art by Steven R. Stewart
Filling up the Void
by Richard E. Gropp
Richard E. Gropp lives on a mountain outside of Seattle, with his partner of 13+ years. It is a small mountain. This is his first published story, but his novel Bad Glass recently won the Del Rey/Suvudu Writing Contest.
***This Story Contains Mature and Potentially Disturbing Content. It is for Adult Readers Only***
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The Linguist wore the harness and collar this time. I liked that about him; he had a willingness to play. The whole thing wasn't stylized with him. He hadn't turned sex with me into a solemn rite--deadly serious, full of steps and choreography, with me playing my role and him playing his. With him, sex could be spontaneous and fun. And that's one of the reasons he was my favorite client.
Afterwards, he lay with his head against my chest, running his fingers through my fur.
His real name was Dale, but I always thought of him as "the Linguist."
"I wish I had your balls," he whispered.
I laughed and licked my teeth. I let my tongue loll as I caught my breath. "That's kind of the point with you, right?" I said. "You wish you had my balls, my muzzle, my sheath, my tail. You want to crawl up inside my skin, but you're not quite ready to take that plunge."
His fingers stopped moving through my pelt, and his breath stilled. I'd hurt him. This subject was a minefield for him, and I'd stumbled right out into the middle of it.
"I'm sorry," I said, wishing I could take back my words. "I understand. Really, I do… It's not your fault." Not everyone could do what I did. Not everyone had that much ego and that little modesty. Always the center of attention. Adored by some, hated and feared by others.
We lay in silence for a while, then I bent down and licked the nape of his neck. He always liked the feel of my rough tongue against his skin. "Tell you what… you wish you had my balls? You can use them anytime you like. What's mine is yours. I'm your big, bad wolf."
He grunted--a warm exhalation against my fur.
I knew he wasn't over it, wasn't over the thoughtless cruelty of my words, but his hand traveled lower, until he was fondling the proffered testicles. "I guess that'll do," he said. "For now." His voice was soft and wistful, but I could hear the start of a smile there.
His kneading at my crotch grew more insistent. I started to stir beneath his hand.
The surgeries weren't cheap. In fact, they were very expensive. There was no way I could have afforded them on my own.
It was a full-body mod: complete gene-rewrite; bone reformation, mostly in the skull, but also in the hands, feet, legs, and pelvis; flesh removal and regrowth, in stages, from head to foot; and then three weeks spent in a drug-induced coma, suspended in a recovery bath as my skin, fur, and claws finished growing. And it wasn't like I was working with back-alley designers and surgeons here. My sponsors took me to Holt and Nordquist in Finland. They were artists, geniuses. Most definitely not cheap.
Even with such pedigree in my corner, the transition could have been a disaster. I knew that going in. I'd seen the pictures--people with hideous, deformed faces; beasts walking on crutches, atop poorly-formed legs--and, always, the threat of retrovirus and voracious cancer. But it worked. For me, at least, it worked.
And when they were done with me, I made the cover of Stitch magazine. Arctic-blue eyes; long gray and white muzzle; my new, alpha-wolf smile. They called me a masterpiece: Holt and Nordquist's Wolfboy.
It was quite an honor.
There were other genemods at my coming out party--a girl with blue skin and tentacles, an eight-foot-tall man with rippling muscles and violet eyes, a pristine-faced girl with angelic wings--but I got most of the attention. I had a crowd of admirers around me at all times--surrounded by hungry eyes and trembling hands, men and women both, reaching out to touch and pet and devour. My sponsors must have been thrilled. I was a high-ticket item, and this was a well-heeled crowd.
Near the end of the night, my handler--Jonas--cleared a space around me and had me strip out of my shorts. He turned me around and lifted up my tail. He cupped my testicles and described, in great detail, the pleasures of my canine cock. When I got hard, a low moan escaped from the collected audience.
I was the realization of a fantasy, here. Something new, and base, and primal.
By the end of the night, I had a three-month waiting list.
My contract tied me to ten years of service. No more than one client a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. Plus fifty films over the course of my contract--front-loaded, so most of them would come out while I was still new and exciting. The buyout price at the start of my term was well over seven figures.
