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The next thing Henry knew, he was choking on thick blue fluid. He clawed for air, but his hands found only warm glass. His lungs spasmed as he pounded his fists against the walls of his tiny prison.
He started to fall, or were the walls sliding up? The weight of the fluid pushed his naked body out of the tube and onto a cold tile floor. Above Henry stood a heavyset man in an orange uniform and matching cap. “Look at what you did, you nitwit! This is going to take all day to clean up!” Henry realized he wasn’t the subject of derision. The first man threw his orange clipboard at a lanky man in a trimmer version of the same uniform and headwear.
“Not my fault, sir,” the other man pleaded. “Not my fault a’tall. The client, he was choking, see. Woke up too soon, he did.”
The larger one rubbed his face with his hands. His nostrils flared over his bushy mustache. “How many times do I gots to tell ya? If a client wakes up early, you just hit him with a dose of the sleep juice. For chrissake, I’m not mopping up this goop. It’d ruin my good mop.”
The taller man started to speak, thought better of it, began to speak again, gave up, and retrieved the clipboard. He handed it back to the large man, who proceeded to slap the other repeatedly on the shoulders with it.
The last thing Henry remembered was lying in his bed after a long day monitoring automatic relays at the factory. How had he gotten here? He tried to speak, but only vomited more of the blue fluid. The gel-like compound obscured most of the floor in the otherwise sterile, white-tiled room.
“Oh, would you look at that.” The shorter man waved his arms. “Thank you so much. That’s just perfect.”
“Where am I?” Henry asked. “Who are you people?”
The two men screamed with delight at Henry’s words. “It never fails!” screeched the mustached man. “Always the same questions! It must be hardwired!”
The lanky man tugged on the other man’s uniform sleeve. “That means I win this time, dud’n it, Badger?”
Badger slapped the hand away. “No, Luft, you ninny. You win if they start out asking who we are. I win if they start with where they are.”
Luft rubbed his chin. “I don’t know. I could’ve sworn that last time it was the backward of that.”
“I’m sorry, my boy, this is as it’s always been. Which means I win again, and you must take the penalty.”
As the drama unfolded, Henry looked around the room. It resembled a communal shower, but in place of stalls were more tubes like the one he’d been flushed out of. Each tube contained a naked, floating human, their hair dancing in the gentle currents.
“But I don’t want to take the penalty.” Luft held up his hands, pleading. “I’ve only stopped flinching from the last one!”
“You’ll take your medicine, and you’ll like it,” Badger said. “What are we, if we welch on our word? We’re no better than the animals, I’ll tell you that for free. Not that I’ve ever seen a real animal. You ever seen a real animal, boy?” This last question targeted Henry.
“Once,” Henry stammered. “When I was a kid. A sheep. They told us it was real, anyway.”
“Can’t trust a grownup when you’re a wee tike, though, can ya?” Luft said. “Grownups, they’re always lying to kids, aren’t they?”
“That’s God’s honest truth, it is,” Badger said, holding his hat against his chest.
Henry shook his head, trying to clear it. “I suppose—“
Badger slapped his hat back on his head. “No more stalling! Penalty.”
Badger pulled back his fist. The other man relented and braced himself. A sharp crack rang out. Luft stumbled backward into a tube holding an attractive Asian woman. The violent collision bounced her off the back of the tube. Her eyes opened for a moment before she drifted off again.
“What’d I tell you, you sorry sod!” Badger cackled. “Right in the kisser! Every time. Right in the kisser!”
Luft laughed right along with him, despite the blood dripping from his lip. The nanotechnology every human carried in their blood was already at work setting his jaw, stopping the bleeding, and administering pain killers. “Wait a minute,” he said, and stuck a thumb and forefinger into his mouth. After a slight wiggle, he held a porcelain pebble. The two men froze. They looked down at the tooth, then up at each other. They looked down at the tooth and burst out laughing again. “It’ll take hours for me tech to grow another one!”
“Quit your belly aching. I’ll buy you an iced lolly.” Badger turned his attention to Henry. “But right now we have to deal with Lady Godiva. Get this man some underpants so I can stop staring at his balls.”
Hydraulics hissed, and Luft stumbled out an automatic door. Badger squatted down to speak to Henry. “Sorry about that, my boy. Waking up early I mean. I ’magine it’s quite traumatic, like. Happens sometimes since the latest firmware upgrade. Working on a patch, you know. I think it happens when they input a space after the name in the data.”
