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    Days later, Nadia stepped out of the Pass out From Exhaustion Suite cursing the late-afternoon sunlight. The suite had really been earning its name lately. She shuffled along, wiping her eyes, legs stiff and screaming with every motion.

    “Look who’s up!” Tess said, far too cheerily. She was at one of her workbenches, wearing huge safety goggles as she did…something.

    Nadia’s eyes were too weak just yet. She fumbled around at one of her desks, having already given up on coffee—it was never strong enough. Instead she popped open a can of something vile and green, one of those saccharine energy drinks Tess loved so much.

    She chanced a sip, grimaced, then gulped more down. Bitter and nasty, hiding badly behind tawdry sweetness. But it was enough to fight off a yawn as she wandered toward Tess.

    “What are we working on today?” she asked.

    “Not ready yet,” Tess said, not looking up. “You sound like hell.”

    “Mmm.” Nadia blinked a few times, wrapping her hands tightly around the cool metal of the can. They ached with every motion. Her usually pristine, delicate knuckles were marred with scabs; her fancy nails chipped and worn away, scraped back to their natural color.

    She braved another gulp. A part of her found it a bit refreshing, which troubled her.

    “Stop drinking all my sodas,” Tess said, not looking up at all.

    “More countermeasures?” Nadia asked, leaning in close over Tess’s shoulder.

    Tess was soldering a circuit board using her artificial hand, making movements so minute that Nadia could barely track them.

    “How can you work with something so tiny?” Nadia said.

    “This is why I got my arm replaced actually. Eyes too.”

    Nadia chewed on that for a moment, squinting at nothing. “Really?”

    “No, idiot,” Tess said. “It does help, though.”

    Nadia frowned at that. She wasn’t awake enough yet to bite back.

    “Actually, now that you’re up,” Tess said, seeming to put the finishing touch on her work, “come over here.”

    Nadia followed her to a mannequin wearing a set of goggles that looked strangely familiar. She vaguely remembered people wearing VR headsets during her childhood. Tess popped them off the fake head and slipped them onto Nadia’s before she could protest, dragging a mess of tangled wires with it.

    “They’re loose,” Nadia said. She pinched the strap, tightening it just enough. “Mark it here.”

    Tess did so, then made a flurry of typing in thin air with her fingertips. Nadia’s vision had gone dark, as though she were wearing a blindfold. Now a blur of text scrolled past, followed by white light, followed by…their office.

    “Impressive,” Nadia said, sounding anything but impressed.

    “I’ll forgive you for that, seeing as you just got up,” Tess said. “Let’s start with a basic HUD overlay.”

    Suddenly the bright light was less harsh. Small bits of text and symbols appeared in her vision: compass, clock, GPS coordinates, even her heart rate in the corner.

    “Light amplification,” Tess said, still typing away.

    Blurry nonsense.

    “Not exactly useful right now, I know,” Tess said. “Thermal.”

    This one Nadia liked. Their office had turned into a set of dull blue shapes. Tess’s body jumped out, an outline of yellow and red, save for her right arm. Nadia glanced down at her drink, a pool of deep blue in the glowing red of her hands.

    “Also available in grayscale. But I worked really hard on the color add, so I encourage you to stick with it,” Tess said, switching the vision mode back to normal. “And last but not least…”

    She gestured toward her desk. Her screens showed a chaotic display, a jumble of scrolling logs and open pages. In the foreground was a live feed of what Nadia was seeing.

    The background moved. With a start, Nadia realized she was seeing exactly what Tess was seeing, a copy of the display flickering in her retinal implants.

    As Tess turned to look at her, the recursion on the screen made Nadia dizzy.

    “Now I can more efficiently tell you what to do,” Tess said.

    “We’ll have to do something about the look of these,” Nadia said, appraising the goggles through Tess’s eyes. They were very plain—flat and black, with no visible lenses on the face. No expression at all.

    “Really?” Tess said. “I bring you this technological marvel, and you’re worried about how it looks?”

    “Presentation is everything, dear,” Nadia said, stepping closer to Tess’s desk.

    “If you had retinal implants like any normal person with your kind of money, this wouldn’t even be a thing you’d have to wear.”

    “Not going to happen,” she said, hovering closer to the desk. Shifting sets of pictures had appeared in the lower corners of Tess’s vision, scrolling slowly but endlessly.

    “You can zoom. That button on the cable there,” Tess said. “And why not anyway?”

    “No, you’re right,” Nadia said. “I’ll go ahead and schedule that incredibly invasive surgery. I’ll be back to normal—no, better than normal—in…what? Four months?”

    “Mine were totally fine by month three,” Tess said, shrinking a little. “I was seeing again in a few weeks.”

    “My body is perfect the way it is,” Nadia said. Ignoring Tess’s sarcastic snort, she located the button and zoomed in on one picture in particular.

    It was the two of them. A much younger version of the two of them, anyway, posing together.

