Second Place Winner of Voyage’s Spring 2021 First Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Melissa de la Cruz
*A brief note from our guest judge: “I loved the worldbuilding and was intrigued by the concept and I wanted to read more.”
Luperón, Dominican Republic
As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have the money to afford a neural lace upgrade, then don’t come knocking on my door.
Señora Daví has the money. Her lace lays flat on my steel workbench like a piece of lingerie from Hache warehouse down the street. Its intricate patterns form a series of delicate swirls, thin coated copper threads curl at its edges, and each stitch I make glows a turquoise blue as I point the needle back and forth along the fray. I insert the needle back into the pattern, pull the silky thread out, and weave in a new memory with a simple slip knot.
In the middle of my makeshift lab, a clock levitates the time. Its bright green numbers reflect off two industrial-sized racks organized with all my precious threads, needles, and rogue pieces of brain scanners I salvaged over from Luis’s junkyard. The lab’s ventilation system clicks on, struggling to start, and I make a mental note to visit the junkyard for a radial fan.
It wasn’t such a hard job, but Señora Daví was particular with her lace, adamant that I restitch a new memory so she can forget about her cheating husband. I warned her that memory removal was harder, more delicate, and she would forget everything between now and ten years ago. She had nodded, gripped my hands with double the money I had asked for, and shuffled out of my lab.
I place the finished neural lace in thin tissue paper and send a vid-message to Daví to stop by my lab so I can stitch it onto her head. I pop in a pair of ear pods; their tiny legs extend and attach themselves just outside my inner ear. A melodic three-beat bachata thumps into my brain.
My lace pings a bright red warning sign into my vision.
<<TOMAS AND ENRI APPROACHING>>
I swipe away the message with my mind. Maybe if I don’t answer, they’ll walk away.
A series of knocks pound on my door.
“Que vaina.” I rub my temples, inhale a long breath, and swipe my palms over my half-shaved head where my neural lace is implanted; the other side braided in thick, black strands to keep the flyaway baby hairs at bay while I work.
“No money, no stitches,” I yell to the door. I’m so close to buying papá’s cure, I refuse to do any more free work in the city. My hands go back to the lace in front of me, and I focus on stitching a neural lace for another client, Ruiz. At eighty years old, she’s requested I recalibrate her auditory stitch so she can hear better.
“MJ, it’s me. My brother’s sleep stitch blew out again. He’s not waking up.” The voice on the other side is exasperated and breathless, but I’d recognize Tomas’s voice even if it came through a computer lab filled with a dozen servers. I hesitate because his little brother Enri needs a real doctor, not me—a self-taught brain stitcher—to fix the problem. I’ve stitched it over and over again, but I’ve told them what he really needs.
I yell at the door again. “I already told your mami—he needs platinum threads and I don’t have any of those fancy things here.”
Tomas bangs on my door louder this time. I throw my head back in defeat, walk towards the door’s panel, press my palm into it, and the door whooshes up. A large breath of air breezes into my lab, and I raise a palm to my eyes, squinting at the bright sun overhead. Motorcycles and hydropasolas whir behind Tomas and Enri, people bustle, car horns blare, and I remember why I hate the noisy city so much. I breathe in for a moment though and relish the heat as whiffs of fried pastelitos tease my nose. I haven’t been outside the house in days.
Tomas cradles Enri in his arms, his shirt wet from sweat and hair damp from running to my lab. His tall stature makes him look like he is in his thirties. Even so, I can make out the babyface through his nineteen-year-old eyes.
“Please,” he says. He leans close to me. His pleadings make my heart crunch. But I can’t help him.
I choose my words with care. “Take him to the clínica. He needs proper medical attention.” I sigh. “You know how it is.” I press my lips together and refuse to let out even the slightest hint of remorse that I feel bad for Enri.
“Por favor. You gotta help me. You’re one of the few right now,” he says, more intently, more breathless, and grabs my arm. His eyes flit as if searching for any bit of me that’s good. He won’t find any of that here.
My hand tingles, palm at the ready to shut the door back down. I swallow the hard lump in my throat instead. It’s not such a big deal to help. A dark heaviness fills my chest as I think about my father in the other room who, much like Enri, has a lace that keeps glitching.
I open my mouth to acquiesce, but Tomas shoves past me and heads straight for the medical cot in the quiet chill of the lab.
He adjusts Enri in his arms. “You want money, right? I got it. Name your price.”
I raise my eyebrows. He has my attention now, although my stomach sinks with guilt. I don’t want to hold little Enri hostage. His stitch won’t cost much, but I’ll be that much closer to the money I need for papá’s cure. Even so, I calculate how much is reasonable for a replacement stitch for Enri’s neural lace.
“Five hundred pesos,” I say as I cross my arms.
“Fine, whatever you want.” He mumbles something to Enri as he places him on the cot. Something inside me tightens and my stomach quivers. One look at Tomas and I understand—he’ll do whatever it takes to save the one he loves.
“You sure you have the money,” I ask, and am about to pull out my hand.
His eyes glaze over and he strides, boots thumping down hard on the concrete towards me. With my neural lace, I mentally command my ‘quito drones to energize their tiny blasters to stun, just in case. I know he won’t hurt me, but I take a step back anyway.
