Chapters:

Chapter 1

Eppson took a sip of coffee, swinging his legs from atop the tall stool he’d dragged towards the work station. He checked the timer on the thrumming machine as the lights rolled and flashed through the cracks. Two-and-a-half minutes until the subject was ready to decant.

        He opened his Eyeglass and checked the amount of time remaining on the song he was listening to. Two minutes and fifteen seconds.

He felt good about that. The geneticist liked synchronicity.

        He pushed down on the realignment pedal with the toe of his sneaker, feeling the hydraulics dutifully respond. The splicing bed righted itself on end like a mummy’s tomb. It’d have been perfect if the bed exuded a haunting green mist, which it had at one point. The mist had turned out to be highly carcinogenic, causing occipital tumors and lung paralysis, so now the machine just made a slurping noise as it drained the gas through translucent plastic tubing.

 He drummed his knuckles against the cannister. There were still thirty seconds left on the song, and he’d always enjoyed outros. Anybody can do a good intro, he thought to himself, nodding his head. You just start playing the instruments in order of importance. A good outro, though? Eppson smiled. A sign of genius.

        Genius was something Eppson understood. He’d self-prescribed the epithet his entire life. Usually, you couldn’t say the word “genius” without “troubled” preceding it, and he definitely had his troubles. Plus, he’d done well on his exams, so there was that.

The splicing mechanisms were spinning themselves down with a grinding noise not unlike crushing ice in a blender. He took a careful step back. The ultraviolets got awfully hot, and sometimes there was still viscera and amniotic matter stuck in the drainage mechanisms which was prone to explosive discharge.

He gave it a second to finish up as his music faded away. The geneticist reached up and tapped his temple along the electrosensitive wiring of his Eyeglass. The music cut off, leaving him alone with the whine of the lights and the muffled noise outside of a whole floor of thickly-carpeted industry. He snuck in these moments of relaxation where he could, but now it was time to get back to work.

        Eppson grunted as he slid open the splicing bed. The patient lurched out, wobbly in the knees and stark naked. Genework always caused a short-term feeling of discomfort, discombobulation: some people ground their teeth after the procedure. Sometimes, they moaned to themselves like toddlers with tummy-aches. A select few just screamed and screamed; Eppson was allowed some minor sedatives for those.

Mostly, though, they just got hiccups.

        “How are you feeling, Mr.…” Eppson stumbled on the name, flipping through his small packet of paperwork.

         “Cur-hic. It’s Cur-hic...” He smacked his mouth, like he tasted something funny. The funny something was a mixture of progenitor blastocysts, protein modulators and good, old-fashioned stem cells that Eppson had the good fortune of never having tasted. It smelled like canned ham that’d gone bad in the freezer, and the geneticist figured it couldn’t taste much worse.

“Curtly,” the patient finally managed to squeak. “It’s Curtly.”

Eppson drew out some flash cards, straightening them against the desk with a loud clunk. “Alright, Mr. Curtly,” he began professionally, “let’s go down the list here, if you don’t mind. Just give me your best answer...” He rifled through them, finding one he liked. Something big, but not too tricky.

“Twenty-four... multiplied by twenty-four.”

Mr. Curtly looked at the ceiling, digging around in his teeth for the last morsels of the amniotic material. “Five hundred… seventy six?” he said, like he was guessing.

Eppson nodded. It got harder to act impressed as time went by, but he gave it his best.

“Wow, hey!” the patient exclaimed, clearly surprised with himself. “Give me another!”

“Uh…” Eppson looked through more cards. “One-eleven by…” He clicked his tongue. “Sixty-six.”

“Ooh…” Curtly was really starting to get into this now. He smiled as he worked it out in his head. “Seven-thousand, two-hundred aaaaaand... twenty-six.”

Eppson nodded again. The patient beamed, looking every bit like he’d just won the Nobel Prize in multiplication tables. Genework couldn’t teach you the way anamnetics could, but you could certainly grease up the engine, and elementary math was a very showy way of letting the customer feel they’d gotten a return on their investment.

Eppson hated it.

He checked the charts, reading a laundry list of genomic sequences and translating them into the improvements they correlated to. It wouldn’t do to let any of them go unaddressed. “Alright, good. How about the eyes?”

