Chapter One: The Eyes Have It

            Joey kept saying they were going to rip my eyes out. Said they’d grab them like two worms wriggling in the dirt and yank them out of their sockets.
            Worms. Joey had a twisted sense of humor like that.
            I booted up my neuro-screen, shaking off the memory. If the transplant worked this would be the last time I’d wake up to darkness. The last time I’d need the nanos they inserted into my ravaged optic nerves.
            The last time I’d wake up blind.
            The hospital room exploded into view as the nanos went to work, rendering the room in pixelated blurs of black and white and gray. I peeled myself out of bed and grabbed my IV pole, grateful for the pair of boxers Joey snuck in for me. Being caged in this place a full week before the surgery was bad enough. Hanging loose with nothing but a thin dress to wear made it a billion times worse.
Smuggled underwear. Now that’s friendship.
            The pixilation smoothed out, resolving into the grayscale view I’d been stuck with for the past decade. I swallowed down the familiar rush of bitterness, reminding myself that Pacific U had finally delivered on the promise they made when I was seven. Implants. Not just a patch job on my vision. Not just reanimation of the dead tissue the parasite left behind. Actual eyes.
            The IV pole trailed behind me, its hover struts humming like the drone of distant bees. I avoided the mirror as I splashed my face and felt along my jawline with a grimace. A growl built at the base of my throat. The med-staff wouldn’t let me shave, but only tech-shunners wore beards.
The crazy bastards.
I shoved my wet fingers through my hair to dry them. Joey claimed he’d dyed my hair a flaming red for my triumphant return to the world of color, but it could be pink for all I knew and I told myself I wouldn’t care if it was. Not if I actually got to see it.
            With the humming IV pole in tow, I moved to the expansive windows of my fifth floor cage, taking in the view of central Forest Grove. A week from now I’d see those mammoth oak trees in shades of green and brown. The perma-sealed brick buildings of the ancient campus would be the rusty red of my childhood again. Color. Light. Texture. I’d have them all back.
            Better than all that, new optics meant I’d be able to link again. I wouldn’t be Nash Galeano, the only link-less guy in the state of Oregon anymore. The only guy who didn’t have the empathic brain-to-brain connections that defined human existence.
            I moved my fingers up my cheek and touched the raisin-textured flesh crowded into my damaged eye sockets. Joey was right. They were going to rip my eyes out.
And I couldn’t wait for them to do it.

