“I know Cheza said there’s no way we can catch the rot but . . .” Cheza threw me a murderous look, but Linklyn calmed her.
“No, no, that one I’ll give him,” he said, patting her shoulder. “I’m not that much older than you two.” He started in on Cheza. The lightscalp tracked across her skin, opening the flesh. “I remember the scare tactics they’d use on us, the gory films in class. Long before your generation, or even mine—back when it was a real problem—they called it red head. Then it became box rot. Now it’s nog rot. Every generation or so they come up with a new name for it. Now it’s just around to keep you from twiddling with yourself.” The laser was removing layers of Cheza’s skin like shearing wool from a sheep. I couldn’t watch anymore. No stomach for it I guess. When I was sure he had finished with the lightscalp I watched again as he pried open her box and used his surgical tools on her. He worked quickly and, at least it appeared to me, expertly. This made me feel a little less anxious. “Here we go,” he said and with a final touch of his metal instrument, the femmy’s body jittered to life and he was done with her. He filled the empty space on her neck with pinkfat and closed her up. “Let the goo dry this time,” he told her. She nodded obligingly and turned in a sense-intoxicated stupor toward the wall.
“You’re next,” he said to me. I sat up straight.
“I’m glad I can’t see you poking around my nogbox,” I told him while he worked.
“You should be grateful, too, that you’re dull enough not to fully hear the hum of the lightscalp or smell the char from the incision. These are distinctive experiences,” he said. He put down his lightscalp on the tray next to me and picked up his pinchers and prodder. “My granddad used to tell me this story about a time back when nogboxes were just for the privileged families, when he and his siblings would all go to the dentist. He had so many brothers and sisters that his fulls couldn’t afford Novocain for all of them, so in the spirit of fairness, they chose not to give it to any of the children. And when those unlucky kiddies that had cavities got their teeth filled, they got to smell that burnt enamel and dentine mixed in with the pain of having their own living tissue ground to dust. My granddad always said he’d never forget that smell until the day he died. That’s a powerful memory, stud, and one you won’t have to endure because of that nogbox you’ve got attached to your head.”
“Are you sure you’re on the right side?” I asked. “You don’t sound like you’re Resistance.”
“You didn’t let me finish the story,” he said. “Grandad remembered those trips to the dentist and he made a promise to himself that if he ever had kiddies of his own they’d never have to suffer through what he did.” Linklyn craned his neck to look in my eyes. “He became an orthodontist—the first doctor in our family . . . and it all came out of that very unpleasant experience he had.” Linklyn placed the dripping instruments back onto the tray, took a look at my box, and gave a surprised snort. “Maybe I could’ve saved the needle on you, stud. You really are dead on the outside.”
I told him, “Fairchild’s a tough place to get high in.”
“Not for this one.” He waved his bloody prodder at Cheza, who still seemed too sensory drunk to take notice of us. “You’re not like her though, are you?”
“No one’s like her,” I said.
“Well, don’t feel too bad. There are a hell of a lot more people like you in this world than like her. Maybe that’s why The Resistance is so strong.” He rattled his metal stick around my nogbox and I could feel new sensations beginning to kindle within me. “I was never a top stud—most people aren’t—but I worked hard in school, I got decent numbers. So why did I have to wait so long to come to my senses? Why should anyone have to earn something that they’re born with?”
“I guess they shouldn’t.”
“Jesus Christmas, Tig, at least say it like you mean it.”
Linklyn seemed mad at me and I didn’t want to further upset the man whose fingers were actually inside my body, so I just shut up. It was a bit awkward for a few moments.
“Sorry,” he finally said. “I suppose you can’t sound like you mean it unless you actually do.” He tapped around my circuitry a bit more. “You will soon though.”
I was testing my peripheral vision and staring at Cheza on the table next to me. She stretched her arms as if she had just woken up before hopping off the table.
“Toilet?” she said. Linklyn pointed her to the door. “Is he almost done? We’ve got plans tonight.”
“Real close,” the young man said. Cheza grinned and walked into the bathroom. The door slid shut and Linklyn leaned into my ear. “Don’t ever forget how hard it is for someone like her. It seems like a sweet deal to always be the first one up the mountain. The thing is, once you reach the peak, you’re always alone up there.”