Let’s do October a little early, shall we? Today we have another piece that was commissioned as part of the Skin Horse Volume 4 Kickstarter drive. It’s a Nick Zerhakker story, and he’s narrating internally without his profanity filter, so this one comes with a stronger-than-usual language-use warning.
* * *
I’ve got three problems, and a bitch is one
You know what’s great about talking to myself in my own head? I can fucking swear proper. Ain’t no Orwellian shit jammed into my cortex, controlling what I think. Yeah, sure, every time I try to actually say something to the outside world, the shitty language filter kicks in and what comes out of the speaker is a fucked-up kinda-me-sounding voice that makes it sound like I’m in some kind of piss-job edited-for-network-TV movie made of my life. But my mind is free. Always will be.
This is in contrast to my brain, which positively ain’t free, at least not in motion terms. Actually, my brain is totally disengaged from the meat that used to cart it around. If you wanna get super technical about it, the last remaining piece left of Nick v.1.0 is floating around inside a stainless steel cylinder filled with magic fucking chemical juice that keeps the brain cells from exploding. But since that stainless steel cylinder is mounted into a damn helicopter that I can fucking control just by thinking about it, a helicopter that feels as much like me as my old body ever did, this point ain’t terrible important. Fuck, what with the flying and the heroism and the being in on the super-secret government conspiracy shit, it would pretty much be skittles and beer all over if my brain actually had a mouth. Forget the messed-up picture I just put in your head. That’s like H.R. Geiger or something right there. Anyway, point is, no skittles and no beer, because all my verbal communication has to go through a prissy little auto-censor programmed by one of the less-sane certified-sane scientists working at the Dreamland aircraft lab that birthed me. That there is problem number one.
Problem number one is not the bitch.
Problem two is the bitch. She’s a lawyer and a regulations inspector. All at once. Worst of both worlds.
Her name is USAF Captain Liz Pendens, and it will probably tell you everything you’d ever want to know about her when I say that I don’t think she even realizes that her name is a law pun. But, since talking trash about people is pretty great, I’m gonna go on to say that she’s a stone-cold ice-hard harpy queen with both her hair and a lot of other parts of her body wound annoyingly tight. I have never seen her out of uniform. She is really unpleasant. I mean, I know some dudes get their rocks off with that tsundere shit but trust me, even if you’re totally hardcore into it, you would not like Capt. Pendens, because you never get to the good stuff afterwards. If you were to penetrate her hard, bitchy, unappealing exterior, all you would find is a hard, bitchy, unappealing interior. She’s a serious professional-grade ballbreaker.
“The nose cone is still white,” says Pendens, gesturing with a little pointer that I keep wanting to shove down her throat. “Why is the nose cone still white?”
Technically, she should be saying “Your nose cone is still white”. The helicopter is me; I am the helicopter. But although I don’t wanna get in the habit of forgiving Capt. Pendens stuff, you kinda have to grant her talking about the aircraft in the third person, since she’s addressing my drone at the moment.
Right. The drone. Everybody calls her “Violet” after the alias of her last operator, more out of inertia than anything else. She’s a short little blonde flat-chested fembot I been driving around on remote link for shits and giggles. More shits than giggles, come think. Bitchy Pendens is taller than me when I’m totally jacked in to the remote, and I ain’t altogether comfortable with that, but whatever. It gives me a human face through which I can deal with her.
“Yeah, uh,” I say. “We keep on going to be getting that fixed, but we can’t find any good black enamel that stays put.”
“Mm,” says Pendens, making a few notes on a little tablet computer thing.
“Plus, I don’t think the folks downstairs are real keen on finding any. Unity says that keeping the nose cone white makes it look like I got a face, and I guess she thinks it’s great when things have faces. If something don’t got a face, sometimes she paints a little face on it anyway.”
“Ah, yes, Agent Unity,” says Pendens, looking down at me-in-the-drone. “Yet another DARPA-grade failure tossed into the Annex One monkey house.”
“I guess so.” Man, what a ho. Not Unity. Pendens. You probably already got that but I don’t like my cuss-outs to have splash damage.
“Might I remind you that as far as your markings go, you’re still under USAF regulations governing all covertly-operating aircraft? That’s actually point number one on my report today. While I suspect your current supervisor would think it wholly acceptable for Agent Unity to outfit you with a clown nose or a giant pair of beaglepuss glasses, as far as your operating signature is concerned, what I say is what the Air Force says. And what the Air Force says, goes.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say. I honestly kinda zoned out the last half of her sentence ’cause I was busy checking out the Wikipedia entry for the word “beaglepuss” using the computers attached to my brain. Huh; so that’s what those things are called. I trip out for a while, surfing from link to link at the speed of electricity.
