The twins crept quietly along the streets, doing their best to keep to themselves. The fighting around the penitentiary had died down about twenty minutes ago, giving way to scrambling feet as the unsuccessful challengers escaped back into the shadows to nurse their wounds and count their dead. The proprietorship of Eastern State Penitentiary was in constant flux, and the block or two surrounding it was a veritable war zone most of the time. There was no peace in the area - just lulls in the fighting for combatants to count their dead.
Because of that, it was often a graveyard, and a goldmine for scavengers looking for something to sell. Gaige and Alvare had already chased off a scraggly group of scrounging local children, threatening to chew out their eyeballs if they didn’t disappear. The kids acquiesced readily, spitting insults in their wake at the cannibal Corpsedancers they both reviled and feared.
Gaige waved at them as they ran, grinning ear to ear. “It is good to know that children still listen to the prejudices of their parents,” she mused, tucking back her thick dark hair as she looked around the corner. “Looks clear,” she announced to her brother.
“I guess that’s our cue, then, sis,” he purred, flipping back his own shorter version of his sister’s black locks, brown eyes sparkling with mischief. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out a short knife and tucked it into his sleeve. “Are you ready to perform some unwilling extraction?”
“With you, brother? Always,” Gaige sighed, pulling her threadbare jacket closer around her shoulders. An empty syringe fell from one of the pockets, and she bent quickly to pick it up.
The first corpse they found was mangled beyond recognition, only appearing human because one generally did not dress animals in leather boots. Most of the skull had been blown away, leaving a spray of blood, bone, and brain trailing in chunks behind it.
Gaige dropped to her knees and unhooked her own knife, holding it close as she inspected the mutilated corpse. “I can’t tell if it’s spliced or what,” she growled, pulling on the remaining part of the body’s left arm and heaving it on its side. “It’s too far gone. Shit, it looks like something chewed this guy up. What do they have working for them inside the prison,” she frowned, eyeing the corpse, “a sentient chainsaw?”
“We’ve seen weirder. Just take a sample and test it in Lexx’s lab,” Alvare suggested, shrugging, eyes scanning the perimeter for threats.
“You know it doesn’t work that way,” she sighed, standing up and brushing off her knees.
“Then grab something valuable and let’s go. We don’t really have time to be picky.”
Gaige rolled her eyes and leaned back down to pull a silver broach from the body’s ragged lapel. “Silver skull,” she mused, turning it over in her hands a moment before tossing it to Alvare to keep in his bag. “Bet we could find a dead head to buy it off us.”
“Probably,” he replied as he caught it, tucking it safely away. “Come over here.” His heavy black boots carried him quickly to another body, nearly obscured by a pile of fallen debris. “Don’t tell me you can’t tell what this one was spliced with, doc.”
Gaige laughed and pulled out her syringe. The body, although half covered in shattered concrete, depicted a woman with bulging veins indicative of a hyperpowered circulatory system. It made for someone able to run faster and for longer, although it sure hadn’t seemed to help her in this situation.
She also had a bulging proboscis lolling from her split mouth, hanging uselessly in the dirt. Gaige had never seen a presentation of this particular splice that was aesthetically pleasing.
But still, she thought - genetics were genetics, and someone would pay for it. “Two for one special,” she chuckled, stabbing the point of the needle into the woman’s arm. “I’ll have a fun time separating the DNA on these.” Filling one needle up completely, she covered it and put it away, inserting a second for an additional sample.
“Gaige, heads up,” Alvare hissed, deadly serious. Gaige pulled the needle from the dead woman’s body, splashing viscous crimson blood on the ground as she capped the syringe and shoved it into her bag.
“What is it?” she asked, standing to join him where he stood, knife at the ready.
“Some folks looking for a handout,” he replied, gesturing with his blade. Gaige looked at where he was pointing and saw a shadow scuttle back into the crumbling shell of a building.
“Let’s just get out of here, then. I don’t feel like dealing with saggers this morning.”
“No way,” Alvare said, standing his ground. “We got here first.”
“You going to stab them all to death?” Gaige mocked sweetly, eyes scanning the ground for any more easy bodies to pilfer from. “Not often you find only one out hunting.” There was a man propped up against the far wall of the penitentiary, out of sight of the front gate sentries. He must have been picked off by someone else guarding the place. Gaige weighed the risks of scavenging in the open against an unknown assailant and decided to keep looking.
“You have a knife, too,” he rebuffed, rolling his eyes. “They’re lumps of flesh holding in addled brains; brandish a knife and tell them they smell and they’ll run off crying like the dirtbag failures they are.”
“I think you underestimate the power of hunger and survival,” she replied warily. “Look.” The figure hiding in the darkness peeked out from the building it had dodged into, followed by another head. And another. And another. And another. “Are you going to insult them as a group, or individually?”
“I was thinking some personalized attention, but I can address a crowd if necessary.” His eyes narrowed in anger as the saggers crawled entirely out of the shadows, revealing five of them standing and staring at one another, debating whether to act. Their eyes were filled with confusion and their bodies trembled violently.
“Don’t do it,” Gaige warned them.
The first sagger attacked.
“Shit,” Alvare cursed, intercepting him in the ribs with his dagger. The sagger seemed almost not to feel it, howling as he grasped at Alvare’s clothing, desperate for purchase on anything he could eat or steal to keep fed and warm. Pulling the blade out, he plunged it again and again into the sagger’s body, blood leaking all over him and the ground below.
“More coming!” Gaige shouted in warning, failing at dodging the attack of another sagger as it used the death of its companion as a distraction. Gaige shrieked as its teeth sunk into her collarbone and she fell onto her back. Raising her arm, she slammed her elbow into his head. He yelped and released his hold on her for long enough to allow her to push him back and kick at his chest until the creature detached and staggered back. Whimpering, it made another go for her, this time accompanied by a companion.
“Dammit!” she hissed, still prone. Scrabbling away, she bumped into a corpse she’d yet to salvage and noticed something shining from beneath the stiff form.
Dodging the second sagger’s swipe at her, she lunged for the weapon and tore it free from the dead grasp of its previous owner, pulling the trigger and blasting the face off the sagger coming for her. The sagger who had originally attacked watched his companion’s brain matter fly across the ground and speckle the front of his rotting shirt. Letting loose a shrill howl of fear, he turned tail and bolted.
