One of the best things about publishing new stories is seeing writers take old ideas and remake them afresh. A few months ago, we had Sandra McDonald remixing the post-apocalypse trope, and now Eric Gregory updates the urban vampire for a nanotech-infested near future in the favelas of the Global South.
“Miguel and the Viatura” mashes up religion, poverty, exploitative corporations and transcendant technology, but remains at its heart a powerful story of character, of a younger brother led astray. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have.
Miguel and the Viatura
by Eric Gregory
“We’re close,” said Joaõ. “Keep your eyes open.”
It was hard enough to watch the road. Foot traffic was heavy, and police in hardsuits patrolled the walks, faceless behind their faceplates. The air was usually fine in Pinheiros District, but Joaõ had insisted they both wear masks, and Miguel’s eyepieces fogged constantly. “Are we late?” he asked. The only thing worse than crossing the city to see his father would be doing it for no reason at all. If they missed him, Miguel would punch something.
“We’re on schedule,” said the older boy. “Take the next right.” The bulk of the crowd moved south, toward the center of the city, and they had to dart between autos and rickshaws to reach the street they wanted. At the intersection, a chicken man waved and called to them—some desperate sales pitch in English. Miguel couldn’t make out the man’s words, but Joaõ turned immediately and hurried to his cart.
The chicken man was a pale Yankee in a blood-stained jacket, stubbled and not much taller than his monstro chickens. There were six of the birds, all leashed to the cart; they trotted in tight circles and purred eerily. Miguel could guess how long they’d walked the same wheels by the rings of shit at their feet. The Yankee gripped Joaõ’s shoulder, pulled him close, breathed a word into his ear. After a short, shocked pause, Joaõ spat a curse and raced into the street.
“Come on!” he shouted. “Papa’s early!”
Miguel looked back at the crowd. If the police saw–
He ran. It didn’t take long to catch up: Joaõ was built for brawls, not sprints. Block by block they moved toward the river, zigzagged around carts and bikes and stunned faces. Already he could smell the water, even through his mask; gulls cried out over the churn of motors. They darted down a steep flight of stairs, under a rusted pedestrian bridge, and all at once they were free of autos and towers. The river lay before them, a congested artery of taxis and houseboats and floating markets. Miguel slowed to a jog, smiled in spite of himself. Dusklight shone in the slivers between barges.
“Miguel!” Joaõ yelled. “Run!”
They ran. On the river, gangs of excitadors tethered their bikes together, erected tents. Antique pistols gleamed crimson on their belts. These were Joaõ’s people, the artisans and boatfolk and bankside anarchists. They were as dangerous as anyone else, as likely as any human being to gut a perfect stranger, but the river was loyal to its own. Miguel told himself that he was safe. That he could relax.
And then he saw the cop.
She leaned against the riverbank rail, faceplate open, cigarette on her lips. Her slumped posture sang a long song of exhaustion. She was old enough to seem old to Miguel–old enough, anyway, to go prematurely grey–but not quite middle-aged. She turned, too slow, frowned around her cigarette. Joaõ closed the short distance between them, drew a bulky black taser from his jacket, and struck the cop in the face.
She crumpled. He barely broke stride.
“Are you crazy?” Miguel demanded, but his brother ignored him. The cop slumped against the rail; her arms dangled limply over the edge. The cigarette fell into the wind, fluttered out across crowded water.
Please don’t be dead, Miguel begged. He skidded to a stop, wrapped his arm around the cop’s waist, and struggled to lower her to the ground. The hardsuit was too heavy for him, and he managed to hold her only for a moment; the armor clattered against the concrete when she slipped from his arms.
Already a wicked bruise flowered around the cop’s right eye. Miguel searched for a pulse on her wrist but couldn’t find one. Why hadn’t anyone ever taught him these things? Hidden pulses and breaths of revival. “God,” he said. “Please don’t be dead.” He pressed his fingers against her neck, and now he felt the thrum of blood.
Her unbruised eye opened. She blinked.
Miguel stammered an apology and raced after his brother.
His ankles ached. He panted in his mask. Another minute and he would stop, turn around, even if it meant he’d have to walk back through empty streets to the Boys’ Campus. What did their father care? Miguel was already witness to the assault of a cop. He was lucky he wasn’t in jail, or worse. Another minute and he would stop, stand still, watch his brother fade into the dark.
“There!” hissed Joaõ.
