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Tuesday Fiction: “Mardock: Two Hundred Below” by Tow Ubukata (Haikasoru Week)

Today on the World SF Blog we have an exclusive novelette from Japanese author Tow Ubukata, part of our Haikasoru Week!

A best-selling series and a hot anime in Japan, Tow Ubukata’s MARDOCK SCRAMBLE was recently released as one huge English-language volume epic adventure. This week’s feature novelette “Two Hundred Below” is a Mardock City showcases all the humor, action, and bizarre characters that drive Mardock City. iPad owners can also check out Useful Monsters: Mardock Scramble 104,  another case of the Scramble team!

Mardock: Two Hundred Below

by Tow Ubukata

translated by Nathan Collins

“Will, am I going to die here?”

She stared, her eyes ice blue, out the hotel window at Mardock City and scowled at the night. The girl had braided blonde hair and wore a white glove on her left hand. Her right hand, bare, rested atop it.

“Friends will be coming any moment now, Ms. Rose.”

The lawyer’s response was earnest, but a flicker of cynicism came into her eyes. “Should I go ahead and sign my will while I still have the chance?”

“No, we just need to hold out a few more days. Then you’ll be safely back home.”

The man wore an untroubled smile. His dark brown hair and eyes still held the shine of youth, and his dark suit hugged his tall frame.

She glanced at the lawyer’s badge on his lapel and said with a shudder, “I can’t help but feel like we’re cornered here. Honestly, I can’t imagine why you’re still with me. Did my grandfather leave you orders in his will to be kind to me?”

“If I don’t do what you say, I guess you’ll have to scold me.”

Rose didn’t dignify that with a response. She was the one being provocative here. She touched the iron frame of the bed’s homely canopy and said, “Such cheap décor. Can’t say I like it as a deathbed.”

“Glad to hear it. So don’t give up until you find one you prefer.”

“When I gave up, my body was already diced into bits.” She showed him the palm of her gloved hand. “But enough of that. Turn out the lights, Will. The skyline is beautiful at night.”

“You shouldn’t stand so close to the windows, Ms. Rose.”

“And stop calling me ‘Ms.’” She looked back over her shoulder at him. Her gaze contained a quiet power, almost electric. “Don’t you want to look at the view with me?”

Her arms and legs were terribly slender and pale, her cheeks and neck wan. A congenital disease engendered a strong aura of death around her, but despite that—or because of it, perhaps—she was deeply alluring.

But the man didn’t move, his expression one of consternation.

“What, did my grandfather’s will say you couldn’t put your arm around my shoulder?”

The man’s phone rang inside his pocket. He stepped back and said, “Excuse me, Ms. Rose.”

She gave him a cold smile and turned back to the window.

“Come back when you’ve decided how much my will is worth, Will Crockett.”

She undid the sash over her dress and bared her slender shoulders. Before he could feel the heat and scent of the pale alcohol flame of her skin, he left.

* * *

Will Crockett stepped into the hallway and withdrew his phone. As he checked the ID to see that it was from his office, he positioned himself where he could see both the door to the girl’s room and the doors of the elevator.

Before the caller could say anything, Will spoke. “Why hasn’t any backup arrived yet? I submitted an emergency request.”

His colleague responded with a dry laugh.

—The request was approved this evening. Your guards will be dispatched tomorrow.

“That’s too late. Over ten of her relatives have been murdered over the past few months. And her father’s bodyguard was as expensive as his own aircar.”

—Calm down. Don’t get all worked up over some tall tale. You heard about what happened the other month, didn’t you? Some corporation sent in their private army of over two hundred men just to kill a single whistleblower—and to do it, they bought the hotel she was staying in, then claimed she was trespassing on their private land!

“I’m not here for your amusement.”

—And I’m not here to indulge your chivalrous fantasies. What about your job administering her estate?

“Do you guys really want to make a seventeen-year-old girl write out her will?”

—Does the age matter when you’re at a wake with a letter from the deceased? Remember, you’re a corporate lawyer, and Sorbet’s former CEO selected you as the executor of their estates. You’re valuable to us, Will. Your duty is the establishment of Rose Sorbet’s will and the administration of her grandfather’s estate. I shouldn’t have to remind you of the kind of business this could bring us. Think of what it could mean for us—of what it could mean for you. All of Sorbet’s top executives rushing to negotiate their wills—

“Just stop, please.”

—You stop. Even if she somehow does live for a long—

Will disconnected and, with a groan at the back of his throat, put the phone back in his pocket. When he stepped back into the room, the lights were out.

In the darkness under the broad canopy, the bedsheets, like a fresh flowerbud, draped Rose’s form where she lay in the center of the bed.

Will suppressed the urge to check if she was really asleep or just pretending. He stood mute in the doorway and looked out the window at the night. The city lights weren’t so much scattered gemstones as they were haphazard embers.

He went into the bathroom and washed his face with cold water, pondering the inviolable rules of the lawyer’s code. He had to avoid getting mixed up with trouble—but it was far too late for that. For good or ill, the same circumstance couldn’t continue indefinitely—or, at least, so he hoped. He had to protect his own life and his own career. That was the situation he was in.

If I can protect her for one night, help will come. He repeated it to himself, looking at his own reflection. He touched his side, where a small pistol was holstered, at one with his body, seeming to pulse with the beat of his heart.

He had never shot anyone, and he was glad of it. But even if he hadn’t, so what? He was still determined to protect her this night.

Will recollected the past four years. When he first came to the Sorbets’ mansion as a young lawyer, full of promise, Rose was thirteen. Her blue eyes brimmed with icy loneliness as much then as they did now, drawing him in, and her frigid scowl that had seemed like a shard of ice only grew sharper and more brittle as she grew up. Will had learned of the cause that lay behind that scowl—a fate from birth—and, even more than at the honor of becoming an executor at such a young age, had been happy just to be near her. Did he need any more reason than that to protect that single frozen flower?

He had turned off the faucet and was reaching for a towel to dry his face when he heard a small clank.

Reflexively, he turned around but saw nothing. He glanced down. Between the bathtub and the sink was a drain, and its strainer was off.

He squinted and reached out toward the stainless steel lid.

In that instant, something blue and serpentine slipped from the drain. Startled, Will tried to cry out, but the blue thing covered his mouth.

It was strong enough that he felt his jaw might break. The thing was slimy, and as its mass contracted and shifted underneath its blue skin, several seconds passed before Will realized it was a hand. The arm extended from the drain—which couldn’t have had a diameter of more than four inches—and soon the elbow followed, and then a grotesque protuberance.

The protuberance expanded like an octopus’s head, and yellow eyes looked up at Will. It had no nose, only nostrils, like a fish.

Fighting the pain in his chin, Will drew his pistol and fired wildly. The monster’s chest indented at the force of the shot and rippled like a hanging piece of cloth. The monster offered no reaction and its grip remained firm; Will felt like he was tangling with an octopus. Will’s ears rang, deafened by the gunshot.

The monster’s chest oozed back into its prior shape. With its other hand, it grabbed Will’s wrist, forcing him to drop the pistol. Its face, androgynous and oddly serene, was entirely blue, except for the yellow eyes and a pair of red lips.

The lips opened.

Its mouth was as black as the drain it had climbed from. The thing had no teeth.

Then an object began to emerge from inside its mouth. A long tongue—or was it a tentacle—wrapped around a small syringe gun. The thing’s tongue reached out and pressed the tip of the needle into Will’s throat. It pulled the trigger, and the syringe’s piston pushed its liquid contents into his bloodstream.

Will tried to scream, but no sound came. The tongue withdrew back into the thing’s mouth, which swallowed the syringe with a gulp.

The corners of its red lips curved into a smirk. With an expression like that of a parent gently laying her child down to sleep, the creature released him.

“Rose…”

He barely had time to flip himself over and grab the bathroom doorknob before he blacked out.