    “Was that…senior year?” Nadia asked.

    “What? Oh. Uh…” Tess fidgeted, pulling her vision down from the displays. “Yeah, I think so.”

    The picture was gone, but Nadia knew exactly what it looked like. Herself, loose blond curls and slightly too much makeup, pouting up at the camera. Her arm around Tess, nervous and awkward, face covered with acne and far-too-large glasses, forcing a cringe worthy smile. Her right arm was carefully hidden behind Nadia.

    “High school feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?” Tess said.

    Nadia would hardly call it high school. It wasn’t just high school; it was one of the most prestigious, exclusive, and of course expensive private academies in the city, if not the world.

    She remembered that day. Remembered telling Tess that it was people like her own parents, people who paid their way, who made it possible for charity cases such as Tess to be allowed to attend.

    It made her want to vomit.

    She zoomed out, seeing something else cringe worthy on the displays now. Tess had left a search page open, cataloging recent models of prosthetic arms. “Upgrading, are you?”

    “Thinking about it,” Tess said.

    “All those ill-gotten gains burning a hole in your pocket?”

    Tess shrugged. “Have to spend it on something, don’t I?”

    “And you would retire your homemade limb?”

    “What? No,” Tess said. “I might buy a few newer models, strip parts out, and combine them. Use one as a base frame maybe. Or just scan the whole lot and fab the best parts with better materials…you know, really hot rod it up.” She held up her arm, her left arm, and stared at her fingers. “Lefty is gonna make righty look obsolete, for sure.”

    A mouthful of energy drink choked Nadia, fizzling in the back of her sinuses. She ripped the goggles off. “I’m sorry, lefty?”

    “Yeah, duh,” Tess said. “Aren’t you always going on about symmetry being the essence of beauty?”

    Nadia trailed her hand down her partner’s remaining human arm, encased, as it always was, in a cheap purple hoodie. This one bore the slogan “STEMS from SEEDS! Young Genius Discovery Club!” across the front, with a cartoonish smiling motherboard. Nadia had seen this one before. She knew the back said, “Saving the World One Troubled Teen at a Time!”

    “You would cut off this poor arm?” Nadia said. She felt the nervous tension in Tess’s arm, a slight pull, something her right arm would never give away.

    Tess yanked her sleeve back. “Hey, it’s my arm.”

    Like hell it is, Nadia found herself about to say. It made no sense.

    “Would it make you feel better if I went less skeletal with this one?” Tess said, holding up the black bony mockery of her right arm.

    “We can discuss this later. I have to get going,” Nadia said.

    “More class?” Tess said. “Weren’t you there all morning?”

    “You are of course still welcome to come along,” Nadia said, wandering around, looking for her gym bag.

    “No, and thank you,” Tess said. “I’m busy.”

    Nadia cocked an eyebrow at the tiny circuit board, dwarfed by the emptiness of the rest of the workbench. “Yes, you look positively overwhelmed.”

    “Ha-ha,” Tess said, diving into her chair and sliding over to her desk. “I have plans.”

    “Of course,” Nadia said. “Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure the latest trends in self-mutilation are fascinating.”

    “Hey…” Tess shot her an affronted look. “I’m going out, actually.”

    “Oh, really?” Nadia said, raising another well-practiced eyebrow. “And what lovely plans do you have?”

    Tess shrunk into her hoodie, slouching low in her chair. “I don’t have to tell you everything.”

    “Mmm-hmm,” Nadia said, confident in her victory. She grabbed her gym bag from where she knew it had been all along.

    “Hey.” Tess’s tone caught her nearly at the door—very serious suddenly.

    “I’m going to be late,” Nadia said.

    “It’s your private lesson. Whatever,” Tess said. “I have to talk to you real quick. I’ve been digging through the files from that office and—”

    “Later,” Nadia said.

    “Really interesting stuff,” Tess said, as if Nadia hadn’t spoken at all. “Might have a line on—”

    “Later,” Nadia said, making for the door again.

    “Aren’t you even a little curious about this?” Tess called after her.

    “Not in the least,” Nadia lied, not looking back.

    *     *     *

    There was a simple rhythm to it.

    Strike, strike again. Block, block again. It felt stupid the first few times she had done it, slowly and carefully. How simple. Something anyone could do.

    But she felt herself slipping the longer and faster they went, losing her form, losing her breath, sweat appearing out of nowhere all over her body. Valery stood a few feet away, watching with what could only be sharp disdain as Nadia traded blows with the younger female instructor.

    She still didn’t know the name of anyone else here. Probably for the best.

    Full-length mirrors ran down one wall of the studio, and in them Nadia saw the women at the other end of the floor. Graceful and strong, pirouetting with perfect poise. Her eyes were drawn shamefully to where she stood in the mirror, clumsy and frail and panting.


    She yelped as a palm slapped the back of her head, feeling her ponytail shoot skyward.