And Miguel saw his father.
The old man walked away from them at a clipped pace. His motions were a bit stiff, perhaps, but he wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. Joseph Simão was an upscale viatura, virtually indistinguishable from any living body. Few would ever guess that he was long-dead and bought, unless, of course, they’d known him when he was alive.
Miguel still wasn’t certain how Joaõ managed to find the old man. He’d done it countless times now, on birthdays and holidays, even in the years before he quit school and left the Boys’ Campus. He must have had some contact of a contact among the excitadors, Miguel guessed, some crooked (or earnest) young recruit at Buraq. Another Boner, maybe. Miguel knew so little about his brother’s life: it spun in a wild, elliptical orbit which now and then intersected with Miguel, tugged him onto brief, strange paths.
In the past, they’d only watched the dead man from a distance, from the shadows behind dumpsters and broken windows. But this time, Joaõ jogged ahead and matched pace with their father. The move was so unexpected, so inconceivable that Miguel followed without thinking. The old man was pale and well-dressed–his skinweave was sleek, silken–and stared straight ahead as he walked. His eyes were hidden behind tinted glasses. He glanced at Joaõ and grimaced.
“Sorry,” he said, in a voice Miguel had never heard alive. “No cash.”
Miguel’s knees began to shake, and he wondered vaguely if he was going to puke. Did Joaõ feel that same weakness, that same nausea? Joaõ drew his taser, pressed it against the base of the dead man’s skull, and pulled the trigger. There was no percussion, no arc of bright lightning; Joseph simply stiffened, took a hesitant step, and then stumbled face-first into the street.
“Miguel,” said Joaõ. “Give me your mask.”
“What did you–”
“Give me your mask.”
With shaky fingers, Miguel removed the mask and handed it to Joaõ, who stretched its rubber neck and pulled it over their father’s head with the eyes facing backward. “If there’s anything you want to say to him,” said Joaõ, “you should do it now.” He stared down at the body, not looking at Miguel, his expression guarded by the mask. Miguel didn’t know whether to run for his life or cry or wrestle the taser from his brother’s hands. In that life-or-death indecision there was a kind of desperate calm.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Why?”
Joaõ was silent.
“What do you mean?” Miguel insisted.
“I mean Papa has always made sacrifices for us. For you. You should thank him. You should tell him you love him.” The sun was down now and only thin streaks of purple remained in the sky. Miguel took his father’s hand. It was callused and closed reflexively around his own: cold comfort from the dead. He’d never thought of Joseph’s job as a sacrifice before, but he supposed it was true. Their father had rendered up his own corpse for his sons. There was no peace in this work, endless and thankless; he’d rendered up his own death to those who refused to die, and all for his sons.
All for Miguel.
“I love you,” he said. “Thank you.”
Joaõ nodded, touched Miguel’s hand.
“Good. Now help me move him.”
The trawler met them in the vast, tattooed shadowland beneath Anchieta Bridge. Echoes of overpass drowned out Miguel’s questions, so he clutched his father’s ankles and stumbled in Joaõ’s wake. Pebbles and shredded beer cans crunched underfoot. The graffiti on the bridge’s underside marked the space as Boner territory, and indeed, the trawler that approached flew a fanged skull and crucifix. Shadow figures waved and called coded questions to Joaõ, which he answered–apparently–correctly. The trawler docked, and Saints beckoned the brothers aboard.
The deck was lit with dark red lanterns, whose peculiar light caused the Boners’ tattoos to gently glow. Ribcages, spines, fingers like claws, all painted on skin over the true bones that lay underneath. Men and women both, young and old (but mostly young)–they were all Saints of Death, or those who would be Saints. The trawler was cramped; glowing skeletons gathered around the brothers and gently, reverently drew Joseph from their arms. They lowered the dead man into a cradle of machines in the center of the boat.
“Your brother,” said a Saint to Joaõ. It wasn’t quite a question. She looked displeased. She was a real Saint, with fangs, not just a Boner. You weren’t supposed to use “Boner” and “Saint” interchangably–there were rites of passage, stations of the Cross and Skull–but everyone did it, even some of the Saints. The woman’s fangs gleamed. Joaõ removed his mask and returned her hard glare; he didn’t have fangs, but he still looked dangerous.
