The creature Carl saw when he opened the door was filthy. Its stink was even stronger than the odors Carl had more or less gotten used to already. It was filthy but it looked well-fed, which was why Carl did not shut the door in its face and the piece of cardboard it was holding in front of its chest saying ARM/LEG.
“Roll up the jeans, I want to take a look at your ankle,” Carl said and moved the piece of chewing tobacco from his right cheek to the left. The creature stood and stared. Carl sighed.
“Poor bastard,” he said and stepped outside the house. He squatted in front of the creature who still hadn’t moved and lifted its left trouser leg. The ankle looked perfect. Carl had a waiting list for ankles. He let the grimly trouser leg fall back and stood up.
“Come in,” he said and nudged it gently towards the open door. The creature grinned idiotically and stepped into the house, which was also Carl’s office. He was among the lucky ones who worked from home and not in the fields and gardens.
“Pearl,” Carl called. “We’ve got a new jack.” He put a hand on the creature’s shoulder and led him left, down a short hall with doors on both sides, three on each. The house had belonged to some big shot something or other that Carl hadn’t bothered to remember when he moved in with his wife Pearl, who now emerged from the last room on the right.
“Hi there,” she said with that warm smile she still had even after all those years in the business, which even Carl, hardened from his military career in the past would admit was not the most pleasant one. Yet Pearl still treated the jacks and jennies like human beings and had a good word and a smile for every one of them even if they couldn’t appreciate it.
“What’s your name, honey?” she asked and without waiting for a response took the creature’s left hand off the sign and led him into the room she’d come out of. The hand only had a thumb, Pearl saw. The other had the full set of fingers. She sighed. The boy had less than a year to live. “You’ll like it here, I promise.” The creature did not respond.
She pointed to the bed nearest the window and led him by the hand into the bathroom where she took his clothes off, made him sit in the tub and bathed him thoroughly. They lived on the streets or squatted in abandoned houses, of which there was a choice these days. Poor zombies, Pearl thought every time they got a new arrival. Poor, poor zombies.
When she brought the creature whose name they had no way of obtaining back into the room, dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of knee-length khakis, Carl was waiting with a rectangular box half his height next to the bed.
“You just sit down,” Pearl told the boy as she led him to the bed. “It will be quick and then you’ll have a nice long sleep.” She patted him on the back and pressed his shoulder until he sat on the bed.
The box moved forward on hidden wheels. A hole opened up in the front, near the bottom. The box waited. Carl stepped around it and once again squatted in front of the creature, which now looked more like the twenty-something boy it had been once when it had still had all its memories. He took his left foot in his hand and held it horizontal. The box moved closer, until the foot disappeared into the hole up to an inch above the ankle. A metal shutter closed around it. The creature didn’t move. Carl stood up and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. He knew it didn’t hurt but the touch comforted him if not the zombie.
The box started buzzing. Pearl stood by her husband and put her hand into his. He squeezed it, eyes on the hole where the boy’s leg was held fast by the shutter. The buzz intensified. A muscle on the boy’s face, under his right eye, twitched. Ten seconds later the buzz stopped. The shutter opened and released the leg that now ended in a flat stump covered in something red and shiny. The hole closed and the box turned around. The boy did not move, one foot on the floor, the other missing, the stump hanging in the air.
“I’ve got a delivery to make,” Carl told Pearl and after a quick peck on the forehead he followed the box out of the room. Pearl made the boy lie down, checked the stump and concluded it looked well. Organic seals they called them. Perfect for the multiple amputations zombies went through at the end of their productive lives.
“You get some sleep now and when you wake up, I’ll bring you some breakfast, okay?” She stroked the boy’s forehead and got up. The seal had a slow-release powerful painkiller in it. The boy would sleep through the night as his wound healed.
The light flickered and went out. Marina flinched. She giggled to mask her embarrassment.
“It seems, dear friends and neighbors, that somebody is out to get me,” she said, grinning at the screen. “I should be either afraid or excited and I think for now I’m opting for excited. But if I suddenly disappear or it gets dark, be afraid. Be very afraid!”
The light flickered again and went out, erasing her grin. Marina glanced at the clock. She had a couple of minutes to go and her battery was full but she had suddenly lost all desire to talk to her fans.
