Genre: New Adult Science Fiction
Title: Skin Deep
The elevator plays a charming ditty to soothe my ascent to the 14th floor. My body tingles from my toes pushing against the leather soles of my boots to my belly twisting in knots to my shoulders stretching my Start Labs-sponsored sunsuit jacket to my tongue licking my lips. When the doors shudder open, the dim hallway light doesn't reach the elevator. My feet dip into the well-walked, dirty green carpet as I head to Apartment 14E. Silence follows me down the hallway as if each door is a container of muted sounds. By the doorbell of my donor’s apartment are remnants of a Hello Kitty sticker, peeled by age or a drunk, with shaky hanzi for Grandpa next to it in permanent marker. It’s sloppy and childish like mine.
Underneath my gloved hands, the doorknob quietly twists open. It’s unlocked – as expected. Good.
The apartment swallows me and any light that follows behind. My breath locks in my nose (1, 2, 3, 4), waiting to adjust to the darkness. There’s nothing: no other sounds, no other movements.
When I flick the light switch on, my eyes throb a little at the sudden contrast, even underneath my helmet. I take it off along with my gloves and boots, leaving them by the door, and pad slowly to the living room area. It’s easier for the Cleaners to wipe away sock-clad footprints.
It’s a simple one-bedroom apartment, larger and older than mine, I can already tell. Before I start the extraction, I like to ascertain whether or not I could live in the space. If you know the original renter had died in the apartment, you can get a discount through the broker if you make a quick enough offer. Dead smells fade eventually.
This apartment complex, a relatively new host for Section participants, has been around for so long without any modern renovations that it's not worth the move. To the right of the entrance is a small kitchen with an electric stovetop. The cupboards are a dumb ugly blush color, dating this place back to when pastels were en vogue. I place my satchel on the countertop as I continue my exploration. A little further into the living room is a short hallway on the left with two doorways, one partially open to reveal a toilet, another closed. Despite the overhead lamp, the apartment is still too dark, like being shrouded in shadow. I don’t like these kinds of places. Great closet space, though. It would be nice to have a winter closet or a closet that asked for opportunities to dress outside a uniform.
Everything is set up the way it should be: clear tarp neatly splayed out in the center, black lockcase next to it.
Except I am completely alone.
The job is simple: I open the door, see the donor lying on the tarp, extract the IP, seal it into the sterilized case the Initiators leave behind, and then let the Cleaners know I’m done. My liaisons within the Initiators and Cleaners divisions have all been cooperative. As I step back into the kitchen again, I pull out my burner out and call Branson, putting him on speakerphone and leaving it on the countertop.
“There’s no one here,” I tell as him as soon as he picks up, raising my voice a bit. I'm always confused with this phone’s mic range. I start pulling on clear latex gloves from the outer pocket of my backpack, and they seal against my thin, veiny hands. A warm breeze glides through the short, bristly hair on the back of my neck, and when I turn around, a corner of the thin curtain lifts gently. “I see you’ve set up, but there’s nothing. Also, did you leave a window open?”
“Hey, Shella, nice to hear from you, too. Yeah, the smell almost knocked out one of the team members. I didn’t want it to be as bad for you as it was for us so I left the balcony door open a tiny crack.” Branson’s deep voice fills up the apartment. He has always been my contact within the Initiators, but lately, our conversations have been lasting longer than they probably should. We’re not supposed to have any kind of outside relations.
“Hold on, what do you mean there’s nothing?”
“Devoid of donor,” I wave my hand around the living room as if I am at a showcase showing him a variety of prizes before remembering the phone doesn’t have holo-capabilities. It’s frustrating with antiques.
“That’s not possible.” There”s a shuffling, cracking sound on his end. “I’m going to come back and show you.”
“Won’t that interfere with your team?” I ignore the jibe. Initiators always think Extractors can’t do their jobs without them. If I really needed to, I’m sure I could move a dead body without his help, but right now, there’s no reason to argue. I walk around the tarp to the balcony, pushing the thin burgundy curtain aside.
Closet space and a view? Maybe I should file a request to move.
“For you, I’m willing to risk that,” he says, and I can hear that lopsided smile through the speaker. Heat gathers in my neck and cheeks as I roll my eyes. Branson laughs at my pause and continues, “We’re still in the area so it won’t be a problem. We’re getting lucky tonight.”
“What’s our radius?” I ask, staying away from the open crack. Even though the sun has sunk and it’s only the moon hanging in the air, the heat is still too uncomfortable in direct contact. I press my gloved hand against the warm glass, resting my forehead on it.
There are so many buildings halfway lit up like its bottom has been sucked into the ground and smeared with mud. I can even see one of those grand high-rises that look they're scraping the underside of clouds. When I had been shadowing in-house organ donations, there was a white guy living in one of those who had the longest vestigial tail I had ever seen. He had it rolled up and taped to his back every day for as long as he could remember. When he nipped the last piece of tape off, the tail unfurled like a snake finally able to breathe.
Here I am, it hissed across the floor. Take me with you.
Before the market became dumb bloated, the easiest thing you could exchange for money was a part of yourself. Isn’t that how it always is? A kidney could have gotten you far enough back then until you start wondering, What else is there? An extra finger or toe, multiple nipples? A spleen, vestigial tail? What part of you is no longer essential to your being?
“You’ll see if you connect to Sync.”
“Why not make it a little easier and tell me?” I lean back from the window and notice my reflection scratching methodically against my hairline by my temple. I should buy a new helmet. My hand balls into a fist, and I turn around to face the rest of the living area again.
“But then you’ll have no reason to talk to me anymore,” he quips.
A few spots on the floor glisten out of reach of the kitchen's dim light.