The Peripheral :
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Excerpt from The Peripheral
They didn’t think Flynne’s brother had PTSD, but
that sometimes the haptics glitched him. They said
it was like phantom limb, ghosts of the tattoos he’d
worn in the war, put there to tell him when to run,
when to be still, when to do the bad-
dance, which direction and
what range. So they allowed him some disability for that, and he lived
in the trailer down by the creek. An alcoholic uncle lived there when
they were little, veteran of some other war, their father’s older brother.
She and Burton and Leon used it for a fort, the summer she was ten.
Leon tried to take girls there, later on, but it smelled too bad. When
Burton got his discharge, it was empty, except for the biggest wasp
nest any of them had ever seen. Most valuable thing on their property,
Leon said. Airstream, 1977. He showed her ones on eBay that looked
like blunt rifle slugs, went for crazy money in any condition at all. The
uncle had gooped this one over with white expansion foam, gone gray
and dirty now, to stop it leaking and for insulation. Leon said that
had saved it from pickers. She thought it looked like a big old grub,
but with tunnels back through it to the windows.
Coming down the path, she saw stray crumbs of that foam, packed
down hard in the dark earth. He had the trailer’s lights turned up, and
closer, through a window, she partly saw him stand, turn, and on his
spine and side the marks where they took the haptics off, like the skin
was dusted with something dead-
silver. They said they could get
that off too, but he didn’t want to keep going back.
“Hey, Burton,” she called.
“Easy Ice,” he answered, her gamer tag, one hand bumping the door open, the other tugging a new white t‑shirt down, over that chest
the Corps gave him, covering the silvered patch above his navel, size
and shape of a playing card.
Inside, the trailer was the color of Vaseline, LEDs buried in it, bedded
in Hefty Mart amber. She’d helped him sweep it out, before he
moved in. He hadn’t bothered to bring the shop vac down from the
garage, just bombed the inside a good inch thick with this Chinese
polymer, dried glassy and flexible. You could see stubs of burnt
matches down inside that, or the cork-
paper on the squashed
filter of a legally sold cigarette, older than she was. She knew where to
find a rusty jeweler’s screwdriver, and somewhere else a 2009 quarter.
Now he just got his stuff out before he hosed the inside, every week
or two, like washing out Tupperware. Leon said the polymer was
curatorial, how you could peel it all out before you put your American
classic up on eBay. Let it take the dirt with it.
Burton took her hand, squeezed, pulling her up and in.
“You going to Davisville?” she asked.
“Leon’s picking me up.”
“Luke 4:5’s protesting there. Shaylene said.”
He shrugged, moving a lot of muscle but not by much.
“That was you, Burton. Last month. On the news. That funeral, in
He didn’t quite smile.
“You might’ve killed that boy.”
He shook his head, just a fraction, eyes narrowed.
“Scares me, you do that shit.”
“You still walking point, for that lawyer in Tulsa?”
“He isn’t playing. Busy lawyering, I guess.”
“You’re the best he had. Showed him that.”
“Just a game.” Telling herself, more than him.
“Might as well been getting himself a Marine.”
She thought she saw that thing the haptics did, then, that shiver,
“Need you to sub for me,” he said, like nothing had happened.
shift. Fly a quadcopter.”
She looked past him to his display. Some Danish supermodel’s legs,
retracting into some brand of car nobody she knew would ever drive,
or likely even see on the road. “You’re on disability,” she said. “Aren’t
supposed to work.”
He looked at her.
“Where’s the job?” she asked.
“Outsourced? VA’ll catch you.”
“Game,” he said. “Beta of some game.”
“Nothing to shoot. Work a perimeter around three floors of this
See what turns up.”
“Paparazzi.” He showed her the length of his index finger. “Little
things. You get in their way. Edge ’em back. That’s all you do.”
Get you set up before Leon comes.”
“Supposed to help Shaylene, later.”
“Give you two fives.” He took his wallet from his jeans, edged out
a pair of new bills, the little windows unscratched, holograms bright.
Folded, they went into the right front pocket of her cutoffs. “Turn
the lights down,” she said, “hurts my eyes.”
