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Em’s Gator Club

~ Hep Cats of Boise #0.5 ~


Alia Hess



Copyright © 2019 Alia Hess

All rights reserved.

Cover design, oil painting, and interior illustration by Alia Hess.



~ Acknowledgements ~

I am indebted to the following people for their contribution to this story: Essa Hansen, Darby Harn, Shelly Campbell, Leigh M. Morrow, and Jennifer Lane.

Winter wasn’t kind to Em’s implants. The cellulose rods inside each finger and toe balked, rigid and delayed, and the thick cables snaking under the skin of their right arm and leg ached like a fresh wound. This didn’t compare to the tiny pricks of pain radiating through the right side of their face each time they smiled, or scowled, or told some wet sock to get the fuck off their bar. Considering the conventional cure of one implant on their spinal column hadn’t worked, it was better than being paralyzed, but still, winter sucked.

Em ran a damp rag across a table in the back of the room, stiff fingers scrubbing at sticky pools of honeyed gin and maraschino cherry juice. Cigar butts crowded the amber glass ashtrays, and empty crystal tumblers sat in clusters on the scratched, dented wood. Chains of liquor rings ran across the tables in various hues.

Spine twinging, Em stood and arched their back. A thud hit the ceiling, swaying the skyscraper chandelier and depositing a layer of dust onto a freshly-wiped down table. Having a bistro above the bar wasn’t ideal, and this place was a dump, but where else would people go for good music, strong drinks, and kindred company? Sure, there were two other deco clubs in the city, but one was harder to get into than a nun’s panties, and the other was just a bar—no one offering the kinds of things Em had in the back room.

Soon, they wouldn’t be coming here at all if Em couldn’t come up with three and a half Gs for the club’s rent. That old scag, Mary Beth, had already been bleeding them dry, and now she’d asked for more, stating she needed extra padding in case the cops came around and shut Em down. There wasn’t any use in arguing with her—Mary Beth never backed down once she’d made up her mind. Deco clubs weren’t illegal, and people knew to keep their mouths shut about the contramods, but that wouldn’t stop the city from trying to shut the Gator Club down if it knew the place was deco. They’d claim it didn’t pass an inspection, or the zoning was off. The stereotype that “contramod” and “deco” went hand-in-hand were often correct, but that didn’t mean they were mobsters with Chicago typewriters. They weren’t trying to glorify the days of excess and global warming, either. They were just cats who happened to think a little color, a little swing, paperbacks, tattoos, and wooden furniture weren’t going to hurt anyone.

Em scrubbed the table harder. There wasn’t anything they could skimp on right now to make the rent. No food in the fridge as it was, and they’d already paid rent for their apartment (on time!). They’d just ordered more liquor, paid the bouncer, and promised one of the prosthetics inventors a deposit on hearing implants—if they welched on that, he wouldn’t do business with Em again.

Trying theme nights and happy hours hadn’t worked. There were only so many decoists in Boise, and most were regulars who showed up at the same time every week. There were also only so many jaded mainstreamers with the dough for an empty, and it wasn’t like Em could project an ad ring proclaiming: “CONTRAMODS HERE!”

Pausing at the jukebox, brilliant tangerine and emerald light glowing against the tumblers in their arms, they punched the yellowed bakelite buttons. A record dropped. Crackling static filled the room, followed by the snazzy throb of a standing bass and piano. Em had heard every song on this jukebox a hundred times, but this was one swing platter that never got old. Sadly, the name of the band had long since faded from the record’s sticker, and none of the cats who frequented the club recognized the songs.

Em swayed to the music, wishing for Big Al so they could accompany the melody. But the piano was at home, and playing it would hurt, anyway. Fucking winter.

After depositing the glasses in a wash rack, they turned to the mirrored back wall, coaxing loose strands of pomade-slicked hair back into their dark coiffe. Em squinted, crows feet growing at their temples. They tested a smile, the right side of their face not quite matching the other. Time and the car wreck and general impatience with the dumbassery of daily life had given them a resting bitch face, which was useful in many scenarios, but a smile could be useful too, when used right. Unfortunately, a delayed and lopsided grin wasn’t going to put anyone at ease.

“One day, I’ll blow this popsicle stand and move somewhere warm year round. That, or get better implants.”

They weren’t sure which was the bigger lie.

