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By Claire North
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- ebook (Digital original) $2.99 $3.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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From the bestselling and award-winning author of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and 84K, a darkly inventive novella about the dangers of pursuing perfection.
Harmony is tired. Tired of working so hard, tired of the way she looks, tired of being average.
But all that changes when she decides to splash out and upgrade her nanos. And why not? Everyone’s doing it now. With a simple in-app purchase, you can update the tech in your bloodstream to transform yourself – get enhanced brain power, the perfect body or a dazzling smile. Suddenly, everything starts going right for her. She’s finally becoming the person she always wanted to be.
But as Harmony will find out, there’s a limit to how many upgrades a body can take . . .
Previous books by Claire North:
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day
By the same author, writing as Kate Griffin:
A Madness of Angels
The Midnight Mayor
The Neon Court
The Minority Council
The Glass God
The pimple on her chin was the first sign that the debt was out of control.
“Pimple” was kind. “Pimple” was what the pharmacist called it when Harmony, in a hushed whisper and dark sunglasses, asked for some kind of cream, something that might erase all trace of it as magically as it had appeared.
It was, in fact, a spot. A single, bulging, red-rimmed spot, popping with yellow pus beneath a sliver of translucent skin, thin as cobweb. She googled “I have a spot” and read with growing horror of hormone imbalances, blocked pores, sebum and oil, and of a thousand solutions ranging from lasers to pastes of liquefied kale and garlic. Even in the height of panic, she knew that this was absurd, and cleared her browsing history in case someone found the search.
She made it forty minutes before her relentless fumbling caused it to burst. Once it had, she couldn’t stop poking at it, unable to look away from the shameful eruption. Soon it was bleeding, and she didn’t know if that was better or worse. She daubed the throbbing red mark with antiseptic, and phoned work to take the day off.
“I . . . my mum is . . . I’ve got to go and . . . It’s my mum, you see.”
“What’s the matter with your mum?”
“Nothing, nothing. I mean, not nothing. She’s had—The doctor called and said I had to go and see her.”
“If it’s nothing then why . . . ?”
“You know she had a stroke, I mean, a few months ago. It’s to do with that. They wouldn’t tell me much over the phone.”
“You’ve got the Moores at 3 p.m.”
“Right. Yes. Could James . . . ? I mean, I can send him the file – it’s . . . and the keys are . . . shit, the keys are . . . Look, maybe I can drop by on the way to uh . . . to my mum . . . ”
She felt a little bad using her mum as an excuse, but only for a moment. Parents understood these sorts of things; they knew what mattered and what didn’t. Karen Meads wouldn’t have minded Harmony using her name in vain, as long as it was for the right thing.
On the other end of the line, Graham was unconvinced. “We need you back first thing tomorrow, and you’re working a Saturday for me.”
“Yeah, OK . . . yeah.”
Harmony hung up and sat alone, staring into the small square mirror on the wall by the bed. Her well-proportioned, cosy one-bedroom apartment, as she would have described it to any sucker foolish enough to rent, was at the top of an extension on the back of a family house in Streatham, which had been converted some fifteen years ago into six convenient, well-appointed flats for the modern professional. The wallpaper was faded red; the carpet was string and blue fluff. It cost more per week than her old place in Reading had for a month, and she wasn’t sure if the black mould in the bathroom had been killed by the chlorine spray, or just bleached a faded grey.
She thought back to her conversation with Graham and wondered how she’d get keys to James without anyone at the office seeing her face. She felt like a foolish child, her lie ridiculous and easily exposed. Harmony Meads wasn’t usually stuck for words. It was as if this single offending rupture in her flesh had robbed her of her gifts of speech, an arrow to her Achilles heel. She knew she should get up, get moving, find some way of solving this, and for nearly seven minutes she leaned in close, prodding and squeezing at the rim of the offending mark, and was horrified when, having doused it in antiseptic and the pharmacist’s cream, her poking produced a tiny curl of white gunk from beneath her flesh. It looked like cream cheese, or old mayonnaise. The soft substance was less than two millimetres in length, but held close to her face she could have sworn it was gigantic, the first sign of something alien, unnatural, a dead maggot of fat growing beneath her skin.