He did, swinging his hand through the display, but then the place
looked like a seventeen-
boy’s bedroom. She reached over,
flicked it up a little.
She sat in his chair. It was Chinese, reconfiguring to her height and
weight as he pulled himself up an old metal stool, almost no paint left
on it, waving a screen into view.
MILAGROS COLDIRON SA
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Who we’re working for.”
“How do they pay you?”
“You’ll get caught for sure.”
“Goes to an account of Leon’s,” he said. Leon’s Army service had
been about the same time as Burton’s in the Marines, but Leon wasn’t
due any disability. Wasn’t, their mother said, like he could claim to
have caught the dumbfuck there. Not that Flynne had ever thought
Leon was anything but sly, under it all, and lazy. “Need my log‑in and
the password. Hat trick.” How they both pronounced his tag, HaptRec,
to keep it private. He took an envelope from his back pocket,
unfolded and opened it. The paper looked thick, creamy.
“That from Fab?”
He drew out a long slip of the same paper, printed with what looked
to be a full paragraph of characters and symbols. “You scan it, or type
it outside that window, we’re out a job.”
She picked up the envelope, from where it lay on what she guessed
had been a fold-
dining table. It was one of Shaylene’s top-
stationery items, kept literally on a top shelf. When letter orders came
in from big companies, or lawyers, you went up there. She ran her
thumb across the logo in the upper left corner. “Medellín?”
“You said it’s a game.”
“That’s ten thousand dollars, in your pocket.”
“How long you been doing this?”
“Two weeks now. Sundays off.”
“How much you get?”
“Make it twenty, then. Short notice and I’m stiffing Shaylene.”
He gave her another two fives.
Netherton woke to Rainey’s sigil, pulsing behind his
lids at the rate of a resting heartbeat. He opened his
eyes. Knowing better than to move his head, he
confirmed that he was in bed, alone. Both positive,
under current circumstances. Slowly, he lifted his head from the pillow,
until he could see that his clothes weren’t where he assumed he
would have dropped them. Cleaners, he knew, would have come from
their nest beneath the bed, to drag them away, flense them of whatever
invisible quanta of sebum, skin-
flakes, atmospheric particulates,
food residue, other.
“Soiled,” he pronounced, thickly, having briefly imagined such
cleaners for the psyche, and let his head fall back.
Rainey’s sigil began to strobe, demandingly.
He sat up cautiously. Standing would be the real test. “Yes?”
Strobing ceased. “Un petit problème,” Rainey said.
He closed his eyes, but then there was only her sigil. He opened
“She’s your fucking problem, Wilf.”
He winced, the amount of pain this caused startling him. “Have
you always had this puritanical streak? I hadn’t noticed.”
“You’re a publicist,” she said. “She’s a celebrity. That’s interspecies.”
His eyes, a size too large for their sockets, felt gritty. “She must be
nearing the patch,” he said, reflexively attempting to suggest that he
was alert, in control, as opposed to disastrously and quite expectedly
“They’re almost above it now,” she said. “With your problem.”
“What’s she done?”
“One of her stylists,” she said, “is also, evidently, a tattooist.”
Again, the sigil dominated his private pain-
dark. “She didn’t,”
he said, opening his eyes. “She did?”
“We had an extremely specific verbal on that.”
“Fix it,” she said. “Now. The world’s watching, Wilf. As much of it
as we’ve been able to scrape together, anyway. Will Daedra West make
peace with the patchers, they wonder? Should they decide to back our
project, they ask? We want yes, and yes.”
“They ate the last two envoys,” he said. “Hallucinating in synch
with a forest of code, convinced their visitors were shamanic spirit
beasts. I spent three entire days, last month, having her briefed at the
Connaught. Two anthropologists, three neoprimitivist curators. No
tattoos. A brand-
perfectly blank epidermis. Now this.”
“Talk her out of it, Wilf.”
He stood, experimentally. Hobbled, naked, into the bathroom.
Urinated as loudly as possible. “Out of what, exactly?”
“That’s been the plan—”
“In nothing but her new tattoos.”
“Seriously,” she said.
