Under the Skin, page 1
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Copyright ©2011 by Kannan Feng
First published in www.torquerepress.com, 2011
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NOTICE: This work is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, floppy disk, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment.
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Under the Skin
by Kannan Feng
Padraic was running on three hours of sleep when his cousin convinced him that going to Japan was a good idea. After an emergency overnight shift, Padraic opened the door to his apartment and found his cousin inside, looking over the plans on his desk and murmuring softly to himself.
"This looks good, Padraic,” Arch said finally. “You been working on this long?"
Padraic blinked at him.
"Off and on,” he said vaguely.
Arch traced a finger over the schematics, following the long and graceful lines of the monofilament strands as they looped a path from an interface jack in the chest up through the neck to snug directly into the brain.
"Neural netting at its best,” Arch said happily, and despite his exhaustion, Padraic felt a swelling of pride. Arch was a courier, and he saw some of the best tech up close and personal every day. Padraic spent his time working in the lower echelons of an anonymous hardware developer, and he had been lucky to scrape together enough money to fund his current project.
"Got a buyer yet?” Arch asked casually, and Padraic could only laugh, touching the still-raw implants in his chest gingerly.
"I've only had it in for a week or so. I'm still working out the..."
"So there's this company in Japan..."
Arch waved it away and took another look at Padraic.
"You look like shit,” Arch said, not unkindly.
Like his cousin, Padraic was pale and blond, but where Arch had a whipcord-tough body, Padraic was much more slender, with green eyes that currently had deep purple circles underneath them.
"Catch some sleep. I've got some calls to make."
* * * *
That was just Arch. He made connections, he put two and two together, and from the four that came out, he took a generous ten percent for himself.
He waved away terms like “testing” or “safety regulations” and made the right calls while Padraic gave up and went to bed.
Padraic slept for four hours, almost enough to convince himself that he was human again, and then his alarm went off. Padraic reached for it blearily, only to flail at empty air before Arch handed him a cup of tea.
"No work for you today,” Arch said cheerfully. “You're really, really sick."
Padraic sipped the coffee while Arch's words sank in.
"Arch, you can't do this..."
"Sure I can. You have plenty of sick days saved up, and when you come back in a week, you can go back to being a good little paper-pusher if you want to.” Arch grinned. “Though, you know, you may have enough cash to say goodbye to that hellhole."
Collufex was the best place that Padraic had worked yet, but he didn't tell Arch that. Instead, he drank the rest of the coffee that his cousin had given him and asked when he was getting on the plane.
Arch leaned over and ruffled his hair fondly, though, Padraic noticed, he came no closer than he had to.
"What kind of cousin would I be if I were going to sent you off on your own?"
* * * *
When they were children, Padraic had moved into Arch's family's house, and Arch had adopted him, becoming a combination of best friend, brother, father, and manager. When Arch's mother had finally thrown them out, Arch was the one who looked after Padraic and got him enrolled in a university.
"You've got the brains, and I've got everything else,” Arch would say, and the only thing that kept it from being a stinging insult was how proud Arch always looked, how he would boast to anyone who would listen about what kind of genius his baby cousin was.
Padraic always felt that working as a nameless designer for a long run of go-nowhere companies had been a poor way to repay his cousin's efforts, but Arch had waved it off. By then, Arch was working as a courier, and he had become something of a mystery to Padraic. Padraic suspected that they had always been like this, and it was only Arch's fierce loyalty that had held them together this long.
It was a mixture of desperation and genuine desire that had led him to drunkenly kiss his cousin not so very long ago, and Arch's look—shock, bewilderment, and yes, disgust as well—was something that Padraic would never forget.
Since that night, they had drifted even further apart. Padraic didn't want to go to Japan, didn't want to talk to anyone about his tech, but he wanted to disappoint his cousin even less.
Arch set it all up, and inside of two hours, Padraic was at a coffee shop in downtown Milwaukee, meeting with a well-dressed man wearing an entirely untrustworthy grin.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dahl,” said the corporate bodyguard with a pleasant smile.
When he shook Padraic's hand, Padraic could feel the dull heat of constantly moving cybernetics just under the skin of the man's palm. Arch had mentioned how deadly and effective the man was, but he had neglected to mention that Jenner was also as short as a teenage girl and had a grin like a jack-o'-lantern.
"Pleased to meet you, too, Mr... uh, Jenner?"
He laughed, and Padraic caught another glimpse of too-sharp teeth.
"Just Jenner, please, Mr. Dahl. Mr. Jenner is... someone else entirely, I suppose.” He took a long slurp from his orange soda, never taking his nearly black eyes off of Padraic or losing the faint smirk.
"Now, I want you to tell me all about what I'm going to be protecting and how much of you needs to survive in order for me to do so."
