"Let me be frank, Miss Reyes - or Erica, can I call you Erica? Erica, you're one of the most talented dancers I've ever seen. I say that with envy and complete honesty. I'm not here to bullshit you about your worth. I think we both know how much you're worth in your current condition. I'm here to help."
"Help?" Erica says coolly, because so far the only thing anyone has done is step around the elephant in the room. "How exactly would you help me?"
When Kate Argent smiles, she displays just enough of her teeth to show she means business. To let out some of that luminous GeneCo glow. "We'll make you beautiful, sweetheart. We'll fix your skin and your hair. We'll tuck in your waist and perk up your breasts. We'll permanently boost your red blood cell number. We'll even fix those defective sodium channels and make your epilepsy a thing of the past. I called you one of the most talented dancers I've ever seen. That's now. When we're done with you, you'll be the most talented dancer the world has ever seen. You'll be the star of GeneCo's dance troupe and you'll dance sold out shows every night. Everyone will want to be you or fuck you or both, and all you have to do is sign on the dotted line." Kate slides the contract across the table. Crisp from the printers. Warm enough under her hand that if the paper weren’t so expensive she’d be worried about drawing back inked fingers. "We need you. And if you ever want better than teaching snot-nosed brats how to plié, you need us too."
In the end, Erica nearly grabs the pen out of Kate’s hand, but there’s never been a person so far who hasn’t. And they never do read the fine print, Kate thinks, but that’s fine with her.
In truth, the fine print doesn’t matter to Erica. In its own way neither does the spotlight, the bright lights and shining prizes Kate promises her. Erica just wants to dance - wants to spin and never be dizzy again. Wants to never spend another agonizing minute convulsing on the ground. Would jump at the chance to live without fear that her next fall is her last - a brain bleed, a fracture that she might never really heal from. Hospital bills high enough that trying to pre-peddle her organs seems like an option. She’s seen it all, in the Narrows. The things desperate people will do. Erica is tired of being desperate. Tired of being sick. Tired of being tired.
Of course there are strings attached. Of course it won’t be perfect. They’ll own her. Six performances a week until she drops dead from it, surgical joints and bioengineered bones, a designer heart pumping even after the rest of her knows better. Or worse, because Erica knows the history of those who came before her - people like Blind Mag. Like Greek tragedies, she thinks, or at least what she remembers of them. Everyone always paying for their fate; if Erica signs on the dotted line, at least she’ll know the price.
When Boyd is assigned to be one of Erica’s bodyguards, he doesn’t expect to like her. He thinks he knows who she is already. He knows about the deal she signed with GeneCo. It’s exactly the kind of rags to riches story the world loves to hear: Girl Plucked from the Narrows, Made Better, Does Better. Boyd’s already seen it before a dozen times.
As far as Boyd has seen, there are two kinds of brats in the world - the kind born into money, the kind whose parents grew them in vats just the way they wanted them to be, who get upgrades for their birthdays and Christmas and over the summer holiday, just before they take the family jet to Russia and indulge in some of the last fresh air and uncontaminated sunlight this planet has to offer. They at least have the excuse of ignorance, as much of an excuse as that is. They’ve never had to want for anything, much less worry about where their next meal was going to come from, or if it was going to make them sick. The Genists don’t ever worry about that. No genetic diseases. Boosted immune systems, faster healing, increased red blood cell count. Even higher pain tolerance.
The others are like Erica. The Biocons. The ones GeneCo plucks from obscurity, or who win the yearly jackpot. GeneCo even gives out scholarships, sometimes, for the promotion. People lap it up the way dogs eat shit. People like Erica – they’re supposed to know better. They’ve seen what it’s like Below. They lived it. They know what it’s like to be hand to mouth every day of your life. They know exactly how much a new liver costs, how much to fix a birth defect, how much it costs to raise a child to schooling standards. Boyd’s parents had been lucky enough to have been from a rich family, before the Replications. It wasn’t much, all these years later, but it had been enough to get him in shape and send him to school. He’d been good with math, with logic, at seeing how things fit together, and no one had been particularly surprised when the Argents came looking for him. He took the money and their promises, because he didn't want what would come after turning those down. Boyd is good with a gun, good with his hands, and great with a scalpel. It surprises people. Boyd has brute force, sure, but he knows the placement of every tendon in your body, and how to slice and watch you sprawl.