“I want him to see this,” he said. He hadn’t shaved in many days; his jaw and head were both stubbled. Tattooed vertabrae glowed on his neck. The Boner and the Saint stared at one another for a long moment, and then the boatwoman grunted her assent. Once she turned away, Miguel leaned into Joaõ’s ear.
“Are we bringing him back?” he asked. The idea had struck him as they carried their father under the bridge: what if Joaõ meant to bring Joseph back to life? The body still walked and spoke and apologized to beggars; if they could put someone else in the viatura, why couldn’t they put Joseph back? Joaõ frowned down at Miguel, shook his head.
“No,” he said. “We can’t do that.”
“We just can’t.”
The Saints glanced anxiously toward the river as they removed the mask, inserted tubes into Joseph’s mouth, fixed metal rods to his limbs. The trawler was so small that Joaõ and Miguel and the half-dozen Boners all stood in an intimate huddle, knees pressed into backs and short, nervous breaths intermingled. It seemed to Miguel that the craft was meant only to carry this strange cradle for the dead, that only his father truly belonged here. He watched Joaõ watch Joseph, wondered over the brotherly resemblance between them. Miguel didn’t look like a brother to Joaõ, a son to the viatura. He was thinner, darker, his nose and chin sharper. He looked like their mother, Nilcéia, whom he had also never met, though he often heard her voice in recordings. She had lectured for the Free Universities, and those lessons were still out there, hanging in the air, waiting for anyone with a wi-mo to pluck them down. Miguel listened to her declensions and bonus words of the week when he was lonely.
“Are you ready?” asked a Saint. The woman who hadn’t wanted Miguel to board. She fiddled with the tube in Joseph’s mouth, then stood and touched Joaõ’s shoulder. She looked warmer now, sadder. “We’re ready when you’re ready.”
Joaõ turned to Miguel. “After this, no one will ever ride in Papa again.”
Miguel didn’t know what to say. “Really?”
“Oh,” said Miguel.
Joaõ smiled sadly. Then, to the Saint: “We’re ready now.”
The fanged woman said a short prayer, asking God to forgive the deathless of the city. To admit into his presence those souls who had long ago lost their bodies. Then she flipped a switch on the cradle and the boat filled with buzzing. Joseph jerked as if in terrible pain, his teeth clicking around the tube, his arms straining against the rods that held him down. Now there were arcs of lightning, blue snakes of energy that coiled around the rods and snapped at Joseph’s lips, ears, fingertips. He coughed or puked or spat, or seemed to spit, and the tube in the dead man’s mouth slowly filled with gray liquid. Joaõ gripped Miguel’s shoulders, as if he feared the younger boy might hurl himself overboard, but Miguel couldn’t tear his eyes away, much less his feet.
When it was over, a thin wisp of smoke rose from Joseph’s mouth. Miguel touched his own cheek and found that he was crying. Joaõ unhooked the canister at the other end of the tube, now half-full with the gray liquid that had come from Joseph’s mouth. The nanites that had colonized his nerves, his spine, his brain. Joaõ frowned at the tiny machines, these smart cells that could seize a dead man’s mind. “No one will ever ride in Papa again,” he said.
But he sounded uncertain.
They cremated Joseph in his cradle, then flushed his ashes into the river.
As he rode the metro back to his dorm, Miguel couldn’t look away. He saw the spasms. He saw the smoke, the swirling ashes, the black space where Joseph had been. His father had always been dead, but now he was gone. There was no word for that kind of loss, and he made his way home in a baffled daze. What do I feel now? he thought.
How am I supposed to feel?
Drunken laughter rolled around him, issued in waves from the Campus Quarter’s bars. The walk was crowded with faces: all the wealthy monstro, all a touch too beautiful, all laughing at the same private joke. How many of them would have to watch their parents burn? How many would ever hear another man’s words in their father’s mouth? The crowd thinned as he neared the Boys’ Campus, but it might as well have followed him; he still felt taut and towered-over, and a kind of cold resentment still uncoiled in his chest. He brushed his fingers across the dormitory’s keypad, waited for the welcoming whoosh of the doors―
“Funds error,” said a too-friendly voice.
Miguel scowled. He pressed his fingertips against the pad again, but that inhumanly polite voice merely apologized. “Funds error,” it said. Miguel demanded that the door explain itself, and it told him to see his funds executor for more information.
“It’s late,” said Miguel. “I don’t know who that is.”
