by Jonathon Sullivan
"Out comes the optix, platypus girl," the pilot said, pulling the stick on the mosquito.
Blind. But she still had her primary sense.
And she had a gig, thank the Holy Homeobox Domain for small favors. Maybe she'd make rent.
The mosquito 'thopter pulled away from the salt-smelling riverfront, up into a sky reeking of ozone, sulfide, a crazy mix of nanospecies, just a whiff of nasty nitrox, bird pheromones, and clouds ready to spit their acid insult back into the eye of the city that poisoned them. The two men who had hustled her into the mosquito came with their own smell-soups, of course. But like all the other whiffs in the air their scents were almost choked out by the aroma of the engine's biotank, splitting cellulose and pumping bitter-sour-smelling ATP into the hard-pounding, hypercatalytic drive train of insect flight muscle. The tireless gunk lifted the craft into the sky with a soft buzz of nanofilm wings.††††††
The flight lasted ten minutes. The pilot had a
sweet-fruity personality, a little too much to be pleasant, like a bowl of
bananas about to go rotten. The Musky guy next to her had strong, solid
overtones, like bitter black coffee. No licorice harmonics: Musky was
Tune-free, a rarity for guys in his business.
Banana Man set the mosquito down bumpy but safe.
The motor, sculpted chunks of rubbery bumblebee tissue grown out of vats of
transfected yeast, took a breather. It smelled salty-hot now, like Korean
pickles. Musky Man gripped
They walked over a landscape of grassy smells
punctuated by the telltale vinegar aroma of buried antipersonnel mines.
Stone steps under her feet, Musky Man's grip on her elbow growing firmer. Two men stood close, bracketing them, probably on either side of the unseen door.
"Whatcha got, Sniff Witch?" The man to her right smelled like rancid cheese, Tune and half-treated gonococcus. He spoke in the harmonics of disgust.
"This here's Benny's guest," Musky
said, and released his grip to pat
She got a whiff of anger out of Musky. Gono-Cheese gave off a sharp stench of hate. The man to her left smelled amused.
"You go in for Duckbills, Leo?," Gono-Cheese asked. "Sniff-bitch's nostrils look a little too roomy for that short stringy Thang you got."
A spike of sour rage-toxin pumped out of Musky
Leo's pores, and
"That'll do," said the third man, and
Now the third man, who had a salt-alkali aura, spoke to her. "Empty your pockets, Nose. Don't let me find no lethals on you."
"Hey, what's that?"
She felt his fingers at her throat, fondling the pendant that hung there.
"It's medicine," she said. "It's for...allergies."
"Nose spray, huh?" The Salty Guy snickered. "I woulda thought you'd need more than that. Give it over."
"If I have an allergic reaction, I won't be able to read. I could even die."
"Then you'll die."
Salty Guy's pheromones played
"Now stick out your hand, Nose,"
Gono-Cheese commanded. A second later,
"Blood's clean," Gono-Cheese said. "She's not carryin'."
"All right, Nose. You're set." Salty snickered again. "Enjoy your stay."
Musky led her through the door, into a dwelling
that smelled of vastness, cigar smoke, Tune and sex. After that first
impression, the odors of a half-dozen interconnected security systems reached
her: the walls had just received a new coat of video skin, there were three species
of latent assault nanos afloat in the air, and the carpet was a living
transfect, a hay-smelling hybrid of yeast and rye with a touch of jellyfish
thrown in, probably wet-wired into the house AI, capable of squirting
God-knew-what into an intruder. The armed bad boys
"That man doesn't like you," she said.
"Tell me about it," Musky said. "He's bad blood. One of these days I'm going to have make him Therm E-Q. Real slow, like. But that's between us."
"Sorry. None of my business."
"'S'okay. He shouldn't give you lip just on account of you're a transfex. You're a professional, like me. Here to do a job for Benny Bird. He should respect that."
"Yeah. Also, it pisses me off, on account of my sister Jenny's a transfex. A Nose, like you."
She would have responded, but something else had
her attention now. One of the species of indoor security nanos was an illegal
strain. Because of the defect that made her half Nose, half Chemengineer,
Musky Leo led her up a staircase, through
another checkpoint, and into a room that reeked of fear, hate and greed.
She felt a table before her, and put her hands out where they could be seen.
"What kind of shit is this?" came a voice from one of the transfex, seated across from
"If it was cut already, we wouldn't need to be here, Rufus." Benny Bird spoke now, in a raspy, scratchy voice that came out metallic and hard, like deeply etched steel. She knew it was Benny's voice because it came from the man right next to her, who reeked of bird flesh. As a prominent criminal celebrity, Benny Bird had blogs, action figures, t-shirts, and a webcast talk show. She had often seen his blurry image on Net kiosks, sporting his expensive 'fex: craniofacial phenotype of a peregrine, complete with the cruel beak; and broad, glorious, useless wings stretching from his shoulders.
