Part I, Chapter 3

from Gamma

Through a steel mesh barrier that isolates the bus driver from the prisoners, Shannon watches the dirty green money in María's hands and her quick fingers. Her bare leg shows from underneath her long coat where she has lifted one foot up onto the step. She lives like this, all because of how he and Maribel went about having a child. When her mother died, the rest of her family must have turned their backs on her.

He clears his throat. "Hola, María."

"Wassup, Holmes." She keeps counting.

"I brought it this time. Proof."

Officer Kyle leans his torso through the open hatchway. "Quiet, Jones. Yo, Lenny, make him shut up."

The VC, one seat behind, leans forward to speak softly into Shannon's ear. "Listen, Shannon, I know she looks like your friend, but she doesn't remember you." He has handed the driving over to Kyle so that he can be with one of the girls.

"It's María. Look at the image." Shannon holds up his little black book containing the photos of María and the other experiments. Thanks to a restraining order that includes phone calls and email, he has had to run the aging algorithm on a set of baby photos to see what the test subjects look like. He has picked out their clothes, given them just the right smiles for their faces, posed them on playground equipment. The picture of María is set up like a high-school yearbook photo. Red mohair sweater, pearl necklace, make-up, a neutral-tone memory haze in the background.

"An amazing coincidence—look at that. Wow. But she doesn't want to be hassled right now."

"She can't do this."

"Absolutely, Shannon. But she's a free woman. Right? Her name is Luz, not María. You understand? Okay?"

Shannon feels the VC's hand clap his shoulder.

"Just sit tight." The VC leans back. A moment later the VC's arm appears from around the seat to hand him an open can of beer. "Just try to have a good time."

Shannon takes the beer without looking back.

Charlie, from across the aisle and a seat back, asks the VC in a confidential tone, "He okay?"

"He'll be fine."

The voices are low, but Shannon can hear them distinctly. Clearly they regard him as unable to understand their talk.

"I don't know, what if he goes talkin' some shit in front of Richards or someone?"

"He knows when to keep quiet."

Shannon crumples the can in his fist. A spout of beer leaps sideways into the window pane. It shatters into running foam and a sour smell. His lap is wet, cold. His finger begins burning. He looks down and blood is streaming down the side of the can where the aluminum has torn.

The VC's pink hands pry the can loose. "Okay. Understood. You care for the young lady."

Charlie stands up. "You better leave him alone, man." He takes a seat a few rows back.

"JONES!" Kyle leans through the hatchway. "Jones, you schitz an' get us caught I'ma have you moppin' halls twenty-four seven. I don't have time for discipline right now. Lenny, make him clean it up. Stupid way for us all to get busted."

"No worries," the VC says. "Just get us moving."

"That's María," Shannon tells Kyle. "Serious. She's my kid, man. Why—"

Kyle talks right past Shannon to the VC. "I'm trusting you, man. Don't shit me if he's gonna be a problem."

"I'm on it. Relax." The VC gently sets the crushed can on the floor behind Shannon's seat. "Very well, Shannon," he says, "get it out. You can say hi. But don't smash the poor girl like a tin can. You don't want that either."

Waiting, Shannon watches Kyle thumb through a roll of dollar bills.

María demands another fifty dollars, gets thirty, and finally agrees to board the bus. She leaves her coat up front. With a large glass atomizer, she sprays herself thoroughly with perfumed water before beginning the job, a sweet smell. Fingers high in the wire mesh, she pulls herself through the hatchway feet-first. Her sandals slip on the steel floor.

Shannon blocks the aisle with his hand. "You don't have to do this, María."

"I don't have to do nothing." She grabs his wrist. "You're bleeding. Jesus Christ."

"Oh . . ." Shannon looks at his wet hand.

"You stained my shirt." She moves his hand to the side.

"I'm—sorry. Wait. Come back. I'm Shannon Jones."

"I'm supposed to start at the back."

She passes by. Her friend comes through the hatchway. Kyle puts the bus in gear. "Hot damn!" he cries. "Start the clock! Three minutes, Jesse. Try for two."

Just like that. She brushed by him without a hint of recognition. She was being honest last time. No one has told her a thing.

