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Metal Fever

By Alex Beyman All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Scifi

Metal Fever

“How ‘bout it? Can you beat the machine? He’ll settle your tab if you do.” I don’t pay Aubrey to rope ‘em in. She just gets a kick out of it. Missed her calling as a carnival barker.

The newcomer sized me up. I’ve got my mech arm on today, for show. Can’t imagine actually lugging this thing around with me on the regular. You can always feel the weight of a prosthetic, concentrated on the bolts it attaches to your skeleton with. Accordingly, the most popular ones are very light.

“Alright, I’ll have a go” he says. Ruffled blonde mohawk, faded “Kampachi Farms” t-shirt and a studded leather jacket. “But I want to try your other arm.” I feigned dismay. Perfectly, having practiced the same reaction on every rube before him. “You’re the only one ever to think of that! I suppose I have to honor the bet anyway.”

There were no free chairs, so he borrowed one of the bar stools. The bartender, a near full metal with a trendy biological forearm and hand, looks on in amusement. She’s seen what my game is, and only doesn’t warn my marks because it’s entertaining.

“When I saw you, first thing I thought of is crabs. I know that sounds strange but I worked out on the conshelf for six years farming those critters. All the males have one giant claw and one teeny one. The giant claw is the one they fight with, the other is for everything else. It’s your everything else arm I think I can beat.”

Truth is, that’s where I hide all the good shit. The mech arm is barely powerful enough to move itself. My body has no room for the compressor it needs to work as intended. His analogy is spot on, he’s just mistaken which claw is which. I flex my left arm, feeling the electroreactive gel muscles constricting in their flexible insulating sleeves, buried inconspicuously under living skin.

“Once you're done making assuredly fascinating crab analogies, put your elbow on the table and keep it there”. He shot me an irritated glance, muttering “I know how this works. Get ready to pay my tab.” I waited for him to signal that he was ready to begin before realizing, from the increasing redness in his face, that he was already exerting himself.

I made a show of struggling too, so as not to humiliate him. Even gave the appearance he was winning for a minute or two. But then, at a rate carefully calculated not to injure his comparatively delicate arm, I brought our clenched fists down to my right.

“You sack of shit! There’s a trick, isn’t there? You’ve got metal on the inside you didn’t tell me about.” The bartender leapt to my defense. “Hon, you chose what arm you wanted. Don’t go simian just ‘case you lost. If you think this guy’s a freak, you haven’t met the bouncer.” On cue, a creature more closely resembling a meat mountain than a person emerged from the intersex urinal, pecs twitching at the mention of its name.

There’s always a bigger fish. If you’re smart, you pay for its drinks. But not too many, or it gets the wrong idea about what you’re after. That’s a fine line to walk with somebody that looks like a bodybuilder hybridized with construction equipment. We’d nonetheless established a stable rapport, such that I could continue running my game on newbies with the owner’s approval.

“Dis one givin’ you trouble, Miranda?” She waved him off. “Not yet, sweetie. I’ll call you again if I need you.” The surly frankensteinian pile lumbered back from whence it came, leaving blondie wide eyed and pale as a sheet. “If you can believe it”, the bartender added, “Xe used to be cute when we dated.” A muffled voice from the back room objected: “Bitch, I’m cuter than ever.”

I ran into blondie and his buddies on the way out. Full bios like to think they’re less predictable than machines, but it’s all just the interaction of atoms. Like the grandest possible set of dominos, set falling at the moment of the big bang. To guys like him, which specific atoms they’re made of is of meaningful import. I stopped caring decades ago.

“Where you goin’, ar-too dee-tard?” I smiled. That was at least one I’d not heard yet. Aubrey emerged behind me, lugging my mech arm. “Unless we’re dating, this isn’t my job anymore” she whined. “We’ve been through this, you carry your own damned….Oh. This again.” She sighed and retreated into the bar to wait it out. Blondie and his two buddies motioned as if to follow her.

“Inadvisable. She can take care of herself. You wouldn’t know it to look at her but she’s had more work done than me. Besides, supposing you hurt her, but don’t defeat me. What do you suppose happens next? You won’t believe the answer, even while I’m doing it to you.”

“You talk a big game for a guy with one arm.” They closed in, reassured by their numbers. “I only need one.” The dialogue box in the center of my vision asking me whether I would assume legal responsibility for utilizing the self defense software included with the arm vanished after I rapidly scrolled through the terms and agreed.

I have no idea how to fight. Never enlisted, used my head to stay out of fights when I was young. My first wheels were an electric bike I cobbled together with parts from a junkyard near my dad’s trailer. “Why’d you go and ruin a perfectly good bicycle?” he’d say. “The whole point of it is to get exercise”.

What’s the point of building muscle when you can literally build muscle? If an electric motor or equivalent mechanism can do it, that’s how it should be done. We did not get to this point, dominating the planet to the point of destroying it, by muscle power. This reasoning led me to evade beatings by subterfuge, bonding with bullies over shared interests, then pitting them against each other.

Fight smart, not hard. That’s my philosophy, anyway. I don’t have much to show for it yet but when I do, dad’s moving out of that trailer and into a mansion. I concluded my ruminations just as my arm notified me that all credible threats to my person had been pacified, and that a recording of the altercation was being uploaded to the local police department for review as well as the arm’s manufacturer. I imagine whoever they pay to watch those videos truly loves his job.

All three were laid out around me, bleeding profusely from their noses and mouths. Sufficient as fuck. “All clear, Aubs.” She poked her head out, surveyed the aftermath, then gave me a disgusted glare. “What? It wasn’t me! It was the one armed man!” She used to pretend my jokes are funny. I think I miss that more than the sex.

I straddled my beat up looking Honda Electrode. Charge meter says one hundred, but these old batteries don’t really read accurate unless under load. I gave it some juice, the rear wheel squealing against the pavement in protest. Percentage immediately drops to 78, then very slowly begins climbing. That’ll more than get me home.

I help Aubrey stow my mech arm in the sidecar, then she throws her leg over the back and puts her arms around my waist. “Remember when I used to street race this fuckin’ heap?” I don’t see her smile but I can feel it. That part of the bond never diminished. “You were hot shit until dual carbons dropped.”  

Lithium is good enough. But “good enough” doesn’t disintegrate panties. This thing’s no slouch, it’ll break a ton, but that’s not even enough to outrun the cops. Not that I’ve ever needed to, of course. Smart, not hard. Aubrey swears there was more to it than the bike, but she was never as into me as when I raced.

“What the fuck is that?” she demanded. “The seat’s shaking.” A recent addition I’d put in. “The old bikes used to do that, on account of the combustion engine. Chicks loved it.” She threatened to hail a cab until I switched it off. Bluffing, I think. Autocabs are basically mobile hobo toilets.

Can’t count the number of times I’ve summoned one only for there to be somebody still inside, passed out in their own vomit. Fresh hot drunks, delivered to your doorstep! If that’s their business model, they’re killing it.

“This is a courtesy notification. A vehicle is rapidly approaching from the rear, piloted by an individual who recently assaulted you. Do you desire assistance?” A devastatingly clean twentysomething police officer appeared on the bike’s hud. I studied the edges of her face looking for telltale seams, from injection molding. Nope, real person. Nobody should be that symmetrical, it’s fearboner territory.

I used an eye gesture to scroll down to the last option. Decline assistance due to religious objection. It’s the only one that guarantees they’ll leave you alone. Police involvement only ensures a higher body count than if you handle it yourself, and the less about me they have on file, the better.

When the vintage Model N drew close enough, my bike’s rear camera confirmed what I already knew. Blondie again. Nice wheels for a farmer. Knows something about Panopticon too, by the way he waited until we entered a tunnel to make his move. The highspeed tunnel network is kept dark as it’s assumed you’re in an autocab or something else that can drive itself.

Because I wasn’t, a notification appeared on my hud that I’d been fined, followed immediately by another informing me that the autopay account I’d set up to handle fines had taken care of it. Smart, not hard. Still winced though. Can’t accumulate too many violations, however minor, without sticking out. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

Unbelievably, he started shooting. I’d really picked a winner this time. Aubrey shrieked as a bullet came within a foot or so of her shoulder, arrested mid-flight by the bike’s deflection array, then suddenly gone in an acrid puff of metallic atoms. The charge meter plunges to 56%.

Same technology used for reactive tank armor. Incoming projectiles are detected, the array aligns to intercept, then sends out an incredibly brief but potent electrical arc. Equal and opposite reaction, projectile obliterated. Really sucks down the battery, though.

Aubrey began pounding on my shoulder, screaming something I couldn’t hear over the combination of wind, gunfire, and motor whine. I set my bone conduction implant to search for nearby devices, found the subvoc in her throat and paired to it. I regretted it the instant I began receiving.

Incurable pottymouth. Really heinous shit, baby L. Ron would weep in his manger to hear some of it. She still tries to audit me now and again, as if I’m the one with mental problems. Gave up trying to talk her out of it years ago, soon after separating our bank accounts.

“He’s fucking shooting at us! If I’d known you were gonna drag me into a shootout I woulda taken that cab!” I pointed out I’d not yet returned fire. As such it wasn’t a shootout. Went over like a lead balloon. I never know the right thing to say. Would bother me, if saying the wrong thing weren’t so consistently entertaining.

A loud hum sounded and the bike’s body dropped noticeably closer to the road the moment I switched the mags on. These drain the battery even worse than the deflector, a popup warning me that I could sustain my present rate of speed for another two minutes forty five seconds at the current rate of draw.

I work best with a deadline. Suddenly veering to the right, I sailed up the side of the tunnel. To my consternation, farmboy’s Model N turned out to have its own mags. So it was that we spiraled about the tunnel as we both careened down it, narrowly dodging autocabs and various private cars. Aubrey cut back in, demanding to be let off.

I identified the nearest motorcycle, shut my lights off, and drifted as close as I could without its proximity alarms alerting the driver. “You can’t be serious”, Aubrey’s subvoc came back. “You wanted off, didn’t you? I’ll be back for you when I’m done.” She climbed onto the startled fellow’s rear seat. I turned my lights back on, drifted away and shot a quick IM to his bike’s hud: “She’s single! Farts in her sleep, though.”

The reduced weight added another fifty seconds to the timer. It’s not so much energy density that’s the problem, it’s power density. How much you can pull, how quickly, without the pack’s inbuilt safety systems kicking in to prevent you from wrecking the cells. Another gunshot rang out, whizzing perilously close to my ear. The abrupt crack of the artificial lightning vaporising it briefly deafened me.

