Science Fiction

Patience Lake

By Matthew Claxton
8,626 words · 32-minute reading time
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His right knee gave out thirty clicks outside of Saskatoon. He pitched forward onto the gravel shoulder of the Five, plastic pads on his hands sending flashes of PAIN-PAIN-PAIN while red SEEK REPAIR messages flared in the corners of his visual field. He’d been half-asleep, walking on auto, letting GPS and inertial guidance take him the last few dozen klicks, after the farm kids who’d let him ride in their pickup had turned north.

He pushed himself up, flexed the left knee, his elbows. None of the plastic casings around his limbs seemed to have cracked. He’d caught himself, woken up before faceplanting. He imagined scratching his eyes on the gravel, leaving permanent gouges in the plastic lenses, and shuddered.

He stood, balancing his weight on his left leg and swinging the right, gingerly. The knee made a grinding noise, and he felt metal scrape metal, right up through the bone-and-metal socket of his hip. The joint didn’t want to swing too far backward, just a couple of degrees. Forward was fine, but it was loose, something in there stripped and gone. He locked the knee and put some weight on it. It held.

That was something, he thought.

GPS said he was close. There’d be a shelter in the city, or at least a recyc bin full of cardboard, an abandoned car, maybe a squat where he could spend the night. If he could get there. He looked back over his shoulder down the road. It was after four, prairie sky blue and clear. He had hours of daylight left. His cooling fan hummed, setting his shirt front to fluttering.

He took a step, flinging his right leg out from his hip, jamming the heel of his battered boot into the gravel, taking a hopping step. Another. Another.

Slow, but he could do it. Get to town. Maybe even find someone who would fix his knee, for what amounted to no money. His disability check would come through in a couple of weeks. He just had to keep moving. One step at a time.

He stuck his thumb out every time he heard the rush of a truck, but nothing passed him with a human inside.

•••

“Excuse me? Do you think I could fill up my water bottle?” He held up the scratched plastic two-liter. The woman, fiddling with a tablet, barely looked up. Squatting next to her was a six-wheeled machine, a cubist mosquito in steel and carbon fiber body panels. Its proboscis was a shiny steel auger, aimed at a spot on the ground near some rolled chain-link and a couple of wooden posts. The thing’s hinged arms were folded up at its sides. It had once been painted red.

The grey-haired woman and the machine had a similar look, he thought: not young, used hard, sturdy.

“You can’t get into town that way,” she said.

He let his arm drop. “What?”

She glanced up, and he saw that momentary look flicker across her face. Most people got that way. Hard to talk to a man with a smooth plastic head, no nose, speaker grill for a mouth, round eyes that never blinked.

“There’s a roadblock at Patience Lake. About a five minute drive down that way. Security’s checking everybody.”

“RCMP?” he said, hopeful.

“Nope. Private. Contracted out, twice over.”

His shoulders slumped. Petty private meant either a shakedown, or being turned around, maybe a night in some rural cell for vagrancy.

“If I’m turning around, I could really use the water, ma’am.” He tried to put a tone of honest pleading into the flat, synthetic speech that came from his vocal chip.

She smirked.

“Well, since you said ma’am.”

She let him use the faucet outside the house, eyeing him the whole time, staying about two arms lengths away from him while he filled and capped the bottle. The house was maybe fifty or sixty years old, wooden and white with blue trim, a henge of black solar panels squatting on its south-facing roof. In the farmyard stood a grey-sided barn, a Quonset hut, and a clutch of simple greenhouses, half-hoops of PVC pipe covered with plastic sheeting, their insides moisture-beaded. Three or four acres were enclosed in fences, and beyond that were vast fields of plants, something he didn’t recognize. It had started as corn, maybe, before the biotechs had had their way with it. A couple of small blimps drifted in the distance, crop-watching drones holding themselves in place with fat ducted fans.

He tried not to look around too much, tried not to look like the kind of guy who’d come back later with a couple of friends, a truck, and a deer rifle. If he could have smiled reassuringly, he would have.

She walked him back to the road.

“Is there any way to get into Saskatoon without going through a roadblock?” he asked when he was standing on the gravel shoulder again.

She waved off to the north, over the low rolling hills covered with golden canola. “Anyway you go in that direction, you’ll probably run into them. They’ve probably already seen you. They watch the crop monitor feeds when they’re bored.” She jerked a thumb upwards, indicating one of the fat little blimps.

“South?”

“East and then south. Way south. Head in on the Sixteen, and up through Rosewood.”

He called up the map, sighed at the length of the dotted line it marked between his position and the city’s center.

He was about to ask for a ride – ask for a ride and get a polite but very firm refusal, he guessed – when the cloud of dust appeared off to the west.

The woman squinted into the lowering sun. He let his eyes whir into distance vision, polarize out the glare and dust. A big black and white, lights and sirens bulging from its roof like tumors.

The woman glanced at him, eyes flickering down to his knee. She’d seen the way he kick-hopped across the yard.

“You know anything about farm machinery?” she asked him suddenly.

“No,” he said. “But I can drive anything.” He tapped the side of his plastic skull. “Fully wired for remote ops.”

“Sandra Kowalchuk.”

“Casey Kim.”

“Well, Casey, you think you can get this thing moving?” She waved a callused hand at the machine.

