Grace entered the city from the south. The lights dazzled. The marketing arrived fierce and penetrating. Her ptenda squawked, telling her where she should eat, offering her places to sleep, commenting on her suit and insinuating that if she didn’t dress the part, she wouldn’t get the part. She fingered her ptenda to squelch the intrusion.
“Get outta the way!”
A man bumped against her as he headed down the street. She stepped to one side and felt nauseous as the man unexpectedly swiveled his head completely around and flashed her a disgusted frown. She noticed the metal plate just above his shoulders and watched as servos rotated his head forward again. She shuddered. It was easy to joke about mechflesh in cloister, but it was repulsive in person. She wondered, pityingly, what drove the man to change himself.
She looked around at passersby. Now that she paid attention, she saw that many were mechflesh. For centuries, competition for work had distilled into body machinery. Enhancements were relatively cheap, or made cheap by low interest loans. They were constructed with a visual patchwork of mechanical or neural enhancements, attached or semi-embedded in flesh. Some of the upgrades seemed unobtrusive and ordinary, like a communications port atop a wrist or a skull pod wrapping around the back of a neck. Some of the upgrades looked like things a person might take on or off. Others were shocking. One woman had mechanical spines in a clockwork of metarm vertebrae, which stretched out and dove back into her body as she walked. Another woman, half of her face covered in logic skin, walked out of a coffee shop. A few men at the door whistled while the woman, obviously disgusted, cinched her skirt lower and turned up her nose. Grace thought of Bill Hoffman.
She looked up at the buildings, now looming as she approached the city center. She passed an engineering firm that repaired mining equipment flown to Earth from the asteroid colonies. The interior lights were bright, each window an odd picture. In one, a man in his thirties walked on five-meter claw arms protruding from his spine, while his natural hands stuffed a sandwich into his mouth. A co-worker lifted the front end of a ten thousand kilogram rover and checked for leaks.
Grace stopped to check the map on her ptenda. Raj lived in Bod Town, a district inside Port Casper. It was rough, so Raj had said. Most of the people Raj wanted to avoid would never venture in, day or night. But it was a good place for mechflesh inventors, if your security was decent.
Raj had cautioned her regarding the lifestyle of Bod Town. “Might take getting used to.”
“Out of the frying pan,” she had replied nonchalantly. But now she saw what he meant as the gleam and polish of modern Port Casper gave way to Raj’s eclectic neighborhood.
Bod Town. A roach that attached itself to a shining princess. The mechflesh junkies of Bod Town had a culture of competition. Upgrades were envied, copied, surpassed. Literally empowered by their lust for tech, the junkies worked for whatever contract would give them the means for more modification.
It even smelled different. More soot. More oil.
Steady on Grace, she thought, and willed her face into a mask of confidence.
But the people were hideous. Some looked barely human, just a bit of skull or a finger with real skin. And the number of appendages reminded her of insects, not people.
“What’re you looking at?”
The grunted question came from a metarm skull complete with blazing artificial eyes. The mechanical mouth didn’t frown, but Grace did see a couple of natural-looking teeth and she thought the tongue might still be human.
“Nothing, umm, citizen.” Grace wished her voice sounded normal.
She moved away, closer to a market, hoping to replace her rations. She sniffed cabbage. No, rotten cabbage. She reached down to get a closer look at a head of lettuce when a blur zipped toward her.
Grace unsheathed Ronnie and extended her gun at the movement.
“Wait! No! Don’t shoot.”
Damn, Grace thought. It was the shopkeeper. No legs, his torso attached to a gyro base.
She quickly holstered Ronnie.
She moved on, deciding not to bother with food. She looked down again at her ptenda, hoping the world would disappear around her.
She trudged forward for another two blocks before she spotted Raj. He held his arms high and waved to her.
“Raj!” She closed the distance quickly and they embraced.
“I saw the send from your ptenda as you entered Port. Glad you made it in one piece!” he said.
He took a step back and surveyed her, head to toe.
“You’re looking fit, Protector Donner.” Raj turned and motioned ahead. “Let’s go home.”