She washed her hands three times and called her healthcare provider.
“Hi, you’re through to Fullife—”
“My name is Harmony Meads. I’m . . . ”
“ . . . Please press one for upgrades and in-app purchases, two for technical support, three for . . . ”
Harmony swore more violently and deeply than she had for a very long time, and held the phone to her ear as the cheerful, gently Scottish voice – Wasn’t Scottish the accent of honest reassurance? – exclaimed how important her call was to them, and in between synthetic, sunshine-syrup music, pitched the latest in cellulite reduction upgrades.
“Sometimes exercise isn’t enough, but don’t worry – there’s a solution to flabby thighs and floppy skin! Introducing Cellublast, the latest upgrade from Fullife Healthcare. Our nanos will have you looking strong and pert within two weeks from activation. Now with forty per cent off I Love My Knees when you buy two fat-blasting packages for a limited period only!”
When Harmony finally got through to someone, she wasn’t Scottish at all, but sounded Brum and unhappy with her life choices.
“You’re through to Emily. How can I help you?”
“Hi, my name is Harmony Meads. There’s something wrong with my nanos.”
“Harmony Meads, yeah. Can I get a postcode please and the first and third letters of your memorable word? Hi, yeah, I can see your account details here. What’s the problem?”
“There’s a fault with my nanos. I think that . . . ”
Now, for the first time, the magnitude of what she was saying hit her, and Harmony nearly slid into the toilet, where somehow she’d managed to plant herself at the exact moment that the call went through, caught between bedroom and bathroom mirrors.
At the centre of her soul, a darkness opened up, and the machines in the hospitals played their songs at her, and the fluorescent lights were pure whiteness overhead and in her dreams the nanos were singing, singing, singing, as they ate her alive from the inside out.
“I . . . I have a spot,” she blurted before the terror could take her. “I think that maybe . . . I tried running a diagnostic but my control panel wasn’t working: it keeps saying there’s a login error. There was an incident a few months ago, a malfunction with my nanos. I had to go to hospital; there were . . . there was an error in the programming, and now I have a spot. You need to fix this.”
She was held in silence – no music, no ads, just the absolute silence that surrounds a shrouded iceberg on a moonless night – for nearly six minutes, and thought she’d been cut off and should try calling back, when Emily returned to the line.
“Hi, yeah, I can see what the issue is. I’m going to transfer you over to debt management.”
“No, but I—”
The line went silent. This time there was something that had once been a tune, transformed into a synthetic nursery doodle of sound, and still no ads. That lasted three minutes before a much more upbeat, cheerful voice exclaimed, so much louder than Emily that Harmony nearly dropped the phone:
“Good morning, Ms Meads; my name is Gillian! How are you today?”
A flood of relief. Gillian was a kind, caring human, who’d make everything better. This was apparent from twelve words of Yorkshire chipper, two dozen syllables of compassionate interest in all the problems of Harmony’s life, which were, if she was honest with herself, legion. “I want to report a problem with my nanos.”
“Oh no, what kind of problem?”
“I’ve . . . I’ve got a spot.” Even in the relative privacy of her bathroom, a cupboard-sized cell with pipes that carried the arguments of Mr and Mrs Patel in No. 1 up and the weed-stenched cushion of Hailey and Phuong’s gaming marathons in No. 2 down, she whispered the words.
“Say again, Ms Meads?”
A little louder, her humiliation given voice. She shielded her phone from the vent above the sink through which all sound travelled, including Mr Patel’s morning shower rendition of “When I’m cleaning windows”, and hissed, “I’ve got a spot.”
“Ah yes, I can see how that might happen.”
“Are my nanos malfunctioning? Do I need to go to hospital? Is there a programming error? Are they . . . doing things? Can you diagnose that from where you are?”
