I had one foot out of that fetid chamber when the kid on the bunk made a sound. It sounded like a choking cough, like he was swallowing his tongue—and wouldn't that be the perfect end to the day—but he hacked wetly, then groaned out something that sounded like a word.
"What's that?" Jackson said warily. "You have something to say?"
"Wait," said the kid. His voice was so rough he could have been rolling nuts and bolts around in his mouth. The blood on his face was drying into twin crusted lines that stretched down his nose, over his lips, to the bottom of his chin. "Silver lady. Wait. Wait and tell me, tell me how—"
He broke off coughing; blood-pinked spittle flew from his lips. When the coughs subsided, he lifted his head, and for the first time since we'd come into the room, his bloodshot natural eye focused on something.
That something was me.
"Silver lady," he said. "It's time. It's time. Tell me how."
"Fuck this. Let's get him—"
Before Jackson could finish, the kid lunged from the bed to throw himself at my feet. He scuttled toward me, reaching with both hands. I jerked back and bumped into the doorframe. The kid's fingers, slick with his own blood, slid over the smooth surface of my boot. I kicked his hand away.
"Tell me how, it's time, I'm ready, I'm so ready, tell me how, tell me how," he was saying, over and over again, the words slurring together as they tumbled from his mouth.
"Don't move." Jackson had her stun weapon at the kid's back, pressed into the nape of his neck. Electroshock weapons weren't meant to be lethal—corporate security was subject to the disarmament treaty like everybody else—but I wasn't sure this kid could survive the jolt. "Do you hear me? You don't move a centimeter. Marley, get the hell out of here before this piece of shit gives himself an aneurysm."
I was already backing out of the room. I squeezed past the medics in the corridor and ignored their snickers, their raised eyebrows, their questions. I felt the prickle of their attention as I strode away, heard the murmur of their voices as I turned the corner at the end of the hall. Whatever they were saying about me, I had heard it all before. I didn't take an easy breath until I was on the lift and on my way up to HQ. I leaned against the wall for balance. I closed my eyes.
Hygiea was a loosely consolidated, carbonaceous chunk of rock and ice well out in the ass-end of the belt, with a diameter of over four hundred kilometers. Nowhere on the surface was the gravity any higher than one-tenth of Earth's, which was a drag for lifelong belters, but for people like me, born and raised on Earth, it was light and strange and required constant adjustment. Even with gecko soles on my boots keeping me ed to the floor, I felt unstable, unsteady, convinced the wrong move or the wrong step would send me hurtling toward the ceiling. The feeling got worse at the end of the day, when the joint where my prosthetic leg attached to my hip was aching and I was trying to favor it, because my ancient animal instinct was telling me there was more weight than what physics actually provided, and my gait turned into an awkward, stilted limp that did nothing to convince me or my doctors that I was well on my way to being fully healed.
I was used to the stares: hungry and envious from a nauseating few, horrified and fearful from everybody else. I was used to the invasive questions: what does it feel like, does it hurt, can you still feel this, did you let them change your brain, why did you let them do that? Yes, it hurt. Yes, I could feel it. No, they hadn't altered my brain, only my body, and I never had a choice. I was used to it. At least they hadn't fucked me up in the process.
I had been working for Parthenope's Operational Security Department for just over a year, one of the so-called Safety Officers whose job it was to make criminals, malcontents, and all manner of other inconveniences vanish before any of them had a chance to impact the company's profits. There were a few hundred security officers on Hygiea, a small enough community that I had grown accustomed to being the one with all the metal parts, the security analyst who was half tech herself, the unlucky disaster survivor who'd been pieced back together. Nobody talked about it to my face anymore, but neither did they ever bother to disguise how glad they were not to be me. I kept my head down and did my job and stayed away from people like that kid with the bleeding eyes and festering wounds in his head.