“Boy, are they clear,” Curtly chirped. “I think I can count the pores on your nose, doctor.”

Eppson’s nose crinkled, suddenly very self-aware. “And, uh, the penis?” he asked, pushing his glasses up as a cover to give his bridge a quick brushing.

Curtly bounced up and down on his toes, letting his girthsome new member flop around like a firehose.

Eppson gave him a thumbs up. He’d examined more dicks than most porn directors, but still didn’t quite grasp the decorum of complimenting a good one.

“Looks like everything is good,” said the geneticist. “If you don’t mind, we’ll just fill out some-”

Curtly interrupted him. “Wait, what about my fingers?” He held them up, wiggling all ten in front of his face.

Eppson tilted his head to the side, counting the fingers twice. He scribbled a note on his diagnostics sheet. “Your fingers?”

“Yeah.” He held his hands out, palms forward. “Whose are these?”

“The… fingers?” asked the geneticist hesitantly. “Your fingers?” He had a terrible feeling that his job was about to get annoyingly complicated.

Curtly laughed, a high-pitched nasal sound. “I think I’d know my own fingers, Dr. Eppson.”

The geneticist adjusted his stool, jotting a few things down. “I’m, uh, not a doctor. Bachelor of science, applied genetics.” He said the words quickly, with practice. “But, wait, you said those weren’t your-”

“It’s a quick fix,” Curtly said cheerily. “Here.”

He snatched the pen out of Eppson’s hand and, before the geneticist could react, laid his left hand flat on Eppson’s desk and drove the pen into the base of his knuckle, where it erupted in a spurt of blood, like someone had stepped on a ketchup packet. He dug the sharp tip around to get all the way through the tough cartilage, and blood began to pool out of his hand like a broken egg yolk.

Eppson leapt back before any of it could run off the table onto his nice pants. He clutched his pristine white paperwork with both hands.

“Mister, uh… ugh. Sir!” he shouted. “You need to stop and... and… and give me back my pen!”

Curtly looked at him skeptically. He smirked slightly, not sure if he should listen. With one eye on the geneticist, he yanked the pen back, and the finger tore halfway off the joint without a sound save the scratch of ballpoint on wood.

As the geneticist stood there, mouth agape, Curtly held his hand up, covered in blood, and tore off the last little bit of flesh the way you’d pick onions off a sandwich.

“Easy,” he said confidently, without a hint of discomfort. “Only nine more to go.”

        Robert Esau Eppson was the third highest-paid employee at Renaissance Genetics’ southern offices. He repeated that fact to himself as he washed his hands, staring out the window. He rubbed the soap between his fingers, doing one at a time — over and over, until he felt better. Whether it was the thought of contamination he was afraid of or the need to count out all ten of them in order to cope, he couldn’t tell.

        This was his life as of late, he mused as he waved his hands under the blow dryer. It bothered him that it had all become so routine. When he’d started at Renaissance, it had been like he was living on the cusp of the future, the cutting edge. Coming out of school, it had been a change of pace to be so comfortable. Now, the money never seemed like enough, and he was lucky if he got out in time to catch up on the innernet before he fell asleep on the couch.

        Eppson sipped on his coffee, which once again the little office domestic had produced to his exacting specifications. The geneticist was good with machines. Not in the way that his coworker Phil Patel was good with machines; Phil could, and did, take apart everything in the office, curious to see the gears and chips and whatnots inside. But oftentimes Phil broke them in odd ways, like how the anamnetics machine now had a little plastic flap that nobody could reaffix. It just dangled there, looking unprofessional.

        Eppson was good with machines in that he used them a great deal, relied on them, and knew what buttons to hit to make them work. He could get the right kind of coffee out of a domestic, find the channel he wanted on his Eyeglass, send a message that had just the right amount of uninvolvement in it to forgo a response. It was harder to do than it sounded. This was a practical kind of good with machines, he thought, and he was proud of himself for it.