A knock rang against the metal front door. Em stiffened. Knocks came at the door all evening, every evening, but it had to be at the pattern of “Shave and a Haircut” or you weren’t getting in. And Charlie was always there to open the door. But the bouncer had gone home, following the last-callers up the stairs and out into the night.

Best to just ignore it. It was either a drunk who needed to piss, or someone wanting mods, and Em knew better than to do deals alone.

The knock came again, then a muffled voice. “Emery Wilson?”

Who the hell knew their name? None of the regulars called them “Emery.”

Retrieving a stun stick from under the bar, Em crept to the door, pulse quickening. Tinkly piano and trumpets drifted from the jukebox. “I’m closed.”

“Yes, I know.”

“So scram. Go chase yourself. You really wanna talk to me, come back tomorrow evening.”

“Your bouncer won’t let me in. I already tried earlier.”

“I’m sure there’s good reason for that.”

“Well, I’m not dressed appropriately for your club.”

Em folded their arms, staring at their wingtip loafers. “Then go buy a bowler shirt and fedora and come back later.”

“Those things aren’t exactly easy to come by.”

“Cry me a river, square.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

Em rolled their eyes. “I have closing up to do.”

“I have money,” the voice said. “Whatever you require. I could pay you right now.”

“And what makes you think I have anything you wanna buy?”

“Because I’ve been told Emery Wilson has the best contramods in Boise.”

“You heard wrong. Get lost.” Em turned from the door.

“I was referred by Mikey Gilliam.”

They stopped. “Mikey referred you?” Mikey only referred other decoists, usually clients he’d tattooed. But hadn’t he come in with some mainstream schmo once who wanted his interface and navigator removed? That deal had turned out more profitable than expected, because the dude had wanted an empty in its place.

If this square wanted an empty and had the money right now, that’d be two Gs in Em’s pocket in the next fifteen minutes, and they could sure use the dough. But what if he was a snoop? Sent by the cops to bust the joint? Em had fake documents for just about everything, but they still didn’t need cops sniffing around. And Mikey had been hitting the bottle pretty heavily lately—it was entirely possible his judgement was lacking.

“Do you have any tattoos?” Em asked.

“Yeah. Two. One I got years ago, and a recent one from Mikey… Can I come in? I’ll tell you whatever you want, but it’s freezing out here.”

Em flipped on the stun stick and a low hum droned from the forked end. After unlocking the deadbolts, they cracked open the door. An icy chill and fat snowflakes rushed in, and a hot ache spiked through Em’s fingers. Thrusting the stun stick toward the hooded figure, they said, “Show me.”

The man took a step back. “Show you what?”

“The tattoos, genius.”

“Can I come in first?”

“No.”

The man looked up the concrete steps toward the street above. Holographic ad rings floated against an inky sky speckled with snow, no one but him occupying the stairwell. Em’s fingers ached, and bitter cold pricked at the nerves in their jaw. They batted their hand at the man. “C’mon. C’mon.”

He unzipped his bland, oatmeal-colored coat, pulling out one arm. A faded black widow perched on his bicep. “This is my old one.” Pushing up the sleeve of his white shirt, he lifted his arm. A Great White shark covered the underside, its gaping jaws in the center of his shaven pit.

“Jesus Christ.” Only Mikey would tattoo something so stupid. “Alright, you’ve convinced me. Come in.”

The man pulled his coat back on and entered the bar, giving the stun stick a wide berth. Em shoved the door closed with their foot, keeping the weapon trained on him. “Strip.”

The man—he looked young, mid-twenties maybe—raised his eyebrows. “W-what?”

“If you don’t, we can’t talk.”

He took off his coat, eyeing the stun stick, then pulled up on his shirt.

Em sighed. “Not like that. Open your holoscreen.”

Pressing against the edge of the milky interface light in his forearm, a glassy rectangle appeared above, displaying his home menu.

“Now go to your settings. Turn off your navigator, camera, texting, and call features. And GPS.”

The man thrust a hand toward his pocket and Em tightened their grip on the stun stick, taking a step back. After wiping his hand on his pants, he slid the toggles on each function to the “disabled” option.

Em leaned against the bar. “You should have done that before you got here, by the way. You do realize your nav will report any suspicious activity to the cops, right?”

“Yes, I knew that.”

It was a good thing he didn’t have the new beta version going around. Those couldn’t be disabled. They’d also supposedly become self-aware and had far more opinions than any AI assistant should, but that was a story for another day.

“What’s your name?”

