She strides down the strobing corridor in step with the bass-roar of the arena and the beat-beat of her heart, the thud of blood and cocaine pulsing through her veins. The drugs used to dull the shock of stepping out onto the stage, turn fear into exhilaration, but shock and fear and exhilaration have all faded over the years of trite repetition, of rote moves and rote words repeated again and again and again for fresh tides of screaming faces.
Now she only feels numb as she poses before another crowd, stretching thousands of bodies back into invisibility in the dark vastness of the arena. They can all see her, though, blast-lit in scorching spotlight and rendered giant on screens she cannot see but knows too well that they can. They cannot imagine the heat of those lights, a heat that turns her over-exposed skin to melting wax.
Synths blare bassy eruptions, and she moves in over-rehearsed routine, like a puppet suspended on strings spun from the perverted minds of a producers’ committee. Stomp stomp, hip check, grind, grind, grind. The only relief is that repetition has trained her muscles to perform without input from her brain, this relief tempered by the fact that this allows her mind the chance to wander.
Her throat is an equally well-trained muscle, bellowing senseless vocal on thoughtless cue. Lyrics assembled by focus-tested checklist, devoid of meaning but lighting fires in the sea of eyes that watch her rapt with lust and lustre. She can’t hit the high notes any more, but she doesn’t have to; the chip taped to her neck steals her voice before it can reach her lips and re-casts it as a synthetic scream. The crowd scream back, a wave of stale alcoholic exhalation.
She jiggles to indulge their half-drunken fantasies, their crumbled dreams of grandeur and voyeuristic projection. She stands baked in spotlight wearing strips of rubber and makeup and her own pale skin, sweaty simulacrum of castrated sexuality. She moves as if she’s fucking each of them in their upturned faces. No one could call this dancing, but they do. But they do.
Soon it’s over, set list checked off with a passionless sneer. She gives a final trademark lip-curl as the crowd explodes, then the lights finally release her from their attention. They rush as a single mass towards the bars that line the edges of the arena and she makes her way back down the neon-lit corridor. Into her cramped dressing room, slump into soft-backed chair and hand around the neck of a scotch bottle. Let out the breath that feels like it’s been held since she emerged on stage. There’s no joy for her in that breath these days, only exhaustion.
She stares blankly into the middle distance for a while, the effort of holding her head up almost too much to bear. Finally she drags the bottle to her lips and takes a swig of whiskey. Quickened just enough, she reaches into her bag on the back of the chair and takes out her sachet of narcotics. She spreads them out on the table, crystalline powders and powdery pills. She selects with medical precision and imbibes, chemical inhalation and the rest washed down with another slug of scotch.
She picks up the paper that someone’s left on the table and reads the front page headline: The world mourns the tragic death of beloved pop-idol Nazumi Naoko. Naoko had been found in the bathtub of a Kyoto hotel suite, wrists slashed open to the world. Another high-profile celebrity suicide. Priscilla realises that the damp on her face is tears, and wonders what reason she has to cry.
She hadn’t known Naoko, not personally, but at one time she felt like she had, in the same way those of the fire-eyed crowd no doubt believe they know Priscilla. Naoko had been an inspiration to her, in a long-ago life she can only barely remember. Naoko had been everything she had wanted to be, and now Naoko was dead, all her blood run out into the sewers of her hometown. The tragedy of it felt somehow personal.
Juan grits his teeth as he opens the door to Priscilla’s dressing room. The usual smell assails him; sweat, scotch, perfume. She doesn’t look up when he enters. He studies Priscilla Galena, explosive star of the international club scene and the British music industry’s greatest recent export. A sticky, fleshy form slouched on a cheap stool, traces of cocaine stuck to the mucus trickle below her nose.