He stared at the door in mute rage, then punched the keypad as hard as he could, leaving two streaks of blood on the interface. “Fuck!” he shouted. “Fuck!” His knuckles throbbed. The door apologized. He doubled over, tears in his eyes and blood on his fist; he cursed Joaõ, Joseph, the door, Buraq, everything. He wanted to sleep. He just wanted to sleep, to not think, and the night conspired against him. He took a deep breath, stood up, opened his eyes. Two dozen cops in hardsuits surrounded him, rifles raised.
“What–” he started.
He saw the nightstick, and then nothing.
Miguel woke with his face on a desk, the smell of lacquered wood in his nostrils. The smell was familiar from a year of post-lunch Earth Science lessons. Cuffs bit into his wrists and ankles. He raised his head from the desk, took woozy stock of his surroundings. He was in a very fine office, all leather chairs and thin, artful bookcases. The door was behind him, guarded by two cops. Across the desk sat a pale, tired-eyed man in an expensive green weave.
“Hello, Miguel,” said the stranger. “How do you feel?” His accent was difficult to place–at first it sounded European, but there was a subtle Yankee twang underneath. Miguel wondered whether he should answer honestly. A too-eager voice in the back of his head insisted that this man was probably his funds executor, here to set some terrible mistake right. Didn’t he look like a funds executor?
Miguel decided, cautiously, on honesty.
“A little dizzy,” he said.
The man nodded his sympathy.
“Of course. Do you know why you’re here?”
Miguel shook his head.
“I see,” said the pale man. He raised a fist to his mouth, cleared his throat. Then: “My name is Edward Moyer. I represent the interests of Buraq Company in São Paulo. You’re here because a client has gone missing in one of our viaturas, the body formerly known as Joseph Simão. I need to know what you’ve done and why.”
A screw tightened in Miguel’s chest. He forced himself to look the pale man in the eyes, but he didn’t bother to mask his fear. Anyone would be afraid in this situation. Even the innocent. And he was innocent, wasn’t he? He opened his mouth to protest, but Moyer pressed on.
“If you can explain what has happened to your father’s body, if you can give us some evidence that you are a mere vandal or opportunist, we may be able to save you a great deal of suffering. We have quite a bit of influence with local law enforcement. But if you are uncooperative…” He let the threat dangle for a moment, then smiled. Feigned embarrassment. “Well, I get ahead of myself. Will you help me?”
Miguel stared at Moyer’s smile. Perfect white teeth, all in a row. “There’s been some kind of mistake,” he said. He was very deliberate, very precise with each word. “I didn’t kill anyone, I swear. I’m just a student.”
“You were a student. And this is what puzzles me most. Joseph Simão’s service paid for your tuition and board; you must have known that Buraq Company would not continue to pay if the viatura was destroyed. Which suggests to me that your act was driven either by irrational ideology or very shortsighted greed. Or perhaps―yes, perhaps it was an accident? Tell me, are you clumsy, stupid, or inspired?”
The words echoed in his ears, mixed with something Joaõ had said. I mean Papa has always made sacrifices for us. For you. He’d known, but he hadn’t understood; the sacrifice was constant, endless, a daily payment. And now Papa couldn’t make it anymore. Moyer leaned forward, his hands clasped. He looked excited.
“You didn’t know. It’s right there in your eyes. My Lord.”
“I didn’t do it,” Miguel said weakly.
“Was it money? Did you want to sell the nanites?”
“Maybe you wanted to use them. Are you a Boner, Miguel?”
He started. “What?”
“Were you trying to earn your fangs?”
“I don’t understand,” Miguel said, his throat suddenly tight.
Moyer shrugged. “That’s the thing about nanites. So many applications. Make a dead man walk. Monitor your heart rate, eat up a tumor, or build a set of fangs so you can suck your mates’ blood. Hell, put a thimbleful of these tiny, tiny machines in a man’s brain and you can light up his pain centers like a Christmas tree. It’s a question of imagination, isn’t it? Tell me, would you rather have a thousand credits or half a gram of nanites?”
“I―I don’t know.”
Moyer reached forward, grasped Miguel’s hands.
“I think you want the machines,” he said.
Pain centers. The thing about nanites is that you don’t always see them. Sometimes, a person will touch you and pass them on. Like a virus, agony. Every part of Miguel was pain. Even when the pain stopped, it didn’t stop. It faded slowly, a fire burning down. The black space where Joseph had been. Miguel’s vision returned in bursts of white. Every muscle in his body was stretched taut. Moyer still held his hands.
