An essay by Othello Maxwell, as provided by Brandon Nolta
Art by Leigh Legler
She looked like the kind of woman for whom doors opened. Tall, hair so black it absorbed the light, her body a pillar of muscle, she strode with confidence through the late-afternoon commuter crowd, someone used to being unimpeded. I watched her walk toward my car, and thought ghosting must have been a tough call for her.
She stopped in front of me, turned her head to meet my gaze. Her eyes were gray, so light they were almost pearl. That’s just short of albino in the standard population, and rarer than hen’s teeth, as Mom used to say. In Lottos, though, that was almost base model. Eye scans are still the most common way to catch one.
“Double O?” she whispered, body tensed. She seemed poised to run, or maybe kick my head through the train window. I wouldn’t blame her for either. Imagine surviving an apocalypse, or being descended from someone who did, only to find that you were now an asset of incalculable value, and everyone wanted a piece–or more–of you. Even the West was shitty about snagging Lottos, and in theory, they still had rights there.
“Yes, ma’am,” I whispered back, nodding just a fraction. The whole point of ghosting was to avoid notice. Ghost suits work pretty well at deflecting attention, between the pheromone masks and pupil dilation sensors, but they don’t do shit for loud voices or sudden movements. Keep calm and stay unnoticed.
She opened her mouth to say something else, and I held up a finger, pointing at the ceiling. Her eyes flicked upward to the sensor ring in the panel above me. She nodded, and inclined her head toward me, as if we were old friends and not strangers on a trans-Bay of Bengal train.
“Next station,” I said, yawning as I did. The older Sikh next to me didn’t seem to notice; he probably saw Caucasians with smart lenses talking to themselves all the time, and he’d taken no notice of the ghosting Lotto in front of me. Not that I wanted to test that. I stood as the train began to slow coming into Chennai Port and moved in front of her. No need to watch her leave; she’d follow. Lottos aren’t welcome most places, and she’d need help to get somewhere she could be left alone, much less welcomed.
The train stopped, and I headed for the door, eager to get out of the train car I’d been in for the last couple of hours. Vacuum trains are about as fast as you can go without heading into space, but the Bay of Bengal is wide, and getting safely out of Myanmar now is more luck than skill. Bribery still works, but I didn’t relax until we’d crossed into Indian Protectorate waters.
The station looked like every other one I’ve ever been in: cheesy holo-ads, clean but not fanatically so, restrooms and snack bars every 100 meters like clockwork. On the street, the pedestrian population was light, the vehicle traffic slightly less so. Chennai was in good shape compared to northern India, but losing more than a third of its population in two decades left its mark. I looked around at the sidewalk, emptier and cleaner than in my childhood, and felt the ghost’s presence at my back. I knew her name–I’d recognized Lieutenant Shrivani Chopra as soon as she looked at me–but decided to let her break that ice.
She didn’t say anything until we reached the third and final alley in our roundabout tour of Chennai’s finer shitholes. I tapped a quick series of notes, letting the auto-lock read my personalized key, and stood aside, motioning her through the doorway. She stopped right in front of me, looked me right in my ocular implant. “What are you getting out of this?”
“Paid,” I said. “What else is there?”
“Easier ways to get paid,” she said, shifting her weight slightly. “Safer jobs, in places more welcoming to Americans.”
“Am I that obvious?” I asked. I thought my mutt accent was better than that.
She nodded, eyes fixed on mine. If I hadn’t known who she was, I’d have thought she was just nervous, instead of ready to beat my ass. Her résumé made for interesting reading, but within arm’s reach, the salient point in my HUD was that she was the first front-line female Gurkha, so definitely armed, capable of killing most people, and–if a woman like her was running–in far deeper fathoms of shit than was healthy for me. Which brought me back to her question.
Carefully, I reached up and pulled the smart lenses off my face. Just for show, anyway.
“This one’s fake,” I said, tapping my left eye with my finger. The iris folded outward, revealing circuitry, which didn’t seem to surprise her. “This one’s not.” I pulled back my eyelid, and quickly hooked the colored contact lens out. Simple but effective, even though any scanner will look past the lens. If they don’t think to look, it doesn’t matter how good the scan is.
I blinked a couple of times, and met her gaze, the Lotto gray of my real eye matching hers.
Lieutenant Chopra blinked once, twice. Then she smiled.
“Shall we?” I asked.
Together, we went inside to begin sneaking an immortal woman out of India.
