Under the Satin Gunmetal Sky
by Shawn Goodman
The Dirty Boulevard is steaming its way through the hottest part of July. Schneider steers his ancient Continental down the 1500 block, which is a study in concrete: soot-covered bricks and iron-barred windows that bleed rust all the way down to the foundation. The sidewalks are littered with broken glass and discarded scratch tickets. Half of the shops are boarded but still open for business. Spray-painted particleboard in place of signs, though some of the lettering is quite artistic. Quality guns, quick background checks. Number One Relaxing Massage! Boulevard Beer and Liquor.
Schneider smokes his second-to-last unfiltered, a metal forearm resting on his car’s open window. He’s thinking about his new case, which he doesn’t have a good handle on. Two murdered synths, both with their arms removed. Done cleanly, too, by someone with skill. Which raised several questions. Like why the arms? Were they the trophies of a crazy person, or for another purpose? And, if so, what?
He'd said this at the briefing, but the other detectives were dismissive. “Who cares about a couple of dead synth hookers?” This from Kowalski, who was inches away from retirement and miles away from giving a shit. About anything. “Close the case, Schneider. Move on. And don’t get all high and mighty just because you feel bad for your own kind.”
He’d brought it to the lieutenant, who’d just nodded and said, “I’ll give you two more days, Schneider. After that—”
Fine,” he’d said, even though two days was a joke for something as complex and weird as a double murder with missing limbs. And since the forensics had come up clean—no hair, fiber, semen, or prints—he’d have to pull out all the stops, and maybe try a desperate move.
Which is why he’s gliding the Continental to a stop in front of Stiehl’s, the semi-famous fight club that stands as a brick and iron sentinel to the Boulevard’s south end. It’s a gateway to neon-lit darkness, drugs, and cheap pleasures of every kind. He kills the engine and goes inside. He clocks the bikers two stools down at the stained, pitted bar top. They’re playing it tough for their women, throwing mean looks between sips from Bud longnecks. One of them speaks the words Schneider’s been hearing his whole life, the words that may as well be etched into the plating on his forearm: “Nobody wants you here.”
“Dirty synth,” says the other.
Schneider orders a whiskey and a round of Buds for the bikers. “Enjoy. It’s on me.” He pops a clear pill and washes it down with his whiskey. The pill is Xylene, a powerful hypnotic that only works on synthetics. Among other effects, it produces perceptual disturbances, hallucinations, and what Schneider needs most right now: a wild insight from his subconscious.
“Why?” One of the bikers touches the sweating bottle, thirsty for another but curious about the catch. Because there’s always a catch.
“Consolation prize.” Schneider gets up and leaves a pair of twenties on the bar.
“For being an asshole.” He walks away, heading to the back room with its eight-meter steel cage. Inside, two beefy shirtless synthetics are beating the hell out of each other, MMA style. Except in Schneider’s estimation, there’s no style at all. It’s pure brutality. Mass and force.
“Schneider?” It’s the club manager, Tony Paz. Long, heavy face on a long, heavy body. Covered in black leather with silver studs. Topped with a badly dyed Mohawk.
Schneider shakes hands as the first distortion wave hits him. He sees the crowd rising and falling on a gigantic human sine curve, bending, shuddering, and then returning to normal. “I'm here to fight,” he says quickly. Because that’s how it is with Xylene: you never know how long you’ve got before things change. “Can you get me in?”
“These guys will kill you, Schneider. It’s not like it used to be.”
“Then bet against me.” He tries to prime his mind by going over the few things he knows. The female vic, Rachel Montgomery, is the lessee of apartment 2C. No known relationship to the male vic. The apartment was cheap, but clean and orderly. No pictures or personal artifacts, but that wasn’t surprising for a synth working girl: absent a childhood, absent the need for images of holiday gatherings and family vacations.
“Okay.” Tony takes Schneider’s badge and gun for safe keeping. “I’ll put these in your body bag.”
