By Garrett Harriman
DOLLY’S outpatient RN coughed behind her paper mask and ruffled her piss-yellow flipchart. “Sampson? Byron?”
An impregnable paradigm of mid-twenties musculature rose from the fishtanked wall. Shambling past hapless downtown regulars, some heretic to his stoning, his eyes were bleak, puffy teartroves.
It was heartbreaking. They’d been rarities since her residency, even during the worst downturns. He’d be her fifth Prime this month.
“Morning, Mr. Sampson. Your unit’s prepping down the hall.”
“Right. T-Thanks. I’ll follow, Miss…?”
“Charlotte,” said Charlotte, blue mask perking with a smile.
“Byron,” lamented Byron at her heel.
Past reception they ducked into a sequestered, chipped-brick chamber. Aqueous light flushed the air with deadened metallic tints. Charlotte’s gloved hands ushered Byron to the centerpiece—an upright mechanization, bulbous and splayed.
He peered as children do into haunted caves. “Does it hurt? Duping?”
“First time’s a change of season, darling. You’ll never know what hit you.”
None of Byron’s demigod frame unchiseled at this news. Clearly he’d been burdened by rumors of instant branding. Charlotte couldn’t deride him. Primes prided themselves on being physically peaked. It was their fleshly testament to the sanctity of Oneness—of indivisibility.
Hesitant, he stripped to his skivvies then clambered into the unit’s ivory carapace.
Charlotte coughed again. Winced. “So—” she began, booping the interface from memory.
“What’s a Prime like me doing in a parlor like this?”
She found his humorless face. “Well…yes. Not to offend you, Mr. Sampson, but DOLLY’S doesn’t often cater to people of your—” She faltered. “Denomination.”
“Byron,” Byron said, “and don’t sugarcoat it. You’d think a Prime’s faith’d overcome any justification, but your waiting room’s a cross-section to the contrary.” He scowled. “It’s more popular than ever now. Like tanning booths.”
“S’miracle you haven’t Duped already,” Charlotte impressed. “Economy what it is, you’ve resisted like a saint.”
“It’s still sacrilege,” snapped the Prime. “I was born whole. I should stay whole. He’ll be another knock-off meat shield when the Forces pry him out. I’m just a cashcrop now, Charlotte. No better than those Entropes out there.”
Charlotte barbed at his slur. “There are far worse ways to make end’s meet than Duping occasionally, Byron.” She tightened the straps across his torso with undue snugness. “They’re not all frontline martyrs, you know. The Forces have squatter’s rights—it’s their tech—but they ship transplants to orphans. Euthanize some for research cadavers.”
“I’m religious, Charlotte; not naïve. Dupes phase directly to military outposts. None of me’ll ever aid the wretched.” Byron gloomed. “If Millie’d heard me sing that schlock, she’d’ve left me twice as fast.”
The Prime caught himself too late. He cursed. Ashamed, Charlotte calibrated his settings without speech.
The machine made shallow blorbing sounds. “She’s been gone a week, now. She screamed. Called it ‘indefensible’.” Byron heaved a devastating sigh. “I just wanted the best life for us, you know? To buy a used car. Basic comforts, nothing vogue. Anything to help start our family. Just this once...”
A hedgehog burrowed down Charlotte’s buttoned throat. “Well, you’re here now, darling. And I for one think you’re very devout.”
The RN hastened from his perfection for the exit.
“Wait!” said Byron. His machine began its reverse titanium bloom. “I’m sorry, Charlotte. Anything I said to—please, don’t listen to me. At least you have a job. You’re not another cookie-cutter lowlife—”
“Neither are you, Byron.” She leaned her head against the jamb. Coughed. “You’re doing what you never thought you could to survive. But forfeiting our Dupes to the Forces, to the wars, it’s just—” Shanghaied by tears, she broke off. “My God, the money’s irresistible. I’ve sentenced so many, Byron. Just to stay afloat…”
Enmeshed in clamps and bridled by gelatin, Byron Sampson frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Charlotte turned. Silvery in the wattage, she stripped off her mask and gloves.
Byron recoiled impotently. “You’re an Entrope? This young?” His unit devoured him faster. “How—how many times have you—?”
“I’ve lost track, Byron. Sixty. Maybe more.” Sudden anger flayed her tongue. “How else can I pay for med school in this market? Giving platelets? Pay day loans?”
Charlotte wailed, dashed into the hallway. The sonorous groans of her patient’s duplicator dogged her all the way to a supply closet. She wheezed there, tightened her uniform, plumbed her waterworks. She found fresh coverage for her face and her hands.
The barriers were asinine: her eroded flesh had gristled like microwaved eggs. Each new session only melded her more, clotted and degenerated her into a mumpy, inhuman omelet. These were but superficial signs of the desperate Over-Duper. She rotted from the outside in.
Charlotte glared into the inlaid door mirror, detesting her patriotic disfigurements.
Just this one time, his words purred and purled.
She tied off another mask. “I sure hope so, darling.”
- - -
Garrett Harriman lives in Colorado where he schools, saxes, and writes. His stories have appeared in Collective Fallout and on 365 Tomorrows.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
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