    “Stop ogling yourself,” Valery said. “Focus.”

    Nadia gritted her teeth to stop quite unladylike words from spilling forth. The nameless woman playing her partner seemed amused, a sly ghost of a smile hiding on her otherwise plain face.

    Fine. Back to the silly little drill. Strike, strike. Block, block. As they had been doing all day. As they had been doing all day, every day, for a week now. She’d been so excited to start—actually excited—the first time she’d really been interested in something other than stealing for a long time now.

    And then so bored, so quickly. Block, block again. Strike, strike again. Her dainty fists popped against the crude padded mitts the blonde across from her was wearing. Smack, smack.

    Pathetic. An absurd thought, madness on every level. Tess, with two artificial arms? The first one was bad enough, but both? No human hands left at all?

    Smack, smack. Something felt different this time, better. Nadia rushed the blocks, her body eager to throw her fists out again, the thud of her knuckles against the pad giving her a pleasant little rush.

    So wrapped up in her toys. Bored with her own arm, after only…how long had she had that arm actually? But still, ridiculous, wanting to voluntarily have one’s arm just…removed.

    The young woman in front of her darted an arm forward, breaking their rhythm with a light swat across Nadia’s temple.

    “Ah!” Nadia wavered on her feet, more out of shock than injury. “What…why?” she said, looking over at Valery, who shrugged.

    “You were daydreaming again.”

    The younger instructor threw her scheduled strikes. Nadia swept them away with growls, throwing all her weight into her return strikes and tripping forward a step. Her fists sank into the pads that time, delightfully so. Her hands ached, jolts of pain shooting up to her elbows.

    It took her a moment to regain her balance. It felt lovely.

    Valery shook her head and barked something in a language Nadia didn’t recognize. The woman across from her stepped away, sighing in what seemed like relief and casting Nadia a nasty glare as she took off her mitts.

    Nadia crossed her arms and reflected the glare right back. It was undercut a bit by how dreadfully sweaty and out of breath she was, but still.

    The man from her first visit here—again covered from head to toe in bright-red foam armor—took the young instructor’s place across from Nadia. A Plexiglas gap in the helmet showed his dark skin and soft brown eyes peeking out, and Nadia felt a twinge of old tastes. Years ago, maybe. He wasn’t quite her type—she favored them lean, and this man was huge, thick with muscle and a bit of a gut—but he was easily a head or more taller than her, and black, and once upon a time that was really all it took.

    She was yanked out of these musings when he raised his arms to strike her. At that moment, she realized he could very easily kill her with his bare hands. Valery barked something different. Nadia’s entire body tightened with panic, arms raised and feet coiled, ready to jump away.

    But instead of attacking her, he said, “Oi, there love. Sorry we haven’t spoke yet. Nice to meet you!”

    “Er…a pleasure to meet you as well?” Nadia said. That accent. Not quite her beloved Oxford, more Cockney. Still quite enticing. She revised her earlier assessment.

    His arms dropped, and he bounced a little on his feet, throwing her a dopey wave made all the more ludicrous by his bulky armor. Followed by an even more ludicrous bow.

    She revised her assessment yet again.

    Back where we started. A shame.

    “No worries, love. I’ve seen you at it. Coming along nice, you are.” He raised his fists again. “I know you’re new; I’ll play nice.”

    She felt her eyes narrow. That panic from before melted away—she was here to learn to fight, wasn’t she? She hadn’t heard him promise to play nice with the other girls.

    “Don’t insult me,” Nadia said quietly, glaring as she raised her fists again.

    His eyes widened a bit and glanced at Valery. “Uh…well, all right then. Let’s get on with it.”

    Indeed. She was ready. She’d been training for days now. This was a bigger body throwing a bigger punch, yes, but it was a punch all the same.

    Valery barked again. He launched his fist forward. Nadia was nowhere near ready, her meager block folding utterly before the man’s strength. Her head snapped backward, pain exploding out from her left eye.

    “Jesus!” he yelled.

    “Brutus!” Valery snapped. “Step back. Give her room.”

    Breathe. Nadia slowly, in parts, felt her senses return. She was down on one knee, yes. Her hands clasped tightly around her face, something warm and wet leaking out of her brow and between her fingers. Someone was wailing like a child. Her face flushed even hotter when she realized they were her own gasping yelps of pain.

    “Nadia?” Valery said, sounding bored again. “Nadia, say something.”

    Breathe. Keep breathing. She stopped yelping. Improvement.

    “Oi, gods. Don’t know me own strength, love,” Brutus said. “My fault. I started too fast. Dreadful sorry.”

    Pitiful. Feeble little girl, thinking she could fight with the real ladies. Nadia gritted her teeth, her breath coming back to her in ragged growls. That sharp bite in her mind woke up again, snarling at the fat old guard to let her wrist go before she ended him, taking the glass cutter and sinking it into his flesh.

