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 its glorious alien tech 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 MINCHIP fab plant by 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 maybe Marcy will return my calls.
He 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 rap my knuckles on it a few times. It’s like the side of a destroyer: Unyielding, bone-cracking steel. I look around for a buzzer and see a tiny camera above the entranceway, its wide-angle eye staring blankly. I hear a buzz, followed by 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, scanning up and down the alleyw. “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 yanks 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. “You must be Stone,” he says.
“Yeah, I’m Stone.” I hold out my hand but he just stares at.
“Stone, huh?” He pronounces my name slowly, drawing out the syllables.
“That your real name?”
Yeah, my parents were big grunge rock fans,” I flush with embarrassment and decide to skip over the rest of the story.
He nods and smiles, his teeth gleaming. “Call me Hanlin.” He reaches up, grabs my clammy hand, and gives it a squeeze. “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 MINCHIP fab plant?”
He ignores me and charges ahead. “Indestructible, that’s it. You’ve got that look. Been hurt before, yeah . . . You want to read minds. Is that it?” He adjusts the goggles on his forehead, plucks 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 as his mind finally catches up to my words. “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 just need a little extra help to get a promotion. I can pay.” I reach into my pocket and yank out a wad of bills—all the money I could scrape together. Sold my VR set and my guitar.
He seems disappointed in me. “Sure, you’re the boss. If you want to push silicon atoms around with your head, who am I to judge?” He takes the cash and starts counting.
I look around the room. There are autographed pictures taped to the cinderblock 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 you make them?” I ask, pointing to Savage.
“Naw, I just collect autographs.”
For a second I consider darting back through the door, but then I remember it’s latched shut and I’ll get arrested if the cops catch me leaving. And I won’t have any telekinesis.
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, each one’s texture and weight.
I look around the room, desperate for a distraction. I spy a tangle of glass tubes, wires and burners gurgling to itself on a workbench. “Is that where you make the serum?”
“Some of it, yeah. Most I make over there.” He points to a pile of contraptions on low counter along one wall. Some of the equipment I recognize; a centrifuge, a microscope, and a coffee maker. Most 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 I 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 thirty minutes. You can stick around until it starts to work and after that you’re free to go.”
He peels off his gloves and moves in to strap my arms and legs down. He yanks the old leather tight and fiddles with the buckles.
“So that’s it? I’ll be able to move things with my mind?” I ask.
He focuses on the buckles and bites his tongue, his fingers twitching and darting like a bad stop-motion movie. I start to sweat. “Are you okay?”
He ignores my 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 stronger—the power would wreck your brain. You’d go crazy, tear apart the fabric of reality. It’s not pretty.”
I swallow, pushing glue-like spit down the back of my throat.
“Anyway, this dose will be enough to help you at the chip fab without sounding any alarms. Of course if anyone sees you using your power, you’re done. And remember you were never here.” He tightens the straps and drops the perm helmet down over my head. “You don’t remember a thing.”
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. Breathe. This’ll be over before you know it.” The doc puts a quivering hand on my wrist, sending a shot of doctorly compassion through my skin. It calms my nerves a bit and I breathe deep. Cool air leaks out of the perm helmet and into my ears.
He pushes 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 retrieves a vial of serum. The thick liquid glows orange and bubbles like champaign. “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 dribbling out of my mouth. “Y-yeah, it looks good.”
The doc smiles and sets the tube on the instrument tray. It vibrates and rattles a little across the metal surface on its own. He reaches for the syringe, which looks like a shock absorber with an ice pick stuck on it. The polished stainless plunger glimmers in the fluorescent light as he lifts it from the tray. “This will make it go fast. Trust me, you don’t want this to go slow.”
Panic grips me. I grind my teeth and purse 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.
The doc grabs the vial and plunges the long needle into the skin-like drum stretched across its top. He pulls the plunger and the syringe sucks the gooey orange serum into the chamber. When it’s full he draws the needle out and sets the empty vial down. He taps the syringe a few times and pushes 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 do, just sticks it in without warning. The needle slides through my skin without much fuss, despite its size. I 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 unnerving little zaps and stings in its wake. Then it starts to burn and sear and scorch. Something’s wrong.
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 body. I strain against the straps and scream like a baby. It flows over my mind like lava, frying all thought and sensation. I pass out.
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 vision blurry in the wan light of the warehouse. He’s crumpled in his old chair, sweat beaded on his brow, his 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 and their yellow nails. My pants are too long and bunched around my ankles and my T-shirt is strained across my 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. This anger and clarity is bright and new and it feels wonderful. The lab becomes vivid and the junk piles brim with detail. I smell things: A rotting burrito on a plate across the room, 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, and 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 gurgles 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 cracks and my arm comes free, bringing the armrest with it.