He sat in a booth, hands in his lap. “You can call me Joe. Mikey told me you deal in all sorts of contramods. Better than ones you could buy from some street dealer in a back alley.”

“Definitely better.” Em rounded the bar, setting two shot glasses on top. Joe didn’t seem like much of a threat and he might make a good deal, so it was time for friendly Em, even if the right side of their face couldn’t quite keep up the smile.

After pouring a generous amount of gin into a cocktail shaker, they added spiced honey and lemon juice, then strained it into the glasses, dropping in curls of yellow peel. Bringing the shots to the booth, Em sat down and slid one across the table. “You can’t come to the Gator Club and not have a bee sting.”

“Uh, thanks.”

Em downed the shot and slapped the glass on the table. “So, Joe. What is it you need? I can hit you with an interrupter for fifty bucks. Eliminates that pesky nav in your head for good. No chance of cops or anyone else tracking you. Of course, if you want to keep assimilating with the mainstream crowd, hold down a respectable job, not get thrown in jail, you’ll need an empty to replace the missing interface. Looks like the real deal but it’s just a front to nothing. I can install it in just a few minutes.”

“That’s not what I’m looking for.” He scratched at a dent in the table, frowning.

“So spit it out, kid. Most of my other products are implants and prosthetics. Medical aids. Stuff for what ails you that you can’t get legally.”

Joe nursed his shot and pointed to the cables in Em’s arm. “Stuff like that?”

“Yeah. I gotta doctor friend who will install them for cheap. Well, he’s not actually a doctor, but he does a helluva job.”

Shifting in his seat, Joe scratched his arm and looked away. “I do need something for what ails me, but it’s nothing like that. I have a little bit of an addiction, see.”

“No problem. I’ve got nanobots for that too. One injection will set you straight. It’s five hundred, but think of all the money you’ll save not buying dope.”

“But I already tried that! It didn’t work.”

“Nanos didn’t get you clean? What kind of dope are you on?”

“Espresso. It’s new. The high is unreal. And apparently permanently addicting, which I didn’t know when I took it. I just thought it was a casual party drug. I need something to get me clean. How much would it cost? Three, four grand? Because I can pay. I work on an Alaskan fishing boat most of the year. No place to spend my money.”

“It’d be expensive, certainly. I’d have to commission custom software, and there’s no guarantee it would work on a brand new drug.”

That weird techie, Bug, might be able to make the mod Joe wanted, but visiting her was a less-than-pleasant experience. Joe couldn’t be the only person wanting off of Espresso, though, and if it worked, it’d be a new mod to add to Em’s arsenal. But if it didn’t, it meant facing Bug’s trailer of horrors for nothing.

“Alright. Gimme one G for a deposit and I’ll see what I can do. If I can’t get you a custom program, I’ll pay it back. If I can, but it doesn’t work—no refund.”

“And if it does?”

“Four Gs, including the deposit.”

Joe pulled a wad of hundreds from his pocket and counted them out on the table.

Em pocketed the dough and held out their hand. “Alright. Slip me five and we’ve got a deal.” After shaking, they said, “Come back Saturday night and I’ll give you the low down.”

“What?”

“You really need to learn the lingo, kid.”

Joe pulled on his coat with a hesitant smile and walked out. The door slammed behind him, kicking a skiff of snow into the entryway. After closing up, Em crossed through the office and opened the stairwell door.

They’d have to pray Bug could make Joe a mod that worked, because they couldn’t let the Gator Club close down. For some, the thirties aesthetic was enough to stave off the boring mainstream world of neutrals and faux-natural everything. Others were fighting the Good Fight, pushing back against mandatory AI navigators forced into everyone’s heads.

Then there were the ones who needed a prosthetic or implant for their disability, and couldn’t get one legally. Megacorporations had the tech world by the balls and were too busy making holographic pets and new nav programs to bother with mods for paralysis and seizures.

Giving away medical aids for next to nothing certainly didn’t help Em’s financial woes, but someone had to do it. Where would those old women and dads with suffering children go for help if the club closed down? Em couldn’t deal from their apartment—a couple months ago a guy living four doors down had been pinched for possessing an interrupter and supposedly sentenced to two years in prison.

After checking the heavy padlocks on the back office door, Em climbed the stairs and entered the dark bistro above. Mary Beth and her crew were gone, but the scent of barbequed pork lingered. Wrapping a thick scarf around their face and pulling up their coat hood, Em brushed past white polymer tables and headed out the front door. The electric lock clicked on behind them.

