of snowflakes over South Ontario. They piled up in censorious drifts on the windowsills as Drow’s followship foundered, deep-sixing a host of memberships and privileges, including the backstage passes for his next three gigs.

Journos who drove waifish divas to suicide—and everyone had seen it happen, streaming crimson in 3dHD, live from Drow’s apartment—didn’t get to cover Pinegrove’s Reunion Tour. They didn’t get to compile newsflow on Fusion, alleged lab-grown clone child of Mercury and Bowie.

Mob rule by remote: when you were all strikes, no strokes, you could kiss goodbye to your access to the musical virtuosi.

By dawn, Drow had scrubbed every inch of his apartment, working his way out from the bloody epicenter of the incident. Whenever he had the urge to datadive, his sidekick app intervened with a dry, British-accented, “Bad idea, Master Woodrow.” This got him a clean house while keeping him from brooding or—worse—firing another torpedo into his own fortunes.

By the time he was done, the place smelled of chlorine and broth. The fridge had been nagging him about leftovers, half-eaten meals abandoned by his roommate. Drow responded by throwing the dregs into a smartcooker with a couple chicken bouillon cubes. “Go to town,” he’d told the cooker, and it obligingly blendered the mix into hot, green-gray lava. Allstew, Uncle Jerv had called it: random nutrients, no regard for flavor. Drow drank the brew until his gut was warm, queasy-liquidly full.

Crane, his sidekick app, flailed as it tried to put a calorie count on the binge. Drow  returned to his war on filth

Outside, the snow piled to infarction-inducing levels and the sky lightened.

Drow assembled a kit: wool cap, balaclava, gloves, degradable bags. Base layer, top and bottom, shirt, and ski pants. Last the coat and the boots. He could commit an assassination and nobody would be able to ID him without giving him a whooz first.

Thus swaddled, he closed his door on the smell of angry hospital, shuffled past the snow-weighted fauxflowers piling up on his boulevard, and headed to the corner store to buy a smartshovel and a bag of penitential salt.

 

The trick to stroke farming was to bottom-feed, staying clear of anyone who had an established snow-clearing gig. Drow volunteered himself to a network of self-driving cars. With twenty centimeters turning to slush on the asphalt, trapped sedans were becalmed all over Toronto. Batteries charged, they bleated alerts about unfilled orders and late appointments, making their sysops too desperate to sneer at his pariah-grade rating.

The network sent Drow to clear an older neighborhood on the edge of Little Italy. Narrow streets with brick houses, barely paid off by the octogenarian Gen X inhabitants moldering within, accumulated snow on pitched roofs. Icicles formed in jagged clusters to reveal holes in their post-Victorian gutter systems.

“Head down, donkey.” The shovel tracked kilos moved, meters cleared. Crane flagged urgent gigs: oldsters with glass hips and medical appointments, and specialist cars with promises to keep and snow up to their wheel wells.

As he shoveled, strangers threw strokes his way without any thought of whoozing him. They appreciated not having to worry about the granny next door. The fossils stroked him, too, as did their descendants. Drow imagined middle-aged absentee kids, checking in on Ma from Sri Lanka and Nairobi, giving him the old-fashioned thumbs-up.

Sweat ran inside his base layers as his cap stopped hemorrhaging. If he kept his head down, shoveled twenty-four-seven, and the blizzard lasted forty days and forty nights, he might level his way back to respectability in time for the Spring into Music Festival in Stratford.

Or not. Squid ink bloomed on the edge of his goggs. At least one passerby was willing to convert three of their own strokes into sanction.

“U should be using sand on the byways, NOT salt!” They attached a flow about pollution levels in Lake Ontario.

It would be weeks before Drow could afford to ignore these passive-aggressive smackdowns. “Open article, Crane,” he said to his sidekick, before the heckler decided to spend thirty strokes to hit him again.

Crane, ever the perfect virtual assistant, obediently washed newsflow across his goggs. Doleful music swelled in his ears, lead-in to the voice-over. Infographic furled through his line of sight.

