I have stories in two very different anthologies this month, so today I'm sharing excerpts from both stories.
The first story is "Stranger Than Stars" from Take A Chance, out December 15th (preorder links below). Take A Chance is a collection of twelve gay NA romance stories, and "Stranger Than Stars" is about a young man named Peter who backpacks Europe and ends up spending one life-altering night in Amsterdam with a sex worker--who turns out to share some of Peter's loneliness.
From "Stranger Than Stars"
I went out that night to The Cock Ring, a leather bar listed on gayplaces.com. The bar was hosting something called the Mr. Cock Ring pageant. I expected it to be lamer than it was, because someone on gayplaces.com had called The Cock Ring’s shows ‘half-assed events that all end up feeling like big faggy frat parties’. Another reviewer had called The Cock Ring ‘a thinly disguised brothel’, which was intriguing. One thing all reviewers agreed on was that The Cock Ring was sleazy.
It was one of those nights where the stars looked weird, and the trees and the river. And my face in the mirror—too dark, too long. So it was easy enough to watch the show and remain detached. The idea was that five ‘boys’—at least two were pushing forty—got onstage for short performances, and at the end, the audience chose a winner by applause. Before and during the show, the bar sold raffle tickets. Once Mr. Cock Ring was crowned, a raffle number would be drawn, and one lucky patron would win two hours in a private room with Mr. Cock Ring.
The description of the private room was almost enough to make me hard: floor and ceiling hooks, a cage, a bed with a railed headboard and footboard. A bag of gear. There was no mention of any kind of vetting process for the winner, but a bruiser stood by the back door. Maybe his job was to wait outside the private room and make sure no drunken asshole beat Mr. Cock Ring to death.
I didn’t buy a raffle ticket, and I didn’t drink. I just watched.
The first contestant was Troy from The Hague, who waved his ass to a Dutch electronica song that sounded like a bulldozer scraping over a grate. The crowd went nuts for him, though all I really saw was a flirty, aging blond with a nice ass. Then I thought about how weird asses are, and that occupied me for a full five minutes.
Next up was Sem, a local, who crawled across the bar and teased the hell out of the guy sitting at the end. Put his hand on the guy’s crotch and everything. Then came the crowd favourite, Caspar, who did stomp dancing. He was really good. Nice body, too. My dick finally joined the party.
After each performance, the emcee would patter in English about how the boy who’d just performed needed a good drilling, or to be punished. It was lame, but it made me ache all the same. I fucking love being in charge in the bedroom. I love it the way some people love being in charge of navigating on road trips or trying to fix shit in your house if you tell them it’s broken. Please let me tie you up and flog you, I used to imagine begging my vanilla partners. I promise you won’t regret it. Every now and then, I’d sneak an ass slap in. Most guys didn’t mind. But one time, a guy looked at me and said, “What the fuck, man?” and I was scared to try it on anyone after that.
In my late teens, I discovered leather clubs, and that helped. But I’d met some weirdos there. Do I want to spank you? Yes. Do I want to put a hot coal on your asshole? Not particularly. One guy had called me prejudiced, but whatever. I wasn’t going to stop anyone from dressing in diapers or searing their anuses. I just wasn’t gonna do it myself.
Number Four was a really tall twink who deep-throated a banana. Big deal. Gilbert and I had practised giving head to cucumbers when we were fourteen. Then we’d realised how stupid that was and practised giving head to each other.
Enjoy that ten-inch cock, Gilbert. It’s definitely more important than our ten-year friendship.
“You are nice-looking,” a man next to me said, scanning me up and down.
I liked his accent, so I said, “Thanks.” Then I edged away from him, which is how I ended up right by the stage when the fifth contestant came on.
Number Five was not having fun. He didn’t look abstract, didn’t look like the discarded fantasy art of a moody, pubescent god. He was depressingly real—sallow and wary—but beautiful in a ghoulish way. I didn’t catch his name. He wore cargo pants that rode low, so the top of his boxers puffed out from the waistband. No shirt. Music came on, but he didn’t dance. He just stared at the crowd, looking sullen and…I don’t know. Feral. He walked up to one patron and yanked the glass from his hand. The guy’s expression was cartoonishly shocked, and that made me laugh. Number Five zeroed in on me. He walked over to my side, to the edge of the stage, and dashed the drink in my face.