The door hissed and Luft reappeared, carrying a bundle of clothing wrapped in plastic. Badger snatched them away. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Luft looked around. “Not that I know of. I didn’t bring a dress this time.” He spoke to Henry in an aside, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it’s your preference.”
Badger slapped him with the clothing bundle. “No, you idiot. The hose.”
“Oh, right.” Luft unclipped a rubber water hose from the wall. It uncoiled, spilling in a pile on the floor like a turgid anaconda. “You might want to close your eyes, sir. This here’ll pop ‘em right out your head.”
“Wait—” But the wall of water had already knocked him off his feet. His bare back slid on the ground until he was pinned against the wall. It was all he could do to cover his face with one hand and his genitals with the other.
By the time Henry got to his feet, Luft was washing the last of the fluid down the drain. Badger tossed Henry a towel and some clothes. “Sorry about that, sir, but we gotta clean that stuff up before it curdles. Stinks to high heaven and steel wool wouldn’t take it off then.”
Henry dried himself and pulled on the clothes, which he recognized as his own. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Oh?” Badger leaned forward. “And what question might that be?”
“Who are you people?”
That set them off again. Badger readied his fist as Luft begged him to stop. “Enough!” Henry yelled, grabbing Badger by the arm. The sturdy little man glared at him, and Henry released his grip.
“Fine,” said Badger. “Didn’t count anyway without the location query, am I right? I’m Badger, and this here’s my assistant, Luft.”
Luft tipped his hat. “We’re maintenance.”
“Maintainers!” Badger slapped him on the back of the head. “Not maintenance. We’re the Maintainers. Jesus, Barry, and Yossef. You’re in the Yolk, Mister—” He looked at his clipboard. “Switch operator, Henry Brown. Heh. That’s pretty appropriate for a little shitstain like you.”
“What?” Henry asked.
“Nothing,” Badger said, smiling. “Nothing at all. Look right there, extra space after the name, just like I said. This here is the Yolk, and you’re here because something went wrong, didn’t it?”
“Yes, wrong,” Luft said, fighting to get the hose recoiled and back on the wall. “Very wrong, indeed! You required medical intervention.”
Henry finished buttoning his shirt. “What could go wrong? I have the same nanotech as everyone else.”
“Right, right.” Badger said. “And if you read your manual—no one ever reads their manual—you’d know the nano protects you from most injuries. Key word being most.”
“Not all injuries.” Luft shook his head like a puppet. “Not all at all.”
“Seriously?” Henry asked. “I’ve heard of people falling out of buildings and walking away.”
“Oh, yes, done that meself,” Luft said. “Damned uncomfortable. And I’ve seen people bounce back from severe burns over their entire bodies.”
“And I still haven’t forgotten you did that to me, you imbecile.” Badger slapped the clipboard against Luft’s skull. “Remembered to turn off the gas, my ass! But Mr. Henry Brown, heh, your injuries were beyond the abilities of the nano to repair.”
Henry’s pulse quickened. “I don’t remember getting hurt.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t.” Luft smiled wide, showing the gap from his lost tooth. “We restored your memory from your weekly backup. Bound to be a gap in your recall, eh?”
Badger checked his clipboard. “Looks like your smartbed performs your backups on Tuesdays. Unless you, heh, are sleeping elsewhere, in which case it backs up the next night you sleep in it. Wouldn’t want to forget any of those adventures, now would we? You dog, you.”
“I’m sure you’re a real choir boy,” Henry said.
“That makes me think of those religious fundies who refused the nanotech,” Badger said. “Declared it was wrong to choose your biological age, skip over illness and injury. Some real pious bastards, weren’t they?”
Luft lit up. “Say, I remember them. Whatever happened to ’em?”
“They’re all dead. They’d have to be, wouldn’t they? It’s been hundreds of years now, at least. Who keeps count?”
“I keep count,” Luft said.
Badger snarled. “No one cares if you keep count.”
“Gentleman, please,” Henry said. “Tell me about the accident.”
“Accident?” Luft giggled. “Oh, no. No, sir. No accident.”
“Definitely not!” Badger laughed so hard his face went dark red. “You don’t do those terrible things to a human being on accident.”
Luft tried to hold a straight face. “Whoever it was, they made quite a mess of you. What was it the policemen said about the killer? He wore your scalp for socks?”
Badger rolled his eyes. “No, no, he wore your heart for a hat. Wait, that’s not right, either. He wore your knuckles for knickers?”
