She could barely remember a time when she hadn't bled.
It seemed as though she'd spent her whole life on her knees, trapped in a diabolical exoskeleton that bent and stretched in arbitrary excess of anything the human body could mimic. Her body didn't have a choice, had never had a choice; the dancing cage took it along for the ride, posed her like some hyperextensible doll in a chorus line. Her joints popped apart and back together like the pieces of some ill-fitted cartilagenous puzzle. She'd lost her right breast an eternity ago; Achilles had looped some kind of freakwire noose around it and just pulled. It had plopped onto the Escher tiles like a dead fish. She remembered hoping at the time that maybe she'd bleed to death, but she'd never had the chance; He'd ground some flat-faced iron of searing metal against her chest, cauterizing the wound.
Back then she'd still had it in her to scream.
For some time now she'd inhabited a point halfway between her body and the ceiling, some interface between hell and anesthesia conjured up out of pure need. She could look down and observe the atrocities being inflicted on her flesh with something almost approaching dispassion. She could feel the pain, but it was becoming an abstract thing, like a reading on a gauge. Sometimes, when the torture stopped, she would slide back into her own flesh and take stock of the damage first-hand. Even then, agony was becoming more tiresome than painful.
And through it all wound the insane tutorials, the endless absurd questions about chiral catalysts and hydroxyl intermediates and cross-nucleotide duplexing. The punishments and amputations that followed wrong answers; the bless'ed, merely intolerable rapes that followed right ones.
She realized that she no longer had anything left to lose.
Achilles took her chin in hand and lifted her head up to the light. "Good morning, Alice. Ready for today's lesson?"
"Fuck you," she croaked.
He kissed her on the mouth. "Only if you pass the daily quiz. Otherwise, I'm afraid—"
"I'm not taking—" a sudden wracking cough spoiled the impact of her defiance a bit, but she pressed on. "I'm not taking your fucking quiz. You might as well cut to the ch…the chase while you've still got the… chance…"
He stroked her cheek. "Bit of an adrenaline rush going on, have we?"
"They'll find…find out about you eventually. And then they'll—"
He actually laughed at that. "What makes you think they don't already know?"
She swallowed and told herself: No.
Achilles straightened, letting her head drop. "How do you know I'm not already broadbanding this to every wristwatch in the hemisphere? Do you really think the world's in any position to begrudge me your head on a stick with all the good I'm doing?"
"Good," Taka whispered. She would have laughed.
"Do you know how many lives I save when I'm not in here trying to give you a decent education? Thousands. On a bad day. Whereas I go through a bit of ass-candy like you maybe once a month. Anyone who shut me down would have orders of mag more blood on their hands than I ever could on mine."
She shook her head. "It's not…like that."
"Like what, ass-candy?"
"Don't care…how many you save. Doesn't give you the r—right to…"
"Oh, man. It's not just biology, is it? Tell me, is there anything you're not dumb as a sack of shit about?"
"I'm right. You know it…"
"Do I. You think we should go back to the Good Old Days when the corpses were running things? The smallest multicorp killed more people than all the sex killers who ever lived, for a fucking profit margin—and the WTO gave them awards for it."
He spat: the spittle made a foamy little amoeba on the floor. "Nobody cares, sweetmeat. And if they did you'd be even worse off, because they'd realize that I'm an improvement."
"You're wrong…" she managed.
"Ooooh," Achilles said. "Insubordination. Gets me hot. 'Scuse me." He stepped back behind the stocks and swung the assembly around. Taka spun smoothly in her harness until she was facing him again. He was holding a pair of alligator clips; their wires draped down to an electrical outlet embedded in the eye of a sky-blue fish.
"Tell you what," he proposed. "You find a flaw in my argument, and I won't use these."
"Yeah," she rasped."…you will."
"No, I won't. Promise. Try me."
She reminded herself: nothing to lose. "You think people will see this and then just, just— walk away when you tell them the—the corpses were worse? You think—you think people are logical? Y-you're the one with…with shit for brains. They won't care about your fucking argument; they'll take one look and they'll tear you to…pieces. The only reason you can get away with it now is—"
That's it, she realized.
What would happen if ssehemoth just…went away? What would happen if the apocalypse receded a bit, if the situation grew just a little less desperate? Perhaps, in a safer world, people would go back to pretending they were civilized. Perhaps they wouldn't be quite so willing to pontificate on the unaffordability of human rights.
Perhaps Achilles Desjardins would lose his amnesty.
"That's why you're fighting Seppuku," she whispered.
Achilles tapped the alligator clips together. They sparked. "Sorry. What was that?"
"You are so full of shit. Saving thousands? There are people trying to save the world, and you're trying to stop them. You're killing billions. You're killing everyone. So you can get away with this…"
He shrugged. "Well, it's like I tried to explain to Alice the First. When someone steals your conscience, you have a really hard time giving a shit."
"You'll lose. You don't run the world, you only run this…piece of it. You can't keep Seppuku out forever."
Achilles nodded thoughtfully. "I know. But don't worry your pretty little head about it. I've already planned for my retirement. You have other concerns."
He pushed her head down against the stocks, stretching her neck. He kissed her nape.
"Like for example, the fact that you're late for class. Let's see. Yesterday we were talking about the origin of life, as I recall. And how some might think that ssehemoth had evolved on the same tree that we did, and it took a while but you eventually remembered why those people had their heads up their asses. And that was because…?"
She hadn't forgotten. ssehemoth's pyranosal RNA couldn't cross-talk with modern nucleic acids. There'd be no way for one template to evolve into the other.
But right now, there was no way in this hell that she was going to bark on command. She clenched her jaw and kept silent.
Of course it didn't bother him a bit. "Well, then. Let's just do the review exercises, shall we?"
Her body spun back into position. The assembly locked into place. The exoskeleton drew back her arms, spread her legs. She felt herself cracking open like a wishbone.
She vacated the premises, pushed her consciousness back into that perfect little void where pain and hope and Achilles Desjardins didn't exist. Far beneath her, almost underwater, she felt her body moving back and forth to the rhythm of his thrusting. She couldn't feel him in her, of course—she'd been spoiled by all the battering rams he'd used to pave the way. She found that vaguely amusing for reasons she couldn't quite pin down.
She remembered Dave, and the time he'd surprised her on the patio. She remembered live theatre in Boston. She remembered Crystal's fourth birthday.
Strange sounds followed her through from the other world, rhythmic sounds, faintly ridiculous in context. Someone was singing down there, an inane little ditty rendered off-key while her distant body got the gears:
So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.
There had to be a subtext, of course. There would be a quiz at the end of class.
Only there wasn't. Suddenly the thrusting stopped. He hadn't ejaculated—she was familiar enough with his rhythms to know that much. He pulled out of her, muttering something she couldn't quite make out way up here in the safe zone. A moment later his footsteps hurried away behind her, leaving only the sound of her own ragged breathing.
Taka was alone with her body and her memories and the tiled creatures on the floor. Achilles had abandoned her. Something had distracted him. Maybe someone at the door. Maybe the voice of some other beast, howling in his head.
She was hearing those a lot herself these days.