At the sound of the gun, those still standing joined him, unwilling to pit themselves against a weapon in what had originally been easy pickings.
“Alvare?” Gaige panted, pushing herself to her feet and looking for her brother. Snapping the safety back on the pistol, she shoved it into her pouch for later. “Are you ok?”
Alvare was kneeling on the ground, holding a mewling sagger’s head between his hands, his face screwed up in rage as he dashed its skull against the ground. It shrieked at him, hands clawing at his face and the ragged locks of hair that flopped over his forehead. He gritted his teeth and shook it off as he bludgeoned the pitiful creature to death in the street.
Gaige watched him with detached amusement. “Are you finished, brother?” she asked, arms crossed patiently. “Most folks just shoot them, but your violent show of force is wildly attractive, so I’m happy to let you continue.”
When Alvare looked up at her, there were irate tears in his eyes to complement the speckles of blood and gore dotting his face. He dropped the dead sagger to the ground and crouched where he was, staring at the corpse, his hands in fists at his side.
Gaige dropped to her knees beside him. “Alvare, I’m sorry. Did I say something wrong?” She embraced him, feeling his body tremble as he sobbed. “You uh,” she frowned, uncertain as to what exactly had set him off, “you can manhandle corpses whenever you want. I don’t mind.”
Her attempt at levity fell flat as Alvare looked up at her angrily. “I’m going to end up like this,” he hissed, pushing himself to his feet. Gaige stood with him, keeping a hand on his elbow. He was still trembling. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m going to end up just like dad.”
His words were like sudden, hot knives in her belly, and she lifted his chin to force him to look at her. His eyes were swimming in unspent tears and his entire body shook. Their father had succumbed to the disease years ago, leaving them orphans in a land hostile to all, but especially to those that shared their beliefs. They were a pestilence, walking time bombs just waiting to go off in a hail of shuddering flesh and addled brains. Not all Corpsedancers became afflicted, but once you did, well - no one ‘got over’ the sagger sickness. Not until they died at least.
“What makes you say that?” she asked cautiously.
“Because,” he replied, “it’s obvious. Sometimes I lose track of the moment. I just forget what I’m doing, or where I am. And I shake.” He held out an arm as it shook slightly. “Just a constant shaking and mental fog that lasts longer and longer every time it hits.” He paused, looking at the ground. “Just like what happened to dad before he killed himself. That’s how I really knew.”
“How long have you felt like this” she asked, swallowing hard and pursing her lips, donning the guise of a scientist in order to shield her heart from breaking against reality.
“A few months.”
“A few months?” she asked, incredulous. “How did you manage to keep that hidden from me?”
Alvare cracked a wavering smile. “You’re not always with me, sister. I’ve become good at avoiding you when necessary.” He shrugged, looking at his feet. “I think it’s brought on by intense emotion or mental exertion. I just kind of disappear when I get too angry or have to think about something too hard.”
She scanned his face, uncertain what to say. The sagging sickness was a death sentence. Once it presented itself, the brain began to deteriorate, until the person that was once your loved one became little more than an animal driven by hunger, fear, and the need for comfort. In a way, it was a mockery of all the Corpsedancers held sacred: hedonism, violence, and the satiation of base hungers. Many family members killed those who were ill before they had their humanity eaten away. Others killed themselves. Their father had been one such Corpsedancer, and to this day, Gaige was ashamed of how grateful she was that he had taken that burden out of the hands of his children and community.
Gaige would let neither happen to Alvare. She had been preparing, ever since it was revealed that the sickness ran in their blood. Swallowing the news like a bitter pill, she grasped this vague hope with all of her resolve.
“Walk with me,” Gaige commanded, and Alvare fell into step behind her. They were twins, but Alvare had always listened to her when she talked. She tried not to abuse that. Not often at least.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, you know,” she said, putting some distance between themselves and the slaughter at the penitentiary. She could hear other scavengers beginning to stir, and was not in the mood for a second round of violence.
“I know,” Alvare replied. “You’ve a bit of a fixation.”
Gaige winced. “Is it that obvious?”
“You’ve garnered a bit of a reputation within the community.”
Gaige glowered. She’d heard the whisperings. At first people had given her a pass because she’d been mourning the passing of their father, but lately the mutterings had been a bit louder, and had a bit more bite. “The sagging sickness isn’t really a sickness,” she insisted. “It’s a deficiency. It’s prions in the brains we eat; nature’s way of purging the weak. We’ve been told that since we were old enough to understand the Perfection Principles and why it is we consume the flesh of the unfit.”
“That and ‘it tastes good.’” Alvare added, the ghost of a smile gracing his lips. He never could stay serious for long
Gaige ignored him, soldiering onward to her point. “What if it’s not the end?” she posited defiantly. “We’re the only denomination that endures the sagging sickness. What if it’s not a culling, but a calling?”
“A calling for what?”
“To become more than what we are.” Her brother looked at her questioningly. “Just hear me out,” she interrupted him as he attempted to interject. “The Fitter Family sees imperfection and they push past it, or they cut it out. Curators see imperfection and they create to improve it. The Cabal of Silver Flesh are,” she paused, “I think mostly complete nutjobs, but they also refuse to accept the failings of their flawed human bodies and look to create a newer, more perfect future through machines.”
“And we eat Perfection,” Alvare added.
“We consume it, but we also have to achieve it. Why are we the only sect of the Principles that accept the hurdle we hit as the end? Maybe the sagging sickness isn’t a flaw,” she started pacing, animated as she spoke. “Maybe it’s a gauntlet. Maybe, on the other side, is where we find our Perfection.”
Alvare canted his head and stood up straight. “I daresay our peers would have conflicting feelings on the matter.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”
“I didn’t say you were, but Gaige,” he sighed, his words filled with a deep sadness as his bravado dissolved, “what does it even matter? No one survives the sickness to see what’s beyond. It’s a nice sentiment, and I might even agree with it.” He walked past her dejectedly. “But that’s all it is: a nice sentiment. It doesn’t help me and it certainly doesn’t help the poor bastards we bludgeoned into oblivion back there.”
Gaige watched him walk away and set her lips into a firm line. She may not have been able to help their father, but she’d be damned if she let Alvare fall prey to the deadly condition. “Challenge accepted, brother.”