When the genetic anomalies first started to show up, lots of people thought the stories were bullshit, cooked up by governments too afraid to admit how bad things really were. Losing nearly two billion people will do that. It didn’t take long for rumor to become documented fact, though.
Beautiful irony–after years of battle with gene-bombs, crude nanotech, and whatever the skunk works of various nations came up with, the world was left with mountains of corpses and, like a rare orchid growing in a landfill, a new strain of humans. Lottos, they were called, because they’d struck the genetic jackpot: an immune system that could stave off death. Supercharged lymphatics, cells that breezed past the Hayflick limit without metastasizing, every filter and recycling system in the body cranked up to just short of magic. Lottos could eat trash, drink toxic waste, and adapt to all of it. A Lotto could drink a mug of Ebola and maybe develop a temporary rash; a needle full of HIV did nothing at all.
Of course, they were still vulnerable to the usual. Fire, bullets, plane crashes, and knives would kill a Lotto just as dead as a regular human. Or so everyone thought, until a Lotto in Johannesburg walked out of a hospital morgue four hours after dying in a hotel fire, naked and surprised but apparently unharmed. Short of completely dismembering the brain, a Lotto could heal from damn near anything. That was when Lottos became hunted, and I found a new career.
Grow up military, and you get used to making your way around quick. If you have a talent for languages, a face made for ghosting, and the ability to speak softly until you need the big stick, smuggling might be for you. There’s money in moving everything from cigarettes to prosthetics, but the big change is in moving Lottos to one of the three safe places left: Australia, New Liberia, and Taiwan. My client, who was once a cultural attaché based in Sydney, knew where she wanted to go, and for the money she paid, I was going to get her there.
We walked inside the tin-walled hideaway and entered a long hallway, covered in some spots, connecting to a dozen other shacks, huts, and occasional real buildings. I led her through the maze, navigating by smell and memory, until we found Aziq’s shop. It looked like any other door, although a little more purple than the rest, but my artificial eye picked up the flycams and tripwires easily enough. Probably meant there were traps I couldn’t see; I made sure to approach slowly, with cash and ID easily visible in the mottled sunlight from the gaps in the roof.
I heard a clicking sound, and from the way she shifted, so did my client. “Double O, who’s your friend?” a voice asked.
“Fellow traveler,” I said. “Needs some vacation time.”
“We aim to please,” the voice said, and Aziq’s purple door swung open. Together, my client and I strode in, letting our eyes adjust to the lack of illumination in Aziq’s shop. Shelves of random parts, LEDs, and devices too damaged to identify were propped against the walls, reaching to the ceiling, maybe holding it up. Every flat surface was covered with technical manuals, news prints, food wrappers, and well-used tools, and one wall was almost completely covered with scavenged plasma and LCD monitor screens. The floor was wall-to-wall static matting, spotlessly clean and almost glistening.
“Just for show,” my client said, looking at the floor. I nodded. She had a good eye. Aziq’s real business was a little deeper into the rat’s nest.
“Aziq’s in the blending business,” I said.
My client reached to her left and knocked a stack of old wrappers and what looked like Soviet-era invoices onto the floor, sending up a pillar of dust smelling of seared lamb and mango. The mess scattered over the floor, carpeting the entryway in old paperwork.
“Glad to help,” she said.
I smiled and led her back to Aziq’s real shop. Behind a ratty tapestry that Gandhi might have had a picnic on in his youth, a hermetically sealed door was jammed into the wall. The door’s sensor plate scanned us, and we were rewarded with a whoosh of pressure as the door opened. Holding the door open for my client, I followed her into the shop/lab.
“Lieutenant Chopra, it’s an honor to meet you,” Aziq said, bowing slightly as he spoke. His bald head seemed to glow in the fluorescent light. Around us, a ring of 3-D printers and blade racks loomed from ceiling to false floor, under which snaked miles of cables and connections. Rumor was that Aziq had the fifth-largest data center in eastern India.
“You know who I am,” my client asked. Her expression was pleasant, but her eyes were hard.
I remembered that I didn’t know where her kukri was, or if she had more than one.
“I worked with a company of Gurkhas in Sri Lanka, some time ago. Your op in Pakistan was popular water cooler gossip for a time. You have more friends than you know, Lieutenant.”
She smiled. “Maybe I’ll meet them someday.”
Aziq smiled in return, the corners of his mouth barely twitching under his meticulously groomed mustache. “All good things in due time. Come, please have a seat. The databank search may take a few more minutes. You may as well be comfortable.”