As soon as the first fight ends, Schneider stumbles into the cage and realizes he’s as high as apple pie. But that’s okay, he trusts the drug. Or the experience the drug provides. Something about the way the chemical affects the striatum and alters the perception of time. It’s Greek to him, but he knows it will get him where he needs to go. Of course, with Xylene, there’s always the risk of becoming paranoid and going mad, but that’s where fighting comes in. For Schneider, the element of danger serves as an anchor. It won’t prevent him from tripping his balls off, but it should keep him close enough to reality to find his way back.
“You coming, cupcake?” The man—or synthetic man—at the center of the ring beckons. His fight name is Crusher.
Schneider can’t tell if his opponent is covered in scales or if it’s an effect of the drug. Probably the drug. Body enhancements aren’t unheard of, but there are strong cultural taboos. Besides, the most successful cage fighters are like pool sharks. They have to look the part, but not enough to scare away the competition.
“Let’s go, little man.” The giant synthetic rubs his mitts together in anticipation.
Schneider puts a tentative foot onto the rough canvas. He’s fascinated by the way the fibers weave together, like the mat of mycelium that runs underneath soil and cement. The secret substrate of life. He kneels closer and vomits. It’s all part of the trip: perceptual distortions followed by a purging of the body. And hopefully, something from his case will bubble up from the depths of his mind.
“Come on,” he says to his opponent. “Don’t just stand there. Hit me.”
Crusher shrugs, steps forward, and jabs. Once, twice, and then a hard right that glances off Schneider’s forehead, sending a shower of white sparks across his field of vision. He lists to his right side and widens his stance to avoid falling off the edge. Where did the edge come from? Instead of a chain link fence, he sees a threshold of earth and stone. And beyond that? A river of blinding yellow and orange light cutting through a massive field of black. The light and black fills him with awe, and terror. He retreats, shielding his eyes.
“What are you doing, man?” Tony calls. “Get your head out of your ass.”
Schneider looks at Tony and takes a blow to the side of his face that might have killed another man. He crumples to the canvas, which ripples beneath his weight in undulating waves of blue and gray. A canvas sea. He reaches out to touch the surface of the sea, and just like that, it happens: he jumps through time and is back at the crime scene, at the vic’s apartment building. And it’s not just a memory trick; it’s like he’s actually there, knocking on doors, canvassing neighbors.
“What do you want?” A small man in a dirty bathrobe stands in the doorway. He needs a shave and a haircut. And a new bathrobe.
Schneider pushes past him into the kitchenette, which is shrouded in a fogbank of weed smoke. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Leon, and you’re wasting your time. I don’t know nothing.” Leon is twitchy and defensive. “Seriously. I’ve been here all day.”
Schneider looks around, trying to see something he might have missed the first time he was here. He knows it’s just a textured recreation, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that he finds something useful.
“You got a warrant?” Leon says, like he’s reading lines from every bad cop movie ever made.
Schneider looks at the walls of the apartment, which are bare except for an unframed paint-by-numbers of a bulldog. The colors are lurid, the attention to detail laughable. “Is this your work?”
“What can I say?” Leon grins. “I like arts and crafts.”
Schneider takes a step closer to the picture. Leon gets even more twitchy. And then—
“Boo!” He’s back in the cage with Crusher, and the crowd hates him. They were promised combat, not a one-sided beat down. Schneider looks up at his opponent, who is bouncing toward him on the balls of his feet, closing in, ready to deliver a knee to the face. But now Schneider can see threads of kinetic energy extending from Crusher in colored vectors. The vectors telegraph the brute’s intentions, projecting his movements into the future like echoes. Schneider watches and, at the last fraction of a second, rolls away and sweeps Crusher’s leg. The fighter goes down hard on his right hip. Schneider leaps to his feet.
The crowd roars. Maybe they don’t hate him.
Back in the apartment.
Leon is still talking. Blathering about his innocence, his rights. Schneider’s not listening. The words don’t matter. He needs to get to the picture and see what’s behind it. Leon doesn’t seem sharp enough to be hiding anything other than drugs, but who knows? Once, Schneider found a murder weapon—a Diamondback 9mm—at the bottom of an aquarium. It was half buried in blue rocks along with fake pirate relics.