Ten years of service. Becoming an object.
That's the price I paid to finally get my body, to finally feel at home in the world.
The Linguist wasn't really a linguist, but he did study languages, and he talked about them a great deal--the power of words, their role in shaping our perception of reality. He worked at the university, developing computer algorithms to better encode information.
He tried to explain it to me once--the connection, what he was working on--while we lay in his bed, drinking bourbon. He handed me the bottle and grabbed a notebook and pen from his bedside table. He opened the notebook and spent a couple of seconds writing something on a blank page.
"Is this you?" he asked, showing me the piece of paper.
There was one word there: Wolfboy.
"No," I said, recoiling, slightly, at the simple summation.
"Okay. How about this?" He flipped to a new page and wrote something more; it took him a lot longer this time. "Is this you?" he asked, showing me the page.
Rodrick. Fun. Hot wolf body. Likes to dance, play videogames. Doesn't talk about his past. Drinks too much. Treats his clients with respect and understanding. Is an incredible lover. Makes me cum like a fountain. Has a good, generous heart, and a magical, entrancing, wolfy smile… a smile that melts icecaps and makes me weak at the knees. And he's very, very brave.
I smiled. I would have blushed, if I'd still had human skin. "I guess that's me," I said. "I mean… I try."
The Linguist returned my smile, but he gave his head a tiny little shake. "But that's not you, not even close. It's just a short description, just words on a piece of paper, something that doesn't even come close to encompassing what you really are. If I were to try to sum you up in words, truly encapsulate you--every little bit of you--we'd need reams of paper and a whole new language. That's how complex you are … that's how complex we all are."
I nodded and poured bourbon down my throat. Drinking was always a little bit messy for me; canine lips can't really form a seal around the mouth of a bottle.
"How would you do it, then?" I asked, using my tongue to clean spilled bourbon from my muzzle. "How would you describe me, exactly?"
"I'd start with the inside and work my way out. I'd scan your brain and describe the position and state of every neuron, hopefully catching your memories and thoughts, your neural pathways. Every last connection. Then I'd describe the placement and composition of each atom in your body. If we could do that, if we could encode your entire being on paper, or in a database, we could do all types of amazing things. If we had a proper, robust language, we could pop that description into a virtual environment and we'd have AI. We could grow fresh bodies and make clones. We could fold it up and send it across the universe--in an email, on a radio wave--and we'd have a form of teleportation. The description, in essence, would be you, but flexible, versatile." He leaned over the side of the bed and dug into his nightstand drawer, coming up with a tiny memory stick. He waved it in the air like a magic wand. "Imagine it! You could be here--right here--in the palm of my hand. All of you. Just waiting to be born."
"But would it really be me?" I asked. "Once you got it running? Or would it be a simulation? A description, still, without a soul?" I ran my hand across my fur, then gestured towards the Linguist's naked body. "All of that scanning and recreating--" I shook my head. "How do you know you wouldn't lose something in the process? Something important? How do you know that you would still be you on the other side?"
"The description, the information, makes the soul. I'm sure of that," he said. "If you get the description right, you get the person… As for me still being me--"
The Linguist looked down at his body. He had a bit of a paunch, and he rested his hand there, on his belly. There was a pensive expression on his face. I'd never thought of him as unattractive--he had a certain rugged, scholarly beauty--but I knew how he felt about himself, about his body. I knew that he longed, desperately, to be something else, something different.
I'd felt that way myself, before the surgeries.
"I've never been me," he continued. "Not even God could get that one right."
I was coming from a movie shoot the day I found his body.
It was a strange shoot. I was working with two other mods: a massive guy with dark red skin and devil horns, and a coal-black girl with bat wings and glowing orange eyes. I think they were supposed to be demons, and I was their hellhound, and we were sexually assaulting our way through a Puritan village. The devil had spines on his cock. The girl had working mouths where her nipples should have been (the mouths could move, quivering open and shut, but they couldn't swallow, and they didn't have tongues).