Skyscrapers studded in lights scratched against the snow-clotted sky. Ad rings turned lazily, shouting over each other: “Our newest eyebrow lasers—assisting you in an accident—for the low, low price of—stains on your clothes!”

Snowflakes melted against Em’s eyelashes and burned on their cheeks. They pulled the scarf higher, hurrying past a Chinese restaurant and a strip joint to their Pontiac around back. Em had little desire to still have a nav in their head, but being able to tell one to warm up the car ahead of time would have been useful.

The one functioning headlight cut a gold path through the dark as Em pulled onto 18th, heading for the freeway. They shivered, icy breath billowing around their face. It took forever for the flivver to warm up, and it seemed one of the wipers had given up the ghost, streaking dirt and snow across the pane.

By the time Em pulled into their assigned spot in front of their apartment, their toes were numb, the right ones stiff and throbbing. A man in a stained wife beater stood outside his door, smoke drifting from the glass straw in his hand. Snow settled on his head and shoulders, but the considerable hair on his back must have kept him warm—that or he was too high to care.

Taking the stairs two at a time, Em reached the third floor and hurried inside. The living room light switched on at their movement, the dim bulb flickering. A CPU in the corner pulsed with blue light next to a rickety desk, one leg held up with a cinder block.

Em peeled off their clothes and dialed up the hot water in the shower, standing under the stream until their toes and jaw stopped aching. Big Al was still calling their name, so after an unsatisfactory TV dinner, they pulled out the polished maple bench and sat, caressing the chipped ivory. With fingers more limber after a hot shower, they hammered the keys, filling the tiny living room with a cocky swing melody.

There’d been many times Em went hungry, walked to work because they couldn’t afford gas, and even slept in the Gator Club when they couldn’t pay the apartment’s electric bill, but no matter how desperate they got, they’d never sell Big Al. The piano was slightly off key, and middle C sometimes got stuck, but it was often the only respite after a hard day.

A 1938 calendar hung on the kitchen wall, displaying a faded photo of crystal clear water lapping at a sandy beach. Palms stretched into a cerulean sky, and a striped umbrella fluttered in the breeze. Em had looked up this little slice of Hawaii, disappointed to find it was now a jumble of trash-riddled slum shacks. There was still a warm beach out there somewhere, though, and with some extra cash, maybe they could finally see it, even if only on a vacation.

Snow drifted outside the window and stuck to the pane in clumps. After closing the cracked curtains, they took the calendar off the wall, setting it on Big Al’s music rest. They sat, pounding the keys as they stared at the sea.

Aluminum foil covered the windows of Bug’s trailer. Cracks spidered through the panes, and duct tape held the screen door together. On the roof, several soldered somethings reminiscent of cartoon ray guns pointed in different directions. Tiny cameras tracked Em as they approached the sagging steps. Beyond the trailer ran train tracks overgrown with sagebrush and weeds. Steam billowed from smokestacks of a sugar beet factory against the horizon.

Em knocked on the door and a red lock sensor switched to green. Words projected across the patches of rust: “COME IN.”

Hesitating, they stared at the door handle. Thoughts of the Gator Club gathering dust, the jukebox dark and burnt orange bar stools overturned on the floor, urged them in. Darkness and a scent fouler than the nearby factory—spoiled milk and ripe socks—greeted Em as they walked inside. They held their nose, trying to make out shapes. “Bug?”

Peeling back the edge of an aluminum foil sheet on the window brightened the room, garnering them with a view they immediately regretted. Soiled clothing, fast food wrappers, and cat shit clogged the entryway. Cockroaches skittered across the warped linoleum.

“Aw, shit. Bug! You back there?”

A sing-song voice came from a room at the end of the hall. “Co-ming!” A silhouette emerged from the shadows. Bug’s hair fell in greasy blonde strands, and coated copper wires were draped around her neck. The filthy tank top she wore hung loose on her sallow, bony frame. Green lights expanded and contracted in the metal orbs where her eyes should have been.

“Long time no see, daddy-o. That’s what you guys say to each other, right? Daddy-o? Can I get you something? Grape juice? It’s from concentrate. I don’t like the other kind.”

Em eyed cockroaches rooting through a pizza box on floor and clutched their arms. “I’m good.”

