by Will McIntosh
Metta was dying for a cigarette. She didn’t understand how that was possible without a body. She hoped the cravings would subside — fifty-seven years would be a long time to feel that pull.
She still couldn’t believe someone had discovered her in time for them to box her. She’d been meticulous as holy hell when she snuffed herself — hiked way out to the abandoned amusement park (fucking hiked so no one would discover a car), and got good and lost in the Hall of Mirrors. Shot enough Godflash to kill a school of blue whales. And woke up in the dark. No, not the dark. You needed eyes to see darkness. In the blank.
Some veggie-crunchy do-good woman just had to choose that particular day to walk her dog at the amusement park. Little Skippy caught a whiff of her trail and ran into the hall of mirrors barking like a Baskerville. Skippy found Metta’s body in no time, because he was using his nose instead of his eyes. It took Miss Fresh Air and Sunshine twenty minutes to get to Metta.
By the time she got there, bouncing off mirrors like a squirrel on Jolt, little Skippy was rolling in Metta’s intestines, which were strewn all over the floor. She should have stopped reading the transcripts they fed into her e-shunt during the trial, but it’s tough to ignore stuff like that when it’s about you.
Miss Earth Goddess said she could see a thousand reflections of Little Skippy tearing organs out of Metta’s still-warm corpse as she scrambled through the mirror maze screaming “Bad dog!” If she’d had a stomach, Metta would have puked her guts out at that. She hoped the Earth Goddess beat Skippy’s ass good when she got him home.
Now Metta’s body was repaired, good as new. In fifty-seven years she’d get it back. Never thought she’d miss the scrawny thing, but she did.
She was beginning to develop a bad case of temporal claustrophobia. She’d only been serving her sentence for, what, twenty-four hours? Fifty-seven times three hundred and sixty-five minus one days to go with nothing to entertain her but her own weak mind. An eternity stretched in front of her. Jeeze, could she use some Godflash.
Nothing to occupy her but bones and dust. The bones and dust of her thoughts, her memories, and old e-shunt messages. Metta never threw anything out — every e-shunt she’d ever gotten was still there. She accessed one of the messages at random to see how much time she could kill.
You or Bo got anything to feed my tubes? No cash right now but influx is immanent.
Ooh. That was entertaining. Let’s see. What else did she have in there? Ahh, a classic e-shunt from ‘He-heee Boy’…
I’m sorry if you don’t want to hear me say I love you any more, but I can’t help it. I love you and I always will. I love you, I love you, I love you! I don’t understand how you can turn your back on so much love. My heart is aching for you, pumpkin. Please change your mind. I would be soooo good to you!
Jackie had seemed like an up guy when they were just e-shunting messages back and forth. An angry, introspective artsy-type, she thought. She pictured him dressed in black, chain-smoking Jolt-laced cigarettes in a dingy coffee shop, always pissed off about something. Then they’d talked on the phone and she found herself on the line with a cartoon. Each time he said something that was supposed to be funny, he’d let out this donkey cackle. He-heee! He-heee!
Goofus-boy surprised her by driving six hours to take her out to dinner. Four long, painful hours of He-heee! He-heee! When she’d leaned over to pick up the napkin she’d dropped, she’d seen that his legs were shaking. Literally trembling, he was so nervous. He’d wanted her to like him so bad his legs were shaking, and she couldn’t stand him. It broke her heart and pissed her off at the same time. After the date he sent a torrent of e-shunts professing his undying love, even after she told him, nicely, that it just wasn’t gonna happen.
Hold on. Could she send e-shunts to people whose route numbers she knew? It would be hard for the pencil-dicks who locked her up to disable her capacity to send without screwing up the hardware she was born with. She was sure she couldn’t receive, ’cause she would have gotten messages by now. Certainly from Evy and Grandpa. She’d never be sure if the people she sent messages to actually got them, but she had time to kill, so why not?
So, who would be the lucky recipient of her very first unanswerable message? If she were a good girl it would be Grandpa. But she was not. He-heee Boy it was.
How’ve you been? Sorry I’ve been blocking your e-shunts for the past six months, but you were driving me fucking nuts with your boy-with-a-broken-heart whining. I have to ask, pal — do you have any dignity at all? You’d carry a dead rat to me in your teeth if I asked you to. Do you think that’s an attractive quality in a guy?
