The Love Swarm by Tim Schumacher

I could have laid my head against real silk, and not known the difference; her dark chocolate hair splashed over my pillows, over my mattress, and through its thickness crawled another bloated centipede. Though I hoped it to be an errant, confused individual broken by chance from its mother swarm, I knew the wrongness of that hope as well as I knew the intentions of the nine inch demon skittering past her ear. Dozens of spindly appendages pushed and pulled in unison to move it; fatty prosperity weighed down by an outer carapace made his advance painfully slow. “Not again,” I thought.

My hand moved to her hip, gripping the bony curve in hopes of savoring her last few moments. There was a reluctant kind of happiness to her, then, as I pulled her closer. The corners of her mouth were drawn up only slightly, appearing tenser than she wanted to allow. Psychologically programmed as she was, even she couldn’t fake any ecstasy given her current predicament.

I was later than I’d originally thought. I traced tender circles along her torso, gliding my neatly trimmed nails over her soft, goosebumped flesh. She shivered, and she bled. My fingers were caked with her blood, coated with that uncomfortably warm stickiness. My lower back tingled; I needed so badly to wash my hands.

“Get out of the bed, get out of the damn bed! Stop bleeding all over my goddamn bed!” I leapt out from under the sheets to grab a magazine on my nightstand. “And you, bad swarm, bad swarm! She’s still alive you goddamned bugs!” With the magazine rolled up, I swatted at the cloud of hundreds of writhing bodies, each clinging to shreds of skin, muscle, and exposed bone. The centipede swarm had devoured much of her outer self, though it hadn’t yet made it to the perfectly sculpted face, or even the perfectly perky right breast. They stopped in unison when I started yelling; they had been so well trained that I believed on some level the centipede swarm and I understood each other. But only the swarm as a whole; the individuals were still as dumb as any other bugs, I knew that for sure.

As often as I’d been through this, I was still as embarrassed as if it had been the first time, and I still told her, like all the others, that I was sorry, and that this never happened. And she, like all the others, struggled to raise her chin and wink while she gave off every indication of knowing full well that this probably happened every time, and that this is just what I told all the girls. They crafted them so well; girls like her lived six month lives and none were ever naïve enough to believe me. I left the swarm to her then, bowing my head, my flushed face so red and hot that I couldn’t bear to face her as it devoured her, picking apart her skin in thousands of mandibles and hard carapace covered claws. I’d seen it before; I knew the scene so well now. Her face contorted in pain, giving her the appearance of someone ugly, and wrinkled; all the while her jaw hung open idiotically. Horrifying, annoying stuff.

They writhed, they chewed, they gorged, and after a few minutes, they finished. The swarm collapsed and waddled their way back to my closet, fully engorged and happy to take more meat and money out of my hands. Greedy, greedy bugs.

This one had essentially been a gift, though; she was part of my bonus package for good performance over the last year. She had been provided by House of Venus Inc., one of the new “manufacturing brothels” that grew living, breathing, human sex toys. They didn’t have much in the way of personality, outside of vague conversational skills they’d picked up from luckily cloned memory synapses, and each of their amygdala had been modified to lessen fear and resistance to the unusual tastes of a large body of their customers. They had high angular cheekbones and long cushy legs, and to any non-human animal their skin smelled dead. They covered it up with genetic perfumes and pheromones to fool us great humans, but the animal kingdom couldn’t be fooled, even the swarms we all paid good money for. Everyone had modified swarms of things to clean up any of the flesh that happened to drop off, and many careless people, like myself, had once or twice or every single goddamn time had their girl accidentally devoured from the swarm mistaking her for something already dead, every single goddamn time ending with the girl having that damn stoic pseudo-smile painted on her face as the rest of her was gobbled up.

