Chapter One

As I approach the apartment building’s entrance, I adjust the pistol stuffed in my waistband. The uncomfortable, foreign weight has been pulling on my pants’ elastic the entire walk from the bus station, and I keep imagining it tumbling to the ground in front of random strangers. I’m not in Lower Lefeld anymore—someone might actually call the cops.

A kiosk protrudes from the brick next to the door. I tap it awake and buzz Unit 4.

No answer. Am I early?

With a twitch of mental effort, the NeurX home screen materializes, superimposing its user interface over the real world. I mean to check the time, but before I can stop myself I compulsively open the message I’ve read some fifty times already.

Dear Gabrielle Rhodes,

We regret to inform you that your financial aid application for gene-editing therapy has been denied at this time. We at the Transhuman Centers take pride in our state-of-the-art CRISPR interventions—

Without finishing the letter, I close my NeurX and bite down on a fingernail. Why they included a sales pitch after the rejection boggled the mind a bit. That had been Plan A. Tonight is the much less pleasant Plan B. There is no Plan C. I have to make this work.

“Hoi,” a man chirps through a small speaker.

Was that a heavily accented hi, or another language? “I have an appointment?” That sounded like a question. Be more assertive, Gaby.

“Ya? Name?”

“Catalina Velasquez,” I lie.


The door’s lock slides free with a metallic thunk and I step through into a dim lobby with a holotable at its center. I flinch as the door crashes shut behind me, triggering me to brush the frame of the pistol as if my body needs to know it’s still there.

The holotable kicks on, flooding the room in a pallid glow as it begins sliding through its pre-programmed adverts: Whala’s fish tacos, Sorocini shoes, some beverage branded in a language I can’t read unless I fiddle with the translator settings in my NeurX. A man’s face materializes larger than life in the hologram. He stares resolutely into the distance, firm jaw set. The caption reads: What have you done for your corporation today?

You have no idea, Mr. Billboard Man.

Glancing down, I second guess the DJ YonDon tee and baggy, hand-me-down sweats. I’m using them as a disguise as I pretend to be someone from Eversen, who’s pretending to be someone from somewhere else. The cover within a cover seemed clever yesterday. Now I’m not so sure.

Near the back of a cramped hallway, I find Unit 4, and as I put my knuckles to the door my chest begins to constrict. It’s more from anxiety than exertion, but the implant grafted to the inside of my ribcage can’t tell the difference so it puffs a mist of corticosteroids and beta agonists into my lungs all the same.

The apartment door swings in. A shirtless man looms overhead. His pasty skin is pocked with dozens of small indents. Signs of serious hardware, with no effort made to hide the surgeries. Maybe he went under the knife of some discount, back-alley surgeon. Maybe it was cheaper to overlook the cosmetics. Or maybe the aesthetic is on purpose: flaunting the upgrades to posture and intimidate. If the latter is true, I have to confess, it’s working.

His gaunt face studies me. “You da fixer?”

“Yeah. You the Doctor?”

“Nah. I’m Tumbo. In,” he says, stepping aside.

A few nervous strides bring me to the center of a cluttered living room that stinks of dirty socks. Another man appears from down the interior hall. His hairline is racing toward the back of his head, but other than that his appearance is completely unremarkable. The kind of person you could meet repeatedly and still have trouble picking out of a crowd. It must be helpful to have a face like that doing business like this. “Who’s this?” he asks.

“Ya appointment,” Tumbo says as he slides a chain lock closed on the door.

“No.” He breathes the word. “You’re Catalina Velasquez?”

“All my life,” I say too eagerly.

His pupils dilate. A brief burst of light shines through artificial corneas as his facial recognition software pulls my iDent off the net. I planned for this.

You see, the public registrar’s database isn’t protected by artificial intelligence. You have to run a biological computer alongside your mainframe if you want an AI to guard your data—well, a sentient AI that is, which is the only kind people care about these days—and that’s prohibitively expensive.

A database without an AI is vulnerable, but it still has security, so you start small. On a Tuesday, you pull the employment records of the public registrar building. You filter out everyone but the clerks, and by Wednesday you’ve sifted through each of their public profiles, creating dictionaries of their favorite foods, their birthdays, children’s names, pets, hobbies, whatever.

Some might call this stalking.