But I’ve got good news for you, Jackie-boy. Here’s your chance … I want you back! I’m all yours, mind and body. One catch, though — they’re not in the same location any more. My mind and body, I mean. I’ve run into a bit of trouble with the law. I’m currently serving a fifty-seven year sentence for murdering myself. If you want my body, it’s all yours, hump it to your heart’s content if you can get past security at the cold storage plant. My mind is in a black box in the back of some shelf at the Saratoga Springs Detention Center. Maybe you’d like to come visit it. I’m sure the kind folks here at SSDC would be happy to sit my black box self in a chair across a table from you. Of course I won’t be able to see you, hear you, receive e-shunts, or even sense that I’ve been moved. But you can caress the top of my smooth ebony housing and whisper sweet nothings if you like.
Well, I gotta go. I’ve got a lot of disembodied drifting to do.
Love and Kisses,
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, now that she had a hobby. She was sure she’d killed another, what, hour, hour and a half? That only left about eighty fucking thousand more.
Metta had read somewhere that prisoners of war passed the time by building houses in their thoughts, brick by mental brick. She didn’t know how to build houses, but she knew how to bake cupcakes! She could bake a thousand dozen butterscotch cupcakes. While each dozen was in the oven she could sit at an imaginary kitchen table and watch an imaginary clock tick off twelve imaginary minutes. Ooh. This would be fun.
A thousand dozen cupcakes, it turned out, burned a lot less time than she had thought. Maybe those POWs had something with their imaginary houses. Did a cement truck come to pour the foundation, or did she mix the cement herself? It would be nice to have some company, even an imaginary cement truck driver. Then again, it would take more time to mix the cement by hand. She could hire the imaginary cement truck driver to help her mix it—
I think about you all the time … it was such a surprise to hear from you! Why would you go and hurt yourself like that? If you could just step out of yourself for a minute and see the Metta I see. You are amazing to me, a beautiful heart, a little mysterious and very yummy!
Otay, enough mushy stuff. I have a surprise…
You’re free!! Little ole me stole you from the detention center!!! Nothing to it. I asked to visit you. They thought I was nuts, but prisoners in minimum-security facilities have the right to visitors by law. I swapped you for an identical box (where’d I get it? Let’s just say I got friends in this hi-tech world!) and stuck you in my backpack.
I’ve reinstalled your e-shunt software, so we can talk now. We are on the road. Six billion things to tell you. I love you soooo much.
Jackie!!! I’m really out? Thank you! It was Hell in there. Get me some eyes and ears? Please!
Then it hit her. Her body was in cold storage, completely unreachable. And even if she could reach it, even if she could steal it, she doubted either she or Jackie’s “hi-tech” friends could access the technology necessary to put her mind back into it.
Jackie’s reply flashed across her mind’s eye.
I’m way ahead of you, love. I want to get a few hours out of Saratoga just in case they discover the switch. Then I’ll stop at a pawn shop and hook you up with some eyes and ears. I love you love you love you!
Metta’s first sight through her new “eyes” was a close-up of Jackie’s goofy face. His overbite and weak chin ruined the effect of otherwise gorgeous blue eyes. His long brown hair was tied in the inevitable ponytail. He was wearing a fireman’s hat and security guard uniform, the latest fashion among the neo-artsy crowd. She wished she had vocal cords so she could laugh at him.
“Hi cutie. Can you see and hear me okay?” Jackie asked, his face four inches from the sensor.
Put me on the windowsill. I want to see outside, she sent.
She couldn’t feel herself move, but at least now she could see when she was moving. A drab motel room (in Yonkers, according to the phone book lying on the end table) rotated around her. Three hundred sixty-degree vision was one advantage of direct neural sensors over eyes. She saw sunlight, clouds. At ground level nothing but tangles of barbed wire on a high concrete wall, but it was all gorgeous after weeks of blankness.
So what now, Einstein? I have no body, and no way of getting it back.
“I’ve got it all planned out, otay? Don’t worry about anything,” he said brightly. “Tonight we’re going to celebrate your liberation. First dinner, then I’ve got us tickets to a play that I think you’re gonna love.”
Jackie picked her up — well, picked up the cube — and kissed the end of the neural sensor. He probably thought it was a sexy gesture, but Metta’s perspective brought her two fat lips zooming in to kiss her eyes. Ooh baby. Nothing made her hotter than a chinless guy kissing her eyeballs.
Uh, Jackie? Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m a fucking box! I can’t eat.
Jackie wagged his finger in front of her while shaking his head in time with the finger. “Metta. Pumpkin. I know in my heart that if you knew me better you’d love me. I am soooo good to the people I care about, and I care about you soooo much! Give me a chance? We’re meant for each other … I’m berry, berry sure of that.”