The loud ringing in my ear which followed proved distracting enough that I eventually bothered setting my bone conduction implant to counter it. While I was in that menu, also weaving around the cars of poor terrified folks, good decent folks who simply had the misfortune of sharing the tunnel with me right then, I transmitted an exploit that disabled the Model N’s own warning system. Then, activated selective noise cancellation.

After sampling my surrounding soundscape for a few seconds it identified and separated various sources. The road noise, the howl of the air as I cut through it, motor whine and so forth until all I could hear were faint traces of blondie shouting obscenities through his windshield at me.

“He’s trying to make us hit someone!” One of his buddies in the back seat answered nervously. “We’re going pretty fast, and it’s dark. Shouldn’t you switch it to auto?” He snapped. “He’ll fucking lose us if I do that! Maybe that’s what he’s counting on. Shoulda just shot him outside the bar.”

I played to his expectations. Luring him near semis and autocabs one after the next, only for him to wisely keep his distance. Must’ve really thought he had me figured out until the tunnel ended. I had the distinct pleasure of listening to their terrified screams as the soon to be flaming Model N, still magged to the ceiling of the tunnel, abruptly ran out of ceiling.

I switched my mags off and heaved a sigh of relief as the range estimate jumped. Then I remembered Aubrey. Having already paired with the guy’s bike to send him the IM, I had the ID necessary to locate it and was soon alongside his bike. Aubrey precariously stood up on the back of his bike and made the crossing to mine while I kept it as stable as I could.

An IM from his bike appeared on my hud. “No problem. I’m way into that.” I puzzled at it for a moment, then returned to the business of getting Aubrey home. The range estimate fell to 15 miles from 20 as soon as she got on. Woof. I’d get on her for weight if I didn’t know it was mostly implants. I’m pushing 220 myself, and I’m built like a scarecrow.

With the range warning blinking, I pulled up to the bike vendor. Not a lot of apartment towers have one, it was a big factor in choosing to live here. After detaching the sidecar, I inspected the rear deflector for signs of damage, then eased it into the alcove.  

Some immense, unseen subterranean mechanism then swallowed it. Like a vending machine, hence the name. When I wanted it again I’d just request the bike with my ID from their app and it’d spit it out in under a minute.

Makes me nervous. If I ever need to leave in a hurry, most likely the cops would put a hold on my bike. It simply wouldn’t dispense it. But if that ever happened, running would be no use anyway. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Smart, not hard.

Once in the door, I docked my slab at my desk. No need for the physical connection except there’s a coolant loop it connects to. The system is built into the desk, piping coolant through the slab lets it run more intensive programs without waste heat melting it.

The wireless power also never works in my room, so a lot of my shit has to be plugged in. This tower’s already low rent, and I’d picked the filthiest, most roach infested apartment. Gotta keep up appearances. I bought one of those flexible charging mats recently that you put under your mattress to charge all your implants while you sleep.

Medical implant says it’s destroying my sperm count, an added benefit the manufacturer oddly doesn’t advertise. Aubrey confronted me about the events in the tunnel. Why here? The overhead lighting harsh shades of green and purple. Really brought out every wrinkle and blemish. “Fucking amphead, did I tell you to dump me on some rando?” I shrugged. “You wanted off.”

“He could’ve been a psycho!” Compared to me? I asked if she was alright. “I’m not hurt if that’s what you mean. He left me his profile ID and….links to some weird websites. I didn’t look too closely.” My cheeks inflated, but I did not let the laugh escape.  

“Everything’s where you remember it, though? All your blood on the inside?” She nodded. “Don’t I always deliver you safe and sound? I would never let anything happen to you, Aubs. Part of me still cares, and always will until I have it cut out and replaced with more metal.”

The corner of her mouth turned up. “Ah! I saw that! A smile. That’s halfway to a laugh. And if you laugh, I got away with it.” I monkeyed around a little longer until satisfied she wasn’t gonna cut me out of the lease. “I didn’t laugh though. You’re still in deep shit.”

I brokered temporary peace with Aubrey by ordering a large pizza. Treaty of Tripoli, I call it. Tripoli Pizza is the joint, that’s why. Nothing to do with eighteenth century moors. “Make sure there’s chlorella and spirulina on the half with algae.” Health food on pizza? Kinda missing the point of it in my book. May as well add a diet cola to the order if that nasty shit were still legal.

The drone arrived with the pizza halfway through one of my favorite stories. Why is that always the case? It’s like they know. First drone only had the drinks. I checked the order and sure enough, a little disclaimer at the bottom stipulated that orders exceeding a certain weight would be sent by multiple drones, driving up the delivery fee considerably. Fuckity fuck.

Crabjuice, though. That’s my jam. I never remember the taste is weird, only that I didn’t regret it afterward, which is why I keep buying it. It tastes the way an aquarium smells, but sugary. The animated label displays the mischievous little crab mascot pinching a hole in the diving suit of a conshelf maricultural farmer. He shakes his fist angrily as the crab dances about in glee. “Ocean’s finest!” the scrolling text reads. “It’s crabulescent!™”

“I dunno how their lawyers defend that” I muttered as I handed the other bottle to Aubrey. “How do they quantify crabulescence?” She groaned, flopped back on the ratty old sofa and returned to her game. When I studied it more closely it was one of those weird religious games. The ones designed as a vehicle for ideology at the expense of the gameplay.

“OT commander”. From what I gathered by watching, the goal was to use the E-Meter rifle to blast away ghostly “Thetans” attached to “Wogs” under their control, transforming them into “Clears”. I couldn’t hear her cussing out the other players. Subvoc. I could see her throat moving like crazy though.  

I sat on her legs, after my request that she move them went ignored. She beat on me for a little bit but swiftly re-immersed in the game, not wanting to move down in the rankings because of the distraction. I paired with the wallscreen and had it display the news. Being lenticular, Aubrey continued to see and hear her game while I got something wholly different.

Aerial drone footage of blondie’s flaming wreckage. He marched angrily around the edge of the fire, shouting, crossing his arms, then throwing them in the air over and over while his buddies sheepishly sat by the road waiting for the cops to arrive. “We can confirm the identity of the gunman as Maurice Tittle.” I spit out my crabjuice. “Maurice Tittle!” I cried, laughing so hard it was a struggle not to throw up.

Aubrey glared and hushed me. I pouted. “Maurice Tittle, though. That’s fuckin’ jokes.” The anchor paused for asinine banter with the others. Some marketing formula decides how much screen time they can devote to that, fostering the illusion that they’re regular ass people you might meet at the pub despite being full metal and current as fuck.

The one whose voice suggests she was female at one point or now prefers to present that way looked something like Malibu Barbie’s pink plastic ferrari if it were humanoid, with gaps here and there just to show off the gel muscles at work. The presumably male one is carbon fiber, everywhere that isn’t display film. Most of it displaying paid ads.

“Bone chilling! In a manner of speaking. Any word on the ID of the victim?” Barbiemobile shook her streamlined pink head, oversized anime style eyes blinking. As if they would get dry if she didn’t. “Preliminary information indicates that aside from the minor infraction of entering the highspeed tunnel network in an effort to evade his assailant, he incurred no further violations which warrant releasing his identity at this time.”

I pumped my fist. “Sufficient!” Cherish the small victories. Further fist pumping transpired as the second drone arrived with our pizza. Thirteen seconds late meant the pie was free. Not the delivery though, that’s where they screw ya. Makes you feel like you’re getting one over on ‘em, but they still make their money.

Aubrey disengaged from her game long enough to begin wolfing down pizza. “That’s terrifying to watch. I swear your jaw unhinges like a snake so you can fit more pizza in there.” She growled and resumed gorging. She never puts on a pound though. Which baffles me. Her arms and legs are prosthetic on the inside. How does she burn the calories?

“So, this was around when the bio arm trend started.” Crabjuice isn’t alcoholic, but does contain THC, bonded to the dairy content. Which strongly inclines me to tell long winded stories Aubrey is guaranteed to find riveting, provided she’s had at least as much to drink.

“Full metals used to be a popular bogeyman in the media, to soften their image they’d go get a biological arm put on. Something to humanize them. As if to say hey buddy, I may look scary but I haven’t lost the human touch.” Aubrey nodded, head in my lap, staring up at me.

“I went in to talk to Dinesh, the dealer who sold me the mech arm. Duplicitous, scheming, machiavellian little twerp, to list some of his redeeming qualities. Anyway, he says “You still got that mech arm? That’s on the way out, scares people. What you really need is a biological arm. Mech arm says you’re a badass, maybe dangerous. Is that really what you wanna send out? A bio arm says you’ve got heart.” So I say show me what you got. And I shit you not, it’s my old arm. Still has the tattoo of your name on it. Shady little shit tried to sell me back my old arm.”

Aubrey burst into a fit of gigglesnorts, then choked on the pizza she was eating. Then, satisfied she would not asphyxiate, resumed gigglesnorting. When she goes full metal, I’m completely certain nobody will know she was ever a woman. Supposedly goldfish are the only animal which occasionally forgets it cannot simultaneously eat and breathe. Supposedly.

The crabjuice was putting me to sleep, so I accessed my medical implant and had it release some mild stimulants into my blood. Aubrey out cold, snoring like a buzzaw, but for me the night had only begun. I couldn’t use the elevator on account of my apartment being in the lowest tier of the pricing structure but it’s not like climbing stairs tires me out.

Once on the roof, I approached the edge and identified tonight’s target. One of those cohabs the government keeps building. Something about how we fucked up the ocean and it’s begun releasing methane. Just speeds up, as the more methane it releases, the hotter it gets, which just makes the methane ice at the bottom melt faster. Moving us all indoors seems like putting a bandaid over a gushing wound, but what do I know.

What I care about is that the priciest apartments are all along the outer wall, for the view. And the walls are weather treated metal. They haven’t finished building the ugly thing so the security coverage is patchwork at best, and I know how to knock out specific areas for a couple minutes. Rather, I know a guy who sells the software I use to do that. Sometimes fighting smart means knowing when to involve somebody smarter’n me.

I pop off the external part of my bone conduction implant and pop on the custom one. It’s wired into a green laser pointer. By pointing it at the windows, miles away, the vibration from the sound inside that room is transferred as fluctuations in the beam back to my implant, which decodes it as sound.

“-I like the blue one. No, really! I’ve told you, I’m not just trying to get us out the door quicker. Although the party is in eleven minutes. No, now it’s ten.” A woman’s voice begins shouting unintelligibly. The man’s voice falters. “I’m not rushing you, just keeping you apprised. I really do like the blue one. John and Felicia will want to have drinks and catch up at midnight when the party’s over. You remember John and Felicia don’t you?”