As I said, it was a strange shoot, and I had a headache by the time the day was done. I was just hoping for some dinner and relaxation at the Linguist's place. Then, maybe, some simple, un-choreographed sex. I was looking forward to it. I was looking forward to him.
But when I got there, he was dead.
The front door was standing open, its frame shattered at the lock. I stepped inside, not really picking up on the disturbance, not really sensing any trouble--I was tired; I just wasn't thinking. I found him on the living room floor, lying on his back in a puddle of blood. There was a gash in the back of his head, and cuts on his face. His arm was cradled up against his chest, and I could see blood on his fingertips; when I got closer, I saw that several fingernails had been torn away from his hand. He'd been tortured.
It was horrible.
His eyes were open, glazed dull and sightless. His mouth hung slack. There was no tension in his face, no life. Just that vacant, empty stare.
It was hard seeing him like that. I started to move forward, wanting, distantly, to close his eyes. But then I stopped. My knees felt weak. I turned away before the sight of his body could drop me to the floor.
I fumbled the phone from my pocket and called Jonas. Jonas was my handler--he arranged my clients, set up movies, collected money--he handled things. It was his job to deal with problems, and this was a problem I sure as hell couldn't handle on my own.
"He… he's dead," I growled, as soon as he picked up. I had trouble talking; it was like I'd returned to the first days after my surgeries, once again learning how to use my new mouth. "The Linguist--" the word came out as a groan of consonants, Lrng-rghn, "--he's dead."
"Slow down, puppy dog," Jonas said. "I can't understand you…. Just take it slow. Deep breaths. One word at a time." Hearing his voice--and that stupid pet name--settled my nerves. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
"The Linguist. Dale… his name is Dale," I said, finally managing to form the words. "He's dead. On the floor. Murdered."
"What did you do? What happened?" His voice was calm, despite the horrible accusation in his words.
"I didn't do anything! I just got here. I found him this way."
Jonas was silent for a moment. I could imagine him sitting on the other end of the line, his thoughts grinding away, trying to figure out how to deal with this situation. Has he seen this type of thing before? I wondered. Has he dealt with dead bodies?
"Did you touch anything?" he asked. When I didn't immediately respond, he barked the question a second time. I grunted, no, and he continued. "Well, don't touch anything. And try not to fucking shed on the crime scene… You need to come in. We'll make an anonymous call, get the police over there, but I need you out of there right now! There's no telling what'll happen if they find you at the scene."
I gave Jonas a tortured "yes." Then, on autopilot, I hung up the phone, turned and left.
I wasn't really conscious of the trip to Jonas' office. My legs were numb as they carried me through the city streets, and nothing really penetrated the thick haze of my shock. I kept seeing him there, behind my eyes--the Linguist, dead on the floor. People were staring at me, but people always stared at me, with disgust and fear, curiosity and longing. I probably looked guilty. Can a wolf look guilty?
Jonas ushered me into his office and sat me down in the chair behind his desk. He poured me a large tumbler of gin. I bolted it down and he poured me another. Jonas was wearing a suit; he was always wearing a suit. He always looked in control.
After I downed my second drink, I told him about the body. He gave me a cautious look and sat down on the edge of his desk, directly in front of me.
"It was probably drugs," he said. "Probably a drug deal gone wrong."
"It's not drugs," I said, vehemently shaking my head. "He didn't do drugs."
"But he did sell them."
I looked up from the tumbler in my hand. Jonas was fixing me with an intent stare. It looked like he was trying to judge my state of mind, trying to figure out what I already knew and what he needed to tell me. "It's true," he said. "I bought from him, on occasion. For some of my other clients. And sometimes he'd pay his tab in meth… He wasn't a street dealer or anything. I think he just moved large quantities--a middleman, really, working for a chemist."
"What?" I couldn't believe it. "He was a researcher, a scientist, a scholar … not a drug dealer!"
"Do you really think he could afford you on a university salary?" Jonas shook his head. "That's not what happened. You're an expensive piece of tail, puppy dog."
I sat in stunned silence.