Drow listened to the salient points even as he kept lifting and throwing, lifting and throwing the snow. Blah blah: effects of salt on groundwater. Blah blah poisoned lagoon in Pickering—Saints, that was back in 2018, how old was this link? Blah blah struggling fish populations.

“Face your editor, sir?” said Crane.

Drow appreciated the flow, old though it was, and blinked aside the stats on fishy carnage. “Hi, Seraph.”

A pencil-sketch version of her appeared on the snowbank. “How are you?”

“Sunk in shit creek without a press pass.”

“I’m working on spin. We’ll raise you.”

“Raise me? I’ve killed—”

“Untrue!” Seraph interrupted. “The conniving little virtuoso’s gonna survive.”

Drow missed his stroke, jamming the edge of the shovel into a crack in the pavement. “How?”

Cascayde had doxxed him. She’d barged into his apartment, screaming about his latest, newsflow meant to prove she was not only a derivative songwriter, but actively pirating the ideas of her betters.

Ambitious, risky followship-poaching. He’d hoped to expose the truth while flipping her fanbase, turning it against her while buoying himself, Seraph, and Newsreef. Instead, there she was, in his house, in his face, in hysterics. Stupidly, Drow had escalated, telling her six ways to fuck right off. Cascayde cut her own throat before he got to line item seven.

Naturally, they’d both been streaming it live.

Drow focused on the cartoon sketch. Seraph kept her hair buzzed into golden hexagons. Cartoon bees bumbled around the honeycombed scalp. When had he last seen her in person?

“She lived?” he repeated.

“Guess she didn’t cut deep enough.”

His knees turned, momentarily, to water. At a loss for words, he fired off a string of emoji. Thumbs-up, indicating a like.

“You don’t have to be nice about it. Well. Not to me.”

“Ah, but you adore me.”

“Adore you not.” She refused to be distracted. “Cascayde, pulling that stunt—”

“I shouldn’t have baited her.”

“You’re at fault? No.”

“Thousands say yes.”

“They’re wrong.”

“It’s the virtuosi who closed ranks against me. The fanbase is just dancing their party line.”

The music-journo gig was supposed to be a detour on his own road to becoming virtuoso. The plan was simple: cover his expenses, build his social capital, and make the contacts who would one day level Drow’s own musical career.

Little chance of that now. He’d burned all his networking bridges.

Now what? Get used to street-cleaning?

Seraph said, “You couldn’t know she was unstable, Drow.”

“You’re being kind.” He’d gone for Cascayde’s plagiarist underbelly, expecting her fellow composers to fall into line, to denounce her. He’d expected a counter-play from her—damage control, some move calculated to keep herself from falling too far. But the desperation in her eyes as she’d flashed that antique straight razor . . . that was truth. Her fragile-waif persona was no affect.

She’d been on some kind of edge. He’d kicked her off.

Seraph said, “I’m calling because I can’t assign you anything new, Drow. You knew that?”

“Reporters for Newsreef must maintain a sixty prosocial rating, with a banked surplus of three hundred strokes, to be eligible for new freelance assignments,” Drow said, quoting his user agreement with their employer. His shovel unearthed a fist-sized pile of dog turds; kneeling, he dug out one of his bags. “Why do you think I’m filter-feeding strokes out here in geezerland?”

“But! I went through your unfinished contracts. Remember you were profiling musicians who buy into dangerous fads? You never finished the series.”

“I don’t know if submitting newsflow on vaxxorcisms—”

“There’s the chemo pop-up thing, remember?”

“I remember.” Bullshit pitch at the Halloween party, eighteen months earlier. Drow as a new-minted reporter, Seraph his first ever editor: terra incognita. Their first night out, beer and face-to-face. He’d been wondering if a real conscience underlaid her elevated social capital. She’d wanted to know whether he was genuinely smart or just clever. That was how she’d put it, anyway, once they’d shared.

