Today, Rich Larson, a modern master of speculative short story, considers the ultimate, far-flung conclusion of humanity's never-ending quest for new extremes to stream. Enjoy. -the ed.
Yorick walked through the village while they waited to see the chief. There were bits of technology here and there -- cracked-and-glued tablets plugged into ancient solar chargers, a sleek little hydrofarm no doubt smuggled off the Satellite by blackmarket dealers -- but overall Manzu was deliciously raw and primitive and their streamers would eat it up.
Its warped mud brick had an organic feel to it, like termite mounds sprung up out of the dirt. The sand streets sloped inward and trash was strewn everywhere, nearly all of it plastic. Plastic, so much oily filthy plastic dancing through the dust, tumbling in the harmattan winds. It made Yorick shiver.
The people, the women in brightly-printed zani and ragged winter jackets, the men in flowing riga and threadbare scarves, seemed oblivious to it. Some of the wandering skeletal goats seemed to be eating it. Yorick made sure to capture that before walking on. A gaggle of parasite-riddled children trailed along in their wake; through a babel imp Yorick understood they were still daring each other to touch the back of Yorick’s vantablack coat or grab at Yorick’s dangling pale hands.
“Yanna da daman ganinka yansu. He’ll see you now.”
Yorick’s contact Ibrahim had come to fetch them. He was a nervous man, with sweat running down his pudgy cheeks in familiar rivulets, and Yorick’s modified olfactories could smell his sickly-sweet diabetes. Interesting, but not arresting.
“Na gode,” Yorick said, and followed him back toward the chief’s compound.
The children disappeared one by one, tugged away by their mothers, and when they arrived at the rusty iron door they were alone. The walls around the chief’s gida were etched with geometric patterns and the tops were adorned with shards of multi-colored glass.
The guard, who had been lounging on a woven mat in the shade, levered himself upright on wiry arms. His face was scarved against the dust with gaps only for eyes and for ancient wired earbuds, but he gave them a friendly nod before he wrenched the door open and motioned them through.
Inside the compound were a dozen more people: a woman fed thistles to a camel whose oversized feet and knobbly knees seemed to balloon from its skinny legs, others pounded some sort of grain in drum-like wooden mortars, a pair of boys were scrubbing out old plastic bottles in a plastic tub of foaming water, a small girl whirled a cackling baby on her hip, several children ate a red stew from a metal tray, passing the wide carved spoon in a circle. All of them stared, and Yorick was glad to not have come in costume.
Yorick had a variety of costumes: sometimes they wore an antique suit and top hat, evoking Baron Samedi. Sometimes they wore an elaborate flowing dress of red roses, for Santa Muerte. Sometimes a simple black body-glove and a dog skull mask, sometimes x-ray gear that exposed their entire skeleton in ghostly white. Their streamers were always eager for new costumes.
A man dragged two chairs up, both of them made of colorful plastic bands woven over a welded metal frame. Ibrahim sat in one, muttering unanswered thanks. Yorick sat in the other, disguising their reluctance, trying not to imagine the plastic seeping into the material of their coat. More men trickled in the door after them, all grave-faced, all watchful. The king’s court, Yorick thought.
They waited. Flies buzzed here and there; children chased each other in the sand. The sky overhead was choked gray with the thick harmattan dust Yorick had marveled at during their sub-orbital flight from the Satellite to the Sahara. The sun was a lemon-yellow blob, so dulled they could stare straight at it if they liked. Even so, Yorick felt their cell-knitters working to repair the UV damage every second they were exposed.
When the chief finally emerged from the central hut, mud brick roofed with corrugated sheets of tin, Yorick knew they had chosen well.
Tall and broad-shouldered and straight-spined, he had the gravity well of a small moon all on his own, walking with the slow graceful motion of someone who was used to being watched and did not care. He was clearly refusing to limp. His riga was bright yellow, his neat beard silvery-white, and his face beautiful in the jagged way of unaltered genes, jutting cheekbones and asymmetrical but piercing eyes.
Ibrahim sprang off his chair and Yorick followed suit. The chief offered his right hand. Ibrahim took it, using his left to clutch his right elbow, and kept his eyes down. Yorick’s babel imp was accustomed to the rapid avalanche of overlapping greetings, but this time was different. Ibrahim spoke softly and waited patiently; the chief’s hoarse replies were measured. When they had asked and answered of the sleep, the home, the family, the body, the chief extended his right hand to Yorick.
Yorick took it, thrilling at the feel of hot dirty skin. They could smell what they’d come for, strong enough to confirm the symptoms Ibrahim had described.
The chief looked him in the eye, betraying no emotion, then half-turned his head to Ibrahim. “Ya iya Hausa?” he asked.
“Hausa ta wiya,” Ibrahim said, miming the earpiece of an old-fashioned translator.
