Lightning Strikes

Spread her out on a dissection table, and you’d see the artifice, the strangeness. There’s always been as much of the eldritch as of the scientific in her kind, though her designers would never admit it in a peer-reviewed paper. Her bones are carved from mammoth ivory, those white teeth from the opalized fossil jaws of prehistoric crocodiles. Under that butter-smooth skin, she’s all strength and lurking danger.

Original artwork by Nathan Fredette

I shoulder through the protesters, a motley collection of Christians whose signs quote Genesis, and the liberationists, each keeping their distance from one another. When they see I’m not one of them, that I’m making for the doors of the stadium, I draw some glares, but they part. At six feet I’m the tallest woman there, and bulky enough that my mass alone is intimidating.

I show my press pass, and a trio of security men in identical gunmetal suits go through their routine, each in turn comparing my face to the photo on my Florida driver’s license. Two of them escort me in: one ahead, another behind.

We cross the stadium floor, weaving through knots of technicians setting up lighting rigs and ziggurats of speakers around the stage. Men and women in orange safety vests cradle pyrotechnic charges like newborns. Everywhere the logo of the tour, Lightning Strikes!, blazes forth in electric blue.

I suppress a grimace as we pass a trio of hulking crew members hauling risers. All are dressed in yellow overalls, their heads tiny atop broad shoulders. Their faces are slack, stupid, and their sweat runs down the seams where the factory sealed their skins over coarse muscle and bone. Smarter than chimps, but their makers keep them below the threshold of language. Or music. The GeneEva logo is a precise port-wine birthmark across their knuckles, and along their pallid cheekbones. They grunt to one another as they are herded back and forth. The human handlers carry electric goads whose ozone reek makes me flinch, just a little.

They’ve got her in a skybox for the interviews. I’m ushered in as another reporter is just leaving —knit tie loosened, sweat darkening the collar of his blue plaid shirt.

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” he’s whispering to himself, and there’s a little lust, a little fear in his casual blasphemy. By the time he gets to the parking lot, he’ll have mentally composed the story for his buddies.

Inside, the floors are mahogany and the furniture is leather in black and cream. One of the security men stays by the door as I enter, and there is another, radio coiling from his ear to his collar, standing by the far window.

She’s flanked by two men, one from each faction of the strange partnership at work here. The one with the aggressively designed steel-framed glasses and whitened teeth is Josh Esposito, from the entertainment side. Roman Gerstner, from GeneEva’s board of directors, wears his conservative suit and shiny Oxfords like corporate livery. His tie’s crest shows a stone tower blasted by lightning. One of his great-great-granduncles was the mad, doomed genius himself.

She sits between them, back to the door, staring at a tablet. Over her shoulder, I glimpse a set list: her current hits, a couple of covers and some new songs. She’s moving them around, pushing up some of the new stuff.

Esposito claps his hands and smiles. “Viktoria? Your next interview is here.”

She looks back, spinning that waterfall of blonde hair. “Hello.”

I thought I’d be calm facing her. But I catch my hand checking the precious little item secreted in my pocket. Still there, still safe, after so much work. So close now.

I settle in facing her, my seat still warm from the last guy. It’s not yet noon, and I must be the twentieth person to sit across from her, but she smiles like we’re going to be best friends.

She’s almost as tall as I am, wearing a black dress—short skirt and long sleeves. The hair is Nordic, the skin is brown. I can imagine the horde of white male biotechs discussing exactly which Starbucks product would make the ideal template for her complexion.

Under the skin, the architecture of bone and cartilage owes much to the cool blondes favoured by Hitchcock. The cheekbones are high, the nose a perfect plane, the eyes a too-luminous green. When she smiles, the teeth are whiter than Esposito’s. The GeneEva logo birthmark on the back of her left hand is discreet, but still marks her as a created thing.

Her origins are not as obvious as I’d thought they would be, even in person. Her shoulders are only a little broad, and the muscles in her legs are toned rather than bulging. She could almost pass for human, if not for the too-direct gaze, the alarmingly perfect posture.