A moment’s search produced two office chairs, and we sat while Aziq pulled a stool up to a home-built workstation, a stack of consumer-grade PCs wired in parallel. For the better part of two hours, we watched Aziq in his element, hiding searches and back-door data dumps behind a forest of shell accounts, zombie accesses, and the occasional social engineering hack. Slowly, my client’s new identity, clean and free of any reason for government attention, took shape in Aziq’s hands. I’d seen Aziq work before, and I was still impressed.
As evening started to fall, the last forged smart doc emerged from the printer, and we were done. Physically, we weren’t buying much: a few smart docs, a passport with ID chip, and a couple of bankcards hooked to artificially aged accounts. Aziq bowed as I paid him and walked us out through a different door. When we stepped outside again, we were three blocks north of the alleyway.
“How far can we trust these?” she asked me as we walked toward a bus kiosk. Street buses still took cash, and I figured we had to wait an hour or so to let the new ID wend its way through Protectorate systems.
“Aziq hasn’t screwed a client yet, but let’s not push it. Your face is still relatively well-known, and a ghost suit won’t do diddly against high-focus surveillance.”
“No shopping sprees, then.”
“No,” I laughed.
She looked down the road at the wheezing metal box making its way toward us. Looked like it still used diesel, and might have been brought by the British. Still, it was mostly empty, and wouldn’t have much surveillance. “How do you plan to get us out of the country?”
“Hope you don’t get seasick.”
Lieutenant Chopra didn’t look thrilled. I made a note to give her Dramamine before she boarded the cargo ship. She didn’t know how fortunate she was, getting to ride in a tub with actual passenger compartments, but telling her that probably wouldn’t help.
With a clank and a whoosh of exhaust, the rickety bus stopped, and the driver, who was old when the bus was new, cranked open the door. We climbed aboard, and found seats toward the back of the bus, a couple rows behind a quiet family and a sullen city policeman uninterested in everything but sleeping.
I went over the plan again as the bus lurched back onto the road. Arrangements to ship the lieutenant out on a New Liberia-registered cargo ship were set, but the captain would need an additional bribe to not turn my client in. Once the ship entered international waters, I’d trip an Aziq special: an alert that the lieutenant was seen in a little cafe near Jammu, close to Pakistan. Maybe the Protectorate goons would buy it, but either way, it would muddy the waters. Once the ship reached Jakarta, a fisherman friend related to half of Java would pick her up and island-hop her all the way to Papua New Guinea, then put her on a private flight into Sydney. I’d had clients successfully make this trip before, so I was only mostly worried.
“Two questions,” she said as the bus turned onto the wide road to the docks.
I nodded; most clients were not as cooperative, so I felt like I owed her a little something.
“What does Double O stand for?” she said.
“Othello,” I said. “My dad heard the name once, thought it was great for a girl.”
“Did no one point out the character is a man?”
“He didn’t care about that. Finding out the original was black, something else.”
She laughed, a low throaty sound that didn’t carry far. The policeman stirred in his seat, then slumped against the window again. I looked at the road ahead. In the distance, I could see the stop approaching, and beyond that, the entrance to the cargo docks, where some of our fellow riders were likely going to work.
“Very well, Othello, although your given name is far better than your nickname.”
“There’s another meaning to it. It comes from an old movie series, something about spies. My parents thought it was funny.”
She nodded, pursed her lips. I thought I knew what her second question might be. Proving my Lotto nature was usually good enough, but I suspected my proof would raise another issue.
Before she could frame the question, the bus chuffed and rattled to a stop at the first dockside station. We got to our feet and shuffled down the aisle. Nobody looked twice. The policeman slept through the entire stop.
I started to walk toward the docks, mentally counting off the ships until we reached the New Liberian freighter, and a firm hand closed around my upper arm. My client looked sternly at me. My krav maga is good, but not good enough. I waited.
The lieutenant took a deep breath. “Why are you lying about being a Lotto?”
I thought about how to answer. Damn, she was observant. Wrong conclusion, but she didn’t have all the info. I put my hand over hers. “I didn’t lie, Lieutenant. You just don’t have the whole picture.”
“Explain, please,” she said, in a tone that didn’t sound like a request.
Gently, I took her arm. “I’ll do better. Come on.”
I led her around the side of the squat office building that fronted the main entrance. We walked to the first door, which opened to reveal a dilapidated restroom. An “out of order” sign was nailed to the door, but that was fine. I’d scouted this place; it had lights and a mirror, which was all I needed. I ushered her inside and locked the door behind us.
