Skin (Chapter 1)
Eyes locked on the girl, Josh struggled to balance the rifle on his shoulder as the slippery neuroskin under his sweatshirt pulled it off-center. I never should’ve sold the skin on my arms, he thought. The girl was propped up against a maple thirty yards out, guzzling a Coke and eating a Poptart, crumbs landing on the crest of her rounded stomach.
I see you Goldie, she thought, yawning. Damn boys are no different than monkeys in Thailand trained to rip wristwatches off tourists for their masters. Except his master wants my skin...
Through the scope, slowly blinking grey-green eyes and sunken cheeks splattered with large spots appeared close enough to touch. The zipper on her windbreaker had burst open revealing irregular shaped spots on her stomach and as he watched, golden leaves spun down onto her red curls. She’s been on the road as long as me, he thought.
I’m exhausted. If it wasn’t for you, my love, I’d let them skin me. Breeding programs like the one that impregnated her had created larger, darker, more leopard-like freckles in the MC1R carrier population, yet the demand was always outpacing the supply.
Josh trained the laser on her forearm. Already tagged. The Trac-B read her bounty at 100,000Q, but the burn rate on Spotties was so high that the baby was worth ten times that. Josh loaded a dart and was easing forward on the trigger when he felt a wire snake around his neck and squeeze.
Sadie sprinted to where the boy was clawing at the slowly constricting garrote. When she tapped thumb to forefinger, the snare ceased tightening. She tossed his rifle then squatted over him.
He’s at the end of his run, she thought, taking inventory. Face crisscrossed with scars. Nose broken multiple times. She fished into his mouth, finding better quality teeth than expected and no wisdom teeth. Seventeen, maybe eighteen. He’d had some success as a tracker too. Nickel-sized bonus stamps crawled up both forearms covered with the revolting liquid plastic skin replacement.
“Look, Trackie,” she whispered, “I’ll be long gone by the time the signal wanes and this necklace…” she flicked the metal rope and his eyes popped an inch wider “drops off. You’ll be dead by then. Do you understand?”
His lips were turning blue, but he quit pulling at the snare and flashed a thumbs up sign.
“Or…I’ll give you 10,000 quid to take me over the Divide unseen.” She gestured to the zoomers above, just visible through the trees. “And my guess is you’ve run these hills before.” She looked at her watch. “You’ve got about thirty seconds left.”
He stared up at her, calculating his options, then nodded. She gave the split signal and the snare dropped off, snaked through the leaves and coiled around her ankle.
“What’s your name, Goldie?”
“Josh.” He sounded hoarse, but not angry.
“Sadie,” she responded. “Let me know when you’ve got your wind.”
He bent over one knee, coughing and lacing up his skimmers. A thick line of bruising cut across his neck and his right eye was blood red. He was twice her height, lanky and unintimidating. Though they were roughly the same age, he seemed younger.
After a few seconds, he circled his forefinger.
“Nope. Call your Wheat first. And make it good.”
“Yeah. Ok.” He coughed again then hit the comm on his Trac-B.
“She’s gone,” Josh said, adding, “Wasn’t a Spottie anyway.”
“Whaddyou mean gone? You lose her or drop her?”
“Markin, she was a Teaser! I dropped her, okay? On my way in.”
“Josh! You lazy piece of shit. Find me something or your old ass is on carving from now on!” Markin disconnected.
Josh looked down at Sadie, one eyebrow raised.
“How long before he comes looking?”
“Won’t probably. He’ll think I’ve been poached, not that you’re a…uh...” Josh trailed off.
“Spottie. You can say it.”
He had the good manners to look down.
She sighed. “Alright, you’re in the lead. Let’s go.”
He kicked off headed north, his long strides quickly outpacing hers. Without his cough, she would never have heard him -- he knew just where to place his feet.
Josh slowed to a trot.
“Sadie, we’ve got a drop coming up.”
Oh, thank God, she thought. She dropped her head, pulling in lungfuls of cool air.
“You’re as loud as a boar,” Josh complained.
“Shut it, Goldie! I’m not paying you to talk.” She gasped between each word, which took the venom out of it.
The break in the forest revealed what used to be an overpass and was now a maw of rusting street cars. Josh straddled a metal girder, legs dangling. Sadie flipped up her hood.
“Where are we?”
He took a swig of water, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Pretty sure we’re just east of Advance. Should be signage below.”
Josh suddenly reached over her head, grabbing for the rifle.
She rolled away, reaching under her arm and scrambling to her feet, a curved knife thrust towards his chest.
The rifle raised between his hands, he shouted, “Woah, Sadie, relax! I just need the scope, okay?
Sadie held her ground as he stripped it off, dropping the rifle at her feet with a roll of his eyes. He climbed down as far as he could, then tucked and dropped onto the hood of a wrecked BMW. Scanning under the collapsed bridge, the signage was gone. Must have been attached to the overpass.
A billboard for Harry Winston still stood. A blonde in her thirties, elbows balanced on a white tablecloth, flashed a broad smile. She wore emerald earrings and matching twisted skin bangles. Each an inch wide, the skin was a striped mix of mocha, Spottie and pale. The uneven surface of the bracelets were the only indication that underneath the skin was not wood or plastic, but bone.
