Echoplex – Part One

Part One of my NaNoWriMo effort this year. It’s sci fi, in the cyberpunk tradition of Blade Runner, so advance apologies if sci fic makes you want to gouge you own eyes out. I promise it’s not too sci-fi, and it’s mostly exposition in this segment. Copyright Laura Mauro 2010, etc etc.



It was January, and accordingly, it was raining.


The woman stepped off the bus and into the damp Deptford street. Ankle-deep puddles glowed bright green with the distorted reflections of garish neon shop-signs. A soggy fried chicken box sailed cheerfully past, buoyed by a foamy stream of gutter water.


She walked quickly, head down, hair slicked to her face in long black tendrils. Two small children, far too young to be out alone at this time of night, huddled for warmth beneath the bus shelter and watched her with wary eyes as she passed.


She made her way up the iron staircase that led to her flat, above the dry cleaners that never opened, and noticed as she did that the house next door had a window smashed, a spider web of cracks radiating out from one neat central hole. Broken glass crackled beneath her feet like gravel. Nice, she thought, opening her own front door.


The house was not yet warm, but there was some respite from the cold wind. There was a certain comfort in the dry musty fug that hung in the air, rising up from the threadbare carpet. She fumbled in the dark for the central heating control and shrugged off her damp coat, hanging it over the banister as she went.


It wasn’t until she flipped the light switch that she noticed there was a man sitting at her kitchen table.


She drew in a sharp breath and he smiled apologetically, as if he was sorry for startling her.

“Held up, were you?” he asked. He spoke in a cut glass accent and held a half-smoked cigarette in one hand. A thin plume of smoke spiralled up toward the ceiling, dissipating as it went. He had commandeered an old saucer as an ashtray. She frowned.


“If you must smoke, Mr Maynard, please open the window.” Her tone was careful and measured. The man raised an eyebrow, but opened the window nonetheless, letting in a sharp blast of cold air. He rested his long fingers on the sill, the cigarette hanging loosely between his finger and thumb. He seemed nonplussed by the rain.


“Maynard is fine,” he said, amiable.


The woman said nothing. She emptied the contents of her pockets out onto the kitchen counter – bus pass, loose change, chapstick – watching from the corner of her eye as the man took a long, theatrical drag on his cigarette.


“I think we might have got off on the wrong foot the other night,” he said, stubbing the cigarette out on the window frame. That got her attention. She turned, fixing him with a cold unimpressed stare.


“Yes, and breaking into my flat is absolutely the right foot,” she replied.


Infuriatingly, Maynard smiled at her. It was the kind of smile that showed just a few too many teeth and erred on the wrong side of ‘cocky’. “It was a necessary evil,” he said, flicking the stub out of the window. “Since you barely gave me the opportunity to explain myself properly, I thought it was only fair you gave me a second chance.”


“You could have asked. Normal people do” she said . She was growing less impressed with him by the second, and he must have known it, because his smirk disappeared, and he straightened in his seat.


“You would have refused,” he replied. “And that’s my fault. I should have done my research properly; clearly you’re less receptive to flirting than I had been lead to believe.”


She sighed, folding her arms across her chest. “I would have refused, because I’m just not interested. Mr Maynard. I don’t think you realise this, but despite not having graduated yet, I have been approached by major corporations willing to offer me a six-figure salary. I turned each of them down. What could you possibly have to offer me?”


Maynard grinned, as if pleased with his own audacity. He paused to light a second cigarette while she tapped her fingers impatiently on the counter.


“My line of work is…unorthodox.” He offered her the packet, purely a formality. She declined, as he had known she would. “And this is the kind of opportunity a scientist of your calibre can’t refuse.”


“Mr Maynard. You have exactly two minutes…” She looked over to the wall clock hanging above the kitchen sink. Twenty to nine. “After which time I will not hesitate to call the police.”


“You really are quite tough to crack. But all right. I suppose you’ve heard of Parkview Life Sciences?”


She nodded, taking a seat at the other end of the table. The lingering smell of tobacco smoke was unpleasant, and she wondered how long he’d been here, smoking cigarettes in the dark. “They were one of the companies that approached me.”