“Just try it,” Gaige pleaded, holding out the syringe.
“It’s filled with rotting tissue,” he grimaced, leaning back from her outstretched hand. “You want me to inject that into my body?”
“You eat people, brother. You lost the right to complain about appeal and consistency the last time you slurped down a bowl of brain pudding.”
“I guess that’s fair.” He took the syringe and jabbed it into his leg, wincing as the goo traveled through the needle and into his body. “And this is supposed to cure me?” he asked, unable to hide the skepticism.
“It should at least keep the symptoms at bay. I tried it on a rat.”
“What happened?” he asked, rubbing his thigh.
Gaige coughed. “Well, it died, but I adjusted the dose and, by the numbers, it should counteract the effects of the prions. It worked in slides on a microscopic level.”
Alvare sighed. “Well, here’s hoping I’m hardier than a rat. I guess we’ll wait and see.”
The next day he had another fit.
“Look on the b-bright side, sis,” he said as his shaking subsided. “At least I’m still alive.”
“This is horseshit,” Gaige snarled, kicking over a dented metal bucket she and Alvare used as a chamberpot during inclement weather or when they just didn’t feel like going outside. Mercifully, it was empty. “It should have worked.”
Alvare leaned back on the mattress they shared, watching her rage as he calmed his breathing. “You don’t know that it didn’t. It could have been worse, right?” Gaige couldn’t tell whether her brother was humoring her or actually believed in the work she was doing.
“I’m not done trying,” she said, grabbing her bag and heading for the door.
“Where are you going?” he asked, sitting up straighter.
“To market,” she replied. “I have another angle to try.”
“Great,” Alvare grumbled, slumping back into bed as she stalked out of the room. “Pick me up some supps while you’re there?”
The door slammed behind her.
Locating human remains was as simple as standing in the marketplace looking haggard and waiting for some unscrupulous character to offer a trade in flesh. The Corpsedancers were connoisseurs of cannibalism, and people were always willing to offload their dead for a bit of capitalistic recompense.
“Middle-aged man. Fresh as a daisy,” the woman offered her, dragging a large canvas bag behind her. It was leaking blood and discharge, and from the smell of it, was slightly less fresh than the daisy she’d proclaimed it to be.
It didn’t matter. Gaige’s purposes could be served just as well.
“You need to do more gardening,” she grimaced, throwing a pile of reclaimed cybernetic capacitors on the table. Most were burned out, but they still held some value if you knew how to reuse them. It wasn’t a great trade, but the woman seemed to recognize the questionable nature of her bargaining chip. She scowled, swiped the handful of materials off the table, and dropped the body on the ground.
Gaige watched her leave, making certain no one showed up to try and reclaim the stolen body of what happened to be their dead grandpa. After a moment, she picked up the bag and dragged it away from the market and toward a nearby alley where she dumped it into the dirt and began severing the head from the rest of the body. It was all she needed. No sense breaking her back over literal dead weight.
Leaving the headless corpse to the rats and scavengers, she tossed the head back in the bag and slung it over her shoulder, making her way to Lexx’s lab.
“I see you’ve brought me a gift,” Lexx commented drily as Gaige pushed open the door to the lab, hauling the stinking bag of human remains in after her. Lexx wrinkled their nose in distaste. “You really shouldn’t have.”
“At least I left the rest of it behind,” she grinned, reaching into the bag and pulling out the man’s head. A drooping frown was forever plastered onto his face. His eyes were open and beginning to cloud over, which told Gaige all she needed to know regarding how ‘fresh’ his remains were. Luckily she had no plans of sauteing his brains for dinner.
Taking off their glasses, Lexx wiped them clean on a rag hanging from the towel rack. “I see,” they commented, more resigned than upset. “I sure can’t wait to see what experiment you’ve gotten yourself into now.” Shaking their head, Lexx brushed a spray of sweaty blonde locks behind an ear.
Gaige smiled sheepishly. She was too poor to afford the upkeep and protection on her own lab, so she apprenticed under a local Mortali who was looking for a student and someone to hold people down when they got fussy during surgeries. Gaige had been only too happy to oblige. She was hoping to acquire her own splice, and Lexx had said they would even do it for her gratis if she came up with the materials necessary. Now it was just a matter of finding the right existing DNA, stripping the Source code from it, and combining it in such a manner that it did what she wanted. Easier said than done.
That particular venture would have to wait, however. She had more important fish to fry.
Taking the man’s doughy skull in hand, she tossed him on a scale. “6lbs,” Lexx commented from across the room. “Impressive.”
“Must be smarter than your average Joe,” Gaige joked, flipping the head over so that the hastily-severed base was pointed toward her. She needed a sample.
“Not smart enough to not be dead,” Lexx replied. Gaige grinned.
“Hey, Lexx,” she asked, gesturing to the other side of the room. “Can you hand me the bent hanger? My hands are a bit full.” Lexx shrugged and complied, tossing the bent and rusted metal wire that was once an ancient hanger in her direction.
She once heard from some of Lexx’s Mortali friends that ancient cultures used to use a similar object to remove brains by winding the wire up through the nose, breaking through the skull case, and whipping it around until bits of brain came out the sinuses. Personally she preferred to go the less-strenuous route and just go in through the foramen where the spine and skull connected. Bigger space to drain from and easier to access. Not like she was preserving someone for burial, anyway.
Gaige whipped the old hanger around inside the man’s skull until the first slimy chunk of grey cottage-cheese fell like a pile of thick spaghetti into her hand. Normally she would continue until it had all been removed, at which point she would fry it in its own pinkish juices. For now, however, all she needed was this small sample; she set the rest of the man’s head aside in case she might require more of it later.
Gaige’s research into a cure for the sickness had focused primarily on the effect of various substances on infected tissue, so she had plenty of samples of sick brains. Since her first shot hadn’t worked - not truly surprising, if she was honest with herself - she would have to try something else. This man was healthy, at least in the respects she needed, and it would be helpful for her to be able to see the difference between healthy brain tissue and sagger brain tissue.
“So what are you doing, anyway?” Lexx asked eventually, their curiosity getting the better of them.
“Still looking for a cure,” Gaige replied evasively. She was not quite willing to admit that Alvare was sick to anyone, even someone outside of her community.