More than anything she looks old. Juan knows for a fact she’s no older than thirty, or she’d be retired already, but in the harsh light of the dressing room she looks haggard and beat-up. Her too-pale flesh bulges and sags queasily around the rubber straps of her costume, and her makeup, despite the promises of the cosmetics company that supplied it at exorbitant cost, has run under the heat of the spotlights, making her face appear as though it’s melting. Great red rings where she has been crying make her look as though she’s been hit in the face. Juan knows she hasn’t been. If she had, Juan would be out of job. Juan’s job is to ensure Priscilla Galena’s comfort. Juan is good at his job. Even so, she cries a lot these days. Too regularly she devolves into this disgusting mess. It makes Juan edgy.
He swallows his revulsion and reminds himself that millions must envy his stewardship of this woman. He’d wager that if they could see her as he was forced to, those millions would change their mind. Even so, Priscilla Galena is a big gig. One of the biggest. Juan fought ruthlessly to secure this job, though between paychecks he struggles to remember why. Shouldn’t be for too much longer, though. Can’t be long now until it’s time for her to retire. And after Priscilla Galena, his superiors will give him any gig he wants. The entertainment industry will be Juan’s oyster. So he smiles and does his job. Juan is good at his job.
“Pris, we’ve got to be out of here by eleven. Take a shower; I’ll meet you downstairs in an hour. I’ll send someone up to collect your things.”
She looks at him then, though she gives no indication that she understood; her eyes are hollow and glazed. Juan doesn’t care if she chooses to obliterate her mind with narcotics. In fact, he actively encourages it; it makes her much easier to deal with. He gladly supplies her with all the drugs she asks for and then some. It doesn’t matter either whether she actually heard him, or if she actually does meet him downstairs. If she doesn’t show up, he’ll send someone to drag her to the limo. If anything it’s easier that way. Juan just has to say the words, because that’s his job.
Juan goes outside and shuts the door, unable to look at the woman any longer. Dealing with Priscilla Galena is actually the least important part of his job, so he gives it little thought as he goes to attend to the more important parts. There are flights to arrange, hotels to book, and paparazzi to bribe. All part of Juan’s job. Juan is good at his job.
When Priscilla gets out of the shower her thoughts are like razorblades. The cocktail of drugs has set her nervous system alight, making her teeth hum and the underside of her skin itch. As she looks around the inside her of dressing room, she feels a galloping claustrophobia circling her heart.
Doesn’t matter when she is in the world; Milan, Paris, Hamburg, Dubai, London, doesn’t matter. Dressing rooms always look the same. Like a cheap brothel, and the similarity was inherent in more than just the decor. The arena stage, with its lights and lasers and bass and smoke, is an expensive facade. This sexless little room with its cheap furniture and interchangeable decor, this pit which follows her around the world, is her reality.
She wants to get out. The follicles of her skin vibrate with an urgent need to escape. And while she could be in any city in the world, she’s isn’t; she’s in London. Here, unique in the world, she has somewhere she can escape to. Her father’s Chelsea house, empty the year round apart from those few precious holiday weekends, when she can shut herself inside, draw all the curtains and hide from the world for a few days. Her next holiday isn’t due for months, but she has a key, and she knows the way. She has her wits still, so she can leave.
Her body moves in staccato jerks as she drags on clothes, the plainest she can find from the bottom of a dresser. She drags a woollen hat down over still-wet hair. A moment dilates as she watches herself in the mirror. Eyes hollow and ragged, hair lank and dead from so many treatments, jaw clamped in chemical rictus; no one could mistake her for Priscilla Galena, pop idol and fashion icon. She looks like any other burnt-out street-trash junkie coughed up from the city’s ailing brick lungs. When she tears herself away, her thoughts are hammering through her brain, slamming from one side to the other with the regularity of a metronome.
She pops another couple of pills from her stash, then pours the rest of the whiskey into the airtight flask she keeps in her bag. For the road. She checks to make sure her canister of gas is still there; she’s not yet mind-dulled enough to risk walking the streets of London without protection. Its metal is cold to the touch, solid, reassuring and within easy reach. She has everything she needs. A drug-riddled half-drunk adventurer, a heroin heroine, the journey ahead stretches out across limitless possibilities through the narcotic kaleidoscope inside her head. She checks the corridor outside is empty, then makes for the building’s rear exit.
