The rock hit when I was 12, a messenger flung from some far-off solar system that promised to solve humanity’s problems. And all we did was use it to make money. Telekinetic factory workers slaving away under mind-controlling managers, psychic therapists, shape-shifting actors. It rained cash on the new superheroes. Then an angry incel stole some serum and barbecued a yoga studio. We all watched the shaky cellphone footage of him using his newfound powers to roast an entire class before accidentally setting himself on fire. After that, serum and anything having to do with the rock was perma-banned. Unless you went underground.
My buddy tells me about an underground dose of telekinesis. No shakes, no freezing, no brain blowouts. He tells me about this guy who had it done a few weeks back. It was like he had a dozen extra hands to work with. He upped his output at the chip fab 300 percent. The guy made employee of the month and his boss gave him an all-expense paid trip to New Bermuda. They never knew a thing while he lounged on bleached-out sand, sipping mojitos out of a diamond glass. I could use that kind of boost, and bad. Ever since they went to per-unit pay at the factory my check has been shrinking like the ice caps. One injection of serum will double, even triple my output and then maybe Marcy will return my calls.
My buddy gives me this little slip of paper with a barcode and a picture of a syringe on it. I scan the barcode with my phone and it sends me to an alley between two abandoned brick warehouses down by the waterfront. The location marker is half-way down the trash-strewn corridor, right in front of an unmarked door. It’s a simple steel job with a brick of bulletproof glass at eye level, black paint sloughing off it like dead skin. I knock my knuckles on it a few times. It’s like punching the side of a destroyer: solid, unyielding, bone-cracking steel. I look around for a buzzer and see a tiny camera perched above the door, it’s wide-angle eye staring blankly. I hear a buzz, then a series of latches flipping and clacking as the door unlocks.
It opens, revealing a cartoon mad scientist with wild frizzy black hair, eyes like a goldfish, and a nose like an ax. He’s wrapped in a black rubber apron, purple latex gloves stretched over his hands, goggles perched on his forehead. He leans out of the doorway, eyes rolling like greased ball bearings. They dart up and down the alley. “Get in here,” he says. “Last time a guy hung around for an invitation some thugs smashed his skull in. Not much I can do for that.”
He reaches out with a gloved hand and pulls me through the door. I stagger into a waiting room littered with old magazines and travel brochures. There’s a single dingy loveseat and two folding chairs on either side of an end table. The place stinks like stale sweat and burnt coffee. He closes the door and its latches snap shut behind us. “So you wanna be a hotshot, huh? What’ll it be? Superhuman strength? Stretchy limbs?”
I feel my eyebrows scrunching into a scowl, not knowing exactly how to respond. “I, um, my friend said you can give me mild telekinesis, to help out with my work at the chip fab?”
He ignores me and charges ahead. “Indestructible, that’s it. You’ve got that look. Been hurt before, yeah. . . Maybe not. Maybe you want to read minds. Is that it?” He adjusts the goggles on his forehead, pulls a cigarette out of an apron pocket and fumbles with a lighter, purple gloves squeaking on its plastic case. One of his eyebrows darts up into his hairline. “For your work at the chip fab? Setting your sights high, huh kid?” He gets the cigarette lit, blows smoke at the ceiling.
It sounds ridiculous, said out loud. I tick off the reasons in my head before opening my mouth. “I don’t want to end up in a cave in some island with the rest of the supers. I just need a little extra help to get a promotion. I can pay.” I reach into my pocket and pull out a wad of bills.
He seems disappointed. “Sure, you’re the boss. You say you wanna use your mind to work harder and faster for the man, who am I to judge?” He takes the cash and starts counting.
I look around the room. There are autographed pictures taped to the cinder-block walls. Theresa Savage, mind-reading journalist, Guy Rupert, laser-eyed dermatologist to the stars, Franklin Dupont, water-breathing oceanographer. These are a few of the supers still left out in the wild, celebrities too precious to lock up. “Did… did you make them?” I ask, pointing to Savage.
“Naw, I just collect autographs.”
For a second I consider darting out the steel door, then I remember that it’s latched shut, and if I get caught leaving this place I’ll get arrested anyway. And fired. And I won’t have any powers.
He pockets the money and strides across the small room to another door. “C’mon,” he says. He flings it open and sails through like a lit firecracker, smoke ribboning off his cigarette into the stagnant air. I take a deep breath and follow, my heart beating a conga rhythm in my chest.