“A cure for what? Stupidity?” Lexx shook their head. “Don’t think you’ll find that anytime soon, although if you do, let me in on it because I know a lot of folks who might benefit from being inoculated against it.”
Gaige exhaled. “No. So the sagging sickness. You know that.”
“Ah, that. I thought you’d given up, you’d gone so quiet on the topic lately.”
“I haven’t given up. I just,” she paused, searching for the words, “needed some motivation.”
The Mortali scoffed at Gaige. “You know, there’s a reason why people shouldn’t eat the brains of their dead. Your sad sagger brethren are it.” Lexx sighed,wiping sweat from their brow with the back of their arm.
“There are reasons for a lot of things,” Gaige shrugged, turning back to the congealing grey matter she’s extricated from the man’s skull. “I’m trying to figure out the reason for it so that maybe, just maybe, it can be prevented, or reversed.”
“You know, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s because you eat the brains of the dead. That has mostly always been a bad idea pretty much throughout all of human history.”
Gaige rolled her eyes. “I never understood why you were so hostile to the notions of cannibalism,” she pressed. “You worship Death herself. You believe you’ll descend to Her Eternal Table and feast with your fallen brethren.” She shrugged. “Seems a pretty easy leap to eating the flesh of your dead.”
Lexx frowned, leaning over the table. “It is precisely for that reason that we don’t. Death is sacred, not a smorgasbord. We may both consider death to be an opportunity, but for you it’s failure, and for us,” Lex shrugged, “for us it’s perfectly divine. You don’t cut it up, you celebrate it.”
“I guess this is where we agree to disagree?”
“I think that’s for the best.”
They worked in silence for a time, Lexx working on some new splice they’d been hammering the genetic kinks out of for the better part of a month, Gaige throwing slide after slide of brain tissue underneath a microscope. After looking for a moment, she’d introduce a chemical to the slide to see what the result was, hoping to see something develop that made the sick tissue resemble the healthy tissue.
“This is hopeless,” she commented after a moment. “I thought I was on the right track with my last batch, but now I just cannot make any headway.”
They hesitated, but after a moment, Lexx came over to join her. “Can I see?”
Gaige moved over. “Look at this one. There are huge, I don’t even know what to call them - globules? All throughout the otherwise healthy tissue.”
“Do you have a comparative slide?” Lexx asked, still staring into the ancient machine.
“Sure,” Gaige nodded, switching the diseased slide out for a sample of healthy tissue.
“You’re right,” Lexx nodded. “It reminds me of images I’ve seen in old medical textbooks showing the immune response of a person’s system to vaccinations.”
“What’s a vaccination?”
Lexx yawned, covering their mouth with the cleaner of their two hands. “It was an old way of preventing diseases, back before nanosuit osmosis existed. Basically you introduced a weakened form of a virus into the body of an individual and their immune system created antibodies that would persist to fight off any infection that might occur. Pretty effective when people actually used them.”
“Why wouldn’t people use them?” Gaige asked, frowning.
“Because humans can be very stupid animals, Gaige.”
“I wonder if I could make a vaccine for people with the sagging sickness?” she mused, frowning at her own thoughts.
Lexx backed up from the microscope and shrugged. “Probably not. The thing about vaccines is that they create immunity by building it up in the body. If a person weren’t already sick, maybe you could create something out of the prions in a sagger’s brain, but,” they shrugged, “for someone who is already sick, you’d need something therapeutic, not preventive.”
Gaige’s shoulders sagged. “Well, shit. I guess it was worth a shot.” She pulled the slide out from under the lens and began cleaning up her workspace, resigned to a night of reading about other people’s achievements rather than accomplishing her own.
“Well, I mean, from my small amount of reading, there is such a thing as a therapeutic vaccine that can be used to treat existing conditions.”
Gaige paused in her tidying. “Oh?”
“You’d just need to synthesize it from an existing resistant source.”
She frowned. “Where am I supposed to find that?”
Lexx shrugged. “That’s your challenge, pumpkin.” Turning from Gaige’s table, they returned to their own work.
She worked late into the night trying to come up with a plan of action.
“Lock up when you leave,” Lexx asked as they yawned and prepared to leave.
“Of course,” Gaige replied absently, nose deep in one of Lexx’s data drives on virology. It was incomplete, like most data repositories from before the Blackout, but it contained enough information to get her thought processes running.
Existing sagger material would not work. Random purchases at market would not work. The only variable she could think of that she had yet to test was the brain of a Corpsedancer who had regularly partaken of neurological matter and not succumbed. Perhaps there was some factor, some threshold the brain could reach before it broke. If only she could figure out what that was.
How she was to go about doing that, however, she had no idea. Furthermore, she had no way of knowing whether it would work or just lead her down to another dead end. The logistics of the solution, so close at hand and yet nigh-impossible to satisfy, were frustrating to the extreme. Eventually she decided to call it quits for the night, locked up the lab, and left to find her brother.
Alvare was down at the local temple performing his daily ablutions. Distracted as she was, Gaige had neglected to do her own, and she quietly sat down next to him to begin.
After sharing worship in silence, Alvare left the temple, brooding more than was typical for him. Gaige quickly began completing her own in order to follow him home before he got too far and she would have to deal with his doldrums for the rest of the evening.
“Heard you’re trying to cure the sagging sickness,” a voice said, the words laden with disdain.
Gaige opened her eyes slowly as she finished her final prayer. Washing her hands in the ceremonial sink and drying them on the rag hanging beside it, she turned to face the man speaking to her.
“Goodness, how word spreads amongst us,” she commented sweetly, looking the dark-haired man in his scathing brown eyes. “Do you believe every rumor you hear, Remus, or just the ones you wish you’d thought of first?” Remus Romara was, to put it kindly, not a favorite in her book. He was brutish, presumptuous, and exceptionally pretentious. They’d butted heads more than once, but seeing as how he and his father ran a successful business running genetics for the Fitter Family, she rarely had much bite behind any of her bark.
Remus laughed at her, ignoring the bait. “You’re wasting your time you know. You can’t save the lost.”
“They’re not lost. They’re around every corner, waiting for you to slip up so they can bash your skull against the nearest wall and feast on your tiny brain.” The insult sounded weak even to her, and Remus was unphased.