"This is a formality--one you should get used to, Rufus. It's getting to be all the fashion."
"Ain't the fashion with me, Benny." Rufus had a deep, rumbly voice, but despite the
thick masculine veil of his heavy, overly tart cologne,
†"Nothing's been agreed to." Benny's solid, meaty smell said dominance; he was in charge. "Do you want to do business or not, Rufus?"
A scent of rage and submission trickled from Rufus' direction, like weak urine. It was oddly brief, quickly smothered by the same bland aroma as before. "Let's see your license," he said.
When she didn't respond, Rufus tapped the table impatiently. "Hey! You with the frying pan stickin' outta your face! I asked to see your license!"
"She doesn't have a license, and you know it," Benny Bird said. "Do you really think I'd bring a licensed Nose to this meeting? Why don't we just invite the Heat?"
"If she ain't got a license, how can you trust her?"
"She's been used by other outfits. She's recommended. Reliable."
"Oh? Which outfits?"
"That's not our topic today," Benny Bird rasped. "Are we going to do business or not?"
Rufus didn't relent. "How come you ain't got a license, skillet face?"
"I'm not licensed because I'm defective."
She felt malignant satisfaction emanating from Rufus. "You're defective?"
"Yes. Not as a Nose--I can take readings fine. But I'm not a pure Nose. There was an error at the Womb Tomb. I was transfected twice by mistake. I was supposed to be a Nose, but I also got some of the genetic material for a Chemengineer. Noses and Chemengineers are similar transfex--hightened molecular awareness. But the double hit screwed up my fetal immune system. My lymphoid tissues are unusually hyperactive and sensitive, and try to cook up all kinds of weird antibodies and aminanos. When that happens, I can develop very severe and unpredictable allergic reactions during readings."
Rufus made a sound of sputtering laughter. "Yeah? I bet when you get a snotty nose, you really get a snotty nose!"
Laughter erupted from Rufus and his two guys, seated on the other side of the table. Benny's smell had gone from impatient to flat pissed.
The laughter from Rufus and his boys died down. After a moment of pointed silence, Benny said, "If you need it, we'll de-confiscate it. For now, I think we've wasted enough time. Rufus, you going to deal or not?"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. What do I care some sniff-bitch sits in?"
"I've got thirty-six kigs of fresh Tune," Benny Bird said. "I want to unload it now. You say you've got what it takes to market it."
"Cheesecake," Rufus said, and smelled like he believed it. She caught the anise aroma of fresh Tune, heard him snort it. Deep addiction.
"Looking at your sales figs," Benny said, "I've got to believe you might be able to spread twenty kigs before the Tune went sour. Thirty-six--that's pushing it. Even in your fief, demand's not that high."
Bolstered by the rush, Rufus emanated self-satisfaction. "Tune moves fast. I'll find somewhere to put it before it turns."
"Especially now that you've got control of Walrus's territory."
"Nature abhors a vacuum. Somebody splats
Walrus, leaves him smeared all over his own castle, what am I going to do? Let
any old ronin move in and take over his market? No. And with you right next
door, and having worked so close with Walrus, you were just the natural choice
to fill his shoes. Am I right?" Now
Rufus, on the other hand, kept making smells that reversed themselves the next instant. Something very twisted was going on. Benny Bird fixing to swoop on Rufus, Rufus somehow playing games with her nose.
"You needed a hand," Rufus said. "I was there for you."
Benny Bird laughed, a squawking, metallic sound. "Oh, yeah, Mr. Rufus, you were right there, ready to lend me a hand by taking over Walrus' very profitable turf."
"I didn't say I was some kind of
saint," Rufus said, and
"You didn't have to."
"Ah. Now I get it. That's why the Nose, eh, Benny? You think I did Walrus. Well here's the truth, for the record: I did not kill Walrus, nor did I order him killed."
And sometimes that would happen. Even when people had nothing to lose by being truthful, they would consider lying anyway. It was burned into the board, a genetic and altogether human predisposition to consider the potential advantages of misdirection.
Quickly, she scanned up and down the molecular harmonics, found Rufus' cologne, and took a closer look. For the most part, it was pedestrian: cheap isopropyl carrier, synthromes, a touch of animal musk. But one set of molecules didn't look quite right. At first whiff, she'd thought them a cheap floral additive, but on closer examination she found synthetic groups. These molecules were nanospores, cooked up to look organic to a cursory whiff, but really† a set of machines capable of folding into a range of shapes to neutralize the biochemical signature of a lie.
"I'm waiting for a reading, Nose," Benny Bird said.