“Their aesthetic, if you haven’t noticed, is about benign skin cancers,
supernumerary nipples. Conventional tattoos belong firmly
among the iconics of the hegemon. It’s like wearing your cock ring to
meet the pope, and making sure he sees it. Actually, it’s worse than
that. What are they like?”
“Posthuman filth, according to you.”
“Something to do with the Gyre,” she said. “Abstract.”
“Cultural appropriation. Lovely. Couldn’t be worse. On her face?
“No, fortunately. If you can talk her into the jumpsuit we’re printing
on the moby, we may still have a project.”
He looked at the ceiling. Imagined it opening. Himself ascending.
Into he knew not what.
“Then there’s the matter of our Saudi backing,” she said, “which is
considerable. Visible tattoos would be a stretch, there. Nudity’s nonnegotiable.”
“They might take it as a signal of sexual availability,” he said, having
done so himself.
“They might take it as her offer to be lunch,” she said. “Their last,
either way. She’s a death cookie, Wilf, for the next week or so. Anyone
so much as steals a kiss goes into anaphylactic shock. Something with
her thumbnails, too, but we’re less clear about that.”
He wrapped his waist in a thick white towel. Considered the carafe
of water on the marble countertop. His stomach spasmed.
“Lorenzo,” she said, as an unfamiliar sigil appeared, “Wilf Netherton
has your feed, in London.”
He almost vomited, then, at the sudden input: bright saline light
above the Garbage Patch, the sense of forward motion.
She managed to get off the phone with Shaylene
without mentioning Burton. Shaylene had gone out
with him a few times in high school, but she’d gotten
more interested when he’d come back from the
Marines, with that chest and the stories around town about Haptic
Recon 1. Flynne figured Shaylene was basically doing what the relationship
shows called romanticizing pathology. Not that there was a
whole lot better available locally.
She and Shaylene both worried about Burton getting in trouble
over Luke 4:5, but that was about all they agreed on, when it came to
him. Nobody liked Luke 4:5, but Burton had a bad thing about them.
She had a feeling they were just convenient, but it still scared her.
They’d started out as a church, or in a church, not liking anyone being
gay or getting abortions or using birth control. Protesting military
funerals, which was a thing. Basically they were just assholes, though,
and took it as the measure of God’s satisfaction with them that everybody
else thought they were assholes. For Burton, they were a way
around whatever kept him in line the rest of the time.
She leaned forward now, to squint under the table for the black
nylon case he kept his tomahawk in. Wouldn’t want him going up to
Davisville with that. He called it an axe, not a tomahawk, but an axe
was something you chopped wood with. She reached under, hooked it
out, relieved to feel the weight. Didn’t need to open it, but she did.
Case was widest at the top, allowing for the part you’d have chopped
wood with. More like the blade of a chisel, but hawk-
the back of an axe would’ve been flat, like the face of a hammer, it was
spiked, like a miniature of the blade but curved the other way. Either
one thick as your little finger, but ground to edges you wouldn’t feel as
you cut yourself. Handle was graceful, a little recurved, the wood
soaked in something that made it tougher, springy. The maker had a
forge in Tennessee, and everyone in Haptic Recon 1 got one. It looked
used. Careful of her fingers, she closed the case and put it back under
She swung her phone through the display, checking Badger’s map of
the county. Shaylene’s badge was in Forever Fab, an anxious segment
of purple in its emo ring. Nobody looked to be up to much, which
wasn’t exactly a surprise. Madison and Janice were gaming, Sukhoi
Flankers, vintage flight sims being Madison’s main earner. They both
had their rings beige, for bored shitless, but then they always had
them that way. Made four people she knew working tonight, counting
She bent her phone the way she liked it for gaming, thumbed HaptRec
into the log‑in window, entered the long-
go. Nothing happened. Then the whole display popped, like the flash
of a camera in an old movie, silvered like the marks of the haptics. She
And then she was rising, out of what Burton said would be a launch
bay in the roof of a van. Like she was in an elevator. No control yet.
And all around her, and he hadn’t told her this, were whispers, urgent
as they were faint, like a cloud of invisible fairy police dispatchers.