Girls like Erica party hard and die young. They get addicted to surgery, they get addicted to Z. There’s a point where GeneCo doesn’t get a return on what it’s putting in, where pulling the plug and finding some other fresh young thing ends up being cheaper. Boyd used to get attached in the beginning. Friendly. But he knows there's no point now. The unlucky ones die, and the lucky ones get stripped of their upgrades and returned to the Narrows. Or maybe the other way around.
The thing is - Erica’s not exactly what Boyd was expecting. Her file is thick with medical transcripts, thin on anything else, and once he sees her, Boyd tries to fill the rest of the blanks in himself.
Erica is seventeen years old, five-seven in flats but prone to wearing heels that push her to six. Her blood type is O-positive. Hair dyed a perfect shade of Honey Blonde, Patented GeneCo Color LB355. Minor cosmetic surgery. The overall package turns out very pretty, even for GeneCo work, and no one is particularly surprised when she turns out to be more popular than Blind Mag ever was. She moves like a dancer; graceful, but with purpose, which Boyd admittedly admires. Makes it easier to find her in a crowd. She’s less condescending than Kate, friendlier than Chris, and a damn sight less likely to fly off the handle than Gerard. All in all, not nearly the worst of Boyd’s charges.
He has some of it right. She likes the clothes the Argents send over in bucketloads. She likes the parties - which is good on both counts, because the talent has to be out and about and seen to make any impression - and she’s like a kid in a candy store the first time she tries anything. She wants it all, she wants it now, she wants it for her own. But she doesn’t do drugs; not that he’s noticed, and Boyd’s job is to notice. She hasn’t used since her last dose of Zydrate, right after her final surgery. She might drink, she might take a designer pill or two - almost old-fashioned, these days - but he’s never had to hold her hair back while she vomits, and there are no tiny Zydrate guns lying around her dressing room.
She likes to eat.
That sounds stupid, almost. A lot of people like to eat. Particularly some of the Genists, the ones who make it into a show. Who have to eat rarer and rarer, stranger and stranger - soft-boiled eggs in pine nut sauce, ostrich ragout, fried veal escalope with raisins, saffron chickpeas - pigs rearranged to look like peacocks; geese stuffed with caraway and parsnips, re-feathered after they’re been cooked. It’s just another way to spend money. Another way to indulge.
Erica likes fruit. She asks for apples in her dressing room the way others might demand flowers - or drugs, or prostitutes. Boyd isn’t surprised by much of anything anymore. Except for those damn apples.
Boyd remembers what fruit was like down in the Narrows. Wizened, wrinkled. He’d eaten oranges that had practically turned to dust in his mouth, but there was something in them still. Boyd's mother had called them liquid sunshine, but that didn't mean much to Boyd when he’d never seen the sun.
Still. Erica had the bigger things, the biggest things money could buy, and somehow - she still hadn’t forgotten those small things. She could have had truffles and caviar at every meal, and it was apples instead.
Looking back, he thinks that might be when he started to fall in love with her.
It takes Erica longer to fall in love with Boyd. She’s too in love with everything else first.
It’s difficult not to be - the clothes, the jewelry, the makeup. Her reflection in the mirror. It isn’t even that she’s beautiful, exactly. She knows the beauty is fake, that anyone can buy it if they have enough money. But it’s her name in the headlines, on the marquee, her face on the posters plastered around the city, and that’s only hers, in the end. GeneCo can manufacture any type of beauty they wish - make a body stronger, taller, skinnier, even quicker, but they can’t teach it to dance. They can’t make another Erica Reyes, and she damn well knows it.