“Well, for what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? You need something you can’t get from your suppliers, I expect. New optical software? Navigators with celebrity voices? A detachable, holographic penis?”

“No. I need a mod that’ll cure an addiction to Espresso.”

“Oh. No, no, no.” Bug shook her head and a cockroach fell onto the floor. Em scrunched their face and took a step back. “I can’t do that. I made Espresso and Vern would be royally pissed if I created a cure for it.”

“Espresso is a program?”

“Yeah. Injectable nanos. The software gives you a long high, intense, but then wears off and you have to shoot up again. Vern had me make the jonesing level super fierce.”

“Does this ‘Vern’ have a deco jive I haven’t heard about?” Crossing another club owner would be very bad for business.

“No, no. He deals from a halfway house on Nampa Boulevard.”

It was people like that who gave decoists a bad name, perpetuating rumors of shady contramod deals in darkened alleyways. Em wasn’t on a righteous mission to clean up the streets, but if they could get four Gs for a cure and needle one dumbass dope dealer in the process, it would make standing in this squalor worth it. Plus, if Bug made the program, it was a guarantee that she could create a cure.

“Look, I deal mostly in medical aids,” Em said. “You know that. I’m not out to cure all of Idaho. Just people who happen to walk into my little club and want help. And my turf is downtown Boise, not the backend of Nampa. Vern’s never gonna know.”

Bug stroked her chin with metal fingers. One of her modded eyes moved independently, gears clicking as it focused on something on the floor. Em wanted to look away, but wasn’t sure there was much here that would be a better view. Bug said, “Well, as long as it doesn’t get back to Vern that I made it for you.”

“I don’t reveal any of my suppliers, just like my clients don’t talk about me in mixed company. You can make a cure, right?”

“Oh, of course. It’ll take me a week or so, but I can do it. Two grand.”

“I’ve got one G right now. Will you take that for a deposit?”

“I suppose. You’ve never done me wrong.”

Em counted out the hundreds in a hurry, pressing them into Bug’s metal-grafted palm. She slid it into the pocket of her sagging sweatpants and turned to a nearby table covered in dirty dishes, papers, electronics, and what was possibly a cat carcass.

A cockroach scrambled over Em’s shoe and they backed toward the door, swallowing back the vomit rising in their throat.

Bug held out a pen and paper. “Give me your number and I’ll give ya a jingle when it’s done. Don’t worry—the call will be untraceable.”

Em took the pen hesitantly, scrawling the number of the Gator Club. “This is my office number, but I’m only there from five to midnight.”

Holding out her hand, Bug said, “Sounds good, daddy-o. Nice doing business with you again.”

Giving Bug’s hand a quick shake, Em pushed open the door and hurried back to their car. A cockroach fell off their coat, landing belly up in the snow. They shuddered. “Fuck! Nasty!” Shaking the lapels of their coat, they muttered and pulled out a bottle of hand sanitizer, squirting a generous amount into their palms.

They’d have to be back here in a week. That sandy beach was looking sweeter by the day.

Em’s loafers crunched through crusts of snow, and they shivered in the icy morning air, heading for Bug’s trailer. She’d called during someone’s awful karaoke rendition of “Jump Jive” the night before. Well, it hadn’t been her, exactly; Em had picked up the handset in the office and the voice of Frank Sinatra had said, “Ring-a-ding-ding, baby. Your order’s up.”

“COME IN” flashed on the front door. Em blew a breath through their nose, focusing on the wad of cash in one pocket and bottle of sanitizer in the other.

The stench was worse this time—the stomach-churning sweetness of rotting meat rising above cat shit and dirty underwear. Em gagged, pressing their scarf against their nose. “Bug!”

A low electronic whine came from the back of the trailer, followed by clicks and the rustling of paper.

“Bug! Don’t make me stand in this filth all day. You got my program or not?”

More paper rustled. She had to know Em was here; they wouldn’t have gotten in otherwise. Bug’s trailer was a fortress of surveillance and security. And cockroaches.

Kicking boxes and dishes aside, Em stepped over turds and computer hardware, walking through the narrow hall. A blue glow emanated from the back room, illuminating peeling wallpaper and exposed insulation. Massive monitors floated against the bedroom wall, a garble of code running across. The electronic whine increased, and so did the smell.

Em stepped through the doorway and gasped. Bug lay face down against her keyboard, a hole in the back of her head. A puddle of blood ran over the desk and pooled beneath her chair. Cockroaches teemed across her bloated corpse, rooting through her hair and writhing under the back of her tank top.

