My life becomes agony.
My Sigils are attached to the metacarpus in each hand. Mickey removes the old Red Sigils and cultivates new skin and bone over the wounds. Then he sets to installing a stolen subdermal datachip into my frontal lobe. I am told the trauma killed me and they had to restart my heart. I’ve died twice then. They say I was in a coma for two weeks, but to me it was nothing but a dream. I was in the vale with Eo. She kissed me on the forehead and then I woke and felt the stitches and the pain.
I lie in bed as Mickey tests me. He has me move marbles from one container into other containers coded by colors. I do this for what seems a lifetime.
“We are forming synapses, my darling.”
He tests me with word puzzles and tries to make me read, but I don’t know how to read. “You will have to learn that for the Institute,” he giggles.
My dreams are cruel things to wake from. In them, Eo comforts me, but when I wake, she is nothing but a fleeting memory. I am hollow as I lie in Mickey’s makeshift medical cell. An ion germ killer buzzes next to my bed. Everything is white, yet I can hear the thumping of music from his club. His girls change my diapers and empty my piss bags. A girl who never speaks bathes me three times a day. Her arms are willowy, her face soft and sad as when I first saw her sitting with Mickey at his liquid table. The wings that curl outward from her back are bound with a
crimson ribbon. She never meets my eyes.
Mickey continues to make me develop synapse connections as he repairs the scar tissue from my neural surgery. He’s all laughs and smiles and lingering touches on my forehead as he calls me his darling. I feel like one of his girls, one of the angels he sculpted for his own pleasure.
“But we must not be satisfied only with the brain,” he says. “There is much work to be done on this Ruster body of yours if we want to make you into an iron Gold.”
“And that is?”
“The golden ancestors, they call them the iron Golds. They were hard men. They stood lean and fierce upon their battlecruisers as they laid waste to the armies and republic fleets of Earth. What creatures they were.” His eyes go distant. “It took generations of eugenics and biological tampering to make them. Forced Darwinism.”
He’s quiet for a moment, and it seems an anger builds in him.
“They say Carvers will never duplicate the beauty of the Golden Man. The Board of Quality Control taunts us. Personally, I do not want to make you a man. Men are so very frail. Men break. Men die. No, I’ve always wished to make a god.” He smiles mischievously as he does some sketches on a digital pad. He spins it around and shows me the killer I will become. “So why not carve you to be the god of war?”
Mickey replaces the skin of my back and the skin of my hands where Eo applied bandages to my burns. This, he says, is not to be my real skin. It is only a homogeneous baselayer.
“Your skeleton is weak because Mars gravity is zero point three of Earth’s, my delicate little bird. Also, you have a diet deficient in calcium. Gold Standard bone density is five times stronger than naturally occurring bone density on Earth. So we will have to make your skeleton six times stronger; you must be of iron if you want to last the Institute. This will be fun! For me. Not you.”
Mickey carves me again. The agony is beyond language or comprehension.
“Someone has to dot God’s i’s.”
The next day, he reinforces the bones of my arms. Then he does my ribs, my spine, my shoulders, my feet, my pelvis, and my face. He also alters the tensile qualities of my tendons and muscle tissue. Mercifully, he does not let me wake from this last surgery for several weeks. When I
do wake, I see his girls around me applying new cultures of flesh and kneading my muscles with their thumbs.
Slowly, my skin begins to heal. I am a patchwork fleshquilt. They begin feeding me synthesized protein, creatine, and growth hormone to promote muscle growth and tendon regeneration. My body trembles in the nights and itches as I sweat through new, smaller pores. I cannot use pain medication strong enough to numb the agony, because the altered nerves must learn to function with the new tissue and my altered brain.
Mickey sits beside me on my worst nights telling me stories. It’s only then that I like him, only then that I think he is not some monster cooked up by this perverted Society.
“My profession is to create, little bird,” he says one night as we sit together in the darkness. Light from the machines bathes his face in queer shadows. “When I was young, I lived in a place they call the Grove. It was what you might think of as a circus culture. We had spectacles every night. Celebrations of color and sound and dance.”
“Sounds terrible,” I mutter sarcastically. “Just like the mines.”
He smiles softly and his eyes find that distant place. “I suppose it may seem a plush life to you. Yet there was a madness to the Grove. They made us take pills. Pills that could make us fly between the planets on wings of dust to visit the faerie kings of Jupiter and the deep mermaids of Europa. My mind always separate from body. No peace to it. No end to the madness.” He clapped his hands then. “And now I Carve the things I saw in my fever dreams, just as they always wished. I dreamed of you, I think. In they end, I suppose they’ll wish I hadn’t dreamed at all.”
“Was it a good dream?” I ask. “What?”
“The one with me.”
“No. No, it was a nightmare. One of a man from hell, lover of fire.” He’s silent for a spell.