It makes the crowd’s adoration easy to swallow at first - easier than silent, taciturn bodyguards with knowing eyes - but soon enough the adoration is suffocating, the hands too free, and the minutes never her own, much less the hours or days. She doesn’t want anyone’s love then. Starts to like Boyd just for his mildly removed disdain. Better than Matt’s abject flattery, better than Greenberg’s flustered comments and darting eyes. Boyd probably thinks she’s stupid, foolish, empty-headed. Pretty as a picture and just as dumb.
She tacks a copy of her contract up on her dressing room wall, and starts to think he might not be wrong.
She’s a beautiful dancer.
On some level, Boyd knew that had to be true. That’s the point, isn’t it - why the Argents wanted her in the first place. Any decent surgeon can make someone beautiful. Nearly any body can be made strong. Parts replaced, upgraded, reshaped. But Erica, for all her improvements, for all the surgeries, moves beyond that.
Erica is transcendent. Boyd’s not the type to gush, so - trust him. Transcendent. Capable of leaving the world behind and taking you with her. When she dances, Boyd forgets he’s watching. He forgets his job, frankly, and nothing makes him do that.
Her Sugarplum Fairy is queenly - her Phrygia is formidable, and joyous - but she does her best when the work is transformative. She excels at Giselle, at sliding from beautiful to broken-hearted to benevolent. Her performance of Swan Lake nearly brings the house down. She personifies both Odette and Odile - not because she plays them as dualities, Boyd thinks, not like two sides of the same coin that never really exist at the same time, the obverse of each; but because she plays them as twin parts of herself.
It starts to go south about six months in. Boyd isn’t sure why. Kate doesn’t tell him anything, unless it’s to drop the snidest of hints, and Boyd doesn’t particularly like either of Erica’s other bodyguards. Well, no. Not entirely true - Daehler is a creep, yes, but Greenberg is competent enough. Greenberg would tell Boyd if there was a problem: if Erica was using, if someone had tried to attack her, if she had been summoned to one GeneCo party or another, but he’d never notice if she felt depressed, or if she hated her newest upgrade, or if some stupid Genist had broken her heart. Boyd sees more than other people. It’s not a requirement of the job, precisely, but there’s a reason he’s lasted so long and taken on so much of the Argents’ loyalty.
Erica doesn’t dance well, that night. Scratch that - she dances well, she always dances well, but the same way any trained dancer would. Not spectacular. Not Erica.
“You okay?” he asks.
Erica nods. “Fine.” She tilts her head. Watches her reflection in the mirror. “Absolutely fine.”
Whatever the hell she is, it’s the opposite of fine.
There was a private show, earlier. It’s marked on her schedule, and Boyd frowns down at it. The little blocked off square.
Prostitution is illegal, though to say it goes rampantly unchecked wouldn’t be wrong. Sex for Zydrate, sex for back-alley surgery. Kate has been known to extend a line of credit for a date or two, if the target was young and attractive enough. Erica’s contract dictates only that she dance when and where the Argents demand. It can be an audience of a thousand, or an audience of one, if the one they need to persuade is powerful enough. Boyd hates to think of what that audience of one might be.
So Boyd makes a decision. One he might yet regret, but he thinks he might hate the alternative more.
“Here,” he says, and pulls one of the scalpels out of his belt. They’re practically fashion accessories, these days - last year it was surgical masks; before that staple jewelry. When Boyd was younger, neon stitches were in style.
“What are you doing?” Erica asks, and the fact that she isn’t scared at all that Boyd is coming towards her with a scalpel in his hands - he’s caught between feeling happy and wondering if she shouldn’t be more careful. Any Repoman coming towards her is a threat.
“I’m going to teach you how to kill a man,” he says, and once Erica sees he’s serious, she gives him her brightest, realest smile.
She has beautiful hands, Erica. A little large for a girl maybe, but as well knit together as the rest of her, as graceful. She wields the scalpel like a pro.
She would be good at it, he thinks - being a Repoman. Boyd never had a taste for the anatomical stuff; it’s why he’s a bodyguard instead of, well, other. He doesn’t have the delicacy for it, or the stomach. He’s all right with that.
