With a jolt and that familiar, sickening tang that feels like chewing aluminum foil, the arm came online. Power flooded the limb and with it came the nausea and light-headedness. I closed my eye, the optics in my left socket whirring away, the bolt gun strapped to my shoulder clacking home on an empty chamber.
“Do you mind?” the indignant tech squalled. You would think they’d get used to it, though I suspect I’d be similarly nervous with the floating red blob of laser light dancing over my face. I can’t help it; I can squeeze my eye shut all day long, but I can’t turn off the optics and wouldn’t want to if I could.
I reached up and toggled the override with two fingers, the only two fingers I have. I’m pretty attached to those fingers. Shut up; it’s not funny. The pinky, ring finger, and opposable thumb of my left hand are synthetic and work with my fingers most of the time. They’ll never be mine, though, at least not really, and I don’t suppose I want them to be.
When the heat left my face and I didn’t feel like throwing up (though I’m not sure what would happen if I tried, as I don’t really remember what I have left down there) I opened my eye and gave the tech a long look, my left socket optics clicking away to keep up even with the targeter off.
“Tell me,” I growled, “that it works.”
My voice isn’t mine anymore, though I don’t supposed I’d want it to be if someone asked. It always sounds like I need to clear my throat and like I’m wearing a metal bucket on my head and I’m having a coughing fit, none of which are too far from the truth. Where my larynx used to be is a vox module that was state-of-yesterday’s-art when it was installed. I’m not complaining. It beats a blinking light for “yes” and “no.”
“This is the last work we’re doing on account for you, Mr. Daryl,” the tech whined.
“Does it work?” I wheezed at him, the voice that isn’t mine wet and sticky in my throat. “Mr. Daryl” isn’t me anymore, either, though I don’t suppose he’d have wanted to be me if he’d had a choice in the matter.
The tech glared at me defiantly until my two fingers went for the targeter override again. He covered his fear with irritation. “Yes, yes, of course it works,” he mewled, inching away from the pneumatic chair that chugged and groaned under the artificial weight of legs and arm and me. “Though with your credit you’re lucky we agreed to replace that at all.”
He gestured to the arm that had been mine, the arm that was still mine even though it was broken and bloody and lying in the scrap bucket by the chair. You could still see the reciprocating teeth marks, see the path of the saw that had ripped it nearly lengthwise in two. A stray steel tooth, shaped like a stubby razor blade, glittered amidst the wet red mess.
I pushed upright, standing on legs that aren’t mine, though I don’t suppose… all right, I’ve said that before. The servos in the artificial legs chunk-chunk-chunked along, the left sticking slightly because it was cold. I pumped the left footpad up and down until the servo popped with a metal-on-metal bang that echoed through the room. The tech jerked and made for the door.
“If that is all, Mr. Daryl,” he sneered, safely out of reach if not out of range.
I didn’t answer and he fled. I stopped in front of the smudged mirror adhering crookedly to one discolored wall, the footpads beneath me galumphing in their rubbery way through pools of colored fluid and threads of wire.
Still a little left, I thought, looking at me and at the rest.
My eye squinted back at me from my scarred, pocked face. The optics targeted me as indifferently as anything else, though the uncocked bolt gun remained silent. The few wisps of hair I have left were gray by then, as was most of the patchy body hair dotting my fishbelly pale skin. The skin I have left, what isn’t covered by steel or plastic or synthetic leather padding, is as much scar tissue as anything else.
I think I remember that Mr. Daryl once had a lawn to mow, and when he did, it was a poor lawn and he was a poor lawn mower. The grass was as much weeds as it was grass, though it was green. My skin is like that. It is mine and it is skin, even if it is as much knotted wreckage as it is flesh.
I shrugged back into my harness, which was not easy fighting the new arm. I looked at it and it moved laterally. I squinted my eye and it rose slowly. Concentrating, I succeeded in suggesting that it bend at the elbow. I suppose it is an adequate arm, though it is not mine and it never will be and I don’t suppose…
I galumphed out into the corridor and left the Circuit commercial pits, onlookers and admin staff and officials parting for the clumsy, messy, four-hundred pounds of metal and synthetics dragging around my eye and my skin and my two fingers and my single lung and what’s left of my spine. No one asked for autographs, but then, I’m not known as friendly and that reporter in Moscow didn’t help.
I wheezed and barked something less than cordial when a young woman blocked my way. I was almost too slow pulling the new arm back when she moved with me staring me in the eye and blinking as the red laser played over her smooth and too-perfect face. The arm clanked and vibrated, the square terminal pod (where its fist should be) shuddering with barely forestalled violence. It is not my arm.
“You have a caller in the lounge,” the page told me, taking a half step back. Her intact, pretty face wrinkled in disgust as she took in what there was of me. Dark tresses spilled out from under her little hat and curled about her shoulders.
I barked moistly and galumphed past, catching the scent of her perfume with my nostril. She moved quickly and gracefully away, her tight blue uniform doing her justice. I wondered, idly, what it would be like to touch her hair with my fingers. I don’t know why I wondered that; most of the time I keep those thoughts locked away. Not since–
She was waiting behind the scarred table in the lounge. Foot traffic bustled past, mostly pit crews and press and a few backstage passers. They gave the table a wide berth and they gave me a wider one.