“Size isn’t everything you know.” He shrugged, backing up to let her pass. “There’s never been an instance of the sickness in my family. Not in a single generation dating back before the Blackout Years.”
“First time for everything I guess,” Gaige snapped back, storming past his smug safe and seeking after Alvare. At least he didn’t know about him. Gaige would take as much verbal abuse as people wanted to sling at her so long as it distracted them from the true misery she faced.
She slept fitfully that night, wrestling with her mind over prions, slides, and treatments. Something Remus had said was nagging her, and she didn’t think that it was because he was a self-righteous prick.
“You’re not sleeping,” Alvare commented sleepily beside her.
“I have a lot on my mind,” she replied softly, hands crossed over her chest as she stared at the ceiling. “A lot of,” she paused, choosing her words carefully, “research to do.”
“You are nothing if not gregarious,” Alvare commented sleepily, rolling over and falling back into an easy slumber.
Remus had stated that his family had never succumbed to the disease. There had to be a reason why. There had to be, and that reason was locked up in his skull along with the rest of his idiotic brain.
Gaige gave up on her futile attempts at sleeping when the birds began to chirp as the light of the sun crept up over the horizon. Sitting up, she rubbed her eyes until she could see straight. Letting Alvare sleep away the morning, she slipped from the room, down the stairs, and into the cool morning air.
As people stirred, so did the day’s news.
“Did you hear?” someone whispered excitedly as she walked through the overgrown, trash-ridden courtyard. “Remus and his father’s Domain was challenged during the night. A horde of bandits came, looking for blood.”
“Seven bandits against one and he murdered them all,” another passerby muttered. “That family is blessed.”
“Was blessed,” came the response. “I hear the boy was killed.”
Gaige walked as if in a fugue, her brain racing over her options. A freshly killed Corpsedancer who had consumed brain his entire life - dead. Could it be that she’d been gifted with the key to Perfection? Her good fortune was too profound to be coincidental. She immediately felt bad about the notion of profiting off Remus’s death. He was family of a sort, even if she did despise him.
She waited a bit for the rumors to separate from the truth, as they often did if you gave them enough time and critical attention. It turned out that Remus was, in fact, killed, and between him and his father, left no survivors. She can’t say that she was overly surprised by this fact - the Romara family wasn’t exactly known for its kindness or its peacekeeping nature. They were some of the most powerful Corpsedancers in the cemetery, and very few ever vied for their ire. Few would lament the fall of their iron empire, but most would be surprised.
She would need to tread lightly.
“I assume we’re attending the Romara funeral,” Alvare commented drily when Gaige returned.
“News sure does travel fast to someone who still hasn’t gotten out of bed,” she replied, raising an eyebrow at his shirtless prone form.
“I got up for breakfast,” he said, pushing himself to a sitting position. “We’re out of food here. I had to broker some good fortune at the market and on the way, the chatterboxes were working overtime.” Yawning, he stood up, scratching the dusky skin stretched over his prominent ribcage. “If you’re curious, it will be tonight at dusk.”
Gaige nodded slowly, calculating her options. “We should go, I think.”
“Yeah, because you and Remus were totally best friends.”
“He had his ok aspects,” she countered, uncomfortably conscious of her intentions. “I think.”
“Oh stop. You’ve hated each other since you could walk and he pushed you into a sanitation trench.” Alvare rolled his eyes as he stepped to the pile of clothes he had somewhat organized in the corner of the room beside what had once been a dresser. They’d managed to operate the modular dresser in the wall of their apartment a while back, but the wooden slats in the bottom had shattered months ago, making it useless for anything but an oversized table. Reaching for a soiled tank top, he pulled it over his thin body, and Gaige noted how much more prominent his shoulder blades had become. He was getting sicker, even if he managed to keep in good spirits.
This knowledge emboldened her, and she swallowed hard, straightening. Then she explained her theory to Alvare.
Alvare stared at her, half dressed and aghast. “Let me see if I understand you correctly, sis,” he said slowly, covering his mouth as he thought. “You want to ‘borrow’ some of Remus’s brain, study it against non-Corpsedancer and sagger tissue, and see if you can unlock some magic code to stop the progression of the sagger sickness?”
Gaige nodded slowly.
“And you have no idea whether this will work or not.”
“No, I don’t,” she admitted. “No one’s tried before.” She could see Alvare’s resolve falter. “But I don’t see why it wouldn’t!” she insisted, stepping toward him. “The science is sound. I’ve been round and round every corner since father died, and this is the only angle I have yet to check. Remus said his family had never been afflicted by the disease, and I want to know why.”
“Gaige,” he stopped her, his voice soft. “Gaige, I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to admit it, but you have to accept that I’m dying.” He grabbed her wrists and held them close. “I have, a long time ago. It’s not something I’m excited about, but it’s not helping anyone if I try and run from it. Furthermore,” he pushed onward, his eyes on the ground, “I don’t want to end up slinking through the alleyways, mugging innocent people for scraps of food or being beaten by bored kids. When my mind goes, I want you to end it for me. Please, Gaige?” he pleaded with her.
Gaige fought back tears with an angry determination. “I’m not denying that you are dying,” she said, the words hurting to say. “I accept it; what I can’t accept is not even trying to find a way to stop it.”
“Listen, Alvare. I’ll do what you want when the time comes. I will make certain you’re not left to scavenge in the streets.” Her voice was hard and she looked him in the eyes. “But you need to let me at least try this one final thing. If it fails, then I’ll give up, and we can spend whatever time you have left enjoying life to the fullest. Ok?”
Alvare smiled sadly at her and pulled her into a hug. “It’s a deal.”
The funeral was well attended for a Nonpareil gathering, especially as death was considered the ultimate failure in the pursuit of perfection. Remus had gone out with a considerable flourish, however, and even the most zealous devotee of the Perfection Principles had to give a nod to his tenacity and adherence to the laws of their religion. If nothing else, his sacrifice had culled the land of more of the imperfect, gifting them all with a slightly less tarnished reality.
Gaige and Alvare kept to themselves as the masses tittered over the boy’s corpse, looking around for his father.
“Have you seen Tamus?” Gaige asked one of the attendees.
