I was a fish. A side effect, I guessed; pretty soon I’d be something else. Being a fish wasn’t so bad, and I didn’t think too much about it. It happened shortly after I took the second dose, but the techs had shooed me out the door after my first without telling me anything other than the usual about keeping notes on how I felt, and so I decided I wouldn’t worry about dosages and that instead I’d watch the world from my fishbowl.
Cait found me on a corner on the second level of the fourth ring, outside a place that used to be a noodle shop before the city left it behind, and was now empty space. It was raining. I was still a fish, and I watched her magnified head swim towards me without much interest. Maybe it was how fish always felt, like you saw everything and took it all in but didn’t really have anything to say about it.
“You’re testing again?”
Her eyes bulged. I nodded and breathed through my mouth.
“Even after what happened last time?”
My gills flapped. I nodded again. Her eyes rolled, huge and grotesque. I asked her how she could talk underwater and she told me that I was high, and how long had it been since my last dose and what was I taking this time? I didn’t remember. Cait showed me her teeth, like a shark, and I didn’t like it. The pills were supposed to help with something. Stability, maybe. I felt stable. Like a fish, but stable. I reminded myself to write it in the notebook later; that I was a fish, that Cait had wriggled on the murky depths of my vision and gotten slowly bigger and bigger until, with watery suddenness, she was standing over me.
Cait dragged me out of the rain and said something about the fucking pharms, and I fell down again in the gutter when I couldn’t get my fins to work. A cruiser drove by and then stopped. The cop yelled at Cait. She told him I was testing, and then he said something else and she gave him the finger and pulled me out of the grime by the back of my shirt collar. I laughed and she told me to shut up, hauled me into a place under one of the overpasses that sold coffee and legal stims, and stuck me in a booth. I almost felt bad for her, but I still felt like a fish, until all of a sudden I didn’t.
I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times and checked that I still knew who I was. Cait sighed and shook her head.
“Why? You don’t need the money.”
I took a sip from the styrofoam cup that sat on the table in front of me. Coffee. It tasted like salt and substitutes and caffeine additives. I took another sip, shrugged at her, and she gave me a scowl that didn’t make me feel any regret but did make me feel irritated. The techs hadn’t told me not to drink coffee, so I did, and I didn’t say anything to Cait. She didn’t say anything to me; we sat there and didn’t look at each other and I made a point not to ask her what she was doing out in the fourth ring with the non-citizens, in a dress and makeup.
“Are you hungry?”
I didn’t want to answer, but it would have been childish not to. “Yeah. You want something? I’ll buy.”
I walked over to the lady at the back. Her makeup was caked on so heavily that I couldn’t read her expression, but she looked away from her card game long enough to let me buy food. A man’s voice on the radio was talking about a decrease in inter-corporate violence. I came back with two bowls of dehydrated noodles and a kettle of boiling water on a battered plastic tray that was the same color as the muck in the gutter where, briefly, I’d been a fish.
We waited for the noodles to soften.
“Is there something you like about the outer rings? The filth? The violence?” Cait kept her voice soft and even, the way she did when she was angry and trying to make a point.
“Council says they’re cleaning up,” I said. I smiled at her and rubbed the bag under my right eye. My finger came away dirty.
“Never happens. Never gonna happen. Pharms need the fourth the way it is, and they own the city. Desperation means high profit margins.”
I raised my bowl. Even if I wasn’t a fish anymore I felt a little slow, and it took me a moment to realize I’d burned my tongue.
“They need desperate people,” she said again. “Not fucked-up rich girls from the inners.”
I licked my lips and tried again. It was still too hot. Cait hadn’t touched her bowl. She just stared at me.
“How can you be so calm about it when you’re out here getting blitzed for them? You look like a fucking mess.”
“What else would I be doing?” I tried to act indignant, like I supposed she wanted, but indifference was all I could manage.
“I don’t know, living your life in your flat in the inners like a normal citizen?”
“What’re you doing out here in the fourth, Cay?” Her mouth snapped shut and she looked away. I laughed again and it turned into a cough. I took another sip of coffee.