“You know, folks, I think this will be all for today. Sorry for cutting it short but you know how it is, sitting alone in the dark, talking to a bunch of invisible people.” She shivered and didn’t bother to mask it. The darkness made her voice sound hollow, as if it sucked the life out of the sounds as soon as they left her mouth. Marina felt the emptiness of the room with her skin. Her hairs stood on end. She made an effort to focus on recording. “So! I’ll see you next week. Have a good one and stay strong!”
She hit the button to end the recording and leaned back in her chair. It felt good to have something solid behind her back. Marina swung slowly around on the chair. The room was completely dark—she always drew the blinds tightly when she recorded and it was almost midnight. There was something weird about this darkness. It was thick and tense, so thick that Marina found she was having trouble breathing. Or it could be panic. Whatever it was, she could almost see the darkness swirling around her, sprouting tentacles that wove around the chair, pressing her, tightening their grip. The screen of her laptop exploded in brilliant yellow. Startled, Marina pushed herself back in the chair towards the center of the room.
She had to shield her eyes for a few seconds, that’s how strong the light was. Then her eyes adjusted and she peeked from behind her palms. Light. The screen of her laptop was all light, pouring out in a rich yellow flood, dispersing the darkness. Marina found she could breathe normally again and dragged her chair closer to the desk. The little wheels creaked, making her hair stand on end. She ignored that. The screen shone. Marina couldn’t take her eyes of it. There was nothing else but light. Nothing left from the desktop, only light. If this was a hacking, then hackers were getting weird.
The chair inched closer and closer to the desk until the armrests met the wooden edge. Marina had not realized she had been moving. Now she peered into the screen. Nothing but light. She peered closer and closer. Her nose should have touched the screen but instead it went through it. Her eyes followed. She was in the light now and she hadn’t noticed she was also in the screen. There were hints of shapes here. This was somewhere.
With a gasp, Marina drew back from the screen. She looked around, putting one hand on her chest in an impulsive attempt to keep her heart where it belonged although right now it sounded like it didn’t want to be there. This was her room. Her office. Everything normal except the light coming from the laptop. And the fact that the power was still off. Marina rubbed her face and leaned over the desk again, trying to peek into the light without moving into it. There was nothing, just light.
“Oh, to hell with it,” Marina murmured and poked her head into the screen. She heard distant rattling when her chair rolled back as she stood up and gripped the edge of the desk so she could move further into the light. The hints of shapes became clearer. This was a room. A supply room with shelves and stacks of things on them. Marina pushed further forward and she lost her grip when her upper body disappeared into the screen. She fell head first and hit the nearest stack of shelves before sliding down to the floor.
Heart still racing, Marina looked up to where she had come from. There was the briefest flicker of light and then there was nothing. There was solid wall and nothing else.
“Fuck,” she whispered, looking around. “Fuck!”
This was a supply room. The light was scarce but there, enough for Marina to see blankets, towels, rolls of what looked like bandage and lots of unidentifiable stuff that suggested she was in a clinic or a hospital. The door was opposite the wall from which marina had fallen.
She sat where she was for a few seconds and got up slowly. Straining her ears for any sound of human presence—or inhuman, for that matter, since she had no idea where she was—Marina stepped carefully towards the door. When she reached it, she did what every movie protagonist did in this situation—she pressed her ear to the door and listened. Nothing. She listened some more. The only sound she could discern was the quiet hum of the lights in the supply room.
“Okay,” she said and took a deep breath. She let it out. “You’re a reporter working on a story. You got lost. You’ve done it before.”
She turned the handle only now realizing the door might be locked. It wasn’t. The door swung smoothly in and let Marina out in a hallway that was devoid of any life. Here, the lights were brighter but only just. Such dim lighting did not fit with the idea of a hospital but everything else did—the room, the hallway, and the unmistakable though hard to describe feeling that this is a medical facility of some kind.
Marina stood in the hallway unsure which way to go. A door opened further down the hallway, making up her mind for her. She leapt to the wall and flattened her back against it. The wall couldn’t exactly hide her from view but it would give her a few seconds to get her story ready.
A second later she found it would not be necessary. Two women came into view, one pushing a gurney with a young man on it, and the other one walking by her with a clipboard in her hands.
“Off to the chop shop,” the one with the clipboard said. The other one looked down at the man, who was staring straight ahead without blinking. She sighed.
“Such a waste,” she said.
“I wouldn’t say waste,” the other countered. “He made a lot of people happy.”
“Yeah, and look at him now.”