“I think he’s upstairs preparing,” was the response. Gaige nodded and took to the stairway, Alvare close on her heels.
Sure enough, Remus’s father was in an upstairs bedroom, combing his hair and pruning his bushy whiskers in front of a cracked dresser mirror. Tamus was a beast of a man, intimidating even without his cybernetic enhancements. He was a Corpsedancer through and through, and all of his shining metal additions had been ripped from the body of those less fortunate than himself, having died from natural causes, turf warfare, or his own hand. It was something he was immensely proud of, and shared with whoever would listen. For the most part, Gaige thought he was a blowhard with something to prove.
“Hey Tamus. Do you have a moment?” Gaige asked, slipping into the room he was standing in. Tamus had had a thing for Gaige since she’d crested past puberty, and she had no qualms about abusing this knowledge to get what she needed from him. Alvare stepped in behind her, trying his best not to look disgusted when Tamus turned and leered at her in her short red dress.
“For you? Of course, Gaige,” he replied gallantly, stepping toward her and taking her hand. He brought it to his lips, lingering for a moment longer than was comfortable. Gaige pursed her lips and waited, returning her hand to her side as soon as she was allowed. “I will take a break from my mourning.”
“I’m sorry about your son,” she said, extending her condolences. The man was disgusting, but he was still a man and a father, and he must be hurting. This would not be an easy favor to ask.
Tamus nodded. “Thank you. My grief is lessened knowing that he did not die due to his own imperfection but to the failing of another. I have already extracted my revenge,” he smiled, holding out his arm. Thick wires spiraled around his bicep to a node implanted into the back of his skull. The skin around it was still raw, the cybernetic freshly installed.
“It’s beautiful,” Gaige murmured, admiring it from a distance. “A fitting tribute.”
“Indeed,” Tamus nodded, taking a seat and motioning for Gaige to join him on the threadbare couch. She shook her head politely, gesturing at the emerging spring to distract from the fact that she simply didn’t want to be that close to him. “Now, what did you need from me?”
Gaige swallowed, considering the best way to approach her request. “This is a bit of an uncomfortable request,” she started, choosing her words carefully. “You’re a man who can respect science, yes? And the advancement of the species?”
Tamus scoffed, a smug grin taking up residence on his face. “Need you even ask, Gaige? Of course I am; humanity is nothing if we accept squalor and stagnation.”
“I assumed so,” she smiled back at him. “And you know that I have been practicing genetic therapy for some time now.”
“I do, although I have often wished you’d taken up electrografting so that I could have enjoyed the ministrations of your competent hands.”
Alvare cleared his throat. Gaige ignored his crude attempt at flirting and pushed onward. “I have recently been studying the bloodlines of our people in an effort to locate the most pure of mind and body. I think that, perhaps, yours might be among them.” Starting with a bit of flattery couldn’t hurt.
“Oh yes?” he questioned smugly, throwing his right leg over his knee and leaning back into the couch, arms stretched along the back. “I don’t find this surprising, but I’m curious as to your methods. If only for bragging rights.”
Gaige took a deep breath. “Well, Remus mentioned it a while back. That you’ve never experienced any sickness in your history. That’s rare, and admirable.” Tamus nodded, listening carefully. Gaige began to pace, and Alvare’s eyes followed her as she scuffed along the hardwood floor. He was standing very straight and rigid in the way he had begun to hold himself when the tremors were threatening to start. Shit, she cursed silently. She’d have to convince Tamus quickly. Keeping Alvare’s growing condition secret was of the utmost importance lest he be prematurely culled.
“It’s curious, I think, that some families never succumb to the sagger condition.” Tamus’s smile grew wider as she spoke. “And some have not for several generations. It led me to believe that there has to be some sort of biological reason for this; some property of the resistant brain that makes it an inhospitable environment for the sagger disease to take hold.” She thought back to the chip on virology and immunities. It made even more sense now that she was saying it out loud. This confidence emboldened her.
“It is a point of pride that my family has been free of the culling curse. You’re saying there’s some,” he gazed off in the distance thoughtfully, “greater scientific reason for this?”
“I am, yes,” Gaige replied, taking a deep breath and pushing forward. “Furthermore, I think that the ah,” she swallowed hard, “neurological matter of your deceased kin could be of, ah,” she stumbled a bit, “interest.”
“Interest you say?” Tamus replied, looking less smug now and more uncertain as the skin around his his eyes pinched slightly. “In what sense?”
“Well,” Gaige pressed onward, “it could, perhaps, be used to synthesize a potential cure for those already afflicted by the disease.” The sentence winded her, and she stood before Tamus, breathing heavily.
Tamus’s smile dampened somewhat, and he shifted from his relaxed position to one slightly less open. Leaning forward with his hands clasped over his knees, he creased his eyebrows in thought. “Why would you wish to cure them? The sagger disease is natural selection; it purges our ranks of those unfit to live on in the Principles.”
“I have my reasons. If nothing else, it would help alleviate the rather negative perception the saggers bring down upon all of us. Not to mention the weight it would take off the families that must deal with afflicted loved ones.”
Tamus’s hesitant smile faltered completely now, replaced with a look of suspicion and contempt. “Those families deal with their grief by accepting the failure of their loved ones and rising above it. You would deprive them of that?”
“If it meant that we as a community could rise collectively above the sickness and reach Perfection as a whole, then yes, I would deprive them of that.” Tamus’s eyes narrowed. This was not going well.
“Sis, we should g-go,” Alvare said quietly, placing a hand on her shoulder. It was shaking ever so slightly. “Let Tamus m-mourn in peace.”
Gaige looked back at him, quiet for a moment as her brother’s eyes pleaded with her to get him out of there. She couldn’t give up, though. Not when she was this close.
“You’re wrong about them,” she continued softly, brushing a stray wisp of hair from her eyes. “They’re not a failure - they’re a call to be better. What makes you better for having lucked out with innate immunity? The way I see it, a Corpsedancer with the illness that survives has overcome imperfection.” She scoffed at him. “What have you done but been born with an advantage and not even had to try and achieve perfection on your own?” Her vitriol poured out with more force than she’d intended, and Tamus looked shocked.
“W-we n-n-need to g-go, G-gaige,” Alvare begged her, his teeth chattering together so hard that she could hear them. The man before them stood up defiantly.