“Good. That speeds things up somewhat.” He inclined his head towards the window, blowing a fine stream of smoke out into the night. Somewhere in the distance, the wail of police sirens sounded, reassuringly familiar. “My client is also familiar with Parkview, intimately so. And therein lies his problem. He is a man of some notoriety, and one of the first to be ‘rehabilitated’. Unfortunately, he has found his rehabilitation most disagreeable. And this is where you come in.”


She narrowed her eyes. “If I understand you correctly, then what you’re asking of me can be done by any good surgeon. And if your client is as well connected as he sounds, it should be fairly simple for him to secure their services.” As she spoke, Maynard studied her with practised neutrality, smoking quietly. Far too passive, she thought, and stopped talking.


“I need someone more skilled than the average.” He seemed impressed that she’d figured him out. “And, more importantly, someone who isn’t averse to…operations of dubious legality.”


“Or good old-fashioned illegality?”


He laughed, and did not even try to hide it. “I’ve seen your thesis,” he said, and despite his genial tone the admission seemed unbearably creepy. “You lack experience, but your talent is beyond question. And since I have approximately thirty seconds left to win you over…” Maynard reached one hand into his tweed jacket, producing a Polaroid from his inner pocket. He pushed it across the table towards her.


She turned it over. Her eyes widened. It was a picture of a man, but barely so; his face was a nightmarish mask of stretched pink flesh and where there ought to have been a mouth was nothing at all. Just a flat expanse of skin, and a thin white stripe of gnarled scar tissue running in a vertical line. A long plastic tube protruded from the left nostril. His eyes were wide, rheumy circles. They seemed to be silently begging for help.


She looked back up at Maynard, a little open-mouthed, and he slipped the photo back into his pocket as if it had never been there at all, his expression carefully ambiguous.


“Fancy a challenge?” he asked.



“The trial of Nina Krková enters its fourth day, with violent scenes outside the Old Bailey as the defendant was led in. A small number of human rights protesters clashed with police in what chief of police David Metcalfe described as ‘an act of wilful civil disobedience’. Single mother Ms Krková stands accused of murdering her two month old daughter in December of last year.”


“There’s something really dodgy about this.”


Sid raised her head. Quale stood with his arms crossed, staring up at the TV. He looked disgusted, or weary, or perhaps both. It was not an expression Sid usually associated with Quale, who tended towards the apathetic, and preferred not to watch the news if he could help it.


“I mean it, Sid. I don’t like the way they’re spinning this.”


“Then why are you watching it?” she asked. Quale did not reply, but muttered some obscenity beneath his breath and switched the TV off, shoving his hands in his pockets.


“I don’t think you’re suited to current affairs,” Sid said, and retrieved the remote control from the arm of the sofa. “And while we’re at it, I would prefer it if you didn’t waltz on into my house and take possession of my television.”


“I don’t understand why you even have a television,” Quale replied, gesturing towards the wall. It was a reasonably expensive model, but Sid seemed content to let it gather dust. “You don’t watch the bloody thing. Sometimes I think you’d be happier living on a small island, somewhere off the coast of Scotland.”


“Perhaps I would.” She regarded him with impassive black eyes, watching with amusement as Quale attempted to figure out whether or not she was being serious. “But it would be cripplingly dull. I think the vagaries of modern life are a fair trade for a little excitement here and there.”


“Your idea of excitement, Sid, is probably not in line with the standard definition.” Quale picked up a tattered rucksack from next to the sofa. It was a faded navy blue, and perhaps the most colourful thing in Sid’s muted, magnolia-toned living room. “And on that note, I have another case for you.”


“Goody.” Sid swung her legs off the sofa to make space. Quale sat down, leaving enough room between them for the series of photocards he placed in careful order, each detailing the same human body from different perspectives. At first glance they seemed unremarkable, a fairly typical depiction of the average male torso. But closer inspection revealed a column of dark, lumpen protrusions along both biceps, like pearls beneath the skin. In one particularly abstract photo, it seemed as if the man had tiny steel ringlets embedded in each knuckle.


“Weird one, this,” Quale said, and digs a green cardboard folder out of the rucksack. “The little round bits here, on his upper arms, are sacs that can be filled with capsicum spray. You can’t see it, but running beneath the skin is a delivery tube. By moving the right muscle, he can effectively shoot pepper spray from his knuckles.”