The women passed by Marina without noticing her and continued down the hallway. She stared after them for a while, and then looked at herself. The red shirt—bright red shirt—and khakis plus the mass of blonde hair made her as noticeable as a spider on a vanilla cake. But they hadn’t seen her. They hadn’t pretended not to see her, they hadn’t seen her. A cold shiver ran down her spine.
“Hi there,” someone said and she swung around almost losing her balance.
A boy lounged against the opposite wall. He looked about fifteen, tall and stringy, and he looked like he knew the place.
“Hi,” Marina said. “I got lost. I’m a reporter and—”
“Don’t bother,” the boy said. “You came through a screen, right?”
Marina’s jaw dropped.
“I came the same way,” the boy said and crossed the hall.
“I’m John,” he said, offering her his hand. She shook it, overwhelmed by a sudden dizziness. His hand was warm. He was real. “Come, I’ll show you around,” he said
“Show me… What is this place?” Marina said as he led her down the hallway and into what looked like a waiting area, with rows of empty chairs stretching from wall to wall.
“It’s a transplantation center,” John said and settled on a chair at the end of the row that was farthest from the hallway. “Let’s sit here. I know they can’t see me but it feels more private somehow.”
“What do you mean they can’t see you?” Marina said, settling next to him.
“I mean they can’t. We’re invisible to them. Like ghosts.” He looked at her with a scientific sort of curiosity, as though he had a catalogue of reactions to this statement and was now waiting for the latest additions.
Marina was not original. She was too shocked to bother with originality. She frowned and then she shook her head.
“I don’t understand.”
John shrugged and ran his hand through his hair, cropped so short the skin showed.
“There’s nothing to understand. They can’t see us. That’s it.”
“Okay,” Marina said. She would just add this weird fact to the rather bigger weird fact of her being here in the first place. “So, where is this? Where are we?”
“Must be an alternative reality.” He had thought about it long and hard it was obvious. And he must have discussed it with others.
“Are there others like us?” Marina asked, holding back a hysterical giggle that had bubbled up her throat. She cleared it loudly.
“Not anymore,” John said. “They all went out and when you leave this place, you… You kind of just drift away. Disappear. I saw it happen twice.”
Marina stared at him.
The boy nodded.
“There is no going back?” She spoke slowly, her throat suddenly dry, her tongue thick and uncooperative.
John shook his head and looked away.
“It’s a one-way tunnel,” he said quietly.
Marina shot out of the chair and started pacing, her arms wrapped around her chest, squeezing tightly. She was stuck in a transplantation center with a 15-year-old boy and she couldn’t go back. It was probably a nightmare.
“So what’s with the transplantations?” Since she was dreaming, Marina figured she might make the best of it. And then, when she woke up, she’d write it down. This was way too weird even for her.
“They transplant memories.”
Marina stopped in her tracks.
The boy shrugged.
“They have robots.”
Marina narrowed her eyes at him. He was obviously bored.
“How long have you been here?”
“Two years. But I’m too chicken to leave and just die.”
Marina sat in the nearest chair overwhelmed by a sudden exhaustion that had appeared out of nowhere. It was probably the shock.
“Okay, tell me everything.”
John looked up at her with eyes full of fear and desperation. All his confidence and the boredom had popped like a soap bubble.
“The robots run the place,” he said. “And it’s not even half as cool as we thought it would be.”
The young woman on the operating table fidgeted impatiently with the end of the green sheet she lay on. This was her first transplant and she couldn’t contain her excitement. She tried to be still and keep her eyes on the ceiling but again and again she found herself peeking at the table next to hers and the figure lying on it.
It was a man who, unlike the woman, lay absolutely still, staring at the ceiling unblinkingly. If it wasn’t for the regular rise and fall of his chest, she would have thought he was dead. The operator had told her they do not use anesthetics on the donors but she didn’t believe that. Nobody alive would lie so still on an operating table if they were not dead or heavily anesthesized.
“Hello, Violet,” the operator said, startling her. She had not heard it come in—it rolled silently on its soft wheels.
“Hello,” Violet said. Panic gripped her, catching her unawares. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh, yes,” the operator said in its warm, melodic voice. It took the man’s arm and something inside it started humming. “We will begin shortly. How are you feeling?”
Violet was feeling weirder than ever. The transplant was a gift from her father, a big man in fresh fruit, a pillar of the community and the richest man in town. Violet had turned 18 two days earlier.
“I’m okay.” She propped herself on her elbows and looked to the left, unable to restrain her curiosity any longer. “How is he?”