“Let’s just talk about this.” I can hear him rummaging through piles of junk just out of my sight, tossing things on the floor. “We can work something out!”
I grab the left armrest with my right hand and pull hard. It snaps off in one go, spitting broken bolts and shards of metal on 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 steam engine chugging away in my chest. I stagger to my feet, stumble into one of the video monitors. My legs are like tree stumps rooted in clay.
He bursts from behind a shelf with a pistol in his hands. “Listen,” he says. “I can fix this, I can I—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. Now they’re strong and stable under me. I take a step forward.
He pulls the trigger. I cringe, duck my head into the crook of my arms, expecting a bullet to rip through my body. But nothing happens. I hear the gun sigh, puff, hiss, and whine pitifully. It failed.
I straighten up and take a few more steps toward him as 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 equipment. Bits of wire and transistors rain down from the shelves above and 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, the weight wavering over my bandy leg. I rock heavily back onto my other leg. My stance is wide and low, hips thrust forward ape-like.
“I might be able to make you look better. I still have an old surgical robot. 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.
The doc pushes himself 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 eyebrows rise high on his forehead and his shaky hands come up in a plea for peace. Caution and trepidation are plain on his face. Desperation, even.
I take two ragged breaths and 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 warehouse. Automatic lights blink on as he walks into the darkness, illuminating more shelves piled with even older dismantled gear. I skulk after him with my feet pressing painfully into the sides of my boots. My head swims in a fog of disbelief. We round a corner and a bright spotlight thumps on overhead, illuminating a dusty old surgery center. The ivory plastic table is stained with dried blood and bile, the arms of the robotic surgeon attached to it hang limp and askew like a broken umbrella. The display at the head of the table is cracked and leaks a thick green ooze. The thing is terrifying. “I’m not getting on that,” 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 at a full-length mirror propped up against the cinderblock wall. It reflects 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 feels like a mile. I take 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, and jutting nose. I’m a goddamned walking natural history museum. I lean closer to examine the pockmarks on my huge nose, stare into absurdly pale blue eyes under thick, dark eyebrows. My skin is . . . discolored.
“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 you could be an arborist. I bet you can climb trees real good now.”
“You can’t fix it.” My lips move and voice makes noise, 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. It unlocked old genes from previous generations and other species. I’d guess you got some olfactory enhancement, maybe acute 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.”
There’s pressure at my temples and across my forehead. I pinch the thick bridge of my nose with broad fingertips. Heightened sensations of touch, smell, and hearing flood my brain. I take a breath and fill my huge lungs with air. Each inhale clears my milky thoughts and calms my mind.
He looks at me thoughtfully, fist on hip, and nods. “Yeah, arborist would be even better. I think I know a guy who can get you in at one of the tree-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. “What am I supposed to do?”
He plops down into a rusty office chair and stares off into the shelves of broken electronic gear and garbage. “I may be able to fix you. . . But I can’t do it here and I can’t do it alone.”
I sway on my new legs, my head feels like it’s going to float off into the darkness above the flickering lights like a lost balloon. The strength is melting off me and pooling at my feet. It’s being replaced with a shaky anxiety and a shivering exhaustion. I can’t imagine being like this. I stare down at my hands: Their long hairy fingers are like tarantula legs, their palms like oven mitts.
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, and pity. “Look, this is my fault,” he says.
I stagger over to the surgery table and sit down on the only clean spot. My knees ache. Fog rolls over my mind and my thoughts meander aimlessly through it. “I can’t go home.”
The doc leans forward, elbows on knees, chin in hands. “Not right now. You’ll need to shave, cover up a bit. Maybe wear some kind of heels. You live in one of the complexes?”
A MINCHIP corporate complex—a thirty-story hive packed with workers, divided into castes based on their job roles. I’m lucky enough to have my own tiny studio with a foldout cot, a bar with two bar stools, and a loveseat I found on the side of the road. In the rest of the world workers are packed like dolma in a can, six to ten in a room. My studio is extravagant by world standards—the benefits of working at the world’s top silicon chip manufacturer. Still, it took ten years of finger-twisting labor to get my tiny space. “Yeah, I live in a complex,” I reply.
He’s thinking hard now, I can see it all over his face. Jaw clenching, lips squirming, eyebrows furrowing, right hand fidgeting. “They’ll have it monitored. Your height, your gait, your pheromones are all different. We might be able to get past security, but you won’t just be able to waltz back in there.” The doc’s bushy eyebrows wriggle up his forehead. “Stay with me until we can work it out. We might be able to get your stuff, but you won’t be able to stay there.”
The doc bolts up from his chair. “C’mon, follow me.”