“I’m going to reach inside my pack now,” I said. “I assume you have a kukri on you?”
“Two,” she said.
“OK, well, you don’t need them. Just watch,” I said.
I took out my med kit, unrolled it on the counter next to the sink. By habit, I inventoried what I had: three full vials of my latest compound, a hypogun, a full set of surgical scalpels, and two packs of disinfectant. More than enough, as long as I got the mix right. Too little methotrexate, too much generic glucocorticoid, things could get uncomfortable.
“Let’s not assume anything here. Why do you think I’m not a Lotto?” I asked as I loaded a vial into the hypogun.
“Your artificial eye,” she said, gaze locked onto my arms and shoulders. Waiting for me to grab for something, I figured.
“Because it would regrow, right?” I said. “Even if I’d lost the eye before those genes went active.” I swabbed a patch on my upper arm, and pressed the hypogun nozzle against my skin. The trigger fired automatically at the correct pressure, made to be as idiot-proof as possible.
Lieutenant Chopra nodded.
“Therefore,” I said, “if I have an artificial eye, I’m not a Lotto, no matter what other signs may present. My eye color could be due to albinism or injury, and some conditions can mimic common Lotto genetic expressions. Logical?”
“I agree,” the lieutenant said.
“Best disguise there is for a Lotto,” I said, washing my hands in disinfectant. The scalpels got a heavy spray, and a quick scan confirmed the blades were as clean as could be in a Chennai restroom without plumbing. My real eye couldn’t do that.
“Lotto traits often run in families,” I said. “Any of your family come up lucky besides you?”
“No, though I had an uncle who disappeared suddenly when I was in training,” she said thoughtfully. “I am the first confirmed.”
“My parents didn’t have it,” I said, holding a scalpel up to the light. “My brother did, though.” I handed her the scalpel handle first to hold while I went through the removal procedure for my artificial eye. “So did my daughter.”
She breathed in sharply, but said nothing. Nothing to say, really. Many normal people had similar tales; Lottos just had them with a side order of dread. It just made it harder to look at other Lottos and not see her face, her eyes, or hear her infant cries as they pulled her from my arms.
“Hold this so that it faces me,” I told her. “This mirror is filthy.”
Lieutenant Chopra did as I said. The wireless connection was good; I could see myself clearly, including the ocular tissue regrowing along the interior wall of the socket. From the tingling in my fingers, the immunosuppressants were taking effect. I still had another minute or so before I could switch out the vials and shoot analgesic spray into the socket. One of the downsides of being a Lotto is that painkillers don’t work well. For what was next, though, painkillers were essential. My knowledge was hard-earned.
The tingling turned into a low hum, not unpleasant but strange. I loaded the analgesic into the hypogun, turned the setting to spray, and coated the interior of my eye socket. Then I did it again. Cold needling turned to numbness, and within a few seconds, it was as if the socket was no longer there.
“Between the immunosuppressants and my artificial eye’s housekeeping, I can keep the eye from coming back quickly,” I told her as I pulled a pair of microforceps from the med kit. “I am a Lotto, though. It will grow back, and the cocktails only work for so long. Mixing a new compound takes time.”
“And so–” the lieutenant began.
“And so,” I said, “occasionally, I have to cut.”
Gently, I reclaimed the scalpel from my unwitting assistant. I pressed the blade against the socket rim, checking for sensitivity to pressure or cold. Good to go.
“We’d better hurry,” I said. “Your ship leaves soon.”
I recognized the look in the lieutenant’s eyes. Every time I think of my child, I remember it in mine. Thus thinking of my daughter, I began cutting out my eye again.
Born into a military family, Othello Maxwell (or Double O, as she prefers) is a world traveler, jack of all trades, and professional Lotto smuggler. Not much of her early life is known, and what details she does share are carefully parsed to minimize exposure. What is known, however, is that she’s good at her work, has contacts all over the surviving First World countries, and counts ancient movie trivia and recreational immunology amongst her few hobbies.
Brandon Nolta is a writer, editor, and professional curmudgeon living in the transportation-challenged wilds of north Idaho. After earning an MFA, he went slightly mad. Nothing much happened with that, so he gave it up and started working for respectable companies again, which he still does when he wants to pay his bills. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Centropic Oracle, Stupefying Stories, The Pedestal Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Perihelion, and a cacophony of other publications. Iron and Smoke, his first novel, was published by Montag Press in 2015; he has yet to admit to a second.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Gray Eye Shuffle” is © 2018 Brandon Nolta
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Leigh Legler