"Make him say it again."
"What the fuck is this?" Rufus gave of a spike of panic, quickly dampened into mere anxiety.
"I need him to say it again, to get a
"So say it, Rufus."
"I already said it."
"The Nose wants you to say it again. Tell me you didn't do Walrus. Say it ain't so, Rufus."
A long pause ensued, as Rufus' intelligent cologne argued with his skin over what kind of molecular message to send to the world.
Then he spoke. "I didn't do Walrus."
"He's lying," she said.
"Is that so?" A cloud of self-satisfaction, excitement and bloodlust came out of Benny Bird. At her back, she could smell Musky and Benny's other men tensing into readiness. Rufus spiked panic again; again it damped down to anxiety. And something else...
"Green light," Rufus said.
The room exploded into chaos and ungodly noise,
smells of blood and fear and assault nanos. Screams erupted from Rufus' two
boys, followed by the stench of their dying. A second later, Benny Bird let out
a long, agonized shriek, a hideous sound, like a two hundred pound chicken
caught in a food disposal. He gave off the smell to match: flesh and feathers
dissolving at the peptide level. Assault nanos were digesting Benny alive. The
sound of automatic gunfire slapped at
A strong hand wrapped around her arm and yanked her from her chair just as she felt the first touch of the nanos on her chest. As Musky pulled her from the room, the burning began, an itchy warmth that took just a few seconds to flower into full-blown agony.
"It's on me!" she cried.
"It's on me, too," Musky said, grunting as he pulled her up another stairwell, and she could smell the pain on him, mingling with the scent of his degrading flesh. "But not very damn much, or we'd be puddles by now. Hold on."
A burst of noise pounded at her eardrums as Musky sprayed his weapon at an intruder somewhere in the darkness. Then he seized her again and pulled her along.
They passed through a suite of empty rooms stale
with the smells of liquor, sex and Tune.
"Where is it? Where is it? Where the fuck -- there!"
He groaned, and gave off a strange olfactory stew of pain and relief. A second later she felt it herself as Musky Leo applied something to her chest. It felt like having a fire on her skin put out with scalding water.
The sound of gunfire and exploding Claymores reached through the walls from every direction.† Outside the dogs barked rage and alarm, then yelped pain and death.
"They're on the grounds," Leo said,
"What's happening?" she asked, and tried to control her panic and pain. Assault nanos had chewed a broad, deep hole into her right breast and pectoral muscle. She felt her airways swelling up, and realized her immune system had gone to red alert.
"I'd like to know that myself," came a voice from the other end of the room. A burst of fear from Leo melted into cold rage.
"Rufus whacked Benny Bird," he said.
"What?" The voice was surprised, but the smell didn't match.
"He musta planted nanos in his guys. He gave a signal and they just...melted. Exploded. Ate from the inside out. Whaddaya call 'em...Protease assault nanos. Look at my goddam face! And I just got a touch. Benny got sprayed bad. And two of our boys turned traitor--Larry and Smiley. Started shootin' up our guys right on the spot. We was lucky to get out of there."
"What the hell is she doing here?"
"I brought her, on account of she works for Benny, and she wasn't dead yet. On account of if we ever get outta this, she can testify to the Commission and tell 'em what Rufus done."
"You're some kinda optimist, Leo," the
voice said, and by now
"I told you what happened. Now you tell me--how'd they get past you?"
"Hey, wait a minute, Leo--"
"How could you let them in the fuckin' house? You guys were outside! How'd they get on the grounds?"
"The Castle AI's wasted! Rufus' guys must have hacked in and--"
"No way, shithead,
Leo smelled like bloodlust, but
"...just back off, Leo!"
"You were supposed to spot blood plants. So how did Rufus smuggle in two throwaways loaded with assault nanos? How come you made it up here, but none of your guys? And don't you have a key to the AI? No, don't move, dickhead! How come you didn't look surprised when I told you Larry and Smiley turned traitor? See, I'm thinkin' maybe you did Rufus a favor."
††††††††††† "Don't say another fuckin' word, Leo."
"I won't, on account of we're through talkin'."
WHAP! The sound of a single gunshot slapped at
"Never did trust him," Leo said. "Told ya I'd make him Therm E-Q someday. Someday is today, on account of I think he was Rufus' boy."
Through the walls, they heard gunfire and shouting, growing closer. Leo took her arm again and pulled her along.
"We gotta try to make the keep," he
said, and they humped another stairwell. It was slow going, because
Most of these guys are Tuneheads.
Addicted to Tune.