    She tried to stand, failed, felt that bite grow louder, then rose to her feet. Her left eye refused to open, but her right gave her something blurry through standing tears. Brutus hovered near her with his helmet under one arm. His face was pretty, she thought, probably. Too pretty.

    “Put your helmet on,” Nadia said, swaying on her feet.

    Brutus blinked at her. “Uh…what?”

    Put your helmet back on.”

    “Nadia!” Valery said, sharp as a drill sergeant.

    That snapped her out of it. Her fists unclenched, hovering right back to her throbbing eye.

    “Come. Locker room,” Valery ordered, leading Nadia past the temporarily halted class.

    *     *     *

    It had been a busy night. Jackson was up way past her bedtime again, had wearily watched the sun peek out then rise high above the city. Being busy always helped.

    Finishing up a few more sections of her report, she attached video her goggles had taken hours ago of dozens of homemade firearms. Semi-translucent rifles home-printed by an uppity young man on his way downtown in the back of a squad car.

    Her goggles highlighted her typos, clicking through and fixing them before she even had time to realize what they were. A final passage was highlighted in red: “Class A felony.” She sighed as she clicked “Accept” and watched the phrase change to “Licensing violation.”

    Old habit. Outside the walls, they would have put the guy in cuffs. Several years’ jail time easy. Here, in the city, he’d walk free as long as Auktoris got their cut.

    The light changed. She revved the throttle, her heavy bike lifting and hovering ahead of traffic, roaring a few feet above the cars behind her. No one even glanced up. Several calls for assistance popped up in the corner of her goggles, but nothing urgent. Her shift was long over. At least on paper.

    She swooped right, drifting a little lower and cutting the throttle. This shortcut back to the station took her through one of those dingy little markets that popped up anywhere the streets were closed to cars. No fancy signs or impeccably dressed holograms here—just throngs of people coursing through the narrow space between city blocks, tarps and cables and homemade flashing signs crisscrossing above the mob.

    Her bike barely fit under the awnings—still hovering, low enough that the exhaust was ruining hairdos. Most of the people beneath her still didn’t bother looking up; they just ducked their heads lower and parted to either side.

    Jackson cut the throttle entirely and hovered in place. Drones flitted around her head, carrying parcels or insulated food deliveries. Steam and noise and the smell of spicy meat cooking over trash barrel grills wafted up to her.

    Almost like home. This alley was close to a dead ringer for the markets she’d grown up in, scraping by outside the city walls. Too clean, though.

    A notification blinked in the corner of her goggles. She followed it down, seeing a police hoverbike outlined, parked between two tarp-covered stalls. Ortega’s bike. Her brow pinched as  her fingers punched out a GPS lookup. All that came back was an error code.

    No one was watching her. A good sign usually. She parked next to his bike, letting her goggles read the storefront hidden behind the bustle of the alley market. It was registered as an apartment building with no commerce license. Didn’t need the goggles to guess that.

    The doorway was a curtain of faded multi-colored beads, the inside thick with the acrid stink of burnt metal. Electronics scrap crowded every inch of every shelf on every wall, erupted out from the counter, dangled from every inch of the ceiling. Perched in the mess, a white metal Chinese lucky cat waved at her, calling out, “Irasshaimaaaaaaaaaaasu”in an annoying, high-pitched little girl’s voice.

    “Jackson?” Ortega was slouched over the counter, poking at a piece of circuit board. “Terrific timing.”

    “Your beacon is down again,” she said.

    “Ay, this thing,” Ortega said, slapping the housing on the back of his belt. “Don’t beep me in yet.”

    “Thought you were going home on time?”

    “I was. Doing a little extracurricular. On your account. You’re welcome,” he said, shoving the board back into a pile of scrap. “You got a scan of that thing you found, right?”

    Jackson didn’t like him speaking so freely. She locked eyes with the guy behind the counter, a scrawny Asian teenager perched on top of a stool. He met her stare with a very unfriendly nod. His hair had been shaved in a zigzag pattern, one of the gang cuts from outside the walls, but she guessed it had been a month or two since he’d kept it up.

    She’d seen bodies strung up from lampposts for not keeping their cut trim, the skulls scalped clean. He wore a sparkling RFID-blocking bandanna tied around his face, keeping her goggles from giving her any more information about him. But she was almost certain she knew the story.

    “Nice place,” Jackson said, her eyes wandering over a set of prosthetic legs hung against the wall. “I shoot by here almost every day. Never stopped by.”

    “Is that right?” Ortega said, not looking over.

    The kid behind the counter put a finger to his ear, then said something in what Jackson guessed to be Japanese. Text printed out in her HUD.


    Jackson snorted a quiet laugh.

    “She’s coming. One minute,” the kid said after a pause.

    The synthetic muscle fibers in the fake legs caught Jackson’s eye, exposed through gaps in the white molded shell that passed for skin. Probably not so different from the ones buried in her still-human muscles.

