I can’t feel my daughter’s hand in my metal one as she pulls me along the roof of a desolate mall nestled in another crumbling suburb. With each empty crate, the pit in my stomach grows. We may not have dinner tonight.
It’s not unexpected. This drop is at least a few days old and the support sent by what we once called developing countries is often meager. They do what they can, but they’re not accustomed to managing humanitarian efforts. The most industrialized countries used to do that, but they’ve all but fallen, including mine. Buildings once teeming with people stretch out around us, abandoned. A reminder of how much we’ve lost.
Ella doesn’t care about the lack of supplies. With a chubby finger, she points at one wooden side and says, “What’s it say, Momma?”
I squint at the faded letters. “I’m not sure. It’s another language. I think it’s the name of whoever sent these.” Maybe one day, we’ll travel to wherever it came from, to safety. But not now, while the war rages on in the cities.
“We wait for more?” Ella turns her wide blue eyes up to me.
“No, we should hurry.” I glance around. We’re still alone on the roof. “We’ll try to find something for dinner, but that’s it.”
She releases my cybernetic hand and runs toward another crate. Her blonde curls bounce around her shoulders. I follow slowly but stay between her and a large crack in the tar a few feet away where the roof has partially collapsed. I grab Ella’s hand again, this time with the one made of flesh and bone.
“No,” she says, pulling away. “I want your Super Hand!”
I sigh and shift so she can hold my sleek metal hand. She’s been obsessed with the hardware for as long as she’s been able to express an opinion. Josh introduced the term “Super Hand.” Maybe he thought it would make me feel better. It doesn’t.
Satisfied, she continues on her quest to examine the next crate. It’s cracked open, so I don’t expect we’ll find anything of use. I push the lid out of the way. It’s full of packing peanuts, so I lean over the wooden lip and dig, stretching until my toes lift off the ground and my fingertips brush the wooden bottom. Nothing. I stand up.
My knees crackle and pain shoots through them. I grit my teeth and grasp the side of the crate, trying not to buckle. The women in my family have bad joints. My mother had her knees replaced at forty-five. Mine never recovered after my pregnancy. I’d see a doctor if there were any left.
Ella giggles as she tosses a few stray peanuts in the air. I lean against the crate and wipe at the sweat on my brow, watching the peanuts float around her.
Voices echo from nearby and every muscle in my body stiffens. I take a step, but there’s no time. My knees won’t be able to carry us both to safety. I scoop Ella up and plop her into the crate.
“Quiet game,” I tell her as I yank my gloves on and pull my sleeves down. “Hide.”
A grin engulfs her entire face. She burrows under the Styrofoam as someone, or something, reaches the top of the fire escape. Two figures climb atop the building. Against the sunset, it’s hard to make out what they are. They look humanoid, but that doesn’t mean much anymore. I slide my hunting knife out of my belt and hope like hell they still have flesh where it matters, that they aren’t covered from head to toe in corporate-issue ballistic armor, that they’re just desperate, hungry refugees like me.
“Please keep your distance,” I call. They jerk to a stop.
“Sorry,” a feminine voice says. “We figured the drop would’ve been cleared by now. We’re not here to fight.” She raises her hands and her companion does the same. “We only came for the wood.”
My left hand trembles but my right holds the knife firm, steady. “Then you can come back when I’m gone,” I say.
The taller one, a man, steps forward. “Wait—Are you alone?”
There’s no good answer. A yes, and they might rush me. A no, and they might start looking for others. They might find Ella.
“Look,” he continues, “we’re building a community a couple of miles away. We’re small, but we’re growing by the week. And we’ve got food.”
They could probably number the nights I’ve gone without by the hollowness of my cheeks and the depths of the valleys between my ribs, but they wouldn’t extend the invitation if they could see what I am. They’d run me off, at best. Hunt and kill me at worst.
“I’m not interested,” I say. Please go away, go away, go away. The Styrofoam behind me shifts a little and I hope they’re too far to notice.
The woman takes a few steps forward. “We’ve got fruits and vegetables. And some canned stuff stashed for winter—”
The Styrofoam bursts apart. Ella grins at me, her hair fanned out from the static, a large jar of peanut butter clutched in her tiny hands. “Do you have nugs there?” she asks. Then, “Momma! I found pea-butter!”
Jesus christ, this kid is going to get us both killed.
The woman takes a step closer. “Hello there,” she says to Ella. “I’m Mae. What’s your name?”
“Her name doesn’t matter,” I snap. “We’re not looking for a community.”
I know it’s hard to believe after all this,” Mae says, “but we have a safe place.”
“And what happens when the cybers come?” I ask. I’m genuinely curious.
“We aren’t going to survive this alone,” the man replies. “We have to work together. Organize. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
“I understand why you’re hesitant,” Mae says, “but we can provide a better life—for both of you. We have a few children—a dozen or so—and a small school. My son is learning to read.”
My hardware seizes up. “Stay back!” I shout. The metal fingers clutch the knife so tight I worry the handle will break, then the fingers jerk open, splaying wide. The knife clatters to the ground.