And all of this was the doing of my glorious benefactor, formerly Epithio Labs LLC., now Epithio-Rolex Enterprises, as the biotech company that had fed and clothed me for so many years was absorbed by the Swiss watch manufacturer not long after I arrived. We grew skin and bones and kidneys at first, and then branched out, and then branched out further and further until we were growing impossible beauty and genetically modified bugs to clean it up. The facility itself was similarly tree-like: what had begun as a run-of-the-mill skyscraper expanded at its base, growing wider as its functions spread out. The architect had designed the building to look like a kind of glass fountain, which was fitting since our products showered over the rest of the city continuously. The largely opaque glass that formed the exterior made the inside a tinted kind of darkness, with the light that did manage to get through coming in dark blues and purples. The halls were always dark as a result, even with fluorescent lighting, and you couldn’t walk through those indigo hallways without feeling a vague sense of exhaustion roll over you, as if your entire workplace were a dream.

Today was only a further extension of that dreamscape, and a rough one at that. I had gotten no sleep, no chance to really relax, and now no chance at a decent breakfast since I had been used to leaving the cooking to the gift model for the past few weeks. My skin itched and oiled itself up; my breath stank. While walking to work, I realized that I probably even had some of her blood left on me.

I stifled a gag as I walked outside. As always, the corpses of several different swarms littered the streets, yet undevoured by the city’s own bugs. Though they were so very necessary in cleaning up the hundreds of bodies that accumulated in dumpsters each week, the fact that they could, and were squished as easily as any other bug caused the sidewalks to be caked with dead bugs at all times. The scent of decay permeated the air as well, as an entire city of the living wrapped themselves in what nature regarded as the dead. The air was thick with formaldehyde and smog, just like any other day.

The actual walk was comforting though, much, much more than that of the previous night. Nothing about the strangers around me gave me reason for embarrassment; I was as invisible to my peers as they were to me, and those that weren't invisible in the first place were the ones that had the real causes for concern; the brain-fried homeless that yelled about apocalypses coming to grind all of us into glitter, the down-on-their-luck types that needed change but didn’t deserve any of mine. The chicks with flesh rivers of cleavage pouring out of their low, low necklines and men with teeth tattooed around their lips were all so sickeningly visible too, but in a way that made you think maybe they’d eventually get their act together, manage to cloak themselves too. It would be for the best, for them to blend in. Though I’ve always longed for their freedom, it is a longing in a sense like a child who wishes to fly when he sees a bird. He has no concept of what that bird goes through, with its fragile bones and bright feathers that invite predators from miles away. I might want to be like that man by the pond, arms woven around a lithe woman like a human quilt, but knowing those other people and emotions was such an inefficient waste of time that I’d probably end up crushing their throats the second a “friend” asked how my day was. I just didn’t get the naturals.

So I took in all the scenery and visible people, and I managed to escape and forget the so very inconvenient night before. Whistling as I walked through the door of Epithio-Rolex Enterprises, I stopped briefly as a co-worker, Alice, managed to make herself visible for a split-second. The whole staff was aware of what anyone else got in their bonus, and it was Alice who was first offered new skin, as hers had been growing leathery, nowhere near but obviously on the road to the rough elephant-like hide some of the older people got. Her new flesh was that of a creamy white porcelain doll flesh, by itself was without flaw, but like all of our grafts it smelled dead to everything else and had clearly been infested with maggots. I wasn’t aware of what swarm Alice kept at her apartment, but it was clearly slacking, indicated by a large writhing mass underneath her blouse. She itched at it and crushed several of them, creating a small wet spot where a mix of the rotting artificial flesh and crushed larvae bled through the fabric. And in less than a second she was gone, walking off with a smooth aloofness that might hide her from any eyes less vigilant than mine.

“Her problem is not uncommon,” said the director of the entire grafts department, my direct superior. I had stopped in his office shortly after noticing Alice, as I was worried that she might end up spreading those maggots around to someone else. “Stopping infestations like that is damned near impossible. We’ve got flies all over the city, you can’t really tell when one just lands on you.”

“Are we any closer to disguising the grafts? The… expenses to consumers can get pretty ridiculous.” My pulse quickened as the image of the new one being torn apart by my personal centipede swarm filled my mind.

“Well I’ll have to ask you first, are you having problems with your bonus model already?”

“Eaten last night.”