Gin and tonic. It burned my eyes, and I was pissed for a second, but only because I couldn’t see him anymore, and I wanted to keep staring. He was thin and well built, and his body was hairless, which I used to say didn’t matter, but who was I kidding? I liked smooth guys. Dark-brown hair curled at his ears, and he had large eyes and a small mouth.
The crowd oohed and laughed, and the emcee made some awkward joke about how this boy had been allowed to get away with too much for too long.
When Number Five turned away from me, I glimpsed his back through a sheen of gin. I was so a back man. I loved the way the muscles rippled there, how strong yet vulnerable that plane was, longed to trace the bones of a guy’s spine, to watch him tense and arch under my touch, then go limp.
Someone pulled Number Five off stage. I mean yanked him by the arm and hustled him into the darkness.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” The emcee wiped his bald spot with a cocktail napkin. “You’ve seen all the contestants. Now it’s time to choose the one who will be…” He paused. “Mr. Cock Ring!” Everyone cheered and hooted, and Nice Accent made a donkey noise. “Please, vote with your hands!”
The contestants lined up onstage. I prepared to vote with my hands for sullen Number Five. One by one, the contestants stepped forward. Number Three, the stomp dancer, received far and away the most applause. There wasn’t much clapping for Number Five, but I put my hands together anyway and hollered.
“He is the one who poured a drink on you.” Nice Accent was beside me once more.
I clutched my heart and said theatrically, “But he is also the one I love.”
“Ladies and gents,” the emcee said, “Caspar Fikse is elected Mr. Cock Ring. He is very good at being bad! And now, who wins him?” An assistant stepped forward with a fishbowl of raffle tickets. The emcee pulled one out. “Number seventy-three!” A big bald guy in a leather harness stepped forward with his arms raised. His friends cheered and slapped him on the back.
I pushed through the crowd, hoping to slip out the shadowy rear exit without Nice Accent noticing. On my way, I saw Number Four rubbing against some doughy man, who then handed him several bills. The two of them walked down a dark side hall together.
A thinly disguised brothel. I remembered from the free tour of the city I’d once taken that male prostitution in Amsterdam wasn’t very visible. There was no Red Light District for men; most rent boys arranged ‘pay dates’ online, or else worked in, well, thinly disguised brothels.
I kept moving toward the exit and passed an alcove.
“What did I tell you?” somebody yelled. English with a Dutch accent.
“I don’t care,” another voice muttered. American accent.
“You be fun. You play the game!”
I moved closer and saw Number Five and the bruiser arguing. The bruiser wore all black, his reddish-gold hair slicked back.
“The game was stupid,” Number Five said.
“So you don’t want to work for me?”
“I’ll work, but I’m not gonna be in some fucking pageant.”
The bruiser shoved Number Five against a wall. Number Five didn’t seem particularly alarmed, just regarded Bruiser with impassive eyes. His bare chest rose slowly as he took a breath, pressed against the arm pinning him.
“Go on,” Number Five said. “Get it out of your system. Take me upstairs, beat my ass, and we’ll call it even.”
“No.” Bruiser shook his head, but he let Number Five go. “I’m not in the mood. Find someone here. Make some fucking money.”
“Whatever you want, bossman,” Number Five said flatly.
The man slapped him across the face. I winced.
“Get out.” Bruiser’s voice was low.
Number Five didn’t react, though I could see the blotch on his cheek. “Which is it? Get out? Or go fuck a customer?” He noticed me over Bruiser’s shoulder and nodded. “He’s interested.”
Bruiser turned and saw me. I thought about hurrying on. Instead, I gave a small wave. If Number Five recognised me as the fellow with the gin-scorched eyes, he didn’t show it.