“Carl,” she said, her eyes wide, dark shadows beneath them almost covered by makeup. She gave the arm a long look and something disappeared from those eyes, something that had been disappearing in bits and pieces for a long time. At least, I thought so. I couldn’t remember.
She was dressed well. She wore an expensive watch on her wrist, which would have pleased Mr. Daryl. Carl Daryl, that was it. Until she’d said it I couldn’t remember it. It had been on the tip of what was left of my tongue for weeks.
“Carl,” she said again. “Do you know me?”
I struck me as an odd question, but I thought I remembered it. I thought I remembered her asking it each time. I didn’t know why then and I don’t know why now.
I lumbered into the reinforced chair before her, my two fingers tapping out a nervous rhythm on the pitted tabletop. The new arm whined feebly but hung there fairly obediently. She stole a look at it once or twice.
“Carl,” she looked down, her perfect face less perfect than that of the girl in the corridor, her blonde hair longer. I thought, for a moment, that I remembered something else, but it was gone as quickly as it had come.
“Carl,” she said again, “I have bad news.”
I looked at her. I winked my eye. Before she noticed I turned off the targeter again. It hurt to see it on her. I didn’t know why.
“Consolidated…” she said, and I thought I felt angry, though again I didn’t know why. “Consolidated Consortium bought your lien and refinanced. They said… they said six more months.”
I looked at her and winked my eye again. It felt wet, though I didn’t know why. It is my eye and I was not going to complain. The idea of six more months on the Circuit seemed like too much to think, too much to imagine. Six months was a long time. Six months was a lot of flesh. I was not sure I had six months of flesh left. I was sure I didn’t. I didn’t know what …what Mr. Daryl would have said, but I managed to bark something watery at her.
“Six months,” I said.
She winced at my voice. “There was nothing I could do,” she said. “The bank sold the lien. Oh, Carl. Carl, I told you that you didn’t have to do it! I told you there was another way! I could have… I could have… You didn’t have to sell…”
She started crying. I recalled this speech. I thought I remembered he giving it each time she came, though I didn’t know why and I didn’t remember the last time that might have been.
I could see crews racing through the corridors to the Dome. It was time.
“I have to go,” I wheezed on her.
“Carl,” she said again. I wondered who Carl was.
“Come back,” I barked, not knowing why I wanted her to come back. “Come back in…”
“Six months,” she said quietly.
“Six months.” I pushed upright, the legs whining beneath me, the left servo popping obstinately but more quietly than before. I left.
I galumphed my way to the Dome tunnel and almost crushed another page, this one a boy, as I stumbled through the crowd of reporters. Some flashes dilated my optics… my eye, I mean… but no one shouted questions at me.
It was waiting.
It had a name, but I don’t suppose it knew what that was any more than did I. It had taken my arm. It had taken my arm only the day before, in fact.
The loudspeakers blared the usual pointless commentary.
“…That’s right, Danny! We’re being treated to a rematch today. Bipeds Mangler 38 and Crusher 94 faced each other yesterday, but they’re not done yet!”
The crowd in the stands surrounding the dome screamed and hooted and wailed. I didn’t really notice. I didn’t really hear them. I don’t remember if I ever did. I wondered idly which of us was Mangler 38 and which of us was Crusher 94. I suspected it was Mangler. It had that reciprocating saw for a right arm and a gnarled fist on its left, its face covered by a steel mesh mask and mounted side to side with optical cameras. Its bolt gun was mounted at its waistline, on the right side. I saw scars and fishbelly skin and heavy, galumphing legs. I wondered if the crowd could tell us apart.
“That’s right, Kip!” the announcers prattled on. “Mangler 38 is a holding of Amalgamated Travel and Trek. Crusher 94 is owned by Consolidated Consortium, one of our valued sponsors. Both contestants are free agents, which means the prize money for tonight’s bout goes to the general raffle. Our sponsor bids you good luck, Circuit Guests!”
There was more yelling. I wondered if anyone actually won those raffles. Something about that made me sad. I didn’t know why.
An officiator in mesh armor walked up, keeping a respectful distance. He tossed out two bolt cartridges. I used my fingers to pick up one. It took the other.
“Lock and load!” the officiator ordered.
I loaded and cocked the bolt gun. It did the same with its own weapon. The bolts aren’t quite fatal, not unless you’ve already lost blood. The trick is not to use the bolt gun too early.
“Prepare!” the officiator yelled. The crowd screamed its approval.
It started its saw. I remembered the metallic whine. I clenched my eye shut for a moment. It is my eye and I aimed to keep it.
I shook the new arm. The squared terminal extended, vice-like claws ready to grab and squeeze. My hand had been pretty good at that once. It had been my hand. The vice on that arm isn’t my hand, but I don’t suppose…
I shook the arm a second time. A metal spike shot out from the elbow with a pneumatic hiss.
“Kill!” the officiator roared. The crowd roared back. It roared at me. I roared wetly at it.
Six months, after the bill for the arm.
Six months and I’m debt-free.