By Thursday, an automated brute force attack armed with the dictionaries you’ve built cracks open all of Jonas Plant’s accounts. He uses the same password for everything. That’s when you start digging. You learn he’s lonely. You learn he has chronic undiagnosed stomach pain. You learn his dream is to go to Tora Kiesa.


Now all a potential hacker needs is a little social engineering and a breaching script. By the following Monday, a fake award sent from a fake Human Resources account with a fake prize is in his inbox. Congratulations, Jonas. You’ve won a company-paid trip to the Tora Kiesa resort. Thank you for all your hard work. All you have to do is click on the details tile embedded in this message to claim your prize.

When he clicks, he gives you a back door into the registrar mainframe, allowing you to link your facial ID to counterfeit metadata, just in time for your meeting with a black market CRISPR dealer.

The Doctor makes an affirming grunt as his eyes come back to focus on me. “Well, you certainly don’t look like a fixer. Don’t look like you’re from Eversen either. I’d’ve pegged you as an offworlder.”

“I tan,” I say sarcastically. Most Amienites are pale. Really pale. The olive skin, black hair, and brown eyes of my mixed heritage often brings me unwanted attention. “And I’m glad I don’t look like a fixer. That was kind of the idea.”

The Doctor purses his lips and nods. Tumbo relaxes into a chair in the corner. Placing a hand terminal on his lap, he paws at it with one hand and snatches a burrito from a plate set on a nearby end table. Next to the plate is some type of energy weapon with a handgun’s formfactor. I have to consciously resist touching the pistol.

“I guess I see the logic,” the Doctor says. “Send someone nobody would expect as your fixer… Of course, that also includes the person they’re supposed to do business with, doesn’t it?”

Has he sniffed me out already?

The implication hangs in the air as he glides closer. “So tell me, what made Eversen decide to step outside the rules?”

“Gotta compete with Lefeld somehow.”

“Yeah? And just like that”—he snaps his fingers—“Eversen’s gonna give their players CRISPR?”

I nod. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“So you are. Last I spoke with Coach Dermont, he didn’t want his kids anywhere near gene editing.”

None of my snooping suggested Coach Dermont and the Doctor had history. What’d I just step in? “Again, that’s why I’m here. He’s a proud man. Being wrong is tough to admit, especially in person.” Inwardly, I congratulate myself for thinking on my feet.

“Suppose so. All right, let’s sit down and work out a treatment structure. How many players you got total?”

I don’t sit. “No, sorry. That’s not how the pieces fit. You saw my proposal, right?”

“Sure did. It’s a waste of time. We can come up with somethin’ better.”

“That proposal is the only way the pieces fit for Coach Dermont.”

The Doctor drops into a beat-up recliner parked opposite the couch. An enigmatic glance passes between the Doctor and Tumbo.

“So you want to waste half the season testing the CRISPR on a single athlete?”

“We got this freshman on the team. Green. Kind of a scrub in all the ways you’d expect, right? But this kid’s got an arm like a railgun. Coach thinks we get some size on him, he’ll be a secret weapon. No one expects Eversen to start a freshman. And if it doesn’t work out,” my tone goes solemn, “well, the kid’s too small to make much out of him without the CRISPRs, so there’s nothing to lose.” If you want someone to believe a lie, when you really need to hook them with it, bury a seed of truth in it. “This way, we get to see if they’re safe.”

Tumbo lets out a truncated bark of a laugh.

The Doctor smirks. “I can assure you, they are not.” He motions toward the stained couch. I sit this time. “Tumbo, you remember Fat Pat?”


“Did you know Fat Pat?” the Doctor asks me.

“No,” I say. Why would I?

He shrugs one shoulder. “You’re better for it. Fat Pat was a lowlife. A courier we used from time to time. In truth, I never trusted him. Not because I thought he was going to rat me out or double-cross me. Nothin’ like that. He was just…” The Doctor turns to Tumbo and laughs. “Well, let’s just say it. Fat Pat was dumb. I knew sooner or later he’d make a mistake that dragged everyone down with him.”

“I’m not following,” I say. “I’m just here to talk business.”

“I know, I know. I ramble on sometimes. But if you’ll indulge me for a minute.” He meets my eyes. Waiting.

Not knowing what else to do, I give him a single nod.

