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Between Blood and Bone

Ian Whates is a writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror. He is the author of seven novels (four space opera and three urban fantasy with steampunk overtones), the co-author of two more (military SF), has seen some seventy of his short stories published in a variety of venues, and is responsible for editing about thirty anthologies. His work has been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and twice for BSFA Awards. His novel Pelquin's Comet, first in the Dark Angels sequence, was an Amazon UK #1 best seller, and his work has been translated into Spanish, German, Hungarian, Czech, and Greek. Ian served a term as a director of SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) and is a director of the BSFA (the British Science Fiction Association) an organization he chaired for five years. In 2006 Ian founded multiple award-winning independent publisher NewCon Press by accident.
In the space between blood and bone, the gap between gut and sinew, the nanobots set to work, sculpting and reshaping. There was no time to spare: he couldn't afford to go slowly or be gentle, so the process was brutal. A kaleidoscope of pain flooded his being--piquancy layered upon dull ache followed by deep throb--waves of hurt that chased each other across his awareness and back, as mass redistributed to conform to his will. The pain was an old friend, though.
Finally, after eternal seconds of exquisite agony, it receded, ebbing away like a sigh lapsing into silence. His appearance was entirely transformed. Gone was the athletic dark-haired young man in matt black nonreflecting body suit. In his place, a far shorter, plumper woman: a slightly hunch-shouldered senior citizen in faded skirt and ill-fitting top. Instinctively he reached to finger the stolen data chip, just to reassure him/herself that it had survived the transition unaltered.
They were on him even as s/he let go of the precious prize. His/her shock as two uniformed security guards and a sleek blue-liveried sniffer drone came barreling round the corner didn't need to be feigned. They almost knocked him/her over.
"Have you seen this man?" the lead guard demanded, with no preamble or thought of apology. The drone displayed an impressively clear image of the person s/he had been mere seconds before.
For a fleeting moment she was tempted to misdirect them, but that risked unwanted attention should they recognize the deception and retrace their steps, so she simply said, "No." Her voice emerged as cracked, dry, and higher pitched than intended.
"He must have gone straight on," the second guard said. "Come on, or we'll lose him!"
The two guards turned to go but the drone remained, hovering in the air an arm's length from her face. She eyed it warily. The drones were a pain and were fast becoming her biggest threat. Designed to isolate and follow individual pheromone traces even through a crowded urban environment, early models had been notoriously fallible, but they were getting better. Much better.
"Oh for pity's sake," Guard One said, turning to Guard Two. "Do something about your pet, will you? It'll be telling us a dog is our perp next."
"I'm trying!" the other said, fingers tapping at a wrist display.
Finally, almost reluctantly, the drone jerked and then turned to follow its handlers.
"Sorry about that, ma'am," Guard One said--an apology at last. "Technology, where would we be without it?" His voice was rich with sarcasm.
"Where indeed?" she replied softly, with no sarcasm at all.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 20th, 2018


At the 2017 Eastercon (the National British Science Fiction Convention), I was invited by Tor editor Lee Harris to take part in "Ready Steady Flash": four authors (myself, Pat Cadigan, Aliette de Bodard, and Adrian Tchaikovsky), pitted against one another in writing a piece of flash fiction in five minutes in front of a live audience, the themes for each round given to us on the spot by Lee. We then had to read our efforts aloud, with the audience deciding on the best. This was both the most daunting and yet the most fun program item I've ever taken part in at a convention. Four rounds, four stories (we won a round each, incidentally). One of my pieces was a shambles, two were okay, but I thought the other--written to the theme "A Change for the Better" held the kernel of a decent idea. Nearly a year later, I revisited the story and wrote "Between Blood and Bone." The setting and actual narrative are very different from the original piece, but the basic concept came from that experience. Thanks, Lee.

- Ian Whates

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