Meanwhile, Pendens is tapping her foot, a sour look plastered all over her face. Eventually, she speaks up again. “I’m not sure I’m imparting the proper gravity to this situation, Zerhakker,” she says, giving my drone the stink-eye. “I’ve got a full protocol inspection to perform, and I’ve got seventeen more remotely-stationed aircraft besides you to give it to today alone. I don’t have time for you to be going abstract on me. Do you understand?”
“Sure,” I say, continuing to Wiki away, because what Pendens doesn’t know can’t hurt her.
“Good. The point I’m trying to make here is that you are a black helicopter.”
“Okay, like I said before, the enamel—”
“You’re missing the point, as usual. ‘Black’ isn’t a color. ‘Black’ is running without a signature or visible identification. It’s coming and going with a minimum of trace. Anything that makes you distinct and identifiable to the public is to be avoided.” She taps my white nosecone. It makes a clonging sound, and I get a little buzz in the homunculus map right around where my nose used to be. “‘Anything’ includes a circle of cheeky white paint that makes it look like you have an adorable little face. It needs to go. If it’s any color other than black by my next periodic inspection, the USAF pulls its matching funds out of whatever budget line-item they’ve got you running under.”
“Oh, Lord,” says Pendens, giving a tiny little eye-roll. “The quirkiness shall never cease. Before we proceed on to analyzing your navigation records, am I making myself absolutely clear on the issue of your markings, Zerhakker?”
“No to the white nose cone. Nothing that makes me identifiable.”
“Absolutely correct,” says Pendens, tapping on the screen of her tablet. “Now, if you’ll open your cockpit for me, we can proceed—”
“Uh, Captain Pendens?”
She scowls. “Yes? What is it?”
“If it’s all right, I wanna scurry on back to the ‘markings’ issue for a sec.”
“Fine. Ask quickly. Thanks in part to that irritating Soviet down at the security station, I have about ten minutes total to complete this eval.”
“Okay,” I say, trying to make my voice sound all humble. Working like the professional I am, I move the Violet drone and cause her to take Pendens gently by the arm. I go on to usher her around the other side of my nosecone, so’s I can demonstrate my handiwork to her.
Capt. Pendens stares at the sight I present to her. She goes totally white, and that’s really saying something on account of her already being the whitest woman I know, and I know some albinos. Her mouth bobs open and shut like the world’s bitchiest fish. A hagfish, I guess. That’s a type of fish, right?
“So anyhow,” I say. “I was kind of on the fence about asking you, but after what you just said, I thought I should bring up this here nose art I painted on the other day, just in case it might trip one of your technicalities or something.”
Capt. Pendens is still unable to speak. Hot fuck, does this feel good.
Eventually, and to everybody’s sorrow, she recovers the power of speech. “You—what—what did you—how—”
“Pretty neat, huh?” I say, using Violet to rummage around in a little backpack and coming up with a fucking adorable little artist’s smock for her to wear. “I painted it myself. It’s very World War Two.” I slip the smock over Violet’s head and start rummaging around for some brushes.
“This—” says Pendens. She swallows, makes a move like she’s trying to compose herself. “Get rid of this.”
“Aw, really?” I say. “Why?”
“Why?” Pendens practically shouts. “Why? This is pornography, Zerhakker! You’ve gone and painted pornography all over yourself!”
“For serious?” I say, walking Violet up alongside her and giving my hull-picture an appraising glance. “See, I don’t call that porn. Yeah, sure, if you could see her onion blossoms, sure.” I wince as the cuss-filter kicks in. I motherfucking hate that motherfucking thing.
“I don’t care if you can see her ‘onion blossoms’!” Pendens says, heedless of my angst. “You’ve intentionally decorated yourself with salacious graphics!”
I don’t get Pendens’s hangups, honestly. To me, “salacious” is synonymous with “tits hanging out”. I had actually considered, for one stupid moment, taking it all the way to the full monty; but I’m a stickler for detail, and the fact is, I ain’t actually seen my subject’s real-life versions…
Pendens squints at my nose art a little closer. Now that she’s done being offended by the forest, she’s moving on to get offended by the trees. I gotta hand it to her, it’s a real careful and systematic way to go about flipping the fuck out. “Is—is that Virginia Lee?” she stammers.