Whirling, Em sprinted through the trailer and out the door. They fell down the front steps and retched into the snow. This was bad—very bad. Someone had murdered Bug in her own trailer, which meant it was someone she knew. And whoever had called Em the night before hadn’t been her. Wiping their mouth, Em stumbled, running for the car. They fumbled the keys with trembling hands, dropping them into the weeds.

Brush crunched, a shadow falling over them. Em spun around. The butt of a pistol cracked against their forehead, slamming their skull against the car window.

Em slid into the snow as darkness swallowed them.

Em wrenched their eyelids apart, lashes crusted with blood. Nothing but a slim crack of light greeted them, coming from below a nearby door. A tang of snow and rust filled the air—this was definitely not Bug’s trailer.

Em’s pulled in a shallow breath, heart hammering. Fuck. What was this place? Why couldn’t they move?

A deep throb pulsed in their hands, worse in the right one, wrists bound with something coarse and much too tight. Ropes lashed their ankles to the legs of a chair. Bitter wind blew past the door crack, sending searing needles of pain through the right side of Em’s face. The siding rattled. Their nose and ears were numb from cold, toes impossible to feel at all, and their head pounded like the world’s worst hangover.

Em’s mini stunner, normally in a holster on their ankle, was gone. Why hadn’t the person just shot them? What did they want? Whatever it was, Em wouldn’t give it. This wasn’t the first time they’d been threatened by thugs.

Rocking in the chair, they jerked at the wrist restraints. Despite being aggravated by the cold, their modded arm was much stronger than the average human’s. The ropes dug into Em’s wrists, pain shooting into their fingers. They strained, cables bulging under their flesh. The rope gave, but not enough.

Groaning, they relaxed their arm and caught their breath.

A clatter filled the air, metal squealing. Bright sunlight sliced the darkness as the door rolled open on its track. Em squinted against the light and tried to shield their face from the wind. They were in a boxcar—no wonder it was so damn cold.

A man stepped in, enveloped in a puffy charcoal coat. He dragged a stool before Em and sat, his face shrouded in darkness. “So, you’re the bitch tryin’ ta steal my customers, huh?”

“Vern, I presume.” Em wiggled their wrists, trying to free their modded hand. The rope scraped against their flesh, digging in. With the strength in their right arm, all they needed was one punch to lay this douche flat.

“That’s right,” he said. “I don’t know your name yet, but based on your weird-ass clothes and the cash in your pocket, you’re a decoist dealer. Which means somewhere you have a club full of mods. Bug’s never mentioned you, and I guess we can’t ask her now, huh?”

Vern slid up the sleeve of Em’s coat. They jerked, wobbling the chair. He said, “I didn’t think you’d still have an interface, but I checked just in case. This mod in your arm is interesting. Looks expensive. You got more shit like this back at your club?”

“Fuck off.”

“You know, I have this friend with an illegal crip mod too. A doberman tore off half his face, see. The contramod prosthetic was cheaper than plastic surgery. Got it grafted onto his skull with little whatsits inside that control the face movement. He looks alright now, considering. Only trouble is when it’s cold outside, he says his skull aches like a bitch. I’m curious if you have the same problem.”

Vern stood and left the boxcar. Em wriggled their raw hand, the tight rope lodging against their thumb knuckle. Icy wind whipped in, stinging Em’s face. Was he just going to leave them here with the door open for a while, thinking they’d crack? They’d suffered worse when they couldn’t afford gas and had to walk to work. No matter what he did, they couldn’t give him any information about the club or where they lived. The front door of the Gator Club didn’t have a knob, but if Vern slipped into the stairwell of the bistro and unlocked the office door, everything would be lost. No more respite from the mainstream world, no more swing records, no more bee stings. He’d take all the hearing implants, false eyes, interrupters, mechanized hands, and software for empties.

Would Ms. Appel, with her sciatica, have to go to Vern next time it flared up? What about the next kid in a wheelchair? What about Jaxson? A hep cat like him would never go to this jackoff, which meant he’d have go back to getting his insulin the mainstream way, which was neither convenient nor as effective.

What would happen to Big Al? The old piano wasn’t worth much but if Vern broke into their apartment, they would try to sell it, or it would be trashed when Em failed to pay the rent next month.