Juan is rarely nervous. But when Galena doesn’t arrive at the appointed time, and an inspection of her room finds her missing, Juan becomes nervous. Suddenly his cast-iron career prospects don’t seem quite so certain.
Her body tries to melt into the seat of the train, half-paralyzed with anxiety. She’d forgotten about the crowds, the endless crowds, and the recycled-breath-and-body-odour crush of the underground had been too much. Like a dead-eyed reprisal of the baying masses from the arena, as if she’d been thrown from the dry-ice security of the stage into the heart of their amorous pawing.
Her mind had fled completely at that point, rendering her a feral animal mad with fear, and only returned when she was already seated on the overground. Instinct had done the work, however; she is heading in the right direction. Towards the dark haven offered by her always-absent father’s holiday home. She makes an effort to sit up and appear more human, but no one around is paying any attention. They are practiced at not paying attention. Paying the wrong sort of attention can get people killed, and these days no one knows how to define the wrong sort of the attention from the right. Best to pay none at all.
Her heart is beating sideways in her chest, not in any sort of human rhythm but with a lopsided drop-beat infrequency, like the post-rhythm belches of bass she performs to. She takes a few sips of scotch from her flask to try and calm herself down. She reaches for some pills, but finds her attention suddenly skewered by the man sitting opposite. He’s not watching her; he’s absorbed in a newspaper, or at least pretending to be, but even so, her hand comes back empty from her bag. She looks out of the window instead.
London looks back. Concrete and brick and smoke and scum, bathed in pollution-orange night-glow. Unfinished towers that won’t ever be finished, and ugly overcrowded tenements clustered around their bases like pack-predators surrounding a kill. The city has always been a slum with a veneer of glamour, but that’s gone now. Now it’s a slum with the veneer of a slum. It’s honest, and everyone wishes that it wasn’t.
The train slows down as if to afford her a better look. People still trudge through the streets because they know that people should trudge through streets. That’s what streets are for, and increasingly, that’s all people are for. A few intrepid shopkeepers have un-boarded their stores, hawking their unappealing wares to uninterested passers-by. No one looks up from the metre of pavement immediately below their feet. No riots this month, but that only means they’re overdue. If you look up, you might see something you shouldn’t, and this would incur consequence. Consequence must be avoided at all costs.
A few people near the track do look up, consequence be damned, to eye the train hungrily, and this makes Priscilla look down and clutch her bag more tightly to her chest. She’s withdrawn all of her life savings to make the journey. Three-hundred and twenty pounds, a pittance of a fortune accumulated over five years at the top of the game. They say she is worth millions, but those millions are firmly in the hands of her agents and their distant corporate employers. She will never see those millions. Three-hundred and twenty pounds may be as much money as she’ll ever see in one place. Barely worth the plastic it’s printed on, but it’s enough to make the trip, and she doesn’t care to think beyond that.
When she looks back up, she sees herself staring back, as if the whole city has become a strip-lit mirror. If it is a mirror then it must be broken, because that face on the billboard isn’t hers. It may have been once, in a time hundreds of megabits past, but has been transformed since by computerised caress and electronic ejaculate into something closer to a logo than a human face. Her image has been dry-humped by net-hacks to become the fulcrum around which orbits the worldwide delusion.
Her face, her body, and by proxy her entire life, serve as capstone on a campaign of self-deception, as if her simulated beauty allows everyone to pretend that this city, that this country, that this ideology, isn’t dying. No one has set the billboard on fire, so it must still be working. The man opposite looks up from his paper, looks at her, follows her gaze to the billboard, back to her then back to his paper, without a trace of recognition.
There’s nothing to recognise. The face on the billboard is as alien from her as it is those countless unfortunates huddles beneath it. On this train, in this city, she is not Priscilla Galena; that name belongs to the creature on the billboard, because the billboard says as much. She is a person-shaped shell, containing nothing but tangled neurones and neuroses seeking the quiet and the dark across a city that is never quiet but always dark.
