By Eric Del Carlo
I MAKE A DECENT LIVING off desperation. Luckily—if that’s really the word I want to use—desperation is in ready supply these days.
My service is valuable, and I can save lives. Don’t want to give up your kidney? Are you overly attached to that left lung that’s been conscripted? I can damage these organs for you, devalue them so that the Reallocation Commission will no longer want them.
But it is the extreme cases, the Crucial Sacrifices, where I’m most useful. Did your number come up on your pancreas, your liver, your medulla oblongata? I can fix that. Your vitals will be impaired and you will have willingly submitted yourself to pain and debilitation; but you will live.
Unless you don’t.
It’s not a perfect science. It is not really a science at all. I am a butcher in blood-drenched apron. I am an alchemist cooking up poisons. I am a tailor with eighteen months of medical education who is trying to stay afloat on a sea of pus and ichor. Sometimes there are casualties.
Sometimes it was worse than that.
* * *
I hunkered with Danae in the clammy, peeling room while her brother died in jerky stages. Old paint, the color of gangrene, had come away in fingernail-shaped fragments and lay scattered at the baseboards. Light breathed softly from a lantern.
The air smelled of kerosene and extinction. I had liked D’Wayne, and I was sorry for what was happening to him, in and of the misfortune itself. It was my responsibility. When my work goes awry, it’s a professional shortcoming, and it hurts me and my reputation. But this was horribly worse because of Danae’s connection to this damaged and dying man.
She crouched at the bedside. Not a bed, really, a slab of foam; same as this wasn’t an operating room, just a room, a squalid little hole where I had tried to injure D’Wayne’s hypothalamus, which was about as hazardous a tailoring as you could hope to subject yourself to. Or not hope. Resort to. D’Wayne had received his Crucial Sacrifice notification. It was an actual physical hand-delivered notice, a sheet of deadtree from the Reallocation Commission. D’Wayne had told Danae, and Danae had brandished the familiar—to me—summons. All that remained was for D’Wayne or her to ask my help. I was deeply in love with Danae. I meant to do it for free. But I should have waited; let them ask. Instead, I volunteered. So this death, here and now, was mine. I owned it.
It was an awful thing to own. It stank and shuddered. And it lingered a long while.
Danae stayed dutifully with her brother to the end, and I stayed too—not with him, but with her. I was aware with every quick beat of my heart and every slowing moment of D’Wayne’s life that a violence was gathering. Danae was drawing the energy to herself, pulsing strings of tarnished gold, bright beads of winking onyx.
She didn’t wait until D’Wayne was dead. She turned to me, lamplight making a glimmering mahogany of her lovely features.
“Why couldn’t you have been an accountant?” A lethal light behind her eyes found every fleck of silver in the blue irises.
Tailors work with flesh to try to cheat the system; accountants have their hands in that system and can hack the Reallocation Commission’s database so that you get passed over, spared.
My haunches ached. Sweat dotted my shirt to my back. I said, “Because I’m not an accountant. I’m a tailor.”
(In the long time I’ve had to think back on this occasion, I have come to believe that if I had simply said, I’m not an accountant, what followed could have been avoided. Gentleness and somber understanding would have replaced hysterics and fury. But I said, Because. And Because I’m not an accountant has a confrontational edge to it. It’s the answer to a challenge.)
Danae spun all the way toward me, rage in every angle of her exquisite body. “Some fucking tailor!” That was what she started with.
She hurled insults. I didn’t counter. She threw punches, which I ducked. I stayed until D’Wayne had gone, truly and finally, and I packed up my kit. While doing that, I pleaded with Danae. It was wretched. It was useless. Her hate was incalculable, and she would never see me again.
There was nothing I could do but punish myself. So I stopped taking the lavender pills.
* * *
I walked out into the night. I might walk to the ends of the earth; walk until my toes knotted and feet streamed blood. I would go until I dropped, exhausted. Or until I ran into something I couldn’t get around.
Purposely I had not kept track of the days since I’d quit taking my pills. I didn’t want to see it coming. But from how I felt it must have been three, three and a half weeks since I’d last had the lavender capsules.