The lab is dusty, clogged with empty styrofoam containers and soda cans. It smells like a candy factory—burnt sugar, food coloring and WD-40 swirled in a copper pot. There are no windows. Busted toasters, CD players, microwaves, blow driers, calculators, and countless other junk is stacked to the roof on wire racks. It does not inspire confidence, but some of the climate refugee clinics I’ve seen on the other side of the river are even worse. I swallow and try to focus on what it’ll feel like when it’s done. I remember the YouTube documentary on the telekinetic workers in the micro fabs. They said they could feel individual molecules, their texture and weight.
Then I look around the room, desperate for a distraction. I spy a tangle of glass tubes, wires and burners gurgles to itself on a workbench. “Is that where you make it?”
“Some of it, yeah. Most of it I make over there.” He points to a pile of equipment on low counter along one wall. Some of it I recognize, a centrifuge, a microscope, a coffee maker. Most of it is foreign, a robot arm equipped with a long needle, an aluminum tube coiled around a glass tank—lots of white plastic and green glowing LCD displays.
“Right this way.” He leads me through the junk to an old dentist’s chair with leather arm straps and a perm helmet. It’s surrounded by computer monitors and IV stands. He points at the chair. “Sit,” he says.
“In… that?” The words dribble out of my mouth and involuntarily push my hands into the pockets of my jeans.
“Yep, just sit there and I’ll take care of the rest.”
I try to sound confident. “Sure, okay, no problem.” I unzip my threadbare hoodie, toss it onto a nearby junk pile, and ease into the chair. It creaks under my weight, its cushions coughing the sour smell of old sweat.
“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” he says. “I’m gonna strap you in the chair and give you the shot. It’ll hurt, a bit, but you’ll be okay. You should start feeling something in about 30 minutes. You’ll stick around until it starts to work, then you’re free to go.”
He pulls off his gloves and moves in, starts strapping my arms and legs down. He yanks the old leather straps tight and fiddles with the buckles.
“So… that’s it then? I’ll be able to move things with my mind?” I ask.
He focuses on the buckles, his fingers twitching and darting like a bad stop-motion movie. I start to sweat. “Are you okay?”
He ignores my follow-up question and keeps working the buckles as he talks. “Just little stuff, like maybe a pencil. And only a few centimeters at a time. I can’t give you anything that strong, it’ll wreck your brain. You’d go crazy, tear apart the very fabric of reality. I’ve seen it, it’s not pretty.”
I swallow, pushing glue-like spit down the back of my throat.
“Anyway, that’ll be enough to help you at the chip fab without sounding any alarms. Of course if anyone sees you using it, you’re done. And you don’t know me.” He tightens the straps and drops the perm helmet down over my head.
I flinch at the helmet, tugging on the straps as my arms involuntarily jerk up. I suddenly want out of the chair. And out of this place.
“Relax. this’ll keep you cool. Sometimes the shot triggers a low-grade fever. Just breathe, this’ll be over before you know it.” The doc puts a quivering hand on my wrist, sending a shot of doctorly compassion sizzling through my skin. It calms my nerves and I breathe deep. Cool air leaks out of the perm helmet and into my ears.
He pulls a rolling instrument tray up to the chair, sweeps an empty Chinese food container off of it.
He shuffles over to a small fridge and pulls out a vial of serum. The thick liquid glows orange, sputters and pops as he brings it over to the instrument tray. “That’s it,” he says. “That’s your new life. Permanent, no expiration date. How does it look?”
It looks terrifying, and I swear I can feel its warm glow on my cheeks. I shiver a bit and answer, the words popping out of my mouth. “Y-yeah, it looks good.”
The doc smiles and sets the tube on the instrument tray. It vibrates and rattles across the metal surface. He reaches for the syringe. It’s the size of a shock absorber with a needle like an ice pick. The polished stainless plunger glimmers in the fluorescent light as he lifts it off the tray. “This will make it go fast. Trust me, you don’t want this to go slow.”
Panic grips me and I grind my teeth and clench my lips to keep from crying out. I remind myself that this will be quick, that I’ll get up out of this chair with a new life to look forward to.
The doc grabs the serum vial and plunges the long needle into the skin-like drum stretched across its top. He pulls the plunger and sucks the gooey orange serum into the syringe’s chamber. When it’s full, he pulls the needle out and sets the empty vial down. He taps the syringe a few times and eases the plunger until a drop oozes from the needle. “Ready?” he says. I am not ready. But I nod my head anyway, knocking it against the perm helmet a few times. My chest feels like a balloon ready to pop.