“Sure,” he said. “Uh, what does it do?”

•••

By the time the security car had closed half the distance to the farm, Casey had learned what a post-hole digger was. By the time it pulled into the driveway, going too fast, obviously on manual, he had managed to get the machine to make a few juddering movements. The wheels were easy enough. Sandra pointed out where she wanted the hole, and he jiggered it back and forth, positioning that big auger.

The control interface was crude, nothing like military systems, or even the ones the big trucking firms used. It was at least a decade old, and it had zero haptic feedback. But Casey had the feel for it. Give him another ten minutes, and he could make it tap dance.

Two men got out of the security car, both in straight-leg trousers with a red stripe a couple fingers wide down each leg, like they were some kind of real cops or something. The short one with a ginger moustache on his lip had fewer chevrons on his shirt. His sleeves bulged, he had that thick-shouldered thick-necked look of a man fond of prescription muscle enhancement. He had a belt slung with an array of half a dozen weapons, curving back from his hip in descending order of lethality. The other, larger by far, just had a single. It was matte black, a revolver, in a size suitable for blowing a hole through a rhino. Casey’d never seen a cop, real or not, carry a gun like that.

The second guy didn’t look right, either, the way he moved was off, elbows out, strutting almost. It took Casey a second to get it. The man looked to be in his thirties, but the skin on his arms and neck was smooth, perfectly hairless, tanned the shade of an expensive leather couch. Under it his muscles were even and had the kind of gym-tone you only saw on CG-enhanced movie stars. No one real had muscles like that. Just sprites and machines.

“Morning, Sandra,” the cyborg said, giving her a big smile. His teeth were plastic too, as even and white as veterans’ tombstones. He never looked directly at Casey. The other cop never looked anywhere else, and kept one hand on the butt of his gun. “Just saw this guy trying to hitch a while back, and then he stopped here. Thought we’d come and see if he’s trying to bother you.”

Sandra shook her head, and Casey let out a tension he hadn’t known he was holding in. “He’s fine, Terry. He’s helping me out with this piece of shit,” she said, jerking her chin at the post-hole digger. “He already got it moving again after I’d got it stuck.”

“He’s not overcharging you for that, is he?”

“Not charging her anything, sir,” Casey said. “She let me fill up with water, and I offered to help.”

Cyborg quirked an eyebrow. “And then?”

“And then I’m going to try and find some work in town,” Casey said.

“Tonight?”

“Yes.”

“Got somewhere to stay?”

“Yes.”

Terry moved in closer, then reached up and rapped a knuckle on Casey’s face, tapping the smooth white plastic above and between his eyes.

“Casehead, huh?” he said. “No skin at all. What happened to you?”

“Cray Liberation Faction,” he said.

Terry smiled, like he’d met a celebrity or something. “No shit! You were in the Forces?”

“I was in the reserves,” Casey said. “I was on the base when they set the thing off. Edge of the cloud just got me.”

He was fine talking about the incident, which was all people seemed to want to talk about. The thump of the bomb, the faint mist hitting him as he stepped out of the cinderblock Remote Ops building. He’d been coming off a twelve-hour shift flickering from one task to the next, coaxing stuck self-driving trucks out of mud holes, around cattle, through rivers. The mist had felt refreshing for a minute, like a light rain, cool. Just for a minute.

It was harder to talk about what came after, the hospital, the times before and after the induced coma.

“Well, always an honor to meet a vet,” Terry said. He reached out with one of his big hands – the nails were new and soft and short, the knuckles scarcely wrinkled – and grabbed Casey’s to shake it. The red PAIN indicators flickered but didn’t quite come on in full at the corner of his vision, as Terry pumped his hand.

“Well, if you’re okay Sandra, I think we’ll be on our way. Nice meeting you, soldier.” Terry slid himself back into the car, the side of it sagging under his weight. Even foamed metal bones and plastic muscle had a lot of weight. His sidekick clambered into the other side, adjusting his belt.

The patrol vehicle spun in a tight circle, and headed off east down the Five in a cloud of dust.

Sandra watched it go.

“You don’t have to stay any longer,” she said. “They’re done with their little road block at Patience Lake, looks like. It should be clear for a while.”

Casey shook his head. “I’ve almost got your post-hole digger figured out,” he said. He called up the interface again in his visual field, found some new control systems, and gave the augur an experimental spin. “See? Let me finish this job, at least.”

Sandra cocked her head to one side, her face a mask that concealed the kind of cost-benefit analysis Casey had seen before.

“Sure,” she said. “And then do you want to come in for coffee?”

•••

“I can’t eat anything,” Casey said. “I brought my own nutrients. It’s okay.” He patted his backpack.

Sean stared back across the kitchen table. Sandra’s grandson, he’d arrived home from school an hour after they’d finished with the digger, and Casey had moved on to diagnosing some malady with the control system of a fussy old converted John Deere tractor.

“How do you even eat, though?” Sean asked. He was about fourteen or fifteen, his hands and shoulders already big, his skinny arms and torso struggling to catch up.

“Sean,” his grandmother warned from the coffee maker.

The kitchen was the most civilized place Casey had been in for weeks. Tile floor only a little chipped, big steel fridge humming to itself in the corner, a double sink. Ceramic containers were lined up against the back of the counter for sugar, flour, rice, pasta. Casey suspected it smelled clean, not hospital clean but the clean of a well-used home.