“Why is it so horrible?” I ask him. “Life. All this. Why do they need to make us do this? Why do they treat us like we’re their slaves?”
“Power isn’t real. It’s just a word.”
Mickey ponders silently. Then he shrugs his thin shoulders. “Mankind was always enslaved, they’ll say. Freedom enslaves us to lust, to greed.
Take freedom away, and they give me a life of dreaming. They gave you a life of sacrifice, family, community. And society is stable. There is no famine. No genocide. No great wars. And when the Golds fight, they obey rules. They are … noble about it when the great houses bicker.”
“Noble? They lied to me. Said I was a pioneer.”
“And would you have been happier if you knew you were a slave?” Mickey asks. “No. None of the billion lowReds beneath Mars would be happy if they knew what the highReds knew—that they are slaves. So is it not better to lie?”
“It is better to not make slaves.”
When I am ready, he inserts a forceGenerator into my sleeping tube to simulate increased gravity on my frame. I’ve never known pain like this. My body aches. My bones and skin and muscles scream against the pressure and the change till I’m on medication that turns the scream into a dull forever-moan.
I sleep for days. I dream of home and family. Every night I wake after seeing Eo hang yet again. She sways across my mind. I miss her warmth in bed beside me, even though they give me an HC immersion mask for distraction.
Gradually, I am weaned from the pain medication. My muscles still aren’t used to the density of my bones, so my existence becomes a melodic ache. They begin to feed me real food. Mickey sits on the edge of my cot stroking my hair well into the nights. I don’t care that his fingers feel like spider legs. I don’t care that he thinks I am some piece of art, his art. He gives me something called a hamburger. I love it. Red meats and thick creams and breads and fruits and vegetables make my diet. I have never eaten so well.
“You need the calories,” Mickey coos. “You have been so strong for me; eat well. You deserve this food.”
“How am I doing?” I ask.
“Oh, the hard parts are over, my darling. You are a brilliant boy, you know. They have shown me the tapes from the other procedures where other Carvers tried this. Oh, how clumsy the other Carvers were, how weak the other subjects. But you are strong and I am brilliant.” He taps my chest. “Your heart is like that of a stallion’s. I’ve never glimpsed one like it before. You were bitten by a pitviper when you were young, I assume?”
“I was. Yes.”
“I thought so. Your heart had to adjust to counteract the effects of the poison.”
“My uncle sucked most of the poison out when I was bitten,” I say. “No,” Mickey laughs. “That’s a myth. The poison cannot be sucked
out. It still runs through your veins, forcing your heart to be strong if you want to continue to live. You are something special, just like me.”
“Then I will not die in here?” I manage.
Mickey laughs. “No! No! We are beyond that now. There will be pain. But we are past the threat of mortality. Soon we will have made man into god. Red into Gold. Even your wife would not recognize you.”
That is all I’ve ever feared.
When they take my eyes and give me ones of gold, I feel dead inside. It’s a simple matter of reconnecting the optic nerve to the “donor’s” eyes, Mickey says. A simple thing he’s done a dozen times for cosmetic purposes; the hard part was the frontal lobe surgery, he says. I disagree. There is the pain, yes. But with the new eyes, I see things I once could not. Elements are clearer, sharper, and more painful to bear. I hate this process. All it is is a confirmation of the superiority of the Golds. It takes all this to make me their physical equal. No wonder we serve them.
It’s not mine. None of this is mine. My skin is too soft, too lustrous, too faultless. I don’t know my body without scars. I don’t know the back of my own hands. Eo would not know me.
Mickey takes my hair next. Everything is changed.
It is weeks of physical therapy. Walking slowly around the room with Evey, the winged girl, I’m left to my own thoughts. Neither one of us cares much to speak. She has her demons and I have mine, so we are quiet and calm except when Mickey comes to coo about what pretty children we would make together.
One day, Mickey even brings an antique zither for me, with a soundboard of wood instead of plastic. It is the kindest thing he’s ever done. I do not sing, but I play the solemn songs of Lykos. The traditional ones of my clan that no one beyond the mine will ever have heard. He and Evey sit with me sometimes, and though I think Mickey a wretched sort of creature, I feel as though he understands the music. Its beauty. Its importance. And afterward, he says nothing. I like him then, too. At peace.
“Well, you’re a bit sterner than I first measured,” Harmony says to me one morning as I wake.
“Where have you been?” I ask, opening my eyes.
“Finding donors.” She flinches as she sees my irises. “The world does not stop because you are here,” she says. “We had work to do. Mickey says you can walk?”
“I am growing stronger.”
“Not strong enough,” she surmises, looking me over. “You look like a baby giraffe. I’ll fix that.”
Harmony takes me beneath Mickey’s club to a grungy gymnasium lit by sulfurous bulbs. I like the feel of the cold stone on my bare feet. My balance has returned, and it is a good thing, because Harmony does not offer me her arm; instead, she waves to the center of the dark gymnasium.