Jeeze, they’d had one bad date. What was with this guy? If he didn’t stop with the baby talk she was gonna puke. Her box felt smaller by the minute.
“Now let’s get ready to go out. So what are you gonna wear? Oh, I forgot! You’ve only got one outfit at the moment … that slinky black number.” Metta knew it was coming, and she mentally flinched. “He-heee!”
Jackie set Metta on the edge of the table. His wide grin made his teeth bulge more than usual. He was still wearing the ridiculous fireman/security guard ensemble. Their waiter came over, and Jackie spoke with him quietly for a moment. The waiter nodded and left.
I’ve got a surprise for you, Jackie sent. He was going to e-shunt instead of talk to a box in public. As if a man wearing that outfit could make any more of an ass of himself.
What’s that? she asked. The problem with e-shunted communication was that you couldn’t convey sarcasm, or contempt, or disgust. She wished to convey all three in those two simple words.
Today is my birthday, and birthdays are extra-extra special days for me, thanks to mi madre.
What, is she going to pop out of a cake naked? Now that conveyed the proper sarcasm and contempt. Jackie cackled out loud like he’d never heard anything so funny.
You crack me up. My mother wanted each of my birthdays to be special events, so she wrote up a list of ninety foods, and never, ever let me eat any of them. Jackie pulled out his wallet and produced a folded triangle of paper. He unfolded it and held it so Metta could read it. It was a list of foods, starting with carrots. The first twenty-six were crossed out. On each birthday I get to try a new food for the first time. This year, for my twenty-seventh birthday, I’m going to try olives for the first time! And I’m so thwilled that I get to share this with you. That means so much to me. I’d kiss you, but the people here would think I’m nuts!
Metta was relieved that at least he didn’t say “He-heee” aloud. She looked around the restaurant. No one seemed to be paying any attention to this strange man sitting across from a cube. Jackie was just sitting in silence, but the other diners had to notice his ever-shifting facial expressions, given that they were about as subtle as a mime’s.
The waiter came back with a plate of green olives. Big ones stuffed with bright red pimientos. Jackie dropped the cloth napkin across his lap and rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. He looked down at the olives, then up at Metta, breaking into a wide grin. Picking up an olive, he looked at it carefully, sniffed it, then put it in his mouth and chewed. His grin faded. The chewing slowed, then stopped. He pulled the cloth napkin off his lap and spit the olive into it.
Oh! I don’t like them. They’re bitter. Last year was peas. I liked those a lot better. I eat them all the time now. The best was oranges, when I was twelve. Those are berry good.
Metta laughed delightedly in her mind. She was confident that the expression on his face as he chewed that olive would be etched in her memory for the rest of her life.
Jackie took a long swig of water, swished it around in his mouth, and swallowed.
For the hundredth time in the last couple of hours Metta considered who she could e-shunt to rescue her from this crazed marionette. The problem was she didn’t have many friends, and the friends she had were unreliable at best. Grandpa might turn her in; she couldn’t be sure. Getting caught was unthinkable — no way would she go back to that blank and sightless Hell. Best to ride it out with Jackie for now, excruciating as that was.
Jackie hiked around Glacier National Park with Metta stowed in his pack, her neural shunt peeking out so she could enjoy the scenery. The mountains were gorgeous, especially the panoramic view Metta got from her neural shunt, but it was hard to enjoy the view with Jackie for company. He was eager to show Metta what an outdoorsman he was. He hiked up rocky inclines, waded through streams, took exaggerated breaths of fresh air. Everything he did struck Metta as contrived.
Mr. Mountain Man? Exactly how long do you plan on carting me around the country? I mean, I don’t want to be ungrateful or anything, but you’re holding me against my will. And it’s starting to piss me off. Sweetums.
“Against your will? Ouch. That hurts.” Jackie put his hand over his heart and stuck out his lower lip. “I love you so much, Metta. I can’t bear the thought of losing you again. Is that a bad thing?”
She didn’t reply, so he tried another tack.
“I’m keeping you out of harm’s way. You’re a fugitive, remember? The longer you lay low, the better.”
The wooded trail they had been hiking suddenly opened onto a gorgeous plateau. A pond glittered in front of them.