Back in the cage again.
“Okay, man.” Crusher picks himself up, but he’s wary now and keeps his eyes on Schneider. “You got lucky.”
Schneider is feeling loose now, sliding nicely into the middle part of his trip. He moves his feet across the canvas while circling his arms in front of him, like a slowed-down dance. His metal forearms look iridescent and leave faint color trails. Schneider thinks it’s beautiful. He wants nothing more than to keep moving, to continue watching the display. But something is wrong. Dangerous. A fist cuts through the color trails and smashes into his windpipe. He chokes and falls back, gasping. Crusher advances and says, “Time to die, little man.”
The next blow cracks the metal of Schneider’s cheek plate. Beads of ocher blood pop up along the line of the crack. That’s when Schneider sees something incredible: a white pulsing light at the core of Crusher’s chest. It emanates from a condensed ball of energy the size of a closed fist. His heart? Chi? Soul? Schneider doesn’t know, but he can’t look away. It’s beautiful. Even though each split second of looking brings him closer to his own destruction.
What if he touches it? Yes. He reaches to touch the pulsing light, but time shifts again and he’s back in Leon’s apartment. He fumbles the picture and knocks it off the wall. In its place is a peephole, no more than an eighth of an inch in diameter. Just big enough to run a fiber camera into Rachel Montgomery’s bedroom. Which means Leon’s been watching her, but, more importantly, there will be video footage. Evidence.
Schneider grabs the small man by the collar of his bathrobe, but a scaly muscled arm blocks him. A knee thrusts up and into his abdomen. Schneider doubles over and catches a vicious uppercut that swells his right eye shut. He hits the canvas hard.
Crusher raises his arms and stalks the perimeter of the cage, appealing to the crowd. Schneider senses his trip—and the fight—is almost over. He stands and gets into position. This time, when Crusher strikes, Schneider catches his arm at the point of maximum extension and leans in, applying just enough force to snap the joint. It sounds like a green stick.
The big synth howls. Schneider watches the guttural sound waves come out of his twisted mouth. They flutter and swirl in the air, above and around him, dark red and jagged. Filled with pain. He doesn’t need to make sense of them, to translate them into words. They are waves of energy, and he is energy. His opponent is energy, too. He tries to shift back to the apartment, to find Leon’s laptop, or hard drive—wherever he keeps his video footage. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t control a Xylene trip. At best, you can use it.
Crusher swings with his other hand. Schneider traps it and butts him in the face. Crusher’s eyes lose focus and Schneider butts him again, this time hard enough to dent the plating on his own forehead.
“Yes!” It’s Tony Paz, calling out from the crowd.
At last, Crusher slumps against the fence. The light in the center of his chest continues to pulse, but when Schneider touches it—covering it with his outstretched hand—the light splays out through his fingers in crimson rays. It’s magnificent, but the final bell is ringing. Tony is pulling him away, holding his arm up in the air.
“You beautiful, freaky sonofabitch,” Tony says, peeling off a dozen large bills.
Schneider looks at the crowd and sees a wall of confused faces. They love and hate him at the same time. He knows the feeling. Whenever he breaks a case, for a short while, he gets to feel real happiness. The rest of the time? Not so much. He takes his badge and gun, but pushes away the money. “You keep it.”
“Come on,” Tony says. “You earned it.”
“I got what I needed.” A moment later and Schneider is lost in the crowd. He pushes through the doors and onto the street, where the night swallows him whole. He doesn’t mind. He’s on his way back to the crime scene, to sweat Leon about the video footage, and follow that to the next lead. And the next, until he finds the killer and puts him away. Or puts him down.
He lights his last unfiltered and takes a long, slow drag, content for the moment. Because he knows exactly who he is: another synthetic man in a world that doesn’t want him, but needs him just the same.
Shawn Goodman is the award-winning author of Something Like Hope and Kindness for Weakness, and the co-author (with Wes Moore) of This Way Home. His short fiction has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, The Bayou Journal, JMWW, and Novel Slices. He lives with his family in Ithaca, NY.