The operator turned. Violet couldn’t suppress a shudder. Looking at it from behind was bad enough—it looked like the metal skeleton of a human—but from the front it was even worse because nobody had bothered with a face. The head was not even remotely humanlike. It was simply a rectangular collection of pieces of metal and wires.
“He is in top shape,” the operator said, taking her left wrist gently in its claws. “And so are you,” it said after a few seconds. “Shall we?”
“I guess,” Violet said and giggled nervously. She wasn’t sure she wanted this man’s memory anymore. Everyone had assured her nothing could go wrong but it was harder to believe them on this table, next to someone who looked if not completely dead, then brain dead. How did you extract memories from a brain dead person?
A thin white wire extended from the body of the operator to the head of the donor. It stuck to his forehead.
“Please lie still,” the operator said and Violet lay back on the table waiting for her wire, which came promptly. It stuck to her skin but did not pierce it as she was afraid it would. It just stuck there, a tiny white tentacle whose end wasn’t even sharp. She closed her eyes.
Laughter echoed in her ears, her own laughter. She was laughing so hard tears were streaming down her face but she couldn’t stop. Reggy was chasing his tail with the fierce determination of a policeman chasing a murderer. Violet fell to the ground, still laughing. The thump distracted Reggy and he rushed to her.
“No, no, no, not on the face!” Violet squealed by the retriever ignored her and slobbered all over her face. “Ugh, disgusting! Go away!”
Reggy did not go away, Reggy stayed and tried to lick her some more. She gave up and hugged him close to her, burying her face in his soft fur, listening to his frantic heartbeat, overcome with pure, uncomplicated happiness.
She opened her eyes. Her face was wet. She lifted a hand and touched the wetness. Tears. She had cried in her sleep.
“How do you feel?” the operator asked. The wire was gone, so was the one to the donor. His face was wet, too. He was still staring at the ceiling but he had cried, like her. Violet shifted on the table. For a second she had felt guilty about robbing this man of a happy memory. But he didn’t need them. He was a zombie and zombies were only good for two things: memories and body parts. That’s how Violet was raised. That’s how all children were raised. And none of them had a dog. Dogs had died out completely, wiped out by an artificially created virus a decade ago.
“I feel fine,” she said. The family had had a dog when she had been a baby. She had seen pictures. A golden retriever. Sometimes she wanted to have a dog so much it hurt. Her parents knew this and gave her a dog the only way they knew how in this dogless world. “Thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure,” the operator said. Another robot, this one looking like a slim fridge with arms, appeared from wherever it was hiding and stood by Violet’s head. “Dax will accompany you to your room.”
Violet sat up and waited for a head rush or queasiness or something else. There was nothing. She felt perfectly fine and refreshed, and happy. She remembered the walk with the dog very clearly. The man must have loved his dog.
The operator brought a stretcher to the table and moved the man using its arms like levers. The man rolled over on the stretcher without a sound, without a movement. The operator wheeled him away before Violet could gather the courage to ask how he was.
“When you’re ready,” the fridge-like Dax said. Violet stepped into the slippers waiting for her by the table and left the operating room accompanied by the gently humming Dax.
“That’s how they do it,” John said gloomily, ignoring Violet who passed through him. Marina had jumped aside when the skeleton robot and the stretcher with the man had come out. Invisibility took a lot of getting used to, she was discovering.
They had watched the transplantation from the front row—doors and walls were only substantial if you wanted them to be, John had told Marina. They had seen the memory projected on a screen above the heads of the donor and the receiver. The robots were careful not to feed their patients any disturbing images, John had explained.
“It’s expensive and people are still afraid of them. They have to be careful if they don’t want to lose their clients.”
“What do they do with the money?” Marina asked.
“Pay for maintenance,” John said with a shrug. “Robot maintenance engineers are the richest bastards in this world. They’re not even real engineers. It’s more like a title. Everyone wants to be a maintenance engineer but most of the people here grow food.”
“And what happens to the donors?”
John made a face. A chill ran up Marina’s spine and lodged itself in her brain.
“Yep. Come on.”
Tiny blue and green LED lights flickered on the walls like hundreds of genetically modified fireflies. From time to time, a single red light appeared on one of the walls and the first person to spot it and call “Red!” got a free drink.
“Red!” Alisha yelled and clapped her hands. One was milk-white and the other the color of pine honey. “I’m so good!”
“Whatever. Check out my new foot.” Amanda lifted her leg and wiggled the toes of the foot that was deep brown and too large of a size for a girl the size of Amanda.