* * *

Rose Sorbet sat up at the sound of the gunshot, and now she stared, eyes wide open, at the sight of Will spilling out from the bathroom.

“Will!”

A foot emerged from the bathroom and planted itself on Will’s unconscious body.

Rose’s eyes were icily defiant.

“If you’re here to kill me, show yourself.”

Moving without sound, the figure appeared before her. Its monochromatic body was nude, not that it had any visible sexual organs to hide. Its entire body, from its stomach to its chest and even its head, undulated, contracting and expanding again. It aimed its yellow eyes at Rose and regarded her with a serene expression.

Rose returned its gaze with neither surprise nor malice. She made no fearful sound. She simply glanced down at the lawyer and whispered, “Will…I wanted you to put your arms around me before you slept.”

As she started to rise from the bed, a voice cut in.

“Don’t move. There’s two minutes until your application will be approved.”

Both Rose and the blue monster froze in place.

“Who are you?” asked the girl. “Where are you?”

“I’m right beside you. One minute forty seconds.”

“Beside me?”

She looked for the source of the noise, her eyes landing on…the bed’s canopy?

“Are you up there?”

“I am here. One minute twenty seconds.”

The canopy was talking.

The monster growled, and the hilt of a dagger appeared from its mouth. Its blue fingers reached up and withdrew a gleaming blade with a curved tip.

Rose informed the canopy, “Something just came out of this person’s mouth.”

“A Hutchison knife. It has a thermodynamically…peculiar blade. Sixty seconds.”

“Some blue jellyfish-looking person pulled out a knife I’ve never heard of and is walking toward me. And I’m supposed to just wait here, right?”

“It looks like our client’s even more coolheaded than we’d anticipated, Boiled.”

“Then you should be able to handle her, Oeufcoque.” The reply came from the window.

The blue creature turned to look, and Rose’s eyes followed. What she saw astounded her.

A man was standing perpendicular to the outside wall, his feet straddling the window frame.

“There’s a big man,” stated the girl, “standing on the wall outside my fifteenth-floor window.”

“I’m just a guy with the ability to project artificial gravity who happens to be passing by.”

The man at the window, who the canopy had called Boiled, drew a gun, and Rose gasped.

“Don’t worry,” said Oeufcoque. “Please remain calm, Miss. Thirty seconds.”

“You don’t need to call me ‘Miss.’ But never mind that, the jellyfish is moving toward the window.”

“All right, Ms. Rose. Don’t worry about the jellyfish or the large man outside the window.”

“I’d rather you not purr ‘Ms.’ at me in that ingratiating tone, either. You’re just like Will.”

“I’m not that fond of things that purr either, Rose. Now. It’s time.”

“What?”

“Your application has been approved. You are now under our guardianship.”

As he spoke, gunshots rang through the air. The window shattered, and the creature twisted itself, octopus-like, to dodge the bullets.

“I don’t like this!” Rose shouted. “I don’t like guns!”

Suddenly a metal lattice sprang from the canopy, wrapped itself around the girl, and extended out to the posts of the bed, where it sprouted a tightly packed nest of metal barbs.

The monster, knife raised high, took notice of the bed, now firmly ensconced inside the steel briar. It was completely shut out.

The knife came down, striking at the nest of thorns with a resounding clang, but from the inside, Rose couldn’t see what had happened.

Warm light filled the space inside the briar, and Oeufcoque spoke in a cheerful voice. “It may look cheap, but it’s bulletproof and bladeproof. It’ll hold.”

“And what are you gaining by putting me inside a cocoon like this, anyway?”

“We’re under Mardock Scramble 09—one section of a program seeking the preservation of life, which grants the lawful use of otherwise illegal experimental technology in emergencies. A program which now applies to you.”

“What do you mean, the use of experimental technology?”

“You’ve been granted the permission to use me. I am an All-Purpose Tool, and I can assume any form to protect you.”

Sounds of a violent battle echoed within the steel cocoon. Then, silence.

“Boiled,” said the canopy, “He got away, didn’t he.”

From outside the briar, a man’s voice answered.

“This kind of gun just isn’t enough to stand up to a shapeshifter.”

“A shapeshifter?” asked the girl.

“A cyborg with a cephalopodian body,” the canopy explained patiently. “At least my partner’s shots seem to have chased him off.”

The steel briar receded back into the canopy, revealing the ravaged state of the hotel room. Bullet holes pockmarked the walls, and the mini-bar fridge lay on the floor, severed in two. Standing on shards of broken glass was the man who had been outside the window.

He had cropped white hair and soulful gray eyes. His arms and legs were thicker than Rose’s waist, and he was built like taut steel. He bent over and grabbed Will’s collar. The lawyer was limp.

“Is he alive?” asked Rose.

“His pulse is normal. Oeufcoque, how long do you plan on staying in that form?”

“I need to prepare myself before I appear before someone else, Boiled.”

The canopy went slack and fluttered down to the middle of the bed. The canopy disappeared, and in its place was a mouse with golden fur.

He stood up on his hind legs. He had a large belly, held in place by a pair of suspenders, and his red eyes twinkled. The mouse cleared his throat and said, “So, Miss, I’m—”

“I have two questions. All right?”

The rodent nervously nodded.

“First. What do you two mean by ‘oeuf-coque’ and ‘boiled’?”

“They’re names. Our names.” With tiny hands, he pointed. “I’m Oeufcoque, and he’s Boiled.”

“Okay, Oeufcoque. Second question. First you were that tacky bedframe and now you’re…how you are, but which is your real form?”

“Oh, well, this is how I normally am.”

Rose stared at the mouse for a moment, then she nodded. “Finally, I feel like I can be at ease.”

* * *

Will felt a gentle touch at his cheek and opened his eyes. He looked up to see Rose’s aloof smirk.

“They tell me you were just drugged. It looks like you narrowly escaped death, my knight. Those are our protectors.”

Will realized he was on a bed in a room he’d never seen before, clinging to Rose’s leg. It was a few moments more before he realized the two of them weren’t alone. He turned and saw a large man with a golden-haired mouse perched on his shoulder, and another man, slender, in a white lab coat and a mottled dye job in his hair.

The first one to speak was the mouse.

“Your request was accepted. We’re in charge of Scramble 09, the program for the preservation of life.”

Will was dumbstruck.

“His name,” offered Rose, “is Oeufcoque.”

The rodent gave a modest grin to Will, who had leapt up onto the bed. The man in the lab coat gently grabbed the lawyer’s hand and eased him to the ground.

“I’m Dr. Easter. I’m in charge of Oeufcoque and Boiled’s maintenance as well as the general office work. The paperwork for your request was impeccably done, Mr. Crockett. Thanks to your diligence, we were able to start acting twenty hours before your request was officially accepted.”

“Twenty hours?”

“Yes. We were covering your hotel room. We never anticipated your attacker would come through the drain, but we had Oeufcoque stationed inside the room to cover all eventualities. The room we’re in now is even more well guarded. We’re in a hotel safe house operated by the Broilerhouse.”

“He was stationed inside our room?”

The Doctor laughed and nodded, then whispered into Will’s ear. “Just so you know, we intended to overlook any romantic entanglement. Arresting our petitioner on charges of corruption of a minor would have caused a bit of a mess.”

Taken aback, Will turned around only to be met with Rose’s cold smirk. He quickly averted his eyes.

Dr. Easter spoke to the girl now. “We need to ask him a few questions, Ms. Rose. Do you mind if we borrow him for a moment?”

“Drop the ‘Ms.’ And yes, you may. Will, you can tell them where my family is.”

“We’ll leave one of the three of us behind to guard you. You may choose whom.”

Rose looked to Boiled, then to the rodent atop the towering man’s shoulder, and finally to the lanky doctor. She returned her gaze to Oeufcoque and pointed her right hand. Her left hand, gloved, still rested on her lap.