“Wow! Look at this!” Jackie said, the pitch of his voice rising. He giggled. “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m going swimming.” Jackie chuckled. Just one chuckle. A speck of foamy spittle flew past Metta’s sensor. He put his pack down, taking care that Metta’s vision wasn’t blocked, and pulled his shirt over his head. His chest was surprisingly hairy, his skin pasty white. Balancing on one foot he pulled off his running shoe without untying the lace, then pulled off the other shoe.
Oh no, not the pants, Metta thought. Jackie yanked his shorts down enthusiastically, exposing a boyish white ass. He whooped. He was showing Metta what a fun, spontaneous guy he was. He ran full-tilt toward the pond, leaping into the air. His feet continued to pump in mid-air, like a child jumping off a diving board. Metta barely had time to pray the pond was ankle-deep before he hit the water, shouting, “He-heee!”
Metta watched and fumed.
Have I told you that I’ve given up sculpting? Jackie sent as he took a sloppy gulp of water. My career has evolved into another medium … pyrotechnic performance art!
And that is…? Metta shot back. His sculpture had sucked. He’d shown her pictures of some of it on their first date, and Metta had opined that it was three-dimensional Norman Rockwell happy crap.
YOU know, pyrotechnic perFORmance art, Jackie repeated, as if emphasizing certain syllables would suddenly make their meaning clear. Fireworks as art. It’s the newest thing. Cutting edge. I’m dedicating all my performances to you.
Oh goody, Metta replied. That inability to convey sarcasm was getting in the way again.
I rely heavily on the blue twirlies in my performances, Jackie babbled on. I love them; they’re so understated, yet energetic. I like to create fields of blue twirlies, then set off a white starburst in one corner of the field….
Metta scanned the room, looking for something, anything to occupy her mind. If she’d had an ax and arms, she would have happily chopped this grinning Disney World escapee into slabs of meat.
Their waiter, a studious-looking guy with wire-rimmed glasses, was wearing a bright orange nametag: Orion Cousins. What a perfect name for him. Metta ran a directory search — there couldn’t be many people with that name in the country — while simultaneously trying to think of something obnoxious to send to him. Turned out there was only one Orion Cousins in the whole U.S. of A.
…in one swirling lemon sizzler.
Jackie had no way of knowing that Metta had paid no attention to his soul-baring discourse on firecracker art. One of the few advantages to being in a box.
Orion came to the table and took Jackie’s order. Metta watched Jackie’s rabbitlike teeth dance as he talked.
Suddenly, she got an idea. A very good one.
She sent the waiter an e-shunt as he headed into the kitchen, presenting herself as Jackie’s girlfriend waiting outside to surprise him for his birthday.
Jackie rubbed his hands together dramatically when his quesadilla arrived. Metta laughed uncontrollably in her mind as he carved off a big hunk and forked it into his mouth. He tilted his head curiously as he swallowed.
This is quite lovely! He sent to Metta. Tangy. I’ve never tasted a pea and corn quesadilla quite like it. Wish you could taste it, my little senorita! He took another bite and nodded thoughtfully. It’s a starburst of flavor — I can’t quite place it.
Metta knew the precise moment when it dawned on him. His half-full mouth formed a cartoonish “O,” and his bushy brows formed a cartoonish “V.” Tentatively he peeled back one corner of the flour wrap and exposed the medley of spinach, squash, garbanzo beans and lima beans beneath. Metta was pleased with herself for being able to recall so many different vegetables remaining on Jackie’s mother’s list.
Jackie lurched to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor.
“Waiter!” He cried out. “Waiter!” The waiter hurried over. “I ordered a pea and corn quesadilla! How did these foods get in there? I’m not supposed to eat them yet!”
When the confused waiter explained about Jackie’s girlfriend’s surprise, Jackie’s eyes got wide. He turned and glared at Metta.
“You! How could you?” Jackie shouted at the black box. The waiter eyed Metta’s box and took a few sidling steps away from Jackie. “This is how you repay my love? My devotion? I love you!” he screamed. Everyone in the restaurant was staring at Jackie, some with forks full of refried beans or cheese enchilada hovering near their mouths. Metta was beside herself with glee.
Mommy is pwobabwy vewy angwy with snookums for not doing what he’s told. What a naughty boy!
For a moment Jackie looked like he might cry, then his face went slack. He apologized to the waiter in a flat monotone, handed him a fifty-dollar bill, swept Metta off the table and left.
They wandered the dark streets of the city.
“How could you reject a love so pure? All I’ve ever wanted was to treat you like you deserve to be treated. All I’ve ever wanted is to be with you.” Jackie kept up an endless stream of morose self-pity as he shuffled aimlessly, his head hanging low.