None of that would make a difference to Em if they were pushing up daisies beneath a box car.

They pulled harder on the wrist restraint, hand screaming in protest. Rough fibers scraped across their thumb, fingers throbbing.

Vern entered the boxcar, a mound of snow in his gloved hands. Em’s heart hammered and they leaned back in the chair.

He grinned. “I can tell by the look on your face that you don’t want me to pack this snow all over your arm. I don’t have to. We could take a drive to your club and you could show me where you store all your mods. Or just gimme the passcode and I’ll do it myself. I’m not picky. I even have a portable interface so I can check that the code is right.”

No decoist would use a passcode when old-fashioned padlocks worked better, and Em’s were nigh indestructible. The only breakable thing at this point would be their resolve, and snow or not, they wouldn’t let that happen.

“So what’ll it be?” Vern asked.

“Listen carefully. This is important.”

Vern leaned forward, black eyebrows raised. Light limned his gaunt, pockmarked face. “I’m listening.”

“You can bite my left ass cheek.” Em spat, hitting him in the eye.

“Shit!” Vern wiped his face with his sleeve, dropping half the snow on the floor.

Em grimaced, trying to work their raw thumb from the ropes. Vern lunged, gripping their arm and slapping snow against their bicep. They hissed as searing pain raced through their muscles and settled in their bone like a hot iron.

“Hurts, huh? Tell me your name. Your passcode.”

Em sucked air through their teeth.

“Where’s your club? Your mods? I looked through your car and pockets, but you ain’t got any information on you. Who are you, asshole?” Vern’s scowl lifted, his eyes widening. “You got mods in your face too.”

Em shook their head, pulse pounding. “Just the arm.”

“Nah, I can see those little bars under the skin by your jaw. And your face expressions don’t match the other side. My friend is like that too.” Vern scooped snow from the floor and dumped it on Em’s face. They cried out and jerked their head, scalding pricks like fire ants racing through their skin and locking up their jaw.

Vern slapped his gloved hand against Em’s right cheek, holding the snow there. They thrashed and mewled, tears stinging their eyes. The wrist restraints gave a little more, their thumb partially out. They couldn’t give in, no matter what. They hadn’t worked their ass off to make the Gator Club what it was, just to give up because of some temporary pain—no matter how intense.

“Tell me what I wanna know,” Vern said. “There’s plenty of snow out there. I can do this all day.”

Em gasped, hair hanging in their face. Vern scooped up more snow and pressed it to their cheek. White hot pain lanced their skull, then faded. The throbbing disappeared, as did the cold and sensation of water running down their jaw. Their right eyelid sagged and refused to open.

Vern dropped his hand and snickered. “Oops. Looks like I broke you.”

Em bared their teeth, one side of their mouth refusing to cooperate. They’d spent a year in a wheelchair, gone through grueling rehabilitation programs, and tried legal implants to repair the damage, and nothing had worked. Their contramod was the only thing keeping them functioning, and this asswipe broke the part in their face.

Thumb sliding free, Em ripped their right hand from the restraint and slammed their fist into Vern’s jaw. His neck snapped back at an odd angle, body slumping, and he toppled over his stool onto the floor.

Their stinging hand resembled a skinned bird, bloody and raw. Shit, did they kill him? How did everything go so fucking sideways? All they wanted was to make rent. Now they’d possibly clipped a man, their face mod was fried, and Bug was dead—which meant no cure for Joe, and no rent for the club. And even if the program was finished and on Bug’s computer, Em wouldn’t know how to find and extract it.

They’d have to sacrifice something—Big Al, the car, or their best prosthetics, and that was only if they could find a buyer in the next two days. If they didn’t get the rent to Mary Beth by the fifth, she might not bother kicking Em out. She might just call the cops.

They pulled their other hand free, then worked loose the knots on the ropes around their ankles.

Vern lay in a heap on the floor, neck twisted and one leg hanging over the stool. Shit. He wouldn’t be getting back up. They hadn’t meant to kill him, but what other choice did they have?

Em staggered to their feet, blinking through tears and crusts of blood. They stuffed their hand into Vern’s pants pocket, pulling out their car keys, mini stunner, and Bug’s other half of the two Gs. In his other pocket was a handful of microchips. Their heart leapt. Were one of these the cure for Espresso? What were the others?