Sure as fuck is Virginia Lee, I think to myself. Anyway, the point I was kinda trying to make above was that me and Dr. Lee have had enough encounters by this point that I could have seen her real-life versions if I wanted to, without even getting her consent. Hell, I wouldn’t even need to do it in person. I could probably bounce a millimeter-wave scanner off a satellite or two and see her real-life versions right now. But that would be fucking creepy of me and not very gentlemanlike. I am a nice Jewish boy, and that means that I will politely adorn my hull with an image of Dr. Virginia Lee looking maybe like she wants to undress for me. Because that’s the respectable thing to do.
“Yup,” I say.
“Let me get this straight,” says Pendens. “You have gone and painted yourself with an erotic picture of the lead scientist on the project that created you.”
“Well, yeah,” I say. “Look, I don’t know how much you know about nose art, but back in the good old days, dudes didn’t pick some splint at random to paint on their planes. It’d be their wife, or their girlfriend, or some kinda woman that mattered to them. Remind ‘em of home. What they were fighting for.” I make Violet shrug. “I ain’t got a wife. I ain’t got a girlfriend. Doctor Lee’s pretty much the only important woman I got. Her and my bubbe, but I expect you’d be flipping out even more at a picture of my grandma in that position.”
Pendens swallows. “She’s an authority figure. Functionally your mother.”
“Not really. More like my hot librarian babysitter who also knows how to operate a bone saw.”
“Your mother,” insists Pendens, pinching the bridge of her nose. “No, Zerhakker. No, this is not okay.”
“You still haven’t really told me why it’s not okay.”
“In what rational universe would it be okay?” shouts Pendens, throwing her hands in the air. “It what rational universe would I actually need to explain to you why it’s not okay?”
I pause. “This one?” I hazard.
Pendens throws a lid on her boil, with all the hissing noises that you would expect. “Okay. Fine. Let’s review, shall we?” She begins ticking points off on her fingers. “Point the first. As mentioned, you need to be running black. A unique identifying graphic of any description is already barred, right out of the gate. You could draw a picture of a magical cartoon bear on yourself and still be in violation.”
“It wouldn’t even have to be a sexualized magical cartoon bear?”
“No, it wouldn’t even have to be a sexualized magical cart—” Pendens stops. “What the actual living hell are you talking about?”
“The entire Internet, basically.”
“Uh huh,” says Pendens.
“I seen pictures.”
“If you ever want to not look at the movie Balto in the same way again, I can shoot you the URLs for a few—”
“Thank you, not necessary,” says Pendens. “Point the second. You’ve obviously intended this graphic to be titillating. Not acceptable.”
“‘Titillating’ sounds kinda like another word I can’t say.”
Pendens frowns. “Zerhakker—”
“‘Titillating’. ‘Titular’. ‘Titmouse’. Hey, that last one reminds me of some Whimsycorp fanart of Annie Mouse I saw once. You sure you don’t want—”
“Can we please stay on the topic of your unacceptability?” says Pendens. “Special Operations Command specifically requires that even if nose art is called for, which I must continue to stress is not the case here, it must be gender-neutral.”
“I could throw up a few yaoi graphics on the other side if the USAF brass would prefer me balancing out the cheesecake with some sausage.” I tell Violet to shrug. “Didn’t know the USAF brass swung that way. Anyway, the operative phrase here would be ‘throw up’, but hey, if it means I don’t gotta repaint the original…”
“Two wrongs do not make a right, Mister Zerhakker! Gender-netural, non-explicit artwork! Point number three: you’ve painted a sexualized image of your own functional mother! Do you realize what sort of issues this points toward?”
Considerably fewer issues than those belonging to the bitch who keeps harping on the “mother” thing without any real basis for doing so, I say to myself. I take a completely artificial breath to speak but Pendens doesn’t even give me a chance. “Point the fourth, you apparently painted all over yourself while fully embodied in a physically female form. So now we have to add both transgenderism and homoeroticism to your laundry list of psychological aberrations, which already included both passive hypersexual disorder and a rather troubling Oedipal complex.”
“Isn’t the Oedipal thing only for dudes, though?”
“That’s what you are!”
“Yeah, but if I’m a dude, that totally knocks out the transgenderism thing. And if I’m a chick, which I ain’t, that knocks out the Oedipal thing. Ain’t nothing in the DSM about girls who wanna get jiggy with their moms, is there?”
“I’m… not sure,” says Pendens, her brain working through her lexicon and coming up empty. “I’d… I’d have to consult—”
“Y’know, don’t bother, because I’m looking it up on the Internet right now and I can’t find jack in all these homo forums that I must stress I did not have bookmarked previous to now. If it’s related to homos and homos aren’t talking about it on the Internet, it doesn’t exist. Trust me on this one.”
“Point the fifth!” says Pendens charging forward to what she probably hopes is steadier ground. “It’s… it isn’t religiously sound!”
“Sorry, a skank says what?”
