ANNIE VANDERMEER : Designer / Writer / Narrative
Kay came to with all the delicacy and care he’d come to expect from the UTF Medical Corps – that is, the equivalent of shoving a frozen piece of rebar into someone’s exposed armpit. “FUUUGHKT,” he gargled abruptly, sitting bolt upright and coughing, and casting a pointed glance at the medical robot attending to him, who seemed entirely unperturbed at the venom in his eyes. It was several seconds later when, blinking away the anesthesia, that he noticed his legs. “What the hell are these?” he demanded, raising one.
“REPLACEMENTS FOR YOUR CYBERNETIC LIMBS. AS PER MARTIAN LAW, NO MILITARY-GRADE ENHANCEMENTS ARE ALLOWED ON OFF-DUTY MILITARY PERSONNEL.”
“I know that,” Kay snarled, “but I’m slotted to go back into service in a week. Can’t I get a better pair?”
“THOSE SHOULD BE PERFECTLY SERVICEABLE.”
Kay curled the odd digits of the foot and shook it like a fist. “I look like a goddamn chicken!”
The medical robot regarded him for a moment, its eyes irising open and shut in a delay that Kay knew had been programmed to make it seem like it was actually considering what you said instead of just killing cycles. “I DO NOT RECOGNIZE A RESEMBLANCE TO POULTRY.”
Kay bit back a tirade and vaulted himself from the surgical chair, hissing at how poorly his new legs seemed to adjust to his weight, and grabbed his gear, half-stumbling out the door. “Fine. See you in a week, dickhead.”
“I DO NOT RECOGNIZE A RESMBLANCE TO–”
Rain was pouring down in big, dramatic sheets as Kay left the UTF Medical Building, nearly emptying the streets of people. Reflexively he tapped his collar, expecting to deploy a Slicker – then sighed as he realized he was in civvie clothes, and no shoulder-mounted energy shield was going to come to his rescue. That gesture had become more familiar to him than opening an umbrella, and the jumbled flood of emotions that came along with that realization was like shaking out the contents from an overstuffed desk drawer. Not a single part of him felt like pawing through those, so he opted for the strongest part of his training: shoving it to the back of his mind and seeking a distraction. The wet vermillion neon of a club glowed tantalizingly at him from the end of a nearby block, so Kay turtled his head under his jacket and trudged towards it, his gait awkward and uneven as he tried to get used to his new appendages.
The bouncer’s arm nearly thumped Kay in the chest as he tried to cross the threshold and the soldier stumbled back, as bewildered as if the door itself had leapt up to stop him. The bouncer growled at him in a voice like breaking concrete. “No entry.”
Kay stared at him evenly, trying to edge a bit further under the club’s awning to keep from getting quite so soaked. “I can see that. Why not?”
The bouncer jerked his head downwards as if unwilling to cause his hands the trouble of pointing. “Ain’t got shoes.”
Kay lifted up a foot in protest, wiggling its trifold mechanical toes. “And how am I supposed to put them on these monsters? These stupid legs are just loaners anyhow.”
“Yeah, I saw you comin’ from that Terran Federation building. So sorry for you. Still need shoes.”
Kay narrowed his eyes at the absence of warmth in the words. “I just want a beer.”
The bouncer jerked his head backwards, leading the soldier to wonder if the big man honestly just liked saving his arm motions solely for the purpose of roughing people up. “Store’s down that way a block or two. If those clompers let you run, you might not even get that wet.”
“A beer with people.”
A small, cruel smile tweaked the bouncer’s lips. “Ain’t my fault if you’re not popular, mez.”
Any fatigue that lingered in Kay’s system got washed out immediately at the word, replaced by a cold, severe attention. “Care to say that again?” he said with a dangerous softness.
“I called you a mez, mezzode,” the bouncer sneered, his widening smile proof he was glad he’d hit a nerve. “Maybe they didn’t mech out your hearing with the rest of you, but most of us regular-ass humans can hear a NO the first time it comes around.”
“The preferred term is cyborg,” Kay said evenly, subtly trying to find some kind of ready position on his unwieldy new legs, “and I was altered to serve in the United Terran Federation–”
“You on Mars, though, mez–”
“-Which is goddamn well part of the Federation, not to mention that it’s illegal to discriminate against the cybernetically altered, and–”
The bouncer leaned forward with all the presence of a collapsing building. “And I ain’t discriminatin’ against your stupid chicken legs, mez. You ain’t got shoes, and that’s the rule. And that’s that.”
Kay gritted his teeth. “I’ll wipe. My feet. You goddamn troglodyte.”
Then came his favorite moment in conflicts like these – when the stereotypical big dumb guy squints a second as he tried to figure out what that word meant – and Kay’s cocked fist came screaming out of nowhere and—
“THERE you are!”
Both men stopped short, confused, as an emerald-haired woman flounced out the door and grabbed Kay by the arm with delight. “I’ve been waiting for you forever!”
The bouncer blinked confusion from his face and scowled, suddenly suspicious. “You don’t look like you know her,” he growled, and Kay jumped a little as the woman squeezed his arm with surprising force.
“O-OH!” he yelped, laughing like a startled hyena. “I – didn’t – recognize – your hair! Wow, yeah! Green is, uh – it’s very retro! I like it!”
“And you’re wet as a jellyfish, gross!” she giggled, and yanked on his arm. “Don’t let this big bully give you trouble. I’ve already got us seats at the bar.”
Like an obedient horse, Kay let himself get led inside the bar, whilst the bouncer suddenly sprung to life and stuttered. “B-but – his shoes! He ain’t got–”
“Like he said, he’ll wipe his feet! Bye!” - and the swing of a door cut off the wet, angry world outside.
Kay shuffled in further, and plopped on a barstool as the woman guided him over and sat him down. “There you go, soldier boy. And I believe this is yours.”
A beer bottle snuggled into his hand, beaded with cold sweat. He stared at it a long moment before he moved to take a sip, then suddenly changed course and blurted at the woman. “Hey – who the hell are you? And why–”
She snorted and tossed her thick hair back, helping herself to her drink before replying. “You sure have an interesting way of saying ‘thank you,’ soldier boy.”
“I… thank you.” Part of his brain was certain he was still outside, that the bouncer had actually seen his punch coming, dodged it, and knocked his head clean off his body, that this must be the last moments of life fading, a pleasant illusion until death finally arrived.
He tried the beer. It was cool – not too cold – and a better type than he could remember ever being able to afford. He stole a look at his savior, who he found regarding him with a strange expression: bemusement and sympathy, and perhaps a touch of sadness. “Why did you do it?”
The woman chuckled without much warmth. “Another soldier back from war, probably soon headed out to another. Tired in every way a person can be tired, and still signed up to keep this going.”
Kay snorted and took another pull of his beer. “Signed to a shit contract, that’s for sure.”
The woman’s laugh was more genuine this time – genuinely bitter. “Who isn’t in one of those these days? Nobody I know gets to set the terms, at least.”
“Who are you?”
She sighed, finished her drink, and ordered another. “Soldier boy, your story is so transparent, it troubled me right out that door, and you right in here. I don’t even know if you planned that far ahead.” The new drink hit the counter, and she plucked it up and held it out towards him. “With that in mind… how about you say my own story gets to be a little opaque?”
“I don’t got much choice in that, do I?”
“You do not.”
“Well then,” he raised his bottle in kind. “Here’s to shit deals. Sometimes they lead interesting places, at least.”
Bottle and glass clinked in agreement.