Eppson wasn’t often proud of himself, but the few things that did grant him some self-esteem he held close to his heart. He could pass as attractive, if you ignored the stoop in his back, the nervous sweating and the lack of eye-contact. He was intelligent, or at least more than average, and he spent a great deal of time talking about Space, and Life, and God, to anyone who would listen. He wore an Eyeglass, and occasionally smoked, and had crafted many exciting daydreams.

Today, however, his casual demeanor was thoroughly ruffled. Fall was leaving, winter aggressively edging out the it’s kinder cousin. The days were becoming shorter, and that was what bothered Eppson. Night would start coming before he’d even left the office, prompting him to rush for a cab home. Eppson had a hard enough time finding people to befriend in the summer, where hours of warmth and light were allocated to walking in the park or skimming through books in sunny areas just public enough to contain gorgeous strangers who might stop and ask what he was reading. As the dark came earlier, those folks, the beautiful, young, interesting people who stopped for a moment to peer at whatever heavy, dusty novel Eppson had picked up would instead retreat, in packs and pairs, into the body-heat of the bars and drug-dives, the tinkling airs of the upscale galleries and theatres, the sloppy noise of a sexcore show, electric outernet conclaves, romantic fine dining, all the places Eppson felt terribly unwelcome. There they would become friends, companions, lovers, all without Eppson.

The thought upset the geneticist. He did not have many friends. He wished he had someone thinking of him, wondering what was going on in his head, maybe the way Eppson would think about them. But, due to misfortune or some deficit of personality that the geneticist had never quite placed, he didn’t have that. It was one thing he’d never managed to cultivate.

What Eppson did have was a list: a list of all the missteps and mishaps that had ever plagued him. All the misfortunes that had prevented Eppson from becoming the shining jewel of humanity that he believed himself to be were quietly, methodically categorized and stored for later.

For instance, just that morning he’d been speaking to Constance, the first highest-paid employee at Renaissance Genetics’ southern headquarters, and his boss. She had invited him into her office, where he quickly picked an Engels off her brushed copper cabinet shelves and leafed through a few pages. His love of antique books, and his detestation of virtual print, was one of his favorite things to share about himself.

Constance asked him if he enjoyed the body of works, and he had responded emphatically yes, despite never having read anything by Friedrich Engels, whom Eppson pictured as a dour, bearded man — most likely made of blotchy oil paint. Of course, it only took five seconds or so of conversation for Constance to realize this, to which Eppson could only reply that, well, it had been a long time since he’d read Engels, and he’d been reading Nietzsche at the same time, and it was possible he was confusing the two.

Eppson was biting his lip, recalling that distinct flavor of shame, when Phil Patel — Eppson’s least coworker-like, most friend-like associate — shuffled into the room.

Phil made a beeline for the new break room domestic, an expensive all-purpose model that stored and prepared food like a household domestic, but also sold prepackaged meals like the dusty vending machines in the hall. Renaissance had installed it three months back, giving all their workers free credits tied to their ID cards, to boot. Eppson had been pleased about the whole deal, even going out of pocket for prepack chow mein, which he felt was just the right size, and not too salty. Sadly, only a few weeks into the young device’s life Phil had broken it after it refused to store his illicit beverages.

The thing took anything you wanted to put in it now, of course, but when Eppson asked it for chow mein it only managed to make a sad bleating noise, a timid cry for help from an abused appliance. It was more than the device’s enforcement of temperance that earned it the screwdriver; Phil loved to destroy anything the corporate boys left him in a room with.

The big Indian popped his hand into the domestic’s front aperture, reaching in up to his elbow before pulling a beer out like he was birthing a calf. He gave Eppson a smile.

“Mister Eppson,” Phil said, mimicking the softly mechanical tone of the domestic, “can I offer you a refreshing beverage?”

Eppson gave him a wave. “Nah,” he responded. He stopped, waiting a few seconds, the perfect amount of time to seem uninvolved. “But I would like to know when you’re going to put that thing back together. You know, so I can get those noodles I like?” Eppson didn’t say chow mein, because in his head the words sounded too needy and demanding. Any sort of restored noodle functionality would be enough.