They pull out. A guy in a plaid workshirt seems to eye them as they go by, but he has only now come out of the warehouse across the street. A couple of strung-out, oblivious-looking teenagers were the only other witnesses, about a minute ago. Either Kyle is an extremely lucky gambler or a shrewd judge of human nature.

Trouble starts right away, though. At the first light, Kyle has to turn around to yell at Jesse. "Down, man! They can see your big white ass from the moon!"

Jesse grunts, raising his bald head to eye Kyle over the seatback.

Kyle guns the engine. He drives fast when he's doing something wrong, as though trying to become a blur. "You know the rules—on the floor out of view. Jesus!"

"I'm behind the seat," Jesse says.

Shannon can hear skin smacking. He looks back, sees María's brown calf against the glass of the rear window, and doesn't look back again. The other girl is where she was last time: the stamped metal floor. Joey is on her, snorting like a hog.

"What the fuck, Jesse? WHAT the FUCK?"

Kyle sticks to the side streets, but traffic is everywhere. He has cars in front and back as he nears a red light.

Shannon doesn't feel right. Pieces of the world are missing. One move and it seems like he would fall right through the floor onto the moving roadway.

Solve this, solve this . . .

All he wants to do right now is hurt Jesse Greene.

"Get your ass on the floor—this bus has WINDOWS, man!"

The missing pieces are like tiny gravity wells: distortions, flaws passing through his solid body like roaming ghosts. Errors. Errour. Errors invisibly damaging everything. . . .

Kyle stops the bus and stands up. "I'm COMIN', Greene." Then the light turns green and he has to take the wheel. A small version of himself remains imprisoned in the wide oval mirror overhead, looking down on the inmates.

Shannon touches the photograph in the book, the sweet young girl every parent imagines his daughter growing into. Solve this, solve this . . . The face is exactly the same, even the hair. The chance of a false positive is high considering that his most recent picture of her is from when she was six years old—but what are the odds of such an exact match? They must be astronomical. Yes—an accident is unlikely. Maribel was dutiful in sending photos: many ages and angles to feed into the algorithm.

Maribel . . . a seventeen-year-old girl . . . so open to his megalomaniacal schemes. Her parents pulled her out of the Program and gave up the government payments and broke a dozen signed contracts in order to send her home to Mexico to have the child, unwed, living in secrecy from the U.S. government and in shame among her devoutly Catholic neighbors. Government protection was increased outside Shannon's home and outside the homes of the others. Letters were opened. About every six months, a letter came from Maribel, postmarked from a different zip code in Tucson, where maybe she had a sympathetic family friend.

When she heard about the trial, she wrote a crazed letter admonishing him, asking him if it was true, and yet promising to come to the U.S. immediately to testify to his competence and show off their healthy daughter, who like his subsequent experiments was cobbled together from his and Maribel's chromosomes and then juiced up in certain ways, in her case with slightly tweaked OTX genes and a small kick given to the head's compartmentalization event. This letter was the one mailed from Nacozari, Mexico.

Shannon has no idea whether the authorities traced the letter or even cared anymore whether they or China found "The Nineteen" first (he was "The Seven" to Program scientists)—but something went wrong at the border. Maribel died in a boxcar among two dozen illegal aliens. The smugglers on the U.S. side had gotten spooked when the train was delayed and had never shown up to let her and the others out of the locked car. A summer day in a railyard with the Arizona sun coming down on the metal walls was enough to cause fevers and vomiting and finally heatstroke in the mojados. A few survivors were found thanks to a man who was discovered wearing his boots on his hands and banging them against the sheet-metal. Maribel died this way, for him, not due to fear of the Border Patrol but instead fear of the CIA and of her family searching for her.

And her suffering continues—in María, in this warped remnant of a girl. So this is how his former colleagues have treated the test subjects. Oafish incompetence he expected. Sick children badly diagnosed, studied like alien lifeforms, fed into databases, collated, made into designer gene products . . . sure. But not utter indifference, not neglect. His colleagues are very rich now, minor celebrities he can watch on the dayroom TV at the prison, surrounded by government security, hustled away to secret residences. They are out of touch, just pushing numbers around, all of humanity dancing to their finger-taps, while their test subjects struggle just to survive, struggle to prove their genes worthy.