They’ll come for her, of course, no chance they’ll let her rest. She is scheduled to perform in Berlin in two days time, the sort of schedule that makes it inconceivable that she could end up anywhere else. But it will take them time to find her, a few hours at least. Perhaps more; she deliberately left her phone, so they can’t track her with that. They’ll still find her, though. But it doesn’t matter. A few hours is all she needs. A few hours where she can pretend to be a person. After that they can do what they like with her.
Juans faux-casual questions of the facility staff become more brisk as he realised that no one in the building knows where Galena is. Threats are always the best form of questioning, and threats punctuated with fists work best in high-pressure situations, so soon Juan finds out that one of the cleaning staff saw someone who was likely Galena leaving by the rear exit. And that’s all he finds.
Juan doesn’t know how his superiors found out, but suspects that one of the event higher-ups informed them. It doesn’t matter much; they’d have found out soon enough anyway, and there was only so long Juan was going to be able to avoid having that phone conversation. Many terse words were exchanged, largely irrelevant but for the crux: if Juan can find Galena in one piece tonight, then his superiors will consider letting him keep his job.
Trouble is, Juan doesn’t have the faintest breath of an inkling where the woman could be. She’s psychologically unbalanced and drugged up to the eyeballs; she could have gone anywhere. Trouble with a woman like that is her actions don’t have to make sense; Juan is good of making sense of people, of knowing their moves before they do, Juan has made a career out of it, but with a woman like Galena he’s working in the dark.
Only place he can be sure she isn’t in the arena, so Juan jumps into a limo and heads out into the perpetual city-central gridlock. He curses the traffic, all the cabs and limos inching forward bumper to bumper, their clients paying through the nose for the privilege of an evening spent encased in static metal. Anything to avoid sharing the sidewalk with the scum who can’t afford such luxuries.
Juan calls up every contact he can, trying to get the scent of a lead on Galena. Of course no one’s seen her, but it pays to get the word out. Juan wracks his own hyper-efficient brain for some residue of a clue, but finds none. He curses Galena and all her ilk; it’s gotten tired, same damn gigs again and again, always bloody divas with their neuroses, their addictions, and their inevitable daddy issues.
Then Juan smiles, and order is restored to the world. He knows where Galena is. He knew there was a reason she chose London as the venue for her sudden disappearance, it had just taken Juan a while to put the pieces together. But Juan will always put the pieces together in the end. That’s why they chose Juan for this gig. He leans over and tells the driver where to go, faith in his own efficiency restored.
When she finally sees the house through the taxi window, the expected relief gives way to an out-of-body dread. Windows that should be dark are lit against the deepness of the night, her black refuge rendered hostile by the cheerful glow. She dives desperation-deep through the drug-rotted recesses of her memory, but she knows she’s got the right house.
Is it possible her father has returned to this house? Unlikely. His permanent address is a travel case, unfurled in five-star hotel rooms across the globe in pursuit of money and oil, if those two things are still distinguishable from one another. The permanence of this Chelsea house must seem abhorrent to him, and he never meant to stay in it; he bought it for her, an expensive substitute for a tangible father. Impossible that he would be here. So who, then?
The taxi driver turns to fix her with a level stare, giving her little choice but to pay and step out. The fresh air is a hollow relief; she had made sure to give the driver a glimpse of both her money and her gas canister when she boarded, to make it clear precisely in what manner she would be paying for his services. He drives off, and she is left to approach the building that should feel like home but is rendered alien by that unexpected light.
She considers knocking but dismisses the idea as absurd; this is her house. She won’t beg entry like some street-vagrant. Dropping a pill to steady her fractured nerves, she takes out her key, unlocks the door and steps in.