“Hey, buddy,” Bruiser said to me, and the term sounded strange with his accent. Plus, we weren’t buddies. He stuck out his hand, and I didn’t shake it. “Joris.”
“Pete,” I said, so he wouldn’t have to call me buddy again.
His hand dropped to his side. “So sorry about what happened to you tonight.”
“It’s OK. I like gin and tonic.”
“Buck is sorry, too.”
“No, I’m not,” Buck said. Buck. Like the dumbshit little brother on some reality show about West Virginia. Like a deer you shot so you could saw off its mossy antlers and hang them on your wall. Like the dog from Call of the Wild.
“Apology accepted,” I said.
Joris frowned. “Buck needs to learn some manners. Perhaps you would like to teach him?”
“Oh…” I studied Buck. I would like that. Not the way Joris fucking meant it—I wanted to make Buck grunt with pain, grit his teeth, gasp and twist, and then scream as that pain cracked like a shell and pleasure thrust one clawed toe out at a time. I wanted to make him feel alive.
“Did you enter the raffle?” Joris asked.
He raised his eyebrows. “You’re not interested in what goes on here?”
“I am.” I couldn’t stop staring at Buck. He was even more wanly handsome up close, and he looked dead behind the eyes, which broke my heart way too suddenly. My head felt light, and my skin was the icky kind of warm that comes when you’re fevered or bleeding.
“I’ll give you seventy-five percent off his two-hour price.” Joris glanced at Buck like he’d just taken the ultimate piss in this kid’s mouth. When Buck didn’t react, Joris turned back to me. “There’s a room upstairs with equipment. Not as much as our winner’s room, but it is enough for some fun.”
I imagined myself writing a review on gayplaces.com. Bar owner offered me a prostitute for seventy-five percent off. All I wanted was a Heineken! Will NOT be going back.
Buck checked me out but said nothing. Maybe he had been captured and human trafficked. Maybe Joris would shoot him if he didn’t earn his keep.
Maybe I’d tell myself any fucking story just to get a moment’s excitement.
I looked into Buck’s eyes again, searching for something in his bland expression. Was this what it was like exploring Mars? You knew the potential for life was there, yet all you saw was endless red dust. Come on. Look at me. If I got you in a room alone, I could get you to look at me. I could get you to care.
Maybe that was bravado.
Maybe that was creepy.
Maybe it was up to him whether to care or not.
But I thought about Gilbert, and I didn’t want my life to be a kiddie ride. I wanted to do something crazy. I knew, with the sort of misguided, youthful optimism that called to mind my teens or my drug days—there was some overlap there—that this guy and I could have hot-as-fuck sex. And better yet, I’d change this hooker’s life, if only for a night, because I’d impart to him my spontaneity, my passer-through mystique. I’d awaken him.
Using. Using, using, using. This whole place reeked of using.
“My eyes still burn a little,” I said.
“I am terribly sorry.” Joris shifted anxiously.
“No, it’s OK.” I was still watching Buck. I tried to transpose feelings onto that smooth face, like I was playing paper dolls. What would he look like scared? Furious? Desperate? Resigned, adoring, rapturous, about to shoot his load?
“You won’t regret it,” Buck drawled dully.
And that sealed it for me. That voice with its practised indifference. I’d spoken to doctors in that voice. Guess I’d better take that trip to Disneyland now, huh?
I turned to Joris. “What’s the price, after the discount?”
They were put in groups for the tour. Lester lagged behind his group, barely listening to the guide—an enthusiastic graduate student with a tattoo of a Jesus fish, shaded with binary code and containing the word GENESIS. The labs interested Lester only mildly. He paid more attention to the educational center, where the Beauties were trained. It featured several different bedrooms. A garish, bordello-style den. A white room with a canopied bed and lace curtains. An artist’s loft with a sliding wood door and a mattress on the dirty floorboards.
Each room contained a variety of equipment: restraints, fucking machines, slings, condoms, lube, dildos . . . Lester stood in the doorway of a room that looked disturbingly like his own bedroom. Pale blue walls, no decorations or equipment, minimal furniture. A queen bed with navy flannel sheets. Lester grew lonely just looking at it. A sign above the doorway leading back to the lecture hall read: WE CREATE BEAUTY. WE CHANGE MINDS.