Jackie wandered into a seedy bar near a river. The walls of the bar were painted as black as Metta’s box; the floor was damp, as if things from the river had wandered in earlier for a drink. Jackie downed three neon-pink drinks in half an hour, all the while mumbling to himself and occasionally whimpering. Metta was tempted to chide him for ordering cheerful-looking drinks when he was in such a shitty mood, but decided not to press her luck.
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Jackie mumbled as he dropped a fifty on the bar and returned to the street. “I didn’t mean to eat spinach. No spinach ’til my thirty-third birthday. No lima beans ’til my thirty-eighth birthday…”
He headed back into the heart of the city, Metta dangling from his fingertips, his speech reduced to a monotonous litany of vegetables and ages. Wandering across an overpass, he stopped halfway and looked down at the passing traffic. Tightly-packed vehicles roared beneath them. Metta’s view of the vehicles suddenly got wider — Jackie was holding her out over the traffic. Metta suddenly realized she might have made a mistake with the quesadilla.
Jackie, hon, I’m very sorry about what I did back there. If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you—
And then she was hurtling toward the maze of headlights below. Above, she heard Jackie scream, “No squash ’til my thirty-ninth birthday!” A chrome grille appeared in extreme closeup for an instant, then headlights and black sky alternated like a strobe as she flew end over end. The windshield of a huge truck loomed. Metta heard two cracks simultaneously, one sharp and thin, the other dull and loud, and then she was airborne again.
She bounced along the pavement and came to rest in a ditch under the overpass. Part of her view was obscured by a mass of thin lines like spiderweb. As she oriented herself she realized the lines were the guts of her box. The black box was in two pieces, held together by a webbed mass of thin filament, her neural sensor hanging from one ragged half of the box. She was seriously fucked up. A few feet away, tires hummed by, spitting dust into her already limited field of vision.
“Metta? Pumpkin?” Jackie said, startling her. His hands wrapped around each half of the box with obvious care, lifting her. “Can you hear me? Are you there?”
Metta, pigeon? Are you all right? He e-shunted her.
Metta was uncertain whether Jackie would rip her in two or tape her back together if she answered. She decided to play dead. He was too unpredictable. Once he was gone she could e-shunt for help. Maybe it was time to take a chance on Grandpa.
Jackie cradled Metta in his arms and headed up an embankment, back toward quieter city streets.
“I killed her. Murdered her. I’m going to Hell.” Jackie’s steps grew quicker and his tone more panicked. “Oh God, oh, Mommy, what should I do?” He started to blubber. Metta kept quiet, difficult as that was.
Jackie headed down a side street, then cut into a narrow back alley. Quickly and unceremoniously, he lifted the lid of a filthy green Dumpster and dropped her in.
I am in very deep trouble. I was kidnapped, then dropped in a Dumpster, and I don’t know where I am. I don’t even know what city I’m in… Metta deleted the message. Grandpa would alert the authorities, and if Metta ever got out of this she would be looking at fifty-seven years of Hell. Better to die. All of this had happened because she’d wanted to die, so what would be the tragedy if she was squashed by a compactor in the back of a garbage truck? Though she had to admit she’d been feeling better lately, and would prefer not to die just yet.
She was not compacted in a garbage truck, but she did ride in the back of one, her exposed filament hugging pizza crusts and crappy diapers and used syringes. Most of her life, people had accused Metta of being trash. If they could only see her now.
She was poured out at the dump with the rest of the garbage, and after a few hours there she grew tempted to e-shunt somebody. Anybody. She was buried in trash and barely able to see daylight. Maybe she should try Bobo. No — he was more likely to tip off the authorities than Grandpa, given that she’d poured concrete down all the drains in his house after he told her to pack her stuff and get out. She needed to concoct a foolproof story, then send an emergency e-shunt to someone who didn’t know her. She still had that waiter’s address.
“Wires ‘n’ shit. C’mputers. Shit like dat,” a gravelly voice said nearby, interrupting her reverie.
“Howbout dis?” a younger voice — it sounded like a kid’s — asked.
“Na, na, na, stupid. Dat’s from a car. ‘Lectronic shit’s what we lookin’ for.” Metta heard clattering as the owners of the two voices dug through the garbage all around her.
“I get half,” the kid said.