The doc aims the needle at a vein in the crook of my elbow. Then he does that thing doctors and nurses do, just pushes it in without warning, not really giving me any time to react. The needle slides through my skin without much fuss, despite its size. I clench my jaw and hold my breath as he pushes the plunger. The goo slides into my vein, lighting it up like a neon tube. At first I don’t feel much, just a calming warmth creeping up my arm. Then there’s a twinge of pain, a pinch of it here and there in my upper arm. As the goo creeps up into my shoulder and chest it leaves a trail of little pops, zaps, and stings. Then it starts to burn. And sear. And scorch. Something’s wrong.
An explosion of pain rocks my body. Everything turns red and I hear myself scream into the echoey warehouse, the sound of the doc scrambling around, the instrument tray tumbling to the ground. The serum pillages my body, ravaging flesh and cracking bones as it flows through my veins. I strain against the straps, scream like a baby. It flows over my mind like lava, frying all thought. Then, blackness.
I wake up in a pool of my own sweat, still strapped into the chair. The perm helmet is off. Everything’s fuzzy and my head feels like a balloon stuffed with cotton. I look around for the doc, my eyes blurry in the wan light of the warehouse. He’s crumpled in his old chair, sweat beaded on his brow, eyes like two empty wells. “What’s wrong?” I croak. My lips are thick and clumsy, dry and papery.
He stares out across the lab, pulls the goggles off his forehead. He’s holding the empty vial in his right hand. “I picked the wrong one,” he says.
“What?” The room spins counterclockwise. Then I notice the wispy black fur on my arms, the length and curve of my fingers, their yellow nails. My pants, too long and bunched around my ankles. My T-shirt, strained across a barrel chest. I feel sinewy muscles drawn taut over heavy, thick bones. “What did you do to me?”
He stands up, lifts his shaky hands into the air. “Now, look, it’s not that bad. Barely noticeable. . . you can shave the hair. . . nobody will even notice the hands. . .”
“WHAT DID YOU DO?” Rage clears the fog from my head like a stiff wind. A new feeling, this anger and clarity. The lab becomes vivid, its junk piles brimming with detail. I smell things—the rotting burrito on a plate across the room, the congealed soda in the can on the floor next to me, the doc’s bad aftershave, his sugary sweat, the cigarette smoke on his breath, the acrid smell of his fear. I’m still strapped in, even tighter now that my arms and legs have thickened. I strain against the straps. “GET ME OUT OF THIS.” My voice is deep and gurgle-y now, foreign in my throat.
“I can reverse it, calm down. It’s no big deal.” The doc backpedals across the room, stumbles over a broken toaster oven. “You’ll be back to normal in no time, I swear!”
I pull against the straps. They’re strong, but the chair is not. It creaks and groans under the strain. A weld pops somewhere under my right arm and the armrest loosens. I work it back and forth until another weld pops and my arm comes free, bringing the arm rest with it.
“Let’s just talk about this. . .” I can hear him rummaging through piles of junk, tossing things on the floor. “We can work something out!”
I grab the left armrest with my right hand and pull hard. It pops off in one go, spitting broken bolts and shards of metal onto the floor. I sit up and undo the straps on my legs. My new fingers are strong, but clumsy. I fumble with the buckles. My heart is pounding now, beating a powerful rhythm against my ribcage. It’s not the same heart. It’s slow and powerful, like a massive steam engine chugging away in my chest. I stagger to my feet, stumble into one of the video monitors. My new legs are like tree stumps rooted in clay.
He bursts from behind one of the shelves. He’s got a pistol in his hands. “Listen,” he says. “I can fix this, I can. . .I don’t want to use this. . .” He raises the gun, cradles it in his gloved hands like a man holding a bomb.
I steady myself, push off the monitor and settle onto my new legs. I can feel them now, strong and stable under me. I take a step forward.
He pulls the trigger. The gun pops once, then hisses. I cringe, curl up behind my arms, expecting a bullet to rip through my body. But nothing happens. The gun has failed. I straighten up and take a few more steps toward him. He pulls the trigger a few more times. The pistol clicks, but doesn’t fire.
I lunge, swat the gun out of his hand. He staggers back into one of the racks, slumps down into a pile of disassembled electronic gear. Bits of wire and transistors rain down from the shelves above, lodge in his unruly mass of black hair. He holds his hands up, palms forward. “Look, it’s really not that bad,” he says. “We can shave the hair, get you a hat. I know a guy who can get you a loading job down at the docs, make good use of that strength, yeah?”
The room tilts around me, I feel my toes pressing into the tips of my boots, my knees pressing outward, legs bowed. I take a step forward and swerve, weight wavering over my bandy leg. I rock heavily back onto my other leg, stance wide and low, hips thrust forward, ape-like.
“I might be able to reverse it, cosmetically, anyway. I still have some surgical gear, I can clean it off, get the back room prepped…”
“You tried to kill me,” I croak.