“Such a rebel. Turning against your own, even. Wonder what your friends make of it.”
“I don’t need this,” she said, and stood up.
“You didn’t eat your noodles,” I said.
I watched her leave and then I ate her noodles and found a late tram back to the inners.
I woke up the next day and took my third dose. The message service chimed; the shift manager asking where I’d been yesterday, but he’d fucked me once at a bar in the third a couple of months ago and he almost sounded concerned. I didn’t get out of bed. I felt the sudden blurring in my mind that meant the drug was taking effect; like someone had pushed the slow-down button and everything sort of shuddered to walking pace, like I had suddenly plunged underwater, like the world and everything in it fell away at a million miles an hour.
I was a bird. I soared on updrafts that pierced the bank of clouds over the city and I saw myself from a thousand feet high, lying in bed, staring up into my own eyes. My sheets were wrapped around one naked leg.
“You’re testing again?”
I laughed when Cait appeared in the room.
She sat down on the side of the bed and I didn’t turn to look at her.
“Anti-trauma,” I said. I had to chew on the words before they came out of my beak.
“How’s it work?”
“Blocks one thing, increases uptake of something else. They said it might make me forget things.”
“I feel like a bird.” I rolled away from her and the sheet tightened around my leg; I kicked out at it, but the fabric crawled further up my thigh.
Somewhere in the room, Cait laughed. It didn’t sound friendly.
“Why do you do this? You feel sorry for yourself? You like the free buzz?”
I mumbled into the pillow.
“I don’t know.” I lay on my stomach, waiting for something.
She shook her head and I imagined the disappointed flash of her teeth.
“They get rich off of people like you. You know how much it costs to get something cleared for citizen use these days? How many thousands of NC’s they leave dead in the gutters in the outers? You probably stumbled your way past a handful of them yesterday.”
I flexed my wings. Bird bones are hollow, and mine felt fragile. Brittle. My heart thumped very noisily and very rapidly in my throat. Being a bird was worse than being a fish. Gravity was too strong. There was no water to float in; I just fell and fell and fell.
Cait didn’t try to crawl into my bed. She got up and made noises around the flat. I rolled onto my back again and stared at myself from on high.
“How many days left?” Cait yelled from the galley kitchen.
“Twelve,” I thought.
I didn’t answer. Cait came back into the bedroom area and stood over me with her arms crossed. Mine splayed out to either side of me, and from a thousand feet up I watched her eyes move to my breasts. I watched her watch me, and I said Twelve, out loud. She uncrossed and recrossed her arms. I didn’t move mine.
I turned my head away from her, the flighty twitch of spooked avian, tried to ignore the bone-white of her teeth. Rain-dark spewed in through one half-closed shutter.
The techs had given me pills for fourteen days. Two a day. Twenty-eight pills. I had a notebook with the family crest embossed on the front, and there was a logo-printed pen attached to it by wire so that I would always have something to write with. Sometimes testers lost the notebook. No notebook, no money. No blood test and confirmation, no money. You couldn’t take the pills and dump them.
Cait hadn’t moved. I still felt like I was flying. I dragged my eyes away from the ceiling, back to her face. Her mouth twitched, and she worked her jaw slightly and her lips rubbed side to side across each other, and then she said:
“Vee asked about you, yesterday.”
My eyes went back to the ceiling. Clouds. Cait walked to the bed and I waited for her to sit.
“He said there’s gonna be a war.”
I realized that I was sick of Cait staring at me.
“He says that you should stay out of the fourth. And he says you should stop testing.”
She sat. She put her hand on the top of my thigh.
“It’s too late,” I mumbled. Her hand stopped, but she didn’t lift it.
She leaned toward me. I tilted my face away from her, again. She paused, and then her lips grazed my cheekbone. Dry. Like feathers. Or bones.
She stood. She left. I heard the door open, heard the rain, briefly, heard the door shut. It sounded very quiet, from a thousand feet up.