A window of two hours. Overkill. I descended to the ground floor, using the vendor app to request my bike on the way. It was just being released from the alcove when I arrived. Fully charged! I nodded approvingly. “That’ll do, bike. That’ll do.”  

I almost forgot the sidecar. Never know what size the haul will be. Carries its own supplementary batteries too, and I was gonna need ‘em. Mech arm was still in there, so on a whim, I tossed in a portable air compressor. You never know.

I launched the attack on the out facing cameras and sensor clusters about a mile out. I could see hundreds of little blinking lights suddenly go dark. A countdown appeared in the corner of my vision. Nine minutes. Never mind how long they’d be at the party. If I didn’t get out in time, Panopticon would record my stupid mug in ultra high def from a thousand different angles.

I slowed down somewhat as I approached the outer wall so as not to damage my shocks. This cohab is shaped like an immense truncated cone. As such, the outer wall is a steep slope. Not enough that I could get up it on my bike, except for the mags. Trouble was, they drain the shit out of the battery even just holding the bike to a wall. But then, I didn’t have long to work in the first place.

The familiar loud hum returned as I switched the mags on, and the bike lurched violently towards the wall the moment the front tire was on it. The ride up was surreal. I’m used to the tunnels, but riding up the side of a cohab by moonlight was a new one on me. Gave me a heart attack the first time I went over a window, as the mags briefly lost hold. Momentum carried me over, thank Hubbard.

Parked it right outside the target apartment. Mags in my feet turned on as I got off. Kicked the side of the bike, and the prosthetic bank slid out. Where I keep alternate forearms I might need for a job. I’d worn the upper arm which terminates in a twist-lock abutment and simply had to stick it into the receptacle on the end of whichever forearm I wanted, twist it, then pull it out.

That compartment is one of the reasons I can’t fit a bigger battery in there. Without the sidecar, this thing wouldn’t go but ninety miles. Gotta make room for the tools of the trade, though. In this case, the forearm ending in a glass cutting tool. Essentially a tiny diamond tipped jackhammer the size of a needle.

With a section large enough for me to slip through cut out, I pushed it in with my foot. Thankfully it didn’t shatter, although I have little to fear from treading on broken glass. I returned the glass cutter arm to my bike, whereupon the light next to its alcove turned orange to indicate that it was recharging from the bike’s battery. I twisted my stump to detach, then chose the angle grinder arm.

I put on a hair net just before dropping in through the hole. Would be a shame to go to all this trouble only to be busted by DNA. I crept cautiously into the darkness. My optics include IR but not thermal, and the IR is on the fritz lately. Technology’s a beaut, when it works.  

The hairs on the small of my back now stood at full attention. The private surveillance was offline but you never know what nasty surprises they might have. Heard you can’t own a dog in cohabs. Better safe than sorry. I accessed the custom attachment behind my ear. This time setting it to convert the soundscape around me to imagery.  

Difficult to navigate the room like this. But easy to spot the safe. The fact that it was so pitifully small eased my conscience as I worked on it. But it proved surprisingly tough. The grinder wasn’t working fast enough and I was down to six minutes.  

I heaved myself back outside through the hole, returned the grinder to the bike, and swapped it for my mech arm. Plugging the air compressor into my bike, figuring I was nearly out of time anyway, I then connected the air hose to the spigot on the mech arm’s shoulder.

Now we’re cookin’. I had to briefly detach the mech arm to get back in through the hole. The air hose didn’t quite reach. I tugged on it nervously until I heard the bike move. Not too hard. If the bike came loose, I knew I was gonna have a bad night.

So far so good, though. Just close enough now. I simply reached into the wall and pulled the safe out, in a shower of drywall and dust. When finesse doesn’t do it, Kool Aid man that shit. How to get it out to the bike, though? Four minutes left. For lack of a better option, I chucked the safe. Just let it slide right down the side of the cohab by itself.

Should be fine, that’s why they call it a safe. Or close enough? I detached the mech arm, chucked it out through the opening, and let it dangle by the air hose until I was in a position to reel it back in. “Somehow”, I thought, “I imagined this going more smoothly.” Ninety seconds. With the compressor turned off and the mech arm in the sidecar, I turned on the bike and peeled out.

I stopped at the base of the outer wall long enough to pile the safe into the sidecar, then threw myself back on the bike and burned rubber. Through the rearview cam, as the cohab receded into the distance, I saw the hundreds of tiny blinking lights slowly turning back on a few at a time. I might’ve shit my pants if I still had a small intestine.

I brought up an encrypted IM service. Supposedly even the NSA just gets garbled text and numbers trying to intercept messages sent from it. I’m not in prison yet, so it must work. Arranged to offload the safe on short notice with my usual guy. Stuck around to see for myself what was in it, lest he try to fuck me on the price.

My optics image searched the small painting inside and matched it with one recently sold at one of those shows where people have shit they found in their closet appraised for possible value to collectors. My guy saw it too. “Keep your panties on. No way to know if it’s an original.” The fuck? Why would anybody store a replica in a safe? Also, how’d he know I’m wearing panties?  

Next up were some vintage video discs. Couldn’t make sense of the cover. Something about secret romance between a Victorian era chimney sweep and the vicar of a church he regularly services. Popped it into an external drive, played it back on my optics. “Blimey, padre. The chimney is so....dirty. I’ll have to go in deeper than usual.” I blinked. Can’t be, can it?

“Oh dear. But that’s so forbidden. And hot.” the elderly man in black replied. “Looks like it’s been a long time since anybody’s been in there to really...give it the business. I might have to...twist it around a little. To get the cobwebs out.” I began chuckling. The vicar blushed. “That’s forbidden though! But so very hot!!”

The dude must’ve stashed his gay porn in a safe. Not even regular gay porn but weird plot heavy shit. Although that was popular for a while after the taboo finally died. Turns out the largest market for the really hardcore stuff was straight guys in the South, turned on by the taboo. Also much of the Middle East.

Now, me? I’m a normal red blooded American. Like most people, when I want to get off, I stream 3D footage of a coked up gorilla wrestling a mountain lion, then fucking it to death. Not this depraved Victorian shit. “These actually fetch a respectable price.”

I did a double take. “The porn?” He nodded. “This was a limited run. Niche appeal. Hologram sticker confirms it’s legit, can’t print those yet. I can move this for maybe 1.2 D-coin. .9 if you’re in a hurry, which you must be or you wouldn’t have come to me.”  

Didn’t waste time bending me over the barrel. “Try to move the painting too. My gut says it’s original.” He scratched his groin and eyeballed me. “You still got one of those? Man, get outta here. I got other peeps to see tonight.”

The D-coin was in my wallet by the time I got home. He’s stingy, but fast. That’s why I use him. Aubrey was still asleep on the couch. I carefully lifted her and carried her to her room, taking care to tuck her in before turning off the lights. Looks so sweet, curled up like that. You’d never know what she’s like while awake. Truth be told, at her most personable while unconscious.

I double checked the transaction. My D-coin wallet is offshore. And I mean offshore. Three hundred and fifty feet deep, in an ambient pressure watertight housing on the seabed. The seawater provides free cooling for the servers, electricity comes from a dedicated pair of tidal turbines emplaced just barely in the gulf stream. Uninterrupted clean energy, if you can afford the constant maintenance.

The housing is plastic, so no corrosion. Air pressure inside is the same as the water outside, servers don’t mind it. Most importantly, the whole mess is deep enough that storms don’t threaten it. Storm influence vanishes around 200 feet down. The waste heat helps cultivate lobster, which a boat comes out periodically to harvest.

Dunno how they do data. I wanna say a cable but then US law enters the picture. I searched their site and discovered it’s a satellite dish on a tethered amphibious buoy, which can fill up its ballast tanks and sink out of danger should a storm approach. Cool beans. I’d like to meet the guy who designed that.

With everything squared away so far as I could tell, I turned in for the night. Closed out of dialogues one by one as they popped up, notifications from my various implants that they’re in range of a charging mat. I lay thinking about Aubrey. About blondie, and the night’s haul. But before long the stims wear off, and the subtle hum of the mat lulls me to sleep.

When I woke up, first thing I did was to check the news outlets for anything about last night’s job. Just some special about religious protesters outside a cybernetics corp holding colorful signs reading “God Hates Mechscrement”. Charming. Shower, shit and shave ritual came next.  Of course by 'shit', I mean vacuuming waste out through a port in my hip.

Showering always helps clean out the crust. You know that crust that accumulates around your eyes as you sleep? Sealing your eyelids closed until you wake. Same stuff develops anywhere metal passes through your skin. Your body never stops trying to close the wound.

Sometimes I think it’s onto something. Knows better than we do what should and shouldn’t be put into it. Every couple years I gotta go in to get my transcutaneous pedestals reseated because the bones they’re drilled into have changed shape enough since then that the pedestal comes loose. They don’t tell you that when they’re selling you on it.

They don’t tell you about the crust, either. Loads of shit they don’t tell you. The severely borged up don’t cop to it either. They act like it’s the greatest thing in the world because they dropped so much fedcoin on the procedures. Once you give up on the fantasy of the prosthetic becoming a seamless part of your body though, you begin to appreciate their true utility.

They’re power tools. Ones that happen to take the place of limbs. They never feel like limbs. Your body just doesn’t accept them. You don’t feel the weight of a bio arm because it’s perfectly integrated. A prosthetic, even with sensation, feels like so much dead weight. All the stress put on the pedestal it attaches to. A constant, dull ache in your bones.

Just let them do their job. When you first lift something heavy and don’t feel it, some of the magic returns. “Oh”, you think. “So this is the upside.” I still get tired from time to time but mostly from dealing with Aubrey. But the other thing is, there’s no such thing as replacing a single part.

If you replace an arm for instance, you cannot use the additional strength without also reinforcing your skeleton. Otherwise, the force of the arm lifting some especially heavy object or striking a powerful blow is transferred back into you and will shatter your shoulder, ribs, sternum and so on. So, you replace those bones.

But there’s still the problem of your legs. To lift anything really heavy, you’ll need to be able to support it with the rest of your body too, not just your arm. That requires a metal spine, pelvis and prosthetic legs. Every step of the way, you’re thinking “Just one more surgery will fix it. Everything will work and feel how it should”. But you’re not the one in control. The metal is.

It’s like a plague that slowly consumes your body, all the while you believe you’re having it done of your own volition. The only real solution is to go full metal. Cybernetics is the lie that a stable compromise can exist between biology and technology.