“No, no, Ms Meads, no need to worry at all. I can see your account details and your nanos are running perfectly fine. What’s happening is that some of your boosts are being shut down, including Dermaglow, which might explain this incident. There’s an adjustment period.”
“What do you mean, shutting down?”
Now her voice was rising in anger, indignation. She’d imagined many causes for this calamity, ranging from a massive malfunction that was at this precise point liquefying her organs from the inside out, through to the first signs of an infection she didn’t have coverage against – leprosy perhaps, whatever that was. Gillian’s explanation had not featured in any of these fantasies.
“Looking at it . . . Ah yes, so there’s a few boosts that will be shutting down in the next twenty-four hours, including Dermaglow, Rise and Shine, Fresh and Perky, Powerful Poise . . . ”
“All right, I’m going to stop you there Gillian – Gillian, was it? Gillian, I’ve got to stop you. I haven’t authorised this. I haven’t . . . I have a contract and I’ve been letting a lot of services lapse I know – but shutting down is absolutely unacceptable; these upgrades are . . . ”
“Ms Meads, I’m very sorry, but you are several months behind in your payments to Fullife and until payment is received, we are obliged to shut down non-essential services.”
At the black hole that lay at the centre of the spinning galaxy of her life, Harmony Meads felt her world collapse.
There were questions she should ask.
There were things she needed to say.
Arguments to have.
She thought she should shout, curse this stupid fucking woman in wherever she fucking was, tell her to check again, tell her that she was wrong, that it was all wrong, that this wasn’t how it went, to fix this fuck-up right fucking now.
Instead, she felt strangely grateful, and wondered if this was why cancer patients always said thank you to the doctor who told them they were going to die. She knew that this was her fault. All of it – all of it her fault.
“How far behind?”
“Ms Meads, I am authorised to discuss a repayment plan with you. Your debt to Fullife is currently in excess of £250, with an additional penalty of £200 for late payment. If this sum continues unpaid in the next six weeks, I’m afraid we are licensed to initiate punitive financial reclamation services. Are you able to make the payment now?”
“I . . . no.” Finally, here it comes. Here comes the truth, the realisation of what it is, hitting her like a spot on the chin, an explosion of blood and pus in the night, her body splitting open and splattering with the harsh reality that she is just flesh, tissue and the shining, shimmering fluids that slither in between.
“Ms Meads, I have to tell you that your contract has you tied into payments for the next four years, so unless you can pay the termination fee of £750 for all services, your debt will only continue to worsen until you reach the cut-off of £1000, at which point you will go into punitive measures by default.”
Harmony was wrong. Gillian is not a kind woman. She is not warm and compassionate. She is the evil matron at school who smiles sugar and puppies on the parents’ open days, who calls the children “lovely little kiddies” and beams with delighted glee as she makes them stand in the idiot’s corner. She is the one who whips you for your own good, and enjoys giving out moral retribution. Harmony can’t believe she missed it before.
A question, surfacing from deep within her psyche. She remembered this experience – the utter paralysis of thought – from the hospital. Everything she needed to say only occurred to her later, when she could breathe again, but this . . .
“What are punitive financial reclamation services?”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to refer you to your contract.”
“But you . . . you know what that means?”
A little sigh. The children are being difficult again, but that’s OK. Gillian is magnanimous about these things. “Our licence to provide nano healthcare in your body requires that we maintain all essential systems in good working order. That means your basic immunisation, cardiac and neurological packages will remain fully operative until the contract lapses or the termination fee goes through. After all, it’s in no one’s interest if you get ill, is it?” A little laugh – Gillian does like her job, she actually fucking likes it; she likes telling people about this, she finds it very interesting, despite knowing somewhere deep down inside that this probably makes her weird. “However, we are licensed to shut down non-essential systems until payment is received. Currently this means suspension of all your boosts, and I’m sorry to say you may experience some side effects as your body readjusts to having minimal nano support . . . ”
“What side effects?”