“You’re protecting him!” Tamus roared, pointing an accusatory finger at Alvare. Alvare couldn’t stop shaking, gritting his teeth as he tried in vain to calm his body’s convulsions.
“I’m trying to help him,” Gaige snarled, fists on her hip in a show of defiance, despite being dwarfed by the huge Tavarrian.
Tamus stormed up to Gaige until his bearded face was nearly pressed against hers. “Get out. I’m mortified to have called you kin. You carry the same genes as your sagger brother.” Tamus’s expression was twisted and ugly.
Gaige’s temper flared stronger than it had any right to given the circumstances, but his last comment emboldened her with rage. “You watch your tongue or I’ll rip it out,” she growled low in her throat.
“Let’s go,” Alvare begged, reaching for Gaige but unable to grip her arm before he shook his own grasp free. “Let’s just go.”
“Now,” Tamus demanded. “Before you start crawling around on the ground, begging for scraps.” His arm was pointed at Alvare, electricity sparking from the metallic tips at the ends of his fingers.
Gaige stepped up to the man and jabbed his chest with her finger. “You’re a disgrace. I hope Remus is doomed to skitter on the floor of the Golden Temple for eternity, forever too imperfect to gain favor.”
Tamus backhanded her.
Gaige staggered, nearly falling over. Wiping the blood from her mouth, she sneered up at him. “And may you be the refuse he feeds on once your vile soul leaves this place.” It was stupid, she knew, but discretion had never been her strong suit, and she was good at dodging.
She put this skill to use immediately as Tamus reared back and launched a haymaker at her face, missing her cheek when she ducked. Alvare curled in a corner, unable to help his sister. Hands over his head, he shook so hard that his skull rattled against the wall.
“I will kill you,” Tamus roared.
“I wish you luck,” Gaige spat, dodging out of the way of his huge fist.
“I will kill you and devour your flesh. I will add your perverse notions of ‘purity’ to those I have already culled!” He lunged again, reaching for her with a huge hand and missing Gaige’s hair by a mere inch.
Lacking in any modifications whatsoever, Gaige was at a distinct disadvantage. She hadn’t survived this long absent all manner of defense, however. Skittering behind the overturned couch, she reached into her boot and pulled out the screwdriver she’d stored after her last surgery. Surgical tools were scarce these days, and she’d made due then - she’d make due now.
“Stop!” she shouted, vaulting herself over the couch in time to intercept Tamus as he reached down to pull the obstacle out of his way. He had not expected her to attack; he missed his opportunity to defend himself and Gaige’s screwdriver landed squarely in his left eye.
Screaming, the man fell to the floor, hands flapping ineffectively about his face as though he was uncertain whether to leave the tool in place or tear it free. Gaige raced around the couch and barreled into him, knocking the huge man to the ground.
Straddling his broad chest, she brought her hands above her head, curling them into a fist. “Time to lick the floors with your shit of a son.” Bringing her hands down with as much force as she could muster, she slammed them into the screwdriver, lodging it firmly into Tamus’s brain. He stopped struggling immediately and went limp as the metal rod split his brain in two.
“Sh-sh-shit, sis,” Alvare stammered, shock evident on his face. He clung to his knees and rocked.
Gaige scrambled off of Tamus’s chest and pushed him onto his side. Grabbing the cybernetic at the base of the man’s skull, Gaige braced her knee against his spine and pulled as hard as she could. Her muscles ached from the effort, and she was about to give up when she heard a wet sort of tearing begin, and felt the cybernetic give way.
“W-w-what are y-y-you d-d-d-doing?” Alvare asked, his shaking subsiding enough for him to speak, if not actually help.
“Proving - oof! - a theory.” With one final burst of effort, the cybernetic pulled free and sent Gaige tumbling backwards in a spray of brain and sinew.
“Y-y-you c-could have just c-c-cut it out, s-show off.”
Gaige rolled her eyes and brushed the soggy bits of Tamus from her front, ignoring the greasy stains it left behind on her red dress. “I didn’t want to run the risk of slicing the nervewire. I needed a clean sample, not something with shredded cybernetics embedded in it.”
Alvare frowned. “Sample?” he asked. “I’m n-not following.”
“If Tamus’s son was resistant, then so is he.” She pulled a pair of rusty tweezers from inside her hip pouch and stuck them into the hole left by his cybernetic. Swishing them around a moment, she pulled them back with a piece of whitish, bloody brain between the forceps. It jiggled obscenely as she moved to transfer it to a plastic vial, capping it and placing it in her bag before repeating the process several more times until she ran out of vials. “Looks like they’ll be performing two funerals today.”
A noise outside startled the siblings, and Gaige scrambled away from the corpse. “Here,” she said, tossing Alvare the bloody cybernetic. He jumped, catching it at the last minute.
“What’s this for?” he asked, squinting at it.
“Well, we have it,” she shrugged. “No sense not selling it.”
Alvare grinned at his sister, his shaking subsiding for the moment. “T-that’s my girl. Let’s g-get out of here.”
“Great plan. Come on.” Leaving the bloodied body of Tamus Romara to soak into the ragged rug beneath it, they made their way out of the second story escape ladder and down to the ground below.
“Lexx, I need some space,” Gaige announced as she barged into the genehacker’s lab. Lexx was hovering over an unconscious patient, carefully administering growth hormones to accelerate the development of whatever mod they’d spliced him with.
“Shit, Gaige!” they shouted, nearly dropping their syringe. “You’ve got to knock first. I almost spilled T-6 all over the floor.”
“We certainly would not want hyperaccelerated dust growth, now would we?” Alvare quipped, his shaking having completely subsided in the absence of the stress from before, making way for his typical sass to return. “Turn those bunnies into monsters.” Lexx rolled their eyes, finished administering the serum, and set the syringe down. Snapping the gloves off, they left the patient to follow Gaige into their store room.
“You gonna just leave this guy here?” Alvare asked, peering down at the prone Transgenic breathing evenly on the metal slab they used for surgeries.
“Not like he’s going anywhere,” Lexx replied, shrugging and turning back to Gaige as she rummaged through their stock. “What are you looking for, Gaige?”
Gaige pushed a handful of glass vials to the side before finding what she needed, pulling out a long test tube and a pair of tweezers. “I need to synthesize a cure,” she said.