    “You got scans of it or not?” Ortega said. “I was about to call you. No lie.”

    Ortega had a big mouth, but he knew when to keep it shut. And Jackson wasn’t about to judge another cop for the company he had to keep. Lord knew some of her informants could raise eyebrows. Slowly, grudgingly, she lowered her guard.

    “Better than scans,” she said, patting one of her pockets.

    “Fuck off,” Ortega said. “You’ve been carrying it around?”

    “Sorry for the delay,” a young woman said, stepping out from the back room. She made a show of stopping when she saw their badges and hovered near the counter. Jackson guessed mid-twenties, mostly white but a bit of Asian for sure; she saw it in the eyes, accentuated by thick-framed glasses. Her purple hoodie read, “I’m Behind 18 Proxies, Bitch.”

    “How can I help you, Officers…?” she said.

    “Ortega,” he said, then nodded to his partner. “Jackson.”

    “Charmed. I’m told you have something neat for me to look at?”

    The thinking dots at the top of Jackson’s HUD disappeared, replaced with “Classified Auktoris Personnel” in tiny text over the woman’s face. Not likely.

    “How long have you been working for AGF?” Jackson said.

    The woman blinked a few times, smirking in a way that showed she wasn’t even trying. It was undercut a bit by her loudly sniffing and wiping her nose on her sleeve. “Oh, I contract for them here and there. Just paying bills.”

    “Sure you do,” Jackson said.

    “Hand it over, Jackson. I’m sleepy,” Ortega said.

    She reached for her pocket but froze when the woman gasped and reached out to her.

    “Oh! Sorry. Ha-ha. It’s just…wow. May I?” she asked, reaching for Jackson’s hand.

    Jackson glared at the woman’s right hand, black and skeletal and obviously a custom job.

    “I’ve only seen someone like you once before,” the young woman said, scanning Jackson up and down. “Did they do your whole body?”

    “How did you…?” Jackson started.

    “You practically clank when you move,” she said. “Come on. Roll up your sleeve. Please?”

    Ortega threw her a harsh glare. “Don’t waste our time. Are you disrespecting an officer of the law, young lady?”

    “Of course not, sir!” she said, throwing Jackson a mocking little salute. “Showing one of our brave veterans some appreciation, that’s all.”

    “Sure. Thanks,” Jackson said, grimacing. She pulled the transmitter out of her pocket and handed it over, bracing for the woman to try to take her hand.

    No such thing happened—the transmitter was too exciting. “Ooh, this is some quality work.” The girl held it up in her prosthetic hand, spinning her wrist a full 360. “Where did this come from?”

    “Nice try,” Ortega said. “What can you tell us about it?”

    “Nothing until I crack it open. One sec. Let me grab something.” She started to disappear through the back door.

    “Hang on,” Jackson said. “Leave it here.”

    “Geez, you guys are touchy.” She shrugged and put it on the one clear spot on the counter. “Actually, I think I have one out here…somewhere,” she said, digging around in a mess of boxes near the stool.

    Jackson shook her head. The kid on the stool hadn’t stopped staring at her the whole time. His hands were empty, though.

    “How long was the recovery period?” the girl asked, still digging. “Did you get to wear a rig too? Are you still on immunosuppressants, or did they taper you off?”

    “Just crack the damn thing,” Jackson said.

    “Fine, fine,” she said, pulling out something that looked like a set of crimpers but bulkier. She snapped it around the casing of the transmitter, sending up a tendril of smoke and adding a fresh whiff of melted plastic to the room.

    The case slid off. A small board was hidden inside, flat and blue and bristling with jam-packed components.

    “Wow,” she said. “Not a micrometer wasted. Whoever made this is a real artist, an absolute genius.”

    “Any clue who that might be?” Ortega said.

    She held it up in front of her eyes. “Gonna take me a bit to sort through all this. Leave it with me for a day or two and I’ll—”

    “No,” Jackson said, holding up a hand. “Scan it and get back to us.”

    The woman stiffened up, throwing a questioning look at Ortega. He shrugged and nodded.

    “Yes ma’am,” she said, throwing another salute. It only took her a few seconds of staring and turning the thing this way and that, the light in her pupils flickering as her implants scanned. “How are they holding up?”

    “Who?” Jackson said.

    “Not who, your implants,” she said, handing the transmitter back. “It must’ve been years now. Those trials were retired when I was in middle school.”

    Jackson took the transmitter and slammed it back in her vest pocket. “You have a license for that custom prosthetic?” she said, eyeballing the woman’s right hand.

    She smirked again. “Give me a minute and I can produce it.”

    Of course she could. “Never mind,” Jackson said, nodding at Ortega and making for the door.

    “Officer Jackson?”

    She stopped in the doorway. The small woman looked a bit different now. Not trying so hard to be a punk, for the moment.

    “Come back if you need to talk,” she said. “About treatment. I know some people.”

