"Looking at a program written in machine language is vaguely comparable to looking at a DNA molecule atom by atom." - Douglas Hofstadter
WHEN NIKKO LOST HIS arm in Israel, the government replaced it free of charge, gave him a composite prosthetic wrapped in some real nastily stuff called PseudoQtaneous. When Nikko left his arm in a studio apartment just north of UCLA, he had to pay out of pocket.
What was nasty about PseudoQtaneous was how sticky it got when even slightly moist. On humid days, Nikko took to carrying a small container of talcum, which he would rub liberally over his prosthetic, afraid he’d be forced by circumstance to shake hands with a lefty and have to bear hearing that sick peeling noise—exactly like a naked thigh being drawn off a hot leather car seat—and seeing that cringing look of revulsion on said lefty’s face as palms parted, true flesh clinging to its sorry imitator.
They could almost be funny: those reactions, the looks on people’s faces as a regular, quotidian ritual was transformed by the grotesque and unanticipated; the reptilian fear of disease and contamination giving way to pity and embarrassment once their forebrains got a hold on the situation. A few times, Nikko wondered if it wasn’t just his lack of an arm that made them pity him, but his reliance on an obsolete technology, which is its own kind of disfigurement in this age.
It made him think that, think about getting a new arm, but he always put it off. He had some money; he could have wrestled enough together to get something new fitted, something that wasn’t coated in off-patent flesh substitute. But there were always more essential uses for his cash. And the arm worked well enough when it came to lifting and grasping, carrying and manipulating. Just no good for handshakes. So he put it off. And after awhile he started thinking he’d keep the thing forever—then he met Catalina Fitz at a bar in West Hollywood.
THAT NIGHT HE ACTUALLY got himself a little splatted, unusual for him. He didn’t like the feeling of his id taking the drivers seat, at least he didn’t like it in hindsight. In a booth in a bar called Frank’s, Nikko was trading rounds with Anthony Boole, an Australian with blue eyes and gilt features, an actor and fellow vet who’d just landed a big motion capture deal. He kept going on and on about how the movie business had lost its biggest perk. He said, “It’s no good for getting birds anymore. Only reason, the only reason I pull at all is there’s still some vestigial reverence in the female psyche for the movie star. Even though these days all we do is pull the strings of bloody software puppets.”
Nikko, getting tired of all the complaining, was just about to suggest Anthony give up on flesh-and-blood girls and get his kicks in VR like a normal person, when he saw Miss Fitz a few tables down, smoking one of those cigarettes which aren’t really cigarettes, just plastic cylinders filled with a glycerin/tobacco mixture that resembles smoke when vaporized: With nicotine dependence cured, it was pure fashion statement. Nikko found that interesting, almost as interesting as her weighty lips, the tongue behind which was nudging and twirling the electric cigarette as she inhaled, tracing out a torus with its simulated LED ash. Nikko said, pointing, “You see the black-haired woman there, green eyes, has the lips of a succubus? You think she’s got any vestigial reverence for movie stars? Those days are dead, and the fucking nostalgia’s dead too. You’re deluded, Ant. If you’re in it for the girls, I figure you’d be better off working out how to be charming.”
Ant’s handsome liniments twisted into a real offended look; then he started saying he knew all there was to know about charm. And Nikko just asked him, just asked, “If that’s true then why’re you complaining about how little you’re pulling?” And Anthony’s had no response to that, just sort of got stunned for second—till he jumped out of the booth they were sharing and made his way towards Fitz and the girl she was chatting with.
Wasn’t five minutes and Anthony was walking back with a girl on each arm, a big smirk nailed under his nose. Nikko smiled at that and then at Catalina, who, it seemed to him, was just playing along for her friend’s benefit, a redhead with very fake tits and a décolletage to match. Type of girl, Nikko figured, Ant was wont to go for, leaving him with Lips, as he had her labeled ‘till she sat down beside him and told him her name. Said, “Good meeting you; I’m Catalina Fitz.” Nikko told her his name and said he wasn’t entirely sure if he was pleased to meet her. She laughed a little more than she should have; a good sign, he figured.
“And what are you?” Nikko asked, looking into chlorophyll eyes.
“I’m the girl talking to you.”
“Nah,” he said. “What are you? Student, lawyer, programmer, one of the unemployed millions ruing automation—you know, what are you?” She said she wasn’t going to say, that what a person does isn’t who they are. Nikko raised an eyebrow; she laughed and told him she was studying applied mathematics at UCLA and then asked him the same question. He smiled, said, “Stop being so shallow; what a person does isn’t who they are.”
She giggled then, her turn to raise an eyebrow. “No seriously, what do you do?”
He told her the truth, that he was working half-time as drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruits Center, that he had since the war. “Mostly, the job is yelling at young nerds , the smart technicians that program the drones. The brass, they still want their new recruits to experience the whole shoe-shining-and-obstacle-course thing for a few months, as its traditional. But it’s all running on inertia now, vestigial” Sometimes, he told her, he felt like an anachronism.
And she said, “Aren’t we all?”
An hour later, Anthony left, taking Red with him to some industry party in the Heights. Nikko and Catalina just kept drinking, talking, laughing, flirting so hard they both knew sex was inevitable, each hardly even noticing their friend’s departure. By the time they staggered out of the bar, both were criminally intoxicated. So they hailed an autocab, which took them to Fitz’s apartment, the two of them grinding against each other like teenagers as the insomiatic city flowed past, the view through the windows as neglected as an airport television, their drunken affair continuing in the elevator, taken to an uncoordinated conclusion atop the extruded-nylon sheets of Catalina’s single bed.
EARLY SATURDAY MORNING, THE sun just above the horizon, Nikko woke up with a headache and his arm, his prosthetic arm, wrapped around a sleeping Ms. Fitz, who was using it as a sort of ersatz pillow, her face clinging to the false skin, now sticky from drool. The night before, he had done his drunken best to hide the thing—wasn’t hard that, what with him keeping his T-shirt on and both of them in no state to notice much of anything. Not tough at all. But now the girl was sleeping on it, stuck like a bug to flypaper. And the last thing Nikko needed was to interact with her. It would have been embarrassing enough without her pealing her cheek off his arm, wondering what the fuck was going on.
So Nikko was lying there wondering if he should just wake her, get it all over with, when this real beautiful image from a National Geographic webpage he read as a kid started kicking around his occipital lobe: that of a gecko detaching its tail to escape an eagle’s talons. Nikko smiled. And for or the first time since he watched, live, as the holy land was transmuted into radioactive glass, gaping at the muted television which hung from the badly-plastered roof above the bed in the Egyptian hospital room in which he was convalescing, Nikko was glad he lost his arm.
Still smiling, he reached over his torso, his right hand sliding up his left shoulder. He felt around for awhile, careful to keep things silent. He found the threaded steel ring which attached his prosthetic to the titanium nub anchored to his humerus, carefully unscrewing it. Last step, he deactivated a spring-loaded fastener, then, free of his arm, rolled out of bed.
He left her apartment and took a cab home, leaving Catalina with her ersatz pillow. On the table by her door Nikko didn’t leave a note or any sort of contact information, just a small container of talcum powder, now unneeded.
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