Searching for soulware connection…

L.P. Melling

Illustration by Richard Wagner

The skinsuit pinches like new shoes. Changing race and sex is always tricky, but when you’re wearing a dead person it’s even worse.

I press my new hand against the biometric scanner to open the door and take the stairs real slow, keen not to break my neck in high heels that pop thin, white calf muscles. Nearly losing my footing, I grab on to the railing and wish I were still wearing my size 12 Adidas takkies as I am back in the neuroloader. Why did I let Kudenga talk me into this? Commercial espionage jobs have never been my thing, even if they pay better. But I’ll never get me and Lindiwe out of New Zimbabwe without the extra cash. 

The thought of my daughter strengthens my resolve as I enter the nexus of Anatomous Inc.’s headquarters. A new-car smell hanging in the air, the open office is filled with banks of transparent desks. The pride of Boston’s financial district and the world over… scrolls on surgical-white walls. Office workers’ eyes drag over my borrowed face, most of them barely concealing their hatred for its original owner. They must know she was leaking corporate secrets. Probably won’t even care when they find out Angelica apparently overdosed. Seeing the disgust in her co-workers’ eyes, I can’t help but feel sorry for her.

 ‘Hey, Angelica.’ A platinum blonde approaches, adapted polychrome eyes doing their best to look sympathetic. ‘Thought you were on sick leave until the end of the month?’

Hoping it sounds natural, without any lag, I reply, ‘Yeah. They thought it best I come back early.’ Angelica’s voice is soft and delicate, surprising me, sounding more like a sympathetic nurse than a ruthless businesswoman.

The woman looks confused. I spot her badge: Chryliser. The names these Westerners have! ‘You know how it is,’ I say. Two men wearing sharp suits and fixed leers walk past us. Their hands brushing against my hip makes my fist clench, my skin crawl.

‘Sure.’ Chryliser beams a Hollywood smile. ‘I’ll leave you to it, then. We didn’t touch your desk,’ she says and it’s clear she’s lying.

I casually head to Angelica’s desk and sit on the ergochair and almost fall off the thing. The back-support has gone on it, so I sit on the edge shaking my head, no doubt in my mind Angelica’s chair has been switched with the worst one in the office. 

The computer has another fingerprint scanner and a retinal one to boot. Paranoid much? But then they have good cause to be. The scanners read Angelica’s biometrics and the computer starts loading up. Next to a flexible keypad, there’s a dying orchid in a plant pot of bone-dry soil, its white petals turning brown, and a looping holo pic of a little girl splashing in sun-kissed puddles, smile wide on her dimpled face. 

A shiver runs through me. I reach for the wooden cross on my neck from habit and my hand shakes when it closes around a cold silver one. Kudenga never said she had a child. I grind my teeth, knowing he’s played me. The cross digs into my palm. I should walk out, tell him where to go – but it’s too late. Kudenga would kill me without thinking, suffocating me in the Harare warehouse as soon as I woke from the neuroloader. Sell my meat to buy more time and hire another skin-slipper to do the job.  

I picture Lindiwe’s sweet smile to calm me and wait for the tech to do its thing. Now in range, the cuff-scanner starts pulling the records the client needs from the computer. Once I’m out of here, I’ll transfer it to another secure terminal the client controls.

A tap on my shoulder makes me spin around, neck spasming.

‘Don’t worry, Angelica, it’s only me,’ another woman says, jet-black hair, expressionless face, bee-stung lips. ‘Got some paperwork for you.’ I wonder if she’s wearing a skinsuit too. An expensive lab-grown one, of course, unlike mine, as skinsuits are always made in vats – at least that’s what the public thinks. She looks rich enough to afford it and one of the new neuroloaders. People like her do it to avoid the risks of major plastic surgery, or just like to wear a different face in public than they do at home. 

The woman’s long hair covers her name badge. ‘Thanks.’

She smiles and saunters off to the kitchen for a caffeine hit or a goji one or whatever people like her drink.

I drum my fingers on the keys to look busy. I skim through Angelica’s browser history that’s full of media reports of corporate crimes, life insurance sites, churches, and toy stores. My stomach turns. I rush to close the page, ashamed of prying through her private life. 

The cuff-scanner buzzes: download complete. My nerves relax a little. Time to make my excuses and get out of here.

I pinch the skin between my eyes and fake a grimace. The job detail Kudenga had supplied said Angelica’s migraines had been serious; she was taking major meds, and why wouldn’t she need them with unscrupulous bosses pushing her over the edge. No wonder she threatened to expose the corporation’s criminal activity. The little girl’s smiling face catches my eye as I stand up, and the yellow raincoat she’s wearing reminds me of the one my own daughter has, though it’s not patched-up like Lindiwe’s.  

I weave through the desks, thinking how the pay will help with the retinal work. Another year or two and I’ll be able to afford the surgery, get us out of the country, and go back to algae farming, honest and godly work, self-worth. 

If I survive that long… I shiver, the memory of Lindiwe’s mother cutting through me.    