Was this the solution to people’s fear of being alone? Real needs satisfied by artificial companions?
He thought of Aaron. How bizarrely comforting it had been to have someone in the house with him for those few weeks. Even if Lester had never wanted responsibility, commitment, never wanted anything more than to sleep with Aaron pressed against him. To feel his own restless, bony limbs cradling the warmth of Aaron’s body.
“Dr. Usole?” A female voice—soft, like a curtain riffling.
Lester spun to face Dr. Cullom. “Uh, hi.”
“Did you lose your group?”
Lester scanned the hallway, but the rest of his tour group had disappeared. How long had he been standing here?
“I’m afraid I did. I got caught up in . . .” He glanced over his shoulder at the blue bedroom. “Observations.”
Dr. Cullom stared at him, face furrowed and grave. Lester had met her a couple of times at conventions, in knots of other scientists, but he’d rarely spoken to her one-on-one. She was oddly terrifying. Birdlike movements of her head, a voice that surrounded you, like it was coming from speakers on all sides. A pale gaze that seemed to bend light like a prism. Her green lab coat was neatly tailored at the waist, and featured an iron-on patch with a sleek human silhouette on it. “I’m sorry,” Lester offered.
“Would you like to see the Beauties?”
He nodded slowly, almost unwillingly.
Dr. Cullom led him through a wide corridor that had thick glass doors on each side. Behind each door was a large room with tall white walls and blond wood floorboards, like racquetball courts. Natural light came from skylights high above, and each room had a bed in one corner. Some ABs sat or lay on the beds; others stood and stared at the walls or the floor or the ceiling. They were beautiful—all shapes and sizes, each one a work of art. They began to blur together: expanses of smooth skin, thick twists of shining hair. Each one peered out at Lester, with expressions ranging from curious to coy to embarrassed to scared. Like some horrendous collection of paper dolls come to life, in various stages of dress and undress.
“Each Beauty has been coached toward a unique view of sex.” Dr. Cullom nodded toward one room where a brunette Beauty lay on her back on the bed, dark hair spilling across the pillow, small hands resting on her belly. “Laura has engaged in foreplay with several of our researchers. But each time they’re ready to penetrate her, they make a big deal over how much it will hurt her, until Laura begs them not to do it. She’s developed a psychological block where penetrative sex is concerned. Whoever buys her will have a very frightened virgin to seduce or force according to his or her taste.” A bird-bob of her head.
Lester felt a strange sensation, like a barb pricking at the underside of his stomach.
“And Morton—” Dr. Cullom motioned to another room, where a male Beauty was masturbating, groaning softly. Lester glanced away, embarrassed. “We’ve always made sex pleasurable for him. He’s eager, skilled, and will do it with absolutely anybody. He’s also learned a number of flattering and romantic phrases to use on female researchers. Quite the pick up artist, that one.”
Lester’s attention was drawn to a room in the corner with a sign on the door that read SPECIAL HANDLING REQUIRED. “Who’s this?” He moved closer to the glass.
“Dr. Usole, please!” Dr. Cullom was immediately by his side. “Approach with caution.”
They gazed through the glass together. This room was smaller than the others, but brighter. Two long skylights in the ceiling. A male Beauty stood in the center of the room, staring at the wall. His hair was a rich, deep brown, and he wore a white T-shirt and dark jeans. He’d been built hungry—slight wrists, wiry arms, muscles hard and lean. The profile was delicate, so neatly put together that Lester imagined he could see computer grids, strings of code, overlaid on the smooth skin. The Beauty snapped his head toward them as they approached. He stared.
Lester swallowed. The Beauty had a bright purple ring around one eye, too clownish to resemble a real bruise. A few bright marks on his arm, like slashes of lipstick rather than wounds. But this AB’s brutal gaze was more real than any Lester had seen here so far. There was such nuance in that expression, in the furrow of the brow, the curl of the lip. His eyes burned with what looked like true hatred.
