I nodded and my eyes settled on a few vagrants lying against a nearby wall across the alley from us. At least I think they were vagrants. They looked the way every vagrant that had ever been described to me looked, only they stunk more, which was saying something considering how low my nose was. They were skeletal, with sunken faces that sagged off their bones in a cascade of discolored flesh. One of them reached out their fingers impossibly slow and grasped at us as if we were right in front of them, though we were at least a dozen feet away.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Cloudheads,” Cheza said before she rapped out a cadence on the door with her knuckles. “They’re addicts. Don’t let them touch you unless you’re especially fond of bacteria.”
“Why do they do it?”
She sighed. “Why do you keep talking after I told you not to?”
“Sorry.” I covered my mouth.
I don’t get it. Here I was, all my senses artificially weighed-down, working as hard as I could to be able to someday call myself a feely, and these people actually paid to turn their worlds off. I had to wonder to myself, if something about being a fullgrown made you want to do that, maybe I’d rather stay 15. There was a sound behind the door. Cheza nudged me.
“Ready?” she said. An excited smile broke out on her face.
“Your annibirthary present, of course.”
The slot appeared and an eye wiggled at us from behind the door. A few seconds later the door swung open with a loud, grinding creak. Cheza let out a short squeal and hugged the man on the other side. It was Linklyn, without his robe and hood from Fairchild. The Headman-in-training had an unruly tuft of brown hair atop his head, the shadow of a beard darkening his cheeks, and he wore badly wrinkled clothes. Real hair of any kind was still an odd sight to me, but even more disconcerting was to see it acting so unruly. Still, it was unmistakably him. He eyed our tightblacks and caps, gave a loud groan, and let us inside.
“Very subtle,” he said. “Where’d you buy those getups? The Mickey Mouse Black Ops Clubhouse?”
“Very funny,” Cheza said. She dug inside her pack and handed him a small comp chip. “I brought your graduation present, as promised. Happy belated, kind sir.”
Linklyn pocketed the chip and told her, “It all better be there, little stud. I’m sticking myself way out for you this time.”
She glowered at him. “When have I ever shorted you, Link?”
“Double juice jobs are way beyond your usual requests,” he said. “And there’s a first time for everything.”
Cheza winked at me. “It’s a special occasion.”
Linklyn stood there a moment, his eyes shifting between the two of us. “Alright rockers, let’s get rockin’. Lose those stretch scalps and climb on the tables.”
“Is this safe, I mean, I thought you weren’t a headman yet?” I said.
Linklyn stopped his prep and let out a huge sigh. “Don’t you see the degree hanging on the wall?”
I looked around the room. “I don’t see anything.”
“And do you know why you don’t see anything?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Because you’re dull as beige dirt, kid. So if you want to stay that way, by all means, keep asking stupid questions.” He turned his back on us and walked to the sink where he began to scrub up. “I thought you said he was cool, Cheza.”
Cheza climbed up onto one of the tables and threw me a harsh look. “He’s o-kee-dee with everything, tell him, Tig?”
“Yeah, I’m cool.” I shrugged an apology and got onto the table next to hers. “I’m savvy to The Resistance. That’s what all this is, right? A resistance-run facility or something?”
Linklyn choked out a teehee. “Nothing that romantic, I’m afraid . . . this is a business. Just a way to get through med school without owing the state for the rest of my life.” He came around behind us and jabbed a syringe into Cheza’s neck. When it was my turn, I flinched.
“Plácido, stud. This is just a local so you don’t feel anything,” he said. “Until you feel everything, that is.” He plunged the needle in and administered the anesthetic then rolled his white-sheeted cart over to us and uncovered a tray of glistening silver. The shine jumping off the metal of the instruments made me squint. He picked up the lightscalp and the beam flared to life. “Who’s first?” Cheza aimed both thumbs squarely at herself. “O-kee-dee then, ladies first.” He brought the laser up to the back of Cheza’s head, but before Linklyn could slice her open I spoke up.