As if you can stop halfway, and have the best of both worlds. Like those shitty little pocket knives which pack in a dozen different tools, all of them too small to be useful. Or a hybrid car, which is why they stopped making ‘em. “A cyborg is like a mermaid”, my dad once told me in a bid to deter me from getting my first implant. “Where you want a woman, you get a fish. And where you want a fish, you get a woman.”

So, I keep stealing shit. To move for D-coin, which I exchange for fedcoin. Which I use to buy more prosthetics. Which only make me better at what I do. Positive feedback loop, you might say. Or vicious cycle, depending how you want to spin it. Breaks Dad’s heart. But I still hold out hope I can convince him to get a metal one.

Good a day as any to visit the old man. Still lives in that dingy trailer by the junkyard. I’ve put some fedcoin into fixing the place up though. It has solar panels now, an aquaponic greenhouse, and I’ve enclosed the trailer under a geodesic dome tent. This company makes ‘em for concerts, protests and other outdoor events, and you can select a transparent covering for it.

The idea was to exclude pollution. It’s pretty thick out here, as there’s a smelting plant nearby. One of the triangular dome facets at the base is fitted with a scrubber, powered by the solar panels, which constantly replenishes the interior of the dome with clean air. Yet, despite all the thought and effort I put into devising this setup, Dad smokes.

I think just because it’s taboo now. He gets off on it, something beyond stubbornness. If you have any sort of trigger, he’ll seek that button out and hammer on it, just to prove he’s not the only unreasonable person in the room.  

Without a doubt, that’s where I get it from. He emerges from the trailer and ducks under the dome’s entry flap as he sees me pull up. I’ve left the sidecar behind as the junkyard isn’t far, and I don’t want him to see my mech arm. That sort of thing really sets him off.

“You done it again didn’t you.” I stood there in momentary confusion before realizing I’d left the laser attachment on my head. “You keep getting new shit put in. Soon I won’t recognize m’own boy.” I hugged him, consciously moderating the force. He wouldn’t be hard to crush, even without my implants.

“You still seein’ that borged up broad with the purple hair?” I assumed he meant Aubrey. “We share an apartment but stopped dating ages ago.” He shook his head. “What a shame. As I recall she had some sweet cans. Ha! Cans! Get it? Because-” I cut him short, rolling my eyes. “I get it, Dad.”

He invited me in for coffee. Once seated I brought up the matter of the recent fines he’d incurred. “I have to pay for those, yanno.” He was wholly unapologetic, as usual. “If I see a drone in my airspace I’m gonna shoot it down. Airspace is still a thing. This here’s my land god damnit, and I don’t want those things flyin’ over it, peepin’ on me.”

I asked what he was up to out here that anybody would want to peep. “Whatever I want! It’s my damn property! If I wanna go out there and dance nekkid I should be able to, without worryin’ my shriveled old junk is gonna wind up on social media.” I laughed, mostly at the idea that anybody would want to share that. But, thinking back to the other motorcyclist from the night before, it began to seem plausible. There’s an audience for everything.  

“Close your eyes and listen real hard. Turn up your ear gizmos or whatever. Hear that? The birds singing, the crickets, the frogs? That’s nature’s social networking. All them critters is busy tryna git laid. All them noises mean is “Who wants to fuck?”  That’s also how humans used to do it. We’d go and talk to each other.”

He loves his long rambling stories. I get that from him too. But he’s sharp as a tack, so they always go somewhere if you’ve got the patience to hear him out. “When I was just a little shit, there was this big trial. Jesus people were tryna git “intelligent design” taught in schools. Their idea was that some stuff in nature is too complex to have evolved, and there’s no incomplete version of it that’s useful for anything.”

These days it was all about the Scientologists and their constant lawsuits against anybody in the psychiatric profession. Weirds dad right the fuck out because he says they weren’t so big when he was young. They’ve been everywhere my whole life, so it just kinda blends into the background for me.

“That’s baloney o’course. Every little step is useful for something. The critters don’t know what they’re evolving into. It has no concrete goal. What use is half a wing, they would ask. Gliding, numbnuts! Flying squirrels don’t really fly, they barely glide. But them flaps make it so they don’t hurt themselves if they fall. The benefit is obvious.”

I sat there, soaking it all in respectfully, waiting for him to tie it back into the original topic. “That’s the thing, though. Social media isn’t how humans are meant to connect. It’s how machines do it. We had perfectly logical reasons to develop it, not realizing we were really setting up the infrastructure intelligent machines would need later. Wireless charging, driverless cars, solar roads. We’re building the support infrastructure for them ahead of their arrival. The ecosystem they need to thrive. Believing all the while that it’s for our own benefit. Because there’s always some use for every little evolutionary step. You don’t see where it’s headed till you get there.”

I asked if, by intelligent machines, he meant full metals. “Naw, they still got human brains. I mean something you ain’t seen yet. If you had, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. You fools are designing yourselves out of the picture. Turning this from a world fit for humans, to a world fit only for machines. And you’ll have the gall to be surprised when they finally show up to take it from you. Wait and see. If you think they’ll look at you as an equal, some monkey with motorized prosthetics on it, you’re in for a rude awakening.”

The rest of the visit was bike talk. Dad loves my bike more than I do. Had one himself back when an electric motorcycle was a remarkable novelty. “Kit bike from China! They sent it to me without the batteries. The idea was, you decide which kind you want and put ‘em in yourself. Cheaper that way. At first. Being Chinese, damn near everything on it went bad one by one. Didn’t realize I was signing on for a never ending hobby project. By the end of it I’d basically rebuilt the whole fuckin’ thing with American parts. Shoulda just bought American to begin with but the prices were nuts back then.”

He pulled out some old photos of himself as a young man, straddling a beastly looking motorcycle with panel gaps large enough to sail a blimp through. “It wasn’t the fastest, but it would break a ton. You know what I say. If it’ll break a ton, it’s tons of fun. That was after I put lithiums in there. Before, I was running lead acid. What a nightmare. The power density and weight meant it would just barely do sixty. Never got any speeding tickets because you couln’t fuckin’ speed on the damn thing.”

Man alive, lead based batteries. Lead! Stone knives and bear skins. “It gets worse. I had agm batts, at least. That’s absorbant glass mat. The older ones were flooded. You couldn’t tip ‘em without spilling the electrolyte and you had to pour some distilled water in there now and again to replace what’s lost to evaporation. That’s just how it was!”

I told him I wasn’t racing anymore. He looked crestfallen. “Get you them new batteries. The whatsis ones, fiber carbon. With the five minute charging.” Dual carbon, I told him. “Whatever! Just put the new shit in there already! I want more bikecam footage from your races. That’s good watchin’. Makes me proud to see my boy runnin’ hard out there, smokin’ those knuckle dragging punks.”

He so rarely says it that, while it warms my heart, it’s also worrying. Made me wonder how long he has left. Shit was rocky between us when I was little. In fairness I was a difficult kid. Had all his worst qualities and few of his good ones. Grown men also don’t generally get on well with know it all teenage upstarts. There’s precedent for that in the animal kingdom. Potential challengers for alpha male.

“Just don’t shoot down anymore drones, alright? And cut down on your smoking.” He scoffed. “You breathe in worse shit, just living in the city. Oughta come out here and set up a trailer next to mine. Country livin’ will fix you up.” I took it as a veiled plea to spend more time with me. “I want that too. There are just certain things I need to get done before then.”

When I got home, Aubrey was in her room. With some new guy by the sound of it. I’ve been through enough girls after her that it doesn’t viscerally bother me anymore. It’s more like the feeling you get when your sister brings home strange men. Unbelievably, when he emerged from her room shirtless and sweaty, it was the motorcyclist from the other night.

I maintained direct eye contact just to make shit as awkward for him as possible. “Uh. Hi.” I just continued to stare, unblinking. “I’m gonna...get dressed and leave.” Shortly after he did so, Aubrey stumbled into the livingroom. Drunk, topless, and hair looking like she’d been outside in a hurricane. “Don’t you start”, she mumbled.

Who, me? I couldn’t resist reminding her of those websites, though. “Like you’re not into weird shit. You always find something wrong with ‘em. Too tall. Too short. Too fat, too thin, not enough metal, too much metal. The real beef you have with ‘em is that they aren’t you.” It stung, but I had nothing to say as she had me dead to rights on this one.

We slacked for a while, taking in some TV. A commercial came on following that cartoon about the sloth who steals a military exoskeleton and uses it to liberate banana republics. “This Valentine’s day”, it began. “Don’t waste her time with chocolates, that’s not the way to a girl’s heart. Instead…..D-D-D-DEVASTATE her cunt with MAXIMUM thundeeerrrrrr!! With the new Dildominator Supreme, only from Phallus Palace.”

It cut to a slow pan over what looked to be a prosthetic forearm terminating in a mechanism similar to a compact jackhammer, but with a massive sparkly phallus on the end. “Now includes optional compressed air cannon with aerodynamic dildo ammunition and laser sight, for long range tactical romance.”

I glanced over at Aubrey with a maniacal grin. “No. That’s horrifying” she said. “Horrifyingly enticing?” Her expression suggested otherwise. “Still, that’s something I can do that he can’t. You can change me into whatever you like.” She groaned. “Don’t start. I’m not looking for a project. Trying to change men is a fool’s errand. I want somebody that already fits me.”

“So why are you with a full bio? Meatloaf is really what you want?” Having finally had enough, she got up, went to her room and began getting dressed. “What I want isn’t your business anymore” echoed from her room. “Your business is figuring out how you’re gonna pay your half of the rent this month.”

I’d certainly made enough from last night’s haul, but was loathe to blow it all so soon. It’s a treadmill. I have to run as fast as I can in order to stay still. The more I augment myself, the faster I get, but the treadmill seems to speed up accordingly. Like the point is to trap us on it. Every way out anybody found before you has since been turned into another treadmill. It’s maddening. The only escape is to find your own way out. Something nobody’s tried before.

An idea began to percolate in my mind. Stupid on the face of it, but because of barriers to success that my brain relentlessly devised ways around. “What about? I’ll just have to...But supposing they anticipated…? I’ll instead approach from…” This continued until I arrived at a fully formed, seemingly workable plan to do the impossible. I began to laugh.

It’s a very distinct laugh. Demented, near musical. Somewhere between Scooby Doo and Beavis. Tough describing it to Aubrey as both of those are before her time. She knows what the laugh means, though. “What are you up to”, she inquires, now wearing a faux neoprene bodysuit with useless straps everywhere and a hole to show off her abs.

“What ever do you mean?” She told me to cut the shit. “When you laugh like that, some brain damaged baboozery is about to go down. It’s never anything good and usually winds up with me on the back of your bike, dodging bullets. Leave me out of it.” I assured her there was no place for her in the plan.

