Everyone wonders about the arm. Not so many get up the guts to ask, though. Is it guts or is bad manners? Eh, tough to say.
That night — the night this all started — it was sheer bad manners. The guy was drunk, but not so drunk I couldn’t see the ugly gleam in the back of his eyes. I didn’t know what the gleam meant. The arm didn’t come with psychic powers, more’s the pity, and I didn’t have any of my own. But still, I recognized the ugly.
So I lied.
I’m an excellent liar. I like to think of it as creative story-telling, more than lying — bending the truth, not just deception — but the reality is, I’m a liar. I can tell a stone-cold lie, completely obviously untrue, and still get half my audience believing me. Of course, it’s the other half ya gotta watch out for.
Anyway, back to this guy. He was big, but not enormous. Maybe outweighed me by 150 pounds or so, and I’m not a small girl. He had the pasty-white skin and bald head of a bred spacer, the kind who’d been evolving away from sunshine for a few too many generations, but the build of a heavy G ship lifer. Solid bones, that’s what my mom would have said. His eyes were a cold silvery gray, and like I said, there was a gleam in them that I didn’t like.
He opened with a slurred, “How’d you lose the arm?” and a nod in the direction of my left shoulder.
Now the truth of how I lost my arm and got a new one is a great story in its own right. It’s got drama and tension and plenty of surprising twists. But I don’t share it with casual strangers.
“Mining accident.” I gave him a big, bright smile and kept my voice super light and fluffy. The ultra-girl voice. Only an idiot would fall for me as a fluff-head — the arm, the clothes, the hair, the muscles, all ought to give away that I’m no such thing. But I had no reason to believe this guy wasn’t an idiot, so might as well give it a try.
At best, he’d walk away fast. At worst, I’d walk away richer. “On Stanzia, you know it?”
Stanzia was a hellhole. Not a fun place to live, and not the kind of place where a mining accident would net you a nifty cyborg arm. I personally had never been there. But out on this edge of the galaxy, no one else had either and most people had never heard of it. On the remote chance that he’d hit up the UD to check on me, though, it would pop as a real place, one with plenty of mines.
“Can’t say as I have,” he replied with a twitch of his eyebrows. “Miner, huh?” He wasn’t slurring now, so maybe he wasn’t as drunk as I’d thought.
“Well, ex, now. My mining career didn’t last long.” I made my smile wider, brighter, and widened my eyes. “Six years of post-primary, but one little accident — totally not my fault — and they booted me out. Wouldn’t have much wanted to go back anyway, ‘a course, and the rehab took a while, and then there was that little bit about passing their damn drug tests.” I shrugged, making sure the movement lifted both arms equally. “Losing an arm hurts, and those pain pills were prescription. But whattaya gonna do? Can’t win against the man, am I right?”
I have no idea who the man is. I’m not sure anyone does. It’s just one of those things that people say. A certain type of people, anyway; the young, stupid ones who might be willing to do something a little outside the law. The kind who might be so down and out that a drug courier gig could look like a good deal.
And yeah, I wasn’t dressed right for that, but I’d just come into this dive bar to kill some time. I’d had no idea that opportunity might come knocking on my door.
The ugly gleam deepened. But he didn’t offer the casual, “So you looking for work then?” that I’d been hoping for. Instead he gestured with his chin toward the bartender. “Let me buy you a drink.”
It wasn’t a question.
I kept my sigh internal. Dang. Well, a free drink, that was better than nothing, I supposed. But I’d probably have to put up with him while I drank it and something about him gave me the creeps.
It wasn’t his clothing. His dark gray jumpsuit was standard issue attire, although it was a little weird that it didn’t have a single patch or insignia on it. Most folks in jumpsuits dressed them up with their ship logo, guild affiliation, even the games they played or followed on vid. The crap that identified them to their tribe, if you will.
Of course, my own attire didn’t do much to identify me. I was wearing this cool black top with straps around the neckline. It was one of my favorite article of clothing, not because of the straps, but because it had this nifty mid-back holster that was so cleverly designed that your eye just skimmed over the weapon in it. Seriously, the sales guy had babbled a bunch of shit about the light-bending properties of the fabric, but I thought it was probably magic.
Not real magic. Just kidding about that.
The bartender poured two shots from a bottle off the shelf and the creep pushed one of them toward me.
My eyes were just normal eyes, no mods, so I couldn’t replay what I’d just seen. I had the usual interface chips but I didn’t run them on record full-time. The power drain wasn’t worth it to me. Plus I know there isn’t supposed to be a performance hit, but I always felt like the connection had a lag when I was uploading real-time vid.
Point is, I couldn’t use replay to be sure what I’d seen. But I thought I’d seen a drop hit the surface of the shot. Just a tiny vibration. It might have been the movement, though, the bartender’s push of the glasses.
The liquid was clear. I tipped my head to read the label of the bottle that the bartender had returned to the shelf; some kind of vodka I’d never heard of, maybe local.
“Good stuff.” The creep tossed back the shot he’d kept.
I pulled the other one toward me, lifted it, tilted the glass from side-to-side, looking into its depths. No sign of anything, no fizz from a pill, no traces of color from some added liquid.
Well, what the hell, right?
I lifted it to my lips, sniffed — the scent of pure alcohol acrid in my nostrils — then opened up. It burned on the way down, a harsh sizzle on the back of my throat, an immediate burn in my chest, but I managed not to cough. I did have to blink back some water in my eyes as I set the glass down with a sharp crack. “Hardcore.”
The gleam was still there, and the creep had added a lift to one corner of his mouth. Still ugly, but now with an added hint of smugness.
Oh, good. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.