“We bought these for you,” Harmony says.
She points to two devices in the center of the dark space. The contraptions are silver and remind me of the suits knights wore in past centuries. The armor hangs suspended between two metal wires. “They are concentraction machines.”
I slide my body into the machine. Dry gel hugs my feet, my legs, my torso and arms and neck, till only my head is free. The machine is built to resist my movements, yet it responds even to the tiniest stimuli. The idea of building muscle is to exercise it, which is nothing more than using the muscle intensely enough to create microscopic tears in the tissue fiber. This is the pain one feels in the days after an intense workout—torn tissue—not lactic acid. When the muscle repairs the tears, it builds on itself. This is the process the concentraction machine is built to facilitate. It is the devil’s own invention.
Harmony slides the device’s faceplate over my eyes.
My body is still in the gym, but I see myself moving across the rugged landscape of Mars. I’m running, pumping my legs against the concentraction machine’s resistance, which increases according to Harmony’s mood or the location of the simulation. Sometimes I venture to the jungles of Earth, where I race panthers through the underbrush, or I take to the pocked surface of Luna before it was populated. But always I return home to Mars to run across its red soil and jump over its violent ravines. Harmony sometimes accompanies me in the other machine so I
have someone to race.
She pushes me hard, and sometimes I wonder if she’s trying to break me. I don’t let her.
“If you’re not vomiting during a workout, you’re not trying,” she says.
The days are excruciating. My body is a misery of aches from the arches of my feet to the back of my neck. Mickey’s Pinks massage me every day. There is no better pleasure in the world, but three days after beginning my training with Harmony, I wake up vomiting in my bed. I shiver and shake and hear cursing.
“There’s a science to this, you wicked little witch,” Mickey is shouting. “He will be a work of art, but not if you pour water on the paint before it’s set. Do not ruin him!”
“He must be perfect,” Harmony says. “Dancer, if he is weak in any way, the other children will butcher him like a freshmade drillBoy.”
“You are butchering him!” Mickey whines. “You are ruining him! His body cannot handle the muscle breakdown.”
“He has not objected to the treatment,” Harmony reminds him. “Because he does not know he can object!” Mickey says. “Dancer, she
has no understanding of the biomechanics involved in this. Do not let her ruin my boy.”
“He is not your boy!” Harmony sneers.
Mickey’s voice becomes softer. “Dancer, Darrow is like a stallion, one of the old stallions of Earth. Beautiful beasts that will run as hard as you push them. They will run. And run. And run. Until they don’t. Until their hearts explode.”
There is silence for a moment, then Dancer’s voice.
“Ares once told me that it is the hottest fire that forms the sternest steel. Keep pushing the boy.”
I resent two of my teachers after overhearing their words: Mickey for thinking me weak; Dancer for thinking me his tool. Only Harmony doesn’t anger me. Her voice, her eyes, seethe with an anger I feel in my own soul. She may have Dancer now, but she lost someone. The unscarred part of her face tells me that. She is no schemer like Dancer or his master, Ares. She is like me—brimming with a rage that makes all else so inconsequential.
That night I cry.
Over the next days, they feed me drugs to expedite the protein
synthesis and muscle regeneration. After my muscle tissue has recovered from the initial trauma, they train me harder than before, even Mickey— though his eyes are underlined with dark rings and his thin face is sallow, he does not object. He has grown distant these last weeks, no longer telling me stories—as though he fears what he has created, now that I’m taking fuller shape.
Harmony and I speak very little to one another, but there is a subtle shift in our relationship, some sort of primal understanding that we are the same sort of creature. But as my body grows stronger, Harmony can no longer keep up even though she is a hardened woman of the mines. That is after only two weeks. The distance between our capabilities continues to grow. After another month, she is like a child to me. Even then I do not plateau.
My body begins to change. I thicken. My muscles become strong and corded in the concentraction machine, which I now supplement with weight workouts in highGrav. Gradually, strength builds. My shoulders grow broader, rounded; I see tendons emerge in my forearms; a tense mass of hard muscles bind my torso, like armor. Even my hands, which were always stronger than the rest of me, grow more powerful in the concentraction machine. With a simple squeeze, I can pulverize rock. Mickey jumped up and down when he saw that. No one shakes my hand any longer.
I sleep in highGrav, so that when I move about on Mars, I feel fast, quick, more agile than ever before. My fasttwitch fibers form. My hands move like lightning, and when they hit the gymnasium’s human-shaped punching bag, it leaps like it’s been struck by a scorcher. I can punch through it now.
My body is becoming that of a Gold, one of the prime stock, not a Pixie, not a Bronze. This is the body of the race that conquered the Solar System. My hands are freaks. They are smooth, tanned, and dexterous, as any Gold’s should be. But there is a power in them out of proportion with the rest of me. If I am a blade, they are my edge.