“Why did you kill our client?” he asked.
Miguel wanted to speak, but he couldn’t. Even if his tongue had worked, it wouldn’t have mattered: Moyer didn’t give him time to respond. The agony came again, not quite as intense this time, a lesser crippling. Miguel’s shins banged against the desk; the cuffs on his ankles drew blood. But he could still see. He could see Moyer’s grimace, the patient grimace of a disappointed teacher. Miguel tried to raise his head. He was soaked in sweat, shaking.
“Please answer the question,” said Moyer.
Miguel opened his mouth, but his throat hoarded the words. He made nonsense sounds, desperate, guttural syllables. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t stop him burning. All answers to the wrong question, and the question at hand was answerless. Sweat stung the wounds on his shins. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, scraped the only words he could summon from his tongue.
“I can’t,” he said.
The pale man sighed. Released his hands.
“No,” said Moyer. “I suppose not.” He leaned back in his chair. Propped his chin on his palm, fixed his eyes on the grain of the desk. As if he hoped but hardly expected to find some pattern there. When he spoke again, it was in a low, confessional murmur.
“I spent most of my childhood in a prison town. Hot. Crowded. Not so nice as your Campus. Everyone in my family was a warden, even the children, and everyone, of course, was a prisoner. You forget the distinction in a place like that, or else you’re born with distinctions already blurred. When all one can offer the world is his willingness to punish another man…” Moyer frowned at his fingers. “Well. One becomes trapped in certain roles, yes? Certain patterns of behavior. One longs not to deal out pain, but one is helpless. Do you understand, Miguel?”
Miguel didn’t blink. He didn’t even try to speak. It was all he could manage to parse the other man’s words, to work out their shapes and meanings through the fog of pain. Moyer watched him, intent and intense, then frowned and leaned forward and took his hands again. “I have to wonder,” he said, “if you even believe in salvation. No, the more I think about it, the more I’m certain. Boners believe they will save themselves, or that their friends and Christ will save them. But you, you’re resigned. You’ve no expectation of salvation, for yourself or anyone else. That’s a very selfish sort of nihilism, Miguel.”
The pain intensified. The world blurred and shrunk, so that it seemed he gazed at his interrogator through the wrong end of a telescope. Selfish? he thought. Selfish? How the hell was he selfish? He was alone, and burning.
He had no expectations at all.
“Why do you let people do it?”
“Drink your blood.”
They were sharing a pipe in Joaõ’s apartment, a tiny candlelit attic that smelled constantly of fish and incense. The Saints rented it―probably illegally―from an elderly Japanese man with a metal arm, and Joaõ lived there with half a dozen other Boners. It was Miguel’s birthday, at least according to his brother, and they had the place to themselves.
“It’s kind of complicated,” said Joaõ.
The pipe left Miguel feeling giddy, bold.
“Explain it to me,” he said.
Joaõ stared at a statue on his altar, thoughtful. He smiled slightly, obviously pleased by Miguel’s curiosity. The statue was a fanged and skeletal Maria, cradling her Christ child, encircled by flowers. “Well, he said, “you’ve heard of DFS.”
Miguel shook his head.
“Devotional fantasy scenarios?”
“But you’ve seen the Templários? The zombies?”
“There are lots of scenarios, but ‘Saints of Death’ is the best. The most popular. It’s…” He drew from the pipe, considered. “It’s a way for people to come together and praise God in a, a kind of collaborative reality that runs over top of the everyday world.”
“So it’s a game?”
“No!” His eyes flashed. “It’s—it’s people making a world together and sharing that world and using it to honor God. We’re trying to live out Christ’s values. In a way that combines all the sacraments and virtues into one streamlined…one story, one world. When Saints bite me, I’m passing forgiveness into their mouths. My blood becomes Christ’s blood. Someday I’ll be a Saint, and I’ll be able to take Communion too. It’s about giving. You’re supposed to discipline yourself, to become the best person you can be.”
“And you get fangs when you’re the best?”
“Yeah. You get fangs.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what?”
“What do vampires have to do with Jesus?”
Joaõ frowned. His entire face seemed to frown, to sag.
“We’re all vampires, Miguel.”
“To God, we’re all vampires. We want to suck out His blood and live forever.”