The glug of the water cooler grabs my attention. Sweating, I quickly get a cup of water while no one’s looking. It tastes arctic pure, but I feel sick from drinking it.

I check my watchband: 9.15 p.m., New Zimbabwe time. Kudenga is due to pull the skinsuit connection in fifteen minutes, just enough time to get to the client’s terminal and make their deadline. Something about releasing it to the world before the stock exchange closed, Kudenga said. My hand trembles. The brain can’t deal with being in another body for too long. Most skin-slippers start to lose all sense of reality after a while and I don’t want to stay in Angelica’s skin any longer than necessary.

I throw the cup in the recycling chute, push the door open, and clatter down the stairs. A guy in a pinstripe shirt crosses my path halfway down. His cold blue eyes scan me; something primal creeps into his expression. I run.

‘Hey, where are you—?’

I don’t look back. Pray I can escape and get back to my daughter. The heel snaps on my right shoe in the rush. Gadadzva! I slip both shoes off and run barefoot across the rubberised asphalt.

The guy chasing me is probably the one who killed Angelica for fear the corporation’s shares would plummet. Their warehouses full of stolen skinsuits around the world exposed, sold on to the unsuspecting public. My skin prickles. The rich Westerners who buy them as fashion accessories with no idea the bodies are stolen from morgues, that people are killed to keep the skintrade going.

I race around a corner, the bra scratching against soft flesh. The corporation’s main competitor had been watching Angelica closely, managing to grab the body before it was cold, load it with preservatives and electrical nerve stimulators, and link it up.

A man jogging with a pair of designer poodles comes out of nowhere, and I get tangled up. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he says, the dogs’ outfits matching his lime-green T-shirt.

‘My fault, forgive me,’ I say, struggling to untangle myself from the dog leads.

The company man is on me before I can escape. He grabs my hand, pretending to help, not wanting to draw attention. The leads come free, but he doesn’t let go as we silently watch the jogger pat his dogs and take them across the road.  

Soon as the jogger is on the other side, I’m about to push my corporate stalker and run for it when he lets go of me and backs away. ‘Relax, Angelica. It’s me. Marie Cortez, from News International.’ A name I recognise. I look into her skinsuit’s eyes, remembering her name from Angelica’s browser history, from an article I’d read months before; her exposé on political corruption in Nigeria led to international intervention and a new government. ‘We’ll get these bastards, Angelica. I swear. I just need those files you promised.’

I exhale and see it play out in my mind: Kudenga’s client using the files for corporate blackmail, the truth never getting out, transfers to bitbank accounts averting any damage to the skintrade. 

I check the time again on my wristband. Two minutes left. Move now and I can make it by the skin of my teeth.  

The holo pic on Angelica’s desk swims up again in my head and her hand shakes as if it’s no longer under my control. I imagine her daughter being told about her mother’s death, breaking like Lindiwe. Tears spilling down dimpled cheeks. Social services stepping in to support her.

‘Here, take it.’ I hold out the cuff-scanner. ‘Passcode is K43871. It’s all there. Just promise me you’ll look after someone if anything happens to me.’

‘What? Of course. Your daughter will be safe like we discussed.’ She opens her hand.

‘No, someone else. Someone I came across when researching into what the corporation were doing. Another young girl, Lindiwe Tatenda, lives in New Zimbabwe – life destroyed by the skintrade. Mother died from water contamination, father missing.’

‘Okay. It’ll help with the story if we have victims from both sides. I swear.’

I look into her eyes, the colour of the Zambezi when it was still drinkable, when children could still swim in it. Lindiwe never got the chance like I did. ‘Give me your phone. I’ll message her details over to your own number.’ My flesh and blood deserves so much more than the slum life I’ve had. Forgive me.

She hesitates for a heartbeat. ‘Okay,’ she says and passes it to me. ‘Send it to the contact saved as JT’s Lighting Supplies.’

The watchband pulses against my wrist. I frantically send a message with the out-of-town babysitter’s address Kudenga has no knowledge of and pass the phone back with the cuff-scanner. Marie takes both items and puts them carefully in her pocket. 

I stumble and drop to my knees – Kudenga is pulling me back to my own body, knows I didn’t deliver on time. Already I feel his hands gripping my throat. 

I clutch the cross and do not struggle, staring into her clear blue eyes, seeing Angelica’s reflection inside them. As Boston starts to fade from my peripheral vision, I say, ‘Thank you,’ and the skinsuit grows warm as a hug around me. ∎

L.P. Melling currently writes from the East of England, UK, after academia and a legal career swept him around the country. He is a Writers of the Future finalist, a Codexian, and was the winner of the short story contest at his Russell Group university. His speculative fiction has appeared in such places as Hybrid FictionFrozen WaveletsDreamForge, and the Best of Anthology The Future Looms. When not writing, he works for a legal charity in Cambridge. You can find out more about him on his website where he sporadically updates his blog The sound of writing… and follow @l_lpmelling on Twitter.

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