So I go to the doc. His shop is wedged under a dry cleaners, in an alley. The door is unmarked—a simple steel job with a brick of bulletproof glass at eye level. I knock twice, wait, then knock again. The door opens. The doc is 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, gliding up and down the alley in search of intruders. “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.”
I follow him into a waiting room littered with old magazines and travel brochures. The place stinks like stale sweat and burnt coffee. He closes the door and starts flipping the locks. “So you wanna be a hotshot, huh? What’ll it be? Superhuman strength? Wanna breathe fire?”
“No, not really.”
He 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.
“I'm just here for a basic telekinesis job.”
“That's what they all say. Next week you’ll be back for a full empathic upgrade, the whole shebang.” He gets the cigarette lit, blows smoke at the ceiling.
I'm a little irritated now. “Just put me down for the basic job. Let’s get this over with quick.” I reach into my pocket and pull out a wad of bills.
“Hey, sure. You're the boss. You say you wanna do the dishes without touching soap, no big deal. I can do that.” He takes the cash and starts counting.
I look around the room. There are autographed pictures on the wall. Theresa Savage, mind-reading journalist, Guy Rupert, laser-eyed dermatologist to the stars, Franklin Dupont, water-breathing oceanographer. Now, after the crackdown, it’s not about using your powers to do good or evil, it's about using your powers to get paid. “That your work?” I ask, pointing to Savage.
“Naw, I just collect autographs.” He pockets the money and strides across the 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 follow.
The lab is dusty, clogged with empty styrofoam containers and soda cans. It smells like a candy factory—burnt sugar, food coloring and spray lubricant swirled in a copper pot. There are no windows. Busted toasters, CD players, microwaves, blow driers, calculators, TVs—you name it—are stacked to the roof on wire racks. 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 takes me 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.
“Hold this.” I take my jacket off and hand it to him. He tosses it onto a jumble of gutted household appliances. “Thanks,” I say.
“No problem.” He takes a few steps to a nightmare of a desk, shuffles through rotten newspapers, empty soda cans, broken pencils. He yanks a sheaf of yellow paper out of the chaos, shoves it in my direction. “The waiver,” he says.
“This is all unlicensed.” He sweeps his purple glove in an arch, encircling the lab, its dusty equipment, its junk. “Your friend told you, right? No license for this joint, no license for the serum. Once the needle touches your skin, you’re on your own.”
“Right.” No suing this guy if my brain blows up.
“And if the cops bust me, I spill my guts, no hard feelings.”
Give up the unlicensed users, get a break on the time. Standard mod-shop waiver. “Got it,” I say. “Give it here.” I scrawl my signature across the bottom, push my thumb into the pressure pad on the corner.
“Thanks,” he says. “Just business, you know? Keeps my door open, let me give guys like you the juice.”
There’s an awkward silence as he checks my penmanship. Then he nods to himself and tosses the waiver on the desk. “Good . . . good,” he says. “He waves at the dentist chair. “Have a seat.”
I slide in. The chair creaks under my weight. Its cushions cough the sour smell of old sweat. He moves in, starts strapping my arms and legs down. “You really need to do that?” I ask.
“You really need to tell me how to do my job?” He tightens the straps and drops the helmet down over my head. “Relax. It’s just a precaution. Hardly anybody seizures after a basic tele shot.” He pulls a rolling instrument tray up to the chair, sweeps an empty Chinese food container off of it.
“Good to know.” The straps dig into my arms. Warm air leaks out of the perm helmet and into my ears.
He shuffles over to a small fridge and pulls out a vial full 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?”
“Lovely.” I twist my arms against the straps and try to move my head. It bumps against the perm helmet. “You charging me extra for the hairdo?”
“Funny. Bite this.” He snatches a strip of chewed leather off the tray and shoves it in my mouth. I bite down hard, think about all the extra cash I’m gonna pull down at the factory.
The syringe is the size of a shock absorber, needle like an ice pick. It’s polished stainless and cleaner than anything in the lab. He pulls it out of a ziploc and loads it with the serum, pours the orange goo into the chamber. I watch him ease the plunger until a drop oozes from the needle. “Ready?” he says. I nod my head, knock it against the perm helmet a few times.
The needle slides through my skin and into a vein without much fuss. I grind the leather strap in my teeth. He pushes the plunger. The goo glows through my skin, lights up the vein like a neon tube. At first I don’t feel a thing. Then the pain starts, creeps into my upper arm and chest. It holes up for just a second, gathers strength and explodes.
I’m blind with it, all I see is red. The serum pillages my body, ravaging flesh and cracking bones on its way to my brain. I strain against the straps, scream like a baby. It hits my head like a glacier, freezes everything. Then I’m out.
I wake up in a pool of my own sweat, strapped into the chair. The perm helmet is off. Everything’s fuzzy and my head feels like a baloon. I glance over at the guy. He’s crumpled in a chair, sweat beaded on his brow, eyes like two empty wells. “What's wrong?” I croak. My lips are thick and clumsy.
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 for exactly two seconds. 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. “What did you do to me?”
He stands up, lifts his latex-clad 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. The lab becomes startlingly clear. 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 guy’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.”
“I can reverse it, calm down. It’s no big deal.” He 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 is free.
“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 shreds 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. 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 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 and wait for the pain. Nothing happens. The gun failed. I straighten up. 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 white hair. He hold 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 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 centered 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 guy pushes himself up off the pile of garbage, wincing as sharp bits of plastic and metal stick in his palms. “You calmed down? I can’t fix this if I’m dead.” Purple-gloved 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 shoes, hunched gait, 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 robotic surgeon attached to it hanging limp and askew like a broken umbrella. The vitals display at the head of the table is cracked and leaking a thick green ooze. “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 supersoldier stuff. Unlocks old genes, dormant stuff from previous generations, other species. I’d guess some olfactory enhancement, maybe hearing. Definitely boosted musculature 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. But you signed the waiver.”
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 to hip, and nods. “Yeah, arborist. Definitely. I think I know a guy who can get you in at one of the pole farms, under the radar. It’s the best I can do.”
I take a step back from the mirror, feeling my new legs under me, the depth of my chest, the strength of my fingers. “We’re gonna have to do better than that,” I say. It seems obvious, now. The celebrities, the factory wage slaves, the crackdown. I turn to face the doctor, one awkward step at a time. “There’s no helping me, but we can help everyone else.”