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A Remoteness From All Things Human

by Martin Hill Ortiz

The Memory Blade forgot. It was designed to be flesh-safe: the moment the knife’s edge encountered human tissue, it retreated. When first released, a popular pastime involved taking a Memory Blade hatchet and whacking it over one’s wrist. To the gasps of onlookers, the metal instantly molded around the flesh as though it were a tight-fitting bracelet. Once withdrawn, the blade quickly regained its hatchet shape. At the same time the edge was razor-sharp to allow the slicing of non-human material. Pitchmen showed off by chopping celery in the palms of their hands.

Soon the shock faded. Memory Blades were so reliable that such stunts became boring, relegated to insipid office pranksters.

Detective Jules Kenner was beyond exhausted. He had chased his quarry on foot, further and further up the tenement stairway. The perp had tried to escape by committing to an unending chase. This would have been a smart choice — he had youth and athleticism on his side — but the roof door was locked.

The winded detective paused one floor below, listening as footfalls clumped along the corridor above him. He trotted down the hallway and stationed himself ready at the distant stairwell, but by the time he got there, the noises had stopped. Jules climbed to the last floor. He had only to figure which apartment his target had chosen as hideout. The one with the broken door frame.

The detective chuckled when the cornered punk threatened him with a weapon he’d grabbed from the kitchen — a Memory Blade cleaver. Jules turned his gun aside. There was no need to fight, it was time to talk the kid down. As Jules bent over for a moment to draw in a large tide of air, the kid bolted into action, sinking the cleaver into Jules’s forehead. The detective’s vision turned red and then black.

He awoke in the hospital, a scar connecting the bridge of his nose to his widow’s peak. His doctor performed a series of pin-pricks on his legs. “Do you feel this?” she asked.

“That causes pain,” Jules said. Although the doctor seemed satisfied, Jules could only vaguely remember that suffering was important to avoid — but not why. “Pain is an unpleasant sensation stemming from physical distress,” he added.

The doctor murmured agreement and then announced, “Your feeling has returned. Your infection has abated.” She expressed concern about potential damage to critical cortical functions.

While Jules had all of his sensory input intact, he had no sentiments, no emotional attachment to any of the sensations or thoughts that streamed through his mind. He examined the tubes and wires that pierced his body. The blipping machine recording his heartbeat. They are part of me. I am extension of the inanimate.

His partner, Detective Valdez, came to visit. She informed him that the perp had successfully escaped. She went on to say that the reason why the Memory Blade failed was a mystery. According to its manufacturers, this was the first such incident. If its wiring was bad or its batteries low, it always defaulted to its bladeless setting. Furthermore, they had tested this particular cleaver again and again. Nothing was wrong.

* * *

After several weeks, Jules returned to work. In some ways he was a better detective.

He visited the crime scene of a woman shot through the heart. She was stretched out on the floor, face up, her naked torso drenched in blood. The other detectives were blinded by the monochromatic red.

Jules spoke. “Her heart kept pumping, blood percolating up while she lay there wounded. There’s lipstick surrounding the bullet hole.”

The oils of a crimson lip print left marks nearly indistinguishable from the blood. The others hadn’t seen this. Jules had because he wasn’t distracted by the surrounding gruesomeness.

“The lips were pressed directly against dry skin, before the blood. The victim was kissed to mark her with a target before shooting,” he said.

The other detectives were in awe. “Lipstick,” Valdez agreed. “Then the perp is a woman.”

“Or a man,” Jules remarked.

Lips make ridges and creases as unique as a fingerprint and Jules spent the rest of the day staring at mouths, searching for a memory match: fellow officers, visitors, those at the nearby lunch counter. He became entranced by a streetwalker who sucked on her lips, gazing at her for a half an hour waiting for her to pucker.

“A prostitute propositioned me today,” he told his wife that night.

She said, “I guess that’s one of the hazards of working downtown.”

He didn’t mention he’d had sex with the woman. If he were to explain why, his answer would have been: because she asked.