“So you see, Fat Pat had this specific way about him. Especially the way he talked. There were certain things he’d say that no one else said. Especially this turn of phrase that was so ingrained I don’t even think he noticed when he’d say it.” The Doctor leans back in his chair, spreading out. “At first I thought it was kinda unique. Then I met a couple other people from his neighborhood. A real shithole filled with worthless UBI lifers. What was the place called?” he asks Tumbo.

“Lower Lefeld,” Tumbo says.

“That’s it. So yeah, turns out, Fat Pat talked just like everyone else from his little neighborhood, including the use of that particular turn of phrase: how the pieces fit.”

That, all of it, was pageantry. He’s toying with me. As casually as possible, I position my hand near the grip of the pistol.

It’s too late though. Tumbo has his weapon leveled at me. Every muscle in my body goes rigid. The hexagonal barrel and the glint reflected from the mirrors within tell me it’s a pulser. Uncommon planetside, pulser’s are designed for security and policework on starships and aboard space stations where you don’t want a missed shot penetrating a wall and damaging a critical system. Not that that detail matters any—at this range and striking flesh, it’ll be plenty lethal.

“What do you have there?” the Doctor says. He lifts himself from his chair and leans over me, patting around my waist until his hand lands on the pistol. His eyes imitate disappointment as his hand gingerly lifts my shirt up, pulling the gun free of my waistband. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Catalina? Where’s the trust?”

He sits back down with the pistol resting on his thigh.

My instincts scream at me to run, but I’d never make it out that door. I’m frozen. I have no idea what my next move is.

“So, Lower Lefeld…” the Doctor says, maintaining eye contact. “That’s not what you natives call it, is it?”

“We call it LoLe,” I admit robotically.

“That’s it.” There’s venom in the Doctor’s voice now. “You know what happened to Fat Pat?”

I shrug. Not the I don’t care kind of shrug. More like an I’m too scared to talk shrug.

“Well, someone had enough of his shit. Not us.” Tumbo shakes his head in agreement. “One of his other employers took him to the old ice quarries in the Night districts. Like three hours out east where it’s so cold they gotta put all the pipes and shit above ground. They bring him out there, put a bullet in one of his knees and drive away. Now, I don’t think they shot him in the knee because they were worried about him walking far enough to find help. Nah, see, I think they did that so they knew he spent his last few minutes in excruciating pain as he froze to death. What do you think that felt like?”

I shift my weight, not knowing if I’m supposed to respond or not. We’re playing his game and I don’t know the rules.

“Proby hurt,” Tumbo says.

“Of course it hurt for Fat Pat. But no, I mean, what do you think it felt like to do that to someone? Sounds exhilarating to me.” He bares his teeth like a predator. “Ever since I heard about that shit, I’ve been wanting to have a reason to try it out.”

Well Gaby, seems you’ve gone and gotten yourself murdered.

“So Catalina. This is what’s gonna happen. I’m going to ask you some questions, and you better have verifiably true answers.”

“Ya in church now,” Tumbo says.

“That’s right. Confessional time. And I am God to you. You understand?”

I nod, planting my gaze on worn carpet.

“And who knows, if you’re honest, and I also happen to like your answers, maybe, just maybe, we won’t be taking a drive out east.”

Tears well up despite myself. I keep my head down.

“Catalina isn’t your real name, is it?”

I shake my head.

“What is it?”

My voice catches. I swallow hard. “Gabrielle Rhodes.”

Tumbo punches it into the hand terminal.

“I spoofed my iDent,” I say, finding my voice out of fear they’ll think I’m lying. “I won’t show in the databases until the public servers reboot.”

The Doctor cocks an eyebrow. “You law enforcement?”

I shake my head. “No. I don’t know how to prove that to you though.”

Tumbo looks up from his screen. “Where you learn?”

“I don’t unders—”

“He’s asking where you learned how to spoof your iDent?”


The Doctor draws his chin back, noticeably taken off guard. Then, regaining his composure, he chuckles. “Officer on deck!” he shouts, and mock salutes me. “My cousin went there. Dude came out a straight-up merc.”

I might laugh if I wasn’t so terrified. Best his cousin could’ve been at Moore would’ve been Command Division. Sure, they get some combat training, but if CommDiv is his definition of merc, meeting a gausser would blow his mind.

“Good thing I got this away from you,” he says, waving the pistol carelessly.