The first time Erica kisses Boyd is in the rain, on the back of his motorcycle. Like a scene from a movie. She’s late to a party, she’s soaking wet, her hair is frizzing - even genetics can’t solve that, as it turns out - her makeup is running, and in trying to outfox the paparazzo they’ve gotten turned around. In the wrong side of the city at the wrong time of the night, and it doesn’t even matter, with her arms wrapped around a Repoman.
“Fuck the party,” she says, and laughs. “Take me home!” It isn’t the first time Boyd’s been inside her apartment - he’s her bodyguard, he’s probably spent more time - but it’s the first time she’s dragged him to her bed. Not the first time she’s kissed him, but the first time it’s been with intent - not a stolen, sweet thing, but a mean one, a heady one, fraught with meaning.
Boyd falls in love in bits and pieces. It’s the fruit. It’s the dancing. It’s the turn of her ankles and the way she wields a scalpel. Her beautiful everything. It’s because when Erica decides on something, it gets done. Whole heartedly. No regrets, no holdbacks. She throws herself into everything, headfirst, foolish, as if there are no consequences - dances, laughs, eats, cries - but its never as grasping as the others he sees, never racing to beat a clock they built in the first place. It’s something different. She doesn’t look at Boyd like there’s a finite number of experiences to be found in his hands, his mouth, his cock. He’s more than the sum of his parts, and so is she. Even if some of those parts have a price tag.
She loves Boyd. She loves him. Not the same way she has been infatuated before. She’s had her crushes. Childhood pashes, desperate teenage wants. There were boys before him - one in the Narrows, when she was growing up, and plenty here. She doesn’t feel bad about that. Before she was ‘that Reyes girl’, the freak, the epileptic, the ultimate genetic loser. Who could blame her, really, for gorging herself on all the things so long denied her? She finds that sex can be a lot like dancing, done right. Passionate, or practiced - both, if you’re lucky. A give and take - emphasis on the give or emphasis on the take, she’s finding, and oh, Erica likes to take - a rise and swell, a crescendo, small beautiful movements or large passionate ones. It’s fun, it’s sweaty; she feels sore and accomplished in the end. Really, what isn’t there to like? Why shouldn’t there be boys? She likes the way they look at her, the things they buy her. The people she used to see in the tabloids. Give a person the chance to live out their fantasy, and they will.
But Boyd - oh, she loves Boyd. She was scared of him, at first. She was scared of all Repomen - GeneCo’s spectral hunters. They were the bogeymen of the Narrows, the stuff of nightmares. The glassy opaque face-guards, the black rubber gloves. Big leather boots. Kits of knives and scalpels, pliers, saws. Killers. But Boyd’s not a killer, Erica has realized. Not by nature. He’d kill to protect her, kill to keep her safe, and that’s - Erica doesn’t know that she loves that, that she’d like to see it, but knowing he would - knowing he’s taught her to do the same - warms something inside her.
Maybe that’s weird, she thinks. Maybe she has a really flawed definition of what love is. Doesn’t make it any less real, though. Doesn’t make it any less love.
Boyd isn’t naive enough to think they’re getting away with anything. The Argents have eyes in too many places, their fingers on too many pulse points. If Erica were sleeping with anyone but Boyd, he’d be reporting it himself. As it is, he doesn’t hold anything else back. They don’t need another reason to doubt him.
Boyd doesn’t expect it to end well. He knows it won’t. He can’t even think of what ‘ending well’ would look like. What are the options, for people like him? Taking a bullet for one of the Argents? Going until his body gives out? Until he’s too slow, too weak, paying for the upgrades to keep a job to pay for the upgrades? GeneCo pays well, but Boyd’s grandma needed her arthritis taken care of last year; his sister was born with a heart defect. Unlike the Genists, Boyd has no desire to live forever, but as long as he can stand it, he and his are going to live well.