Oeufcoque hopped down to the bed, and Boiled said to him, “Ask her what kind of weapons she can handle.”

“I’m sure she won’t just ask for whatever’s most destructive, like you do.”

“I…” said Rose, “I held the controls for a tank once, in my grandfather’s company.”

“Ah, well, that transformation would take three days. Let’s think of something a little smaller.”

“Wait,” interjected an increasingly bewildered Will, “why did you choose the mouse?”

The girl lowered her hand for the rodent to climb onto, and said, “He may not look like it, but this little guy’s a thorny little bastard.”

“She’s right,” said the Doctor, slapping Will on the shoulder. “Oeufcoque has the power to match an entire regiment.”

Will left the room with them, shaking his head, trying to wake himself from the dream.

* * *

“We’ve confirmed,” said the Doctor, “from the documents that Rose is the granddaughter of Sorbet’s former CEO. And we know most of what we need to know about the company itself. They jointly developed a tank equipped with a superconductor-based railgun. They were an incredibly powerful family enterprise.”

Will nodded. He seemed to have regained most of his senses, although the rodent’s dignified and affable voice still echoed in his head. The Doctor seemed to be waiting for input, so he spoke.

“They aren’t developing weapons anymore. After the war, there was too much public opposition.”

“Yes. That’s why we’re treated like scrap too. If it weren’t for Scramble 09, I’d be in jail myself.”

Boiled cut in. “Why is the girl being targeted?”

“I don’t know,” answered the lawyer. “Someone with a grudge, or just business, maybe.”

Dr. Easter leaned forward. “There’s one point I find interesting.  Not only are the victims mostly from the Sorbet family, but the manner of their murders share a certain peculiarity. Her father, her aunts and uncles, and even her cousins, all were drugged unconscious, and all then suffered the same cause of death: hemorrhage due to multiple lacerations. The victims were exsanguinated, like turkeys for plucking. It’s hardly an efficient way to go about killing. There may very well be a ritualistic element involved. But unlike a gang sending  a message, or a serial killer showing off his own propensities, our murderer is unusually calm. It’s as if he’s just doing a job. Does that make you think of anything?”

Will furrowed his brows and nodded. “There’s one thing—one clause—that fits with what you just told me.”

“One clause? Like in one of the wills you’re involved with?”

The Doctor knew just which words to hone in on to get the answer he was looking for. Will was impressed. This guy would make a fine lawyer himself, he thought.

“Yes. Specifically, Rose’s grandfather’s will.”

“What, did he request that his family’s blood be drained when they died?”

The Doctor was joking, but Will answered immediately.

“Yes, precisely that.”

Dr. Easter didn’t have anything to say to that. Boiled raised his eyebrows. Will looked at both of them, then spoke.

“Have you heard of a technology called cryonics?”

* * *

“Was it Will’s idea?” said Rose. “Asking for your help.”

Perched atop her shoulder, Oeufcoque made an exaggerated shrug. “Either way, my usefulness proves it was the best option.”

“What do you mean?”

“By proving it’s better for me to exist. If I fail, I’ll be disposed of.”

“You mean, if you can’t protect me, you’ll be thrown away?”

“The execution of my missions and my right to life rest upon the same scales.”

Rose grinned. “Well, if you end up being disposed of, you can be laid to rest at my side.”

Oeufcoque narrowed his eyes. “Why can’t I smell any fear or sadness in you?”

“Should you?”

“My species can sense human emotions by their scent.”

Rose’s eyes widened. She sniffed herself. “What kind of scent do I give off?”

“Loneliness and calm. I can sense some hope, but…you’re conflicted.”

As if realizing for the first time she was conversing with a talking mouse, Rose stared at the rodent, blinking.

Somewhat crestfallen by the change in her gaze, Oeufcoque continued. “You lost both of your parents, and your close relatives have all been killed. So why don’t I sense any fear, or sadness…or even anger?”

Rose continued to blink—not because she was surprised, but as if she were seriously considering his question.

“Because…because they’re only sleeping.”

* * *

“That’s not a technology,” said Boiled, confused. “That’s just a belief.”

Dr. Easter sighed. “No, cryonics is the preservation of human bodies at low temperatures so they may be one day be resuscitated.”

Boiled still looked dissatisfied. Will explained, “Rose’s grandfather worked with a nonprofit organization called the Cryonics Foundation. Together, they developed a system that utilized superconductors to instantly turn one’s body into glass.”

“So I was right,” said Boiled. “It is a belief—of reincarnation. And in his will, he—”

The Doctor groaned. “He instructed that, upon their deaths, his relatives’ bodies would be preserved through cryonics.”

Boiled, still skeptical, leaned forward. “Corpses don’t come back to life.”

“Correct,” said Dr. Easter. “But one day, science may change that. Will, how long can the bodies be preserved?”

“Two hundred years.”

“Really. So according to them, in two hundred years, we’ll be in a world where the dead can be brought back to life.”

Boiled still looked like he wasn’t quite following. “Why do they freeze the bodies?”

“In the case of a currently incurable disease,” said Will, “it’s to preserve the body until a cure has been discovered. Or, in the case of old age, it’s to preserve the body until a method of reversing the aging process has been discovered.”

“But people die when they freeze. Their internal organs are damaged on a microscopic level.”

“Yes, and they do die. Painlessly, yes, but they die. And the Cryonics Foundation asserts that its nanomachines will preserve the body until its revival, at which time the damage from the cryonic process itself will also be repaired.”

The Doctor looked up to the ceiling.

His expression earnest, Boiled asked, “Why don’t they just fix the frost damage now, ahead of time?”

“We don’t have the technology yet,” said Dr. Easter.

“Correct,” added Will. “You could say it’s an optimistic—and expensive—burial. There are currently almost four hundred bodies preserved at the foundation, including all of Rose’s relatives.”

“For them,” said the Doctor, “heaven is in the future. It’s a grand era we live in, when science is treated as faith. But why did the former CEO want his descendants preserved?”

“He said that he didn’t want to be alone when he was revived.”

“They’d be a family forever. That sure is something.”

Boiled leaned in. “What does that have to do with the murders?”

“In modern cryonic techniques,” explained the lawyer, “the body’s blood is replaced with a synthetic plasma that prevents the water molecules from crystallizing.”

“Does that sort of blood really exist, Doc?”

“Yes, it’s even found in nature—like in the blood of hibernating frogs. But their blood is fundamentally different from that of humans.”

“And that shares something with the method of the murders,” Boiled said, fascinated.

“Yes. Bodies already drained of their blood are perfect for cryonic preservation.”

Dr. Easter raised a finger to push his Tech Glasses up the bridge of his nose. “And the murders of the Sorbet family began soon after the former CEO’s death.”

“Yes,” said Will, “all of the attacks have been within the last three months.”

“Hmmm…There could have been some hint left in his will to suggest the method of killing.”

“The contents of the will are protected as privileged information.”

“I understand that,” Easter said. “We keep so many secrets here it makes me sick. All right then, who would stand to gain from the deaths of the Sorbet family?”

“If you’re talking financially, the Cryonics Foundation, by contract, receives payments for their cryonic preservation.”

“So each time someone in the Sorbet family dies, the foundation gets richer.” The Doctor raised his hands in surrender. “Exsanguination, wills, cryonics, preservation contracts! It’s just too much. This all could just as easily be the work of someone opposed to cryonic preservation, trying to make a point.”

Will shrugged, indicating both his agreement and the limits of the information he had to offer.

The Doctor groaned, but Boiled kept on looking at Will’s face, saying, “I still have one question. Why is that girl last? Why did the murderer get to everyone else first?”

Will lowered his eyes—not because he had broken under the pressure of the larger man’s stare, but due to his own emotions.

“Maybe the killer thought there wasn’t a need to kill someone with chronic hypothermic syndrome.”

Boiled scrunched his eyebrows back down, and the Doctor, eyes wide, said, “CHS…It’s most common in a child born to a mother addicted to stimulants…”

As painful memories washed over him, Will tried to keep it from showing on his face. “Her mother was in drug counseling.”

“Isn’t that also privileged information, counselor?”

Will nodded.

Boiled asked softly, “Is her illness that severe?”

“About the same as a diabetic without symptoms of pain or discomfort. Only for her, an insulin shot would do no good. Her capillaries were underdeveloped from her birth, and that, combined with an elevated occurrence of thrombosis—blood clots—she suffers from what’s effectively frostbite across her whole body.”

Boiled nodded deeply. “And that’s why she has a glove on her left hand.”

* * *

“So your family believes in cryonics,” Oeufcoque said. “Incurable diseases aside, aging is not an illness. It’s a necessity of life.”

Oeufcoque was so overly serious, Rose giggled. “My grandfather used to say that aging was a disease that must be conquered.”

“I don’t understand the value in denying death. The first time I understood my own mortality—that was the first time I knew what life meant,” the mouse said.

Rose’s smile vanished. A sparkle lurked deep within her frigid gaze, and she seemed to look right through him.

“What do you mean?”

“Mice gain weight throughout their lives. I’ll eventually be crushed by my own weight and die.”

“And when you learned that, you came to understand death?”

“No, you can’t really ever understand death. But I understood that I would someday die. That my life was limited.”

“How did that make you feel?”

“I felt my blood flow hotter than before. My blood spoke to me. You’re alive. Be something. And ever since that moment, I’ve been searching for who I am and what I should do.”

“And that’s why you live—for that search?”

“It gives my life a reason. It has ever since I realized I was alive—when I realized I would die.”

“When I…when I learned of my fate, I felt my blood chill. When I understood how I would have to live.”

All traces of emotion had drained from Rose’s face. Only the cold light in her eyes remained, which she kept leveled on Oeufcoque. “Let me show you the scales I have to balance upon.”

Rose raised her right hand and slowly removed the glove from her left, revealing to the mouse what was left of the hand inside it. “The doctors say that by my age, I’m lucky to get by with only my fingers gone. In almost every other case, by now, I’d have lost my hands and feet.”

Her hand had no fingers; only the thumb remained. The four fingers had been amputated at her knuckles. With a tiny paw, Oeufcoque stroked the bumps where her fingers once were.

“But even so, they say I won’t make it to twenty. If they cut my legs off at my thighs before the gangrene sets in, it might add five years to my life. If they take out my kidney, I can live another five years on dialysis. My uterus, another five. One doctor told me, in all seriousness, that with neural suspension, I could live over two hundred years.”

“Rose…”

“When my fingers rotted, I was given two options to deal with them. One was to have them cut off with something sharp, but do you know what the other was?”

“No. What was it?”

“To have them eaten by maggots. The maggots, grown in a sterile environment, would converge on my fingers and eat only the rotted portions. They don’t eat living tissue, and they leave behind a closed wound. I didn’t think that option sounded bad. As my body rotted away, flies would fly out. If it were you, which would you choose? The knife, or the maggots?”

“Well…why did you choose the knife?”

“The maggots wouldn’t leave my fingers intact.” Rose smiled. “By choosing the knife, I can have my amputated parts reattached in two hundred years. Those are my scales to balance—my body, and my life.”

Oeufcoque nodded to show his understanding—as if he didn’t know anything else to do. But then he smiled his characteristic somber smile.

“My body grows too much, and yours shrinks under the knife. I’d say that I wished we could share our bodies between us, but then we’d probably just end up with even more problems.”

Rose seemed startled by something. “Mr. Talking Mouse, you’ve never…resented the person who made you?”

“Oh, I’ve cursed him at times. Plenty of times. But in the end, the parents’ reason for creating a child and how the child should live are two wholly separate things.”

“The person who made you—what is he doing now?”

“He was killed. He suffered greatly.”

Rose narrowed her eyes, and she noticed for the first time that the mouse had been caressing her scars.

“He said that his suffering wasn’t due to sin or karma, but his own will.”

“Suffering was…his will?”

“There isn’t a single person who has overcome suffering. But there are those who have made it part of their own will. It’s an awakening from a certain way of thinking that says truth is the elimination of contradiction.”

“The elimination of contradiction?”

“I was born of science. Because of that, I thought that the scientific way of thinking was the only truth. There were no contradictions, only things that can be explained. But that wasn’t science or truth. What was important was becoming one with contradiction. Contradictions are painful. But that is will.”

“Is it will to have your body cut up with a knife or eaten by maggots?”

“You’ve become who you are by going through that suffering.”

Rose’s lips tightened. “This is all…a little difficult to understand. What are you telling me I should do?”

“I don’t think I explained it well. I’m still figuring it out myself.”

The girl broke into a grin. “That’s a soft-boiled answer. Just like Will, the executor who won’t hand me a paper or a pen. You two may try to protect me, but it won’t be easy for either of you.”

“Soft-boiled, huh? Well, I’m not called Oeufcoque for nothing. But I can smell something about you.”

“What do I smell like now?” Rose asked.

“Like you’re trying to live. No matter what scale your life is balanced upon. That’s the scent of your soul.”

Rose contemplated the meaning of his words. After a moment, she withdrew her hand from the mouse and put it back in its glove. Then, she yawned, self-consciously covering her mouth with both hands.

“Finally, I think I can feel at ease.”

* * *

The next day, Rose was ready to leave the hotel to go to the hospital. Boiled and Oeufcoque were worried about the security risk leaving the safe house would bring, but Dr. Easter seemed relaxed.

“Rose’s examination,” said the Doctor, “will take three days. If they detect a blood clot, her stay will be longer to allow for surgery. There are several people who match the description of the shapeshifting cyborg, and whether ours has been hired as a hit man or is carrying out some personal grudge, we’ll soon find out.”

Oeufcoque and Boiled nodded along with the Doctor’s quick briefing while Will and Rose were off packing for the trip.

“I smelled a strong scent of duty on it,” said the mouse. “I think there may be somebody putting it up to the hit.”

“Your nose is never wrong,” said Dr. Easter. “And that thing must be some willing martyr if it consented to having his skull molluskized in spite of the danger of potential brain death.”

“Then I think I’ve got just what it’s looking for,” said Boiled. “If you’ll be my gun, Oeufcoque.”

The rodent, sitting on his partner’s shoulder, twitched his nose and said, “You mean a gun designed only for its destructive power.”

“If guns weren’t destructive, there’d be no triggers to pull.”

The tension between them was growing, and the Doctor cut in.

“Now, now, if we get rid of the assassin, it’ll just be replaced with another. But until we know who our enemy is, and what his motives are, we have no choice but to equip ourselves for any eventuality.”

Matter-of-factly Boiled added, “As long as we have an enemy, we need weapons.” He was clearly frustrated, despite his casual tone. Oeufcoque looked sullen.

The Doctor, trying to soothe them, cooed, “Everything depends on information we don’t yet have. I’m still curious why Will was only drugged and not killed. This could all be that lawyer’s charade. Maybe he wanted to use us to dispose of the hit man, playing us—and it—for fools.”

Oeufcoque shrugged, and Boiled made a slight nod. Before they had a chance to get in a fight again, the Doctor continued.

“We’ll move in two, just like usual. Oeufcoque, you’ll escort Rose, and Boiled, you’ll stick with Will. I’ll see what I can find out about what we’re up against.”

* * *

Will and Rose stepped out of the elevator to the hotel lobby where Boiled and Oeufcoque waited.

“The bird of paradise isn’t coming?” asked the girl.

Oeufcoque laughed, thinking that was a good name for the Doctor. “He’s better behind a desk. Boiled and I will protect you on the way to the hospital. But before we leave, I want you to think of a tool.”

“A tool?”

“I’d rather not be mistaken for a lab rat in the hospital, so I want to turn into something that will let me stick by your side.”

Rose thought for a minute. She set down her day bag, pulled off her glove, and thrust out her left hand.

Boiled stared her hand—this was his first time seeing it bare. Oeufcoque bounded atop it, and as Will looked on with amazement, the mouse turned into a white glove fitted snugly to her hand.

“Hang on to this for me, Will.” She handed him her old glove.

Then Oeufcoque spoke.

“Allow me to carry your bag.”

Her left hand moved and picked up the bag. Rose stared at her own hand, holding the bag, with her eyes wide open.

Will called out to her, his voice full of worry. She looked like she was about to cry. Instead, a smile blossomed, and Rose turned her back to the lawyer. Then, in the brightest voice, she said to him, “I’ve got my body again.”

* * *

Boiled drove the Doctor’s red convertible with Will and Rose riding in the backseat. The car’s top was up, keeping the cold winter wind at bay. They left the hotel, headed north on the shortest route to the hospital.

Soon they were approaching a steel bridge spanning the river that divided the city in two.

Boiled asked, “Did the Doc come get something from this car before we left?”

Oeufcoque, still a glove, answered, “No, he went straight from the lobby to the taxi, headed for the Broilerhouse.”

Boiled reached his left hand into his jacket, keeping his right on the wheel.

Then came the click of his pistol’s hammer being pulled back. Will gasped. Rose looked warily at each of them.

“No,” said Oeufcoque, “it couldn’t—”

“The fingerprint lock on the glove compartment is unlocked.”

The glove box burst open with a pop.

Will leaned forward. “What the hell—” What he saw froze him, sending goosebumps down his skin. Rose gasped. A dark blue humanoid shape, arms and legs folded in like a fetus, was neatly packed into the tiny space of the glove compartment, like gelatin in a mold.

But it was only in that shape for an instant. Its yellow eyes opened, and its blue head slid out from its narrow confines. An arm whipped out.

With a whoomp everything around Boiled warped—the air, the back of his seat, the door, even light itself. The invisible wall of gravitational force deflected the assailant’s thermodynamic blade.

At the same time, Rose’s left hand moved, pushing Will to the door. And as the deflected blade swung around in an arc, her hand flashed upward, blocking the knife from slicing through the lawyer’s throat.

Sparks cascaded from the impact. The passenger seat headrest split in two, and gunfire rang through the interior of the car. As Boiled’s left hand pulled the trigger again and again, his right performed its own rapid fire of button presses on the vehicle’s display. The steering wheel retracted into the dashboard, and the car’s auto-drive mode engaged. He released his seat belt, then steadied his pistol with both hands. He took aim at the space between the creature’s yellow eyes and fired three times. The creature’s body danced, writhing and twisting to evade Boiled’s barrage.

Boiled clicked his tongue in disappointment. Even though the creature had taken at least one bullet right between its eyes, its head warped around it freely.

The strong odor of gunpowder filled the car. Rose coughed violently. Will threw his body over hers, his own eyes stinging, brimming with tears, blinded.

“Oeufcoque!” Boiled barked even louder than his gunfire. “Be my gun!”

Rose’s left hand lifted in a fist and, with perceptible hesitation, opened the slightest amount.

The passenger door was cut in two with a terrible screech of burning metal. Just as the top half of the door fell to the pavement, the blue attacker jumped out of the car and arced over the railing of the bridge like a leaping fish, then splashed into the wintry river below.

Cold air blew into the car, but much to Will’s and Rose’s relief, it was clear air, at least.

“I didn’t smell any malice,” stated the mouse. “I didn’t smell anything, really—almost as if it already considers itself dead. There was only that same sense of duty.”

Boiled, expressionless, said, “That’s some blade it has.”

Rose sat up and petted her glove with her good hand.

“Thank you for protecting Will. He almost lost his neck, and we would have had to patch him up like a quilt.”

Will let out a noise that was somewhere between a sigh and a groan, and as a violent gust of wind came into the car he sneezed.

* * *

“We’ve got a hell of an adversary on our hands,” Boiled said to Will as they checked the hospital hallway for anything suspicious. “It can change its shape with enough precision to open a fingerprint lock. And it’s got the mental stamina to hide away in that tiny glove box for who knows how long. Not to mention it had even planned an escape route and everything.”

“An escape route? It just went out the door… Wait, you mean the bridge?”

“As soon as its attack failed, it escaped into the river. And at the time we left the hotel, the glove compartment was locked. That creature had to have unlocked it from the inside as soon as we got to the bridge.”

“But how would it have known we were on the bridge?”

“Car vibrations differ noticeably between solid ground and bridges.”

After their attacker fled, they reached the hospital without further incident. Rose was given a VIP single-patient room on the top floor. She even had her own private shower, as if she were in a hotel suite.

Now the girl, still accompanied by Oeufcoque, was undergoing her examination. Boiled and Will were tasked with sweeping the hospital for any signs of the blue assassin. They fitted all possible entrances—windows, plumbing, even air ducts—with an adhesive intruder-detection device.

“If anything that weighs more than thirty kilos tries to get by,” said Boiled, “I’ll know. I’ll also be notified the instant one of the sensors is destroyed or tampered with. And none of this will interfere with the hospital’s delicate medical equipment.” He grinned. “Although I did think about using electromagnetic weapons to kill the bastard.”

“You wouldn’t! The other patients would be affected, you know that!”

Boiled kept his smile. He was probably joking. “I’ll stop it with my gun. You can count on it. I don’t feel like resorting to traps.”

Now the large man outright smiled. This, at least, wasn’t a joke. Will felt like he was trying to hold a conversation with a tank.

“After you shot it as many times as you did, do you really think it’ll come back so soon?”

“That was just a decoy head. That thing was practically uninjured.”

“How can that be?”

“Its brain must be located somewhere in its chest. The head is just for show.”

“But, you guys fought it off twice,” said the lawyer with desperation. “Maybe it’s given up, right?”

“I have the same technology in my body.”

Will, not understanding the meaning of the apparent non-sequitur, stared at the other man.

Boiled, his tone flat and his face expressionless, explained. “We’re all specifically designed for one function, whether it’s the ability to change the form of our body or something else. In my case, I can generate an artificial gravitational field throughout my body. I know, deep down, this creature is the same as me. No matter how the circumstances might change, it’ll perform its function.”

Will was clearly overwhelmed, but he managed to nod.

“Even after you’ve heard what I have to say, do you still plan on staying here?”

“Until she dismisses me. I guess I’m kind of like you myself, in that way.” Will looked up at Boiled anxiously. “Is that all right?”

“Has she made her will?”

Will shook his head. “I don’t think now is appropriate. She has to fight for her life. This cryonic preservation thing is just suicide.”

“But wouldn’t her death be a good thing for you?”

“Just because I’m her executor? What am I, a hyena? Why do you think I requested help protecting her?”

“How do I know you’re not behind all this?”

Will’s mouth hung open, and after a time, he burst into laughter.

“What’s so funny?”

“I’m relieved, that’s all. That you’re a pro. Of course you should suspect me. But I don’t have her signature on anything yet.”

“Maybe if she feels her life is in danger, it would be easier to pressure her to finish her will.”

“A will is a message left for others. Since she has no family left, writing a will would be nothing more than a ceremony accepting her own death, just busywork to assuage her loneliness. If I wanted Rose to write a will, I’d be better off avoiding contact with her for a while. I wouldn’t be at her side.”

“Business matters aside, if there’s anything personal going on, I’d like to know.”

“I’ve never met a bodyguard who questioned a client about personal matters.”

“And I’ve never met a lawyer who felt empathy for his client.”

Will raised his eyebrows. “You seem like the type of guy who would feel empathy for his client too.” Boiled didn’t have a reply. “Have you ever lost someone you loved? Someone you truly loved?”

Boiled nodded.

“A lover?”

A smaller nod.

“I lost my little sister to an illness,” Will said. “After she died, I kept asking myself what she would have wanted me to do. And for a while, I realized the answer. She would have wanted me to remember her. She hadn’t just simply existed—she had hopes, she suffered disappointment, she experienced happiness and joy. She lived.”

“But with death comes peace.”

“Yes, and my sister doesn’t suffer anymore. But I won’t forget her suffering or her happiness. That’s the personal thing going on. That’s why I got involved in probate law, I suppose.”

“Rose Sorbet is running from suffering. She’s come to you as your sister did. When she’s holding the gun to her own head, you might pull the trigger.”

Will looked down. “Rose’s life is nothing but suffering. But I couldn’t take seeing her die. Even if that’s what she wants.”

Boiled spoke softly. “It’s not the death you can’t take, it’s the suffering.” Will looked back up at him. “Now, Oeufcoque, on the other hand—he affirms the suffering of others.”

The lawyer stood motionless. “He affirms suffering?”

Boiled nodded, and Will stared at the bigger man’s face as if noticing him for the first time.

* * *

The doctors explained to Rose that her lower body was most susceptible to the thrombosis, and it would bring her nothing but bad. They described to her the wonders that would come with becoming a cyborg, the pinnacle of modern neurobiological and surgical achievement. Should Rose’s body be transformed into a machine, she would be a fair lady, a princess, embarking on an adventure on the cutting edge of medicine, psychology, psychiatry, and electrical engineering, and the doctors would be her knights gallant, protecting her on her odyssey.

“We’re pulling for you, Ms. Rose. We hope you can find the courage.”

The doctors brimmed with enthusiasm, but Rose simply stared blankly back at them. Since she was still seventeen, her guardians’ approval was necessary for the surgery she faced, but the paperwork had already been completed. All that was left was for Rose herself to sign.

Between examinations, Rose said to Oeufcoque, “Mom and Dad signed the papers without even reading them. I guess they were too busy, him with work, her with going on trips with men she’d just met. They didn’t notice my missing fingers until three months after they had been amputated. Three months! The three of us were eating dinner at the same table for once, and my mother yelled at me because of the ‘uncivilized’ way I was cutting my steak with only my right hand. Now the two of them are side by side in bed, kept at minus two hundred degrees, and the only part of it I can’t believe is that they’re actually sleeping together.”

The girl laughed and Oeufcoque, still in the form of her glove, said, “There are parents everywhere who don’t know how to love their children right. Most of my creators just stared at me, repulsed, when I first spoke. And they’re the ones who made me this way! Maybe that’s why you and I don’t know how to handle affection.”

“You’re the cutest.”

“No, you are. My basic form is a ball of flesh and steel.”

Rose giggled. “No matter how my parents may have treated me, I never felt sorry for myself. There were all kinds of kids like me in the Sorbet clan. There wasn’t a single respectable parent in the whole respectable family.”

“Do you think Will is trying to make himself a part of your family?”

Rose shrugged her petite shoulders. “Once, just once, he called me by the name of his dead sister. He said it was an accident.”

“Oh? Did you think it was a…bad thing for him to call you that?”

Rose looked out the window at the frozen landscape and sighed lightly. “It just made me a little sad, that’s all. That must be why he stays at my side. Although sometimes I’ve wished he was just here to do his job…” Her voice trailed off, and she returned to the examination room.

The examination stretched on for hours, with no break for a meal, and then it was nearly evening.

“Sometimes,” said Rose, slipping her slender stemlike arms and legs out of her patient’s gown, “I feel like I’m not truly living right now. This is the wrong life. My real life is in the future.”

Oeufcoque, as her left hand, dutifully helped her out of the thin white gown and back into her personal clothes. “There’s no such thing as a wrong life, there’s just unfair circumstances.”

“Is it so bad for me to want to be the sleeping princess, to stop this life where I’m the pruned flower, my arms and legs cut away. What if my true life is on the other side of a dream at two hundred below?”

“Isn’t cryonics just an easy death?”

“No, it’s not. Thank you for helping with my buttons, Oeufcoque. I wish you could be there in two hundred years to wake me.”

“Sadly, living two hundred years is one ability I don’t have.”

“Then science will be my prince, and make my body right.”

Rose left the changing room. By the time she’d left the examination area, the cold winter sunset was unfolding outside the windows.

“To tell you the truth, I already have my will ready. I carry it with me everywhere.”

Oeufcoque only sniffed.

“When I lost the fingers on my left hand, I looked up how to write it. I kept it secret from Will. I was scared, and I was sad, and I cried. I cried a lot. But…when I’d finished, I didn’t feel a thing. I wonder if Will would be happy if I told him.”

“No, I think he might be hurt.”

“Yeah…If you’d never come, I would probably have kept it to myself. Thanks to you, I’ve remembered what sadness feels like. But it’s all I have that I can give to Will.”

* * *

—What’s your situation?

Boiled was on the roof of the hospital. “Well, Doc,” he said into his cell phone, “Rose revealed her will, and Will panicked for a while there.”

—Her will? Is she preparing to die? Did Will accept the papers?

“He’s going over the paperwork down at the Broilerhouse as we speak. The problem is what’s written in it. There was one line about cryonic preservation for someone outside the Sorbet family.”

—What? Who’s getting frozen?

“One person, and right now it’s left blank. And if Rose dies without specifying a name, the executor of the estate has the right to fill it in.”

—Oh dear. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a love letter like that. So what happened?

“Will went with it. He’s to be frozen at her side.”

The Doctor was silent, save for a single grunt of mixed admiration and disgust.

“And after that happened, Rose came down with symptoms of something resembling PTSD.”

—What? Why?

“She had phantom pains from her amputated fingers. It seems repressed stress from the time of her surgery manifested, triggered by the business with Will. Oeufcoque got her through it by mimicking her fingers.”

—That’s just like him. He’s a useful one.

“It’s just him being soft as always, concerned about our client’s fleeting emotions. It’s not like he did anything to actually change our situation here.”

—You’re too hard on him. It’s important to keep a client thinking positively.

“His true purpose is that of a trigger to be pulled. His full power won’t manifest by her hand.”

—Oeufcoque wants to be the finger sometimes, not just the trigger. Now, as for what I’ve found, the Cryonics Foundation definitely has a motive. With the Sorbet family money, they will be able to broadly expand their research into nanomachine technology as well as their cryonic preservation facilities.  It might even be enough to keep them going two hundred years.

“But what about the shapeshifter? Who is he?”

—I found one candidate. There is a professional killer called “The Jellyfish” thanks to his gelatinous form. There are rumors that he’s been hired by some VIP type.

“You say he’s called ‘The Jellyfish’?”

Boiled turned and looked down from the roof at Rose and Oeufcoque’s room.

“There’s something else you’d better look into.”

* * *

“Thanks to all of you,” said Rose from the bed, “something that had been frozen over has thawed. If I’d known it was going to be that painful, I think I’d have wanted it to stay frozen.”

Her eyes were puffy and red, and her voice still sounded like she’d been crying. She was still wearing Oeufcoque on her left hand.

“With frostbite, the pain comes after. It’s proof that you’re healing,” he said with a chuckle.

“I hurt all the way down to my heart. I didn’t think Will would go along with it.”

“When he said that no matter what form your body took, he wanted to love you with all your suffering—those words, his smile—it was beautiful. And I could smell that he meant every bit of it.”

Rose’s cheeks trembled. She pressed her lips together and looked out the window.

“Is Will…is he still working on the paperwork?”

“I think by now, he’s probably finished with the initial work and should be headed back this way.”

Rose got out of bed and stepped into her slippers.

“Rose, where are you going?”

Her voice was hollow. “I have to make a phone call. To tell Will to stop. I’ll sleep alone. I’m just glad he accepted the conditions of my will. That’s enough for me.”

She stepped into the hallway and placed her right hand on the glove.

“You stay here. I want to talk to him alone.”

“Do your fingers still hurt?”

Tentatively, she pulled off the glove. “It tingles, almost like electricity. But I’m fine now.”

She set him down on a bench.

“Tell him that everything is all right here.”

Rose turned without another word and walked to the VIP pay phone, the clomp clomp of her slippers echoing down the hall. She picked up the receiver and held it between her shoulder and her cheek as she dialed the numbers.

Suddenly, her hand froze. The side panel of the gray phone box popped open. She didn’t even have time to scream.

The blue arm shot out from inside the phone and pressed over her mouth. Then the rest of its body came out in a flash, and it scooped her up in its other arm. As Oeufcoque, back in his mouse form, ran toward them, it opened a window, jumped out, then wriggled down the exposed piping and disappeared out of sight.

* * *

“He was hiding in the pay phone?”

Boiled was running down the stairway, cell phone in hand. For once, he wore a look of total surprise.

Oeufcoque responded, transmitting a wireless signal from his own body. He was running too, and his breath was ragged.

—Yes. And just like before, I didn’t smell any emotions from it this time, either. No sense of pain or discomfort from being stowed away in an even smaller space than the glove compartment. I’m starting to wonder if it’s even human.

Boiled emerged into the hallway to see Oeufcoque running upright on his two hind legs toward him, out of breath. The big man scooped him up and asked, “Which way did he go?”

Oeufcoque pointed his tiny hand. Boiled spun and called the Doctor with his free hand.

“He’s got Rose. I believe they are still in the hospital.”

—If he means to kill her like the rest, slowly draining her blood, there’s a high probability you are correct.

“What about what I told you to look into earlier? Have you found anything?”

—I’m still working on it.

“Include the phone records here in your search. Oeufcoque and I will focus on chasing after him.”

“The phone records?” asked the mouse, but Boiled ignored him.

“I need you to be my gun, Oeufcoque.”

“But…that’s…”

“This guy is burning hot. Maybe more than I can handle. He’s capable of anything. He waited inside a phone for the moment to strike. Just chasing him off doesn’t mean anything—he’ll just come right back at us. I trust in you, Oeufcoque. We need to put an end to him.”

Oeufcoque looked dejected and for a moment was silent. But then he said, “Please, do it in one shot,” and he changed into a clump of steel.

Boiled’s fist clenched around the metal. Gently he said, “That’s what makes a true weapon.”

* * *

Will came back into Rose’s room with his documents in one hand and a bouquet in the other. He felt as though a great weight had been taken from his shoulders. When she’d handed him the papers, at first he took it to mean that she had resigned herself to death. But when he saw what she had written, he was elated.

He had ascended from his business concerns and reached his place at Rose’s side. He believed that the will she wrote was an affirmation of her desire to live. And Boiled’s words about affirming suffering had been a revelation. To love her was to love her suffering. He hadn’t realized it before. Now Will accepted the burden she had to carry through life. A feeling swelled up within him—they could shoulder her burden together. After so long, he had found the confidence he had been searching for.

When he entered her room, the lights were out, and he could see her sleeping in her bed. He rested the documents on the desk and wrote her a note. He put the note inside the bouquet and left it beside her nightstand.

Then he looked at Rose. Rose looked at him.

With yellow eyes.

The monster’s blue glowing hand flung off the blanket and grabbed Will by the neck.

Its face, with neither nose nor teeth, regarded the man with a unsettlingly serene expression. In its other hand, it held the Hutchison knife with its tip rounded like a butter knife.

“No! Not Will!”

Rose’s voice came from the bathroom. At the corner of his vision, Will could see her tied to the plumbing.

Will frantically reached for the pistol inside his jacket, but he found himself pushed against the wall by an impossible force. The gun tumbled from his hand.

As the lawyer cried out in pain, a large figure appeared at the window.

The windowpane shattered, and Boiled flew into the room head first. He grabbed onto the monster’s shoulders and tore it from Will.

The lawyer held onto his jaw as he slid down the wall. Then, he saw it.

The handgun was breathtakingly massive, its barrel wide enough for a small tank shell. Boiled held the gun in his right hand. He aimed for the center of the creature’s chest, about to pull the trigger. But the creature’s shoulder went soft, like jelly, and it slipped through Boiled’s fingers. The hand holding the Hutchison knife stretched out like rubber and twisted behind Boiled’s back.

The blade cut through air. Boiled’s gravitational field engaged, and in an instant he fell toward the ceiling. Boiled flipped in midair and landed on his knees. On his back, a clean line had been sliced through his clothes, leaving bare skin exposed.

Without hesitation, the creature grew tentacles and wrapped them around the exposed pipes running up the wall and along the ceiling. It climbed straight for Boiled. Will and Rose could only watch in stunned silence.

Dodging the blade again, Boiled leapt for the far wall. With its tongue, the creature fired its syringe gun right where he would land.

The needle flashed toward him, but Boiled shot it out of the air. He kick-turned off the wall and landed kitty-corner from the creature. The creature danced after him, leaping, curving in the air, elongating its body to descend to the floor, reaching its tentacles back up the pipes to crawl with relentless speed. Then it jumped to intercept the giant. But Boiled had anticipated it. He reached out his left hand.

Then it happened. The creature was flung to the wall and pinned there as if flattened under glass.

Boiled kept his hand pointed at the blue assassin as he walked, several feet off the floor, toward it.

“If you weighed five kilos more,” Boiled said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

Suddenly Boiled snapped his upper body back.

Something cut through the air where his throat had been. The creature’s tongue was wrapped around a shard of broken glass, and it whipped across the room.

A thin line of blood appeared along Boiled’s neck. He rubbed at it with the back of his gun hand.

A grin came to his face that was more terrifying than he probably knew himself.

“Has this been fun for you?”

A tiny click sounded. Boiled cocked his gun. The creature’s yellow eyes opened wide.

Boiled took aim, and the wall of artificial gravity pinning the monster to the wall vanished. The assassin didn’t try to run to the left or to the right—it leapt straight at Boiled.

Boiled focused his gravitational power into the barrel of his gun to absorb the coming shock. His thick finger gently squeezed the trigger. The shot thundered and flashed like an explosion, and the creature’s torso was obliterated.

Cracks ran down the wall where the bullet had struck, and the creature’s limbs, without its trunk to connect them, rolled along the floor. Will’s and Rose’s ears rang. If Boiled hadn’t focused his gravitational field around the gun, their eardrums may have split.

“That’s…a gun?”

The corners of Boiled’s mouth turned up into a grin. “It’s a .64 caliber. My one and only.”

Boiled sank to the floor and walked to the bathroom.

Rose’s mouth was red, and threads of the cloth she’d bitten through dangled from her neck.

“I gave that jellyfish what he wanted. Now, do you want me to give you what you want too?”

Rose looked at his gun, her blue eyes filled with icy contempt.

“What I want is different. I just want to sleep and have my body repaired, to be normal. I’m not looking to get rid of any trace of myself. This has nothing to do with balancing scales.”

Boiled nodded. Then, from his gun, came Oeufcoque’s voice.

“Boiled, is it over?”

“Just like I promised—in one shot.” His reply was devoid of interest.

The gun lost shape, and the golden-haired mouse appeared.

“Oh, hi, Rose. I’m glad you’re all right. This was all my fault. Please forgive me.”

Rose smiled gently. “How did you know he’d be in this room?”

“I was following his scent trail when I smelled that a plan was coming to fruition. I figured he was planning to kill Will. We wouldn’t expect him to bring you back to your own room, and it would be the perfect location to ambush Will.”

Boiled untied Rose’s restraints. Rose reached out her left hand, and Oeufcoque hopped down to it and turned into her glove.