“What a shame. You should have gotten a few months out of that one. She was one of the first designs for which they managed to remove any trace of cellulite, you know that? Damn right those expenses are getting ridiculous.” I nodded. “No, R&D hasn’t come up with anything that doesn’t disgust humans yet. We’ve got stuff that doesn’t attract flies like our current skin, but it tends to get oily and is physically uncomfortable for the recipient. Doesn’t smell too good to humans, either.”

“Well, that’s a shame. The day I can kick those centipedes to the curb is one I’ve been looking forward to for a while.”

“They’d probably just eat some kid on the sidewalk and bring the bones back you. They’re loyal enough now, you know that.” He wasn’t wrong. Those bugs had been growing on me more, thankfully less literally than in Alice’s case, since they’d foiled a robbery last fall by flaying the burglar before I’d even gotten out of bed.

“I probably couldn’t get rid of them anyway. I got them here, how would that look for the company?”

“You’d be out of the swarm, that’s for sure.”

I caught my breath when I finally got to my desk for the first time that day; I never realized how tense I was around my boss until I escaped him. He had ascended to upper management like anyone else had: swallowing and injecting so many different steroids that he towered over his peers, and when he reached the proper size, was promptly promoted. He was not alone in his effort, but was alone in surviving the biochemical gauntlet at that time. Men foolish enough to cycle Winstrol incorrectly would end up urinating brown, as their liver liquefied and escaped the abuses done to their body; men who shot too much synthetic testosterone would find their testicles shriveled to the size of peas and their thyroid glands crumpled to nothingness, so that the rest of their existence would be spent in a lethargic, castrated body. The list of steroid hazards and mishaps extended so far that those who managed to survive to Herculean physiques were deemed clever enough to stand above their peers, and physically enormous enough to intimidate everyone else. Today, that included me.

Luckily I had my work to comfort me. Devoid of any unnecessary human interaction and critiquing of and by them, I was more than content to read the endless stream of data from my monitor and file my reports. I looked for statistical errors and possible fabrications in pricing, whether the rebates our various customers offered were successful in increasing buyers, and devised numerical formulas for predicting which scent would attract people the most. We may be entirely natural or entirely wrapped in essentially dead flesh, but above all, we were always going to be pretty damned predictable.

We had so many clients that we had dozens of people doing the exact thing I was for different brands and labels, all at the same time. We looked for inconsistencies and plugged them into formulas the programs had devised and decided whether we should pursue them or not, all simultaneously and automatically. We were each both replaceable and happy, though happy as long as we were not replaced. We craved the monotony as much as the money, it couldn’t be helped.

But who would come along to spoil the glorious, simple routine but the director of the entire grafts department, lumbering down the hallway, bringing groans from the floorboards with each plodding, aggressive step. He had scrunched his face into a few tense lines nearly as pale as his gritted teeth. It was a state he rarely allowed himself to be seen in, and he would likely throw a car over his head afterwards in front of the staff to wash the image of fear away from our collective consciousness.

“We have a problem with a company you oversee,” he said. “It’s a big one. It’s so damned big that it’ll affect you whether you work here or not!” He stormed closer to me, and began to speak more quietly. “You need to check this out. They’re getting some pretty strange reports at the factory,” he was almost silent now. “And this problem needs to be examined and fixed immediately.” People around the office typed slowly, deliberately, attempting to catch every syllable that was so forcibly stuffed into my ear.

“What the hell is going on,” I asked, not bothering to whisper. “Calm down, it can’t be that bad.” And that, of course, shut him up, locked his jaw in a defiant grip of rage, pumped blood through his head and made veins stand out on his skull. He handed me a stack of paper of words and diagrams that seemed as benign as anything else.

“Skip to the fourth page,” his jaw barely moved; every word came out of teeth clenched to the point of shattering. The fourth page showed a woman, a particularly hour-glassed shape model, with her arms curled around her chest, and tears streaming from her eyes.

“Are we really so afraid of a sobbing model? They pump them so full of estrogen as it is, this is hardly surprising.”

