Strange Reality, 3

Alina still doesn’t know who is controlling her arm, why the authorities are after her, or where she’s going. What she does know is she’d rather run through the city than meet the cops face to face.

Alina’s left arm was acting like an arm again. Swinging next to her. Obeying her commands. Big swings. Little finger twitches. She knew she was heading in the right direction because every time she turned down the wrong street or veered in the wrong direction it started getting pissy again.

GPS in the arm. Potentially a microphone, she still couldn’t be sure if it had ever responded to her. A camera? Could there be a tiny little lens hidden somewhere? Not something she wanted to think about. Or try to find. She kept her arm at her side and walked as fast as she could without looking suspicious.

The damned arm. She’d never wanted it in the first place. Never wanted any sort of mod. She didn’t judge people who got modded. Well, not a lot. Those people who more machine than human freaked her out. How could you give up so much of yourself? So much maintenance. Updates. Different corpos owned different pieces. Limbs were generally done by Serve-Lite, insides LuxGen, and there were three different monsters who offered neurals. It was bad enough she had to go to the Serve-Lite offices once or twice a month for updates. These modders she saw in the street, with the jacks and the lenses and the mech-limbs and who knew what going on under the skin must have been in and out of update offices every day.

Assuming all their mods are legal.

Of course they weren’t. Of course not. Just because Alina lived her life in fear didn’t mean everyone did. She knew there were people out there – dangerous people – who cut their mods. ‘Broke’ them, the corpos said. ‘Freed’ them, said the modders. Those were the ones who got legal mods in the first place. Alina could think of three different backrooms in the Boiler alone where someone with the guts and the chains could get whatever they wanted. All they could see was freedom from corpo control. But what about safety? If something went wrong with one of their back-alley mods it was up to them to fix it before it killed them in some spectacular way. Just last week she’d seen a guy at the docks fall over dead, smoke and blood coming from his ears. They wouldn’t say what had been in his brain, but Alina knew where he had gotten it.

Glancing down at her arm, she wiggled the fingers. She had gotten hers from Serve-Lite, like you were supposed to. Went in for her reported updates, like you were supposed to. Even got Parsec Shipping to pay for it because the accident had happened at work. Phloxing idiot had lied about being able to drive a maglift. Whole shipping crate came down on her. She was lucky it had only crushed her arm. Sometimes, even when she looked down at her new arm, black and shiny, she still remembered her old arm. Her real arm. It still ached.

This arm she had gotten the way she was supposed. Did everything they asked. Filled out the paperwork. Got the updates. That way, when it malfunctioned, she’d be able to go into the Serve-Lite office and get it fixed. Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy.

Except this has been the opposite of that. This has been…difficult-difficult, lemon difficult.

Alina shook her head as she crossed the street. The cracks of sky between the surrounding buildings was finally starting to lighten, and there were more people on the street. Helpful, actually. She blended in better. As long as no one noticed her bare feet.

This isn’t Serve-Lite’s fault. Someone hacked my arm. Put something in it that shouldn’t be there. This is all a misunderstanding. This is going to get cleared up. I wouldn’t have even run if they had only knocked like normal people. This would have been fixed by now if everyone would just calm down!

Yes. Yes, all of this. She only ran because she was hungover and afraid and they blew her door in (never mind she’d already tossed herself out of a window by then). And she wasn’t going back because they were chasing her with guns. If they had approached her calmly she would have done what they said. Done anything to get her arm fixed. This was not her fault. And she still trusted the system. Yes. She still trusted the system.

Someone blared their horn behind her and she bit her cheek to keep from screaming. Hustling to the next intersection, she looked up at the glowing street signs and sighed in relief.

Quinn Street. Finally

She barely got a few feet down one direction before the arm came back to life and jerked her in the other direction. The sketchy direction. Where a lot of the neon and billboards had been burned out. Of course.

It got worse and worse as she went. The building crowds of the morning rush faded away. The people she saw here were mostly in crumpled heaps on the walk next to the buildings. They either looked at her with half-pleading eyes or kept right on snoring. Alina gave them a wide berth. The Boiler wasn’t exactly the good part of town – nothing below fifteen stories could ever be – but it was safe.

Hmm. Okay, maybe safe wasn’t the right word. Safer. And she knew everyone there. Everyone knew her. There was a community. What community could be here? The people she saw weren’t speaking to each other. Most of the billboards and holograms had been broken, seemingly on purpose. It was dark, and quiet, and she didn’t like it, and she wanted to go home.

Lights flashed behind her in a familiar pattern. She didn’t have to turn around to know what she’d find. She did anyway.

Parked in the intersection she had just crossed was a police lev. As she stared, the window rolled down to reveal two men. Both looking at her.

Alina ran.

Yelling. The whirring sounds of the lev backing up, turning. Coming for her.

They’re going to run me down.

Someone grabbed her hand and pulled her off the street.

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