“I don’t get any combat training,” I say sourly. It’s getting easier to speak.

“Well what do you do there?”

“This waste our time,” Tumbo grumbles.

“You got somewhere to be, Tumbo? Besides, I’m curious. This shit’s not addin’ up.”

I shrug. “Computer coding and encryption mostly. Drone operations, and I just started firing solutions.”

“Let’s say I believe you. I guess that’d explain how you figured out how to change who you appear to be in the public database, but nothing else makes sense. You’re a Moore student, bang-bon future in front of you. So if you’re not law enforcement, and obviously you’re no fixer for Eversen, why are you here? Why all the trouble changing your iDent? And setting up a consultation to buy CRISPR for a football team?”

“Does it matter? I just want some growth splices, but I know you’re not small time. I knew you wouldn’t sell to just me. For just one person.”

“So it’s for you then? For your tits?”

“No! What’s wrong with my breasts?”

I squirm under his gaze as his eyes hover over my chest for an uncomfortable spell.

“Since we’re being honest here, they’re nothing to brag about.”

There’s a long silence. Tumbo stands and makes for the kitchen.

“What were you trying to get, anyway?” The Doctor’s tone takes on a casual indifference.

Why’s he asking? Is he actually entertaining the idea of selling to me? What’s the best angle to play here? I have no idea, so I answer honestly. “Human growth hormone secretagogues, epi plate skeletal growth compounds, and anterior pituitary gland enhancers. And it’s a long shot, but maybe IL-4 receptor modulators for asthma too.”

He furrows his brow at me. “Sounds like you done your homework, so maybe you already know: the splice I sell, it’s generic. That means it’s not specifically tuned to any one person’s DNA. It’s cheaper that way, but way more dangerous. I sell it to dumb jocks who’ll do anything to make it pro. What do they got to lose, right? If they don’t go pro, they’re either enlisting and gettin’ killed, or scrubbing toilets for five percent over basic. A Moore student has a future. It ain’t worth it.”

“It’s worth it to me.”

“The shopping list you just gave me, probably kill you.”

“I already said, I’m willing to risk it.”

“I’m not. One of these jocks’ heart explodes, nobody bothers with it. Everyone knows they use. And ain’t nobody cares about some athlete. But a Moore student dies of CRISPR Shock? You better believe they’ll find a way to track it to me. I’d be better off putting you in the ground tonight.”

“You don’t understand, I need to be bigger. Please.” I blink back the tears. Twenty-one centimeters too short. Sixteen kilograms too light. At seventeen, there’s less than a year to change all that. “This is my last chance. I’m begging you.”

He stares at me for what seems an eternity. His impassive face gives away nothing.

Tumbo shifts his weight at the edge of my vision, leaning against the kitchen door frame. “No worth it, boss.”

The Doctor clears his throat. “You’re not leaving here with splice, Gabrielle Rhodes. But you do get to leave.” His eyes flick toward the door. “Go.”

I stand on shaky legs, tears roaming unchecked down my cheeks.

“I’m keeping this,” the Doctor says, spinning the pistol on his finger like a gunslinger from some VR show. “You don’t see old style slug-throwers like this too often.”

“I, I need it back,” I blurt out. “I borrowed it, and if it doesn’t show back up, there’ll be questions.”

“Merits,” Tumbo says.

“That’s why I keep him around,” the Doctor says. “His pragmatism. You brought merits, right? I don’t think you came in here to hold me up for the splice.” Then he turns to Tumbo, smiling. “Although after everything else, hell, maybe she did.”

“No, I was gonna pay.”

“So you got an unregistered card?”

“Yeah,” I admit, realizing where this is going. Fishing it from my pocket, it goes from me, to the Doctor, to Tumbo’s waiting hand.

Tumbo taps it against his terminal. “Four ‘tousand, three hundred and twelf.”

“Your lucky day, Gabrielle. That is the exact fee to get this gun back.”

“All of it?” I whisper.

“‘Fraid so. Ammunition’s sold separately.” He pops the magazine free and pulls the slide back. The cartridge spirals from the chamber, landing silently on the carpet’s pile. He empties the rounds from the magazine before offering it back to me. He doesn’t let go until he says, “Forget you ever heard about me. Tonight…this shit, did not happen. You get me?”

I try to speak, but I can only choke down the knot in my throat and nod.