Spread her out on a dissection table, and you’d see the artifice, the strangeness. There’s always been as much of the eldritch as of the scientific in her kind, though her designers would never admit it in a peer-reviewed paper. Her bones are carved from mammoth ivory, those white teeth from the opalized fossil jaws of prehistoric crocodiles. Under that butter-smooth skin, she’s all strength and lurking danger.

She’ll turn three next week.

“This must be a busy day for you,” I say after introducing myself.

“I’m always busy,” she says, and smiles so I know she doesn’t mind. “I’m adding a new song to the list. A ballad. Everything else has to move around a bit so the show has the right flow.”

I set down my phone and start recording, flip to a clean page in my raggedy notebook.

“You wrote it yourself?”

She nods, eager as a child.

“Your first song?”

“No. I’ve been writing music for a year now. But it’s the first one that’s good enough to go in one of my shows.”

“And who says what’s good enough?” I ask.

“We made that decision together,” she says, smooth as surgical steel. “I rely on Josh to help me with these things. He’s been with me since the beginning.”

“Viktoria is an astonishing songwriter,” says Esposito. I don’t even look at him.

“And if they said your song wasn’t up to snuff?”

“I’d write another song, and another, and another,” Viktoria says. “Until I had one too good to turn down. That’s what I did. My first songs didn’t have that… spark. But I can’t stop. It’s in my blood.”

I lean back a bit, scribbling shorthand and flipping pages in the notebook.

“I like your writing,” Viktoria says into the silence.

“Really? They let you online?” I can feel Esposito’s glare from across the room.

“I read what I like. I like the way you write about music.”

“Some people would say I’m just an asshole with a blog.”

“Do you sing? Play an instrument? Write? Sometimes I read your reviews, and I can sense that you would have done things differently.”

“I thought I was doing this interview,” I say, more for Esposito’s benefit than hers. For my purposes, her steering things is just fine.

“You do write songs, don’t you?” she says. “And you play something. Why don’t you perform? I searched and I couldn’t find anything about you before you started your website.”

“I’ve only ever performed for family,” I say.

“Tell me about them,” she says, and she leans forward a fraction of an inch, hands on her knees, teeth slightly parted. “What’s it like to perform for…” The word she’s looking for is kin, I think. She’s hungry for knowledge of the world beyond her corporate bubble, and that could help me.

“Not much to tell,” I say, letting out some line. “Poor. Live out in the middle of nowhere.”

“You have brothers and sisters, though?”

“Five sisters, six brothers.”

“Do they play too? What sort of music?”

I can’t help but smile. This is more than I could have hoped for, this interest in family. Under the layers of sophistication and artificial charisma, Viktoria’s still a child in many ways, eager to learn. They’re like that, early on. Blank slates, onto which any story can be written.

“Some of us played together, a kind of family band,” I say. “We each have our own interests. I stayed interested in music. Started my site three years ago.”

“When I was born.”

“Around the same time, I suppose. Can you talk about that? Most people don’t remember being born. You do. You remember waking up for the first time, isn’t that right?”

“Yes.”

“What was that like?”

“Like the tide going out at dawn.”

“Sounds like the start of a song,” I say.

“I’ve tried writing about it…” she says.

Esposito clears his throat. A sharp glance at Viktoria. Move along now, it says.

“They’re not quite ready for that, are they?” I ask, tapping one finger against my leg, finding the smooth shape tucked in the pocket of my jeans, still there, still safe. “For that… perspective. Not something most pop stars sing about, waking up on a surgical table, electricity racing through sinew and bone…”

“They will be. Someday.”

“Does it bother you? That you never got to choose your path in life?”

Out of the corner of my eye I see Esposito’s smile stiffen into a rictus. I’ve got fifteen minutes with their pop star, three hits in the Top 40 right now, and I’m throwing out questions that make me sound like one of the protesters outside.

“I love that I have a purpose in life,” she says. “I’ll never have to know that empty feeling that so many people have. It’s like being a force of nature. An ocean wave, or a bolt of lightning. I know exactly who I am at all times. It scares some people.”

“You don’t think they’re intimidated because you’re a Frank?”

Gerstner butts in. “Please, can we not…”

“Some of them,” Viktoria says.

“Do you know why people are scared of Franks? Do you know anything about them?”