Seraph was a true believer, in her way. She saw being a journo as a calling, no different from art. Both, she claimed, were the pursuit of truth, pure and simple.

Drow wasn’t sure about his smarts, and he certainly knew better than to overshare when it came to the purity of his motives. But all those sermons! Those long earnest monologues saying as how Drow should see his journo gig as something more than just a stepping stone on the climb to fame. If they’d taught him one thing, it was Seraph went gooey about anything that smacked of Actual Journalism. “So?”

“You had a whistleblower. You compiled infographics on how the chemo pop-ups work. For the shallows, we have slideshow about virtuosi who bought in for ten weeks of treatment. All you’d need would be voice to knit it together and fresh video of an open clinic.”

“No. It needs realtime profile. It doesn’t expose the clinics sufficiently, not if we don’t show ’em poisoning someone.”

“Someone like who?”

That brought him circling back to how he’d alienated his music industry friends. “An overview won’t rebuild my followship.”

Without followship, he couldn’t get back to posting songs online, or playing live pop-in concerts.

“It’d position you as a serious reporter.” Seraph was canny about such things. “Someone who tells the stories, damn the consequences. You’d be doing a good deed, too: plenty of people know someone who’s been wrecked by chemo fraudsters.”

Could it be the journo bridge wasn’t entirely burned? “I am definitely in karmic arrears.”

“And a feature would pay in other ways.”

“Money, you mean?”

“Can’t buy you love. So go rack up some payables.”

“Young man?” A pink-haired skeleton in old-fashioned LED goggs was waving from her stoop.

“Hold on, Seraph.” Shovel in one hand, dogshit in the other, Drow gave the apparition an exaggerated pantomime—Who, me?—from within his sweat-soaked layers of downfill.

He braced for more simulated squid ink. She’d probably been saving her front walk as guilt-bait for grandchildren.

But she wasn’t waiting to strike or berate him. Setting her goggs to display a huge pair of blue cartoon eyes, she pointed at her garbage. The bin unlatched noisily.

Grateful to have permission, Drow dumped the morning’s accumulation of bagged dog droppings and litter.

“What is it?” Seraph asked.

He switched her to ridealong mode.

“Is that a person?”

The pink zombie was gesturing. “Come into my parlor, sonny, and have some cocoa.”

Drow whoozed her: Tala Weston, owner/operator of Mygalomorphae Productions. Performance artist. Crane, ever helpful, sourced up “parlor,” an archaic word meaning sitting room.

“Should I do your front walk on my way up there?” Drow asked.

“Suit yourself.”

“Researching Mygalomorphae Productions,” Seraph said.

“I got nothing.”

“Your privileges are restricted, remember?”

He salted the walk, pollution be damned.

“Nothing yet. I’ll drill down.”

He’d reached the door. The old lady was waving him in. “You could’ve just carved a furrow. I’m not that wide. Recharge your shovel there.”

“Thanks.” Drow stepped onto the runner, dusting his boots so they wouldn’t leave a puddle before he clipped the shovel in. It flashed a calorie burn on his display, numbers bright enough, for a second, to compensate for the fact that his goggs had steamed over.

“Painkiller? Anti-inflammatories? I’ve got the good stuff.”

He squinted through the condensation haze. She was short and Caucasian. A forest of steel quills, embedded in both shoulders and the back of her left hand, quivered as she moved. Working acupuncture on RSI damage, probably: half of Gen X had wrecked itself keyboarding, back in the days before input tech went virtual. He got a glimpse of metal, embedded in her chin. Mandible replacement?

One pink braid, thick as a hangman’s rope, dangled to her mid-back. At the scalp, it was gathered up over her ears in a way that did nothing to conceal wraparound headphones and the LED screens of her goggs. It was an antique rig, but expensive. Defying the trend to barely visible headsets, this was . . . conspicuous. Flashy. The eyes screened out as well as in, treating him to that image of blinky anime eyes with long lashes. They must weigh a ton: he could hear the click of lenses switching and adjusting within as she squared to face him.