“You don’t get no half! I tell you what you get, you get ‘leven percent.” The man cackled. The hissing clatter of shifting trash was close now. Metta wished she could shout out that there was some real good ‘lectronic shit right over here. More light broke through, then more. The man stood over her with a steel pole in one hand. He was filthy and scrawny, with close-set rat’s eyes. The eyes locked on her and he grinned, exposing cracked brown teeth. “Looky here! Now we got us somethin.” He grabbed hold of the filament holding the two halves of the box together and yanked Metta roughly from the pile. Metta’s mind went blank with static for an instant as the troglodyte tossed her into a wheelbarrow and proceeded to cover her with more ‘lectronics. At least she was moving again.
She endured a long ride in the wheelbarrow, not quite long enough to get used to the sensation of bouncing she perceived in the wild jerks of her visual shunt. Finally the pile of plastic and metal that contained her box tilted hard, and Metta slid from the wheelbarrow into a dark place that left her with only her aural receptors for information. She was absurdly grateful when a third voice finally entered her awareness. They seemed to have reached a destination, and the new voice sounded exasperated.
“Eddie, Eddie, what am I gonna do with you? See this?” The pile that Metta was in clattered, and a nearby tube slid away. “A vacuum cleaner tube is not electronics. And this–” more clattering — “is a toaster.”
“Dat’s some good parts in dere. Some fine ‘lectronics. Buck a pound.”
“And how many pounds do you figure is here, seein’ as how we ain’t got no scale?” asked the new voice.
“I ken ’bout fifty pounds,” Eddie replied, oblivious to the other man’s mockery.
“Forty bucks, Eddie, and don’t ask for forty-five. I’m bending over and letting you give it to me up the ass as it is.”
“Preciate it,” Eddie replied.
For the next few hours Metta shifted and rolled to the sound of hydraulic machines. Miraculously she ended up on top of the pile when she was dumped at her final destination. She was in a dim, cavernous room strewn with piles of electronics. The high ceiling was laced with exposed piping and ducts. In the center of the room a worn-out couch, tables, a TV, a cot, and an avocado rug set off a living space. Metta spotted the tenant at a plywood work table against the far wall, which was laced with wires and seemingly random bits of black plastic.
The man was in his late twenties, very tall and very thin, with long black hair and soft, androgynous features. The kilt he wore clashed with a teal shirt torn at the elbows. He was doing something electronic.
When the big industrial clock on the wall read 10 p.m. the guy stood, stretched his neck a few times, and walked thirty feet to sink into the couch. The TV popped on and scrolled through a menu as he sat with his arms folded across his chest. The gent’s furniture might be crap, Metta thought, but the TV was state of the art — no remote; direct e-shunt control. He scrolled to the adult vid section and chose a film called “Whips, Chains, Clamps and Tramps.” This guy was more Metta’s speed.
She suddenly realized that this was her chance. She snapped alert, focusing her attention on the bottom right corner of the TV screen … and there it was, the guy’s e-shunt address! You can’t rent a vid called “Whips, Chains, Clamps and Tramps” without providing your e-shunt address and password for age verification. The vid jumped to life; a busty redhead with her hands tied behind her back was led into a makeshift dungeon by an even bustier blonde with a riding crop in her hand. Metta’s new owner started getting a little too comfortable. He unhooked the clasp on his kilt and lay back deeper into the couch. Metta was sorely tempted to wait and time her first e-shunt message to coincide with that special moment, but the quesadilla incident had taught her an important lesson: don’t piss people off too badly when you’re in a box.
Ahem … excuse me, but before you get too, shall we say engrossed, in this fine film, you should know that there’s a lady present.
The guy leapt off the couch and reclasped his kilt, frantically scanning the dark, cluttered room. Metta was reminded of a teenage boy whose mother has just opened his bedroom door and caught him doing just what he was doing. The TV screen went dark.
“Who’s in here? Who sent me that e-shunt?” he shouted, a quaver of adolescent guilt breaking through his attempt to sound authoritative.
I confess, it was me. Now don’t get all indignant and accusing. You’re the one who brought me here. The name’s Metta. How’d y’do?
“Where are you? How about speaking?” He started stalking around the room, looking behind the larger pieces of equipment where a person might hide.
I would absolutely love to speak, but you see, I have no vocal cords. No mouth either. No ears, no eyes, no legs, no duodenum … I could go on and on. And you’re not going to find me looking like that. What do you say we play a little game of hot and cold and I’ll direct you to me?
The guy smiled, held his spidery hands up in supplication. “Fine, Metta. This is royally fucked up, but I’ll play. Here goes.” He started walking away from Metta.