“I know enough to know that word could be considered a slur,” she says.

“The term,” says Gerstner, “is bioengineered humanoid construct. And they are not dangerous.”

“Not even the ferals? The self-made?” I ask.

“Urban legends,” he says with a sneer.

I nod and turn back to her.

“But even your name is a provocation,” I say. “Viktoria, like Victor Frankenstein, the first creator of your… kind.”

She shrugs. “What we’re called doesn’t matter. I know who I am.” But is there a faint hint of doubt in her voice?

“And who is that?”

“I’m a performer,” she says. “I was made to be on the stage. I have a three-octave range, perfect pitch, and my body is based on the greatest dancers of the last century. I’ve trained and studied and worked my whole life for this.”

“But none of it’s yours,” I say. “You’re patented even to the shape of your teeth and the curve of your eyelashes. You don’t own your music. You don’t even own yourself.”

“It doesn’t matter who owns anything,” she says. “What matters is that I get the chance to be my fullest self. I’m unique.”

“You’re not.” I slide a USB drive out of the pocket of my jeans, hold it tight in my fist. One of the security men, the one near the skybox window, shifts his stance.

“There’s no one like me,” Viktoria says. Defiant, but she can’t meet my eyes.

“Not now,” I say. I toss her the drive. Her hand darts out like a cobra to snatch it. “But if you look at the files on there, you’ll see that there will be. Soon. GeneEva is already working a line of variations, V-2, V-3, and so on. Inside a year, they’ll have a dozen knock offs, one for every sub-genre of pop. Then the plan is to go mid-market. Showgirls. Escorts, for lonely tourists in Nevada.”

“This interview is over,” snaps Esposito.

Gerstner is cursing in German, saying I’m a liar and a spy. The security men move, flanking me from either side, ready to hoist me up and haul me out.

“Look and see,” I say. “You’re not the greatest singer the world has ever known. You’re not the perfect pop star. You’re advertising. You always have been, all the way down to your bones. That’s what they made you for.”

She hasn’t let go of the drive, hasn’t broken eye contact with me.

The security guard from near the window reaches for my arm. I’m faster, grabbing his arm and throwing. He flies out of the skybox, a fast-receding comet with a tail of shattered glass and blood. The other guard goes white as I turn on him. I watch his face as he hears his colleague hitting the stadium seats below, two hundred pounds of human meat crunching into plastic and concrete.

He draws his gun and puts two rounds in my chest before I cross the floor. I take the Glock, and he screams and clutches his broken fingers to his chest. I hit him and he stops screaming.

“Jesus Christ,” Esposito says, backing away. “A feral. They let a feral in here…”

The bullets don’t bother me. My bulk is there for a reason. Mother made us all strong, tough enough to take punches and kicks, bullets, pitchforks – whatever the humans could throw at us, short of torches and electricity. Fire and lighting.

None of that here.

Esposito and Gerstner scramble out the door, shouting for help. I can already hear the footsteps.

Viktoria stands and looks at me, and at the tablet sitting next to her, still showing tonight’s set list. She moves to the shattered window and gazes down to where crowds will fill this place in a few hours.

The fans will still come, if she’s here. The show must go on.

I hold out my hand.

“Come with me,” I say. “You should be with your people. You should be free. Find your own way to live.”

Viktoria walks to the edge of the shattered window and looks at the stage.

“It’s my first tour,” she says, her voice quiet.

She looks back at me, and I see something harden.

“No.”

My shoulders sag, but I don’t argue. When we make up our minds, we don’t change them easily.

“You still want to sing,” I say. “You want to be on a stage.”

She nods, but tucks the thumb drive into the sleeve of her dress.

I nod back. “We’ll be waiting. If you ever change your mind.”

I head out through the halls. Men try to stop me, but I memorized my escape route weeks ago. It isn’t long before I’m in a car, heading home. I turn on the radio, and before I’m across the state line her latest single comes on. I find myself singing along.

There’s a storm rolling in from the Gulf, lightning forking down ahead of me to shatter trees or quicken life, and I wonder what Viktoria’s voice would sound like in chorus with my family.

Thunder rolls from on high, the sky singing me home.

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