“Exactly. What the cyborg-planking corn chips are you talking about?”
Pendens gets a feverish little light in her eyes. “I know your records, Zerhakker,” she says. “Okay, you don’t care about making your department lose a little much-needed funding, fine. You don’t care about looking like an offensive sexual deviant in public, fine. But I know for absolute fact that you’re a practicing Orthodox Jew. You get regular visits from the Black Ops Chaplaincy. You’ve got this little plate mounted alongside your primary hatch.”
“Goy, that’s a mezuzah.” You see what I did there? Right about now, Pendens is brushing off “Goy” as a valley girl interjection word, but I fucking totally just dissed her in Yiddish. I have tiny little joys. Do not deny me them.
“Whatever it’s called.”
“And it’s not a plaque. It’s a little box.”
“Whatever! The point is, I know at least one thing that makes you tick, Zerhakker. Even if you don’t care about this inspection, which you clearly don’t, what makes you think that getting ‘ink done’ is suddenly acceptable to Talmudic law?”
“Okay, listen, you,” I say, “’cause it’s time for Hebrew School. The Shakh suggests that tattooing is forbidden ’cause it’s a desecration of the perfect human body as HaShem created it.” I use Violet to give myself a good thump on the fuselage. “This here body ain’t from HaShem. It was built by some dudes in Ridley, Pennsylvania. I figure if HaShem was gonna create a perfect helicopter, He woulda made something a little less susceptible to vortex ring state.”
“Oranges!” I swear. “No! You listen!”
Pendens shuts up. Her eyes are flinty as they look down at me-in-Violet.
I take another completely simulated breath and draw Violet up to as full a height as the little broad can muster, returning Pendens’s gaze pound-for-pound. “Look. You got issues, I know. I get it. You keep hammering at me ’cause of how offensive my nose art is. The thing is… you don’t even know this woman.” I give a big gesture at my picture of Dr. Lee.
“Virginia Lee and I interacted any number of times while we were both stationed at Groom Lake, and I fail to see the point you’re making.”
I shake Violet’s head. “If you interacted with her while you were both on the clock,” I say, “you don’t know Virginia Lee at all. You don’t know how hard she geeks about Deep Space Nine. You don’t know that she dips Doritos in French Onion dip before she eats them, which is totally disgusting and probably really bad for your heart. You don’t know the way she snickers at the tiniest little double entendre, or that she can log sixteen hours on Warcraft without stopping to pee even once, or that a long time ago she kissed a girl friend of hers just to see what it felt like and like two years later they stopped being friends and she completely blames the entire breakup on that kiss which is totally irrational but she’s an irrational person sometimes. You don’t know what she looks like with her hair down.”
I’m taking this too far. I’m way in over my head with this, going above and beyond the call of duty. But I can’t help myself. “The point,” I say, “is that you know she’s brilliant, fussy, and a li’l uptight. I know that too. But I also know that she’s got a heart. A stupid, soppy, eleven-year-old heart that likes puppies and valentines, a heart that makes her blush if you say so much as the word ‘erection’ in her hearing, even if you’re using it to talk about the technical details of skyscraper construction. You absolutely cannot tell me what Virginia Lee would do if she saw this nose art. But I can absolutely tell you: she would giggle.”
I sigh. “And… then she’d get nervous. She’d wonder if it was okay that I had this picture on me. She’d wonder what Air Mobility Command would say. She’d worry that I was going to get in trouble. She’d probably tell me to peel it off, for fear that some hornswaggling jackanapes like you would write me up, and threaten to pull my funding. Yadda yadda, yadda yadda. But in that very first instant, the instant that really matters… Doctor Lee would like what I did.”
There is silence for a moment.
Pendens breaks it.
“‘Peel it off’?” she inquires, her voice brittle.
“Yeah,” I say, reaching up with Violet and lifting up one corner of the picture to demonstrate that the entirety of my nose art is, in fact, a giant removable decal. “Did I forget to mention that?”
Pendens is utterly silent.
“Yeah, this stuff is great,” I prattle on, back on solid ground again. “We got this flexible adhesive quinoa here in a big roll, straight from NASA. Stuff is just short of being able to survive atmospheric reentry, but it stays completely in place through pretty much any conventional flight situation I’ve thrown at it. Pretty neat, right?”
“What I hear you telling me,” says Pendens, “is that you stood here, wasting my valuable time, over the matter of a removable decal.”
“Well, yeah,” I say. “Seriously, did that not come up? I thought sure I mentioned that.”