She found me on the same corner she had two days before. Her makeup had run beneath her eyes and her mouth was turned down at both corners. She was soaked. I was soaked. It was raining. I looked at her. She bent down and grabbed my arm and it hurt. I tried to shake her off but she pulled me to my feet and shook me with both hands. I didn’t look at her.
“Look at me,” she said.
“God damn it,” she said. “Look at me.” My head dropped forward onto my chest. I watched a string of drool stretch towards the ground.
“Why are you out here? At least stay in your fucking bed.”
I lifted a hand towards her arm, but she slapped it away and shook me again.
“Didn’t you hear what I said yesterday? Stay in the second.”
I laughed and it came out as a moan. I spat and tried to wipe my mouth.
She made a noise of disgust or exasperation and let go of me. I fell forward and landed heavily on my wrists. Wet grit pricked my palms.
Cait left me there, on my hands and knees in the wet. She reappeared a little later. I followed her this time, stumbled the six blocks to the tram stop. No one looked at us except for the train conductor when Cait handed him two citizen passes and he waved us to the front of the tram, the part that would head for the inners. I took the only seat and Cait stood above me, watching. I didn’t feel like a fish. Or a bird. I felt bad. I was on my fifth dose.
The tram came to a halt before it left the fourth. The conductor’s voice came over the speaker.
“There’s been a disturbance on the tracks,” he said, and then he asked us to wait in our seats.
“Shit,” Cait hissed.
“Due to terrorist activities,” said the conductor, “This train will not enter the Third Ring. Please disembark and wait for further instruction.”
I heard grumbling. A mild inconvenience. Cait bundled me out of the tram and down the emergency platform, back into the rain. I started to shiver.
“Come on,” she said, and made a strangled sound when I didn’t move. “He said it wouldn’t happen until tomorrow.” Not directed at me.
I tripped on something and Cait didn’t move to catch me. I walked and walked and walked. Somewhere in the distance, towards the manufacturing districts, sirens wailed. The rain sounded like gunfire.
Cait faded in and out of my vision, and I stumbled occasionally when I lost track of her. I followed her through the haze to a half-remembered safe-house; down an alleyway and into a basement and through a series of doors. A place I had been before. We were on the bottom level of the ring, and overpasses wound back and forth over our heads up into the night. The door closed behind us. Cait let go of me and turned on the light, put me in a bent aluminum chair.
“I thought you were out here turning tricks like you used to do to make a statement,” I said. I was surprised at how clearly I spoke. “But you’re just sleeping with Vee again, listening to his lies. Letting him use you.”
“Shut up. He’s going to fix what the Council can’t.”
I laughed, and it hurt my throat. Maybe the drug was wearing off. Maybe it was getting stronger. I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to work.
“He’s not going to fix anything.”
Cait stopped whatever she was doing and turned to look at me. She smiled an ugly smile.
“He’s going to. You’ll see.”
“He thinks he’s a hero, Cay. He thinks he makes a statement by living in the fourth with the NC’s, in holes like this.”
“This coming from someone who’s spent most of the last three days lying in a gutter.”
I shook my head. The room wobbled, but my thoughts came clearly. I’d make a note of that with the log-embossed pen. Later. When I got home. “He’s not a hero, Cay. He hides behind the NC’s and watches them die and uses it as an excuse to kill. How do you think he makes his money? How do you think he funds his violence? Does he tell you that when you agree to fuck a stranger for money, it’s in service to his noble cause?”
I expected her to slap me, even jerked my head to the right, but her hand never came. Another strand of drool spun out of the corner of my mouth. I stared at the wall in the direction my face was pointing and waited for my body to register the sting. It didn’t come.
Dull. Water-logged, air-weary. “He’s as bad as the pharms. We’re as bad. We’re worse.”
She reached towards my face - touched the spot where the slap hadn’t come; lightly, with just the tips of her fingers. They trembled. She turned my chin towards her. She looked blurry. Her mouth twitched, like she was going to cry. She bent forward slightly and her mouth opened, and I watched her lips stick together and then pull finally apart. I tried to laugh, but breathed out more drool. She moved her hand away, and I let my head fall. Her phone buzzed. She stood.