“It’s okay,” Casey said. “A tube. It’s not pretty, but I have to sort of suck everything up. I don’t have a tongue anymore.” Nor much in the way of gums, no teeth, and not much pharynx. The StrepA-117 in the bomb had been wickedly efficient. It had flensed him from crown to toes. Flensed was a word he’d overheard from one of the doctors while he was in recovery. He’d had to look it up later.

“How many of those nutrient packs do you have?” Sandra wanted to know.

“Enough to get me from Thunder Bay to here,” he said.

“You hitched?” Sean asked.

“Some,” Casey said. “Mostly I walked.”

“Sean, you want to go upstairs and do your homework?” Sandra said. The kid rolled his eyes and complied.

“Can you drink anything else?” Sandra asked once her grandson’s door had closed.

“Water,” Casey said. “Coffee. Broth.”

“How’s your knee?”

He paused too long, and she shook her head. “It’s not good, is it? How serious is it?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d need to take it apart to see.”

“You can do that?”

“If I have somewhere clean to work. I have some tools, but I’m not sure what I’ll need to make a start on fixing anything…”

“Casey, this is a farm. We’re not short on tools.”

She gave him warm water and a spoon, and privacy while he mixed in one of his nutrient powders. He popped the little hatch at the top of his throat and drew out the tube, stuck it into the glass and sucked. His remaining throat muscles pulled up the liquid until only the dregs remained. He carefully detached the tube from its mounting afterwards, washed it at the kitchen sink, and swabbed the edge of the socket with alcohol, feeling the faint burning on his esophagus as a trace of the vapor wafted down into his throat.

After he was finished, Sandra led him out to the Quonset hut. “Couldn’t they have done more for you?” she said. “The Forces?”

He shrugged, plastic shoulders rising and falling in perfect unison. “Build me up like Terry? Sure, yeah, if they’d wanted to spend a couple million. Print me new teeth, new face, new muscles. Few square meters of skin. If you have enough money, you can get that done. Terry… looks like he went for the full package.” He paused. “Christ, what an idiot.”

Sandra barked a laugh. “I’ve heard that said, though not about him getting upgraded. He’s been preening like a peacock for the past three months, since he got back from the clinic in Havana.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s bought.”

Sandra flicked a light switch and turned on bare overhead LEDs. The room was a garage and tool shed, with a broken down car at the far end and workbenches along either side.

“Will this place be clean enough? It’s not exactly a hospital.”

“There’s nothing biological down in my knee,” he said. “As long as I don’t get any more grit in there, it’ll be fine.”

Sandra found an old canvas tarp and rolled it out on the floor while Casey pulled his tools out of his backpack. He lowered himself to the floor and hauled his right leg straight with his hands, and rolled up his loose trousers to expose the knee. The whole thing was covered with a shroud of flexible grey plastic. He found the narrow seams and pressed his thumbs in, peeling back the soft surface.

“That doesn’t hurt?” Sandra said.

“I’ve only got real sensory feedback from my hands, and a little from the soles of my feet. Everything else is just a kind of general proprioceptive feedback, some basic awareness of where my arms and legs are.”

Under the rubber skin ran rivers of yellow artificial muscles and tendons. The metal kneecap rose up like an island in the middle of the stream of plastic. “I’m going to have to unpin all these muscles. It’ll take a while.”

He’d meant that she could leave if she wanted. Very few people were eager to watch his self-maintenance. It was surgical, yet inhuman. He called up one of the instructables he’d downloaded after he got out of the hospital and kept it open in the corner of his visual field, occasionally zooming in on the diagrams, double checking. But he’d done this before, replacing worn-out muscles, tightening connections, replacing the metal pins that bound the muscles to his steel femur and fibula.

It looked bad. He pulled the patella out from its nest of soft plastic, and found scratching on the back. He unpinned another couple of muscle groups, and with a pop, his lower leg dangled free. Casey leaned forward and looked down. Sandra flicked on a trouble light and held it up, but he’d already seen the problem.

“Dammit,” he said softly. The curse echoed off the curved steel walls of the hut.

“What is it?”

“I’ve cracked off the end of my femur.”

A centimeter of steel had sheared away. The pieces had been jammed to one side, pushing up against the muscles running down his inner leg. A fraction of the edge of the femur head remained on the inside edge, but a crack undermined even that. It would go too, whether tomorrow, or in a week. And then he’d be trying to walk on a completely shattered knee, grinding away his fibula, too.

Casey felt numb. He wondered why he didn’t feel worse. He had only a few bucks left on the cards in his wallet. He had no job, and no real hope of getting one. “Three bad breaks,” his grandmother had always said when she tossed a few coins into the hats of homeless men propped up at the edges of the Toronto sidewalks. “We’re all just three bad breaks away from being there ourselves.” This was his third break, Casey knew. He felt sick, a hollow feeling down between his guts and the hard mass of his battery stack.

“Do you have any really good glue?” he finally asked.

“Yeah.”

“Could I use some?”

“You’re not going to get far gluing it back together,” she said.

“A real clinic will charge you six thousand to install a new femur head,” he said. “I could install it myself, but a new part is at least a thousand. I could maybe buy a used one online for six, seven hundred.”

“Veterans Affairs won’t help you out?”