“I think it’s, ‘He wore your throat for a coat.”
“Guys,” Henry said. “I really think—”
“That’s definitely not it, you nitwit. It isn’t a rhyme, it’s alliteration. He wore your canines for cufflinks. Palms for pajamas. He wore your tongue for a tie.”
“Wait! I’ve got it.” Luft held up his hands. “Here it is: He wore your spleen for spats.”
“Luft, my good man, I don’t say this often enough. But you are a genius.”
“Shut up!” Henry yelled, making the two men jump. “Just shut up! It’s ‘I wore your guts for garters!’ Guts for garters. Guts! Garters! Jesus, you people are mad!” He stopped, having run out of words. He stared at the floor with glazed eyes, panting and squeezing his fists.
The two men in orange looked at one another and shrugged. Luft scratched his head. “That’s doesn’t sound right to me,” Luft said. “Are you—oof!” Badger cut him off with an elbow to the ribs.
“We’ve wasted enough of your time, Mr. Brown, heh,” Badger said. “Allow us to escort you out.”
“Wait a minute.” Henry came back to his senses. “What about the one who killed me? Isn’t there an investigation or something?”
Badger and Luft looked at one another, befuddled. “Murder, sir?” Luft asked. “Investigation? I’m afraid we don’t understand.”
“Someone killed me, you idiots!”
“Please speak more kindly, sir,” Badger said. “Besides, it is you who are the idiot. How can you have been murdered? You’re standing right here, aren’t you?”
“Only because you fixed my body! Otherwise I’d be someone’s garters!”
“Actually, sir,” Luft said, frowning. “There may be more confusion than we thought. We—that is, the Yolk—didn’t fix your body, we grew you a new one.”
“This—this isn’t my body?” Henry stared down at his hands, which suddenly felt like they belonged to someone else.
Badger patted him on the back. “Trust me, friend, you’re lucky. That old body, it wasn’t fit for the sausage factory after what was done to it.”
“How does it work? How did the Yolk grow me a new body?”
“No idea,” Badger said.
“None at all,” Luft agreed.
“We’re mostly just here as a comfort.”
Henry ran his hands through his newly-minted hair. “But you can’t even tell me what happened.”
Badger shrugged. “Like I said, lucky. You don’t have to worry about that. It’s like it happened to someone else.”
“Right,” Luft said. “Some poor bastard who was tortured to death over many hours.”
The clipboard stuck into the top of Luft’s skull like a meat clever. Confused, the man crossed his eyes to examine the clipboard, but those eyes soon rolled back in his head as he slumped to the floor. Badger kneeled down, tugged free the clipboard and wiped it on his pants like a barbarian cleaning his sword after a battle. The nanotech in Luft’s body was already closing up the wound.
“Sir,” Badger said to Henry, “I understand you’re in distress. It happens. But without a body, there was no murder. You stand here before me, unkilled. Corpus delictible and all that.”
“Attempted murder, then.”
“How could he attempt to kill someone who, like everyone else in the solar system, is unkillable? Listen, don’t worry about it. Let’s get you back to work. I’m sure you, heh, I’m sure you have plenty of relays to catch up on monitoring.”
“What about these others?” Henry looked at the dozen or so naked people, floating helplessly in the tubes.
“Other victims. Don’t worry about it. Let’s get you out of here.”
As the door hissed to signal Henry’s exit, Luft sat up, the deep chasm in his forehead now now just a pink line. “Did you tell him the other part?”
Henry put his hand up to hold the automatic door open. “Tell me what?”
Badger groaned. “I was just about to tell him. For crying out loud. Mr. Brown, heh, it’s the recommendation of Yolk upper management that you start performing backups on a nightly basis.”
“Nightly basis? Why?”
Badger straightened his cap. “Well, the one who mur—the one who caused your temporary inconvenience has been known to return to previous victims.”
Luft agreed as he awkwardly stood. “Two, three, even four times! We see a lot of repeat business!”
Henry tried to reenter the room, but Badger planted a hand in the middle of Henry’s chest. “Just a minute,” Henry said. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me I’ll be safe!”
“Thank you for using the Yolk.” Badger smiled wide as he shoved Henry into the dark hallway. “In your review, please give us five stars.”
“Lock your doors!” Luft called as he stumbled into one of the tubes. “Try not to get tortured to death!”
“Wait!” Henry said, but the door hissed shut in his face.