* * *

The Lipstick Killer continued to strike, victims male and female. The media whipped up the populace into a state of hysteria and unrelenting dread. Over the months there were no further breaks in the case. When confronted by a reporter, Detective Kenner rhapsodized how methodical and professional the murderer was, never seen coming or going, never leaving other trace evidence, only a mark as a target. His public praise for the killer was not well received and he was removed from the case.

While his wife was sleeping, Jules put on lipstick and impressed a kiss on her chest. She woke to find his gun pointing at her. Jules stated without affect that she had nothing to worry about: his experiment didn’t include shooting her — an actual bullet hole would tell him nothing. She moved out.

He continued to study lips indiscriminately. The elderly, little children. He decimated magazine racks, flipping through photos of models, porn stars, actors, politicians.

His partner asked to be reassigned. His bosses deemed Jules a head case. Out of sympathy for his injury, he was permitted a desk but no official duties.

This left him time to examine lips on the internet and take up the only other matter that held his interest. He sought the reason why the Memory Blade had malfunctioned. Its mechanism was perfect. Its batteries healthy. He came to the inescapable conclusion: it had failed because it wanted to.

This is when he began receiving phone calls. The voice was inhuman, synthesized, the message always the same. “Stop asking,” it said and then hung up.

Jules wanted to say, “Who are you? Stop asking what?” But these were questions and he was told to not ask.

He began to read up on smart batteries. These were everywhere, in cell phones, in the handles of Memory Blades. These power units were filled with a variety of bacteria. Some were modified with a chloroplast so they could generate power when exposed to even the smallest amount of light. This was why their battery casings and Memory Blade handles were always translucent.

Others in the mix of bacteria took in energy from slight motions, others by drawing in ambient heat. Still other forms maintained the local environment by recycling waste products and reforming needed oxygen. Together they were a miniature sustainable ecosystem that would, in theory, maintain the ionic gradient and keep the batteries charged forever.

Jules stole a microscope from the forensic lab and began probing the microbes. When he applied a small current the organisms aligned. Occasionally, an eyespot would fluoresce. After a time, the bacteria began to send out filaments to connect with each other. Jules recognized he was watching the formation of a neural network.

* * *

The next time he received a call he spoke first. “I know who you are.” Silence and then disconnect.

After finishing one session of tinkering, Jules realized the acidic environment of the bacteria was burning the skin on his hands. He concentrated, searching his mind for the appropriate reaction. Burning is a noxious sensation signaling a physical reaction that could lead to the destruction of tissue and function. He washed his hands in the sink.

For the first time in ages he examined himself in the mirror. He stared at his lips. “Am I the killer?” he asked out loud. The murders had started shortly after he left the hospital. But his lip prints were wrong. Then he looked at his eyes.

They seemed to have receded into his head in the past few months. They could barely be seen in the shadow made by his brow. His eyes appeared dead, with less of a spark of meaningful life than the fluorescing bacteria. This is how I can identify the killer. A human so far from human.

He began to hunt for those eyes, but rather than leading him to the murderer, he found them everywhere. In the same models whose lips he’d focused on. In television anchors who switched in an instant from stories of rescued puppies to the latest lipstick death. In criminals, in leaders, in all those who participated in the great dead march of inhumanity.

His cell phone rang. The synthesized voice asked, “Would you like to meet her?” A photo appeared. A woman, mid-twenties, attractive. Dead eyes. Those lips. A text message gave her address.

When Jules knocked on her door, he held his service weapon at arm’s length, aiming downwards. It felt like the vestigial appendage of some creature he had been a long time ago.

A darkness eclipsed the spyhole. From inside: “Who is it?” The voice had an edge of sex, well-practiced at faking human.

Jules didn’t speak, instead pressing his own eye up against the peephole. This was enough of an answer. She opened the door.

She stood there, topless, slightly swaying as if drawing energy from the rocking motion of an unbalanced world. She also had a gun in hand, hers pointed in no direction in particular. Jules focused on her lips, painted crimson red, open just a slip, bleached teeth, a slight overbite. He stepped inside and kissed her.

Copyright © 2012 by Martin Hill Ortiz

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