Phil tsk-tsked at him. “You can’t stay mad at me about that forever, Eppson. This thing is held together by cheap processor glass and prayer.” He wrapped his knuckles on it, hard, and it cried out in protest. “I can’t believe they replaced the reliable old refrigerator I had in here with this chunk of tacky junkware. Besides, Buddha House is right across the street, and Ms. Leung would beat me half to death if she knew I was letting you eat noodles out of a domestic.”

 He was right, about staying mad and Buddha House both. Phil was an undeniably likeable guy: tall and fat, with chocolate skin and a thick mat of greying body hair that made him look like an overripe kiwi fruit. He was pigheaded, opinionated, and had an inexorable aversion to both corporate policy and professionalism in general. He probably would have been doomed to be either a short-order cook or a low-viewcount outernet feeder if he hadn’t stuck his big head into the small pond that was commercial genetics three decades ago and refused to pull himself out.

As a result, the man who cackled at Eppson while wiping the lip of a beer can off with an unbuttoned shirt cuff was one of perhaps among the twenty most well-respected geneticists in the country.

And Buddha Noodle was indeed the most well-respected Chinese joint for almost ten blocks. But Eppson had liked the domestic, because the domestic never knew that you were eating alone. Sure, it registered the number of people in the room and suggested appropriately sized meals, but it didn’t wonder if you had a girlfriend, or what happened to that interesting accountant you had drinks with last week, or when the office rugby team you tried to organize was finally getting together for that rematch against the lawyers from Gutierrez & Durante LLC on the fifth floor. Ms. Leung, on the other hand, preened over her flock of customers, trafficking extra dumplings or exotic drinks for fresh gossip.

“I just like it because it’s convenient,” Eppson explained with a huff.

His friend gave him a mollifying wave. “Sure, sure, I get that.” He drained half his beer and sat it down on the wooden counter, squarely on his personal ring, formed from a decades-worth of not understanding coasters. “Have you still not fixed your vision?”

Eppson, embarrassed, stopped squinting so hard out the window. He had been watching the cabs drive by on the new bioluminescent pavement the city had installed. He pretended to fish something out of his eyes with a pinkie.

“You know how it is,” the junior geneticist said, “I don’t want to eat up my capacity when the next big thing is right around the corner.”

Phil looked at him incredulously. “I mean, it’s just your eyes. I don’t think we’re gonna be giving people x-ray vision anytime soon.” The man took another pull. Despite all that, you could tell he was trying to work out how it could be done. “So, I saw you’re the next in line to pull the cancer.”

Eppson wasn’t really paying attention. He was still watching cabs drive by. The bioluminescent, pressure-sensitive treatment made sense in denser cities, but here it was mostly just good looking and good press. Cabs didn’t need the light, anyway.

“Who?”

Phil scratched his head. “Griggs? Greggs? The sexcore chick with the botched dichromat job.” He bent the tab on his beer back and forth until it snapped off. He scrutinized it and, satisfied, tossed it into the trash.

Eppson remembered and gently groused, the noise you make when you leave the milk on the counter overnight. “Oh yeah. Christ, her. Nothing we can do.” Eppson put his hands up, an attempt to show how there was nothing he could do, what with his hands in the air. “Get a bunch of half-assed genework done a decade ago, reach your emend capacity, and then, years later, fuck you, you’ve got a tennisball tumor. Probably from smoking, or using an Eyeglass, or skinny dipping in City Municipal. And no one can do anything about it.”

“An Eyeglass can’t give you cancer unless you dip it in artificial sweetener before you put it in,” Phil contended before finishing the other half of his beer and tossing away the can. “But you’re right, it’s damn stupid. In this day and age. This country!”

Eppson, uncomfortable, reached up and gently nudged his own Eyeglass with a pinkie, expelling an air bubble from under the lens. “Well, I don’t think she’ll wind up dying…”

“No, cancer is very fatal,” Phil explained, getting a soda to chase his beer, “it’ll spread until the host tissue starts to run out or shut down.”

Eppson gave him a sour look, but Phil was still wrestling with the domestic. “I know what cancer is. I’m saying I don’t think it’ll get that far. Someone will get an exemption on the emend policies once it gets bad. Why worry about mutation when the alternative is dying?”