Sid eyed him in disbelief. “Does it work?”


“In the most basic sense.” Quale passed her a ream of printed pages, which she immediately dismissed and set down upon the coffee table. “They haven’t quite figured out how to control the firing mechanism. If the subject makes a sudden movement, it triggers the spray.”


“Built-for-purpose riot police.” Sid mused. “I assume he has retinal protection?”


Quale nodded. “Protective lenses, and nasal filters. The subject wants to keep those. Christ knows why.”


“It’s a nice theory,” Sid said. She sounded genuinely impressed. She placed the pictures back down, picking up the files. She flipped cursorily through, stopping briefly on anything that looked interesting. Quale sat quietly. Interrupting Sid’s thought process, in his experience, was a sure fire way to invoke her wrath.


After a time, she placed the papers carefully down on the coffee table and nodded at Quale. “I can fix this,” she said. The sheer oddity of it intrigued her. Normally, Sid preferred the complex cases – the modified limbs, the reconfiguration of the retina, anything that might push her to her limit. And although she judged this to be an easy case to fix, the strangeness of the idea, and the ramshackle execution piqued her curiosity in a way the more comprehensive biomechanical cases often did not.


The “rehabilitation” of detainees, Quale once explained, ended in one of three ways. If the procedure was successful, the detainees were kept like exhibits, prototypes for projects that might never happen. If the procedure was unsuccessful, the detainee usually died. On the odd occasion that the detainee survived, they were released; permanently disfigured, they served both as a cautionary tale, and proof to the world that the government took punishment seriously.


“Piece of cake for you.” Quale said nonchalantly. “He’s released in two weeks. Should be plenty of time to let me know what you need.”


“For a case this simple? I have everything I need.” Sid’s office-cum-operating theatre, hidden away among the masses of empty warehouses down in Docklands, was stuffed to the gills with equipment. Some of it had been acquired through quite legal avenues, supplied by the various contacts she had accrued over the years. The rest was smuggled out, piece by piece, in Quale’s van, straight from Parkview Life Sciences. His job as a caretaker, and the somewhat misguided faith placed in him by his oblivious employers, gave him access to all areas of the facility, and when Sid needed something specific, he made sure it left the building with him at the end of his shift.


To the best of his knowledge, Quale had thus far raised absolutely no suspicions. He once told Sid that the careful maintenance of his quiet, unassuming work persona was instrumental in his success as a master thief. Sid didn’t think it was as much of an ‘assumed persona’ as he made out.


It wasn’t just theft Quale dabbled in. He scouted cases from the ready-for-release detainees, brought her the kind of bizarre cases she thrived on. It wasn’t out of altruism – he was quite apathetic towards the idea of ‘prisoner’s rights’, and didn’t care much for the assorted criminals and deadbeats that made up the bulk of Parkview’s subject matter. No, Sid suspected that it was a combination of sheer curiosity and the three hundred quid she gave him for each case.


“How’s Rie working out?” Quale asked, getting to his feet.


Sid rolled her eyes. Quale had brought Rie, a cutesy Anglo-Japanese waif, to her eight months ago. A promising biomechanical science student, she had previously been plucked out of obscurity by the brains at Parkview just weeks after graduating. According to Quale – and Sid did not quite trust his account – she had found Parkview’s whole ‘greater good’ routine hard to stomach, and the increasingly gratuitous experiments performed on detainees horrifying.


Rie was the sort of perpetually optimistic woman-child that Sid found difficult to cope with. At first, she had not quite believed Rie was real – she seemed too much of a parody, a living, breathing trope. But she was, and eight months later her irrepressible spirit and happy-go-lucky attitude led Sid to believe that perhaps Quale had done this on purpose.


“I don’t think I want to strangle her any more,” Sid replied. She heard him rummaging in the fridge. “But please don’t bring me any more ‘help’, Quale, I can just about deal with her.”


“You couldn’t cope.” Quale said, returning from the kitchen. He had two cans of grape soda and handed one to Sid. The can hissed violently as she snaps the ring pull. Sid did not keep much food in her house, but what food she had tended to be sweet, and not at all nutritious. “And let’s face it. Things are running much smoother with Rie.”


“Oh, don’t think that’s a testament to her efficiency.”


“But she is good at what she does.”


