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This will not be here for too long.


by Matt Maxwell

for Tim Maughan, who provided the germ

"The Qloud tastes like suicide," Raisha said to the auditor, who was as pale as anyone she had ever seen. The only spot of color on her were her lashes, which had been grafted on and twisted, painted bright blue like coral polyps at the ends of her eyelids. Even her irises were colorless.

She tried to let the moment flex and waited for the other auditor to process. The words would probably make sense, but her pale majesty wouldn’t know it to be literally true.

She noted the answer and tapped out a sequence on the green square of glass at the ends of her fingertips. She didn’t challenge the statement, which meant she couldn't have understood it.

The feeling of shaking the auditor's hand still hung on Raisha's skin like oil. On her entry, the woman extended the hand and waited. No dodge. Because that was the first stage of the audit and there was too much at stake to give into her skin's unease.

Just renting out space in your head, Raisha told herself. Just do it and move on.

The woman’s hand had felt bloodless, draped over the edge of a bathtub with red waters.

"You’re tense." Colorless nails clicked on the glass as Raisha felt herself being drunk in.

"I’m never not tense."

"Is that because you’ve been stealing from RedHouse?" the auditor asked, eyes back to the tablet. "Research is a position with seemingly little oversight."


Cameras and sniffers crawled over every detail of the exchange. Even Isolates couldn’t fool them. Emotional discharges from deceit and surprise showed as blooms of pink and orange on the slates. It was a routine question that had always gotten the same reply. The screen stayed a cool emerald beneath the white fingers.

"The handshake," Raisha said without attachment. "And the fact that I’m not due for a field-level audit. I’ve only got three sorties on my card." She could see the card in her mind, yellow plastic bright between her brown fingers, the nails black with silver curves painted atop. She held the image to steady herself, remind herself that she was wrapped in a skin just like everyone else.

"The audit count gets reset when you’ve been in Research for more than a year. New policy. RedHouse needs to make sure that you can still tap a blue line without crumbling." The auditor’s grasp of the jargon was fumbling, like she’d driven up the wrong street looking for something she couldn't get in her office tower. There'd been more than a share of those crawling the wrong side of the Baltimore of Raisha's youth, longer ago than it ever seemed.

"Things must be bad if you’re recruiting miners from Research. I already did my time on a tub."

The auditor curled her lips in a sour face and her perfect complexion just made it worse. "I’m sorry." The screen slid across the desktop. "I’m not used to dealing with Isolates as damaged as you."

"We’re all damaged about the same, just in different ways. None of us likes to be touched." Raisha heard her mother’s tone in the reply and curled up inside at it.

At least she didn’t call me a Q-tip.

"Haphephobia is common, but not exclusive to Isolates. And we need to measure your personal responses."

It sounded like half-a-phobia, but it was enough to wreck my whole life.

"To see if I’ll break the next time I touch the Qloud. I get it." She clicked her nails one-two-three-four on the white tabletop. "I still haven’t been told why I’m being sent out on a ship."

Time had crawled geologically inside climate-controlled archives and laboratories, data so critical that it couldn’t be digitized for fear that someone else—like WareCo—would be able to tease it out. Suppressed knowledge that had been stolen from the Hesette and off-the-books studies in aetheric wave manipulation, Solomonic circle configurations in nanoscale gold lattice, all these too precious to commit to any easily-copied form. Trade secrets were only valuable when they stayed that.

Then there were the other studies, the ones that she couldn’t even think about while the sniffers were active.

"It’s because of your value to RedHouse that we take these steps."

Raisha reached out through the back of her mind, trying to read the woman while hiding what the sniffers were supposed to be looking for: hate, self-loathing, ideations of suicide, all signs of Qloud contamination. Those and treachery planned or not.

But they wouldn't find it.

"I owe RedHouse everything," Raisha said with a space between every word. "Without them, I’d still be an unschooled Isolate in a Q-ward or wandering Patapsco until I starved to death. I only want to pay back what they’re owed."

All of this was true.

The electric blue lashes narrowed, piercing. Raisha breathed out and kept her mind as clear as when she drove the ‘munc into the Qloud. She was a conduit that emotion would pass through, but not touch or linger on. The Qloud would kill you if you held onto it.

"Your answers are satisfactory." The woman touched a spot on the screen, which left a red fingerprint. "Wait here and my superior will tell you what happens next." She then stood up like a praying mantis unfolding itself and left the room.

The electric vibration of the sniffers died down and the lights on the cameras all dimmed. They’d stopped watching, for whatever reason. The thought was not comforting as it should have been. Trying to relax, she remembered the chicken shack and Runt and the last time she had wanted to touch another human, though wasn't him.

But just a taste. Don’t dwell.

The door opened and she watched as someone new came in and sat down, eyeing the chair like it was too cheap for him. His suit was black with a red tie creased sharp enough to slice open a wrist. The room’s light made the wrinkles and creases of his face stand out in sharp relief.

He hadn’t gotten his skin from smiling, but from worry.

She had to hold herself down when she recognized him. If the sniffers had still been on, she’d have blown it all.

"Raisha Burke," he said. "You’re just the Isolate we’ve been looking for."

Not a man or a woman, but an Isolate.

"Thank you."

"This isn’t being recorded. You can be honest."

"The cameras change nothing."

A good lie.

"Sound policy." He interlocked his fingers on the desk. He couldn’t decide how to hold them. "I am not here."

Now his eyes focused on hers, but drifted in tiny spirals, unable to lock. He was just a businessman and wouldn't see into her.

"Do you—"

"Yes, I know who you are, Mr. House. Largest shareholder and next in line—"

"For a throne made of shit." He unlinked his hands and ran one of them over the top of his skull like he was trying to rub mange off his scalp. "If the takeover goes through."

"WareCo? But I’d heard that the offer was rebuffed." Raisha thought of the woman who’d tried to recruit her for WareCo years ago. She’d been intrigued by the job—until the woman took off her glove and showed the stippling of hundreds of tiny scars along her palms and fingertips, like miniature red galaxies. WareCo’s limb systems were studded with retractable spikes that could extend and pierce at any time. It was the anxious anticipation on the part of the operator that made for a higher quality Qloud product.

That was WareCo’s brand. They did anxiety, a kind of insect-crawling over the soul. The flavor of wakefulness at midnight, steeped in the leavings of perpetual failure. They’d been the first combine to employ the magic phrase "Weaponized Melancholy," but they weren’t the last. Or even the best.

RedHouse wore that crown, and looked like they would forever. At least it seemed that way before the dance of takeover: two continents circling and looking for a way to get purchase on the other. RedHouse had come late into the Qloud-mining game, but they were the first to introduce repurposed and gaily-repainted oil tankers as mobile limb-platforms. This let crews chase the Qloud all the way out into the hearts of the great oceans.

"WareCo is trying to buy out Gabrels and Corin on the board. And they’ll succeed. And then RedHouse ends. I hope you’re not too attached to your hands." His gaze tracked down to Raisha’s fingers poised at the edge of the table.

The thought of RedHouse’s death shot through her like shame. Her stomach kicked. "That can’t happen."

"I was hoping you’d see it that way." House placed his hands palms-down on the table, but did not reach for her. He was smarter than that. "I need you to take a sortie for me. A special one."

Raisha nodded, thinking about her family and how RedHouse had become a replacement for them after Baltimore burned. RedHouse couldn’t fall.

Not now.

She curled her hand into a fist and left it there.

"What do I have to do?" she asked.

He dipped his head once in recognition. "You’ll go out on the Cathedral of Swans in a week and save this company."


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