During that time I had continued to work. No choice there. Tailoring doesn’t get you rich. There are higher-tier hustlers of the system who can take half a dozen jobs a year and live lavishly. Not a tailor. There are too many of us who know how to wreak controlled havoc on the human body. But at least the supply of clients is endless. The Reallocation Commission is not going away.
I didn’t think about Danae. I didn’t not think about her. But she was with me anyway, with every step. I had not seen her; I would not see her. It would have been terrible if I had.
The hot city jangled and buzzed. I walked streets and over bridges, through marketplaces and concourses. The crowds were everywhere and tireless.
In my head beat an algorithm. Or at least my approximation of one, my imagined construct of the arcane formula used to determine which person must surrender what organ for the greater good, and when he or she must do so. It is, of course, the young who get harvested. Fresh bodies, resilient parts. You might be sixteen (the minimum age); you might be twenty; you might have just had your twenty-seventh birthday, like I had. That could be your time. You get a conscription notice. Maybe a ligament. Maybe part of your intestinal tract has been claimed by the Commission. But maybe it is a lot worse than that. Perhaps you have received, by hand, the much more severe notification. The Reallocation Commission requires something critical from you. You are to be a Crucial Sacrifice.
That algorithm twisted and twined, and became a living thing for me as I continued to jostle my way through the nighttime. How unfeeling the equation must be, callous mathematics. Necessities. Supply and demand. But it always seems to be those of the lowest classes who are conscripted, and the elite of society who benefit. The system is rigged—it has to be—and it is certainly corruptible. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be accountants, and those same elites wouldn’t receive Exemptions from the Commission.
My head was hurting, maybe from the strobing power of the formula I was imagining. Maybe I was just tired. I had walked a long way already, through the city’s grimier sectors. I didn’t know what I meant to do with the night stretching out ahead of me. Without the lavender pills I couldn’t predict my own intentions or manage my own responses.
The idea of stopping, of resting awhile, took hold of me with an exaggerated power. But I was still aware of the exaggerations, which meant I hadn’t fully succumbed to my particular mental malady. I even had a way out if I wanted. I had the pills with me. A cowardly precaution, considering that I was withholding them from myself as a punishment. They would take effect quickly, and the past weeks of cold turkey would simply vanish.
Maybe D’Wayne deserved better than that. Perhaps Danae did too.
I followed a littered downward ramp to a bistro’s entrance. I pushed through black-paned doors and found light that was dimmer, but kinder, than outside. It was far quieter in here, with languid music slipping among the place’s decorative pillars.
I had no real sense of how many people were or weren’t here. In the dimness I took a seat. Somebody—it had to be a somebody since there wouldn’t be automoids in a place like this—moved vaguely into my view, and I ordered. The drink came, with blue ice cubes and a froth of yellow across the top. It looked like a dessert.
“What is that?”
It was the question in my head, but I hadn’t asked it. I glanced right, at another shadowy shape, this one on the clientele side of the serving bar.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Don’t you? Didn’t you order it? Or did someone buy it for you? An admirer, maybe. Oh, wouldn’t that be charming? An admirer, a stranger sending this as a token. How very exciting.”
She made it sound exciting. Hers was a low feminine voice. I looked her way a moment, but still couldn’t pick out much detail. However, her suggestion of an admirer had gotten into my thoughts and was now churning there, throwing up images of a half-veiled face, furtive eyes. Somewhere in the bistro was the person who had bought me this exotic drink, someone with designs on me, not necessarily romantic ones. How very exciting, just like she’d said, how very—
“But I saw you order it,” she said. “Have you forgotten what you ordered, then?”
“Yes. I have.” It was the disorientation, catching up to me.
“Well, taste it, at least. You must tell me what it tastes like.”
I took a sip that left foam on my upper lip. “It’s mellow. Not too sweet.”
She shifted in her seat, and light fell across her. Instead of a dusky pigment, her skin was pale. Instead of hair coiled and short, hers was long and soft. She had a lithe easiness about her, rather than a concentrated wiriness.
I was using Danae as a standard, and comparing this woman to her.
She leaned toward me, looking me over. I had more of my drink. It felt good to be off my feet.
“You look like a man with a purpose,” she said, using that same low tone. She had a drink of her own, something dark.
“It’s what I just said.”
I didn’t feel like someone with a purpose. I was afloat on the night. But her words were suggestive, and I automatically tried to fit myself to their reality. Of course I had a purpose. I was a tailor.