Cold! Extremely cold! Your nuts are gonna get frostbitten if you persist. By the way, what’s your name?
He spun around and headed in her direction. “Marcus. How am I doing now?”
Warm … warmer … getting hot … no, don’t step around that pile of crap, I’m part of that pile of crap. Marcus turned back to the pile and held his hand over it. He moved his hand back and forth. Hot! Scalding! You could melt tungsten! He laid his hand on one half of Metta’s box.
“Jeeze! You’re in a neural retainer?” Marcus exclaimed. “How the Hell did you end up in a junkyard? This is unbelievable!” He carefully untangled her from the pile and carried her to his workstation, where he picked pieces of trash out of her, then gingerly worked the filaments until he had joined the two halves of the box together. He reached for a roll of tan masking tape.
You’ve got to be kidding! No way are you putting that on me.
Marcus frowned. “I can’t solder whatever this is the retainer’s made of. What do you suggest I use? Paper clips?”
Use the black tape. Have you no sense of esthetics?
Marcus burst out laughing. He retrieved a roll of black electrical tape and wound it around Metta’s box half a dozen times.
Metta resisted the temptation for weeks, but eventually boredom got the better of her. She liked Marcus, but when he was tinkering with his “‘lectronics” — especially the odd-looking project that covered part of the wall over his work table — he often drifted into his own world, leaving Metta alone with her thoughts. And leaving Metta alone with her thoughts was definitely not a safe idea.
One day while Marcus was out on a junk-run and Metta had nothing to do but think mean thoughts, the temptation became too great.
I thought you’d like to know that I’m fine. I’m sure you’ve been worried sick about me ever since you hid me in that Dumpster for safekeeping. Difficult as it was to get over you, I’ve met a new guy, and we’re having non-stop e-shunt-sex. Oooh, the things I tell him I’d let him do to my body if I had one! Shocking and scandalous.
Surprise, you chinless, dickless momma’s boy! I’m still alive, and my only regret is that I couldn’t remember any more forbidden foods to cram into that fucking burrito.
Snuggles and lima beans, Metta.
Jackie’s reply came almost immediately.
You bitch! You evil, evil bitch! I hate you!! I’m going to tell the police what I did. I don’t care what happens to me, as long as they catch you and take you back to prison. How could you betray me like this after all I did for you?
Metta felt a mix of emotions. On one hand she felt the warm satisfaction she could only get from pushing just the right buttons to send someone into an explosive rage. On the other, she felt a niggling uneasiness that Jackie might actually contact the police. If he did, could they trace the Dumpster to the dump, then connect her with Eddie the inbred ‘lectronics scavenger, and finally Marcus? Not likely.
“You still closing your eyes? You’re not peeking, are you?” Marcus asked.
If you don’t take this washcloth off my eyes I’m gonna e-shunt the proper authorities and have you arrested for aiding and abetting a fugitive. At least aiding. I don’t know what abetting is, so I’m not sure you’re abetting.
“Oh, I’m abetting. Ready?”
“Is that a sarcastic ‘ready’? You need to indicate when you’re being sarcastic. How about putting an asterisk at the end of any word or phrase that’s meant to be sarcastic?”
That’s a great idea!* I’ll be sure to do that.*
“Much better. You ready? Surprise!” Marcus lifted the washcloth, and Metta’s vision returned. She was on top of the coffee table; a cake lit with candles and a package wrapped in brown paper sat nearby. Metta’s box was decorated with a black ribbon and bow.
Oh my, how exciting.* A cake I can watch you eat.*
Marcus swiped a fingerful of icing and smudged a white trail across Metta’s heavily-taped box. “I think the asterisk idea was a mistake.” Marcus unwrapped Metta’s gift, an e-shunt link giving Metta control of the TV, stereo, and environmental system. As soon as it was loaded, Metta cranked some Argonauts on the stereo while Marcus sprawled on the couch and did some Godflash.
“We’ll figure out some way to get you back in your body. Don’t worry about that,” Marcus said.
“Yeah, I know,” Marcus replied with a shrug. “I just wanted to keep your spirits up on your birthday.”
You may recall my spirits weren’t all that high when I was in my body. It’s not that important. I’m starting to kind of like the box.
There was a thump on the steel door. “Yeah?” Marcus called.
“Police,” a voice shouted. Marcus flinched.
Oh, shit! Metta sent, I didn’t want to tell you … I e-shunted taunts to Jackie and he said he was going to lead the police to me! Hide me!