“Oh my.” Lester was barely aware he’d spoken.
“This is Ira.”
Ira looked away from them and glanced down at his wrists.
Lester held his breath for a moment. “Why is he . . . the sign . . .?”
“He can’t go to just anyone.”
“Why not?” Lester knew he was looking at an AB, but the way this Beauty moved, its expressions, it seemed—he seemed—entirely human.
Two pens clicked together in the pocket of Cullom’s green lab coat. “We didn’t build him. We acquired his brain from another lab and constructed a body for it.”
Lester glanced at her. She was watching Ira, looking enraptured—the lines seemed to fall away from her face, and her eyes were fever bright.
She continued, “He already had violent tendencies, and so we made sex threatening to him, used it as a disciplinary technique. Now he fights anyone who tries to touch him.” Her voice was soft, pulling at Lester like a lasso of smoke. “We’d hoped he could go to someone who enjoys sexual mastery, who wants the challenge of forcing acquiescence. But we need more safety measures in place before we can sell him.”
The same sick feeling Lester had gotten when Mark had spoken about raping an AB. Having her wiped if she got “too fucked up.”
“What sort of safety measures?”
“A failsafe. In case Ira bucks human control.”
“Has he tried?”
She looked at him sharply. “What do you think violence is, Dr. Usole, if not a grasp at freedom?”
He didn’t answer.
Eventually she turned back to Ira and went on. “He uses movement-based, rechargeable batteries, so were he to get loose, we couldn’t even count on him eventually running out of steam. He is programmed to sleep every night from eleven to seven, but security footage has shown him waking in the night on at least two occasions.”
Lester couldn’t hide his surprise. “He subverts his programming?”
Cullom continued without the slightest change in expression. “Is it subversion? Or simply evolution? At EYP, you create infants with elastic minds. Those minds expand, take in new information, and then act on that information. Is it such a shock that Ira has learned to pull himself from sleep, just as you might rouse yourself from a nightmare?”
Lester watched Ira. “Our infants sleep and wake according to stimuli. We designed them that way. It does surprise me that an AB programmed to sleep during a specific window can circumvent that. Who created him?”
“I’m afraid that information is unavailable.”
Ira had picked up a set of three interlocked iron rings from his cot and was rapidly manipulating them. It was a puzzle, Lester realized, but Ira didn’t seem interested in solving it. He was trying to pull the rings apart by force. His brow lowered, his jaw tightened, and his lips wavered in a harsh, rotten smile.
“His facial expressions . . .”
Dr. Cullom offered a smile that looked nearly genuine. “He is incredible, isn’t he? You should see him during sex.”
An ice-cold reminder of what the Beauties had been created for. Lester, like many scientists, had struggled with the ethics of artificial intelligence. True, ABs weren’t flesh and blood. But their brains were designed to imitate human brains. Their bodies were filled with pressure sensors that acted as nerves and allowed the ABs to experience a simulated pain, pleasure, desire. They were often programmed with a capacity for emotion, including rage and terror. Which meant that raping an AB really wasn’t so different from raping a human, whatever Mark might say.
Kennerac occasionally teased Lester about being too sensitive. It was a good quality, Kennerac admitted, for working with the infants. Lester’s determination to treat ABs as human resulted in an authentic parenting style that Kennerac called invaluable. “We need handlers who see no difference between human and machine.”
A sparking wire. A pudgy infant’s face and a glimpse of steel gristle, copper veins, plastic vertebrae. As horrifying, in its own way, as blood and bone and muscle. Eyes still blinking. Silence, where there should have been screams.
I see the difference.
Cullom’s voice snapped him back to the present. “Ira is also unique in that he has interests outside of sex. The Beauties created here at Carnificiality are programmed to think of little beyond sex, which will allow their future owners to shut them off for long periods when not in use without any detriment to the Beauties’ psychological development. With Ira, however, we’d like to find an owner willing to engage with him outside the bedroom. To continue his education.”