“There are kind of a lot of us,” he said. “Since the attacks. Waiting list for major parts was a year, last I checked. They might rent me crutches.”

She brought him a tube of clear epoxy, and helped him hold the broken pieces together. When he was satisfied, he carefully, in proper sequence, snapped every muscle back in place again and pulled up the plastic cover, pressing down each tab. It looked like a real knee, at least.

“You’d better stay here tonight,” Sandra said.

He looked up. While he’d been busy, the sun had gone down, and the yard was now illuminated by an old sodium-vapor light, glowing sickly yellow from atop a tarry spruce pole.

“I can stay in the barn,” he said.

“You’ll stay in the house,” she said. “Couch is yours.”

He woke up once in the night, pushed off the blanket and found his way to the back porch, pushed open the creaking screen door.

The sky was alive.

Clouds had rolled in, and they tossed lightning back and forth, javelins of white fire. The thunder rolled continuously, a guttural growling that shook Casey through his plastic skin, down into the hidden core where he still pumped blood. He shut off his heads-ups and watched through glassy eyes for an hour while the storm passed.

Terry came back in the morning.

The big black-and-white parked across the middle of the driveway, at a slanting angle that looked careless, but just happened the block access to the road.

Casey was outside with Sandra in the puddle-dotted yard working on getting a tractor running. He was alternating between running it off his implants and the tablet, trying to find out why its crude AI kept spooking when it got too close to fences. The John Deere lurched back and forth near the entrance to the barn.

Terry waved them over and waited near the car.

“Gotta make us walk,” Sandra muttered. “Asshole. You stay quiet unless he asks you a direct question, okay?”

Casey nodded.

“Your knee got fixed?” Terry asked as they hiked up to his cruiser. His subordinate was gone, or maybe hiding behind the polarized glass windows of the car, Casey couldn’t tell. Anyone could have been back there. He adjusted his eyes, and thought he made out someone in the back. An arrested prisoner, maybe? Looked like someone small, a woman or a kid.

“At least for a little while.” Casey said. “Sandra helped.”

Terry nodded, and smiled a little, the expression too tight somehow on his broad face. As if he didn’t quite have enough skin to spare, after being sliced open and put back together.

“Sandra, you remember that thing we were talking about before?” Terry said.

“Next Tuesday,” she said. “I said the fifth, and next Tuesday is the fifth.”

“I’m just making sure you remember.”

“I remember, Terry.”

He frowned – something in her tone was too familiar, had too much quiet contempt. Casey saw it then. The kid who’d grown up in town, every adult knowing him, his parents. Now he’d put on a badge, but he was still just Terry to them. Casey imagined that could be a powerful irritant to a certain kind of personality.

“Good,” Terry snapped. He glanced over at Casey one more time, eyed his knee, and climbed back into his cruiser. The car made a messy, aggressive turn, still on manual, and sped off down the Five.

“What was he talking about?” Casey said, and realized as soon as the words were out of his throat what was going on. “Sorry,” he said.

Sandra sighed. “Christ, don’t know where I’m going to find the money. Have to borrow something from my cousin Pete, if he can spare it.”

“How’s the shakedown work?”

“Civic Protection Association dues,” Sandra said. “Terry’s CEO as well as chief constable. The fees were pushed through by his friends on the regional council. Monthly. Plus fines for late payment. Fines for various infractions of local bylaws – Terry is our bylaw officer too, of course – and fines for having an unsecured property, fines for failure to report suspicious activity, fines for pissing off Terry or one of his buddies in uniform.”

“No one’s gone to the RCMP?”

“That was the first thing we did. But the force isn’t what it used to be, since devolution and privatization. We’ve had trouble finding an officer willing to take on a petty local thug. There are worse ones than Terry, you know. And after he shot Bill Frazier, no one was exactly willing to take direct action.”

“He killed someone?”

“No. Bill owed Terry too much money and he’d already sold his old harvester, and he couldn’t afford to sell his new one. When Terry showed up with a seizure order, Bill took a shot at him with his dad’s old hunting rifle. Terry didn’t quite kill him, but Bill’s in prison now and missing a kidney and about four feet of small intestine.

“That’s the thing about Terry, he’s not stupid, or not stupid enough. He uses paperwork, he has something that looks official backing him up. He’s careful enough to cover himself if something goes wrong. And he gets what he wants. He took Bill’s harvester and it sold at auction last spring. Victim surcharge. ’Cause Bill shot first.”

Casey nodded.

“I’d better go,” he said. “He’ll think up some fine eventually. Harboring a fugitive or something.”

“You’re not wanted, are you?”

“No.”

“Then stay another day. Terry’s dangerous, but he’s cautious. Make sure your knee will hold. Head into town then.”

Casey paused, silent. He thought he should just walk straight out across the swirling dust of the farmyard and head west, stopping only when he was a hundred klicks away from Sandra’s farm and Terry’s black-and-white cruiser. Things were bad enough here, he thought. Hadn’t he avoided becoming part of these bad situations by skirting around them, past them?

“It’s not like I won’t put you to work while you’re here,” Sandra said. “I’ve still got equipment that you can take a look at. Drones and so forth.”

“Okay,” Casey said. The word slipped out. Much as he wanted to keep moving, a couch and some useful work had a powerful pull. It felt normal.