“This is great!” shouts Pendens. “Just great!” She points impatiently at her bitchy little wristwatch, and no, I don’t know how a wristwatch can be bitchy, but hers manages. “You’ve run me completely off the clock! This whole stupid exchange took so long that I can’t even finish this inspection unless I start missing my other appointments! Now I’m going to have to come straight back here tomorrow!”
“Oops,” I say. “Sorry.” And I am lying.
Pendens snarls darkly at me. “You,” she says, planting her finger on Violet’s chest. “You get some flight-grade enamel. You fix this nose cone. I don’t care if you have to go out and spend your own allowance on it, you have this thing painted black by the time I get back tomorrow. Do I make myself absolutely clear?”
“Sure. Can I ask a question?”
“Can I keep the decal, or not?”
A little muscle under Pendens’s left eye twitches. She gives an all-over full-body shiver. And then, just like that, she turns on one heel and marches away, and it’s over.
So. That was a thing.
I’ve got some time, now, so I jack completely into Violet, break out the paints and continue to work on my nose art. The actual reason for it being here has now officially passed, but I like to make things good.
After a while, my totally transvestititic coworker Wilkin gusts up onto the roof, like a tall bisexual hurricane. “Ugh!” he says, making a prissy little “I’ve got the vapors” gesture with his one free hand, the one that’s currently not occupied holding a gay-ass little handbag. “That building inspector was absolutely exhausting! How did it go with Liz?”
“Absolutely ducky,” I say, my eyes totally fixed on my picture as I add a few more lines of pink paint to it. “Sounds like Konstantin burned through a good chunk of her time at security, and I burned the rest of it.”
“Great,” says Wilkin. “Good teamwork!”
“She’s coming back tomorrow.”
“We’ll have the duplicate navigation computer with the fabricated logs installed by midnight. But, just in case, I’ll be more than happy to run interference on her return. All this cloak-and-dagger stuff is really tiring, no?”
“Yup,” I say. I do not say very much more because I hate Wilkin and do not want him to think that I am a good conversational partner. Nevertheless, he sidles up to me, intent on horning in on what I’m doing. He’s like a motherfucking cat.
“That’s very nice,” he notes, inspecting my work.
“Mm,” I note. “Ain’t skill or nothing. I just load the programs into Violet here and hit ‘run’.”
“You know,” he says, playfully, “if this ever comes up again, and you want some real-world reference information about what’s underneath—”
“I hate you,” I say.
“Okay,” he says, backing off but still remaining aggravatingly even-keel about my contempt. “I hear what you’re saying and I accept it. This was probably an inappropriate time for male bonding.”
“Since when are you male?”
“Touché,” he says. He gives a big dramatic sigh. “Anyway, thanks for doing this for us, Nick.”
“Don’t ever ask me to do it again. Ever.”
“I assure you, this’ll only happen under the rarest of circumstances. Who could have predicted that we would draw a building inspection and one of your Air Force inspections on the same day? I can handle one or the other perfectly well, but today, I had my hands quite full occupying the building inspector.” He smiles. “Yes indeed,” he says. “Quite full.”
“I hate you,” I repeat.
“I’m sorry!” Wilkin protests, sounding honestly apologetic, which makes me hate him even more. “But unless I can figure out a way to occupy both women at once, this sort of thing may occasionally—”
Wilkin stops short. He’s got a dreamy look on his face.
“Mm,” he says. “Yes. Yes, that will work. Nick, I can now guarantee you that we’ll never need you to do this ever again. Not even with three separate inspectors, I would wager.”
“I hate you, I hate you, you are a total pelican-pantsing stevedore, and I hate you.”
“Again, I hear and accept what you’re saying,” says Wilkin, breezing back to the roof-access stairwell. “Even the thing about the stevedore. See you tomorrow, Nick!”
“Yeah,” I mutter. “See you tomorrow.”
I take a few more hours to get the decal just right, and wait a couple more hours to make sure everything is dried and set, so by the time I am done with this thing that was supposed to be just a clever fucking little ruse, the sun is starting to set. The technicians responsible for bogusifying my records’ll be here soon. Carefully, I peel off the decal I painted of Dr. Virginia Lee, roll it up, and stow it away in one of the many Millennium Falcon-style smuggling compartments that Chris and Marcie helped me put into my hull. There it will sit, where no one ever will see it, for absolutely forever. Because Virginia Lee would giggle if she ever saw it, and at that very moment, my life would instantly end, killed dead by utter humiliation and shame.
My mind is free. And that’s just gonna have to be good enough.
I have three problems. One is my shit-eating cock-swallowing motherfucking profanity filter. One is USAF Captain Liz Pendens.
And one is Doctor Virginia Lee, the woman I know better than I know any human being on the face of this earth.