“No. But we can’t be that far from Buck Creek and the Sierras are just on the other side.”
He paused to pull long strips of rubber out of his shirt, “Let’s try for the creek by nightfall. You good?”
She nodded and smiled, stifling a sharp pain in her side.
“Where’d you learn how to make these?” she asked.
He sat in the dirt, straddling her bare foot, muttering under his breath.
“Your feet are swollen,” he said, dark eyes squinting up at her.
“If the swelling gets worse...”
“Listen, I didn’t…”
He cut her off. “Yeah, I know. But you’re scaring the game away. I can’t make you quality skimmers, but these will help.”
“Fine.” she said, reddening. “Make it quick.”
“Of course, your highness.” He responded, the corners of his lips curling up.
She didn’t appreciate the gesture until she ran again. He’d jammed cross-sections of rubber into cuts in the soles. It not only made the boots quiet, but also wider and therefore infinitely more comfortable.
They made it to the valley well before mid-day and for once, she didn’t immediately kick her boots off, but walked along the ridge scouting for a smooth rock. He was laying back among the late-blooming wildflowers eating jerky and squinting up at the sun when she plopped down beside him.
“You’re going to choke and go blind,” she said.
He laughed, nearly choking, and re-crossed his long legs at the ankles, snapping off another bite.
She leaned forward as far as she could, coming up shy of her toes. Hello there, my love, she thought. Then she pulled up the back of her shirt and circled the clean side of the rock on her lower back, grunting with pleasure.
“Unh?” she responded, eyes closed.
“Do you know how it happened?”
“The… you know… the skin trade.” He turned towards her, shaggy hair falling over his eyes and tucked his knees into his chest.
Hmm… makes sense I guess, she thought. Wheat take kids as payment for Rock-addicted parents. Goldens are raised like dogs – given food and shelter, taught to track, but not much more.
“Yeah.” She answered finally. “I know some.”
“Tell me?” His earnest face reminded her of Noah. It had been weeks since she thought about her brother. His chubby fists tied down, screaming her name. The skin peeling off his tiny fingertips. And all the blood...
“Um…first there were piercings, where needles would pass through.” Sadie revealed her popped bellybutton and mimed piercing it. “And towards the end, the holes got bigger. My uncle Rami showed me vid of a man in India passing an entire snake through a hole in his ear.”
Josh rolled an earlobe between his fingers, bewildered.
“Then tattooing,” she continued. “No area was sacred. People inked their eyelids and inside their ears. They…”
“Have you seen Malenas?” Josh interrupted, sitting up.
“They run Skittle across the border. Malenas have a tattoo…” Josh pointed to the center of his tongue, “…of a purple eye. I’ve seen the farms...”
“Does anyone still buy farmed skin?”
“Some, yeah. For orange Skittle, they force-feed the kids pumpkin puree. For green, they strap copper plates on. And for XP, they’re kept in the dark for years.”
Sadie shivered. At least I can run…
She continued, “When 3-D tattooing began, my mom was little. They built a pyramid on my grandfather’s back between his shoulder blades. When he fell asleep on the couch watching television, she curled up in its shade. The needle injected ink and GDF5, a cartilage-producing protein. People made horns, tails and of course, parts of their anatomy bigger too.”
Josh laughed. For all the trauma to his face, was good-looking in a goofy, coltish way.
“Some of the old-timers still have them. I once saw a man with an octopus on his head. The blue and grey tentacles climbing down the sides of his face formed aquatic sideburns. The irises were made of jade, sewn into eyes eight inches above his own.”
“3-D removal creates a bloody mess. Grafted skin was the solution…”
“Why not just use the pink?” Josh pointed to the slick arm propping up his head. The shiny plastic resembled the underside of a frisbee.
“Josh, you know why. Neuroskin is nasty. You’ve seen a Pigpen, right?”
People who sold all of their skin -- Pinkies -- were universally hooked on K-rock. Cops called their hangouts “pigpens” from the look of their tangled pink limbs on filthy mattresses, eyes rolled back, telltale white haze hanging in the air.
He changed the subject. “Do you need to cross the Divide?”
“Kaweah Gap is steep. It’s the lowest point in the range, but...”
She winced and nodded.
“What if we go southwest into Three Rivers?”
“How am I walking into town?”
He tugged on her hood. “Your uh…” He struggled for the right word. Freckles. They’re called freckles… “freckles will be tougher, but a clay paste...”
She stood up. “Clay paste? For these?” She pulled her curls back so he got a good look.
“Okay, okay.” He put his palms up. “I’ll skim into Three Rivers, hit an R-X and grab proper coverup and dye.”
“You don’t think I've thought of that?” She struggled to speak calmly. “They scan you, Trackie. You probably have a freeze or two on your tag, right? And they scan you on the way in, so you can’t lift it either.”
“Fine. I’ll claim your tag and walk you in. Put the snare on.”
“Josh! You know what I’m worth, which is nothing compared to the baby. The Wheat will have me on a carving board in under an hour. We’re wasting time. I’m paying you to get me over that.”
She stabbed her finger at the snow-cap behind him marking the Divide, her arm shaking on the way down.
“And you know damn well you can’t make the climb,” he said softly.
I’ll make it, she thought, rubbing her belly, but will you, my love?