As Leo lugged her up the stairs and the shouting
and gunfire drew closer, as her brain struggled for clarity in a storm of fear,
sickness and hypoxia, the Chemengineer in
Youíre on, she told it. Once she opened the gate, the clone would expand beyond her control, but hell, she'd already lost control. If her lymphos were going to run riot, she might as well try to aim the stampede at a target. Just before she passed out she watched the rest of her hyper-programmable immune system jump on the bandwagon, quickly shuffling gene cassettes to emulate the selected clone.
When she was conscious again, she smelled Leo and gunpowder, she heard screaming and gunfire, and she was sneezing her motherfucking brains out.
Fire sprayed out of Leo's weapon, and snot
sprayed out of
Leo was shouting at somebody. "You can't hold them down there. We've got to get to the keep!"
"There's just a few of them! I can see Rufus!"
"Get up here!" Leo yelled.
"We can--" WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! "-aaargh!"
Spraying mucus had given
On the second landing, Leo dropped her into a sneezing, snotty heap, and she heard him punching at a keypad.
"Open up, motherfucker, open up!"
"What's wrong?" she asked, wheezing.
"I can't open the hatch to the keep. Probably on account of the AI's dead. Or maybe Benny changed the code before the meeting. Crap!"
The castle had fallen into a terrifying quiet. The gunfire had ceased, and even the screaming had stopped.
"Hello up there! Anybody home?"
"Be quiet!" Leo whispered.
"You got the Nose up there!" Rufus' voice. "Send her down, and we'll leave the rest of you up there to talk to the Heat. We've got what we want. Benny's therm E-Q, and there ain't nobody left but you guys up there. Shit, you can sign on with me if you want. This is my territory now. It's done. So send her down."
She heard Musky Leo step away and a moment later a new eruption of gunfire that stopped as suddenly as it started.
"Oops," Leo said, breathing hard.
She sneezed. "What's going on?" she asked, and her voice was a rasp.
"Just Rufus and one of his guys," Leo said, and his voice rattled with pain. "I think we all just, whaddaya call it, annihilated each other. Just us two and them two. Only I guess Rufus wins, on account of I just got shot in the chest. Fuck!"
He wheezed and gurgled and she heard him slump to the floor.
"Hey!" Rufus sounded closer now. "I can hear her up there. One of those nasty allergy attacks, eh? Listen, Nose, I don't wanna whack you. I think you're pretty good! Whiffed me right through my newfangled cologne! Let me put you..put you...put you on retainer! Come on down, we'll get out of here...out of here... before the Heat shows! Guys, you let her come down, I won't have to come up there and...I won't..."
She heard another voice from the stairwell now, between sneezes. "Boss, I don't...I don't....I don't feel too good."
"Shut the fuck up," Rufus said. "They can hear...they can hear..."
"Don't feel too...too...too.. aaayayayayaya.... aaargggh!"
A loud thump then, a sound exactly like somebody cracking his head against the stairs. Then Rufus: "What the...what the... Bitch! What the fuck...the fuck...what the fuck did you do?"
A burst of gunfire then, and she heard bullets from the stairwell chewing at the wall behind her. She crouched blind and helpless behind Musky Leo's dead body, knowing it wouldn't matter, knowing Rufus would make it up the last flight to punch holes in her just before he died, and thatís what you get when you work for a bunch of Tuneheads isnít it?
And Rufus did make it up the last flight, gun spraying wild and stupid in every direction, and then he crumped somewhere a few feet away, and she heard him going ayayayayaya, and heard his melon banging rhythmically against the floor, skull cracking as each convulsion took him, because that's what happened to Tuneheads who didn't take their Tune, or to Tuneheads who inhaled snotty aerosolized Tune antisera that got into their bloodstream and ate all their Tune, just sucking all that sweet synthetic neuropeptide right out of their synapses.
Instant withdrawal seizure.
She kept sneezing for a long time, and that at least kept the air moving in and out for awhile. But soon the swelling in her tissues took charge again, and she began to choke. Her brain started to do funny things, dreaming funny dreams. But just before one of the dreams got really interesting she woke up, smelling a room rich with life and death, sweet air running through her nostrils.
"Is that better?" somebody said, really close. "The medicine should be working. Can you breathe?"
"Yeah," she croaked. She tasted catechols and synthroids swimming through her, restoring order, bringing her immune system to heel. "Yeah, I can breathe."
She could smell, too. Men and women were running around, talking police talk, making police smells. Over there she could whiff a lactate-rich, Tune-poor Rufus, deader than dog shit. And over there Musky Leo, no longer Musky but not quite rotten, cooling fast. Therm E-Q.
They couldn't figure how to put an oxygen mask on her. Finally, they just had her hold it under her nostrils to let it waft up, O's to her nose. As they put her on the
stretcher and carried her down the stairwell of the Donjon, Shari breathed sweet air and told herself she needed to find a new gig.
Maybe something in aroma therapy.