Getting a portrait in case I turn out to be a serial killer. Drow dredged for her question. Painkillers. “Thanks. The aches haven’t set in yet.”

“And you’re young as well as gallant and handsome.” She hung his coat on a hook. “Cocoa?”

“Thanks.”

What she poured was top-of-the-line drinking chocolate, sort of thing that couldn’t be carbon-neutral, not unless you subsidized half a Croatian swamp, or personally reconstructed topsoil for a ridiculous percentage of Saskatchewan. It was so rich, the first sip almost made him moan.

“Sit, dear.” She laid out a plate of gingersnaps.

Drow sank into a plush smartchair by the front window and chose one of the cookies. She settled across the table. They drank, two strangers watching the weather.

The thing in her chin was a piercing, embedded with an old brass gear . . . a watch cog? Some piece of tech that would have been antique even when she was young.

“Steampunk.” She’d caught Drow staring. “You should see my tats.”

He decided to breeze past the thought of wizened flesh covered in fading ink. “My name’s Drow.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Course you do. I’m the man of the hour.”

She put a hand out. “Tala.”

“You’re a . . .” He paused.

“Still drilling,” Seraph said. “She’s way under Sensorium radar.”

He blinked silent acknowledgement and finished his sentence to Tala. “. . . performance artist?”

“Largely retired,” the old lady said. “I still make the occasional artstorm.”

He was more tired than he’d thought: the chocolate and the over-warm house were making him languid. “I didn’t get any samples when I whoozed you.”

“My work is mostly in private galleries.”

He pondered that: art you couldn’t access. Why bother?

“I owe you an apology, Drow. I came out to say you could use my bins.” She tapped her cheek, next to the earbubble. “Hearing aids, they pick up more than they ought. I overheard your conversation.”

“No worries.” He waved this away, noticing as he did that a blister was coming in on the palm of his left hand. The red spot and shiny edge of skin were oddly fascinating. Pushing on it, he felt the thick resistance of flesh over bubbled fluid.

Her thin pink eyebrows were raised high. “Is your friend joining us?”

Oh. He blushed. “Ah . . . Seraph? You staying?”

“To watch you eat cookies? Later, Drow.” The cartoon popped like a soap bubble.

“Sorry about that,” he said to Tala.

“It’s what your generation does. But I confess I am interested in this story your . . . editor? Suggested.”

“She’s taking pity. Brainstorming ways to keep me solvent while I regroup socially.” Anything, Drow thought, to avoid having to turn to Uncle Jerv.

For one slippery second, he thought of asking Crane about Jerv. Had he reached out? Thrown an offer of financial or emotional support against the global block Drow had put on all such comms?

“You have to be popular to do what you do,” Tala said.

“Yeah,” he agreed, kicking Jerv to the back of his mind. Popularity was the circular trap of the stroke economy: if your social cap was high—virtuoso-high like Cascayde’s, say—you could jumble together any old stream of atonal musical Allstew and the Sensorium would, like as not, lap it up like this viciously sinful chocolate.

If you strove and tried and reached for something really good, meanwhile, something true—if you labored in obscurity—none of your releases was apt to go anywhere.

Was it any surprise he’d lapsed? Had he let petty ambition tempt him into assembling a hatchet job on a self-harming narcissist?

The scaffold of needles on Tala’s shoulder jerked in sequence, administering charges to the tissue, forcing tired old fibers to twitch so she wouldn’t lose muscle mass. “The editor mentioned pop-up chemotherapy.”

“An exposé on the clinics, yeah.”

“But?” She poured more cocoa.

“These pop-ups cover their eventualities. People go in to get assessed, right? Clinic charges just for that. Serious medical testing might make them liable for something, so they do personality profiling instead. Then they say, ‘Your pessimistic attitude puts you at risk for colorectal cancer, fifteen percent over the next decade. Your temperamental risk of . . . I dunno, sickle cell anemia . . . is seven. The chance you have rogue cells rampaging around your lymphatic system is better than fifty-fifty.’”