“Jesus Metta,” Marcus hissed under his breath. He grabbed Metta and stuffed her into a pile of debris, then answered the door. The interchange was short. Marcus refused to let the police inspector into the apartment to look around, and he denied knowing anything about Metta. The inspector promised to have a search warrant in an hour, e-shunted the request to his precinct, and camped outside the door to wait for the warrant.
Marcus’ hand was shaking as he drew Metta from the pile. Metta, what do we do?
I’m not going back. I can’t go back to that Hell.
But, shit, what can we do? We don’t have much time! Should I hide you? They’re probably gonna sift through every pile. Marcus was pacing around the room, looking frantically for somewhere to stash Metta.
I won’t go back. You have to kill me.
“I can’t do that!” Marcus said aloud.
It’s not your choice! You’re not the one who’s gonna float in the fucking dark for fifty-seven years! Rip open this box and shred those wires or whatever the hell they are. Now. Please! You have to do this for me.
Marcus stopped pacing. He looked down at Metta for a long moment. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he nodded slightly.
Thank you, Metta sent seriously. I don’t think I’ve ever said that to anyone in my life. Shit. I finally don’t want to die, and now I have to.
Metta felt a black dread wash over her as Marcus carried her to his work station, pulled a razor-knife off the wall and slit the tape holding her together. Tears poured down his cheeks, dripping on the fragile filaments as the two halves of her box separated. Metta braced herself, not sure what it would feel like when he tore her apart.
Hold on, he sent. He was staring at the maze of electronic guts covering the wall.
What? Do you have an idea?
Not one that will save you, he sent. Metta’s rising hopes snuffed out.
Well, don’t send “hold on” then! You don’t say “hold on” to someone who’s about to die unless you’ve come up with a way to save them!
I’m sorry. Look, here’s my thought. What’s holding your mind is partially organic, but it’s basically electronic. I’m thinking I should try to incorporate you into this. He gestured at the wall, covered with the intricate patterns of wires and blinking transistors of his tinkering. I have no idea what would happen to you. But it couldn’t hurt.
What is all this? she asked frantically, wishing she had made him explain it to her long before. There was so much she didn’t know about Marcus. She found she didn’t want to die until she had the chance to learn more.
A little of everything. It hacks into larger networks, he answered. It wasn’t much of an explanation. Metta considered for a moment, then answered decisively. Do me, stud. Marcus dropped the razor and grabbed a tiny instrument. She watched as he deftly separated a segment of filament, dropped the instrument, stabbed another off his workbench, and used it to join each end of the filament to a different chip, or a transistor, or whatever the hell the tiny black nodes all over the wall were. Something shifted in Metta. It was subtle and indescribable.
Talk to me. I’m scared shitless, she sent.
I’ll miss you. Don’t mean to be mushy, but I think I love you. He sobbed and wiped his eyes with a swipe of his forearm.
That’s pretty fucking mushy.
Marcus laughed, sniffed, and took more filament from between the two shattered black husks. The room receded, fading into black and white fish-eye.
Sorry. I’m trying to spread you out so you’ll be part of lots of different networks. What are you feeling?
Metta never answered. She heard music — metallic, grinding music that made her teeth hurt. Her body felt like it was back. The room pulled back until it was a tiny dot at the end of a long tunnel. She heard a faraway thudding, then a shout.
“Go away!” she heard Marcus howl from the end of the tunnel, then there was more thudding. Marcus spit a rash of curses that made Metta proud. She heard louder thudding and screeching metal.
Metta felt her arms twist round and round till they popped off. Her head corkscrewed till it flew loose from her neck and spurted away. The music shifted to a white-noise roar, like water bursting from pipes, and Metta — who was not Metta any more — was carried off in a dozen different directions on waves of liquid static.
The police confiscated the empty shell of Metta’s box. They had little choice but to accept Marcus’ story that he had found the pieces in a pile of electronics he had bought from Eddie. When they were gone, Marcus sat at his work station and looked at the maze of electronics, noting here and there where he’d grafted Metta. He gingerly ran a finger along one Metta-circuit, and smiled.
“Hope you can find some trouble to get into in there.” He dragged himself to the couch and collapsed, staring at the pipe-webbed ceiling.
The TV flickered to life. Marcus sat up with a jolt. On the screen, a busty blonde was spanking a slightly less busty redhead. Marcus smiled again, and kept smiling.
Will McIntosh is a 2003 Clarion graduate. He has sold stories to Interzone, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, NFG, Albedo One and Challenging Destiny. By day he is a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish