Emma and Noah stared at the seven vials of dodgy looking liquid lined up carefully on the coffee table. Each glass container had a number. That was all. Just a number. One through seven.
“That’s it?” Noah asked, picking up a vial and studying it.
“That’s what they said.” Emma nodded.
Noah wasn’t so sure. Genetic modding was nothing new. It started when his great, great grandparents were kids. Back then they just removed defects and disease. Made the world a better place with healthier people. In the decades after, they honed the science to a fine, sharp, affordable point, allowing parents to design their offspring. So now, everyone was healthy. Everyone was beautiful. Everyone was athletic. Everyone was smart. Everyone was perfect.
Which was hugely boring.
As with all things, when the pendulum swings one way, it always swings back. Hard. To achieve balance. So after perfection came fetish mods. Then cosplay. Mythology. Folklore. Perfection gave way to the astounding, the mesmerizing, the horrific. If you could imagine it and had the money, you could buy it on the black market. Which is how Noah ended up here, staring at seven vials. He was looking for something new. Something exciting.
“You sure it’s okay?” he looked at his friend’s perfect face.
Emma shrugged. “It’s from the same guys Jules used.”
Jules was a perfectly engineered quarterback who would soon be playing pro ball while he studied engineering at MIT. Like Noah, Jules wanted to try something new…but without giving up ball or MIT. Noah didn’t care. His parents wanted him to go into programming, but Noah wanted to be a musician and this mod would brand him in the genre.
Vanity modding, which Noah always thought was kind of a redundant tag, was started underground and only on the dark market. Now it was so widespread, the government gave up trying to penalize people and jacked up the taxes on products instead. That didn’t mean you couldn’t be destroyed on social media. Or lose your profession. Or alienate your family. Noah didn’t care about that either and, besides, Emma seemed super excited to take try. They agreed Noah go first and, if all went well, she would follow.
“Jules got it?”
“You didn’t hear?” Emma asked.
Noah shrugged. “I thought he couldn’t find it.”
“He found it.” Emma paused. She reached in her pocket and pulled out an ancient cell. “You can’t tell anyone you saw this. His friend made me promise. It’s a little… embarrassing.”
Noah suddenly felt a little less confident. His genes may be perfectly engineered, but he still had thin skin. Embarrassment was not something he handled… at all. “I don’t know,” he said, fidgeting. “If it sticks…”
“They said it would be just like you ordered,” Emma said. “They said you could turn it on and off. So, you turn it on when you’re playing or, you know, other times… and turn it off when you’re around your parents. Not a problem.”
That was what cost him the extra ten thousand and an extra three months. A genetic switch that let him deactivate the mod. Then there was the extra fifteen thousand for the pièce de résistance. The mod within the mod. The one that would put him on the charts.
He watched as Emma flipped through the files on the ancient cell. It was a simple way to keep things off the grid. She bit her lip like she usually did when she was nervous. He was so glad their parents matched them. Her perfectly symmetric face with crystal blue eyes, her porcelain skin and blonde hair that was naturally highlighted. She was beautiful. And smart. Super confident. Perfect. And they would have a life together. That was the plan. That was the plan for all the friends. You start as toddlers with play dates, become friends during the school years and eventually design a family together. It was the natural order of things.
“Here.” Emma handed the phone to Noah. “Jules’ first time.” Her voice was strained, scared.
Noah pressed the screen and watched. His eyes widened as the sounds of growls and barking filled the room. It was hard to see any details. The only illumination was the moon. Noah made out a small figure and a larger one.
“That’s…” he started.
“Shit.” Noah wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. “What’s he doing to it?”
“What does it look like?”
Noah watched as whimpering sounds replaced the barking. “Jeez.”
“At least there won’t be puppies.”
Noah had seen enough. He handed the phone back to Emma.
The two sat in silence for a long time.
“And he came back?” Noah finally asked.
Emma nodded. “It works just like they said. At least, that’s what Mary said. She said it was better the second time. They kept the dog inside.”
“You still want to do it?”
He swallowed. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
She bit her lip. “Yeah. We should try. I mean, it worked for Jules.”
Sort of. Noah didn’t think Jules ordered up a midnight liaison with the family pet. He looked at the friend he’d known all his life. His perfect friend who was perfectly designed for him. “You sure?”
She bit her lip as her eyes widened. “Hell, yeah. We wanted this for a long time. It’s going to make you a fucking sensation.”
Emma always supported Noah’s art. She was always right in front, pounding on the stage, cheering for him as he played. She was the one who told him he could make it big… especially if this mod came through. He had to do it. For her.
That night, Noah sat in his bed as Emma read the directions that came with the vials.
“They said to inject the full content of the vial intravenously.”
“The full vial?”
Emma nodded. “That’s what they said.”
Noah nodded. “And you’re sure your Mandarin is…”
“My Mandarin is excellent, stupid, and you know it.”
He did. He was just nervous. Noah tore open one of the sterilization packets that was taped to the instructions and got ready to wipe his wrist.
“Not there,” Emma said. “People will see.” She pointed to his feet.
“Who’s going to see? We’re off for the month. We don’t have to go out. Our parents are gone.”
They planned to try the mod during their families’ quarterly break. Both Emma’s and Noah’s parents were vacationing away for the month. So they had 30 days to test the mod and correct it if things came out… well, not as planned.
“You’ll have to eat,” Emma said.
They froze. Looked at each other and Emma giggled.
Noah sterilized his wrist as Emma loaded the vial into the jet. She handed it to Noah. His hands were still as he positioned the device over the vein. He was glad his parents engineered him for excellent hand-eye coordination. He paused.
“Do it,” Emma said.
He pushed the button and sent the contents of the vial into wrist. The injection site felt hot and tingly. The feeling spread to his wrist and up his arm, followed the veins through his body.
“You should lie down.” Emma said. “You look a little pale.”
She didn’t need to ask twice.
“They said you’ll sleep 12 to 16 hours,” Emma said.
For 24 hours later, he woke up.
The room was dark except for the soft blue light glowing from his headboard. His whole body ached. He felt sweaty like he’d just played two concerts back to back. His stomach felt very strange. Emma was sitting next to him.
“Do you feel any different? They said you should feel different.”
“Yeah, I feel bad. Really bad.” And no one ever felt bad. No one got the flu. Or colds. Or… anything. So right now, feeling the way he did, Noah was pretty sure he was going to die. “I think something’s wrong. My whole body hurts. My stomach. This can’t be right. Oh, shit, Emma. This isn’t good. Shit, shit, shit.”
Emma blinked and pulled up the pamphlet from her protected file. The pages of Mandarin appeared in her right eye. “They said you’ll have muscle pain and… nausea. She blinked again to pull up the definition. “Which is how your stomach is feeling. They said you’ll feel like this. It’s normal. So it’s all good.”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you hungry?” Her eyes were wide.
“Thirsty,” he said. His mouth felt like someone shoved cotton candy in it. He couldn’t swallow. “Jeeves, water.”
His parents named the house AI after a servant from a book they both liked. Noah thought it was a little stupid. Thirty seconds later an agile cart delivered a glass of cold water to him. Noah drank it in one long swallow.
“They said you should do the injections at the same time every day.” Emma loaded the jet injector and handed it to Noah. “They said you should start seeing changes. Do you see any changes?”
Noah shrugged. “Just that I feel like shit. Do I look different?”
Noah let out a long sigh. “I spent everything I had on this, Em, if doesn’t…”
“It’ll be okay. And it’ll work. You need to patient,” Emma said. “It’ll be fun. Break things up. I’ll even make a recording. Document the transition. To use on your next album.” She held up the old cell phone and smiled playfully.
Noah shook his head, reached for his friend and kissed her. She was so warm and smelled so good. “Don’t you dare,” he said, thinking of Jules recording.
“Shoot up, mister,” she said.
He did. After, Emma wanted to make out, but Noah didn’t feel like it. All he wanted to do was sleep.
On Day 3, Noah was pretty much convinced that the mod was a failure. Until he looked in the mirror after he showered. Emma could see it, too.
“You’re going to need new clothes,” she said, bouncing on the bed. “New clothes, new hair. Shit, it’s going to be amazing.”
“You think?” he smiled, his lips sticking to his canines. He popped them free with his tongue.
“Hell, yeah. You should play. See if it changes that.”
Noah nodded, picked up his guitar from the corner and closed his eyes. His fingers flew over the strings.
“Shit,” Emma said as she listened. “Shit, Noah.”
The night of Day 4, Emma made him play again. She danced and sang along. Noah watched her and felt a strange sensation. God, she smelled so wonderful.
“I talked to Mary,” Emma said gleefully as she handed him a glass of water.
“Yeah, Jules hook up with Patches again.”
Emma laughed, then looked at him seductively. “She took the mod.”
He spit out the water he was drinking and put the glass on the counter. “And?”
“She said it was wonderful. She… and Jules… you know.” Emma blushed. “It was scary at first, but then really, really… she said it was kind of spiritual. Like being on another plane of existence.”
Noah nodded. “I can see that.”
“So, you think I should… you know, take the mod? I could start it now.”
“We should wait,” Noah said as he breathed her in. “Wait and make sure it works. That’s what we talked about, right? I see if it works, then you follow.”
She threw herself into his arms and kissed him. “Ouch.” She pulled away. “Noah, that hurt.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not used to… you know.”
“Let me see.” She focused on his face as he smiled. “Shit, Noah.”
Day 5 didn’t go so well.
Emma ran out for his favorite spicy chicken.
“Smells different,” Noah said.
“It’s the same as it always is,” Emma smiled as she slurped up some noodles.
Noah popped a piece in his mouth and screamed. “Shit,” he said as he spit it out and downed a glass of ice water. “Shit. My mouth. Shit.”
“Here, let me look.” Emma looked in his gaping mouth. “Holy…”
“Your whole mouth is full of blisters.” She reached a finger in to touch his swollen tongue. On the way, it scraped against Noah’s right canine and suddenly blood ran down her hand.
Things didn’t end well.
Day 6 and Emma was in her car, door locked.
“They said it might be hard to… control until you get used to it. Jules was kind of out of control,” Emma texted. “But now he’s good. Mary said so.”
They agreed that, until Noah was in control, she needed to keep her distance. He could still smell her, still taste her.
“Or you just switch it off. You can do that. They said it was built in. You could switch and take a break.”
“We won’t have another break. Besides, I’m almost there.”
“It’s going to be amazing, Noah. Once you control it. It’ll be amazing. And it’ll be even better when we’re both modded. You know, another plane of existence.”
Emma sent a smiley emoji as she watched Noah from her locked car. His body bathed in moonlight as he sat on the porch and injected himself.
He tossed the jet injector aside, stretched and flexed his aching muscles as he walked back and forth. His head turned suddenly as he heard something in the woods. He didn’t even have to think about dropping to the ground. A moment later, he jumped to his feet and turned as he heard a sound from the car. Emma was scared. Again. She couldn’t help herself. She was only human. He picked up his guitar and played. His fingers flying without him even thinking about the music. He tried some of the new moves he had rehearsed in his sleep. His body dodged and dipped and jumped and twirled. When he finished, he smiled and waved at Emma.
She slowly waved back as she rubbed her shoulder and neck.
On Day 7, Noah felt in control, but Emma still stayed in the car. Doors locked.
The only thing he was having problems with was staying on the ground. He wanted to be up. Climb to the roof and just hang out.
“Are you ready ?” Emma texted Noah.
“More than ready.”
“Good. There’s a bottle on the counter,” she texted. “I left it there while you were sleeping.”
Noah went to the kitchen. He opened the bottle and smelled the salty, metallic liquid.
“They said you drink it. Drink it all and then both mods will be complete,” Emma texted.
“Just by drinking?”
“That’s what they said.”
Noah smiled and drank. It was the most glorious thing he had ever tasted. Rich and full of a heat the filled every inch of his body.
And then he felt nothing.
He remembered nothing.
Except that he was now standing on an open-air stage in a park he didn’t recognize. New clothes. A hooded cloak that covered him head to foot. He wondered if he had new hair. He probably did. Emma would make sure he did. Noah looked down expecting to see Emma where she always was. Right up against the stage. But she wasn’t there. A brief memory of her trying to talk him out of performing sailed through his mind and was gone. He needed to perform. He needed to try the new brand. Build his fan base. It would be amazing and Emma would start the mod and they would be amazing together.
There was something about Emma. His brain searched for it, but couldn’t find it. It didn’t matter. Not now. All that mattered was performing.
The grass was covered with people. People who wanted to hear Noah play. And Noah wanted them. Wanted them all. As the crowd screamed, he dropped his cloak and there was silence. He stood under the lights. His skin translucent, dark, dead veins winded beneath his skin. He smiled, revealing his fangs as the long nails on his thin, pale fingers flew over the strings.
The crowd went crazy.
He could smell them. Taste them.
He jumped to the scaffolding on the side of the stage and scrambled to the top. The crowd was going crazy.
This was it.
The second mod.
The one that would make him a star.
They said after he drank the liquid, both mods would be active. He remembered Emma telling him that.
This was it.
He looked out into the crowd as he hung from the top of the scaffolding and his mouth watered.
The second mod. They said both mods would be complete.
Shit, shit, shit.
The crowd screamed as Noah’s body hit the ground and bones cracked. Slowly he turned his head and saw his hands change. The skin on his arm darkened and stretched into a thin film as his fingers lengthened and his thumb transformed into a bony hook.
He heard screams and people running.
He looked at his body which was now small and furry with short legs joined to his arms by the more dark skin. He tried to sit up, but his body was broken and wouldn’t respond. He sent out a sound wave from his mouth and waited for them to hit something.
Nothing. Except people running away.
As he turned his small brown head toward east, Noah saw the sky turn orange and red. The sun was coming up.
This week’s prompt is from Tim Trinka. “They said vampires become bats. They never said how long it took.”