“This keeps them from getting sued for misdiagnosis?”

He nodded. “Once you’re terrorized, they sell you ten weeks of medical self-flagellation. Preventative course of chemo tailored to your so-called vulnerabilities.”

“Straight-up con.” The cog in her chin bit into her lower lip.

“You get cancer later, they’re covered. Terribly sorry. We didn’t actually scan you.” He toasted her and sipped cocoa.

“Well and good. They should be exposed. But what I don’t understand, Drow, is that you’re in music. I’ve listened to your compositions. You’re extremely gifted.”

Real praise or flattery? It nevertheless warmed him. “Gets me nothing if I don’t have friends.”

“You picked a strange way to ingratiate yourself with the other virtuosi.”

Other. She dropped it so casually, as if he were already one of them. “Anything I do, I tend to overdo.”

She smiled, lips stretching almost to invisibility, revealing gleaming teeth. “Me too.”

“Anyway, I’d have spun the chemo exposé as a music story. There’s usually virtuosi out there who’ve been suckered into taking the cure. But now I’m capped.”

“What does your social capital have to do with it?”

It was the sort of question only an obscenely rich person would ask. “No access. I meant to profile a celebrity as they did treatment. But given what happ—what I did to Cascayde, no virtuoso will let me near them.”

“And the editor can’t help?”

“Seraph’s kidding herself. She suggested the flow so she can feel less gilly. Giddy. Guilty. Sorry.”

“No, no.” She offered him another cookie and he munched, liking the texture, the bite of ginger and cloves. Snow was obliterating the walk he’d just cleared.

“You want to show someone famous on the chemo rack?” Tala steepled her fingers.

“What I really gotta focus on is generating strokes—”

Your media profile’s sky-high.”

“Buh?” He sloshed chocolate up his nose.

You. You’re what we fogeys used to call a trending story. Everyone knows who you are.”

“’Cause they’re threatening to burn my house down.”

“No attention is bad attention.” Her tone was thoughtful. “You should get scans beforehand. Show you’re cancer-free. Throw in genetic risk assessment and you can side-by-side the data against whatever organs the clinic claims you’re bound to metastasize.”

Suddenly she sounded like she knew plenty about assembling newsflow.

“Forgeddid,” Drow said. “I’m not so capped I need to scourge myself with medically unnecessary poisoning. Or chemobrain.”

“Oh, chemobrain can be offset,” Tala said.

That brought him up in his seat. Did she mean . . . ?

No. Drow set down his cup, pushing away fatigue and fogginess. “Doctors don’t just give you smartdrugs, not even if you’re on chemo. It’s too risky.”

“The risk’s inflated. Intellectual enhancement is contraindicated, primarily, because it hampers patient buy-in to life extension.”

“Yes . . .” he agreed. Smartdrugs had always been Uncle Jerv’s poison of choice. Drow knew more about the relevant statutes than he probably ought to admit. And it was true that if you were rich enough for smartdrugs, you were discouraged from taking them—because the Pharmas didn’t want to lose the chance of streaming you, later, into the even more astronomical cost of buying yourself another century of life. But nobody wanted to live forever in a bubble of amnesia and dementia; smartdrugs did weird things to the teleromeres, stretching them out in ways nobody quite understood.

Rumor had it that the ultrarich hired proxies to dose up, do their thinking for them. Was that where this was going?

He stuck to the facts. “Unless you actually have cancer, getting a prescription for Liquid Brilliance is a nonstarter.”

“So your only objection is availability? Logistics?”

“Excuse me?”

A coy shrug. “I know a lot of doctors.”

He was starting to feel breathless. “I can’t afford—”

“Pish.”

“And Newsreef would have to pay for chemo.”

“Pish again. Look around, kid. I’m loaded.”

Smartdrugs. What if a dose of Liquid Brill helped him back into composing music?

Really? Was he some drug-grubbing Jerv type, to be considering this?

The cookie had turned to sandpaper on his tongue; he forced it down, vowing to thank Tala and walk once he’d finished his decadent, cooling chocolate.