“Oh Hubbard. The plan? There’s a plan now? What difference does it ever make? It always turns out the same with you. Fires, screaming, shootouts. Try not planning this time. Better yet, do whatever the opposite of your plan is. That’s the best advice I can give you.” I didn’t recall asking for advice, and told her so.

“So what’s it gonna be this time? More Batman shit? Ziplines, gimmicks from your gadget belt, the usual?” I resented the way she put it but didn’t give her the satisfaction of reacting. “I’m gonna steal a data center.” She blinked. “What. Like, a whole building? If you pull that off, it would actually impress me.”

“Not a regular one. The submersible type. They’re much smaller. Still weigh a ton, but that’s solvable. Just attach a float bag, fill it with air from scuba cylinders until it rises to the surface, then tow it the fuck out of there. I know a guy who works out of an abandoned marina who can take it off my hands afterward.”

She smiled. For a moment I thought she found the idea brilliant. Then she started laughing. “No, listen!” I urged. “They would never expect anybody to try this.” She struggled to speak over her belly laughs. “That’s because it’s weapons grade retarded.” Efforts to clarify my scheme fell on deaf ears. Pearls before swine.

All their encryption keys are serverside. Not usually done that way to my knowledge but when your data center is on the seafloor, there’s a sense that it’s safe to put all your eggs in one basket. The depth is well beyond the range of recreational scuba, salt water and implants don’t mix, and seawater does a good job of hiding whatever autonomous defenses they’ve set up down there.

It’s the last part which troubled me. Might be a bluff. Might be nothing down there at all. Then again, might be proximity mines. Or auto turrets shooting supercavitating rounds, or small torpedos. Or those harpoons with the compressed CO2 tips that kill by releasing all of it inside you following penetration, inflicting devastating internal damage. Even I can’t survive that.

There’s no way to disable it before I arrive, either. Seawater is opaque to radio. The satellite dish is the only connection, and they’d be expecting that. First order of business should be to destroy that so it can’t call for help, send back footage of me, etc. Then there’s the problem of my prosthetics. They’re all “water resistant”. I can shower in them. But submerging them in salt water would be unwise.

It pained me to drop so much on new gear. It assumed I’d succeed, and fucked me if I didn’t. But if it works out, I’ll have enough for rent. For dual carbon batteries. For Dad’s mansion. Or even a little trailer next to his that I can live in, if that’s really what he prefers.

I shopped around for the implants I needed, splitting the total expense between D-coins and fedcoin. Reasoning that a large enough purchase with untraceable currency would be reason enough to investigate me. But that buying so much aquatic gear at once in a traceable currency would make it trivially easy to figure out who’d pulled off such a heist.

Had the rebreather put in by Alejandro. He’s spendier than I like, but for anything really intrusive and risky, it’s unwise to cheap out. He offered me this new model that separates oxygen out of seawater by a spinning centrifuge. “Bottom time is limited only by the power supply”, he boasted.

No dice. On account of the price tag, and because I didn’t plan to be down there for long. I settled on a compressed oxygen bottle with bloodstream suffuser and CO2 filter. It’d replenish oxygen levels in my blood while removing CO2, such that I could hold my breath for about an hour before needing to refill. The endurance was nothing to write home about, but it looked to be the right tool for the job at a price I could stomach. “Cut me open, baby.”

So he did. I didn’t have him put me under because although he’s got a 96% approval rating on I suspect those ratings are padded by votebots. And as a rule of thumb I don’t like to be vulnerable. But I also refused to watch closely as he worked. Blood makes me squeamish.

Like I said, I never fought much as a kid. Never enlisted, never killed a man. Not directly. I suppose I’m kind of a wuss. The metal takes care of everything for me, I just tell it what to do. So instead of watching him as he injected the numbing agent and wiped down my chest with disinfectant, I turned my gaze to the near wall. Where a small display panel set up for just this purpose was showing some good old fashioned reality TV.

“Now back to Out With a Bang! Bringing you only the world’s most spectacular suicides!” Jump cut to a short line of today’s “exitors” Depressingly, most were teenage girls. A Japanese university student wearing some outlandish fashion so new I’d never seen it until now approached the host.

“What’s your name, dear.” She whispered into the mic when it was offered. “Mimi chan.” The host invited her to speak more loudly but she seemed constitutionally incapable of it. “Mimi chan here is a formerly popular let’s player. She had over two million regular viewers at her peak! But as viewership declined, she tried increasingly desperate means to retain them, to the point where it essentially became a cam show. Truly heartbreaking. Is that why you’re here with us today?”

She shook her head. “It’s more about money, to be honest. I spent whatever I made from viewer donations very frivolously, believing it would last forever. When they left, I had nothing. Basic income isn’t enough to stay current with my implants! The new Prismatic Princess implants are out, and I can’t afford them. All my friends have them, I’m the only one who doesn’t.”

The host leaned in for a hug. Mimi looked startled but the crowd, or recording of a crowd, ate it up. A long “Aaaawwwww.” Then, Mimi’s big reveal. “What have you got planned for today?” the host inquired. She gestured to offscreen staff, who pulled a set of curtains behind her aside, revealing the mechanism she’d chosen. Some kind of harness suspended within a transparent plastic sphere. The harness had thick cables trailing from it, out through the sphere, to a bank of supercapacitors the size of a bus.

“You guys were really wonderful in helping me set this up! I’m sure it was expensive.” The host said something appropriately humble while I wondered why they didn’t just use that money to buy her the implants she wanted so desperately. “Just a reminder” the host said, turning to the camera. “This will be recorded in 3D from over a hundred different angles. You can buy the video archive of today’s exits from our website.”

The sphere opened like a clamshell. Mimi climbed inside and hooked herself into the harness, which while open, I could see had inward-facing electrodes. The sphere closed, and the music Mimi requested in advance began to play. The theme from some Japanese drama program she was a fan of, according to the host, who strode about theatrically flipping various switches and turning knobs for show.

Finally, her big moment. The main lights dimmed. A spotlight concentrated just on the sphere. Mimi smiled at the camera and made peace signs with her hands. Pyrotechnics erupted to either side, just before the supercaps all discharged simultaneously into poor Mimi. Her face contorted as if to scream for a split second before her body violently inflated, then burst. Steam explosion, I figure. All the fluids in her body converted to rapidly expanding vapor in the blink of an eye.

Along the bottom of the screen, viewer reactions from social media appeared in realtime. “6/10, electrical is overdone.” Another read “Her channel sucked and I’m glad she’s gone. I’m just disappointed there will be no grave to piss on.” The inside surface of the sphere was coated in steaming blood, charred implants and scraps of gore while the interior volume was full of roiling black smoke. The show’s main theme cut in as the audience applauded.

“Now that’s going….oooouuuut with a baaaang!” the host bellowed. The applause intensified, accompanied by whooping. Then the host touched his finger to his ear. “Folks I’m...I’m being told there was some sort of technical glitch. We actually didn’t manage to capture any of that! Can you believe it? A truly elegant end, though. Hope Mimi’s parents set their panel to record this episode! Ha ha!”

“Done”. I looked up at Alejandro. “Seriously?” He nodded, deadpan. I looked down at my chest. Angry red swelling around the stitches, as expected. And a new addition poking through my sternum: The O2 refill port.

“Don’t you dive like this right away, seawater in your wounds is bad times. Do you want infection? Because that’s how you get infection.” I assured him I wouldn’t. “Wait two weeks, minimum, and take two of these per day to expedite healing.” 

He handed me a small vial of orange pills. “It’s really gotta close up tight around that port in particular. Message me if you smell anything weird coming from incision, that means for sure is infected. And don’t pick at stitches like last time.”

Next stop was Dinesh. The prosthetic I was looking for this time would be single-use. I didn’t care much about the build quality so long as it’d work once. “My friend!” he cried out upon seeing me enter his shop. Anybody who calls everyone their friend is nobody’s friend but their own.

“Dinesh. Been a long time. Sold my arm yet?” He looked sheepish. “In fact, yes. But of course, you can’t be here for that. What can I interest you in? I will do whatever it takes to get YOU into some implants, TODAY! Of course, as the saying goes, you don’t get into implants. They get into you.”

Nobody says that. He tries like hell to make it catch on, for marketing purposes. His suit was one I’d not yet seen but predictably as outrageous as the others. Something like burberry but the lines consisted of repeating images of resistors, microswitches and other small electronic parts. His hair completes the package. Black as night, slicked back over his scalp and kept there by enough oil to deep fry a beluga.

Naturally, none of his implants came from his own shop. That’s what you gotta look for to gauge the quality of a shop’s wares. But again, I wanted a disposable. Everything here is effectively disposable whether or not it’s advertised as such.  

After wandering among racks piled high with used prosthetics, rummaging through last decade’s state of the art, I found what I was after. Primary function is a grappling hook. Secondary is a propulsive emergency descent mechanism.

In theory, the grappling hook could be reused. But the descent mechanism uses solid fuel rockets that there’s no obvious provision for replacing. “Oh, wise choice. You have a sharp eye, as ever! My friend, you have always known the diamond in the dung heap when you see it! That’s the mark of a connoisseur! There is no arm in all of my inventory as fine as the one you’ve expertly chosen!”

I raise an eyebrow. “Really? What if I want this one?” I put down the grappling hook arm and picked up one terminating in a power drill. “Ah. Yes. Well, both of those are rare finds, and whichever you choose will certainly be a steal at the bargain basement prices I offer only to you, my cherished-” I gestured for him to stuff it, and brought the grappling hook arm up to the counter.

I found the float bags at a dive shop. I’d have gotten the scuba cylinders there as well but dealfinder on my slab told me there were two sets of vintage scuba gear in a nearby thrift store. I didn’t need to use them but once, like the grappling hook, so I bought the used ones.

The last three items were small enough to order online and have delivered by drone. The first, a set of supercavitating rounds for my rifle arm. The advantage of weaponized prosthetics is that you can fit more gun into the same space, and of course the other guy can’t make you drop it.

The length of the barrel is completely embedded in the limb, from the elbow to the wrist. Concealed purposefully, as the limb includes a basic hand which folds out of the way when you mean to shoot somebody.

I’d already looked up the model number and confirmed it would operate underwater. Just needed bullets designed for the medium or they wouldn’t travel a useful distance before losing momentum. The second item was a bone conduction attachment specialized for echolocation. My own could already do that, but only in air.

It includes a dolphin translator and hydrophone in the event that you have any interest in what a marine mammal with an IQ of 60 has to say. As you might imagine, they talk about fish a lot. And sex. Also, some guy named John C. Lilly who they revere as a prophet. Dolphins have a religion, it turns out. There’s no getting away from that sort of thing, even underwater.