“Well . . . your spot, for example. If you continue in non-payment, the nanos will also start to shut down other non-essential systems. These can include, but are not limited to, smell, libido, allergen protection, colour sensitivity, frequency sensitivity, dental protection, taste, fat processing, cellulose processing, hair growth, hair loss . . . ”
Finally, Harmony wept.
She had thought that she was stronger than that, that the world had thrown all it could at her already and she had triumphed, that she had grown and become invincible from her sufferings.
Turns out she was wrong.
Gillian waited patiently for a little while. A lot of people cried at her down the phone. It was part of the job. She prided herself on how sensitive and motherly she was.
Then: “Is there someone you could borrow the money from?”
This was not the correct question. Harmony threw her phone into the toilet with a scream of rage, tore at her hair, clawed at her face, howled loud enough to bring Phuong and Hailey knocking on her door with a cry of, “Harmony? You OK in there?”
“Yeah, I’m . . . I’m fine, I’m . . . ”
The shame of their curiosity, the humiliation of their kindness, calmed her down a little bit, though she didn’t open the door to their polite concern. She went back to the bathroom and fished her phone out of the toilet, drying it off with tissue paper. Not that it made a difference – it never booted up again.
Nearly nine years before Harmony Meads woke up to a pimple on her chin, the teenager who would be the woman lay on her back on a lumpy single bed in a hall of residence in Reading and mumbled, a little late into the proceedings but a microsecond before it was going to cease to be relevant, “Have you got a condom?”
Jarek, twenty, a third-year BA to Harmony’s first and therefore clearly skilled in the ways of life and love, froze, body drawn in a long arch above hers, poised in every way she’d always imagined, hoped for and quietly feared, then blurted, “What?”
The point of university, Harmony knew, was to lose your virginity. It was, if anything, a more important experience than getting any kind of degree – what her mum would have called “living your life” with an approving nod, even if she’d never let her imagination run to how her daughter would interpret this command. Knowing that this needed accomplishing if she was ever to be a woman – experiencing the same wild sexual delights as her schoolfriends had probably, perhaps, if you believed them – she had set about finding the perfect man for the task. Her first effort, with a Master’s student called Benji, had ended with him passed out diagonally across her bed, snoring with mighty beer-blasting stench, while she huddled in a tiny triangle of mattress left by the shape of the sprawling of his limbs, not even down to her one sexy bra, which she’d worn especially despite the fact it pinched.
Jarek had been much more promising, and though he wasn’t quite everything she’d imagined, she was so determined to achieve her objective that she was willing to overlook his obvious flaws, including the fact that he stank of cigarettes and she didn’t really like kissing him on the mouth, or that he kept on pinching her really hard like that was a sexy thing. She knew that this moment was going to be magical, so magical it damn well would be, and that thought did as much for the moment as any actual attraction.
The fact that she was still in a decent state of mind to blurt “Do you have a condom?” was perhaps indicative of a certain gap between fantasy and reality, but she was still proud of herself that even in a dizzy of sexual delight, with a third-year student no less, she had a good head on her shoulders.
Her confidence, so hard to muster, so brief to burn, flickered and died at his expression, his rigid form. “A . . . condom. Have you got a condom?”
Astonishment. She’d prepped herself for many things – for “But, babe, I prefer it more natural” – and was perfectly prepared to explain how it was her body, her choice, and yes, even call it off if he disrespected her opinion, magic or no. But surprise, an absolute, genuine incredulity . . . She had nothing ready for that, and was suddenly a naked girl in a room that smelled of drying laundry and boy sweat, her breasts flopping awkwardly to either side, her thighs aching, as sexually empowered as a poppadum.
For a moment, the two of them stayed locked there, each waiting for the other to crack first, to breach the gulf of understanding between them. Finally, Jarek cracked, “Don’t you have upgrades?”
“I . . . uh, I mean . . . ”
“Are you a naturalist?”
- On Sale
- Sep 22, 2020
- Page Count
- 100 pages