Fatigue falls over me like a warm blanket and my new joints ache from the strain of breaking my restraints. My forearms are starting to bruise, and the skin around my wrists is chaffed and raw. I want to scream, throw things, cry, pound my new apish fists into the surface of the operating table. But I’m drained. I push off the tabletop and land unsteadily on my new feet.
He walks back toward the front of his lair, threading his way between trash heaps. “You need some food and water. And sleep.” Apparently he’s in his head now, sailing on autopilot toward his destination while feverishly figuring and strategizing. “You should heal fast now, yeah. But not without rest. Should wake up even stronger than before, and I bet you’ll only get stronger. That was potent stuff. Frankly I’m surprised you survived.”
I amble behind him, away from the mirror, past the racks of broken gadgets, beyond the cluttered desk and shattered barber’s chair. Its frame is twisted and I can see where the metal sheared. It’s solid, not hollow. Solid industrial steel. No wonder my arms ache.
He heads toward the front waiting room door but veers right into a dark part of the room instead. There, in a disregarded corner, is another steel door. No, a vault door. My eyes adjust to the dark and I see it’s elevated six or so inches from the floor, set in a cinderblock wall. There is a large brass dial, and a huge brass wheel. “Bank vault?” I ask.
“In there? Yep. It’s empty, though. Decoy.” He turns again, heads into an even darker nook of the dusty room. There, beyond more piles of shattered gear, lies a plain closet door. “One of the better ideas I’ve had when inspiration struck. Went overboard, of course. You don’t want to get into that vault.”
He approaches the closet door, reaches up and presses his hand into a spot in the upper corner. I see the glow of a scanner and hear servos whining, actuators clicking, gears grinding, the hiss of a high-pressure pneumatic system venting to atmosphere. The door pops softly, issuing a puff of air, and cracks open. The doc grabs the handle and I see now that the door and its frame are as thick as a vault door but made of much tougher stuff. I see the dull black sheen of a hardened carbon lattice peeking out from under chipped paint.
We move through the doorway, into a small boxlike room lit by oozing red light. There’s a normal-looking door before us with a simple deadbolt and office space lever-type handle. The doc closes the heavy carbon door behind us. It clicks and whirrs as the mechanisms switch the locks. He pulls out a messy keychain and starts fumbling through it. “Kinda ran out of steam after that whole thing,” he says, waving his hand over his shoulder at the security door behind us. “Tends to happen when I’m in that get that way.”
He gets the door open and we spill into a cramped windowless apartment.
It’s as messy as the lab but smells worse. There’s an L-shaped kitchen to our right, its sink clogged with dirty dishes. A cast-iron skillet on the stove is caked with unidentifiable gunk. Unfinished meals are piled on a small table—a bowl filled with a gelatinous mixture of milk and decomposing cereal.
The doc ignores it all, makes his way around the table to a dingy white refrigerator. “Yeah, it’s messy. I get… distracted. Lay down on the couch, I’ll get you some water.” He waves at a crumpled purple velvet mound against the far wall. It’s wedged behind an oval coffee table that’s smothered in books.
I stumble around the table, knocking a few books off the table as I go. My head spins I and I can barely think. I fall into the sofa, let its purple velvet swallow me. It coughs a cloud of dust and spores. I sneeze—a sound like a goose being suddenly and violently strangled in mid honk. When I open my eyes, the doc is standing over me with a clean glass of water and a sports bar wrapped in flashy gold foil. I reach up and gladly take the water, start to gulp it down.
“They always say ‘careful’ in the movies. But nope, drink up kiddo. Drink as much as you can. You need to flush the garbage out of your system.” He tosses the sports bar into my lap. “And eat that, you’ll need your strength.”
I finish the water and tear open the sports bar. It’s chocolate and peanut butter, I can smell it the instant the wrapper is torn. “Thank you,” I say.
The doc sits down in a brown overstuffed chair across from me. “Eat that, get some sleep. We’ll figure out what to do in the morning. Listen . . .” He leans forward and his forehead wrinkles with concern. He’s visibly defeated and it’s unsettling. The water gurgles in my stomach and I burp bile, then swallow it down. “I’ll do what I can.” He stands up and moves toward a short hallway. “Bathroom’s here, my room’s there.” He points over his shoulder. “No matter what you hear don’t open my door, got it?”
I bite into the sports bar and chew. The muscles in my jaw ripple as I grind away at the sweet, sticky nourishment. “Got it.”
“Get some rest.” He disappears down the hall and I hear the sound of a cheap hollow door closing.
The first bite of the bar hits my stomach and sets off a chain reaction of desperate hunger. I nearly swallow the rest whole, barely chewing. When I’m done, fatigue hits me like water at the end of a dive. I fall back into the velvet and let my eyes shut. I feel my head throb once, twice, then I’m out.