    Jackson’s mouth hung slightly open. She clicked it shut, leaving without so much as a nod.

    “What the hell was she on about?” Ortega said.

    “Nothing,” Jackson said. “Army lost a lot of money on me, that’s all.”

    *     *     *

    Nadia’s head had stopped swimming some time ago.

    She was alone in the women’s changing room, sitting on a bench and staring at herself in the mirror above the sink. The cold pack over her eye was slowly becoming a bag of lukewarm chemical sludge. She kept it there anyway. There was something very appealing about the pose, something romantic in the dull throb of her swollen eye and the crusty scab over her brow, sticky with gel.

    This is what happens, Tess. You talk about cutting off your arm, and this is what happens.

    Strange thoughts. Nadia had been sitting here far longer than necessary. Whether it was the punch to the face or that bite in her mind that came after…something was loose in her head.

    She was sure she hadn’t thought, more than a week ago now, to stab another human being. Had not consciously formed the thought, made the plan. It had just happened, as calm and deliberate as those other unbidden thoughts that latched on to her from time to time—yet here she was, pursuing violence as a craft. A hobby. Preposterous.

    Plunging the glass cutter into the man’s flesh had felt good, though. Part of her wanted to go home and slap Tess across the face, demand she put away any silly thoughts of removing the one “real” arm she had left. That might feel good as well. This bothered her.

    Through the groggy haze still lingering a bit, Nadia heard a door around the corner softly open and close. Voices. Two low voices. Carefully, her muscles creaking after the long rest, she stood up and snuck over to investigate.

    Brutus was huddled with the young blond instructor with the nasty glare. He had stripped half his armor off, wearing nothing but a sweat-drenched wife beater above the waist. The two of them were holding a hushed little conference. Hard to see around his bulky arms, but she could swear he was cradling the woman’s hands in his.

    Although she was close enough to hear them now, she couldn’t make out the words. It took her a moment to realize they were speaking in the language Valery spoke, whatever that was.

    Curious. Interesting. Cute.

    “Ahem,” Nadia said—actually said—no need to be too coy.

    They both jumped in place and turned to her. “Ah, Nadia!” Brutus said, his face just as dopey and jovial as before. He was handsome, Nadia would give him that; warm, dark eyes over a broad, flat nose, head and chin bristling with thick hair. “Sorry. Didn’t realize you were still in here. How’s the eye?”

    She lifted the lukewarm pack.

    Brutus drew in a hissing breath. “Right, sorry. That’s a proper shine, yeah?”

    “Brutus, was it?” Nadia said.

    “Yes, miss, et tu I am.”

    Nadia ignored this. “This is the ladies’ room, is it not?”

    “Ah, well, there isn’t really a—”

    The blond woman elbowed him in the side.

    “Yes, right you are. Excuse me, ladies.”

    He showed himself out. Nadia had been expecting the woman to leave too, but she didn’t move.

    “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name,” Nadia said.

    The woman didn’t react at all, only stared her down with that same disdainful glower Valery must have taught her. She truly was a younger version of the owner of the studio, same narrowed brown eyes, same aquiline nose, same dirty blond hair.

    “Uh…your name?” Nadia said slowly, suddenly realizing the woman might not speak English. She pointed to her own chest. “Nadia.” Before she could point to the woman, she got an answer.

    “I know who you are,” the woman said.

    “Ah.” Nadia tensed up a bit. It wasn’t impossible that she’d been recognized. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

    “What are you doing here?” the woman said.

    “Learning to defend myself,” Nadia said, all practiced nonchalance. “Thank you for your help in class.”

    “Hmph.” Still staring her down, the woman raised her nose. “Polina Aleksandrovna,” she said, giving a wry little curtsy.


    “‘Aleksa’ will do,” she said. “Whoever you are, Nadia, I wish your wounds quick mending.” She left without another word or look, leaving Nadia alone again.

    Language barriers. Sighing in relief, Nadia shook her head. It didn’t sound like the woman had recognized her after all. Always better that way.

    She changed and dragged herself out, back to the studio floor. It was empty now, just Valery and Aleksa there to give her silent waves good night. Nadia skipped the stairs, a small favor to her aching legs. The privacy of the elevator allowed her the mercy of slouching against the wall; the left side of her face still throbbed.

    The elevator stopped, but the doors didn’t open. Nadia dragged her eyes up to the panel, waiting for an ad. Instead a fanged cartoon cat face appeared, along with a line of text.

    oh, hello. didn’t see you there.

    Ignoring the protests from her knees, Nadia shot straight up. There, in the corner, she spotted a small camera housing.

    don’t worry. i’m a friend. a fan, even.

    The cat’s eyes changed to stars, for an instant.

    Nadia jabbed her finger on the display where the “Open Door” button normally would be. Nothing happened.

    i have a suggested course of action.

    “You must be mad if you think I’m taking suggestions,” Nadia said, narrowing her eyes at the camera.

    we’re all mad here.