Miguel put down the pipe. Did Joaõ actually believe this crap?
“I don’t,” he said.
“Yeah, you do. Everyone does.” Joaõ’s eyes sank in their sockets. His hair grew longer, lighter, and tired pouches darkened below his eyes. “Saints of Death just admit it,” he said, his voice deeper now, his accent strange and unfamiliar. European, but with a certain Yankee twang. Miguel glanced briefly at the pipe, and when he looked back, his brother was himself again. He took a deep breath.
“Really,” he said, “I don’t want―”
“No, listen.” Joaõ was deathly serious. He leaned forward, took Miguel’s hand. “We’re all evil bloodsuckers. Every single one of us.” Now that he leaned forward into the light, Miguel saw that his brother’s eyes weren’t back to normal after all―they were still exhausted and green. “We’re awful people, but some of us are trying to be good.”
Miguel tried to pull his hand away. His wrists hurt, all of a sudden.
“You’re already good,” he said.
The man who wasn’t quite Joaõ shook his head.
“Believe me, I’m not.”
“We have your voiceprint,” Moyer said later. “Caught by a helmet camera at the scene of an assault.” Miguel saw a massive gasmask on the wall, bending toward him, the eyes full of panic behind their wide, eerie lenses. “Please don’t be dead,” said the gasmask. “Please don’t be dead.” After a moment, the face turned away, and the wall was full of sky. Purple evening clouds. Miguel wanted to say that it was okay, he was alive.
They offered him answers. They offered to tell him where his mother had been deployed. What happened to her. He would have said yes, he would have told them whatever they wanted, but he couldn’t speak. His fingers rattled, and something in his chest twisted to its breaking point. The actual pain, the throb in his head, took on the dullness of the inevitable; he began to feel as if it had always been there. Now he focused on the gouges in his wrists and ankles, the searing tightness along his spine.
White light. Some minutes were better than others. Sometimes there were other faces, silent, peering in through his eyes–these well-dressed onlookers scared him more than Moyer, who was at least predictable. What if they wanted to make him a viatura, a replacement for his father? What if they wanted to ride in his brainpan? The nanites were already there, lighting up his pain centers. Moyer held his hands through all of it, patient and calm, asking for the truth. Help me understand, he said. Tell me everything.
Miguel tried to tell. He didn’t want to go to a prison town, didn’t want to be a carriage for the deathless until Joaõ came to burn him, but he couldn’t push the words past his teeth. The corners of his eyes stung. Moyer said it was all right, don’t worry, it’s all right. We’re going to figure this out, he said.
We want to save you.
He woke in an alley.
His pockets were empty, and his clothes were damp with sweat or piss or rain, he couldn’t tell. Sunlight filtered through the fire escapes above to decorate his chest with a bright barcode. Even that thin light was painful: his eyes felt like hard, sharp stones in their sockets. His wrists and ankles itched fiercely, and when he scratched below his right hand, his fingernails caught on the crust of dry wellgel.
He knew he hadn’t woken from a dream, but briefly wondered whether he might have passed into one. The street sounds, the sweet-and-sour fungal stench of trash–it was all so much richer than the last reality he remembered. Before it had been only words and agony, white light and Moyer. We want to save you, he’d said, the last words Miguel remembered. So was he saved now? Was this salvation? He sat up, gripped the rail of the fire escape. Pulled himself to his feet and fished in his pockets for chits, wi-mo, metro card, anything. Hunger twisted in his stomach. He longed for the Campus cafeteria, and the thought of food in free, easy rows was almost enough to drive him back home. Maybe, he thought, maybe everything is fine now. He didn’t believe it for a moment, and he couldn’t bring himself to risk another funds error, another nightstick.
So what was left to him? Where to go? He stepped out of the mouth of the alley. The smell of the river was thick in the air. Seabirds and craft-hawkers called out over the polyphony of horns on the water. Miguel wasn’t familiar with this stretch of bankside bazaar; after a moment of disorientation, he realized that he was on the opposite side of the river from the Campus, from everything that passed as home. He reached for his wi-mo, meaning to call up a map, but his pocket was still empty. He took a steadying breath and shouldered his way through the bazaar crowd, toward the docks.