Rose walked straight to Will and knelt down.

“Rose…” Will gently touched the redness around Rose’s mouth. That must have hurt.”

“Thanks to you, it wasn’t as bad as the pain from my fingers.”

She narrowed her eyes and looked into his. The two seemed to hold a conversation with their eyes. Then, she slowly leaned in and brought her lips to his.

Sounds of a crowd came from the hallway, but after the terrible roar of the gunfire, no one was brave enough to enter the room. Suddenly, a cell phone rang. Will and Rose separated and looked toward the source of the sound. Boiled put his back to them, as if turned by the force of their combined gaze, and withdrew the phone from his breast pocket.

Rose stood and touched her hand to the bouquet at her bedside.

“Such beautiful roses. Thank you, Will.”

She picked up the red bouquet and saw the message Will had written her.

To our future—

Will

Her smile remained, but something disappeared inside her eyes.

Will walked to her and gently placed his arm around her shoulder.

Boiled spun around and shouted, “Oeufcoque! Restrain her!”

Rose dropped to her knees, the bouquet still in her left hand. Will, nonplussed, crouched down at her side.

“Let him go, Rose!”

As Oeufcoque cried out, Rose’s hand flashed to Will’s neck. A slash of deep red danced through the air—a rose petal, sliced from the bouquet by the Hutchison knife. Centimeters from his neck, the glove on her left hand clamped over the blade of the knife in her right.

“Rose,” Will whimpered. The screech of metal scraping against metal—knife versus glove—rang through the room. Boiled scooped up Will’s pistol, took aim, and cocked the hammer back.

“Wait! Don’t shoot!” Oeufcoque cried as sparks flew.

Will’s eyes shifted over to Boiled, who held his gun steady at the girl. Completely dumbfounded, he returned his gaze to her.

“And this was the last chance to get you to sleep at my side.” Rose’s expression was colder than he’d ever seen it. She looked at Boiled. “So you figured it out?”

“I know who the shapeshifter was, and I know who hired her.”

Will gasped. Oeufcoque held steadfast against Rose’s blade.

“She went by the name ‘The Jellyfish.’ Her real name, Sher Sorbet. The wife of the former CEO. She was afflicted with the same syndrome as Rose. As she lost ever more of her body to amputations, her homicidal tendencies emerged.”

“Yes. She is the cause of my illness. She’s my future. My grandfather gave her everything she wanted until the end.”

Will remained frozen. With each spark, Oeufcoque’s fingers were gouged a little deeper.

“The Doc poured over the former CEO’s phone records and found the assassin’s contact information. She had been hired by the former CEO and Rose.”

“Why?” Will’s breathing was irregular, his face twisted in pain.

“It’s not like any of them are dead, Will…just put into their proper form. Everyone in my family was frozen over long ago. Before he died, my grandfather decided to keep everyone in the family together. I just acted on his wishes, and I told my crazy grandmother where she could find all of them.”

She smiled. “And I’m the last, Will. It ends with me.”

As she said the last word, the last of Oeufcoque’s fingers were cut through. The mouse’s cry of pain was drowned by the firing of the pistol. Cracks ran down the blade and it shattered into a cascade of sparks.

Rose’s hand, still holding the knife, raised up. She wasn’t aiming at Will anymore.

Will threw himself at Rose, and Oeufcoque grew back his fingers and tried to stop her. But Rose was faster than both of them, and in one smooth motion, like in a final wave goodbye, she slashed the broken blade across her throat.

Blood spurted from the wound, and Will was covered in it from his head to his chest. Oeufcoque quickly turned into a bandage and snaked himself around her neck. Will took her into his arms.

“Goodbye, Will. I’m going to the future now.” Her voice was barely a croak. As the world was painted red, she touched her hand to his cheek. “Take me to bed…so I can wake up right.”

Her arm went limp, and her eyes closed.

Boiled yelled for a doctor. A medical team came rushing in and a doctor stabbed a needle into the girl’s chest. Will was still holding her.

Oeufcoque unraveled himself and fell to the floor, his golden fur emerging from the lake of blood. Boiled scooped him up and held the trembling, sobbing mouse to his chest, petting his tiny blood-soaked back with one thick finger.

—What happened? What’s happening, Boiled?

“She made her decision, Doc. We weren’t able to stop her.”

The cell phone went silent, and Will moaned. When the doctors declared Rose dead, he yelled out a stream of curses.

Eventually, Will was quiet. Slowly, deliberately, he reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out her old glove, and slipped it onto her hand.

Will took the girl’s bloodstained body into his arms and stood.

He was going to take her to her minus two hundred bed.

* * *

“I looked into Rose’s family, and what I found was pretty awful. Almost all of them were addicted to one thing or another, and they caused each other nothing but pain.”

The Doctor was looking up at the massive concrete building—the high-tech Thermos bottle that was the Cryonics Foundation’s preservation facility. Boiled stood next to him, silent, and from his shoulder Oeufcoque observed the foundation’s logo.

“Familial love at two hundred below,” said Dr. Easter. “When they awaken, they may not know anyone else alive. Maybe they’ll be able to get along with each other then.”

“It’s all a fantasy. Just people burdened by their own mortality spreading death around to others. That’s all it was.”

The Doctor sighed deeply. “Why did you suspect her?”

“During the first attack, she called the assassin a jellyfish. But the killer didn’t take the shape of a jellyfish until after I’d shot her. So Rose already knew the assassin’s name. And…Rose wanted someone to put her to sleep,” Boiled said.

“I’m not sure if we should pray for science to be able to wake our sleeping princess. The obsessions brought about by science and human emotion are converging on a singularity. We will be all-powerful, contradictions eliminated, happiness complete and absolute. But if we manipulate our subjects without boundary, all existence will lose meaning.”

Huge tears welled up in Oeufcoque’s eyes. “That’s why we willfully contradict the world. No matter how many times we are defeated. We have to believe our work will prove our usefulness.”

“I wonder,” said the Doctor, “if Will will sleep next to Rose when he goes.”

“His will smells strong. But he’s still alive. If at some point he decides to be buried somewhere else, no one would blame him.”

“Oeufcoque, do you think she’ll really wake up one day?”

The mouse turned his pointy nose to the sky and closed his eyes. “I can’t smell her soul anymore. That’s all I can be sure of.”

After a time, Will left the building, having laid Rose to rest. He stopped to look back at the building once, then joined up with them. As the executor of her estate, he had a lot of work ahead of him. Neither he nor Oeufcoque knew if he felt like turning to look back at the building again.

THE END

Mardock: Two Hundred Below (c)  Tow Ubukata. English translation (c) Viz Media, 2011. First English-language publication.

March 22, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , ,

5 Comments

  1. That should read “iPad readers in the USA“. It’s not available to Australians, except for Australians who pirate. (Not playing Haikasoru, but still pissed)

    Can’t wait to read this one! It’s waiting for me in Instapaper🙂

    Comment by Peter Hollo | March 22, 2011

  2. (“iPad owners”…)

    Comment by Peter Hollo | March 22, 2011

  3. […] by Joe R. Lansdale@Subterranean Online: "The Crane Method" by Ian R MacLeod@The World SF Blog: "Mardock: Two Hundred Below" by Tow Ubukata, translated by Nathan CollinsNow posted: Four Star Stories #1, with fiction by Lou […]

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  4. […] Ühe (väga hea) SF-blogi lehel on üleval Tow Ubukata lühijutt, mis tuleb igal (jaapani) ulmehuvilisel äralugeda. Sest kõik teavad ju, et seda keelehõrgutist on nii raske kusagilt leida. Ja otakule meeldib kindlasti. Link on siin. […]

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  5. I did not like the ending to this story. Pulling out the Jellyfish ID out of thin air is not fair to the reader.

    Comment by Amy West | April 7, 2011


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