“Yeah,” she said, “We’re still in the fourth. At the old house, under the plant. Mm-hmm. She’s here.”
I felt Cait staring at me.
“Yeah. She’s pretty fucked up. Yeah. We’ll be here.”
I waited. Cait didn’t explain. We spent fifteen minutes in silence. The room expanded when I breathed in, and shrunk again when I breathed out. Cait’s phone rang again. She mumbled into it, and then held it close to my ear.
“Been a long time,” said Vee’s voice. “Thought I told you to stay out of the fourth.”
“Don’t know why I’d listen to a terrorist,” I said, not raising my head. I felt tired. I wanted to sleep. Sleep brought nightmares.
I heard Vee shift.
“I’m sorry,” he said over the tinny speaker, more to himself than to me. “But it’s our chance.”
Cait pulled the phone away from me. “Don’t be a shit,” she said. She hadn’t heard what Vee had told me. I had been too high to understand. And then she moved towards the darkened side of the room and she grew fuzzy, faded out. Faded in.
“I’m sick of it, Cay,” I said. “I’m sick of it.” She didn’t answer. Vee’s voice buzzed and scratched and turned into the wail of sirens and the ring of gunshots.
Time leapt forward, backward. I watched Cait straighten, rod-like. Prey-like.
“You son of a bitch,” her voice said into the phone. Even as a fish, as a bird, as whatever I had become or whatever I had been, I heard the panic.
“Why?” The buzzing died. The phone had no answer for her.
“Oh, Cait,” I said. “He told you there would be a war. He never told you how it would start.”
“We have to leave,” she said.
“No,” I said to no one.
She ignored me. I wasn’t there.
“No,” I said again, and through the haze I heard my voice break. I couldn’t save her. I could never save her.
The door blew open. Men with guns ran in. Corporate uniforms. Cait spun. She had a pistol in her hand, black and terrible and heavy. One of the men shot her, once, twice, five times, a thousand times. A thousand times she fell to the floor in a cloud of red. I sat where I was with my hands on my knees and stared at her body. She lay on the floor, kicking jerkily, and I thought of the fish that the NC’s pulled out of the leaden water by the docks in the fourth, probably not very far from where we were. I gulped. Gills like feathers ruffled the water; drug-calm deadened endless panic and endlessly twitching feet.
She rolled over and blood came out of her mouth in a wet dribble. Her eyes were very wide. They found me, and her mouth moved but no sound came out. Then it stayed open. She stopped kicking. And then her body disappeared, and the floor was empty again, grey concrete; an ancient and rusty ghost of a stain stared up at me.
I screamed. Maybe the aluminum chair had collapsed, maybe I’d stood and fallen. My legs mirrored Cait’s final, desperate twitches. I tasted copper in my mouth where she had slapped me or I had bitten my cheek.
The man who had shot Cait walked over. There was a logo on his uniform. There was no gun in his hand. He was alone. He took a closer look at me, then spoke into his headset.
“Yeah, I found her. Same place. Right. We’ll wait with her.”
Two more men in white coats came. No one said anything. No one looked at the rusty stain on the floor. No one saw Cait.
They took me to a station house, sat me down and gave me another cup of coffee. They asked what I’d been doing there, and they let me go.
I got off the tram when it arrived at my station in the second. It was almost time for the next dose. I found my building. The atrium was harsh and bright and there were no shadows. The security guard didn’t look at me, hadn’t looked at me in a couple of years.
I got out of the elevator on the twelfth floor. All the roads were below me, so the balcony was relatively quiet. The rain hadn’t stopped. I slid along the wall, forced my hand against the panel outside the flat, and the door let me in. I dragged myself inside and found the bottle and the logo-embossed notebook. Ten days of pills left. I left my wet clothes in the kitchen and fell into bed.
I dreamed of Cait dying. I dreamed of her lips, open and red and bloody. I watched her kick soundlessly, over and over and over, and couldn’t wake up. Phones buzzed and went silent.