He only reached the outermost ring of carts before he grew too lightheaded to walk. He gripped the edge of a box full of fruit and willed himself not to faint. If he passed out now, that would mean he had lost. It would mean he was damaged. He heard voices, felt something cool and smooth on his palm, but didn’t realize that it was a tangelo until he tasted it on his tongue. The juice was so cold, so sweet. He took another bite, and another, chewed even the hard rind until he could swallow it. His vision slowly returned, and the voices around him grew clearer. The fruitseller―a thin, wrinkled old man in an ancient leather jacket―wore an expression of mixed amusement and concern.
“Take it,” he said. “You need it more than I do.”
Miguel nodded, in agreement or thanks, and made his unsteady way toward the river. His only friends were at the Boys’ Campus, a world away. Even if he somehow broke into the dormitory and found an empty bed―what then? He couldn’t squat forever, and the Campus Quarter was heavy with cops. He’d still need food, a wi-mo, a plan. Every plan he’d ever made was moot now. The thought left him giddy and terrified.
He needed to find Joaõ.
Miguel had no money to offer, so his only hope was to trade on the meager currency of his brother’s name. The first four excitadors he found either ignored him or claimed they’d never heard of Joaõ Simão. The fifth said he’d rather shoot out his own kneecaps than work for the brother of a Boner. The sixth and seventh brushed him off on sight, but the eighth–a mouse-faced teenager with a six-shooter on her belt and feathered serpents tattooed around her fingers–laughed and said, “Fine, but the bastard will pay.”
Her name was Picayune. Miguel had ridden with an excitador a handful of times before, usually on some mad expedition of his brother’s, but none of those rides had quite prepared him for Picayune. Her waterbike was tied together with bright pink cords, and felt like it might fall apart underneath them at any moment. She navigated the labyrinthine alleys and byways of the river city with fearless abandon, once passing only half a meter beneath the ropes that bound two houseboats together. Within the first minute of the ride, he was soaked from the waist down. By the time they reached their destination, he felt more nauseous than he had upon waking.
The barge looked battered and abandoned. At least half a century old, its yellow paint so chipped that it seemed, in places, to have grown feathers or scales. The few legible words on the hull were unfamilar: English, maybe, or French. The deck was quiet. Large red signs warned trespassers that this was private property. Picayune roped her bike to the barge and helped Miguel onto the entry ladder. Somewhere on the boat, someone cocked a rifle.
“You been to another sanctuary?” the excitador asked.
“Have you visited Joaõ before?”
“There was a place over a sushi bar. Near the Bandeirantes―”
“Good. That’ll help.”
A bare-chested Saint emerged from the cabin, rifle raised. Uncowed, Picayune offered a passcode and―after a brief, muttered negotiation―led Miguel down a red-lit stairwell into a large, dark room full of cushions and stained glass. Incense drifted from an altar surrounded by ornate bells. The sanctuary seemed to be the only room on the boat apart from the cabin, and it was barely occupied: a handful of Boners lounged against the wall, and Joaõ crouched on the floor, sucking the neck of a familiar woman. As he came closer, Miguel recognized her as the Saint from the trawler.
“Joaõ?” he said.
His brother spun around, red-mouthed and nervous, then relaxed when he saw who had spoken. Two curved, new fangs shone in his mouth. “Mig,” he said, dripping blood on the floor. “Miguel, fuck. You’re not supposed to see this.”
“What are you doing?”
Moyer’s voice echoed in his skull: Are you a Boner?
Were you trying to earn your fangs?
Joaõ waved the question away. “Communion. Just Communion.” He glanced down at the other Saint, who scowled and climbed to her feet. Then his eyes settled on the green-blue space around Miguel’s eye. “God, what happened?”
Miguel wanted to ask the same thing.
“The cops,” he said.
The wallflower Boners murmured their sympathy. Joaõ stood.
“The cops―they beat you?”
“Not the cops. People from Buraq. Or, I don’t know, both.”
Joaõ examined Miguel’s face. Blood still trickled from his mouth. “They beat you,” he repeated, not a question this time. “Did they do anything else?” A sudden reluctance seized Miguel, and he wanted badly to change the subject, to never tell anyone about words and pain and Moyer. But he answered truthfully. In short, halting steps he told Joaõ everything (They hurt me, they asked about Papa), and with every syllable a sick-making dread expanded in Miguel’s chest. He looked back and forth from the excitador to Joaõ to the Boner on the ground, seeking safety but not knowing from whom he needed to be saved.
“They put nanites,” said Joaõ. “Inside of you.”