The next morning, he worked on the system of the big combine harvester, then started running through the machine’s maintenance cycle, checking all its fluids and attacking it with the grease gun he found in the big barn. The machine was in pretty good shape, but he got the sense that the entire farm was understaffed. He remembered the photos inside the house on the mantlepiece, of Sandra’s husband and of their grown children, Sean a gangly elementary-school kid. Now it was just two of them.

Late in the afternoon, Sandra headed off down the road, leaving him to sit in the kitchen and watch the news on the TV that had been unrolled and stuck to the freezer door. Upstairs, the sound of a shooter game came from Sean’s room. Casey dissolved a vitamin tablet in a cup of warm chicken broth, slurped it up slowly through his tube, then cleaned the tube and cup at the sink.

Sandra came back half an hour later with a package under her arm.

“C’mon,” she said, “Something to show you here.”

Inside the Quonset hut, she handed him the box and unfolded the tarp again on the floor, carefully brushing it clean of dust.

Casey popped it open. Nestled in old newspapers was a femur head. It looked like real bone, or close enough. He touched it with one finger pad, and felt the cool of hard porcelain.

“Printed ceramic,” said Sandra. “A friend of mine has a really good printer in his shed. He can’t do metal, though, so I’m afraid it won’t be nearly as good as your old titanium one. Should be better than one held together with cheap glue, though. It’ll get you farther.”

“This… I can’t afford this.”

“You’ve done two days of specialized tech support, not to mention working on the harvester.”

“That’s not nearly enough…”

“Jesus, Casey. Sit down and help me install it, would you? The thing’s done, and you can argue about how much an unlicensed copy of a femur is worth some other time, okay?”

He didn’t say anything, then started to mutter some proper thanks. His eye sockets burned, where what was left of his tear ducts had been sealed off by the doctors. He lowered himself to the tarp and began peeling back the rubberized surface of his knee and the plastic casing of his upper leg.

•••

He left two days later, having done every bit of work he could at the farm, as well as helping out two of Sandra’s neighbors. Terry didn’t show up again, but the black and white always seemed to be lurking nearby.

“I’d drive you, but I’ve got to head over to my cousin’s today,” Sandra said. “If you’re sure you won’t stay one more day, you should go south. Skirt around Patience Lake that way, the south end is outside of Terry’s jurisdiction. Head into Saskatoon from there.”

Casey nodded, mapping a route. It would take him all day, into the night.

He thanked her as much as he thought she could stand, and started walking.

The puddles from the nightly storms baked off the gravel roads by mid-morning. Casey set a relatively slow pace, pausing several times under trees to drink water and let his fan cool his core down. Crickets droned their steady song from the grass.

His new knee felt good, or at least it wasn’t setting off any alarms. He walked past farms, four out of five of them derelict, boarded-up houses standing amid fields watched by quadcopters or blimps.

He veered west finally, just short of dusk, as the banks of heavy black stormclouds gathered again in the south. He started keeping an eye out for an abandoned farmhouse or barn to spend the night in. He could too-easily imagine long fingers of lighting drawn down to his metal bones.

He found shelter a few moments before the edge of the storm hit.

The old house had been torn apart from the inside. His low-light vision showed long tears in the walls where copper wire had been ripped out. Parts of the ceiling had collapsed where the light fixtures had been torn down. The kitchen was a disaster area, sink and piping torn out. The living room wasn’t too bad, though. There was a battered couch missing two legs, dotted with stains. Casey avoided it, sweeping a section of floor clean with his feet and sitting down in the corner, back against a wall.

He set his system to monitor the ambient noise – if the storm dropped in intensity, he could head out again, cover some miles in the cool of the early morning. He drifted off to sleep, lulled by rolling thunder.

The beeping of his alarm woke him into a state of confusion. Thunder still rolled outside the house, and rain hammered on the vinyl siding. Why had his alarm gone off?

Then he heard the other noise drop away – a heavy diesel growl. Someone had just shut off a big truck.

Casey slipped a hand into his backpack and pulled out the largest screwdriver from his set of tools, a flathead with a chipped yellow plastic handle. It didn’t actually fit any of the screws that held his legs or arms together, but it looked less suspicious than a knife.

He pushed himself up slowly and amped up his hearing, to almost painful levels as another peal of thunder shook the house’s timbers.

Two sets of footsteps, moving slowly, too cautious to be people just trying to get out of the rain. They came up the wooden steps, keeping to the outside edges of the stairs, avoiding the creaking middle.

Casey pushed himself up and sidled toward the door, screwdriver held like a dagger.

“Gimme the goggles,” someone said, a low whisper. A young voice, sullen, a little scared.

“Fuck you, you forgot yours, use a flashlight.” Young again, and again that hint of fear.

“We’ll spook him!”

“He isn’t getting far. He’s not that fast.”

The second voice was familiar. His hands would have shaken, if they’d been flesh. Betrayal didn’t feel quite the same without a whole body.

“In there,” said the second voice.

The one without the goggles complied, almost stumbling over some debris, swearing, slapping at the walls for support. They were coming closer, in through the dining room now.

Lightning flashed, a series of blue-white arcs lighting up the room. The boy poked his head into the living room, stepped forward. A taser was in his hand.

Casey stood still as a statue.