    Nadia rolled her eyes so hard it was a wonder she stayed standing. “Very droll. You can hear me then?”

    of course.

    “Let me out, please.”

    hear me out, please.

    She cocked one eyebrow at the camera. “There is no you. You’re an anonymous collection. Collective.”

    a very popular theory. a very sensible theory. a very incorrect theory.

    “Yes, very mysterious,” Nadia said. “Are you finished?”


    The elevator door opened. An empty hallway out to the lobby lay before her. The cat face changed, a sad, plaintive frown. Apologetic, even. Nadia had seen the face many times in the city, but never with any range of expression before.

    sorry. didn’t mean to be rude.

    Nadia didn’t move. She gripped the strap of her gym bag tightly, staring at the cat face on the elevator’s display. Waiting.

    “Well?” she said, after a long, long second of silence.

    your friend, ms. tanaka…

    “You leave her alone, whoever or whatever you are!”

    …has made some interesting discoveries. it is in your interest to pursue them.

    “I see,” Nadia said. “Is that all?”

    No response. The cat face disappeared, replaced by the elevator menu. Nadia stared for a few more seconds, still fuming. When she stalked into the lobby, she kept glancing over her shoulder, expecting to see a cat face in the monitors above the front desk or the billboard across the street.

    Nothing. Stepping outside into the cool night air. It helped somewhat. She was still on edge, though.

    Ms. Tanaka…

    “Hey!” a familiar voice called out.

    Nadia turned, wincing at her quick motion. “Tess?” she said. “Were you…waiting for me?”

    “Whoa!” Tess sprang up from where she had been leaning against a low brick wall, wrapped in her ever-present purple hoodie. This was the one with the vulgar slogan about hiding behind proxies. “What happened to your eye?”

    Nadia pulled the hood of her jacket down low over her face. “Nothing a bit of makeup can’t fix.”

    “You sure? You look super pissed.”

    “Tired, that’s all. Is everything all right?”

    “Oh, yeah! I did some research after you left,” Tess said, running over to Nadia’s scooter and hopping on the back. “Come on. I have to show you something!”

    Nadia stood and watched—she was surely a mess right now, far more than exhausted. And cold, wearing damp gym clothes with only a light jacket to ward off the night breeze. She wanted a hot shower and a long sleep and very little else.

    Tess turned around. “What’s wrong?”

    Interesting. Tess was giddy over whatever this was.

    “Nothing. It’s just strange to see you voluntarily being outside.”

    “It’s strange to see you voluntarily getting a black eye.”


    “The place is pretty close to here actually. You wanna walk?” Tess asked.

    “Absolutely not,” Nadia said, gesturing for her to get off the scooter. She popped the seat open, swapped her gym bag for a helmet, and shoved it into Tess’s hands. “Where are we going?”

    “Put these on.” Tess handed her a pair of black-framed glasses, similar to her own but with actual lenses.

    Nadia made a show of not wanting to put them on as she did so, then hopped onto her scooter and revved it to life. The street in front of her lit up; it was much clearer now, with HUD elements like she’d seen in the goggles popping into view. A beacon led her down the street.

    “This couldn’t wait until morning?” Nadia yelled over her shoulder.

    “Nope. It can’t actually.”

    Nadia pulled into the street, happy for an excuse to feel the wind on her face. It felt soothing. Brisk. Although her tender eye, puffy and pulsing with pain, was squeezed tightly against the wind.

    Tess didn’t grab her right away; she was trying to hold on to the seat. Nadia surged the scooter forward a bit faster than necessary, making Tess yelp and scramble behind her.

    There. Arms, one stiff and skeletal, wrapped tightly around her waist. Much better. Safer.

    Two turns and a short stretch of one block. They were dodging and weaving through traffic that lit up the night. Most cars still had wheels, too heavy for the jets her scooter was equipped with. Nadia slipped through, splitting lanes and skirting around self-driving vehicles, sending their collision alarms blaring.

    The beacon led her to a skyscraper, with a small plaque out front commemorating what once had been a city hall. Now it was the headquarters of LiFreq, a subsidiary of Bay Research, wholly owned by something else and on and on until you hit Auktoris Global Funds. Parking was easy, with long empty lanes available all around the building. Certainly less busy than the ever-shifting pickup/drop-off zones in front of all the major entrances.

    “What are we doing here?” Nadia said as she dismounted.

    “Just follow me.”

    Tess had scurried off with her helmet still on. Nadia followed, and did so happily, amused by all this. She cast another cautious glance behind her, but no cartoon cat stared back from any glass she could see.

    The lobby was still crowded at this hour. Tess scanned for two tickets to the observation deck. Last ride, closing in minutes. They had to actually print Nadia’s ticket from the machine, which earned a satisfying bit of grumbling from Tess.

    The elevator was empty except for the two of them.

    “Helmet,” Nadia said.