Jonas leaned back and squirmed away from me for a moment. He looked uncomfortable, sitting there on the edge of his desk. "There's something else… he didn't want me to tell you about the drugs, but there's something else as well. Another secret." He paused and glanced away from me for a moment, fixing his eyes on a file cabinet near the door. "He's been paying off your contract. He's been giving me extra money every month. I think he wanted to surprise you. By my count, you've only got about two months' work left."
"Two months? But that's six years," I said. Then, not quite believing: "He paid off six years of debt?"
"He gave me a huge chunk last month. Maybe that's what got him in trouble. That money."
I couldn't move. I couldn't even blink my eyes. The Linguist had been doing all of that behind my back? Committing crimes, risking his life?… For me? For my benefit?
Did he die for me?
"If you don't believe me, he said he left you a note. He kept records, a ledger. And if anything happened to him, he said it'd get sent straight to you. Automatically. I guess he was trying to keep me in check--you know, trying to keep me honest." Jonas shook his head in disgust, as if the very thought was ridiculous to him, an insult to his integrity. But I wondered. Without that threat, would Jonas have told me about the payments? Or would he have kept me working for six more years?
"After your two months are up, we still want you with us, of course," Jonas said. "You're still valuable, still very much in demand. And we can talk about a new contract. Maybe even get you some new mods. Or, if you want, we might consider doing things on a case-by-case basis with you--you choose your jobs, your clients. How does that sound?"
Perplexed, I met his eyes. I was still in shock; I wasn't even really hearing him. He gave me a plastic smile.
"You're still one of my favorites, puppy dog. You know that, right? Clients may come and go, but I'll always be here… And I want to be able to keep protecting you."
Jonas gave me a sedative and I fell asleep on the couch in his office. When I woke up, it was four a.m. and he was gone. The office was empty and I was alone.
He left me a note. The Linguist left me a note, in the event of his death. The thought haunted me. It got me to my feet.
I left the office and headed back to the Linguist's apartment. I tried to stay inconspicuous, pulling the hood of my coat up over my pointed ears, but I wasn't exactly the inconspicuous type. The Linguist's neighbors would have noticed me countless times over the years--that godless, genemod freak, polluting the neighborhood, openly mocking nature. Would the police pull me in for questioning? Or did they already have their suspects, their answers?
A drug dealer. I still couldn't believe it.
The shattered door was held shut with strips of police tape. I tore them away with my claws.
The apartment was dark, and I moved, slowly, through the living room. I didn't want to turn on the lights. I didn't want to see the patch of ground where the Linguist's body had lain. It was bad enough that I could smell it--the stale copper smell of blood, lingering long after the body had been removed. For once, I was glad they hadn't been able to give me a wolf's sense of smell. The human smell was bad enough.
I moved back into the bedroom and turned on the light.
It was in the first place I looked: the nightstand drawer. An envelope with my name scrawled across it in the Linguist's precise hand. Inside the envelope, I found a memory stick and a post-it note: Take this to John Halverson and Gail Meeks at the university. And that was it. Nothing more.
I didn't know what to think. The man had risked--and lost--his life for me, and that's all he had to say. No "I'm sorry," no "Live a good life," no "I love you." Just one last errand to run.
I felt sick. I felt hollow inside.
John Halverson's office was in the basement of the university. I got there a little after eight a.m., just as the building was starting to fill up with students and staff.
He pulled away from me with a start, as soon as he opened up the door. I was used to that kind of reaction. Finding a wolf at your doorstep, unexpected, uninvited--there weren't a lot of people who could take that one in stride.
"You… you're Rodrick," he finally said, after recovering from his initial shock. He was a tall man with nervous eyes. He didn't seem to want to meet my gaze. "Dale showed me your picture in a magazine. I thought he was crazy at first, but he… he was very proud of you." He swallowed and shook his head. "I… I'm really sorry about what happened. We just heard about it. We're all in shock."
I thanked him and he ushered me into his office. The room was dimly lit, most of the light coming from a pair of monitors on his desk. There was a row of server racks mounted against the wall--matte black components, faced with LCDs and blinking lights. All of that assembled hardware filled the room with a dull, mechanical whine. He had a futon tucked into the far corner of the office; its surface was cluttered with books and magazines and toys.