The final item was a pair of diver propulsion units, designed to attach to the transcutaneous pedestals poking out of my leg stumps. I opted for the ones with the dual carbon batts, reasoning that this was another item it would be unwise to cheap out on. I did not relish the idea of running out of battery before I reached the marina, then running out of oxygen soon after that. It’s rather hard to float when your body’s loaded with metal.

Once everything arrived, following two weeks of bed rest and enduring Aubrey’s constant questioning about where my half of the rent was, the time came to set everything into motion. On my way out the door, Aubrey called out “Hey, did you record Out With a Bang for me? It was the one where the former child sitcom star is torn apart by starving hyenas. Also pick up soy milk on the way back.”

“I did. It was hilarious and awesome. Soy milk is an insult to god, buy it yourself.” With that, I headed for the rendezvous point. I’d summoned a volocopter by app, and I meant to arrive ahead of it. I did, by a hair. It was time enough to stash my bike in an alley, fit my rifle arm and load a tranquilizer. Volos are electric VTOL air taxis. Aside from ambulances they’re the only aircraft licensed to operate within cities as they’re so lightweight, a terrorist couldn’t do much damage with one.

Landing pads atop skyscrapers rapid charge their batteries in minutes, so their short endurance isn’t a problem. A bit of napkin math indicated it should get me out over the dive site, but wouldn’t get me back. No matter. Ditching it in the open sea would take care of any prints or DNA left in it.

It’s only the rich who can afford the fare. And the rich prefer a human pilot, even though volos operate autonomously under normal conditions. So when the volo finally set down and the twenty small props slowed to a safe RPM, a spritely full bio wearing the colorful company uniform climbed out, scanning the landing area for any sign of his client.

The continued draft from the props complicated the shot. The dart is guided however, tiny avionics chip consisting of a bee’s head grafted to a miniaturized brain machine interface pivoting the fins as needed to dynamically correct its flight path. He yelped and hopped around on his good leg before collapsing. He was drowsy but not yet knocked out when I arrived at the volo, ski mask pulled over my face.

“You...Hewlett Fudgepacker. Fucking...cock...sucker” he managed just before conking out. Now that was uncalled for. If you think about it, cocksucking is the nicest thing you can do for someone. If they haven’t got one but you do it anyway? That’s giving 110%. I loaded my gear into the volo, and legs dangling over the edge, detached them.  

No sense ditching these in the sea, and it’d be foolish to leave them in the sunken volo for investigators to find. Shouldn't make a difference either way, they're generics with wiped serials. I twisted the electric thrusters into place where my legs had been, swung around to face forward, and set about overriding the avionics software. Another bee head on a chip. Turns out to be cheaper and more energy efficient than the graphene equivalent.

The kluge here was to clog the air intake. In a few minutes, the bee head asphyxiated and the volo defaulted to manual controls, service light blinking frantically. Soon I was in the air, soaring over the city on my way to the nearby coast. A number of the skyscrapers had private gardens and other simulated natural landscapes on the roofs. Often with full sized conventional houses as well. Like your own little island in the sky.

Wondered if Dad would go for that. In a non-extradition country of course. It would be just like him to stay put, refusing to leave that little trailer no matter what alternatives I might offer. Fifteen minutes later I reached the coast. The charge meter read 49%. If I’d estimated the range incorrectly...

I passed a minor seastead once out to sea. There’s an idea. Dad would fit in well, those places are a haven for stubborn anti-authoritarian curmudgeons like him. Finally, with the charge meter reading 3%, I arrived over the dive site. I carefully took aim, and with an explosive round, obliterated the comms buoy. I then detached my rifle prosthetic, loaded the supercav rounds and slid it into a holster strapped to my thigh.

Finally, I popped on the conduction attachment, paired with it, and twisted the grappling hook forearm into place. Nowhere to go from here but down. So, down I went. Lowered myself as far as possible via the grappling hook, then cut the cord. A terrifying moment of freefall followed before the emergency descent mechanism kicked in.

The panels comprising the forearm shell spread apart like the petals of a flower. Inside, a cluster of six long, thin solid rocket motors angled outward from the top, like opening an umbrella. Presumably so I wouldn’t get fried by the exhaust. Then all six roared to life, slowing my descent as advertised until I floated as gently as a leaf in the wind. Like some demented Mary Poppins.

I really should’ve checked how long the rockets would last. They ran out with a good ten feet left, plunging me into the frigid waters below. A dialogue with a smiling bird mascot and the manufacturer’s logo popped up. “You’ve just used Soft Landing™! Would you like to rate it?” I gave it one star, and the cartoon bird flipped me off.

My rebreather kicked in, sensing the pressure and moisture increase. I went limp, allowing myself to slowly sink while testing it out. Sure enough, although I could feel nothing happening, I simply didn’t experience the usual urge to breathe.  

Closing my eyes, I sent out a few pings with the echolocation device. It was markedly more effective than the one I use in the air, probably due to the greater density of water. The image it returned was detailed enough that I could more effectively see where I was going with my eyes shut than open, on account of the middling visibility.

I tried to flex my calves. Which of course weren’t there, but that was the appropriate signal to trigger the thrusters. It was oddly exhilarating, flying about underwater like a superhero in slow motion. With everything sorted, I headed straight down, popping my ears along the way. Soon I could resolve the shape of the server housing. Just as I’d feared, a ring of auto turrets encircled it.

I simply didn’t have the firepower to disable them from a distance. But as I looked on, they began to spin wildly. That’s when I realized that the designer assumed potential threats would approach from underwater. The turrets couldn’t aim far enough upwards to target me, and were programmed not to point anywhere near the server housing under any circumstances. I patted myself on the back, pretending I’d expected this.  

I then unfolded the float bag, and was in the process of fastening it to the housing when the second line of defense appeared. Supposedly, sharks are more afraid of humans than we are of them. But when you stick a neuro-implant in their tiny brains that homes in on anything human shaped, and strap explosives to them, suddenly there’s a whole fucking lot to be afraid of.

The thrusters had the range I would need to escape, but not the speed. In a panic, I attached my rifle arm, took aim, and fired. Brained it so far as I could tell. I have no idea where exactly the brain is in a hammerhead. But it kept coming, so long as the implant was intact and still connected to its nervous system. The poor creature left a cloudy trail of blood behind it, billowing out of the head wound.

Too close. No options left. The force of the explosion magnified by the density of seawater would absolutely shred me. But, I work best under pressure. In a fit of desperation, I switched on my echolocation implant’s hydrophone feature and began broadcasting in dolphin. Calling out to any that might be nearby, pleading with them to stop the shark.

None came. But a strange thing happened. The shark stopped swimming, then turned and headed off on a different trajectory. It took me a few seconds to guess at why. As they’re legal persons, murdering dolphins is punished every bit as severely as conventional murder. So, weaponized drones of any kind are likely to include a whitelist, excluding dolphins from the scope of acceptable targets.

I held my position for a few minutes waiting for my heartbeat to slow down. No good could come from consuming oxygen that rapidly. Then I returned to the work of attaching the float bag to the server housing, and filling it with air from the scuba tanks.

Once there was enough trapped in the bag, I surfaced inside of it, just to remove my wet mask and munch on an energy bar. I’d begun seriously entertaining the notion that this was going to work after all. It felt delirious, equal parts excitement and relief.  

Mask back in place, I dove out from under the edge of the bag, and resumed filling it with air. Near the end I began to worry I’d not brought enough scuba tanks. But then, so slowly, it budged. More and more, finally lifting up off the seabed and beginning its gentle ascent to the surface.

Entirely too late to help, the dolphins finally arrived. Squeaking indications of concern and fear at me, wondering where the shark went. When I explained that I’d taken care of the shark myself, they found it dubious, but left the matter alone. Only to then ask me if I could set aside some time to hear some golden wisdom from the writings of prophet Lilly.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. I told them I’d be happy to, if I could first share the gospel with them. Both communicated exasperation. “We’re quite familiar. No thank you.” So it’s gonna be like that, you little shits? “Are you two certain? It’s got an action packed sequel now! Bible 2, the Return of Jafar.” They circled around me a few times to ensure I was unharmed, then sped off, disappearing into the ubiquitous blue fog.

At least they didn’t rape me. Cherish the small victories! I followed the floating data center to the surface, attached a cord to the base of it, the other end to my belt, and began puttering my way back to shore. The float bag was blue, a conscious choice as it blended invisibly into the surrounding sea. Only the very top penetrated the surface. Even then, I defy anybody to locate me from the air.

As I was still transmitting in dolphin, the turrets did not fire on me. Shame this would only work once. Next guy to try it would undoubtedly find more severe, competent defenses awaiting him. Ernesto was exactly where he said he’d be when I arrived at the marina, thrusters nearly depleted. “You really did it. You really fuckin’ did it. Holy shit. This is some Carmen Sandiego shit right here.”

Who? Ernesto’s full metal, and from his references I get the impression he’s at least fifteen or twenty years older than me. “I lost a bet because of you. I’d be pissed but my cut from this job will more than pay for it.” I pouted. “Ernesto! You bet against my success? That cuts deep, brizzleheim.” He shrugged. “Nobody’s ever jacked a seafloor data center. Unprecedented. The smart money was on your death, I apologize for nothing.”

I laughed and told him I woulda done the same.  Despite the age difference, he and I are pretty congruent. I traded the aquatic gear against the cost of some conventional legs he had in his warehouse, walked a few miles to the nearest club, and summoned an autocab. It arrived with a passed out bum inside. Like clockwork.

When I got home, I checked my D-coin wallet. Ernesto’s rock solid but slow. It took several more hours before that number skyrocketed. I whooped, dancing wildly about the apartment like a rabid gibbon. That’s it. Sorted! Everything taken care of for as far into the future as I care to think about.

In order, I bought pops a volo ticket to a minarchist seastead, the most lavish residence it offered, dual carbon batteries for my bike, and full metal surgery for myself. Then I transferred what I owed Aubrey for rent into her account with a snarky note about her pestering. Also preordered the next iteration of OT Commander and gifted it to her gaming account because I I’m feeling flush, and my life’s easier when she’s happy.

When I got the new batts put in, I gave dad the first ride. It’s unnerving to hear high pitched giggling coming from a man his age. Aubrey was next. We tore wildly, unrepentantly through the night. Nostalgia burning within us for the old days, when I’d take her to watch me race. When I stopped at a cafe and looked back, her hair was as wild as her grin.