The boy took one more step. Casey turned and plunged the screwdriver into the kid’s thigh. The metal disappeared, just a plastic handle stuck to faded denim.

The boy screamed, first in shock and then in pain. He staggered back, falling, both hands reaching for the screwdriver. The taser clattered to the floor, and Casey lunged for it, scrabbling on all fours. Lighting flashed and his eyes whited out for a second, too much light straight into the artificial retinas. He felt for the weapon, hands sweeping the floor like a blind man’s cane.

“Dev!” shouted the second kid.

Dev swore and cursed and kicked at the floor with his good leg.

Behind him stood Sean, Sandra’s grandson.

Casey found the dropped taser, grabbed its plastic barrel and fumbled for the grip.

“Shit!” Sean said. He raised his own taser, a ruby red laser sight gleaming through the drywall dust.

Sean fired.

A sudden jerk at the side of Casey’s cheek, but no shock, no loss of control. Then he was up again, still moving, the other taser in his hands. Sean took a single step back. Casey shot the boy in the chest, and he went down hard.

Unspooled metal wire lay on the floor between them. Sean’s shot had been a good one. But the metal barbs had glanced off the smooth, hard plastic of Casey’s face. He reached up and felt two tiny divots on one cheek.

•••

In Sean’s backpack, Casey found heavy-duty zip ties. He strung a couple together as a tourniquet and put it around Dev’s leg above the oozing wound.

“Don’t take the screwdriver out, no matter what you do,” Casey said. “Imagine a geyser, okay?”

Dev nodded, his face grey.

Sean he cuffed, hands behind the kid’s back. He bundled them both into the truck, Devon in the back under the canopy. The vehicle had been left in manual mode.

“What’s the password?” Casey asked Sean, as he boosted himself into the driver’s seat.

Sean glared back, sullen. More than just a kid in deep trouble, though. Scared, Casey thought, but not as scared as he ought to be.

“C’mon, your friend needs to get to a hospital.”

Sean told him, and Casey thought the words into the wireless login. The truck was a newer model, good haptics, and he enjoyed the feeling of the tires digging through mud as they wound their way back down the battered dirt roads, out to the gravel and back onto the highway. The windshield wipers slapped away sheets of rain.

He pulled up in front of Sandra’s place.

“You’re getting out here,” Casey said.

“Please don’t tell her!” Sean blurted, the first thing he’d said since they started driving.

Casey just stared at him. “She doesn’t already know?” Casey asked. “She didn’t send you?” It was bullshit, of course. But it was a lever to get at the truth. “She knew where I was going. If she didn’t send you, who did?”

Sean looked down.

“C’mon, say it,” said Casey.

“Terry,” Sean said. Terry, who kept an eye on everything through the drones that hovered over every field. Terry who’d watched him walk out into the middle of nowhere and then sent two kids to ambush him.

“We owe him,” Sean said. “A lot more than we can pay, right now. He, he said this would have squared us away for six months.”

“And you were going to what, just leave me out there? Pull off my arms and legs, yank out my eyes, sell them, let me starve slow in the middle of nowhere?”

“No!” Sean said. “We were going to put you in a public car, have it drop you off at the hospital. There’s a Veterans Affairs centre in Regina. Terry said they’d keep you there until they ordered you some new limbs.”

Casey shook his head. The center would have been bad enough. Months of waiting, or hobbling around on the cheapest limbs. But he’d never have made it there. His organic remains would have wound up fertilizing one of the more distant fields, of that Casey had no doubt. Sandra had said Terry was careful. Leaving witnesses wasn’t careful.

“Get out,” he said, popping the door lock with a thought.

Sean stumbled out, and Casey dropped out on his side, careful to land on his good leg. “We’re going inside to have a talk with your grandmother.”

He closed the doors and told the truck to haul Dev to the nearest hospital, patting its fender as it pulled out of the driveway.

Casey pounded on the screen door until a light came on upstairs. Sandra, wearing sweatpants and a Rough Riders T-shirt, opened the door. Her face was confused, bleary with sleep. Her eyes dropped to Sean’s wrists, zip-tied together and to his belt. She almost broke then, Casey thought. Her face began to crumple and her eyes welled for a moment. Then she clamped down again, through force of will. The sadness and shock were still there, but controlled.

Casey wondered, as he cut Sean loose with an Xacto knife, what that kind of control cost.

“Tell her,” he said to Sean.

Sean spilled the story, circling around and trying to justify himself, until Sandra slapped one hand down hard on the kitchen table, a sound like a rifle crack.

“Was it your idea, or Dev’s, or Terry’s?” she said.

“Terry called me,” Sean said.

“How much were you going to get paid?” Sandra’s eyes were hard as polished steel.

“Nothing!” Sean said. “Dev was getting six thousand. We were going to have our debt cleared.”

“We owe him more than six thousand,” Sandra said.

“I know that!” Sean yelled, his voice breaking. “Do you want to end up like the McKays? They’re gone, grandma, remember? Do you want to have to sell everything, declare bankruptcy, and move into a pre-fab welfare box in the city? If we didn’t get some money soon, we were going to have to start selling equipment, and what comes after that? What would we have left?”

Sean flung himself back into his chair, still rubbing at his left wrist, at the red mark left by the zip tie. He looked at Casey.