“Tranq gun. Obviously need a new one.”
I look down at my hands, long hairy fingers and broad, flat fingertips. “I need a mirror.” The words come out slow and thick like gear oil. The muscles around my face feel frozen, ballooned.
The doc pushes himself up off the pile of garbage, wincing at the sharp bits of plastic and metal. “You calmed down? I can’t fix this if I’m dead.” His shaky hands come up, eyebrows raise—caution and trepidation plain on his face. Desperation, even.
I take two ragged breaths, try to relax my newly-muscled shoulders. They stretch the fabric of my T-shirt. “You can fix this?”
He drops his hands, sighs. “Follow me.” He shuffles away from the shelves and heads deeper into the dank lair. Automatic lights blink on as he walks into the darkness, illuminating more shelves piled with dismantled gear, this stuff much older. I skulk after him, my feet pressing painfully into the sides of my boots, gait hunched, head swimming in a fog of disbelief. We round a corner and a bright spotlight thumps on overhead, shining on a dusty old surgery center. The ivory plastic table is stained with blood and bile, the arms of the robotic surgeon attached to it hang limp and askew like a broken umbrella. The vitals display at the head of the table is cracked and leaking a thick green ooze. It is the most terrifying thing I’ve seen. “I’m not getting on that thing,” I rasp.
“No, you’re not. Hasn’t been service in ages. Anyway, look at yourself.” He points beyond the table, past a surgical tray piled with filthy instruments. A full-length mirror is propped up against the cinderblock wall, reflecting the chaos of the decaying room. My heart twists in my chest, my calves cramp, and I grimace. It’s four or five steps away, but it feels like a mile. A few awkward clomps and I’m there, staring at the beast I’ve become.
Long arms, short legs, sloping shoulders, barrel chest, short neck, broad face, heavy brows, thick mop of black hair, jutting nose… A goddamned walking natural history museum. I lean closer, see the pockmarks on my huge nose, stare into absurdly pale blue eyes under thick, dark eyebrows. My skin is faintly… orange.
“Yeah, you are.” He’s behind me, peering into the mirror over my shoulder. He’s a full six inches taller than I am now, looking absurdly upright and poised in comparison to my hunched form. “That’ll go away. The rest of it… Like I said, how do you feel about dock work? Or maybe arborist. Bet you can climb real good now.”
“You can’t fix it.” Lips moving, voice making noice, but I don’t recognize either. The timbre is nasal and congested. Like a clarinet clogged with wet cotton. “What is this? What am I?”
“There’s no normalizing serum. It’s permanent.” He reaches into the pocket of his apron for another cigarette. “This is old military, I think. Rough super-soldier stuff. Unlocks old genes, dormant from previous generations, other species. I’d guess some olfactory enhancement, maybe hearing. Definitely stronger muscles and faster reflexes.” He lights the cigarette, takes a long pull and pushes a plume of smoke up into the darkness above the spotlight.
“Must’ve mislabeled it. I’m sorry, kid.”
Pressure at my temples, across my forehead. I pinch the thick bridge of my nose with broad fingertips. Heightened sensation of touch, smell, hearing. Take a breath, feel the air rush in, fill my lungs, flush my system with oxygen. Each inhale fills me with a little more strength, clears my milky mind.
He looks at me thoughtfully, fist on hip, and nods. “Yeah, arborist. I think I know a guy who can get you in at one of the pole farms, under the radar.”
I take a step back from the mirror, feeling my new legs under me, the depth of my chest, the strength of my fingers. Rage builds again, fiery and raw. I think about the chip fab, the endless toil, the unobtainable quotas. I came here for a way to break free of it all, to move up the ranks to a cushier job. Now I can’t go back. I have nothing. I turn to the doc. “What am I supposed to do?”
He plops down into a rusty and torn office chair, stares off into the shelves of broken gear and garbage. After a solid minute he speaks. “I may be able to reverse it, and maybe give you that telekinesis you’re after. But I can’t do it here and I can’t do it alone.”
I sway on my new legs, head straining to float off into the darkness above the flickering lights like a lost balloon. The strength I felt is draining away, melting off me, pooling at my feet. It’s being replaced with a shaky anxiety, a shivering exhaustion. Still, I can’t imagine being like this. I stare down at my hands, their long hairy fingers like tarantula legs, palms like oven mitts. “Okay, let’s go,” I say.
The doc turns his head and looks back at me. “You’re in shock. You need to rest.” Bits of wire and garbage are still lodged in his wooly hair. I look into his cloudy gray eyes and see something new. Remorse, empathy, regret. Pity. “Look, this is my fault,” he says. “You can stay with me until we can sort this out.”