That jolted something in Lester—awakened a yawning, stretching hunger. Year after year, he raised infants from birth, interacted with them according to protocol. When they reached eighteen months, they were taken from him. Just when they were starting to speak in full sentences, display unique inclinations and abilities. Their brains were sold to other companies that worked with higher age groups—were placed in new, older bodies. Their infant bodies stored in a locker until they could be dissected, recycled. Lester rarely encountered them again. The idea of interacting with an adult AB, one Lester could work with indefinitely, was intoxicating. “What are his interests?”
“Puzzles. Sports. Television.” Cullom scratched the side of her nose with her nail. “Oligocaethology.”
“He likes worms.”
Lester wanted to laugh. Ira was now running his fingers along the wall. More lipstick-red slashes had appeared on his arm. “His injuries . . .”
“Mm, yes. We’ve had some difficulties with his skin. When enough pressure is put on his pain sensors, the skin in the affected area is supposed to release a pigment that mimics a bruise or a welt. But as you can see, the subtlety isn’t there yet.”
The authenticity of the wounds hadn’t been Lester’s concern.
Dr. Cullom seemed to read his thoughts. “Many of Ira’s injuries are self-inflicted.”
Lester turned. But before he could speak, his attention was directed back to the room by a dull crack against the door. Lester glanced down at the floor on the other side of the glass, where Ira’s ring puzzle now lay.
Ira approached them, staring directly at Lester. But before Lester could react, the back door to Ira’s room opened. Ira whirled toward the sound, his hands clenching into fists as a green-coated Carnificiality employee walked in, followed by another. One carried a horseshoe-shaped piece of steel, the other what looked like a small black remote. Ira backed toward the wall.
“Feeding time,” Cullom explained. “The Beauties we design don’t feel hunger. But the institute that owned Ira before programmed hunger into him. Did a good job too—when Ira gets hungry, his symptoms are very human: fatigue, irritability, disorientation.”
“How is he fed?”
“Ira has a sensor on the left side of his body that, when stimulated, creates a sense of fullness. We were letting him feed himself for a while, but he began refusing to do it, and the simulated starvation was affecting his cognitive function. So now we force-feed him. We place a magnet on his skull that temporarily subdues him so the employees can complete the feeding. We also use the magnet for physical examinations. But when it comes to sex, we’ve always made sure Ira is awake, that he is physically subdued by his partners, not by the magnet.”
Partners. Lester’s mouth went sour. But he was fascinated too, his mind slinking toward a splendid hope, his body sweaty with anticipation.
The man on the left approached Ira with the magnet. The man on the right darted around to Ira’s side, clearly trying to distract him. But Ira’s gaze never left the man with the magnet.
“We could try to reprogram, remove hunger from his repertoire, but the risk of destabilizing something else . . .”
“I understand.” Unraveling the sweater, Kennerac called it. Sometimes, when ABs at Early Years Programming acquired unexpected and undesirable traits or habits, the lab attempted “surgery” to reprogram the brain. The trouble was that altering one part of an AB’s brain had a chain effect. It was part of the reason EYP was so interested in allowing brains to develop organically, rather than trying to program the desired behaviors into them.
Inside Ira’s room, the employees’ mouths were moving, but Lester couldn’t hear what they were saying. Ira flattened himself against the wall, teeth bared.
“We’ve also discussed a reprogramming to tamp down some of his violent urges, but—” Dr. Cullom turned to Lester “—we’ve never had one like this. He’s been fascinating to study.”
“It’s illegal to create violent ABs.” Lester watched one employee lunge toward Ira. Ira’s skinny body tore forward gracelessly, but with a skill born of desperation and fury, like a fighter hobbled by a clout to the head. He struck the man’s shoulder, and the man staggered back. Lester found himself rooting for the Beauty.
“It’s legal,” Cullom said with jagged firmness. A second’s glance at Lester, and then she smoothed her voice the way she might a wrinkled jacket. “It’s the keeping of them that’s highly regulated. He’ll need to go to a licensed handler.” She paused, seeming genuinely regretful for a moment. “We’ve invested so much in him, it seems a shame not to sell him. But perhaps . . . perhaps the thing to do is reprogram and recycle his mind. Create something less . . . risky.”