“We’d have been better off if you’d never stopped here,” Sean said. He sounded tired, and weighed down by more than fourteen years.

“I know,” said Casey. “Give me a ride to Saskatoon. Get me out of here, tonight, far away from Terry and his boys as we can get. And I won’t say anything to the Mounties about Sean.

“You know Terry wouldn’t have left me as a loose end, alive,” Casey said. “Sean could do an adult sentence. Accessory to attempted murder. But I’ll just walk away, because you don’t deserve to have another bad break.”

Sandra’s face was hard, hurting. She swallowed and looked across the table at her grandson, his face now white.

“That’s more kindness than Sean showed you, I know. But Terry… You’d best be gone before he realizes what’s happened. We’d better get you in the truck, now. Otherwise, it’ll be like what happened to Bill Frazier, except not as neat. Maybe he’ll finally see the RCMP come down on him, but none of us are going to be around to see any of that.”

The screen door had barely had time to swing shut behind them before they noticed it. Sean picked it up first, the faint orange glow to the west. Casey stopped and zoomed in. Over the rolling prairie, a column of smoke rose up, oily and black.

“I don’t think Dev made it to the hospital,” Casey said. “Dammit.” He wondered now whether it wouldn’t have been three graves, not just his, that Terry would have dug.

Casey cranked up his hearing. The sound of grass rustling in the wind was like the roar of a waterfall. He could hear trucks and drones heading up and down the highway, electric motors whirring and tires hissing on the wet pavement. And in the distance but coming on fast, fast as a storm, was the sound of the big black-and-white. Off to the west, its lights strobed red and blue on the horizon.

“Christ on a crutch,” Sandra muttered. “I’m getting Sean out of here and finding the rifle.”

“No,” Casey said. “Rifle won’t stop him. Need something bigger.”

“Don’t have anything bigger. You think we hunt elephants around here?”

“This is a farm,” Casey said. “You’re not short on tools.”

When the car spun into the farmyard, spraying arcs of gravel, Casey stood near the metal curve of the Quonset hut. He raised one hand, a cheerful wave.

The driver’s side of the car sprang open and Terry lunged out, his arms two sides of a triangle on the car’s hood, in his hands the giant pistol.

Casey was already behind the shed, jogging. The first shot punched a hole in the metal just in front of his face. He skidded to a halt on the gravel and the second blasted through just behind him, peppering his shirt with shards of metal.

From above, Casey heard the whine of a crop-monitoring drone, laboring against the gusts that lingered in the storm’s wake.

He was using the blimp’s cameras, Casey realized. Terry was targeting him through his eyes in the sky, lining up his shots using targeting software.

Casey bolted, pushing his legs to their limits. They weren’t made for running, weren’t high-end military models. They were hospital jobs, three years old, battered and used hard, and with a cheap replacement knee on one side.

Something in the knee clicked as he rounded the far corner of the Quonset. Casey lost control, muscles failing to push him forward, and he fell. His hands hit the gravel, sending shocks of pain straight to his brain, while the red indicators flashed in the corners of his vision. SEEK REPAIR, they said.

That’s all I was trying to do, he thought.

He pulled himself upright, propped himself against the cinderblock wall at the flat end of the shed. Next to him the big sliding doors were open, the interior black.

There were no more shots. The red and blue lights still flickered on the far side of the building. Footsteps crunched on the gravel, coming around the other side of the building.

Terry stood with his back to the big yellow light that illuminated the farmyard, his face in shadow. The big pistol was still in his right hand, but lowered.

“Casehead,” Terry said. “Did I clip you there?”

“Knee went out.”

Terry chuckled. “Where are the others?”

“Not here,” Casey said.

Terry cocked his head to one side, accessing some video.

“They’re just in the house. Unless they’ve got some secret tunnel or something. C’mon. We can all go have a chat together.”

“No.”

“I’m not even going to bother saying you’re under arrest, Casehead. We know how this is going to go down. You’re going to wind up in a vets hospital, if you’re lucky. I had phone and net cut off to the house before I was halfway here, so you’re not calling anyone.”

He stepped forward, right hand still holding the gun casually, left outstretched.

The shape unfolded from inside the Quonset, tarp-shrouded. It reached out with metal arms and lurched forward, wheels crunching gravel.

Terry jumped back. His gun snapped up and he fired twice. Casey felt the shots send shudders through the metal chassis. Probably did some damage, but farm equipment was built tough.

One arm, designed to hold and drive in heavy wood posts, clamped around Terry’s ankle. The cyborg staggered and fell, his knee at an uncomfortable angle. He was still trying to line up another shot with the revolver when the augur came down like steel lightning.

Casey turned away for a second, relying on the crude cameras on the post-hole digger to watch. Terry screamed. He had real skin over those limbs. That was real pain, not transmitted by wires or red warnings flashed in the corner of his vision. Casey almost felt bad for the security man, as the digger tore off his right arm.

Terry stopped struggling after a moment, though the arm kept twitching on the ground.

Casey levered himself upright and locked that damaged knee in place again as best he could, ordering the tendons and muscles to tighten. He walked over to just outside of Terry’s reach. Strips of skin hung from the edge of the mangled arm, dripping blood onto the wet gravel. Shredded plastic muscle hung behind that, and in the center the bright, twisted metal of a heavy steel humerus. Casey gingerly pulled the heavy pistol safely free from the twitching fingers.