* * *

The common room stank of recycled air and I fought off a gag. Something in the pre-op meds had my senses all jangled. I could practically taste the curry lunch of the room’s other occupant, a flat-nosed guy who shot a queasy scowl at me before tossing his half-eaten meal pack down the rec-gen chute.
            Sorry, guy. They confiscated my shades.
            I turned to eye the vend-system warily, wondering if enough time had passed for his leftovers to be recycled into my lunch. I didn’t like the idea of sharing with the guy whose stomach I’d turned.
            I keyed in my order for one of the nasty, nutrient-dense meals the docs had me living off. I’d complained about the texture a couple times—kinda loudly—but I practically licked the vend-system containers clean every day. I wasn’t going to slack off on anything that improved my chances, and the docs said this food would optimize me for surgery.
Optimize. Yeah. They actually went there. Talking about me like I was more lab experiment than person. The first human eye transplant that would allow for optoneural linking was one hell of an experiment though.
Dad kept saying what an honor it was. Mom kept taking covert vids with her eye-screen, hoping I wouldn’t notice her not blinking. On the good days I made faces at her. On the bad days, I pictured the vids as part of a cheesy media-montage at my post-op funeral. .001 chance of fatal surgical error was still a chance.
            As I scraped the last of the goop out of the meal-pack, Joey swung into the room. Literally swung. I choked back a laugh as he swooped monkey-style across the ceiling’s grid of light-gen pipes, bellowing what sounded like a combo of Japanese and a violent sneeze attack.
            He collapsed onto one of the tables, letting out an impressive string of expletives I filed away for later. I didn’t swear much, but if the surgery didn’t go well, I’d be making an exception.
            Slowly, deliberately, I ran my index finger across the base of my meal pack, coating it with gray sludge. And then I licked it. Full on optimization. Whatever it took.
            “That,” Joey observed, gasping for breath, “is disgusting.”
            “So’s that display you just put on.” I chucked the package down the rec-gen chute, flinching away from the light that flashed around the rim of the cylindrical hole. I hated how the nanos spazzed out over sudden changes in brightness.
            “Come on. That was epic. You’re just jealous you can’t do it with that stupid tube in your arm.” He rolled off the table, landing in a crouch. His wrist clip buzzed and blinked and he muttered more curses. “Fracking thing won’t shut up. Reprogram it for me?”
            I snorted. “You earned your way into it, you earn your way out. I’m not risking the op.”
            “Ugh. Don’t call it an op.” Joey crossed the room and dropped onto one of the small gray couches, his sun-darkened legs hanging over one of the arms. “Makes it sound like you’re in the military. Trust me, dude. You do not want this life.” He held up his clipped wrist. The slim silver bracelet flickered in time with his bio-rhythms.
            “You loved it till that whole thing with Celeste went down.” I sank into a nearby chair, the soft white plastic molding to my rear.
            Joey looked at me through dark, narrowed eyes. “Yeah. I’m over that now. So she linked with another guy. Guess it wasn’t meant to be.”
            He scrubbed a hand through his hair. According to Joey, his spikes were dark brown with bright blue tips, but he looked just as gray as everybody else to me. The tribal arm sleeve bared by his white tank-top was unique though. Joey was only a quarter Samoan, but had decided the other three quarters of him were “pretty fracking boring.”
            “Stop with the tough solider guy act,” I told him. “Just because I’m blind doesn’t mean I can’t see how messed up you are. You guys were supposed to link up next month.”
I fought a spike of envy. Linking with someone you were attracted to was supposed to be crazy intense. Nothing like platonic or familial links. If the surgery didn’t succeed, I’d never get to experience it.
            “Don’t play the blind guy act on me,” Joey replied sourly. “Those nano-enhanced optics of yours are wicked powerful. Bet you saw the break-up coming. I sure as hell didn’t.”
            “You can see way better than—”
            “Color, light, blah, blah, blah. I remember the speech.” Joey waved a hand at me, then dropped it with a sigh.
            “What’s wrong?” A wary feeling prickled between my shoulders. Joey wasn’t exactly the sighing type. Even when Celeste ditched him he’d kept the moodiness to a minimum.
            He flopped over onto his side and met my gaze, without so much as a wince. Joey was the only one who ever looked me in the eye. Even Mom and Dad didn’t.
            “You sure you wanna risk it? What if they botch the surgery? If they rip your eyes out and the implants don’t take, you’re fracked, man. Blind for life.”
            I fought off the black hole of panic suddenly sucking me in and managed to force a smile. “You’re the one who’s fracked. You’ve got to find a new girlfriend. Kinda hard to do when you keep using curse words from lost-in-the-archives TV shows.”
            Joey’s jaw went slack and he wagged his finger at me wildly. “You do not dis Battlestar, Nash. You do not.” His wrist clip beeped again and he climbed to his feet with a scowl. “Time to get a move on. Gotta log another five miles before the vend-system will release my lunch.”
            I followed him to the door and hooked a light punch into his gut when his guard was down. “Not letting you keep that belly long, are they?”
            Joey grimaced and rubbed at his stomach. “Just as well, I guess. Probation sucks, but I’ll never link up if I don’t shape up.”
            “Come on, girls don’t link with guys just because of their physiques. You should exercise your mind too. Read some poetry or something.”
            Joey burst out laughing. “I love you like a brother, Nash. But I’m not sure new eyeballs can fix what’s wrong with you. Linking’s got nothing to do with poetry.”
            I shoved him out the door and he stumbled down the hallway, still laughing. Yeah. What did I know about linking? The only girl who’d ever linked with me was my mom, and that ended the day the worms ate my eyes.