Heading back to the car, Em paused, staring at Bug’s trailer. It was their fault she was dead. They should have been more cautious. Leaving her body didn’t seem right, but Em couldn’t risk evidence of themselves inside the trailer, didn’t want to go back in there anyway. Maybe they could make a new cocktail to honor her. Something with grape juice.

Em raced home, shivering from cold and fear and rage. They had to load up these chips and see what they were. Even if some of them were things they didn’t deal in, they could find someone who wanted them.

Vaulting up the icy steps, they ran inside and locked the door behind them. After bandaging their bloody hand, Em scowled at their reflection in the water-stained mirror, which made the appearance of their paralysis worse, right eyelid sagged closed, mouth slack. They’d have to see if Doc Dave could get them in sometime soon—and pray all the hardware in their face didn’t need to be replaced.

The little microchips clattered against the desk and Em pushed them around with their finger. They were all slim green cards, no labels. Were they all programs from Bug, or did Vern pick them up somewhere else?

After sliding one into the computer, a box appeared on the floating monitor: “Program 618 - Mr. Fluffkins” running across the top.

Bug’s voice played through the speakers. “So, I was thinking… All those bored moms out there have to fantasize about someone once in a while, right? And Mr. Fluffkins is on TV all the time—their kids watching it, y’know? And he’s not that bad-looking of a dude once you remove the plastic mustache and—”

Em pulled out the chip, wrinkling their nose. Gross, but they knew someone who would buy it. They slid in another and a new box appeared: “Espresso Cure.” Bug’s instructions played in the background, but Em wasn’t listening. They leaned back in their chair, eyes squeezed shut. “Yes.”

The Gator Club would stay afloat for a while longer at least. After placing the chip into a little bakelite dish next to the monitor, they tried another. A headline ran across the top: “Program 732 - Beta Nav Extractor.”

Putting their hand on their chin, Em listened to Bug’s explanation and grinned.

Em stood behind the bar, arms folded. Enthusiastic trumpets blared from the jukebox and cats in pork pies and trenchcoats, zoot suits and flapper dresses crowded the stools and tables. The sweet, heady scent of cigars drifted across the room. Jaxson had just strong-armed Mikey—drunk and belligerent—out the front door. It was just another Friday night.

Turning to the mirror, Em smoothed back their hair and studied their features. Going a week without half a face had been a pain, but the repair had been a simple one. There was still a delay, their smile a little lopsided, but better than nothing.

Em turned around and stepped back on the white X taped to the floor. From this spot, they could hear every conversation in the back three booths, clear as day.

Jax sat next to the jukebox, the lights flashing on his greased hair and tattooed neck. His date—a thin red-headed man in tortoiseshell specs with a nervous disposition—was whispering to Jax about his new beta navigator.

That program for copying self-aware AIs might come in handy sooner than expected.

Em approached their table, holding two tumblers and two shots. “Hey. Heard you needed a bourbon. It’s on me. Sorry about Mikey. I should have cut him off an hour ago.”

The redhead took the offered bourbons and handed one to Jax. “Thanks.”

“Reed, this is Em, the owner,” Jax said. “Em, this is Reed, my date. I found him in some stuffy novelty club on Capitol.”

“Jesus. What were you doing there?” Em asked.

Reed gave them an awkward smile. “Waiting for a handsome stranger to come to my rescue, of course.”

“Looks like you lucked out, then.” Em set the shots on the table, hair falling in their eyes. “Well, listen, you can’t come to the Gator Club and not have a bee sting. It’s tradition.”

They glanced around the room, cigar haze glowing softly in the pulsing lights, then back at Reed. Yes, they’d keep an eye on him. He might be good for a deal in the future. But right now, they had all they needed: good music, a packed room of happy patrons, and Ms. Appel was stopping by later for her sciatica treatment, hopefully with cookies in tow.

Charlie opened the door, letting in a woman and a gust of bitter wind. Em flexed their bandaged right hand, fingers aching. Just one more week and they wouldn’t have to deal with winter for a while. There was a warm beach in Fiji waiting for them.

Em was going on vacation.




~ About the Author ~

Alia Hess grew up Boise, Idaho and spent their hour-long bus rides to and from school reading books on UFOs and the paranormal. As they grew older and developed a passion for art and writing, they never shook their love of the fantastic and unknown.

They live with their son in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the day AI take over. When not hunched before a computer screen, Alia can be found hunched over their art desk.

Alia enjoys speculative literary novels, coffee, and eavesdropping on the character conversations in their head.









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