“So did that disintegrate your panties or what.” She laughed. “No, can’t say as it did.” So naturally, I activated the actual panty disintegrator I’d recently installed under the rear seat. Her eyes widened as the sharp, dextrous little silver tendrils swiftly unraveled the fabric through her jeans. “HEY!” she shouted. “That pair was expensive, you fuckin’ wog!” I continued cackling even as she beat the stuffing out of my soft parts.

Four days later, I went in for the full metal surgery. Felt kinda silly to be nervous about it. I’ve been cut more times than Medicare. Alejandro looked puzzled when I handed him the small plastic cube. “This is from a home robot, no? What you want I should put it in you for?”  

I explained that I meant it as a sort of autopilot which could drive my body around. “So I can get menial work done while sleeping, stuff like that. I’d also like full control of the medical emergency protocols. No particular reason.”

He raised his bushy eyebrows at me. “Nobody ask for this before. You a weird guy.”  I had no choice but to be put under. That’s when my anxiety peaked, but it’s real hard to stay anxious when they turn on the gas. When I awoke, it took a few seconds to notice anything different. Astonishingly, all the aches were gone.

No more stress on my bones. No more crust. No more antibiotics. Unlike any surgery before, full metal actually delivered on the hype. Everything felt natural. No, that’s the wrong word. It all felt contiguous. No jarring seams, no abrupt transitions from flesh to metal. Not that I could feel. The brain itself can’t experience pain.

I would’ve cried had I still be able to. At long last, the light at the end of the tunnel. The holy grail. It was a handsome body, too. Cobalt blue with silver trim, smooth featureless head coated in densely clustered micro cams that give me panoramic vision without turning my head. “Do you have anything I can crush!?” I begged Alejandro.

He furrowed his brow. “You really are weird guy.” Then handed me an empty parts crate. I seized it in my new hands, then compressed it between them. It collapsed in a loud, crackling shower of splinters. But my arms did not hurt. Nor did my shoulders. Alejandro weakly protested as I effortlessly lifted his gene sequencer. My spine, pelvis and legs didn’t hurt.

I unreservedly concluded it was everything I’ve ever dreamed it would be. An IM from Aubrey popped up in the center of my vision. “Now that you’ve got dual carbons, you should start racing again. And bring me to watch.” The pump responsible for circulating oxygenated blood to my brain accelerated somewhat.

“You read my mind. Does this mean we’re dating again?” I sent back. The wait for her reply was agonizing. “That depends how you place.” My bike strained noticeably under my added weight. That’ll impact handling, I worried. But the range was no problem. Dual Carbon technology is a god damned wizard mystery. The range estimate claimed 374 miles remaining.

That really meant just over two hundred, under racing conditions. Assuming heavy mag use. I’d also had the mechanic put in various extras, including some supercaps as a sort of nitro. Loads of unknown quantities. But why race if you know what the outcome will be in advance?

Dad IMed me. Had to park to read it. He uses IM like email, and rambles as usual even in writing. “Hope the operation went well. You know how I feel about it, but I guess I can’t change your mind no more than you can change mine. You did change my life, though.

I’m all moved in and I can already tell you, this is the home I never knew I was homesick for. They really get it here! A man can do as he pleases with nobody peeping on him, nor breathing down his neck. I shot down a private drone today. The owner came to have words with me.

You know what I did? I chased that sumbitch off my property with hedge clippers. That was that! No cops, no strongly worded letters, no nothing. He bought a new drone and now damn well knows not to fly it near me.”

Again, I felt as though I was tearing up when I simply couldn’t. Phantom limb syndrome of the tear ducts. He included a photo of a business he’d started. Apparently pops got the idea to import organic veggies and sell them to the locals.

“That’s what these good folks really need to complete this place. Organic meals in their bellies! That’s the ticket, boy. Put only natural stuff in your body and you’ll be amazed what it does for you. I did go and get me a prosthetic ticker, though.

Don’t act so shocked! An old dog can learn new tricks if properly motivated. Now I actually wanna stick around a while longer. See what I can do for this place. I dunno if you ever realized it but I wouldn’t leave that little trailer on account of it’s where your mother and I lived when she passed away.

My life ended when they threw dirt on her. My body just didn’t get the memo. Kept on trucking, however bad I wanted to join her. So I just haunted that rusty hovel, waiting for the rest of me to die. Never thought I could start a new chapter, ‘till you sent me here.

I know you don’t go in for this stuff but I swear, I can feel your mother smilin’ down on me from above, the salty breeze caressing my face the way she used to. I guess I gone on long enough already. All these needless words, when the only thing I really wanna say is that I like it here. You done good boy. I’m proud of you.”

One hand over my mouth, the other clutching my smooth metal chest. I’d done it. No more dingy apartment. No more trailer by the junkyard. A foot in the door with Aubrey, more money in the bank than I know what to do with, and a street race scheduled for tomorrow night. If I had any skin left, I’d pinch it to make sure all of this was really happening.

“That’s your new body? It’”. Aubrey eyeballed me from the kitchen as I entered the apartment. She held herself differently now. Posing, subtly. “It ought to be, for what it cost. Feels fantastic.” Her eyes lingered on one spot in particular. “I bet”.  

The sex was strange but wonderful. I could imagine no better way to break in the new body. Limiters kicked in as I became aroused, to prevent me from accidentally injuring Aubrey due to momentary loss of control. They really think of everything. Nonetheless I felt powerful. Tireless. Like an unstoppable force of nature, relentlessly punishing this soft, whimpering creature beneath me.

After her sixth orgasm she finally asked me to stop, as she’d become sore. “More nights like this, and I may just have to keep you”, she whispered over her shoulder as she went to shower the sweat off. I had no such need. I magnified her backside for better definition as she left. It is good to be full metal.  

The following day was spent preparing for the race. Testing every recent addition to the bike, installing the shiny new cobalt blue body panels so it’d match up with me, polishing, then re-resting. “Blue Moon”, I call her. Because that’s about how often I can afford to upgrade it. I raced a recreation of the course in VR dozens of times until I had as good a feel for it as the sim could give me.  

It weaved through the city, under the river via the submerged tunnel, out along the coast, through the harbor, then back into the city before terminating at the bar selected for post-race drinking. I wondered about the harbor. If I were gonna stage an ambush for competitors, that’s where I’d do it.

A purpose-built exploit had been prepared to rig all the stoplights and selectively reroute or halt autocabs and all other vehicles just long enough for the bikes to pass each intersection. City hall kept commissioning improved security, but there’s always a way in. In the last thirteen years, my old crew has yet to postpone a race, much less cancel.

Blondie was there. I couldn’t believe it until I got a good look at his face. He seemed unsurprised by comparison. Didn’t recognize me, but he sure as hell recognized my bike. “How’d you get out of prison?” He smirked. “My dad owns the sea farm I worked on. Bailed me out. When I told him about you, he had his boys do some research. Found out you’d registered for this race, bought me this here fine ass hog so’s I could get some payback. Nice bod by the way, terminigger.”

I must’ve looked skeptical, because he reassured me he’d checked his weapons at the entrance like everybody else and only wanted a clean, old fashioned rematch. It really was a beautiful machine. Paying homage to gas bikes, it had a pair of crackling plasma tubes where the exhaust pipes would’ve been. An ostentatious display of excess power.

“What’re you runnin’, gear queer?” I grimaced, but wasted no time boasting about the dual carbons I’d just put in. He threw back his head and laughed as I looked on in confusion. “I guess that’s alright. For a caveman. This beast runs aluminum air. A thousand miles worth.” Was he serious? “I thought aluminum air batteries were single use. The pack destroys itself as it discharges.”

He shrugged. “What do I care? I only need it for this race. After I win, I can use the prize money to buy that new Titanate shit that’s coming out. Where’s your whore?” He scanned the crowd until he spotted Aubrey. “Where are yours?” I shot back. His goons were nowhere to be seen. Gonna guess his dad only bailed him out.

The grand awning over the starting line had an immense screen projected onto it from below, for the crowd’s benefit. It displayed all of our battery levels in real time, views from our bike cams, and a diagram of the track with little 3D avatars for each of us to indicate our positions.

The sheer variety of bikes present was staggering. Every color, every style. Choppers, sportbikes, recumbents...a glittering sea of carbon fiber, neon paint jobs and glowing EL wire. Just as much variety in software, too. Bike to bike hacking is all but encouraged. Penalties only come into play if another rider dies because of it.

I could already see attempts to probe my bike’s defenses reported by the security suite on its HUD. I set about doing the same to the others. As a result, when the lights turned green, several bikes remained frozen as the rest rocketed away. Hacked so they wouldn’t even start. Their riders throwing off their helmets, stomping around and swearing as the crowd laughs.

Foul play was furious and immediate. I’d rigged the deflection array to arc other peoples’ bikes if they got too close. Some cocky meatloaf on a Kawasaki Thunderbolt crept up beside me and readied a ceramic compressed air pistol. So that’s how he got it through security.

An arc of blinding white electricity reached out from my bike to his own, whereupon the motor controller fried, and the battery pack began melting down. A jet of blue flames erupted from the swollen, bubbling wound in the side, gushing flaming toxic electrolyte all over his leg. He screamed, veered away and leapt from his bike.

The air pockets in his suit explosively inflated, such that he rolled and bounced along until coming safely to a stop. The race app indicated a medical volo was on the way. So long as he didn’t die, it wasn’t my problem. Hell, I’d done him a favor by taking his leg. Now he’s got to borg up.

Never before have I felt so unified with my bike. It was always a sort of extension of my body while riding. While in the zone. But now, it is my body. I’ve connected it to my nervous system. I can sense the wind rushing over its capacitive body panels. Directly feel the shocks absorbing the impact of every little pebble and pothole.

The heat of the battery, normally just reported on the hud, feels like a ball of fire in my chest threatening to burn its way out. I activate the radiator wings, unfolding from the sides to dump waste heat more rapidly. I can feel those too. Bizarre, but sublime.

Sparks fly as I lean into a turn so severely that a fairing grinds against the pavement. Mildly painful. Just enough that I realized what was happening immediately and corrected it. Blondie was ahead for the time being, sending me taunts by IM. Didn’t even bother running over the resonance charging strips. No need. That battery he’s got really is a beast.

Street level cafes, department stores and implant retailers whip by in a blurry, glowing smear. A banked turn comes up. I switch on my mags, cling to the metallic film coating the semi cylindrical stretch of road and sail up the side. Another full metal on a bike retooled to resemble a fighter jet, complete with fanged mouth paintjob, closed in behind me.