* * *

Mom’s smile moved up the curve of her gray cheek. Memory told me her face was a smooth, warm brown with smudges of pink across her cheekbones. The nanos infusing my shredded optic told me otherwise, but I could always hear the color in her voice.
My fingers plinked a steady rhythm on the bed rail and the heels of my slippers drummed against the footboard. While Mom was content to sit in her hardback plastic chair and knit, Dad and I were twin balls of restless energy. He paced in front of the window, a dark shadow against the backdrop of light-flooded glass.
It still unnerved me that he’d stopped wearing color when he found out I couldn’t see it anymore—his way of atoning for taking me on the trip that exposed me to eyeball-ravaging parasites. He thought it made him easier to see and I didn’t know how to tell him I preferred Mom’s floral dresses. I liked the different shades in the fabric, how I could almost fool myself into thinking I could see for real again.
With Dad there was no chance for self-delusion. From his buzz cut hair to his t-shirt, cargo pants, and army boots, Dad was six feet and three inches of unrelenting black. I didn’t dare tell him how much I loved the color in Mom’s wardrobe. He might start dressing in rainbows.
Mom stopped knitting for a moment and ran a hand across one of my arms, slowly, like she was memorizing me. I rolled the sleeve of the gown higher for her.
“Here.” I patted my bicep. “Get the full impact of my muscly awesomeness.”
She swatted affectionately at my arm and the deep rumble of Dad’s laugh filled the small room. Mom fussed with the sleeve, rolling it back down over my wiry, but well-muscled arm. Surgery optimization meant being in the best shape possible. I’d spent the last two years prepping, but Joey liked to point out how my natural scrawniness still shone through.
Dad sank into the chair under the window, shaking his head. “Wish Joey had your drive. He’s going to be wrist-monitored for months if he doesn’t get in shape.”
I shifted my position so I could face Dad, grateful for the subject change. “Do you regret recommending him for the corps?”
Dad blew out a sigh. “He’s a punk. But a good sort of punk. If Celeste hadn’t . . .”
Mom made an irritated clicking sound with her tongue and picked up her knitting again. “What kind of girl links with a guy she’s only known a week?”
 Dad cleared his throat noisily. “Her parents initiated an inquiry.”
Mom’s knitting needles froze and my breath caught in my chest. It finally escaped as a half-gasp, half-cough. I may have been in the hospital for a week now, but this was the first time I’d felt sick. “Does Joey know?”
“What good would that do?” Dad replied. “Celeste swears the link was voluntary. And no one can prove Thomas had access to a nano-hacker. They’ve had her in for a psych consult but she believes what she’s saying. Everything measures up.”
“Except nothing does,” I said. “She and Joey were planning to link on her birthday.”
Dad nodded grimly.
Mom’s needles clicked faster, a sure sign of nerves. “About that. Since you couldn’t . . . I mean, we’ve never really had the link talk since—”
A shocked laugh burst out of me so hard it nearly gave me whiplash. “What, you think I’m going to become a mind-rapist the second I’ve got my implants in?”
“Of course not!” she protested.
“Don’t talk to your mother like that.” Dad’s quiet intensity hit me harder than a shout would have. “She’s right. You’ve been avoiding this conversation for weeks and they’ll be calling you for pre-op soon.”
“I got the speech in Link Ed.” I tried to keep the sarcastic bite out of my voice. “Linking is for life. Love makes the link equal. One-way feelings make it controlling.” I counted the three points off on my fingers and then waved them at Dad. “I’m not a psychopath, guys. Just because I can hack doesn’t mean I’m going to disable the firewall of the first girl who turns my head.”
“Of course you won’t,” Mom said softly. Her expression went distant, practically shouting that she was sharing her feelings through her link with Dad.
“Of course not,” Dad agreed right on cue, his voice the exact same shade of soft as hers.
Before I could come up with a suitable comeback, a musical tone vibrated through the room’s intercom and then a sharp, nasal voice cut through it. “Nash Galeano to pre-op.”
Even though I’d spent six years waiting to hear them, the words crashed through my ears and plummeted into my gut. Everything churned and twisted. Before I could make it to the sink, a whole meal pack’s worth of dark gray sludge splashed across the faded linoleum floor.
Worse than the queasiness was finally admitting what I’d been trying to hide ever since the surgery got clearance. I was piss-my-pants terrified they’d botch it. That I’d never see again. That I’d lose it all.
In a blink.

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