The chief sat gingerly on a carved wooden stool, adjusting his riga with one hand, then turned his full attention to Yorick. “So,” he said, speaking Hausa but enunciating for the babel imp’s sake. “You are the doctor from the Satellite.”
“May I inspect you?” Yorick asked, and it tumbled off their tongue in foreign syllables. “I can do it here. Or privately. I do not need to touch.”
“My family knows my sickness. It is no secret.” An odd buzzing came from his clothes; his hand darted into a pocket and came out holding an antiquated blockphone. He glanced at the screen and shook his head, putting it away again. “Inspect me here.”
Yorick stepped closer, retrieving the medroid from the folds of their coat. The tiny white capsule sprouted cilia legs and crawled to the edge of their palm, scanners linking to Yorick’s own augmented senses. They took a deep sniff and the medroid analyzed the composition of the chief’s bacterial cloud, his sweat and skin particles. Yorick recognized the metallic tang of old blood clotting in his urethra, a subtler smell layered underneath, the smell of their ancient nemesis.
The medroid snapped an ultrasound and the blurry grayscale image in their mind’s eye confirmed it: a massive tumor nestled in the chief’s bladder, expanding like a supernova. Yorick felt a quiver of excitement. Their streamers were sophisticated, tired of cheap shocks like immolation or dismemberment. The chief’s condition was perfect, an exquisite juxtaposition to his primal dignity.
“So?” said the chief.
“There is no medicine in this world that would save you,” Yorick said, and it became beautiful in the chief’s language: “ Cikin wannan dunia ba maganin da zai ceci renka.”
A little girl vaulted into his lap; he hissed and slapped her away, then pulled her back, keeping her to the outside of his knee but gently rubbing her head. The girl stared at Yorick with wide eyes. Her nostrils were crusted with snot.
“But you are not of this world,” the chief said, slow, pensive, but without the bitterness Yorick often saw from clients.
“No,” Yorick agreed. They knew that if they took the chief back with them to the Satellite, it would be child’s play to flense the cancer even from his unmodified body. But it would likely return, and Yorick was not in the business of saving lives in any case. “Even so. Your sickness can’t be treated.”
One of the men snuffled, holding back a sob. A few of the women cried out. The chief only blinked. “As Allah wills it,” he said, but his eyes went to one of the women in particular and stayed there. “Will you have anything to eat? To drink?”
Yorick shook their head. “A’a. But there is something else I would like to propose.”
The chief waved a permissive hand. His mouth was thin.
“Your sickness holds a particular fascination for many of us on the Satellite,” Yorick said. “It was the last to be conquered. With your permission, I would like to leave behind a camswarm to monitor your condition. I would also implant a nerve conduit to transmit your pain for my streamers to experience themselves.”
The speech took Yorick’s babel imp to its limit -- they heard it mix Old African French into the Hausa -- but the chief seemed to understand. He gave a rueful laugh. “I do not walk. I do not sleep. Five, six times in the night, I pass lumps of thick black blood of this size.” He mimed with a dusty knuckle. “It is agony. You want this for yourself?”
“Badly,” Yorick said, speaking for their streamers. “It’s been a hundred years since there was a natural death on the Satellite. Our telomeres reknit themselves. Our cells reproduce with zero-rate mutation. But still we have death inside of us. We crave it in the vicarious abstract.”
The chief’s face twisted, disgust mingled with mild disappointment, as if Yorick were one of his misbehaving children. “You want to watch while I die.”
One of the women clicked her tongue and murmured. Yorick’s babel imp heard wickedness, wickedness.
“The sights, the sounds, the smells and tastes, the sensations as your body betrays you and your mind finally slides into the dark,” Yorick said.
The chief looked at Ibrahim and shook his shaven head. “What is this that have you brought into my house?” he asked, and Ibrahim did not answer, but he flushed and trembled, eyes cast down. “You are not a human.”
“I do not speak of your modifications.” The chief rose from his stool and for a moment Yorick felt cowed by his size and fury. Then he sagged back down, face stretched with pain. “In exchange, you offer what?”
“A full hydrofarm. It will pull enough moisture to supply your village and the two closest to it with pure water.”
The chief shook his head. “Inoculation against the na-virus,” he said. “For our children. If they are dead they cannot drink the water.”
“That could be arranged,” Yorick said. They had almost forgotten the na-virus, a population control measure from the old days.
“A recycler, to eat the rubber and plastic,” the chief said. “And a printer, to make new equipment. And then the hydrofarm.”
Yorick pretended to consider. The chief was shrewd and tough and his descent would be riveting. Ten hydrofarms was a pittance compared to the streamer volume attracted by the war between his pride and his pain, his dignity and his duty.
“A good bargain,” Yorick said, and extended their bony white hand.