What a terrible thing that would be, to lose something as fierce and beautiful as Ira.
His own greed, for an instant, was like a spell of dizziness, a blackening of the room. It wrecked his thoughts like a tower of building blocks, and he stood there in the mess, wondering What if?
“Shall we move on?” Cullom suggested.
Lester stayed put. The struggle was short but brutal. Ira fought, but he was outnumbered, and after a moment the men clamped the magnet to the side of Ira’s head. Ira began to sway. The men eased him onto the bed, lifted his shirt, and one of them pressed on Ira’s skin, between his lower two ribs on the left side. Ira’s eyes remained wide, and his mouth worked. Eventually the men released the Beauty, and one of them quickly pulled the magnet from Ira’s temple.
Ira lay there, still and fragile as ice on a branch, as the men made a hasty exit. Shortly after the door shut, Ira leaped to his feet. He approached the glass where Dr. Cullom and Lester were watching and began to pound on it. Lester saw those wild eyes, heard the frantic shouts even through the thick glass. He thought of Mark—“And if she gets too fucked up from it, I can have her wiped . . .”—thought of the infants at EYP, the way they cried as though they had hearts that could break. He thought of Aaron.
“I’ll buy him.” Lester wasn’t sure he’d spoken aloud.
Dr. Cullom looked at him. “Dr. Usole?” She sounded more amused than surprised.
Laugh it off. Say you were joking.
Instead he said, “You can only sell him to someone licensed. I’m licensed.” I can’t. Why am I saying this? I can’t possibly—
“You handle infants.”
“I’m licensed,” Lester repeated. “I’ve worked with ABs of all ages. I have a secure area of my home for work-related projects. I’m experienced enough to handle him and strong enough to physically subdue him.” That sour taste in his mouth again.
Dr. Cullom said quietly, “You realize we can’t just hand one of our products over to your institute—”
“It wouldn’t be for EYP.” He would be mine.
A silence. “And not to be rude, but I have to assume Ira’s price would be out of your range.”
“What are you asking?” She told him, and Lester kept his expression neutral. “What are the odds of you finding a qualified candidate who can pay that price?”
A flicker of a smile. “It’s a fair point. But believe it or not, Dr. Usole, it wouldn’t even be a profit for us.”
Lester didn’t doubt it.
She nodded slowly. “Perhaps we could work something out. You’re obviously in a unique position, given that you work with infants and have an extensive understanding of artificial brain development. Details of your experience with Ira could be valuable to us.”
Dr. Cullom seemed able to shut out Ira’s racket, but Lester kept turning to watch the Beauty, who had sunk to his knees and was banging on the glass every few seconds.
“Are you all right, Lester?”
Lester nodded, pulling his gaze from Ira. “You’d want me to report to you?”
“Something like that. Yes.” Cullom folded her arms. “Dr. Kennerac has always spoken highly of your work with the infants. And there are tools that will help you manage Ira. We’ll give you the magnet, in case you need to incapacitate him.” She rubbed briskly at a scuff on the floor with her shoe. “We recently had a chip implanted under Ira’s skin. It’s operated by remote. It will temporarily overload his pain sensors—just for a few seconds. That will give you a chance to attach the magnet, if you’re having trouble getting him to be still.”
“Overload his pain sensors?”
Cullom met his gaze. “Ira is incredibly strong. And very dangerous. You cannot risk him overpowering you. Do you understand?”
Lester looked once more at Ira, who was huddled on the floor. Slowly, the Beauty lifted his head to stare at Lester. He grinned. A chill spread from Lester’s gut up through his chest.
Artificial skin and muscle. If he feels pain, it’s a programmed pain.
If he loathes you, the feeling is wires and code.
Dr. Cullom placed a hand briefly on Lester’s arm. It had been so long since anyone had touched Lester that he jumped. “I’ll get the paperwork ready.”