"You worked with him?" I asked. "You and Gail Meeks?"
"Yeah. Did he tell you about what we're doing? I do hardware, some software; she does neurobiology. Dale did all of the language, all of the encoding."
I pulled the Linguist's memory stick from my pocket and handed it over. Halverson gave me a questioning look, but he didn't say a word, instead turning and slotting the tiny piece of hardware into his computer. After a moment, one of his screens filled up with text and Halverson let out a surprised grunt. "This format--this is what he was working on."
"He left it for me. He wanted me to give it to you."
"We can try to access it." He sat down and started typing at his keyboard. Fresh windows popped up on his second screen. "I don't know, exactly, what part of the problem he was trying to tackle, but he left all of his software on my machine. If the file's intact, we should be able to see what he was encoding."
I stood behind him and watched as he worked. After a moment, his fingers paused on the keyboard and he looked back at me. I think I scared him. He had a wolf looming over his shoulder; no doubt, that triggered all sorts of primal, racial memories--hunter and prey, eyes glowing in the dark. Or maybe just bits and pieces of childhood stories. Werewolves. Little Red Riding Hood.
"It's going to take a while," he said. "Maybe days… You should go. I'll call you if I find anything."
I shook my head. "No, please, I'd like to stay. I'll keep out of your way, really. It's just… it's just… I don't have anywhere else I want to be."
It was an abrupt realization. I don't have anyone, I thought. Not anymore. The sadness of this thought drove a spike through the pit of my stomach.
I was all alone in the world. The Linguist was gone.
I stayed at the university while Halverson worked. I tried to keep out of his way. I tried not to freak him out too much.
I called Jonas on the second day. He was angry with me; I'd already missed an appointment with a client, and the Puritan sex film was on hold while the crew waited for their errant hellhound. The delay was costing him a lot of money. I could hear the frustration in his voice as he admonished me; it sounded like he was scolding a disobedient pet.
With a little prompting, he filled me in on the Linguist's murder. He had contacts at the police department, and they were keeping him up-to-date on the investigation. I don't know how much this information cost him, but, knowing Jonas, I'm sure he just added the price to the end of my debt.
"They're saying it was an accident, or manslaughter … something like that. He was tortured, worked over for information--missing money, missing drugs, maybe--but that's not what killed him. It was a blow to the head, from the corner of a table. He fell, or he was pushed." Jonas let out a tiny little laugh. "The police don't think they were actually trying to kill him. It just… happened."
For me, there was no comfort in this knowledge. The Linguist was still dead, and I still felt responsible.
"They've got leads. They're grilling one of his old college friends--they've already got the guy charged for cooking meth, and it's only a matter of time before he flips and turns over the whole operation. Including our killers… It sounds like your friend got himself mixed up in some very bad shit, with some very bad people."
Jonas was silent for a time. I think he was expecting me to say something, but I couldn't, for the life of me, think of an appropriate response.
"Anyway, they know you weren't involved. So you're safe, in the clear. The intrigue is over." He paused. Then his voice dropped down, into a hushed rumble: "You should really get back here, puppy dog. We have things we need to talk about."
I disconnected without saying goodbye.
Then I dropped the phone to the floor and crushed it beneath my heel.
Gail woke me up with a shake. "It's him. It's Dale."
For a doctor, Gail Meeks was young. Brilliant, but young. She had blue and green streaks in her hair and cartilage piercings up and down the length of both ears. When Halverson first introduced us, she'd spent a half hour petting my arm and asking me questions about my body-mods. That had been three days ago. Three long days. Now, I opened up my eyes and found her smiling down at me.
There was an incredible amount of joy there, in that smile.
"We haven't gotten around to body scans yet, but we've been doing brains," she said, her words coming at me fast, charged with adrenaline. "At least, that's what we've been trying to do--high-resolution CAT-scans, neural pathways, brain chemistry. We've been gathering it all up and Dale's been trying to encode it… And that's what he did! He scanned his brain and put it in a file!"