The bus stops. Kyle cusses and shifts into park. "MOTHER—FUCKER." He stands, swings through the hatchway, and lets everyone know just how mad he is by stomping all the way down the aisle to the back of the bus. Joey finishes just in time and rolls to the side. Shannon can't watch. María's whole body is flexing like the frame of a kite. She moans, her fingertips buffeting the windows like moths trying to escape.

"You're cool," Kyle says to Joey.

Wrong. Wrong. All of this is wrong. . . .

The toolbox. Shannon sees it under the empty captain's chair. With a hammer in his hand—and his transgenic muscles, still quick and strong—he could stop this. Like the fight during high school, which ended in trickles of blood in the cracks between the tiles of the locker room . . . the fight no one could stop him from winning.

He stands. No time for daydreaming. . . .

He grabs the edge of the hatch and puts a leg through.

"Hey, yo, Jones, huh-uh. Where you goin'?"

Officer Kyle has glanced back at just the right moment.

GO, Shannon tells himself. GO! But he hesitates.

"Lenny, I'm serious. He's gettin' weird on this shit and I got other problems right now. DAMN!"

Shannon feels the VC's hand on his shoulder. Too late. He's gotten himself caught.

The VC guides him back into the seat, like a Tokyo subway attendant packing loose limbs onto a train. "That's enough, Shannon." Gone is the cloying, instructive tone from before. The VC pushes him down. "What were you gonna do—run away? Go hide in an alley and bawl your eyes out over this girl? Well, congratulations. You're making everybody nervous and killing any chance of this ever becoming a regular event. You and Jesse both."

"Ho's on the floor." Kyle has reached the back seat. A weight thuds. "Ho's on the floor! Ho's on the floor!"

The VC turns to watch.

Wrong, wrong . . .

"Fuck off! I mean it." It's Jesse, not yet done. His gray prison shirt sticks to his back, wet with sweat and mud from the job they just did. Shannon can't watch. "Fuck off, Officer Kyle. Do you see this? Do you see what I'm doing?"

"Crazy-ass GOOMBAH. You got your cut-up, now—"

Shannon doesn't hear the punch. The sentence just pops like a thought-bubble and then there's a mighty boom of sheet-metal. By the time he looks around, so many people are standing and shouting that he can't even see Officer Kyle. All he sees are the mechanized movements of Jesse's torso, one hand still holding up his pants.

Solve this, solve this . . .

He knows how good it must feel to finally move on a guard. In the locker room in high school he felt no horror at all after pummeling one of his teammates to death.

He knows how to fight. His whole life has been one long fight, even when the violence was implied and he was merely goading a hostile world: splicing bits of DNA together on his computer, programming, writing journal articles. . . .

"Help! Lenny! Lenny!"

María pulls her unbuttoned blouse over her exposed breasts and climbs over the seatback in front of her. She's okay. She watches her friend run past Shannon, wrench open the folding door at the front, and head for the main avenue, but she takes her time, retrieving the atomizer, draping it over her shoulder, lifting one leg at a time over the seatbacks.

The VC has left the front of the bus unguarded—gone in to help Kyle. No one is left to stop Shannon from talking to her.

María wears his blood in a burst below her right shirt pocket, the sight of which reminds him of the blood drying in the palm of his hand. He catches her eye momentarily. She screws her face into a dirty look and pulls open her shirt, flashing him, seemingly oblivious to the prisoners watching the movements of her golden-brown breasts.

He looks away.

Wrong, wrong, everything is wrong. . . .

An apartment complex stands over the sidewalk. Traffic is backing up. He has to get out of here. The VC had the right idea—escape. He forgot all about his plan to escape. . . .

It will take only a second to crush the transmitter with the two-handed loppers. Yes.

He still remembers where Kyle picked her up the first time. Maybe he could go there. She might talk to him if he was alone. That would be better. Yes. She won't listen to him here.

Transitioning into the next part through a title page...

Evil Appetite

A cure for cystic fibrosis . . . a cure for arthritis . . . a treatment for eczema . . . White Incubator Corporations: repaying Shannon Jones' debt to society . . . and more.
Evolution? No.
Solutions? You can bet your life on them.
          -- PR Spot for White Incubator, Inc., 2037.

First chapter of Part 2 . . .