“Yes. A cure. Like we talked about.” Shoving her previous work aside, she pulled a stool up to her work station and spread out her supplies.
A look of shocked curiosity spread across Lexx’s face. “I thought we talked about how it wasn’t possible.”
“We did. I think I found something we hadn’t considered. Are you interested in helping now?” she asked, looking up to quirk an eyebrow at her mentor.
“You bet your ass I am. Move over, kid,” they pushed by Alvare, pulling another chair up beside Gaige. “Where did you get this?” they looked down at the soupy vials.
Gaige and Alvare shared a glance. “A donation?”
“Don’t lie to me. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
Gaige reddened. “We uh. We got it at Remus’s funeral.”
Lexx looked impressed. “Remus Romara? His father let you anywhere near his son’s precious, perfect brain?”
“I see the Romara family is known even outside Corpsedancer circles,” Alvare commented. “I guess with power comes widespread notoriety for being an asshole.”
“He didn’t, no,” Gaige replied evasively.
“Gaige, just tell me before your samples go bad,” Lexx sighed.
“Tamus was being a jerk so Gaige killed him and took samples from his torn out cybernetic,” Alvare offered candidly. Gaige turned and glared at him hotly. “What?” he replied, shrugging. “Lexx is right - you’re a shitty liar.”
“Ha!” Lexx barked out a laugh. “You killed him at his son’s funeral?” Gaige reddened. “You’d make a great Mortali. We consider that to be the most holy of honors, dying while honoring the passage of a loved one. Do you know how many people just keel over after a funeral party?” They laughed. “A lot. Party hard or die trying, I always say.”
Gaige rolled her eyes. “Are you going to help me with this or what?”
“Sure am. Let’s roll.” Pulling goggles over their eyes, Lexx grinned at their protege and the two began their work.
It took them several hours to come up with something close to a working cure, and even then, it was impossible to say whether or not it would be effective.
“I have to check on uly in the other room,” Lexx commented, stretching as they stood up. “Think this is as good as it gets.”
“I suppose time will tell,” Gaige nodded.
“Do you have a subject in mind?” Lexx asked with idle curiosity as they hung their goggles up over their workbench.
Gaige smiled softly, glancing over at where Alvare had passed out in a chair by the door. “I have a guy in mind, yeah.”
“Oh,” Lexx started, realizing the reason behind Gaige’s determination. “Well, for what it’s worth, I’ll pray to Mother Death to cast her gaze elsewhere for you.”
“Thanks Lexx,” Gaige replied sincerely. “I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome. Now wake up your brother before he falls out of his chair.” Lexx cracked their knuckles and leaned over the still snoozing patient. “This guy’s gonna wake up mean, and I don’t need extra bodies in here getting in the way.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Lexx,” Gaige replied. Waking Alvare, she led her groggy twin out the door and back to their home.
The first administration of the tentative curative was underwhelming, and it was frustrating that the only way to test it was to wait for nothing to happen. However, that’s precisely what happened - nothing. A day with no tremors turned into a week, turned into a month, turned into three months. The success of the serum was a blessing as well as a curse, as there was no way Gaige could offer it to any others. Somehow, no one had asked about Gaige’s role in Tamus’s death. Rumors abounded about how he’d been murdered by Fitter Family members for a debt he’d not paid off, or that his obsession with high-risk cybernetics had finally short circuited his system, driving him insane and prompting him to tear out his own modification. No one assumed that unmodified, unassuming Gaige the geneticist had done in the great and powerful Tamus Romara, and she was perfectly content to let that assumption persist.
Those several months, Alvare was like new. No shaking, or any sign of mental fatigue. It was almost as though he’d been washed clean of his imperfections. He took up his old hobbies again, digging through scrap to sell at the ModMart with his friends.
“Hey man, you ok?” Gil asked one morning when Alvare simply blanked on what he was doing, staring uselessly into space while holding a pair of pliers.
“Yeah, fine. I’m fine,” he said, frowning. “Just remembered something I need to do back home. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Sure thing. Walk carefully,” Gil waved as he left, paying no mind as Alvare’s teeth began to chatter.
Gaige was home working out the chemistry for her new modification when her brother came home. “Sister,” Alvare begged, falling into her bedroom. His shaking was worse than it had ever been before. His hand hit Gaige’s bedstand, knocking a stack of papers off her desk and sending them flying across the floor in a haphazard carpet of notes.
Gaige could not speak for a moment. “No,” she finally squeaked. “No, no, no!” Rushing to his side, she shoved a pillow under his head. “Hold on, Alvare. Just hold on.”
Fumbling with the small generator they saved for emergencies, she powered up her computer and slammed her hand against the keyboard. A list of names rattled down the screen and she ran her finger down them, stopping at one nearest the end. When Alvare’s cure had been uncertain, she’d run a complete list of Corpsedancers in Delphia who had exhibited no recent sagger activity in their family lines, and stored it all in a file on her computer. She’d nearly forgotten about it, assuming Alvare’s treatment had been permanently effective.
It seemed as though she had been mistaken.
Grabbing her dagger from the nightstand, she leaned over her feverish, shaking brother and kissed him softly on the forehead. “I’ll be back soon, brother.” Alvare closed his eyes, tears escaping as he squeezed them shut. Gaige closed and locked the door behind her, and disappeared into the waning light.
Gaige looked down at the body she’d secured, pulling back her hood and sheathing her knives.
It had been two years now, she thought as she stared into the abyss of stars dotting the sky above. Two years, six bodies. A new treatment every four months seemed to keep Alvare’s sickness at bay, and people died so frequently in Delphia that she’d long since lost her fear of being discovered. She was too small-time, too weak, too unassuming to be a murderer. And no one knew her motive to put together a profile of her victims. No one but Alvare, and he kept himself ignorant of where her samples came from. It helped him sleep at night, and quite frankly wouldn’t be the first time they’d bent their morals to facilitate survival.
Dragging the body into the shadows, she harvested it quickly, leaving the remains out for any wandering sagger gangs in a fit of irony she’d grown to sadly appreciate.
“Thank you for your sacrifice,” she whispered, kissing the dead woman’s perfect forehead. Without another word, she said a small prayer, pocketed the vial, and left her secret to the blackness of another night.