Phil let out a sigh, and Eppson cringed. The big man was outrageous, in possession of a questionable moral compass, and dangerous around household appliances — but when he was right, he was right. Eppson, who generally disliked people because he believed they were either smarter or dumber than him, liked Phil because he gave off the perfect mix of deserving respect and not caring for it. Whenever Phil sighed, peered over his nose and gave his derisive little snort, Eppson found himself feeling like he’d wet himself at the school dance.

“It’s not about mutation anymore,” Phil began, climbing on his soapbox. “That was the old monster. Now, all anyone’s talking about is Severed Head Syndrome.”

“Tell me about it. Last guy just tried to amputate his fingers on my desk.” Eppson frowned, recalling the day’s misadventures, the fingers laying on his desk like sad little breakfast sausages.

“They got all this black and white footage of people lying in hospital beds, looking out windows. Rain shadows on faces. Don’t get me wrong, xenocorporia is a terrible, insidious thing, but the kinds of people who worry about xenocorporia are the kinds of people who stopped eating bananas when the news reported about someone finding a spider in one.” Phil blew a raspberry. “Way back when, if you came out of genework with only two arms, we considered it a rousing success.”

“Back when you ran this place, you mean?” Eppson chimed in. “Would you have made an exemption for her?”

“Damn right, I would have!” Phil shouted, challenging the very walls to stop him.  A look of determination crossed his face, and he opened his coat and shoved a hairy fist into the pocket, pulling out a handful of folded papers, a pocket knife, and a few liberated beer tabs. He opened his palm and, with a single finger, began sorting through the detritus.

Eppson, with a finely tuned sense of apathy, ignored his fishing. “You’ve got blood on you,” he said offhandedly. With Phil’s ratty lab coat flung aside, Eppson could see a light pink stain covering the man’s ratty cornflower shirt from a few inches below the arm to just above the belt.

Phil looked down and licked his thumb, trying to smudge the stain out. The good thing about simulacra blood was that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, blood, so it was very easy to wash, and nearly impossible to catch anything from.

Eppson cocked his head to the side. “Wait, do you take the coat off when you-”

“It’s a nice coat. Now, here.” Phil handed him a business card that looked like it had been previously used to roll a cigarette.

“No, it’s really not.” Eppson looked at the card. In his periphery, his Eyeglass notified him that it had stored the business’s contact information, and offered directions and a few one- or two-star reviews.

The device read faster than Eppson, a fact that had always bothered him. The card was for an independant genework studio, a real inbreeder on the south side of town. Heavenly Creatures, it was called.

“Great,” Eppson grumbled. “You want to send her somewhere that’ll just drop a few sequences and obliterate her on a cellular level.”

Phil was unfazed. “They do good work there. Barely ever kill anyone, and then only on purpose. For tax reasons.” He waved the sink on and took a wad of paper towels from the roll he kept nearby. He hated the blow dryers, most likely because they were the only thing in the building that would eclipse him in volume. He started blotting the drab stain from his side. “Fuck. Another day in the Amica department.”

“I thought the whole purpose of the white coat was that you can get the blood on it, instead of your clothes.”

Phil snorted. “Shows what you know. It’s purpose...” He picked up the coat’s skirts and did a dainty little twirl. “... is to remind you, Astrid, and all the other techies that I have a degree in medicine, and am therefore deserving of your admiration. And your fear.” He pulled the coat over his face, cackling.

Eppson glowered at him. “Constance doesn’t wear a lab coat,” he argued.

“Constance,” Phil remarked, putting down the coat,  “doesn’t have to get elbow deep in slugs for a living.” He scowled and looked over to the door, hoping the senior geneticist was in earshot. If you asked Phil, Constance was his archenemy, a toady to the man, a sellout from the cause of rock and roll geneticists everywhere. If you asked Constance, she was his oldest (and possibly only) friend. If you asked Astrid, the two of them were a undetonated landmine of thirty years worth of romantic tension.

Eppson tended to favor Astrid’s opinion, if only because it often led to discussions of workplace dating with the gorgeous, half-Swedish, half-Japanese woman. She was all for it.