In all honesty, Padraic couldn't say that all of him needed to survive. His brain and the delicate ports at his breastbone could keep the system functioning even if the rest of him was gone, and with a faint feeling of reluctance, he told this to Jenner.
"Hmm,” Jenner said thoughtfully.
"Of course it would be a lot better if you could keep me in one piece,” Padraic said hastily. “My, er, meat cushions the leads, and pulling the inputs from my breastbone would be problematic to say the least. The system would be quite pricey to replace."
"Exactly how pricey?” Jenner asked with interest.
Jenner made a face.
"Everything's about accurate accounting these days. I like to know what my incidentals might be."
"Right. Um, continuing on, at the most basic level, the neural net is an information storage and retrieval system, coupled with a basic capacity to execute software. Practically any amount of data can be uploaded almost immediately, and it can be retrieved just as fast. For security purposes, there's an extremely high level of encryption that can be engaged. I was originally thinking that it could be used in-house..."
"Beg your pardon?"
"You're carrying espionage cyberware,” Jenner said flatly. “How much information can you store?
"Enough to handle all of the information that a company would need stored,” Padraic said. “Like I said, it's specifically intended for storage and transfer purposes..."
"And with data transfer still instantaneous?
"It was really made for in-house use,” Padraic protested, but he could see where the other man was going. Jenner patted his arm reassuringly.
"Don't worry. I'll make sure that nothing happens to that gorgeous little piece of hardware that you've got netted to your brainmeats."
Look reassured, look reassured, Padraic tried to tell himself.
"Thank you,” he said numbly. “No, really, thank you so much."
* * * *
It turned out that traveling with Jenner ensured one of the most trouble-free check-ins that Padraic had ever experienced. He was relieved when he didn't set off any of the security portals, and Jenner didn't go through them at all.
"Too much weird gear,” said Jenner easily. “It would just freak them out."
"What about freaking me out?” Padraic muttered. He realized that he would have to sprout another hand to really hang on to his carry-on and find and present all the documentation that the security officer was demanding.
It was the first time that he had flown first class, and the presence of the free alcohol would have been a comfort if Jenner hadn't pulled it from his hand.
"Nope, we need you sharp if you're going to hit the ground running in Nagoya."
"Yup, Arch booked you for a late meeting with an Inoue rep. It's a long flight,” Jenner continued. “Why don't you take some time to learn the language?"
Padraic took the language download that Jenner was offering and automatically thumbed open the secondary port behind his right ear.
"Aren't you going to...?"
Jenner made a face.
"I hate those things,” he said, settling in for a nap. “Go on. Nineteen hours ought to be just enough time to get you up to code."
The small yellow fish on the side of the module was friendly at least, and Padraic was almost beginning to hope that things were going to go smoothly when a shoal of bright blue sparks flared through his head.
"Oh, fuck me,” he muttered, holding his head as it tried to break in two, but then the mind-bending pain was gone, leaving the first gibbering notes of a download in progress behind them. He had had easier downloads, but he had had worse ones too, and he tried to shove the pain aside. He grunted and put his head between his knees, feeling suddenly ill. Jenner rubbed his back solicitously.
"All right?” asked Jenner, and Padraic waved him off.
The pain was gone, but the other symptoms of a truly epic migraine were definitely in the works. Padraic let the static sounds of the download lull him into a state that he could pretend was a nap and tried to get comfortable.
* * * *
The landing in Nagoya would have been fine if the Japanese language module hadn't spat at the last moment and left a feeling like frying eggs in Padraic's brain.
He stumbled off of the plane with his carry-on in a death grip and stared around the airport. They had landed in the middle of what promised to be one hell of a snowstorm, and the people who could were getting out of the terminal as fast as possible.
"Over there, over there!” Jenner pointed, and Padraic could see a slim young man in a crisp black suit holding up a sign that said “Dahl."
Padraic glanced at his companion, but Jenner seemed content to trail along in his wake. Apparently, Jenner wasn't going to be useful until and unless assassins attacked, so Padraic took a deep breath and started walking.
The man with the sign tucked it under his arm and bowed to them. Caught unawares, Padraic tried to bow in return but stumbled slightly. When Padraic glanced up, the Inoue representative was smiling in a way that could have meant anything.
"Sharp” was the only word that Padraic could find to describe him, from his brisk, white smile to razor-sharp neatness of his black hair. Despite that, Padraic found himself putting on that familiar nervous smile that he usually wore when confronted with handsome men. When he spoke, his voice was warm, albeit as crisp as a good linen sheet. His words, on the other hand...
"The fact that welcome, as for me your flight feeling is good is relied on to Japan. I am above the well, bearing fruit."
Padraic stared. He heard Japanese words, but his brain insisted that they meant... something that he wasn't sure was English.