The entrance hall is just how she remembers it, only bright instead of dark. Her father’s photographs line the wall, superior sneer repeated again and again so she can at least remember what he looks like. She encounters no one until she enters the kitchen, all polished marble and brushed metal, where a girl in a luminous purple dressing gown turns to face her with a shriek the same moment a black-suited man barrels towards her.
Nerves and narcotics have honed her reactions to wire-fine sharpness, and her gas canister is out of her bag before the brute can reach her. He stops abruptly, taking a step back and reaching for a pistol at his belt. She presses the valve on top of the canister just slightly, letting the slightest whisper of gas creep out, and his hand wavers. In the ensuing stalemate she is acutely away of the tautness of her muscles, brittle vibrations threatening to shake her body to pieces. The silence that falls is measured in damp breath.
“Wait…” The girl’s voice is crystalline, angelic but for a quiver of fear. “Aren’t you…Priscilla Galena?”
How the girl can be so perceptive is a unknowable; surely every physical trace that could be recognised as Priscilla Galena must be gone by now, but even so, the girl has correctly identified her, and as Priscilla turns just a fraction of her attention from the man and his pistol, she realises the girl is familiar too. Natalie Okiro. New girl on the circuit, and Time magazine woman to watch last month. Knowing this doesn’t lessen the grip confusion has on Priscilla’s mind, but putting a name to the intruder’s face at least gives her a point of reference.
“What are you doing in my house?” Her own voice is a horrid whiskey rasp.
“Your…house?” A pretty frown creases Okiro’s brow. Even clad in dressing gown and with sleep-mussed hair, Okiro is a vision of nubile beauty, perfect as if sculpted, her ebony skin luminous and deep brown eyes bright and clear. Priscilla can just barely remember when she herself looked that way. Too many years, too many gigs, too many repetitions ago.
Okiro shakes her head as if the question is simply too much to comprehend and therefore not worth the effort, and waves a hand at her agent, the suited slick still eyeing Priscilla with hand halfway to holster.
“Andre, are you blind?” Okiro’s voice becomes one of petulant impertinence. “It’s Priscilla Galena! Would you please leave us alone?”
Andre eyes Priscilla with a glower of mistrust that weighs her and measures her, scours her every motive and potential before finally dismissing her, and he turns and stalks out of the room. She allows the gas canister in her hand to lower slightly. Okiro appears to relax too, though after recognising Priscilla it seemed as though the intrusion had faded from her mind already. She comes quickly around the central kitchen island and grabs Priscilla’s hand, causing Priscilla to flinch, but finally drop the gas back into her bag.
“I can’t believe it’s really you!” Okiro’s voice is sugar again. “Oh my God…you look so…different than you do on TV.” The understatement is the height of politeness. “But I knew it was you, though. Oh my God…this is like, I mean, this is weird and everything, but it’s an honour to meet you! You wouldn’t believe what an inspiration you’ve been! I mean, Varia basically made me want to become a singer!”
The girl’s eyes are practically shining out of her head, but Priscilla ignores her and moves across the kitchen, to give herself some space and some time to reassemble the shards of her thoughts.
“Um, would you like a drink?” Okiro’s question is redundant as it leaves her lips because Priscilla has already opened the cupboard that holds a fraction of her father’s vintage whiskey collection. His secondary reason for buying this place. Possibly actually the primary reason; not much of a stretch to believe he’d favour the drink over her. History can attest to which he’d rather spend time with. She fishes a glass out of the dishwasher and fills it from a bottle selected at random. She doesn’t share her father’s refined palette.
Okiro frowns at this, but still doesn’t seem perturbed by the situation. Drink giving her a sense of solidity again, Priscilla turns to regard the dark beauty across the central island.
“What are you doing here?”
Okiro’s smile is an exact midpoint between appeasement and confusion. “I’m on holiday.”
“You’re on holiday?”
“Why are you on holiday here?”
“This house belongs to my father. He’s away on business…a lot, so it’s always empty. I come here whenever I get a break from touring, which isn’t that much these days, but I guess you know all about that, right?” Okiro’s smile is wide.