While the two geneticists talked, the last slice of sun was disappearing over the skyline, casting the sky in murky oranges. The geneticist felt his heart sink as it happened. He’d missed it. Outside on the ground floor the top of Ms. Leung’s head was flicking on the red paper lanterns from a set of electrical switches. Once, the switches had probably been golden, but the rain had worn them rusty brownish, and one of Eppson’s many worries — which he thought about every time he visited the restaurant — was that if he touched them they would arc white lightning and vaporize his central nervous system.

Ms. Leung didn’t seem particularly worried by the way she shoved them all on at once with her forearm while holding a cigarette, but Eppson had once stayed up watching videos of savage electrocutions on the outernet, so he knew all about the danger.

He was wondering if Ms. Leung’s hair would catch fire like in that one video when a message came in. His Eyeglass gently pushed a single whorl of green light into his field of view and made a happy little chime in his ear. Checking the message was a reflex, a quick jerk of the eyes out of frame and back in, as if reeling the message out of a fishpond of information that sat in the outside edge of the world.

        

        in town for evening on work

        Eppson read the message twice, parsed the contents in his brain, read it a third time, and then finally remembered to check the author field. E. Walmsley. Another pulse of green.

        too short notice for dinner?

        Ellie. Eppson’s heart leapt up into his throat. Or, more accurately, it leapt down, into the juncture between his esophagus and belly, and began throttling his stomach.

Ellie was sometimes Eppson’s best friend, sometimes the love of his life, and always his ex. He checked his reflection in the sink mirror. The geneticist looked every bit as shit as he’d expected to, with hair that needed either more or less washing (he never knew which) and a button-up that sagged listlessly in a way that reminded him dreadfully of his father: forever a barnacle, slowly withering into the crevice of a three-piece. He kicked himself for wearing his most flattering work shirt yesterday in hopes that the attractive postal service girl would show. She hadn’t.

        His eyes went from his reflection back to the Eyeglass interface. Panic, elation, and a kind of pride in the idea that he could, in fact, have a date tonight all burbled inside him. He stopped thinking about it. He had to do it. He subvocalized his response into the pickup on the bottom of his chin.

        Let’s do it. How about noodles?.

        Another thing he liked about himself: perfect punctuation, especially when it didn’t matter. Eppson sent it, then read it, then kicked himself again.

        Peter Hornstrasse was a curmudgeon, a known adulterer, and, as far as Eppson was concerned, a peerless asshole. He had been coming in for two years now and had undergone five different genework sessions, all focusing on the only part of his body he seemed to take any pride in: his penis. Eppson saw a lot of johnsons in his profession, but the contrast between Mr. Hornstrasse’s anemic body and his youthful, ebullient member was one of the few things that still really got to him. Whereas Pete had a receding hairline, rheumy eyes and a perpetual dark stain under his nose, his phallus, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, was straight out of Greek mythology.

        And now, seeking even further heights of manhood, he had two of them.

Or, would have had two of them. But as Eppson entered his well-decorated little office, he saw Hornstrasse, already disrobed and waving the troublesome area about. Instead of a fully-formed member, there was only a deformed little protrusion to the left of the original, like the stump of a tail on a baby.

        “You see this shit?” the man asked angrily. His voice was throaty and wet, his lips over-licked, his breath surprisingly pervasive. Hornstrasse swept a hand over his privates, like Eppson was a plumber come to survey a leaking bathtub.

        Eppson somehow managed not to look the man directly in the cock. Instead, he brushed past the agitated genitalia and walked to his desk, putting on an air of calm, helpful professionalism, exactly as he was trained to do. He steadied himself with the thought that after this he’d go to the restaurant and amuse Ellie with this story. He pictured her laughing a perfect, toothy, movie-star laugh. Eppson sat down and started flipping through Hornstrasse’s casefile, smiling to himself. Normally, he’d just pull it up on his Eyeglass for reference, but leafing through it on paper at least shut the man up for a moment.

        Unfortunately, Hornstrasse had little patience.

“Excuse me,” he asked, without really asking, “but what are we going to do about this problem?” He frantically gestured towards his privates with two open palms, much in the way a provincial fishmonger might bring your attention to a cod, or whelk.