How could it ever end for Erica? She dances, she smiles, she sells tickets and shills GeneCo when they say she should. It doesn’t even look fake, most of the time. But Boyd is old enough to remember Blind Mag - watching her pluck out her own eyes on live broadcast. He doesn’t know what’s happened to most of the others. Isn’t that bad enough, that he doesn’t know?
One night the call comes in for a clean-up crew in Erica’s dressing room at the theater. Boyd’s never moved so quickly in his life. Shoves his radio at Greenberg and runs for his motorbike.
When he gets there, the body on the floor isn’t Erica. She’s sitting in front of her vanity in her dressing room. Blood on her dress. It’s stark and startlingly fresh against the white silk slip of her dress. Boyd’s heart nearly jumps out of his chest, in that moment, but it’s easy enough to see it isn’t hers.
“What happened?” he asks, and when she lifts her head to look at him, meeting his eyes in the mirror, something… isn’t quite there. Her eyes are as wide as the little cartoon animals that play on the vidscreens. Inhuman, though that hadn’t stopped some of the Genists for asking their surgeons for them, of course.
“Did you want to change?” he asks. Pitches his voice lower. Not soothing, exactly, but calm. “I’m sure the stage manager -”
“This is fine,” she says. “Just - fine,” like she’s coming to some sort of decision. She pulls out a red lipstick - bright red, blood red - and paints it on. Like a slash. A gaping wound. “The gala’s tonight,” she continues. Presses her lips together. Makes the little pop noise all woman do. “I need to go.”
Boyd can’t actually argue with that. “The Argents will be there.”
“Of course they are,” she says softly. “Of course I’ll go,” because she gets it. Erica isn’t stupid. There’s a contract with her name on it – a contract that will give her everything and anything a girl could ask for, as long as she dances when they say dance, each and every time.
It’s no way to live. Nobody realizes before they sign, and few even realize after. Even when they’re unhappy in their gilded cages, they rarely blame the cage. They think it’s them - there’s always another deficiency, another flaw, another gory, gaping hole to be filled with surgery or drugs or sex. Boyd wishes he could have told her that before all this, that the beauty and the ugliness coincide here, one always tainting the other. Beauty might have been found few and in-between, in the Narrows, but at least when it happened it was a pure flash of it. It was real.
Erica knows now. She knows there’s no going back.
“We’ll take the Ducati,” Boyd offers, and Erica meets his eyes in the mirror. Showing up on a Repoman’s motorcycle will only titillate the crowd – which the Argents will approve of – and there’s a chance it will make Erica smile.
By the time Boyd drives Erica home for the night the blood is dried, dark and crusted, the dress ruined. Neither of these things matter. The blood is titillating to the crowds. Always has been. Maybe Erica will start a new trend - blood splatter might just complement the current surgical cuts - and GeneCo’s star can’t be expected to wear the same outfit twice anyway.
“Stay,” she says, “please,” and Boyd calls his location in to Daehler. Clicks off before he can hear whatever crude remark he comes up with this time.
“I thought it would be difficult,” she says later, quietly. Against the side of his neck. Against the pulse of his jugular. “The killing, I mean. Or at least… I thought I’d hesitate, maybe.”
Killing’s easier than you think, Boyd wants to explain. Which is simple to say but difficult to accept.
It changes Erica. More than it changed Boyd. It hurt him, in a way: made him sick in the short-term, made him drink, gave him headaches. Gave him nightmares. Made him stare at his hands own hands as though they’d betrayed him, as though they belonged more to the Argents’ than him. The difference, maybe, is that Boyd always expected it would happen, sometime or another. It was always Boyd’s job. Not Erica’s.
She becomes pale. Restless. Pared down. She’s always practiced often, ready to perform on demand, but now she dances all the time. She dances like a thing possessed. It makes her ragged around the edges - not any less beautiful, somehow. Maybe more so. Her eyes are brighter, but it’s like a fever. It won’t last.
“I love you,” Boyd tells her. Tries to keep the desperation from his voice. “I love you, Erica.”