“Go to the next page,” his jaw only now beginning to relax. The next page was the same picture, but had been zoomed out from the previous. The model was still clutching herself, sobbing, only now another model lay at her feet. Bruises covered the other model’s body, stretched finger nail gashes covered her face. It was the first time I had seen possible evidence of a model violating another model, outside of the pornography that the same company regularly put out to widen their appeal. By the combination of rage and fear I saw in the director, I could only assume that this hadn’t been staged.

“This is real,” I said, turning my gaze upward to the director. All eyes in the office were back on their screens, though the sound of typing remained either absent or slowed.

“Oh yea. We’ve seen models fighting back against attackers, but spontaneous violence against other models is new, and pretty bad for a company that makes them. Before they detained her, they were worried that they were going to lose their whole warehouse.”

“So what do you want me to do?” I could feel breath grow instinctively shorter, taking shallower breaths again, and was unable to consciously stop it while his gaze remained fixed solely on me.

“Go down to the House of Venus factory. Check out what they have to say for themselves.” He stood up, blocking out my view of the sun from the window. “And decide what needs to be done about her.” His voice cut out, and the sound of quick typing resumed almost immediately, and very soon, my view of the sun returned. Everything was back to normal. This is my normal.

Just outside the revolving doors of Epithio-Rolex Enterprises, a stretch limousine welcomed me with open doors and whisked me away to the House of Venus factory. Though we provided them with spare parts, and the technology with which to grow their wares, they kept genetic designers working in-house, shut away from the rest of us. They had imagined uses for our tools far beyond what we had ever dreamed.

The factory itself was kind of like a slaughterhouse, except that they turned lumps of meat into whole organisms, and not the other way around. Other than that, the similarities were as numerous as they were unnerving. Once out of the car I was led inside an icy building filled with industrial equipment, kept cold so as to deter bacteria. I found myself in an enormous refrigerator of human parts. Lines of breasts and bulging pectoral muscles hung from hooks above me, in so many more shapes and sizes and colors than I had ever witnessed in the human race. I was led past conveyor belts shuttling half formed humans from one end of the floor to another, past tanks of floating, bodiless nervous systems, until finally we had reached the section where finished products were kept.

Rows of entirely artificial humans slept naked on white plastic cots, peaceful in their utter sterility. Seeing them now, molded successfully from raw meat to beauty, I envied them, if only briefly. They would not know fear or even pain for the most part. Why would they ever even want to wake up?

While we had been walking, the head designer was talking to me, offering up theories as to how any model could even have the mental capacity to contemplate random violence, asking for my input and intercepting mine with nods and yes’s and mmhmms. It wasn’t until we approached the containment room that I even vaguely started listening.

“…so we named this one Lilith, because she’s the only demon we got so far, but she could mean the existence of a lot more.” His voice shook me then, it was deeper and louder now. His shoulders slumped lower as he entered the codes to unlock the door, bowing farther and farther down as we grew closer to walking in. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said, “I just don’t like coming back to my failures.”

The door opened, and I was greeted by the face of the woman from the picture. Her cheekbones were high and narrow, her jaw line delicate. She looked so young as to almost be a teenager, despite the illegality of producing such models. And moreover, with her mostly thin limbs and pale complexion, she didn’t appear capable of hurting anyone.

“She looks like a doll,” I said. There was no other way to say it; there was a certain undeniable weakness about her. How could this thing possibly do any harm?

“She was intended to be just that, a plaything above all else. Physically, I think we succeeded.” I nodded. She was the picture perfect submissive girl; I would have ordered her myself if not for her apparent penchant for assault.

“So has she offered any insight into why she attacked the other model?” The designer nervously muttered a few indistinguishable syllables before he was cut off.

“Because I loved her,” the model said. “I couldn’t let her go.” Her voice was sweet and bubbly, cheerful despite tears obviously welling up in her eyes.

“Where exactly did she learn that word?” I grabbed the designer by the collar and pulled him in close. “You bring me down here to clean up your problems when your model knows those kinds of words?”

“No one taught it to her, it had to be a defect in synaptic cloning! We couldn’t have known that language memories would transfer intact!” He tried to push off of me, wriggle my hands away from his collar, but there was no way I was letting go of this one.