        Eppson hated being talked down to, but his love of returning condescension was boundless. He steepled his fingers, pursed his lips, like an elementary school teacher.  “Did you remove your Growth Patch?” he asked in the perfect knowing, authoritarian tone. Did you hit your classmate? Did you have an accident in your pants?

        Hornstrasse reddened and coughed. “Well, I don’t think-“

        Eppson smiled in the most hostile way his face could manage. It managed pretty well.

“Do you think you might have broken the sutures on your NewLife Biomass Nutrition Patch? Even just for a peek? Before the recommended two week period?”

        “Well, yes, but-“

        ”It’s been, let’s see… three days? Since your procedure?” He ruffled the man’s files, as if checking the date, although in truth he was still on the cover page. “And are you aware that the Growth Patch requires direct contact with the area in order to provide the biomass subdermally? And that breaking those sutures can render the patch totally ineffective? Air, you see.” Dramatic lean-in. “It gets in.”

        Hornstrasse went pale. There was shrinkage, which the geneticist tried not to notice.

        “And with the patch removed,” he continued, “what should have been a fully functional organ might instead cease to develop, becoming essentially a large tumor? So now the sequences for that second organ are junk DNA, needing further genework to remove in order to prevent any... unforeseen mutations.”

        Hornstrasse’s eyes widened. Customers hated the m-word. Two decades ago, when the technology for cheap, effective genework was still in infancy, Nascency groups had flooded the public consciousness with macabre images of the science’s failures.

        The old man sank back into the little beige chair behind him. Inside, Eppson’s heart was fluttering. He rarely felt job satisfaction like this. In his mind, he was seated high in his chair, victorious, the lecherous old man broken before him.

He folded his trembling hands in his lap. He couldn’t help it. Eppson kept thinking about Phil, the way he spurned authority, the ease and comfort he had telling these vain assholes off. There was no reason he couldn’t be that brave. He could be a hero to the working man, a rebellious genius.

He steadied himself and picked up his pen. Cracking his neck, he leaned across his little desk, twisting the instrument in his hands. Ready to strike.

The old man was now staring past his flimsy frame down to the pants around his ankles and the feet in their worn out sneakers.

        “So, when should we schedule you with a surgeon to remove the growth?” the geneticist asked. “We’ll need a few sessions of gene therapy here, and then, maybe, we can look at trying this again. It might end up being costly, but of course...” He smirked. “...you can’t really put a price on health.”

Eppson actually heard the breath leave the man at that. It was a good feeling, the proper punctuation of victory.

“Now, please. You may put your clothes back on.”

        Hornstrasse jerked his eyes up to look at Eppson, suddenly embarrassed at his nudity, like Adam in the garden. He arched his pelvis out of the seat and pulled his trousers up, buttoning them. The geneticist made a mental note to clean his nice leather chair.

The old man didn’t have half as much liveliness to him now. His face was crestfallen, his arms dangling over the sides of the chair. His eyes had gone from rheumy to just a regular sort of teary, and his over-licked lips quivered. Looking at the man, Eppson’s surge of confidence left him. The geneticist felt uncomfortable in the wake of his barbarity, and he retreated back to his side of the desk, rereading the files to avoid looking at the remains across from him. He wondered why all the satisfaction had left.

Instead, Eppson was feeling rather like an asshole.

        Hornstrasse bit the side of his lip before he spoke. “It sound’s like I fucked it up pretty bad, yeah?” he said in a monotone voice.

        Eppson’s mouth tried reflexively to spurt out something sympathetic. When he found himself unable to deny it, he just grunted instead.

        “It’s gonna cost a lot of money, isn’t it? All this?” He planted his head against the back of the chair and stared at the smooth plastic ceiling tiles. “Well, I spent all my money. I saved for months just to get the treatment. And then I fucked it up just to peek.” He looked at Eppson, not pleadingly, but morosely, ready for the answer he didn’t want to hear. “Is it possible- would it be okay if I waited just a bit to do this? Or would it end up...” He trailed off.