She says it back, usually. Strokes the lines of his face, the corners of his eyes. Like she’s trying to see into them. Behind them. As if checking to what he’s saying is real.
He is. She loves him too. She knows it, knows it in the marrow of her bones - that’s still hers, after all. That she intends to keep.
One morning, Boyd can’t get ahold of her. It doesn’t strike him as unusual at the time - she likes to sleep in, when she gets the chance. Likes to go out for brunch and shopping. She has a thing for jackets that Boyd doesn’t entirely understand, to be frank, and he’s spent enough time hauling around Kate Argent’s shopping bags to want to do it in his spare time.
He’s standing behind the Argents, half-listening, when Chris drops the bomb.
“- Not the mention GeneCo needs a new star,” he says, off-hand, and Boyd’s pulse hammers. He must make a noise, some kind or another, because Kate laughs.
“Oh sweetie,” Kate says. Cloying and saccharine. “Didn’t anyone tell you? Your little girlfriend defaulted on her contract. We’ve already recollected. Can’t let someone so high profile get away with ripping off GeneCo, now can we?”
Boyd doesn’t remember exactly what happens next - like a rage blackout, but without the rage. Without anything. He remembers nodding, jerkily, like a puppet tied to short-strings. Backing out of Gerard’s office, maybe. And after that nothing, until he’s in her apartment.
Really, it doesn’t surprise Boyd that the Argents had Erica killed. The upgrades they gave her weren’t just superficial. It wasn’t just a matter of acne scars, of pulling out implants and sewing her back up. There was too much money. There was too much pride. The Argents aren’t forgiving people. They wouldn’t let her go on principle alone.
Was it Greenberg, he wonders, or Danny, or Matt, or Derek, or any of the dozen other Repomen he knows by name. Did Kate do it herself, for the fun of it? Boyd wouldn’t put it past her. The smirk on her face when she told him makes his blood boil, makes his head spin, makes his fingers twitch for the scalpel tucked away at his side.
When the Graverobber poisons her, when Kate starts convulsing on the floor, Boyd takes more than a little pleasure in watching.
Boyd sounds the alarm like a good Repoman would. Escorts Peter out under the guise of covering GeneCo’s ass - it wouldn’t do to have a drug dealer on the premises when Kate Argent is declared dead, would it? He answers Gerard’s questions, Chris’s cross-examination - he doesn’t even really have to lie. Yes, Kate was using Z. Yes, she had him bring her dealer here. Yes, it was the same dealer. Yes, he’s gone. Yes, she’s dead.
It’s not that life has no meaning without Erica. Boyd isn’t prone to melodramatics, and he has more than most - his gran, his parents, his little sister. He has them to think of in the moments he can’t think of himself. Gerard Argent’s sudden death, Allison Argent’s miracle cure and ascendance to the head of the company - it makes no difference to Boyd in the day-to-day. The world keeps spinning.
Until a knock on his door one night.
Boyd doesn’t live in the best neighborhood. He can handle himself. He doesn’t need to shell out half of his hard-earned money for neighbors that’ll turn up his nose at what he does. If that means throwing the occasional addict looking for Z out of the building, well, all in a day’s work.
“You won’t find what you’re looking for here,” he says, and then stops dead in his tracks.
She's hacked off her hair - shade LB355, Boyd's brain tells him, uselessly; darker at the roots, darker shaved too close to her head - but her eyes are still as luminous.
“Hey,” she says. Somewhere between laughter and tears. “I think I’m exactly in the right place.”
“Where were you?” he asks.
And - “Why did you?”
And - “How did you?” because the Argents are bloodhounds in their own way; the most vicious kind.
“Did you forget where I came from?” she laughs, and cradles his hands in hers, clenching so hard the bones creak. “I know plenty of people in low places. Plenty of people who never want to be found. There’s a place for us, in New Shilo. But I need - we need,” she says, “we need new Ident chips.”
Boyd can’t help smiling. Framing her face with his hands. “As it happens, I know a guy."