Priscilla feels like her insides are crumbling, the drugs and booze conspiring in conflict to dissolve her organs. She manages to stay upright though, and takes another slug of the drink despite the gut-punch agony. Though her thought process is far removed from her consciousness now, she somehow knows that this isn’t the time or the place to break down.
“Who is your father?” Her voice is of the dead, but remarkably steady for that.
Perhaps it’s intuition, or perhaps she’s become detached from time entirely, but she knows that Okiro is going to raise her hand and point at the photograph beside the fridge before it actually happens. The picture of her father. The picture of Priscilla Galena’s father. The picture of Natalie Okiro’s father.
In the rattling recesses of her mind, facts converge. She knows the girl across the room isn’t her sister; she distinctly remembers being an only child, though now it comes to the crux those memories are far from distinct, more like a muddle of picture-postcards. But she still knows that she isn’t related to Natalie Okiro. Okiro’s face has none of her father’s features, though when forced to consider it, neither does her own. Against all reason she manages a smile.
“Tell me about him.”
Her psyche begins to rebuild itself as Okiro tell her the story of a childhood that is her story, Priscilla’s story. Every detail echoes with holes in her memory, forming an unknowable patchwork history that seems unreal and yet is certainly true. Okiro’s childhood is her own. For her part, the girl is glad to talk, enthusiastic in her idolisation of the false Priscilla, the public Priscilla, stage Priscilla, TV Priscilla.
Real Priscilla, such as she is, listens without saying anything. Okiro seems to struggle with her own memory on occasion, but always rallies with girlish vigour. Priscilla stops paying attention after she hears one word: Peacehaven. Images of house and rocks and garden. Sounds of the sea and smell of brine. Suppressed very deep, but most definitely her memories. Also Okiro’s memories, but most definitely hers.
She lets the girl ramble until it’s obvious there’s no more information to glean from her abridged biography, then Priscilla gasses her and leaves her on the kitchen floor. She creeps through the house until she finds Andre and gasses him too. A cursory check of the house to make sure no one else is there, then back out into the night with a new objective. Peacehaven.
Juan receives the call from the man Andre when he’s about twenty minutes out. By then Juan has already spoken to his superiors, assured them that everything is in hand and that Galena will soon be safely confined once more. His superiors are not happy that Galena and Okiro have encountered one another. The inference is that this is somehow Juan’s fault. Juan resents this. Still, he will clean up the mess, because Juan is nothing if not professional.
When he arrives at the house Juan checks his pistol, just in case. Juan does not like to use his pistol; there is something cold and impersonal about a pistol. Juan prefers to use his fists. Juan appreciates the personal touch. Still, it pays to be certain, and nothing is certain quite like a dart from Juan’s pistol.
He finds Okiro unconscious on the kitchen floor, and the man Andre in a similar state in a room upstairs. He leaves the agent sleeping; Juan has no sense of comradeship with those who would be his competition, and at this point the man would only impede Juan in his investigation. Juan wakes Okiro with a few well placed applications of his steel-capped shoes. Juan is impeccable at choosing where to land his blows; he doesn’t want Okiro to bruise anywhere she may need to be publicly visible. His superiors would not like that at all. But Juan is adept at this.
He slaps her about a bit until some of his anger has been vented and she has come to her senses, then listens to her garbled account of Priscilla’s arrival. He cuts her off as soon as he hears the name Peacehaven. Suddenly Juan feels very cold.
Every second counts now for Juan. The chances of finding Galena before she reaches the lab are almost zero, but every second separating her arrival and his is a whole new avenue for disaster. Juan doesn’t bother alerting his superiors as he leaves the house; they’ll find out soon enough, and Juan will have more than enough time for discussion when they do. Juan begins to feel that the world is a very unfair place for men like him.