He’d definitely made enough bad choices for one week.

 

He woke without realizing he’d fallen asleep, still in the smartchair, which had eased into recliner mode, elevating his knees, kneading his shoulders with an almost-imperceptible rolling motion to keep anything from stiffening. Perfect old-lady chair. The blind on the window had unscrolled, blocking the afternoon sun. It was bright green just for a moment; when he blinked, it was white again. Optical illusion or green screen?

“Crane?” He queried his clock app. He’d been out for almost three hours.

This was what he got for staying awake all night bleaching the floorboards after the paramedics and cops had vacated. He sat up, the chair offering a friendly burst of momentum as he rose. The opportunity map for snow shoveling had thinned out. The sidewalks were clearing and the temperature was on the rise. Another storm was due in a couple days.

He’d need it: his cap had fallen further, taking with it the morning’s harvest of hard labor and good deeds.

He pulled metrics. There’d been a surge in his favor, maybe an hour ago—anti-suicide activists throwing him support, thereby officially disapproving of Cascayde’s performance of self-harm.

Seraph’s work. “She adores me,” he mumbled.

Why was he plunging?

Heart sinking, he re-buttoned his shirt, which was one hole off. He’d been in worse shape than he guessed this morning. He remembered dressing carefully, like a soldier going on parade.

“Crane, you booted?”

“Online now, sir.”

“Check the newsflows.”

“All your premium memberships are on hold.”

“Try public access?” The blister on his hand had split as he slept.

He had to endure three minutes of advertising just to find out Cascayde had made a short statement through her publicist:

Cascayde was in a state of despair when she committed her act of self-harm. While Mer Whiting’s remarks about her recent songstorm, Cataract, may have influenced her state of mind, he cannot be held responsible for her actions.

She apologizes wholeheartedly.

This, plus a still of her barely making a ripple in a hospital bedcover, had dropped another depth charge on his reputation. Big bad bully Drow. Virtuosi were sharing it all over Sensorium and their fans were spending lavishly, cutting into cap reserves as the cost per strike rose, three for one strike, thirty for two, nine hundred for three . . .

He realized he was watching his fortunes bottom out in a stranger’s living room.

“Anyone here?”

No answer.

“Crane, where’s Tala?”

“Uncertain, sir. I’m still powering up  a few peripherals.”

“You went offline? Total shutdown?”

“I’m . . . Yes, I believe so.”

“How can you be unsure?” Drow dove for his boots and coat. The gloves might be anywhere; he gave them up for lost. For one claustrophobic second, he thought the old lady’s smartlock might not unlatch for a stranger. Would he have to break a window to get out? What if someone saw? Did the Haystack have a transcript proving she’d invited him in?

A click, just as he started to hyperventilate. He lunged out onto the salted porch, the cold air a welcome slap on his unshaven face.

Tala was there, in a pink quilted coat so bright you could probably see her from space. LED eyes with heart-shaped irises glowed from deep within a fur-fringed hood.

“What are you doing?” Drow asked.

“Waiting for my ride.” She pointed as a self-driving car toiled to push a rolling pile of slush to the curb. “Cardiologist appointment.”

“I didn’t mean to pass out in your. Um. Breakfast nook? It’s just I haven’t been sleeping.”

“Oh, Handsome,” she said. “You know you can make it up to me.”

Hiding a sigh, he grabbed his smartshovel. The car paused when it saw him, waiting with electronic patience as he cleared its wheels, even backing up so he could get at the accumulated mush. His broken blister rubbed raw, smearing red on the wooden handle of the shovel.

Twenty minutes later, the car whirred up to Tala’s walk. Drow went and offered her an awkward arm.

“Bless you, young fella. That’s what my granny would’ve said.”

“No problem.” Helping her into the car got him a few likes from passersby. Spit on a bonfire at this point.

“Text from your landlord,” said Crane. “His father says there’s loud noise coming from your apartment.”