“Sandra thought you’d be too cautious than to do something this stupid,” Casey said. “Stripping a vet for parts, murdering him. It would have taken a while, but someone would have eventually tracked you down and figured out where my parts came from, who killed me. But I’m guessing you’re already more desperate than anyone around here knows. Money, right?”

Terry said nothing. The stump of his arm had stopped bleeding. Tiny plastic tourniquets inside the veins, sensing the damage, cutting off the flow. Top of the line stuff, Casey thought.

“You put almost everything you had into these upgrades. Probably borrowed a lot. Got those payments to make. And already, three months in, you’re seeing the costs go up. Maintenance. Replacement parts. You’ve got to plan to switch out all those plastic muscles every couple of years, joints every four or five, optics, sensors, new skin even. It all adds up so fast. They never told you that at the sales pitch. It’s a full time job, keeping body and soul together, when you’re one of us.

“You thought you were buying a chance to be a big man. You found out you bought a lifetime of shaking down farmers. And then I wandered in, and that must have seemed to good to be true. Money on foot. And you got reckless.”

“Fuck you,” Terry said, quietly.

Casey shrugged, and put one hand on the wall of the Quonset, and hop-shuffled back to the house, where Sandra stood on the porch, a rifle in the crook of her arm.

His leg wasn’t badly hurt. One of his tendons had come loose, the little steel pin at the end snapping, and once that was replaced from his dwindling bag of spares, it snapped back neatly into the new femur head. He had it fixed before the real police arrived.

It took three days before they sorted everything out and released him, after long days of interrogation in a detention centre on the outskirts of the city. His lawyer, a young woman fresh out of law school, told him Terry was still under house arrest as she walked with him down the courthouse steps.

“So he’s out?”

“He won’t resign,” his lawyer said, already flipping through her phone, looking at her next file. “But he’s on leave until the investigations end. A couple of his deputies are already gone. It’s going to be a mess for a while.” She glanced up. “Ride’s here for you.”

Sandra was waiting at the bottom of the steps with her pickup. It was dusk, and the streetlights were coming on, haloed by moths.

He asked to be taken to the bus depot.

“My disability came in,” he said. “Enough for a bus ticket heading up to Fort McMurray. There’s a lot of reclamation crews up there, heavy equipment. Might be jobs for a remote operator.”

She nodded. “Not willing to stay around Saskatchewan any longer?”

“I’d rather not.”

She was silent for a while.

“I didn’t tell them about Sean,” he said. “I told them it was just his friend, Dev. So Sean should be okay.”

“I kind of figured,” she said. “I don’t think the Mounties believe it. But they haven’t arrested him. Thank you for that.”

“I owed you, for everything you did for me,” he said.

“And where has all our kindness got us?” she said. “I’m going to sell up, move to Foam Lake where I’ve got more family. I need to keep a closer eye on Sean. What he almost did…”

Casey could have said something, but after three days in a holding cell, he felt like he’d just about used up his reserves of politeness.

Sandra dropped him off with a nod at the bus stop. She pulled away before he’d had time to thank her again.

They caught up to him near North Battleford, on the provincial border between Alberta and Saskatchewan.

He got off the bus along with half a dozen other travelers at a dusty automated roadside stop, just a concrete washroom and a series of gas pumps and charging hookups. He was headed for the men’s room when they snatched him.

There were three of them, all wearing ski masks, all with thick shoulders and necks. Two grabbed his arms and hauled him around back. The other passengers pretended not to see.

Casey struggled, tried to pull free, to throw his body weight against them. The third one, the edges of a ginger moustache protruding from the mouth-hole of his mask, punched him hard in the gut. Casey felt the battery stack shift. He desperately wanted to throw up. He had no way to do that.

They pinned him to the ground, one man sitting on his legs, the other pulling his arms out above his head, the wrists tight together.

The third man pulled a ball-peen hammer from his belt.

He swung it down four times, until he was satisfied he’d heard enough components shatter. Shards of off-white plastic flew through the air.

They ran, the job done, piled into a blue plastic rental car and sped out of the lot. Heading back east, back down the Yellowhead Highway towards Patience Lake.

Casey got up and tried to raise his right arm. Below the shattered elbow, it swung loosely. His hand felt odd, sending random signals through cracking wires – the sensation of being brushed with oily feathers, prodded with cold pins, of stroking fur frozen into glass. PAIN PAIN PAIN flashed in the corners of his vision. SEEK REPAIR.

He picked up the pieces he could and put them in his backpack, then detached the arm at the elbow. He wrapped it in a plastic shopping bag he found drifting around the gas pumps, and managed to get himself down the aisle of the bus without falling on anyone. One woman offered to phone the police, but he waved her off. This far away from any real city, it would be private security, and he suspected an arrangement to look the other way.

An arm for an arm, he thought, as he tucked the shopping bag awkwardly into his pack.

He’d expected worse. He’d imagined bullets or blunt objects to the back of his head, limbs and batteries stripped, and a covering of dry prairie soil for what remained.

He still might find work. Work, or patience, could get him another bus ticket, down to Edmonton where there was a veterans’ center. He could get a new arm, in time, or repair his old one.

He would do it. He would keep moving. One step at a time.

End

This story originally appeared in Asimov's.


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