“You see my brother over there,” he shouts and points to his little brother. “Don’t you have any heart, any soul to help the kid? To help your people?”
I inhale, but there’s no point. He’s angry, and I don’t want to fluster a big brother.
“Fine,” I mutter, but still feel a pit in my stomach.
From a few feet away, I can see Tomas’s neural lace tinkling little yellow colors, and with my expert eye, I can tell his emotion stitch is glitching, too. He needs an upgrade, but these cheap threads fall apart on our laces like rotting teeth.
I haul over one of my brain scanners, flick a switch to turn it on, and move the detachable monitor over Enri’s lace. Using two fingers, I spread the image wide to zoom in and rotate the cerebrum around.
The neural lace is like a small net, no larger than my palm, and threaded with intricate stitches. The scan allows me to rotate the image of Enri’s brain and see all the threads connected to various parts of the brain. Each stitch controls a different part: sleep, emotions, acumen, and my favorite, memories.
The lace, once implanted, melds onto the shaved part of the head and ingrains itself through layers of skin, bone, and onto the brain matter, where it stretches across the brain, like tentacles. Enri’s lace is still growing as he’s only twelve, and the living tungla threads used to construct the lace will grow with him until he’s eighteen. It’s there, beating, like a living organism pulsing against the brain matter. I rotate the brain until I find what I’m looking for.
The sleep stitch blinks. It hangs onto the brain like a loose tooth, malfunctioning and glitching. It makes sense why Enri keeps fainting—it keeps falling off.
I step back from the scanner and Enri, then face Tomas, who frantically paces across my lab, rubbing his hands together.
“Everything okay?” he croaks. “He’s going to die, right?”
I raise an eyebrow, perplexed at his drama. “He’s fine. He needs a platinum stitch—“
“I heard you the first time. You know we can’t afford one.” He suddenly finds interest in his worn-out shoes. He softens, his voice low and sad. “You know la Unión makes it hard for us to buy platinums.”
I raise my palms. I get it. La Unión has a tight hold on who gets what type of threads. Platinums are the high-end, quality threads with formidable programming, durable for decades, and then us, the poor folk, get the tungla threads made of copper proteins—the cheap threads that burn out and glitch every couple of months. It’s unfair that everyone is required to get the neural laces implanted at five years old. And yet, people like us can’t use it well after five years. For the right price, though, la Unión will let go of a platinum stitch for one hundred thousand pesos. That’s why people come to me: to stitch up their laces, and keep it working without spending a ridiculous amount of money.
It’s unfair, but it’s not my problem. I do what I can, but in the end, money will get you what you want.
“Work harder, Tomas. Get more money and get him a platinum.”
Tomas’s eyes roll. “Not everyone is so lucky,” he complains.
I pretend I don’t catch his snide comment. Not everyone likes my methods. I’m too strict, they say. Fix more people. Do it for free. But how can they say I’m lucky when I’m the one who lost a mother, and my father is dying at the hands of one of the few brain stitchers in my country: Me. I point to my scanner.
“Easy fix but not permanent.” I glance over at him, but he just nods. “You sure you have the money?” I ask as I rummage around my boxes for a thread. I tap a keyboard next to the scanner and make some calculations.
“Yeah, yeah, I do.”
I pause to glance over him, but he doesn’t make eye contact and I don’t dare push because right now, I don’t have a choice. Enri needs his stitch fixed, and I’m going to help him. Maybe he does have the money. And five hundred pesos would help.
“Give me ten minutes.”
“Is it dangerous?” He folds his hands as if in prayer. He’s not used to this, I can tell. Enri visits me often, but his mother is usually the one that comes in for help.
“He’s in good hands, for now. We can stitch it a few more times, but—” I snap my words back and swallow them.
I know what it feels like to live with someone whose neural lace glitches at every moment, who might die at any time. Images of my father napping just a few doors from my lab sneak in my mind again, distracting me for a second.
But the words are real, and there’s nothing I can do. “He’ll die, Tomas.”
He groans but ignores me. “You’re a really good brain stitcher. Like the best.”
The monitor in front of me hides the blush beneath my skin. “There’s no need to kiss my ass, Tomas,” I snark, but I can’t help but feel a little pride for all the hard work I’ve done.
Before he can say anything else, I wave over the ‘quitos to bring me back my needle. I remove the sleep thread and stitch in a new one. The brain scanner confirms it accepts the added thread, and I watch as it melds against the rest of the lace, seeps into skin and bone, then into the brain like an outstretched hand until it reaches the hypothalamus.
I make some final adjustments to the lace and tighten the optic stitch. Poor boy is a little clumsy sometimes.
The adrenaline pumps through me as I finalize the stitching, slipping the threads into tight tiny knots. A few moments later, Enri blinks awake.
“You okay, little ace?” I ask, ruffling his hair and calling him by his nickname. My body relaxes with relief at saving him once again from malfunctioning into a deep sleep. I would’ve stitched him for free.
Enri tries to sit up from the cot, but I ease him back down.
“Woah, it takes a few minutes.”