He clamped his lips over a curse, smiling at the old lady. I probably look like a maniac.

She laid a pink-gloved hand on his cheek. “Want to come? Help the old dear out at Mount Sinai?”

Drow pulled away, skin crawling. “Thanks, Tala, but...”

She waved him her contact info. “We should talk about cancer imaging.”

He remembered her hinting at a trade. Medically unnecessary chemotherapy. For smartdrugs.

Rather than answer, he closed the door, watching the car putt-putt-skid off to College Street before he shouldered the shovel, turning into the winter wind.

The pings from Drow’s landlord got increasingly urgent as he hiked, so it was no surprise to find his roommate crowding the couch with her boyfriend and four other virtuosi wannabes. They had helped themselves to his collection of musical instruments: smart drumsticks, a couple faux guitars, gloves for a virtual keyboard, and a real saxophone that he’d tuned and modemed himself, years ago, with Uncle Jerv’s help. They were trying to work up a single, the kind of DIY instahit earworm that made Drow want to grab the nearest pair of pliers and rip out his own wisdom teeth.

He paused at the threshold—actually hesitated. Considered whether he wanted trouble. The bleach smell, he noticed, underlaid a perfume of stale pizza and farts.

Self-loathing got him moving; he logged in to the musical instruments and overrode the guest permissions, shutting them down.

Marcella burbled into sudden silence. “Hey, Drow. You got the blood out of the carpets?”

“Yeah, sad. No grisly spectacle for your friends.”

“Dunno know what you mean. This is a work session.”

“We talked about this, Marce. Stream sound to your rigs.”

“You were out, Drow.”

“You want amps, go to Cole’s. He lives alone.”

“In a shoebox. Anyway, equipment’s here.”

My equipment. Which’d be point three. You can’t jam with my stuff.”

“It’s gathering dust.”

“I’m conceptualizing.”

“You’re blocked. And sinking fast. Cataract might not’ve ascended to your lofty standards of musical truth and beauty, but at least Cascayde’s composing.”

“Pilfering. I’d rather compose nothing, ever, than loot everyone else’s garbage.”

“Great job! Writing nothing ever is definitely getting to be your forte.” She minced close enough to make him want to back away. Her bright orange Shirley Temple ringlets bounced with every step. “We’ve raised two thousand strokes between us. Want 'em?”

Two thousand. His mouth watered.

Before he could go through the internal litany of why that’s a terrible idea, the boyfriend shifted. Getting a better camera angle? Drow remembered anew that everything he did right now was a potential live upload.

“This sounds like bribery, Marce. Very antisocial,” he reminded her.

“Don’t be sanctimonious. Yes or no?” She gave him a look that, terrifyingly enough, might have been pity. He tried to remember when and why he had liked her, back when he invited her to rent-share.

“We promised Imran a quiet environment for his dad.”

“Basement dad is fucking deaf.”

“I’m having a shower,” Drow said. “When I emerge, you and Wonderboy and your friends will be gone and my instruments will be neatly stowed. Because, uninvited houseguests, I didn’t get your names yet. Marce here is the only one about to take a hit for attempted cap manipulation on a high-profile pariah.”

“You’re not opening a support ticket on me!”

Drow forced himself to turn his back on her. “I’m definitely not opening one on the people in this room whom I have not whoozed.”

He made it upstairs, despite quaking legs. Collapsing against the wall, he peeled off warmth-retentive layers of black, like a fiberfill onion. He hung the coat, unbuttoned the shirt and hung that, too, then stripped the base layer and put it, stinking, straight into the laundry. It smelled a little skunky, though he hadn’t smoked cannabis in years. Seemed hypocritical, after blocking Jerv.

Crossing the hall, defiantly naked, he paused to take in the sweet sound of brouhaha in progress downstairs:

The boyfriend, Cole: “Give him the strokes, Marce—he won’t report us if we pay him off.”

Drummer: “Tell him it was a joke, right?”