Quale let the statement hang in the air for a moment. Sid shot him an irritated look. She did not like being forced into giving praise. “Yes. I suppose she is.”


Quale grinned, and opened his drink. “Well, that’s a start.”


Quale was one of the select few people that knew the origins of Sid’s enterprise, and it was a testament to his unassuming nature that she had trusted him enough to tell him. Even moreso that she had actually felt inclined towards telling him anything about herself – she was intensely private. Given that Quale frequently engaged in illegal activity for Sid’s sake, though, it seemed only right that she should be honest.


She was in her final year of internship at the Greenwich Institute of Experimental Biology when a brash, well-dressed man one day interrupted her lunch. He introduced himself as Maynard – he didn’t have a first name, apparently, and Sid’s first thought was that he was one of those unbearably pretentious pricks who swan around the Institute in their expensive clothes, trying to impress people with their ‘outside the box thinking’.


He wasn’t, but he wasn’t much better. He must have thought he was charming, but he was actually repellently arrogant, so assured of his own presence that he completely neglected to get to the point. Sid stayed long enough to finish her sandwich and left while he was still talking.


But Maynard proved a persistent bastard, and he turned up in her kitchen one evening, a few days later. She threatened to call the police, but he piqued her interest. Her carefully maintained veneer of disinterest had been destroyed with a single polaroid. The man in the picture had his mouth surgically sealed. She struggled to reconcile the image with the supposed ethos of Parkview; scientific experimentation upon the worst kinds of convicted criminals, all for the greater good.


A week later, on Maynard’s bidding, she met with a man named Bruce. Sid assumed it wasn’t his real name. It didn’t bother her – Sid wasn’t her real name either. In the murky world in which Bruce operated, names are irrevocably linked to histories, and Sid had no intention of giving this strange man, residing in a beautifully refurbished railway arch, any access to who she really was.


Bruce explained, in a painfully roundabout way, that his brother was the man in the picture. Wilson (also not his real name) had spent the past year incarcerated at the recently opened Parkview Life Sciences, the biggest experimental laboratory in Britain. Wilson had been released to set an example, to prove how tough the government could be. It was what people wanted.


Not once did Bruce try to convince her that Wilson was innocent, that he was a poor benighted victim of a cruel system. He didn’t bother appealing to her humane side. Instead, he showed her a briefcase crammed with crisp £50 notes (just like in the movies, Sid told Quale, mildly amused) and told her that if she fixed his brother, he would see to it that she was looked after.


Sid didn’t need any more motivation. Truth be told, the bribe was largely unnecessary. She wanted the case. In her time at the Institute, training as a specialist in reconstructive surgery, she had attended to a seemingly never-ending stream of burn victims, acid attacks, traffic accidents. All interesting, in their own way, but standard fare. This case was like nothing she had ever seen before. It was equal parts grotesque and exciting. It was also illegal. That part hadn’t bothered her as much as she had expected it to.


Bruce set up a rudimentary operating theatre for her in Docklands. It was an area in neutral territory, sandwiched between the South Thameside and Three Bridges ganglands, and therefore one of the safest places to be. The operating theatre was a wonder; filled to the brim with sophisticated equipment of the kind even the Institute would covet. Sid found herself wondering, for the umpteenth time, what this strange man did to earn his millions, and why he hid out in railway arches like a rat in the sewers.


The process took weeks. She built Wilson a whole new mouth, a set of artificial teeth. She built lips from scratch, and manipulated his muscles into their old functions. It was not perfect, but he had a fully functional mouth to replace the one Parkview took away.


The whole thing required mathematical precision and headache-inducing levels of concentration. It was the hardest thing she had ever done, at that point in her career at least. She found it exhilarating in a way that nothing else had ever come close to. In the space of a week, she had discovered what she wanted to do with her life. It was almost too clichéd for her to bear.


Bruce was as good as his word. He let her keep the warehouse, and all of the gleaming equipment, in lieu of payment. And almost a year later, when a young man named Simon Quale brought her a horribly maimed man (“They wanted me to let him die,” he told her; the kid was barely twenty years old and was so out of his depth she couldn’t help but feel sorry for him) she realised how powerful an ally she had; her name had spread far and wide, and she was glad of her pseudonym.