“You’re a tailor?”
I must have spoken it aloud. It was a dangerous, stupid thing to say, but then, I had set out to punish myself. My profession is, of course, a criminal one. If this woman was police or had an inclination to inform the police, I would have truly achieved my penance.
“You mean,” she said, whispering conspiratorially now, “a ... tailor?”
I could get up and walk away. Better, I could take my lavender pills and leave, retreat to my hovel of a home, forget about tonight and the preceding weeks. Maybe even start—somehow—to forget about D’Wayne. And Danae.
The woman’s eyes glittered. She wasn’t unattractive.
“We should dance,” she said. She put down her drink and put out her hand toward me.
I didn’t want to dance. But I was helpless.
Others, I saw as she led me, were dancing in the dimness. The lazy music slid back and forth, going nowhere. She turned and tugged, and suddenly I was against her, in motion with her, following her easy gliding steps. Her body was firm but not tense. She wore ordinary clothing. She moved so perfectly with the music it was as if it emanated from her. She smelled cool and perfumed, like flowers in the snow. Not that I’d ever seen snow; and only rarely a flower.
It occurred to me abruptly that this woman didn’t fit here. How she spoke, how she moved—all of it was wrong. Even her commonplace clothes seemed deliberately plain. She was adventuring. She was away from her home turf. Which meant she belonged someplace else, somewhere less sordid.
“How long have you been a tailor?” We were away from the other slowly swaying couples. She had brought me out here to talk unheard.
“Two and a half years.”
“And how many times have you—how do you say it? Performed an alteration? I’ve never met a tailor before. What’s the lingo?”
“A job. It’s called a job.”
“So, how many?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. A lot.” These were the questions the police would start with.
“Fascinating,” she said.
It would be, to someone who wasn’t likely to be subject to the mandates of the Reallocation Commission. That presumed I was correct, that this woman was from the higher social levels and was slumming in this sector.
After that, inevitably, she wanted to know the details. She wanted all the gritty particulars. How did clients contact me? What fees did I charge? With every answer I incriminated myself further, but I couldn’t stop. We danced throughout, a gentle constant gliding. I held to her, and she kept up her easy mastery of movement. Her face was near. I started to see the beauty there, in the contours of her features, in the elegant play of her lips. She was very unlike Danae, but I had stopped using her for a standard.
“Has a job ever gone wrong for you?”
I should have been expecting this question, should have braced for it. Of course she would want to know this.
My head spun, as though the algorithm had come alive again, twisting and writhing in my skull. My step faltered, and she caught me.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“I—” I should tell her about the lavender pills and what it meant when I didn’t take them, but the whirling was worse now. “Wrong—what—I ...”
Her hands on my shoulders, holding me still. Strong fingers. She peered into my eyes. “I mean, why are you answering every question I put to you so candidly? Why are telling me ... these things?”
I gazed back at her. “Because I can’t help it,” I said, realizing as I spoke that I was pressed back against one of the bistro’s interior pillars. I felt very weak, very vulnerable.
Her eyes glittered again. “Do you think I’m pretty?”
“Do you like me?”
“I love you. Desperately. Completely.” Whatever she started I would finish.
“I haven’t heard those words in ... a long time,” she said. A serious look came to her face, the first I’d seen. “We should leave here.”
I could only agree. “We should. Yes. We should.”
And we did.
* * *
I hadn’t been to this part of the city in a long time, and had never been inside one of the soaring gleaming towers. The opulence was stunning. These lofty rooms were hers, all this space, all the luxury. My suggestibility had brought me here, but I recognized what a rare privilege it was, once in a lifetime. There would be a price, of course. This woman understood my vulnerability and no doubt meant to take advantage of it.
“I was right,” I said, standing there awash in the grandeur. Furniture, fixtures, ambience, all were exquisite. “You were adventuring. Seeing how the other half lives. The unlucky half.”
“Curiosity,” she said, gliding up to me. She had changed out of her nondescript clothes into a cool dark gown which seemed to ignore gravity as it flowed. “No. Something more than curiosity. A reminder, a refresher.”
“What do you want from me?” I shouldn’t have asked; to ask was just to hurry this.