The house was so old it had a nine-foot claw-foot tub, upgraded with a smartshower set to deliver carefully measured bursts of heated water for ten minutes precisely. Drow paid it a precious carbon offset, trading his scant dollars for an extra ten minutes, before he plunged in.

Breathing slowly, he tried to calm the deranged stutter of his heart. He’d had shitty roommates before. It was what you got when you glomerated on the cheap.

Water ran through his hair, spreading comforting heat. He felt the front door slam. Marcella’s friends, abandoning ship before he could run that support ticket?

Jealousy-raddled pusbag. Cascayde’s words. He remembered the anguish in her eyes. The blade coming up. He’d stepped back, expecting her to lash out, not inward . . .

Suddenly he was crouched, curled against his bare knees in the wet and steam. “Oh shit,” he whispered. “Damnation, no, no . . .”

Give in. Give in, you’ll feel better.

Filthy no-talent bottom-feeding scum!

Dirty, dirty, where’s my soap?

Soap? Missing. Snuffling, he peered through a crack in the shower curtain. There: stained with more of Marcella’s friends’ pizza sauce. He had to get out, leaving sodden ovals on the bath mat.

By the time he’d scrubbed the pizza sauce off his pricey scentless soap, then washed the imaginary marijuana smell off his hair, then chewed off the dead-skin petals curling and drying around the edges of the raw blister on his left palm, the urge to melt down had congealed. An acidic mess of bad feeling pulsed stickily between Drow’s lungs, tightening breath, refusing to dislodge.

The showerhead pinged a one-minute warning.

“Ten more minutes,” he said. Begged, really.

“Not recommended, sir,” Crane said. “You have exceeded your weekly carbon ceiling. Exponential pricing would raise the cost—”

“Fine!” Should he upgrade his sidekick? Was there a more soothing alternative to his dads’ irascible homegrown assistant?

Crane threw a countdown into his lower peripheral. At ten seconds, Drow stepped out. He dried off, sopped up his wet footprints, and hung the bath mat on the shower bar.

“Is Marce out there, waiting to ambush?”

“They’ve left, but I have messages,” Crane said.

“Summarize.” Pathetic, the fragility in his voice. Wounded baby boy with his lip aquiver.

“Mer Zapiti opines that nobody will live with you if she gives notice. Mer Cole says: Please don’t make trouble, here’s a thousand strokes. No strings.”

“Huzzah.”

“In better news, your downstairs neighbor has confirmed that the noise has stopped.”

“All hail the tiny victories.” No, Crane was perfect. Butler, enabler, dad substitute . . . just right.

Emotionally tone-deaf, though. Now the inbox was open, the sidekick had clearly decided to blast through some to-dos. “And from Seraph?”

“Play it.”

“Drow. Some anon donor has kicked Newsreef funding for an expanded version of the cancer story. Call me?”

He winced. “I don’t suppose you’ve got one from Anon Donor herself?”

“Meaning, Master Woodrow?”

“Anything from Tala Weston?”

“There is indeed.”

“Play it.”

“Drow, it’s Tala. How would you feel about driving to Buffalo for medical imaging tomorrow?”

He shouldn’t do this.

“Crane, compose reply. Ask Tala what the hell she wants from me.” Scooping up a washrag, he began to work on a tomato-sauce handprint on his sink.

A pause. “She’s sent a contract.”

“For?”

“It’s an artist’s modeling release.”

“Can you run it through some kind of legal?”

“With our cap, it would have to be public access.”

More ads. He groaned. “Copy to Seraph.”

Modeling release. Presumably, Tala wanted to make some kind of artstorm of Drow taking chemo.

“Compose a reply. I’d want some guarantees. About the after-treatment care we discussed.” He was careful not to mention smartdrugs.

Again, Tala’s response was almost immediate. “Can’t specify aftercare in writing, but we can work something out. Eight months, perhaps? Can I pick you up at ten?”

Liquid Brill. Eight months’ supply. Maybe he was Uncle Jerv’s son after all.

“Tell her yes.”

Next Chapter