And this other evening light, rainy, rose and silver, and to her left a
river the color of cold lead. Dark tumble of city, towers in the distance,
Camera down giving her the white rectangle of the van, shrinking
in the street below. Camera up, the building towered away forever, a
cliff the size of the world.
SOMETHING SO DEEPLY
Lorenzo, Rainey’s cameraperson, with the professional’s
deliberate gaze, steady and unhurried, found Daedra
through windows overlooking the moby’s uppermost
Netherton wouldn’t have admitted it to Rainey, or indeed to
anyone, but he did regret the involvement. He’d let himself be swept
up, into someone else’s far more durable, more brutally simple concept
He saw her now, or rather Lorenzo did, in her sheepskin flying
jacket, sunglasses, nothing more. Noted, wishing he hadn’t, a mons
freshly mohawked since he’d last encountered it. The tattoos, he
guessed, were stylized representations of the currents that fed and
maintained the North Pacific Gyre. Raw and shiny, beneath some
unguent. Makeup would have calculated that to a
Part of a window slid aside. Lorenzo stepped out. “I have Wilf
Netherton,” Netherton heard him say. Then Lorenzo’s sigil vanished,
Daedra’s replacing it.
Her hands came up, clutched the lapels of her open jacket. “Wilf.
How are you?”
“Glad to see you,” he said.
She smiled, displaying teeth whose form and placement might well
have been decided by committee. She tugged the jacket closer, fists
“You’re angry, about the tattoos,” she said.
“We did agree, that you wouldn’t do that.”
“I have to do what I love, Wilf. I wasn’t loving not doing it.”
“I’d be the last to question your process,” he said, channeling intense
annoyance into what he hoped would pass for sincerity, if not
understanding. It was a peculiar alchemy of his, the ability to do that,
though now the hangover was in the way. “Do you remember Annie,
the brightest of our neoprimitivist curators?”
Her eyes narrowed. “The cute one?”
“Yes,” he said, though he hadn’t particularly thought so. “We’d a
drink together, Annie and I, after that final session at the Connaught,
when you’d had to go.”
“What about her?”
“She’d been dumbstruck with admiration, I realized. It all came
out, once you were gone. Her devastation at having been too overawed
to speak with you, about your art.”
“She’s an artist?”
“Academic. Mad for everything you’ve done, since her early teens.
Subscriber to the full set of miniatures, which she literally can’t afford.
Listening to her, I understood your career as if for the first time.”
Her head tilted, hair swung. The jacket must have opened as she
raised one hand to remove the sunglasses, but Lorenzo wasn’t having
Netherton’s eyes widened, preparing to pitch something he hadn’t
yet invented, none of what he’d said so far having been true. Then he
remembered that she couldn’t see him. That she was looking at
someone called Lorenzo, on the upper deck of a moby, halfway around
the world. “She’d particularly wanted to convey an idea she’d had, as
the result of meeting you in person. About a new sense of timing in
your work. She sees timing as the key to your maturation as an
Lorenzo refocused. Suddenly it was as if Netherton were centimeters
from her lips. He recalled their peculiarly brisk nonanimal tang.
“Timing?” she asked, flatly.
“I wish I’d recorded her. Impossible to paraphrase.” What had he said previously? “That you’re more secure, now? That you’ve always
been brave, fearless really, but that this new confidence is something
else again. Something, she put it, so deeply earned. I’d planned on
discussing her ideas with you over dinner, that last time, but it didn’t
turn out to be that sort of evening.”
Her head was perfectly still, eyes unblinking. He imagined her ego
swimming up behind them, to peer at him suspiciously, something
larval, transparently boned. He had its full attention. “If
things had gone differently,” he heard himself say, “I don’t think we’d
be having this conversation.”
“Because Annie would tell you that the entrance you’re considering
is the result of a retrograde impulse, something dating from the start
of your career. Not informed by that new sense of timing.”
She was staring at him, or rather at whoever Lorenzo was. And
then she smiled. Reflexive pleasure of the thing behind her eyes.
Rainey’s sigil privacy-
“I’d want to have your baby now,”
she said, from Toronto, “except I know it would always lie.”