"And we've got it running!" Halverson exclaimed. The programmer was sitting on the other side of the room, in front of a terminal he'd bolted to the server racks.
It took me a moment to grasp what they were saying. They were running Dale? Then Gail pulled me to my feet and guided me across the dark room. Halverson's terminal was blank except for a single word and a question mark, divided into two separate lines. The letters and punctuation were a stark white against a black screen.
WHERE / ?
Halverson started typing: You're in my office--this is John, by the way--and you're on my servers. You scanned your brain and we got it running.
DON'T REMEMBER / WHAT HAPPENED / ? / AM I THERE WITH YOU / ? The words appeared at an excruciatingly slow pace. It took the Linguist nearly half-a-minute to output this simple sequence.
Halverson looked up from the keyboard. There was a pleading expression on his face as his eyes turned from me to Gail. He didn't want to do it. He didn't want to answer the Linguist's question.
"Just tell him," Gail whispered. "And don't fuck around about it. If it were me, I'd just want to know."
Halverson rested his fingers on the keyboard for a long moment. Then he typed: You died. You were killed.
There was a much longer pause this time, before the Linguist's response.
OH And then: SHIT
You're running a little slow, Halverson typed. We're getting your words no less than five seconds apart. I guess that's pretty good, actually--we've barely got enough power to run you at all…. I'm working on it. I'll buy you some new processors and tighten up the code. But for now, tell us what it's like in there. How are you experiencing this? Am I a voice in your head--or, no, I guess that's not right. You don't have a head, not anymore. Am I a voice in your mind? Are you perceiving this as text floating in the air? Or--
Before Halverson could finish typing out his rambling question, more upper-case words appeared on the screen. The Linguist was ignoring him, shutting him out. He had more pressing concerns.
BIG BAD WOLF / ?
Halverson got up from his seat and gestured me towards the screen. Reluctantly--scared out of my mind, really--I sat down in front of the Linguist's terminal. My fingers were shaking as I raised them to the keyboard.
I'm here, I typed. And then, because I couldn't think of anything else, any way to avoid the stark, tragic reality of the situation: I'm sorry. I did this to you. You got killed because of me.
But it's true, I typed. You were paying off my debt. My debt! I got you in a bad situation, and you paid the price.
I WANTED IT I didn't know what he meant by this, so I didn't reply. I sat there, staring at the screen, trying to figure it out. Then he continued: IT'S OKAY / I WANTED TO GIVE YOU FREEDOM / FOR BRAVERY / MOST HONEST PERSON I EVER MET / PURE
The wait between the words was excruciating. I wanted to ask him if he actually knew what the word "pure" meant--it seemed like such a non-sequitur here--but I didn't have the patience to wait out that type of digression.
I'm sorry, I repeated. And, as my eyes started to well up with tears: I wish you were here.
DON'T BE SORRY / I _AM_ HERE / EMPTY NOW / BUT NOT FOR LONG / I'VE GOT NO BODY / BUT WITH MORE POWER / I CAN FILL UP THE VOID / !!! / A NEW BODY / !!! / AND--SCREW GOD--I'LL ACTUALLY GET IT _RIGHT_ / !!!
At the "screw God" part, I barked out a very wolfish laugh, and both Gail and Halverson jumped in surprise. It must have been a terrifying sight--a laughing, barking, crying wolfman.
You're braver than you think you are, I typed. I always thought that about you. You never gave yourself enough credit.
And then, smiling: I wish I had your balls.
There was a long pause then, and over a minute passed before the Linguist's response. I don't know what he was doing during that time, what he was thinking and feeling, inside his brand new silicon body.
TELL YOU WHAT / I'LL EMAIL THEM TO YOU / ONCE I GET THEM MADE
This story was first published on Friday, July 8th, 2011
This is a happy story. I swear. It’s a story about transformation, about becoming who you are. And it’s a love story… It’s also got sex, violence, swear words, and blasphemy--hence the warning up at the top of the page. But, admit it, that’s what got you reading in the first place.
- Richard E. Gropp
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