Her body finally rejects her on the train to Brighton. Sweat-slicked and drool-lipped, she slides across train seats and surrenders consciousness to the churning of her insides dissolving each other, a limp-flesh eye-pop sack of bile and acid, unable to focus on anything other than the repeating orange-brown-purple check of the upholstery, a cheerful relic of a bygone era that is repeated into infinity in the dark behind her retinas like it’s the fucking meaning of life.
Outside the window fields pass, fields and fields and trees and the odd deserted farm. She knows if she looks up the cosmic vastness of it will destroy her, so she stays with teeth clenched against the grubby faux-felt of the seat and lets herself drift outside of time.
Lucky that Brighton is the last stop. Train stops, time passes and a man appears, drags her off the train and dumps her on the platform. Somehow she finds her way to a toilet, where she sprays hot corrosive vomit over the seat and passes out.
She wakes up an unknowable time later feeling like the hand of Death has reached into her and hollowed her out, but she’s conscious at least. Lead-step corpse-shuffle into the station, which is just starting to come to life. She buys a coffee and empties her flask into it, last dregs of succour drained from bottles of her father’s precious stash. She sits and shudders down the hell-hot cocktail while she waits for a taxi. The first three pass her by completely, but by the time one deigns to stop with shifty-eyed stare, she almost feels alive again.
She doesn’t know where she’s going but damaged memories fill in subconscious blanks as they drive the promenade. Sea and rocks and grey gravel leap like old friends, like warm homecoming, though forgotten utterly only hours before. The sky is beginning to lighten when she steps out of the taxi and approaches the house.
She knows this is the right house because as soon as she sees it she knows that it’s inconceivable that it would be any other. She crouches behind cracked stone wall, suddenly intimately familiar, and goes through her bag. Her stash has been crushed beneath her at some point of the journey, mashed together into indistinguishable powder, but she takes two snuffs anyway, and rubs a little on her aching gums; anything to get her blood moving again.
The front door is locked so she goes down the side path to the garden where she used to play as a child. Everything still the same, though she’s not quite sure how she knows this. Cheerful bushes, old rusty swing and tiny trampoline in its plastic-sheet sheath. The back door is locked too, but the kitchen window isn’t and is slightly ajar, so she levers it open and climbs in, taking her gas canister from her bag.
The house is quiet like death, familiar like a cherished photograph. Nothing has changed; everything is how she doesn’t remember. She goes down the hall to the room that was hers and find two beds where there were one, two small girls sleeping either side of the door. On the opposite side of the room, massive next to the tiny window, is a poster from her recent tour. Her own computer-perfect smile taunts her across the space that used to be hers, from the wall where she would stick posters of her own idols in that time behind her memories. She releases a small breath of gas into the sleeping face of each child, steps back and shuts the door quietly.
She doesn’t bother looking around the rest of the house but goes straight to the cellar, the one place she was forbidden from ever entering as a child. The primal-fear padlock still guards the gateway, but with jaded eyes it appears now rusted and weak, so she bashes it off with the butt of the canister.
Behind the door is a cellar, dark and stony and cobweb-ridden like any cellar in any house in the world, but she goes through straight to the back, where another door opens into a blast-lit cell where a man levels a pistol at her before collapsing all a-choke in a cloud of gas. The door he was guarding is a different sort of door entirely, all steely sleekness speaking of military-grade resilience. She touches a panel at the side of it and it slides open with a pneumatic hiss.
The corridor beyond is a halogen highway of stark white, like a hospital dorm bleach-blasted by light of a chlorine star. The brightness sears eyes and skin as she breathes it. Beyond plastic windows people work clad all in white like plastic angels, bent with scalpel and pipette over visceral murk. Most don’t look up from their work as she passes, some do, eyes shock-wide trained straight at her, before disappearing hurriedly behind towering shelves, shelves of tubes, tubes aglow and holding viscous fluid, fluid with eyes and lips and veins, fluid that looks too human for tubes and shelves and plastic and glass. Fluid that looks like people.