“They put nanites in your head, and you came here.”
Miguel blinked. Oh, he thought. Miguel, viatura. The woman from the trawler cursed and then shouldered her way past the brothers, ran up the stairs calling for all Saints to grab their guns and abandon ship. After a moment, the wallflowers followed, their footsteps an angry, arhythmic drumbeat. Only Picayune remained.
“I’m sorry,” Miguel whispered.
He must have spoken. He must have said Joaõ’s name. And Moyer would have known that he had no one outside the Boys’ Campus, that he would go to his brother for protection. Why else would they let him go free? It was obvious, so obvious.
Were the cops here already? Maybe―Miguel felt nauseous―maybe they weren’t coming at all. Maybe they’d put a bomb in his stomach. Maybe Moyer watched from the space behind his eyes, listened breathlessly from across the city, waiting for the right moment to end Miguel’s world. Upstairs, Saints cocked rifles.
Joaõ knelt, gripped his shoulders, held his gaze. His eyes were red. Miguel tried not to see his new teeth, tried not to imagine how it would feel to be bitten. “If you’re in there,” Joaõ said, “goddamn you.” Then he stood and made for the stairs.
“Wait,” said Miguel. “You’re leaving me?”
Joaõ was silent.
“Can’t you take out the nanites?”
Again, no answer. Each silence colder and more tired than the last. He was leaving. He was really going to leave. Miguel seized the sleeve of his brother’s jacket. “Joaõ,” he said, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please don’t―”
The Saint hit him with the back of his hand.
The blow wasn’t particularly strong, but it was enough of a shock that Miguel fell to the floor anyway. Light played through the skeletons in the stained glass windows, painting him in rainbow colors. A drop of blood fell from his nose to the floor. He didn’t mean to ask the question, didn’t mean to say anything at all, but as he struggled to his feet, the words came unbidden. “You never cared about Papa, did you? You just wanted fangs.”
Joaõ clenched his fist. “I cared,” he said.
“So this is you trying to be good?”
Picayune looked from one boy to the other, grinning. Joaõ was silent. Miguel shook with the giddiness of honesty, this awful freedom to say whatever he wanted. “This is you trying?” he said again, louder this time, his cheeks flush. “You burn Papa, ruin my life, leave me to starve? This is you trying? You were a better brother when you were gone.”
Joaõ started forward and then caught himself, squeezed his eyes shut. Shook his head, as if shaking off a hangover. He drew a credit chit from his pocket and threw it at Miguel’s feet. “Take him to an extractor,” he said to Picayune. “If that’s what he wants. Make sure he doesn’t try to follow us.”
Picayune eyed the chit. “Do my best, santo.”
“Yeah.” He glanced toward Miguel. Over him, past him. “I did try,” he said.
“I’ll find you,” Joaõ said. “Once I know you’re clean.”
“Stay down there until we leave,” said the Saint, backing toward the stairs, then turning and climbing two steps at a time. Over his shoulder: “If you follow me, I won’t be able to stop my friends from killing you.”
“I’ll find you, Miguel. Promise.”
And he was gone again.
Picayune drew her pistol and eyed the ceiling. Angry footsteps sounded above, a thunderstorm in metal. “If they steal my bike,” she said, “I’m taking it out of your ass. For the record.” Miguel didn’t respond. He gazed at the ceiling, wondered which footsteps belonged to Joaõ. Listened to the noise of escape. Splashes, old bike engines, the clang of metal against metal. The rapid dismantling of a squatters’ church. In minutes, the thunder grew distant.
“They’re almost off,” said Picayune.
The Saints had left behind their stained glass. Their altar, their bells. Candles still burned, and skeletal Maria still cradled her Christ. All of these things abandoned. Miguel wiped blood from his nose with the back of his hand, then knelt in front of the altar. Picked up the Holy Mother and Child, held them to his chest. Ran his fingers through the prayer bells. The barge creaked, but there was silence on the deck.
“Are you ready?” asked Picayune.
The bells died down.
The boy stood up.
Eric Gregory lives in the mountains of southwest Virginia. By day, he works in the International Education department at a small liberal arts college, and by night he writes. His stories have recently appeared in Strange Horizons, Interzone, and Jetse de Vries’ Shine anthology, and he has written non-fiction for Fantasy Magazine and The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He blogs about reading, writing, and time travel, and tweets @ericgregory.