My body is not all that changes. Before I sleep, I drink a tonic laden with processing enhancers and speed-listen to The Colors, The Iliad, Ulysses, Metamorphosis, the Theban plays, The Draconic Labels, Anabasis, and restricted works like The Count of Monte Cristo, Lord of the Flies, Lady Casterly’s Penance, 1984, and The Great Gatsby. I wake knowing three
thousand years of literature and legal code and history.
My last day at Mickey’s comes two months after my last surgery. Harmony smiles with me after our workout as she drops me off in my room. Music thuds in the background. Mickey’s dancers are going full tilt tonight.
“I’ll get you your clothing, Darrow. Dancer and I want to have dinner with you to celebrate. Evey will clean you up.”
She leaves me alone with Evey. Today, as always, her face is as quiet as the snow I’ve seen on the HC. I watch her in the mirror as she cuts my hair. The room is dark but for the light over the mirror. It shines from above, so she looks like an angel. Innocent and pure. But she’s not innocent, not pure. She’s a Pink. They breed them for pleasure, for the curves of their breasts and hips, for the tautness of their stomachs and the plump folds of their lips. Yet she is a girl and her spark has not yet gone out. I remember the last time I failed to protect one like her.
And me? It’s hard to look at myself in the mirror. I’m what I know the devil to be. I am arrogance and cruelty, the sort of man who killed my wife. I am Gold. And I am as cold as it.
My eyes shine like ingots. My skin is soft and rich. My bones are stronger. I feel the density in my lean torso. When Evey is done cutting the golden hair, she stands back and stares at me. I can feel her fear, and I suffer it in myself. I am no longer a human. Physically, I’ve become something more.
“You’re beautiful,” Evey says quietly, touching my golden Sigils. They’re much smaller than her feather wings. The circle is set in the center of each hand’s backside. Wings swoop back along the flesh, curving like scythes up the sides of my wristbones.
I look at Evey’s white wings and know how ugly she must think them to be on her back, how she must hate them. I want to say something kind to her. I want to make her smile, if she can. I would tell her that she is beautiful, but she’s lived a life of men saying that for some gain or another. She wouldn’t believe a boy like me. And I don’t believe her words to me. Eo was beautiful. I still remember the flush of blood in her cheeks as she danced. She had all the raw colors of life, the crude beauty of nature. I am the human concept of beauty. Gold made soft and supple into man’s form.
Evey kisses the top of my head before darting away and leaving me
alone to watch the HC in the mirror’s reflection. I did not notice her slip a feather from her wings into my breast pocket.
I’m tired of watching the HC. I know their history now and I’m learning more every day. But I’m tired of being inside, tired of listening to Mickey’s club thump its music and smelling the minty leaves he smokes. Tired of seeing the girls he brings into his family only to sell away when someone bids high enough. Tired of seeing all the full eyes go hollow. This is not Lykos. There is no love, no family or trust. This place is sick.
“My boy, you look fit to captain a fleet of torchShips,” Mickey says from the door. He slides in, smelling like his burners. His spindly fingers take Evey’s feather from my breast pocket and roll it back and forth over his knuckles. He taps the feather to each of my golden Sigils. “Wings are my favorite. Aren’t they yours? They go to mankind’s better aspirations.” He comes up behind me as I sit staring into the mirror. His hands go to my shoulders and he speaks down at my head, resting his chin upon it as though I am his property. It’s easy to see he thinks I am. My left hand
goes to the sigil on my right, lingering there.
“I told you you were brilliant. Now it’s your time to fly.”
“You give the girls wings, but you don’t let them fly. Do you?” I ask. “It’s impossible for them to fly. They are simpler things than you. And I
can’t afford to buy a license to have gravBoots. So they dance for me.” Mickey explains. “But you, you’ll fly, won’t you, my brilliant boy?”
I stare at him but say nothing. His lips slice into a smile because I unnerve him. I always have. “You’re frightened of me,” I tell him.
He laughs. “Am I? Oho! Am I now, my boy?”
“Yes. You’re used to knowing what’s what. You think like the rest of them.” I nod to the HC’s reflection. “Things are set in stone. Things are well ordered. Reds at the bottom, everyone else standing on our backs. Now you’re looking at me and you’re realizing that we don’t bloodydamn like it down there. Red is rising, Mickey.”
“Oh, you’ve got far to go …”
I reach up and grab his wrists so that he cannot move. He stares at me in the mirror’s reflection, struggling against my hold. Nothing is stronger than a Helldiver’s grip. I smile into the mirror, locking my golden eyes with his violet ones. He smells like fear. Primal terror. Like a mouse cornered by a lion.
“Be kind to Evey, Mickey. Don’t make her dance. Give her a plush life or I’ll come back to pull your hands off your body.”