I thought the spherical hubs in her wheels were integrated motors until they separated from the bike. The wheels were actually hubless, a popular style. Housings for the spheres, which I realized as they tumbled menacingly after me, were some manner of weapon.

I tried arcing them to no avail. The outer coatings are seemingly dielectric. Suddenly, a video call from Dad popped up. “Are ya winnin’, son!?” Oh god, why now. I told him I was workin’ on it, then abruptly closed out of the call. The spheres sped up, grooves around them beginning to glow red. I could guess what would happen should they reach me.

Battery level was still in the high nineties. Look at that investment pay off! So once I came out of the turn, I discharged the supercaps. I’d not had time to test them either in meatspace or in sim, so the force of the sudden acceleration took me by surprise. Were I anything less than full metal, I suspect the bike would’ve shot out from under me, taking my bloody arms with it.

Incomprehensible speed. My mind violently churning, fighting to keep track of everything around me. I identified a bike I didn’t mind wrecking and, as the rolling bombs began to gain on me again, lured them into it. The rider, being full metal, escaped unharmed. Namely by means of ejecting his head from his body just prior to detonation.

I didn’t stick around to see how it landed. Neat trick though, I resolved to have Alejandro put that in with some of the prize money. The full metal with the fighter jet bike closed in, no doubt furious. Really beautiful body. Smooth curvilinear chrome, like a classic Sorayrama gynoid pinup. It’d be a shame to mangle that.

Smart cookie, too. As soon as she was in range, she launched an attack on my bike computer that disabled the modified deflector array. By disable I mean caused it to internally short, reducing the mechanism to a bubbling mass of molten metal just before I jettisoned it.

I inwardly raged. That was my big gun! I’d prepared an assortment of other simple tricks but without the deflector I’d be considerably more vulnerable than I planned for going into this.  The river loomed up ahead. I danced about, evading the silver bitch on my tail long enough to enter the submerged tunnel.

The whole length of it was made from spinel. Older tunnels like this tend to be boring concrete. Especially the ones deep enough underwater that there’s no point to windows. Apart from compromising the structural integrity, it’s just pitch black out there anyway.

But the advent of manufacturing methods which dramatically reduced the expense of fabricating large, contiguous objects from spinel made it an attractive alternative. Stronger than concrete, particularly against explosives, and transparent.

I’ve been through it a couple times during the day, and the view is breathtaking. Shallow enough you can still see the surface undulating gently overhead, like cloud cover. Curious dolphins swimming alongside your bike or car as you zip through.

No such view tonight. The internal lights are on, but not for long. I need to lose silvergirl, got a hunch she has something worse than the rolling bombs up her sleeve. I bring up a program I bought from my custom software guy after the details of the course were released. It disrupts power to the tunnel lighting system, plunging us into darkness.

My new eyes include thermal, standard. I had little practice with it but it picked out other bikes easily enough. The tunnel, being roughly fifty feet underwater, provides a nice cold backdrop against which to pick out the heat signatures of everyone’s battery packs and motors.

A sudden flash lights up the road ahead of me. Two bikes tangled up with one another, showering sparks everywhere, their riders evidently lacking any sort of night vision. One, a full metal, simply skids along on his body. Yet more sparks trailing behind him as he slides to a gradual stop. The other, a near full bio, inflates his suit just before slamming into the tunnel wall, then tumbles along the pavement.

Blondie’s in sight now. The race app indicates he’s twelve seconds ahead. I could just barely make out the flickering pink light from his bike’s plasma tubes. “I’m coming for you, farmboy” I messaged him. But silvergirl wasn’t done with me just yet. So far she was turning out to be a bigger pain in my ass than blondie.

I considered my options. Most of my gimmicks assumed conventional wheels. The faux wings on her bike unfolded, with all too real miniature missiles slung beneath them. No time left for indecision. The prosthetic bank! I kicked it and it slid open. The rifle arm with the conventional hand would do. I paired with it. Then, peering over my shoulder, hurled it at her bike.

Even before I went full metal, I could control my prosthetics remotely. The transcutaneous pedestals are just attachment points, they don’t carry data. That’s all wireless. Before I'd gone full metal, the myoelectric electrodes tucked away in my chest, connected to salvaged nerves, would both receive signals meant for the prosthetic arm and stimulate the remaining nerves to provide sensation.

This meant I could pop the thing off and make it crawl around. Standard party trick to impress full bios. Never thought I’d use it like this. An inset window in the corner of my vision showed the view from the forearm’s camera as it latched onto the rear seat. I made it crawl bit by bit towards silvergirl.

Wish I could’ve seen her expression when it began climbing up her back. In the rear camera I spotted her thrashing wildly as I reached her shoulders. She seized it by the wrist, then held it in front of her to get a better look. That’s when I split the hand open and, with the embedded rifle, shot her in the face.

It did little more than scuff the finish, bullet harmlessly deflected, bouncing around the tunnel a few times behind her. But it gave her enough of a scare that she tumbled backwards off her bike. “Sayonara, Sorayama” I mutter a split second before cringing at my own heinous joke. I wonder if anybody makes an exocortex just for humor.

I exit the tunnel and, to my surprise, discover that I’m now in second. The darkened tunnel gambit weeded out more riders than I expected. Blondie is now just 6 seconds ahead. Charge meter reads 81%. The old lithium pack would be running on static by now. Unbelievably, the race app claims blondie is still at 100%.

My bike notifies me the supercaps are full again. We’re on a straightaway towards the harbor, so I select “discharge”. Another harrowing boost, making it a challenge even with my new arms to keep the front wheel straight. Now just two seconds behind. “I’m coming for you, farmboy”, I message him.

We enter the habor. I expected some sort of ambush here. I did not expect it to be the cops. Briefly, I toyed with the idea of leading them on a chase. Fuck their shit, I’ve got dual carbons now. The cops can’t catch me, I thought. God himself can’t catch me, not with dual carbons. “Did you have something to do with this?” I messaged blondie.

“They reduced my bail on the condition that I help ‘em nab you”, he came back. Should’ve guessed. “Easy on the bike!” I warned as the combat robot the cops use to subdue full metals slams me to the ground. Arms and legs bound with titanium cuffs, I was unceremoniously dumped into the back of a squad car and taken away.

I video called my lawyer on the way. “The fuck do they even have on me, Gene? Offshore data centers are quasi-legal, aren’t they? US authorities aren’t gonna give a shit if somebody jacks one.” He scrolled through the data they’d sent following his request.

“They found a discarded Soft Landing prosthetic on site, which your bank records show you recently purchased from one “Dinesh Mahal.” The serials match, and the black box from the volo you hijacked contained footage of someone in a ski mask loading that exact model of prosthetic into it prior to flying it out over the ocean. The main charge in terms of prison time I can see on here is for shooting the volo pilot in the leg.”

I groaned. No such thing as the perfect crime. While sitting in the cell where I was to await trial, I used my one outgoing video call to contact Aubrey. “Where are you? We’re all at the bar celebrating. I asked around, they said you didn’t even finish.”

“In jail, finally. I might be here awhile. You’ll wait for me, won’t you?” She winced and scratched her neck nervously, while avoiding eye contact. “Actually...I just met this super cute, interesting guy. His dad owns a crab farm.” I banged my head against the wall so hard as to dent both.

I dumped Gene and hired the best lawyer I could afford with what I had left. He was worth every fraction of a fedcoin. In the end I only got six years, down from the initial fifteen. Not that it makes any difference to me.

The minute the trial was over, I switched over to the ‘autopilot’ I’d had Alejandro install, then used the emergency systems to induce a six year coma. When I woke up, I was being handed my belongings and released. Smart, not hard.

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Roger A. Fauble: Excellent read, the only thing not to like is that I could only read it at home on my computer. I'm a character reader, I get into the characters, their story, who/what they are. In this story characters are introduced and developed allowing you to really get into them. Next the story is develop...

Leah Brown: This was an amazing read! I was hooked from the very first chapter, holding my breadth to see what would happen next. The characters are rich and vibrant, and the world Danielle has created is fascinating. If you love YA, you MUST read this book. Such a smart, brilliant debut novel. I loved it!

Hawkebat: Playing both Kotor I & II and Swtor I found the story line interesting and it held me until chapter 35 Very good story and plot flow until then, very few technical errors. I felt that the main character was a bit under and over powered, as it fought for balance. The last few chapters felt too f...

lunavirgo: This story has fresh ideas, even the theme of cross-dressing have been used before. But Sid is a complicated character, independent, but utterly confused about her feminine charm. There is one mistake that I might point out, in the chapter 15 where Author suddenly starts conversation between Sid ...

Ben Gauger: Kudos go to wordworrywill, author of Kings and Things, an otherwise imaginative tale set against the trappings of the royal set, but then again I don't imagine there'd be many authors who invoked the names of Oprah Winfrey, Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos, Beyonce and Steven Spielberg, As for the plot...

shawnas26: I knocked it out in one sitting and enjoyed it thoroughly. Thanks for sharing! :) I'll be looking forward to reading the next in the series.

Jaslyn: I loved reading this so much!! The transformation of Nina's self-esteem was incredible to read, and while I was rooting for Parker halfway through, I was very satisfied when Harrison and Nina finally got everything straight. The side characters were adorable - I especially loved Anna, Richel, Mic...

Ravenhawk: Kim I was sure I wrote this before. But since both my computer and my internet connection has been futzing around so much, I'm surprised that I'm able to write this even now. basically you know I adore this story, I've told you as much before. I cannot fault it in any way at all, except that I wa...

Mark-Mikkel: Got directed here by the author herself. Started reading it, schoolday turned into a day of reading. I really like the apocaliptic world she has created. There are some oddities in the writing tho, but I guess they are because she did have to do it for NaNo (which she wrecked, good job!). In the ...

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Steve Lang: I thought this story was imaginative, and well thought out. I also think it was an original piece, and not a rehash of previous scifi stories I've read in the past.Thank you for the effort put into this tale, and I look forward to reading more of your work!

summerstone: Seriously this is one of the best books I've ever read. The plot is intriguing, I love the narrative style. Its very descriptive and unique, with minimal cliches. It makes for a great read and the sequels are amazing. Totally worth reading. ^^ That's me trying to be professional. But in all hones...

LesAnne: I've never come across a plot like this, and I like its originality. At first, the title gave me the impression that the story is about friends making bets, but I've been proven wrong. I like the personality of the female main character, how evident her strengths and weaknesses are. She's become ...

Alex Rushmer: I just want to say that the writing in this is amazing! I read the first couple chapters and was absolutely drawn in by it, The way you use first person in this story is extremely engaging and does wonders with your character development. I immediately had a picture of the characters and plotline...

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