Enri blinks. “My eye,” he says. “It’s better—I see better. So cool!”
“You’re welcome. I tightened up your optics. A little extra for you.” I wink at him, and I think about revealing the platinum problem to this twelve-year-old kid but decide otherwise. The brain surgeon who implanted his neural lace used the cheapest and toxic one around, nickel silk, but I know his mom couldn’t even afford the coppers.
Tomas rushes over.
“You scared me, Enri.” I look between the brothers and for a minute, I miss my dead mother. Whether it’s the energy radiating from my scanners or the way the brothers hug, the pain of my own loss pulses in my mind and sears through me. She would’ve loved this intimate moment, too.
“Alright.” I lean into my chair. “Where’s the money,” I say and stick out my hand.
He sucks in a breath and palms his face. “Don’t be mad, okay?” He closes his eyes, pulls back a black strand of hair behind his ear. “I don’t have it.” Words stumble out, and he struggles to look at me. Enri looks at the ground and hugs himself.
“Enri go home. And tell your mami I said hello.” I wave him off and little Enri leaves my lab, but the silence that remains wretches my stomach. I knew I couldn’t trust Tomas.
“Before you say anything, I have an idea.” His tone is confident like he thinks he’s smart. The only thing smart about him was that he came to me for help.
“You have an idea,” I mock back. “Just leave, alright. Consider it a favor. You owe me one.” I stand up, walk up to the lab door, and tuck my needle behind my right ear. Tomas doesn’t move.
“What was I supposed to do, MJ?” he yells. “He needed your help.”
“It’s not about Enri.” With my lace, I mentally command the lab door to open. I’m exhausted from the day’s work. Rage should fill me up like a tank, but all I want to do is go to sleep. I point to the door to make an extra gesture that it’s his time to go. “A thank you would be nice.”
“Listen.” He paces across my lab again. “Word on the street is there’s someone looking for a brain stitcher for a lace upgrade. Says he has the money for platinums. Two hundred thousand pesos just for the job.” He looks around the room as if someone might overhear us.
An upgrade doesn’t come without a backstory, and if this person has the means, why come to a brain stitcher and not the professionals? I mull over the options. Two hundred thousand pesos would cover the cure—and more.
Money consumes my every thought, at every waking hour, no matter the day or time, whether I’m with clients or not. I imagine my father, walking down the street without a limp, holding a normal conversation without another seizure, without losing precious memories. Our house—our little home—I could get us out of here. My curiosity sinks in, and I hope he isn’t lying this time around.
“Why does he need an upgrade?” I ask as I cross my arms.
“Okay, you’re not going to like it.” He pauses, eyes me as if at any moment I might strangle him. “He had an accident in one of the rebellion fights last week in Malecón.”
Oh no. My fist clenches and unclenches, and my throat tightens. I force steady breaths into my shaky lungs before my body begs to release a tsunami of anger on him.
“No, no, no,” I repeat. “Hell no.”
I shiver in the warmth of my lab, my lip quivers, and I can feel my lace tinkling. Too much information for my tiny space, and too little air to breathe. There’s no way I would work for the rebellion. Not after one of their so-called attacks shredded some of the shacks on Carmen Street when I was a girl. Not when of those pieces—a shrapnel from their homemade nano bombs—latched to my eye, making its way past the optic flesh and into the brain. My mother had to wrench it out, blood streaming down her forearms and shushing me to be quiet. She injected the last of her own nanobots straight into my pupil as a last desperate measure to repair my eye. It’s part nano, part flesh—but now, my eye is a shade lighter than my right, and for the rest of my life, I’ll view the memory of the rebellion as a revolutionary bypass.
It’s not that I don’t believe in their cause. I don’t believe in them. They’ll never be able to release us from la Unión’s chokehold grip. Why try to fix things, make it better? Everyone is out on their own ever since la Unión took over the country ten years ago. They kill, then the rebellion kills. They pose new rules and laws, then the rebellion protests, and kills. Why fight when there is no chance at peace? The last time I tried to get help from the rebellion, they closed their doors in my face, laughed, and warned me that they had better things to do. And la Unión? It was my last resort to go knocking on their doors for help for papá. I was met with the same result. They—both of them—are the same.
So now I keep my head down, bring in as many clients for as much money as possible.
“And it’s for Hadrian Santos,” Tomas says, his voice shaky.
I look up and stare up at Tomas, my eyes wide, my lips refusing to move.
“You tell him I don’t ever want to see him again.”
I turn away, open the door to my lab, and wave him out. I don’t dare look at him, and instead, stare outside while people walk up and down the street in the heat, towering solar palm trees scattered between puperías and AIs mechanically selling fruit in the streets.
“But MJ…” He stands at the door, one black boot in, the other out the door. All I want to do is shove him and his idea outside.
I shake my head again, nudge him out, and shut the door. I turn around, my back against the door. It never occurred to me that I would hear that name again. My best friend back in high school. My comfort when my father took ill. My boyfriend when I thought all was lost. Then my ex-boyfriend who chose to leave me to fight for the rebellion.
My cheeks flush and I touch them with my palms to cool them down. I’m growing hot already and it’s not from the servers in my lab.