“No!” Alisha gasped in delight. “You got a male foot!”
“Yep.” Amanda moved the limb this way and that, relishing the sight. She lifted her other leg. That foot was much lighter but the calf, bare under her knee-length skirt was striped white, red, and black. The other calf was all white but the knee was brown, almost the same shade as the new foot.
“Oh, you are so extreme,” Alisha said enviously, the free drink that the barman had brought her immediately forgotten. “I wish I had your money.”
Amanda shrugged and took a sip from the free drink, which turned out to be a vanilla vodka and bourbon cocktail. Weak stuff.
“The boxos are always looking for new engineers. You can do it with two weeks of training, I’ve told you.”
Alisha started shaking her head.
“They give me the creeps, Mand, you know that.”
“Oh, well,” Amanda said and lifted her feet again. “Suit yourself.” She stretched the limbs, one a size six and the other a size eight, and relaxed them. “Some things are worth spending 10 hours a day around boxos.”
Alisha looked down thoughtfully at her legs, brown all the way from hip to foot. It was boring but it was safer. Boxos did not give first and final warnings when an engineer made a mistake. They sent them straight to the chop shop.
“Nah,” she said. “I’d rather live longer.”
“What?!” Marina stopped abruptly and turned to John. “They do what?”
The boy also stopped and sighed. They were in a dimply lit corridor in the basement of the hospital. There was a single double door ahead of them.
“They use them for parts. People around here like to have different colors, so they get hands and feet and, you know, other parts from the zombies. Fashion, kind of.”
“Zombies,” Marina said flatly. She was staring at John, the suspicion that this was not real growing and with it the dread that it could all be very real.
“Yeah, that’s what they call them. Makes sense.”
Weakness crashed down into Marina and she sank to the floor, crossing her legs. A brief image of having parts of her legs amputated to be replaced with other parts just for the color fought for attention and lost. The zombie story had occupied Marina’s available capacity.
“How does it make sense?” she said, unconsciously rubbing her thighs. The substance of her own flesh calmed her down.
Jon sat opposite her and clasped his hands over his knees.
“Well, they can’t think. Their brains are fried by electronics.”
“They are from before. Before the robots took over, when everyone was on a device all the time. It’s bad enough where we come from but here it must have been even worse. By the time they grew up they were totally incapable of thinking. So I think the robots started this fashion, you know? To find some use for the zombies. After they take everything sticking out, they keep them for organs.
“Keep them?” Marina could not force herself to ask the full question.
“Yeah, they feed them and stuff until someone needs an organ. Also, there are no devices allowed, except for the engineers.”
“Makes sense,” Marina mumbled. “So, they’re…”
“Behind those doors, yes.” John swallowed hard. “I’ve seen them so many times and it never gets better.”
Marina believed him. She believed him with all her heart, which did not need proof of what his words suggested. Her brain, however, had a different agenda.
“I want to see.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” She got up and patted her backside in case any speck of dust from the impeccably clean floor had stuck to her jeans. “Show me.”
They continued to the doors and slipped through without opening them. The doors were locked, anyway.
A long time ago, in her early teens, Marina had read an old book named “Coma”. The book was supposed to be a cautionary tale about the black market for human organs but for Marina it was the first horror book she had ever read. She never expected to see a scene from a book become a reality but now she felt as though she was in “Coma”, an updated, modern version of “Coma.”
Rows and rows of human torsos, complete with heads, stretched from wall to wall in the vast room, suspended in the air on some sort of wires. The air was very humid and warm. Some of the heads nearest to Marina and John hung down, the eyes closed, but others were raised, the eyes staring into nothing. They couldn’t think. Now they had no memories, either. No arms and legs. The male ones lacked penises, too. The female ones had no breasts.
Marina stood stock still for a few seconds, taking in the rows, the mutilated bodies, and the lifeless eyes. One of the heads that had hung down, now rose slowly and the eyes opened and blinked. Marina turned and ran through the door.
“Hey!” She heard John’s voice from a great distance. She couldn’t stop, not now, not anytime soon. She needed to get out of this place. She needed air and sun and sky. Space. She ran blindly along corridors she was seeing for the first time, still hearing John’s voice but weaker and weaker. She reached the end of a corridor and a door that looked like an emergency exit. A tiny alarm went off in her head. John had said something about going out. It was dangerous. Marina ignored the alarm and pushed the bar. The door opened. A burst of blinding light hit Marina straight in the face. She screamed.