Today's Reading



The first thing Nika noticed about the man who buzzed the studio bell was his scar. A deep purple line that started at the top center of his lip and went upward in a diagonal slash across his right eye and into his hairline. She zoomed in on the eyeball. A wound like that should have destroyed the eye, but his right eye was real, and tracked as well as the left.

Why hadn't they fixed the scar when they'd fixed the eye?

She glanced at the clock at the bottom of the screen. 00:07. Midnight. Way too late for her studio to be open. Way too late for anyone to demand service—no matter how badly they were scarred, especially not for a scar that old.

"Come back tomorrow," she told him.

"Nika Rik Terri?" Red drops sprayed out of his mouth onto the camera lens above the doorbell. "I need your help."

Once Nika wouldn't have known what the red-brown spots were, but that had been before Alejandro.

Her eyes moved to his collar, to the now-familiar obsidian bird-of- prey pin there. An Eaglehawk Company man. She couldn't tell him to go away. She quashed the quick adrenaline flutter, sighed, and buzzed him in. "Move directly into the room on the left, and try not to bleed on the floor as you go."

She collected a bucket and bleach as she went down to meet him. Blood was hard to get rid of. She didn't want the health inspectors on her back.

But first, she had to stanch the bleeding and get her new customer under a machine.

Saving people's lives hadn't been what Nika had planned to do with her career. Not until Alejandro had walked into her life and brought his scummy friends with him.

* * *

The smaller room had glass walls she could wash down easily. Reinforced, because some of the people who came in were prone to violence. On the back of the glass she'd painted scenes of the dappled purple-and-rust trees of the Lower Sierras, with their distinctive radioactive rocks that glowed in the same colorway. One wall for each season—wet, dry, and reactive. The fourth wall, the one with the door, blended the wet and reactive seasons so seamlessly you couldn't tell where one season started and the other ended.

Most people thought only of the stunning visual impact it gave the room.

Nika saw practicality. Good camouflage for any blood that might have spilled.

The tiled floor emulated the phosphorous purples and rusts of the Lower Sierran radioactive rocks.

A work of art, according to respected media site 'Popular Art'. A galactic treasure. She could have charged people to see it.

Overpowering, in Nika's opinion, but it did what it was required to do.

According to 'Popular Art', the only thing that spoiled the view was the big black box in the center of the room. The Songyan genemod machine. To Nika, the Songyan was the most beautiful thing there. State-of-the-art, built to her specifications. There was only one machine better, and that was in her main studio next door.

There wasn't any blood on the floor of the foyer, and most of the blood on her visitor's jacket and hands had dried. The bleeding was internal, then. That was bad. Still, this man had known to come here, so he'd been sent by Alejandro's boss, who could help her dispose of a dead body if she needed to.

She collected bandages and a pressure seal from the main store. "Where are you wounded?"

"You don't look like Rik Terri."

Nika stifled a sigh. "I'm a body modder. I change my appearance every season." This season it was a small, straight nose, deep black eyes, porcelain skin with a tint of gold and a soft glow to prevent the color from looking ghoulish, a boyish figure with almost no bust, and short-cropped spiky black-and-blond hair. She'd had it two days now. "Where are you wounded?"

He indicated his stomach, which was dressed, but blood seeped through the bandages.

She in turn indicated the Songyan. 'Popular Art' had called it a big black box, but it was actually two boxes, one hip-high from the floor, topped with a soft table to lie on. The other descended from the roof. The machine did everything from a full-body analysis all the way down to complete cellular regeneration.

"Lie back and I'll take a look. Put your clothes there." She indicated the sterilizing unit beside the Songyan.

He was a tall man, with good bone structure under the terrifying scar. She could see that he kept himself in shape, and she took a moment to appreciate the aesthetics. This body she could do wonders with.

His hair was thin. Balding even. But she had designed a new plug-in to deal with that. She could give him luxuriant hair of any color. Purple? No. Too fashionable. A more natural color. Blue-black with blue highlights.

And blue eyes to go with it. Ultramarine, flecked with silver.

She pondered the combinations as she removed the dressing and let the scanner check his internal organs. A knife wound.

Once upon a time she wouldn't have recognized the distinctive lacerations left by a knife.

"You've blood in your lungs." Not much—yet—but each breath rattled out with a wheezing bubbling that she didn't need the machine to hear. "You're still bleeding internally. If I don't fix it, you'll drown."

Or die from internal hemorrhaging. Or loss of blood.

"Wait." He held out a bloodied hand to grip her arm. His grip was stronger than it had any right to be, especially given how much blood was floating free around his innards. "You are Nika Rik Terri?"

Technically, she was Nika James now, but that was her secret. "What do you think?"

"You built the exchanger."

She froze. The exchanger was also her secret.

One of her customers—formerly male—had wanted to be female. The customer was happy with her new look, but Nika wasn't. Her client still walked with a heavy, masculine tread. Nika had come up with a plan to retrain her memory of walking by strengthening the synaptic link between short-term and long-term memories, so that the newer memories of walking were the ones she retained.

She'd used the same technique, with success, on other clients. It had worked well, until the day Nika had been short of the alloy that helped create the memory net, and had used the wildly expensive transuride— dellarine—instead.

Luckily, she'd tried it out on Alejandro, not a client, because the net hadn't worked. Well, it had, but not the way it was meant to. The pure metal had transferred the brainwaves through the genemod machine across to him, temporarily putting her thoughts and memories into Alejandro's body, and vice versa.

Damn Alejandro. He was the only person who had known about the exchanger. This man could only have learned about it from him.


His grip tightened. "You built an exchanger." She tried to pull away. Couldn't.

She ignored the panicked racing of her heart. She could deal with this.

"It was an accidental by-product of something else I built. It's untested." Although she and Alejandro had played around with it. Not to mention, it had been the final crack in a relationship she was fast becoming concerned about, and the excuse she used when she had finally tried to kick him out. Alejandro had loved that blasted exchanger.


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