She notes and this and ignores it, stepping slowly down the chemical-smelling corridor, eyes fixed on the single door at the end. The door slides open easily, and as she steps in a man looks up from science-fiction microscope, a man who she last saw sneering in a hallway of repeated portraits. A man whose prized whiskey she recently quaffed, a man whose daughter now stands unexpected and uninvited before him, whose other daughter sleeps troubled sleep in recently-defiled Chelsea haven, whose other daughters dream hazy gas-dreams in twin beds above, whose other daughters are still little more than gristly fluid gestating in laboratory tubes.
His eyes widen only slightly as he recognises her.
“Dad?” Her voice is very quiet.
“Priscilla? Priscilla, is that you?” He takes a tiny step forward. “Honey, what are you doing here? How did you…?” He blinks once. Shakes his head. “Never mind. Never mind that. You look awful. Come upstairs, I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
Juan enters the house with his special key and with his pistol drawn. He doesn’t have to go very far. The professor glances up from the kitchen table with a look that makes Juan’s financial future seem very uncertain. Galena turns to look at him too, her face a haggard disaster, and Juan pops a dart in her neck to put her out of her misery. The professor clicks his tongue and stands up, taking two mugs of tea from the table and dumping them into the sink.
“How hard is it to keep tabs on one woman?” Juan hates the professor’s superior condescension. “You’re supposed to be good. We hire you precisely to avoid situations like this. All you have to do is watch her, for Christ’s sake.”
Juan bites his tongue. Juan has to be very careful what he says from now on. Juan wants to tell the professor that it’s all very well to blame him for Galena’s actions, but that while Galena has to maintain belief in her own freedom and so Juan isn’t allowed to keep her locked in a box between shows, he can’t account for her batshit crazy actions those minutes of the day he’s not allowed to watch her.
Juan also wants to mention that it’s hard for Juan to do his job when the professor and his contemporaries are so bent on churning out new assets as quickly as possible that they arrive in Juan’s care half-crazy already, full of inconvenient neuroses as a result of a too-short imprint period. Juan wants to add that without men like Juan, their assets wouldn’t last half the time they’re required to.
Juan doesn’t say any of these things. Juan knows the best and only course of action is to remain silent and wait for the professor to speak.
The professor obliges. “Lucky for you she was nearing retirement anyway. Her public ratings have slipped in the last month, and her last few shows have been a shambles. No doubt aided by the fact that you people pump her full of enough cocaine to give an elephant a heart attack.”
Juan doesn’t interject that without his cocaine, and his other medications, Galena would be too much of a wreck to go on stage at all.
The professor continues. “Be thankful that she didn’t harm Okiro, or reveal anything about this place. Our superiors have great things planned for Okiro. Any interjection in those plans would have been costly. Very costly indeed.”
The professor shakes his head, as if despairing utterly of Juan and his inept ilk. “Just clean this mess up, and we’ll see if you still have a job this afternoon. I have work to get on with, and I don’t have time for any more interruptions.” The professor turns and leaves the room, leaving Juan alone with Priscilla Galena and his own uncertain future.
The next day the world mourns the news of Priscilla Galena’s suicide, apparently acted in sympathy with the identical death of her good friend Nazumi Naoko only the day before. Only Juan and his superiors know that the two women didn’t even know one another. Only Juan and his superiors know that neither death could be accurately described as suicide.
Through some benevolent miracle Juan still has a job, though it is far from what he had expected to achieve after Galena’s retirement. No industry-conquering life of leisure for Juan, not in this lifetime at least. His salary lies in tatters, and he’s been put in charge of a stuttering chit fresh out a laboratory just like the one in Peacehaven.
Supposedly circuit-ready, she’s a bigger wreck than any Juan has taken on before. Still, his superiors have big plans for her, as they always do. Each generation is like this, each more unstable and short-lived than the last. The folly of mass-production. But Juan will persevere, Juan will make it work, because Juan is nothing if not professional. One day the whole system will blow up, and the industry will go down in flames like the rest of the country, but until then they still need Juan. Juan is good at his job.