"Going, does preparation do?"
"Er, to the Inoue Corporation?"
The driver smiled again before switching seamlessly to English and allowing the rather tender portion of Padraic's brain that was responsible for language to rest.
"Yes. You are meant to be at the corporation within the hour. Are you ready to depart?"
He reached out to take Padraic's bag, and Padraic automatically handed him the one with his clothes, taking a firmer grip on the one that held his tools. Their hands touched, and Padraic had time to think how warm the other man's hand was before he pulled back nervously. The Inoue representative only nodded, turning away and leaving Padraic feeling oddly bereft.
The young man guided them through the airport and toward a sleek, black car in the underground garage. Jenner ran an appreciative hand over the hood and smiled at the driver.
"Nice,” he said, sliding into the back seat behind the driver. Padraic clung to his side of the back seat; there was something distinctly unnerving about being that close to Jenner with nothing between them.
Nagoya passed by his window in a sleety, gray-blue blur, and Padraic could make out peaked roofs interspersed with high skyscrapers. The car ran like a cloud over the road, but it couldn't block out the roar of the traffic. Padraic remembered belatedly that Nagoya was one of Japan's busiest cities.
In contrast to the more modern structures that surrounded it, the Inoue Corporation buildings were unrepentant throwbacks, with thick, whitewashed walls and tall roofs tiled in green and trimmed with red. The gate was completely modern, though, and as the reinforced steel clanged shut behind him, Padraic shuddered a little.
"Matsumoto Castle, right?” Jenner said suddenly, snapping his fingers. “That's what the design is copied off of."
The driver glanced back at them.
"The design is inspired from the style of Matsumoto Castle."
"The Inoue like to live it up, I guess,” Jenner said, grinning at Padraic. “These castles, they were kinda banned when feudalism was. Anyone who puts one up after something like that is—"
"Oh-look-the-gate-is-opening,” Padraic said frantically. He tried to make a cut-off gesture at Jenner; he wasn't sure what insulting his host's architecture was going to do, but he was fairly sure that everything they said was going to go right from the car's built-in recording device to whoever handled that sort of thing.
"What are you flailing at?” asked Jenner, but they were mercifully interrupted by the door opening for him.
Getting into the facility was more straightforward than Padraic had imagined. Security passes were made up for them in under five minutes, including a fingerprint and a DNA analysis from a cheek swab. It would have taken even less time if the machine had been up. The security guard apologized profusely and left Padraic and Jenner to their own devices in a plain white room while she ran to fetch the passes from another machine.
"This is going fairly quickly,” Padraic said hopefully.
"Not really,” said Jenner, perched on the chair next to him. “They could honestly just take the DNA, figure out who we are, and let us in or shoot us, depending on whether we are who we say we are. I figure this ‘machine is down’ stuff is just to be polite."
"Not like we flashed ID to the driver or anything,” said Jenner, absently looking around the room. “They just want to make really, really sure that you're Padraic Dahl and I'm William Overfit. Arch must have sent over our DNA in advance."
Padraic had no idea how Arch would have gotten hold of a
The door opened and they were handed their passes. Jenner's was indeed made out to “William J. Overfit,” and Padraic resolved to keep things on a need-to-know basis—he himself did not need to know unless it was vitally important.
The driver appeared again, and this time Padraic managed a bow that at least didn't tip him over. For his part, the driver smiled encouragingly and led them into the Inoue Corporation.
Padraic was a little surprised when the small room that he was taken to was identical to any small conference room he might have seen back in Milwaukee.
"My apologies,” the driver said. “It seems that the men who are going to be attending your presentation are a bit late."
"Oh, that's no problem at all,” said Padraic vaguely. “I mean, it was all pretty short notice and..."
"It's unforgivable,” said the driver, making Padraic blink at his vehemence. Padraic belatedly remembered someone telling him that apologies were customary in Japan, but this seemed like something more than politeness.
"No, really, it's not a big deal,” he hazarded. “I can wait.” The look that the driver gave him was distinctly unfriendly, making Padraic take a step back.
"Please think better of yourself,” the other man said, and something about the way that he said it made Padraic take a closer look at him.
The driver looked like he was about twenty, making him a few years younger than Padraic himself. He easily matched Padraic's five feet, eight inches of height. Padraic found himself staring into black eyes that met his own sharply and with more than a touch of aggression. He looked like nothing so much as a hunting cat on the scent, muscles wound a notch too tight and ready to pounce.
For some reason, Padraic found that his mouth was dry. He was certain that he couldn't have made a sensible reply if someone put a gun to his head.
"Incoming,” said Jenner, saving the day as far as Padraic was concerned.
The door opened and two older men walked in. The driver bowed deeply to them, and Padraic matched him without embarrassing himself, at least.