    “What? Oh.” Sheepishly Tess took it off and shook her messy hair out of her face.

    They rose, slowly, up and up. When the elevator doors opened, all the nighttime glory of the city lay stretched out before them.

    Nadia had been here before of course. Several times. Back when she was a child.

    “Let’s see,” Tess said, darting her eyes around, squinting at various angles of the skyline. “Over here, I think.”

    Nadia didn’t follow right away. She remembered it being packed up here—barely being able to move, much less see anything. Now she practically had the view to herself, and what a view it was: skyscrapers marched on and on—each one a lit-up screen all its own—until the skyline faded down into the dull glow of the city beyond. She could even see the seawalls and dikes in the distance, holding off the darkness of the ocean. Steel and concrete the only things keeping the city from drowning.

    She knew what rose up behind her. Unable to stop herself, she turned and looked. Auktoris Global Headquarters loomed above, dwarfing even this tower. One hideous endless monolith of dark glass, so big that its base seemed to be made of other, lesser skyscrapers. The only building in the city not plastered in advertisements.

    She tore her eyes away, finding Tess leaning against the glass of a far wall. If Tess had found what she was looking for, she made no indication. Nadia didn’t rush her, didn’t say or do anything. She simply stared out over the city with Tess at her side, no Cheshire cat or Auktoris Global to bother her, if only for a moment.

    No stars. Just a sickly orange haze of the city lights reflected in the smog. Nadia couldn’t remember ever actually seeing stars.

    “This is quite the little date, Tess.” She snuggled up to Tess’s side, hanging a hand around her arm. “You certainly know how to show a girl a good time.”

    “Stop that,” Tess said, trying to shrug her off.

    Nadia held on. It was Tess’s still-human arm, alive and warm; she didn’t want to let it to go.

    “Watch,” Tess said, nodding at a building below them, a much shorter tower. “Seventeenth floor.”

    Nadia counted up. Nothing jumped out at her. Nothing but another row of windows.

    “Wait for it,” Tess urged her, before Nadia could say something snarky.

    She did. Nothing happened.

    “Stunning,” Nadia said, her tone blank.

    “Just wait,” Tess said. “Ugh. Maybe I have the wrong building. Hang on…”

    As Nadia waited, the wind howled against the glass outside, sharp and lonely.


    Lights flashed in the windows of the seventeenth floor. They made a strange rhythm, dimming and pulsing and running up and down the length of the building, almost in sequence.

    “What…?” Nadia said, watching the lights on the other floors grow dim. Before she could put more thought to words, the lights on the observation deck momentarily dimmed and flickered.

    “And look! Extra power lines,” Tess said, pointing at a loose spider’s web of cables crossing from the building across the chasm of the streets below. “Must have been added when they started.”

    “When they started doing what?”

    “Something that requires an exciting amount of electricity,” Tess said. “They put a huge battery array in that building a few years back, but even that’s not enough. See the cables connected to those other buildings?”

    Nadia followed her finger, blinking a bit when the glasses lit up the connections in her vision. More cables, sweeping down from the seventeenth floor to lower buildings all down the street.

    “Tapping off every neighbor they can,” Tess said. “They wait until nightfall, then wham. Power draw out the ass.”

    “And I suppose you’ve discovered what’s going on in there?”

    “Well, judging by the amount of money being dumped into that office, something amazing. I can’t scrape any network traffic, though, not unless someone plugs me in from inside.”

    “I see.”

    Several long moments passed, both of them staring at the bright lights of the seventeenth floor until the show stopped.

    “Well?” Tess said. “You said you wanted some high-profile heisting. A file dump from in there is a payout in the millions, easy.”

    “Nice try,” Nadia said, squeezing Tess’s arm. “You just want to find out what’s in there.”

    “You don’t?” Tess said, pawing at the back of her own neck with her artificial hand.

    Of course I do.

    “I’m right about the info being worth plenty,” Tess said.

    “Mmm. And what will I be doing while you commit your daring information heist?”

    Tess grimaced and sighed. “Pretty sure there’s no jewelry in there, if that’s what you’re asking.”

    “Pity,” Nadia said. “Count me out.”

    “Maybe that might keep you from going off the reservation again?” Tess said, her tone sharper. “Besides, you owe me.”


    I am at your disposal,” Tess said, in a rude mockery of Nadia’s voice. “Remember?”

    Well played. She was too proud of Tess to be annoyed. “Very well,” Nadia said, sighing loudly. “Mystery lab it is.”

    “I knew you’d come around.” Tess bumped against her, bouncing on her heels. “I’ve got a bunch of stuff back at the office for us to go over.”

    Nadia nodded, still hanging on to Tess’s arm and thinking about Tess going under. Lying on an operating table, arm strapped down and marked with a sharp line where the incisions would start. The whining buzz of a bone saw.

    She squeezed that arm tightly again, and they stood there together, watching the lights of the city until the observation deck closed.

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