Someone banged on the door to the flat. I lay in bed with all the air in the wold pushing down on me and Cait died ten thousand deaths, took ten thousand final, shuddering breaths, until finally her foot came to rest.
The door opened, and I heard the security guard’s voice. Feet walked down the hallway. Hands grabbed me, wrapped a scratchy blanket around my shoulders and helped me upright.
“My bag,” I mumbled. They got it for me, the same bag I’d been carrying when Cait had bled out on the cold concrete in front of me. They got my coat, too; wrapped it around the blanket. Not cops. Corporate security. They walked me to the door, more gently than Cait ever had. Uniformed figures waited outside. We went to the elevator, got off and into a car.
I stared blankly at the owner of the voice. He sat at a desk in a well-upholstered office somewhere in the first. Corporate. Pharmaceutical. Important.
“She’s on a test, Sir,” said another voice.
“One of ours?”
“An anti-trauma. One we’re testing for the vets. Selective amnesia and mood suppression. Mild hallucinations reported on this run.”
“Where’d you pick her up?”
“Same place as last time. Lieutenant on duty let her go back to her flat by herself.”
“Put some clothes on her, will you? When will she be coherent?”
“Techs say another ten hours at least. She’s four days deep. ”
He sighed. Looked back to me. “No matter what I tell them, no matter how many times this happens, you get your hands on something.”
The world tilted. I thought about my answer.
“It was supposed to make me forget,” I whispered.
The guard cleared his throat. “This is the third time we’ve found her there, sir.”
He sighed and fidgeted. I watched him through the water, through ten thousand feet of cloudy sky.
“It’s been a year since she died. It’s time to move on.”
I laughed at him, burbled wetly like my mouth was full of blood, showed him my crimson teeth.
He shook his head. “You won’t live with me in the first, but you’ll take the apartment in the second. You insist on working in manufacturing. When are you going to come back? When are you going to grow up?”
My teeth and gums felt dry and my lips stuck to them. Wind howled up from the muck and the filth in the gutters, blew me into the grey sky above the city.
“Your sister…” he started.
“Don’t,” I croaked, suddenly tired. The smile faltered, broke. The wind ceased, and I fell. “Don’t.”
“It was an accident. We’ve been over this. They didn’t know who she was. The people she was meeting with…They weren’t good people. But they’re gone now. You don’t have to be afraid.”
And Cait. Cait. Sacrifice or martyr or pawn. I stared at the white tiles. Blood dripped from my mouth and disappeared before it hit the floor. A dead foot twitched. He didn’t notice.
“What would your mother say, kitten? What could I possibly tell her?”
That you killed and stole in honor of her death, I tried to tell him. That you built your empire on her grave. That you wanted a war, that when you took your eldest daughter’s life you turned her body into a flag and beneath it you burned the world to ashes.
“She would hate you,” I spat. He tensed - and then dismissed me. Like he had dismissed Cait, after our mother died. Used her and discarded her.
The drug had grown stronger as the concentration built. The world spun. I held a shaky hand out towards the guard who’d escorted me inside. He passed me my bag.
“I shouldn’t have tried to put you on the meds after she died. I can see that was a mistake. But I’ve indulged your weakness long enough, and I’m taking you out of there. I’ll find you another place to live. We’ll get you in rehab and keep you safe. You won’t have to work.”
I stuck my hand into the bag, stared down into its depths. The guard watched me, his hands behind his back. Five years streamed past, ran down gutters and splashed into bloody puddles at my feet. Cait’s ghost whispered and cursed.
I was a fish. I was a bird. I was underwater, a thousand feet above the city. I watched Cait die, watched her kick her quiet way into oblivion, watched her life puddle on the ugly floor of the safehouse; now dark and iridescent, now brown and dry and old. I felt her hands on me, rough and tender and unforgiving. My hand moved slowly through the water. I lifted the gun, Cait’s gun, and I squinted down the sights at my father’s mouth; open in the tiny, dark shape of an O.