She smiled, and her beauty became more evident. I hadn’t lied: I did love her. The exaggerated emotions felt perfectly real, like they always do in this state.
I stood slightly taller than her. She looked up into my eyes. Hers were not blue with flecks of silver, but that didn’t matter anymore, not at all. She said, “Tell me about the—the jobs that have gone wrong for you.”
So it was this again, unavoidable now. I told her. I unearthed the memories and didn’t have to dig far. Some things lie near the surface and never really sink. I am a good tailor, or at least a more than competent one; or one, at the very least, who cares about his work.
“Have you told me everything?” she asked. We were sitting on a luxuriant couch now, deep pillows. Her fingers were stroking my temple.
“Tell me the worst, then. Tell me how it went so bad.”
I didn’t know this woman or her motivations. I loved her, yes, but she was a stranger to me. Strange, indeed. Looking for cheap thrills? Was she drawn to what was lurid? I could supply her needs.
She wanted the worst, and I gave it to her. I gave her D’Wayne, and Danae, and my crushed heart.
After, I was weeping. She gently led me to a different room, a bedroom, as lavish as the rest of her home. She told me what to do—at first, anyway. Soon, though, I functioned without any guidance. We moved together, as on the dance floor. My tears had dried. I was already lost, but I lost myself again. This time it was pleasurable, fulfilling, even loving. Her pale body was a wonder. We grappled, slipped apart, rejoined, and rested.
“Thank you,” she said. “This is a lonelier life than you would imagine. So—thank you for this.”
I didn’t want to be thanked. I didn’t ponder whatever peculiar kind of loneliness she thought she suffered from. Maybe it really was something only the self-indulgent elite could understand.
The hour was late. The bedroom buzzed with sweet fatigue. Soft hair spilled over my shoulder as she kissed my throat and asked teasingly—as if the question were meant ironically—what I was thinking. I told her: the algorithm. She had me explain, and the words slipped from me. I heard her murmur in a more serious tone, “You’re right, it is heartless,” as I faded toward sleep. Before I went, she cradled my head, put something to my lips. I swallowed the capsules she must have found in my clothes. She said, “Maybe mercy will find you. Or someone dear to you.” I didn’t know what these words meant. I slept.
* * *
In the morning, an automoid saw me out. The machine was very polite, very insistent. The mistress of the abode was nowhere to be seen.
A shuttle took me back. The night was done, but the city was just as noisy and crowded and lively. I saw it as it was now, and my responses were predictable, familiar, under my control.
Soon, I was back among the squalor. I was home.
I could remember it all, but I could not—naturally—truly recapture my feelings for her. And why should I want to? She had used me for sport. I didn’t let myself care. I had distractions. I had my work.
* * *
I heard about Danae receiving the Exemption. The news spread feverishly in our sector of the city. How had this happened? Only the elite got Exemptions, only the well-connected. Only they, supposedly, contributed so significantly to society that they couldn’t be sacrificed.
Danae didn’t contact me. I was a tailor, after all, not an accountant. I couldn’t have conjured that Exemption. I continued to take my lavender pills, and went about my business.
A few weeks later a courier in a crisp blue uniform appeared. I accepted the notice without saying a word. The organ specified for my Crucial Sacrifice was my heart. I did the job myself, injecting the counterproductive agents that would give me permanent arrhythmia. I was rejected by the Commission, of course. No investigation followed. This sort of thing happens too often, and there’s always someone else to harvest. The supply is endless.
It is a different life for me now, a far more fragile one. But I know Danae is safe. No part of her will ever be conscripted. She will never receive a Crucial Sacrifice notification. No tailor will ever unintentionally kill her.
I never knew the woman’s name, the accountant whose rare talent for hacking the Commission’s database, for manipulating the system, must have elevated her from what I guess had been her humble beginnings. Perhaps she too had assigned herself a penance, and so had offered this mercy. Not to me, but someone dear to me. I love her, just as I still love Danae. It is perhaps some lingering imprint of the helpless emotion I felt for her that night. Maybe, though, it’s something much more genuine.
Eric Del Carlo’s short fiction has appeared in “Asimov’s,” “Redstone Science Fiction,” “Strange Horizons,” “Shimmer” and more. He has coauthored several novels with the late Robert Asprin, including the New Orleans set mystery, “NO Quarter.”