“You aren’t selling psychologists! You aren’t selling emotions! You’re selling disposable flesh! Do you think your customers, our customers, want to buy something to get attached to and lose in a few months? What the hell is wrong with you?” I released him, pushing him backwards into the wall. “If this incident gets leaked... we will not have our name tarnished by your misuse of our technology. If you want to keep buying from us at our rates, you’re going to have to do a better job of maintaining our image. We’re Epithio-Rolex damnit! We want that to mean something!” The model was full on crying now, her arms wrapped around her chest, her face all messy and red wi rivers of tears flowing down her bony cheeks.

“I-I coul-dn’t h-hel-help it! I don’t know where I learned it, I just know it! I loved her! And I didn’t kill anyone, I just got mad when I saw one of the customers when giving her a…a…” She breathed deeply, trying in vain to steady herself. “A test drive.” More tears, more unattractive spasm-sobbing, redder cheeks. I stifled the desire to gag. “They killed her when they found out, they didn’t want anyone to know about our love, or what our love meant, or what it was. They killed her! They killed her!” And she kept screaming “They killed her!” until a few other men in lab coats were able to gag and lean her back against the wall. She still struggled, but she was not one built for strength.

“She’s actually right, but that needed to be done. As the representative of Epithio-Rolex Enterprises, what do you think we should do about Lilith?” the designer asked, regaining his composure, though he was still somewhat jumpy when I looked at him directly.

“What the fuck do you think? Do you think there’s any possibility that we'll keep the damned model when she’s that dangerous to the others? If that shit spreads you might never sell another one. They’ll be too busy holding and killing each other to get a decent price at all.” I put my hand on his shoulder, less threateningly than I had before. “I’ll take care of this one, but don’t hesitate to do it yourself next time. We shouldn’t have even found out.” He nodded.

Tears had at this point consumed most of her face; it glistened under the fluorescent lamps, like cement that had been rained on, only to have the clouds move away. And the clouds certainly had. I may not have been my boss, the inhuman specimen of raw barely-restrained rage, but the adrenaline pump that had began softly at seeing this mess of a model was inching toward the great crescendo now, building higher and stronger and furiously in my chest. Nodding to the guards for them to release her, I moved closer to her until I could see my breath pushing away pools of liquid on her face.

With all of my strength focused on the bridge of her nose, I brought my forehead down with enough force to even dizzy me a little bit. I grabbed her by the throat and shoved the back of her head into the ground, pushing steadily harder as the pool of red grew beneath me. Her screams, muffled by the gag the guards had left in, grew almost instantly softer, and after a while I could feel no pulse on the neck I gripped so tightly. The problem was solved.

“Well, damn. Like I said, I’m happy with where we were able to steer her, at least physically.” The designer coughed, and smiled hopefully, clearly looking for praise.

“Yeah,” I said. “But she’s spare parts now, so that doesn’t mean anything either. At the end of the day, throw the liver and kidneys and everything else to a hospital, they can always use them.”

I walked out of the factory, the reverse slaughterhouse, furious at the designers for taking me out of the office for something so simple. A loving model is a bad model. You can get attached to a loving model. That model won’t have a stoic, fake smile when she’s getting devoured, but she’ll get devoured all the same. It made them unreliable, useless, something no sane person would ever need, or even be fooled into paying for; it damaged them beyond any great use. I was glad to have been able to help her, and put her out of her unjust genetic misery.

Above me then a flock of geese emerged from behind a particularly thick cloud of smog, clucking incessantly as if they were a single unified being, a giant v-shaped goose. Supposedly that V-shape was to help the members behind them, as it would reduce the headwind of those flying behind them. I’d learned that when I was a child, and it stuck with me now; it was as perplexing as it had ever been.

“Why do you care about the goose behind you,” I muttered to no one, bringing my hand up to shield my eyes from the sun. “I’ll never understand those damned geese.”

Long time lifeguard and newly christened intern bitch, Tim Schumacher likes writing and hopes to keep doing it, as it is one of few careers that don't require that work be done clothed. If you like his stuff, ask for more.