Eppson felt slightly guilty for mentioning mutations before. That era wasn’t something geneticists spoke of lightly. It was nothing he wanted to remember. Carcinomas, host-rejections, the kinds of things he had been trained to deal with, those weren’t nearly the worst of it. The pictures that had gone up on innernet news, the even more gruesome ones that flooded outernet shock sites... Eppson still shuddered to think about it. They hadn’t bothered to teach him to handle those. After all, most of those people just died. The coroners usually didn’t even bother listing a cause.

        And now he could see those same pictures flashing across Hornstrasse’s face. And the new fear, for good measure. Xenocorporia was on everyone’s mind these days.

        Eppson took a deep breath. He tried to sound comforting. “It’s not that bad. Really.”

The man looked at him oddly, no doubt expecting another stinging admonishment.

“You don’t need to worry about mutations,” Eppson continued. “If you knew how much time and effort Renaissance spends working the wrinkles out of this stuff- I never see ‘em. Virtually impossible in a procedure like this.” Eppson felt angry with himself, but he wasn’t sure if it was because he’d scared the man half to death or because he’d backpedaled on his acrimony.

        “It doesn’t change anything,” Hornstrasse said, challenging Eppson to find some light in the situation. “I still don’t have the money.”

        “You’ve got health insurance, right?”

Hornstrasse slowly nodded. “Partially.”

“Then the surgery is taken care of. And, if you can get the doctor to sign off as it being a medical necessity, the insurance company will take care of the genework, too.” He pulled up sheets of administrative gibberish on his monitor and spun it to face the man, pointing at paragraphs with his pen. “It’s all here.”

        Renaissance would make less money of course, Eppson thought. But he didn’t mention it, and he didn’t care. Suddenly, he was feeling better about this. Now, he was picturing himself as the hero instead, a Robin Hood figure, pilfering profit from the company, for the sake of the needy, using his inside knowledge of the system.

        Hornstrasse looked shaken, suspicious, like he’d rubbed some genie lamp and awaited its big blue resident. Eppson smiled at him, a meagre little grin.  

The old man stood up, straightening his sleeves, smoothing his receding white hair. He looked completely different now. Now you could see how well-ironed his dark khaki trousers were, how nicely-fit his collar was. Unexpectedly, he extended his hand to the geneticist.

Eppson was taken aback. People didn’t usually shake his hand; he’d been told, rather rudely, that it was because he looked clammy.

The geneticist stood up, knocking his chair back into the bookshelf behind him. He took the offered hand and shook it. Hornstrasse had a firm grip and a professional shake. Eppson hoped he had given back the same impression.

        The older man spoke. “Thank you. I- I’m sorry. About how I acted earlier.”

Eppson blushed. “Just, uh, see the receptionist on the way out. I’ll buzz him to give you the paperwork for your doctor. And it’s, erm... It’s no problem.” Eppson smiled awkwardly, “It’s my job.”

        Hornstrasse made for the door. “Well, thanks. Of all the geneticists I’ve met, you’re the first to give a damn.” And with that, he left.

The office door closed behind him with a hydraulic whisper. Eppson turned his chair back around and sat down in it, well satisfied. He felt like a hero. Eppson gives a damn. It sounded nice. He slowly wheeled around in his chair, surveying his office.

        But something was nagging at him, disrupting his moment of pride. He looked around for the culprit, but everything seemed to be in order. His bookcase was still carefully arranged, scientific journals separated from his small collection of classic works. He hadn’t read most of them, but they had been carefully curated to make a good impression. His desk had it’s old stationary monitor, a little nameplate reading “Robert E. Eppson, Renaissance Genetic Enhancement Specialist.” Not enough to consider clutter, really.

His two framed paintings were still evenly hung. On one side there was the carefully diagrammed and beautifully rendered representation of the brain, an early phrenology piece, tasteful but woefully outdated. On the other, the cheap Picasso print he had picked up in a museum gift store years ago. Nothing there, or with any of the other decorations, seemed to be off.

The stylish little leather chair was exactly where Hornstrasse had left it, on the other side of his desk, roughly four inches too far to rest your elbows on comfortably. That must be what bothered him, Eppson thought, so he stood up, shuffled over to it and pushed the chair back in.

He returned to his seat, but the disquieted feeling lingered. He looked over everything a second time, but absolutely nothing in his office had changed.

        Eppson wondered what was bothering him so much.