“Super Hand is being bad again,” Ella says, shrinking back.
“Oh, you have a…” Mae trails off.
“No,” I deny, too quickly. “It’s not— I don’t—” I step back and my spine hits the crate. “I’m not one of them.”
“Then prove it,” the man demands. “Take your gloves off.”
“I’m not like them.”
“You have wires in your brain to make it work, don’t you?” Mae asks.
“Yeah, but I never installed the updates. They don’t control me.” It’s mostly true. I’m more in control of myself than other “cyber-influenced persons,” even if the hardware malfunctions sometimes. You can’t expect peak performance without firmware updates, and the second I connect to a network, my employer will send my coordinates to their defector-collector bots, and that’ll be it.
The man shakes his head. “You might think you have control, but the corps have their wires in you. Leave the hardware here and you can come with us. We have a surgeon—well, she’s a medical student—but she’s successfully removed wires for dozens of people already. She can help you too.”
The arm chimes, the fingers release. Reset complete. I hoist Ella into my arms and hold her against my chest. “I don’t want your help.”
They don’t understand. Luddites never do. Before the wars, if you wanted to compete in the modern workplace, you had to make sacrifices, to get upgrades. When my corp offered to cover the cost of a device that would double my output and eliminate the pain in one of my arthritic hands, I didn’t hesitate. I should have, but I didn’t, and I definitely won’t survive long in this new world without it.
“Please,” the woman says, “you look hungry, and tired.”
“I am, but we’ve seen what happens to people with upgrades. I’m not walking into my grave.” Ella clutches at my shirt with one hand and holds the peanut butter with the other. I take two giant steps, adrenaline blocking out the pain, and slip through the crack in the roof, running down a chunk of broken framing.
Pain ricochets through my hip and knees as I jog through what used to be an office, weaving between collapsing cubicle walls. I’m not in shape to run much further, but nobody’s following. I ease Ella to the ground at the top of a stairwell, and we descend together, exiting into the night.
I’m sick of peanut butter. I’m also sick of crabs and clams, but we’re out of those.
Rain patters against the roof of our small tent. The ocean crashes against the cliff about ten yards away.
“I’m hungry, Momma,” Ella says. She sucks her thumb, a habit I’ve tried to break since sanitation is difficult. I should make her stop now, but she’ll have a tantrum, so I pretend not to notice.
“Alright, alright.” I pick up the half-empty jar of peanut butter.
“No!” She slaps her hands against her pink sleeping bag. “I want nugs. Can we go to Mae’s house? I want to see the kids.”
“We’re not going with them.” I squeeze the jar as I unscrew the lid, my cybernetic hand a little too connected to my emotions sometimes.
“I don’t think those people will break your head. They seem nice.”
I want to tell her Luddites don’t “break heads,” they crush skulls, bludgeoning them until only a mess of brain tissue and tangled wires remains, but I’m so tired. “Here,” I say, holding the open jar out to her.
“No!” Ella crosses her arms. “I want to go to the school. I want to go to Mae’s house.”
“Please, Ella. We’ll talk about it later, okay?” I try to keep my voice even and soft but it ticks up at the end. I go to set the jar in front of her, but the hardware won’t respond. “Shit.” I reach my left hand around to the right forearm, where metal meets flesh, and hook a finger in the release mechanism. The arm drops away and powers down. The fingers open.
“You’re being rude!” Ella whines as I reattach the hardware, seating it into its socket. The motor clicks as the reboot initiates.
“I’m sorry.” Sometimes it’s easier to apologize, let her think she’s won.
“No you aren’t!”
“Please, Ella, don’t be loud.” My arm chimes. I pick up the peanut butter and hold it out to her. She swats at it, knocking the container out of my hand. Rage flares in my chest as I twist my torso, reaching and barely grasping the jar and thrusting it back at her face. “Ella. Eat the goddamn peanut butter.”
She wails. I pull her to me and cover her mouth with my left hand, locking my legs over hers so she can’t run. She continues to buck and cry as I beg her to be quiet. The polyester walls are thin, and there’s only so much the sound of the rain and the ocean can do to muffle the noises an outraged five-year-old makes.
Josh should be here. I wasn’t sold on the idea of kids. But he made it sound so simple, so nice. He promised he’d be around to help me take care of her. And he kept his promise, until it mattered. He chose his corp. I chose Ella. But I didn’t ask for this.
You’re not supposed to block a kid’s mouth. They said so in all the parenting vids. But they didn’t plan on the war, didn’t prepare us for the malware the corps used to control our hardware. I’m doing my best to keep her alive and she won’t listen to a word I say.
I don’t know how I’m supposed to do this.
She bites into the flesh near the base of my thumb—not too hard, but hard enough that I jerk back.
The slap shocks us both. My metal hand collides with her tiny face, whipping her head to the side. Her mouth opens and a sob rips from her, followed by a flood of tears. Blood covers half her face. She’s hyperventilating, cowering in the corner of the tent.
“Oh my god. Baby, baby,” I say. I reach for her, but she scuddles back, eyes on my hardware. I grapple at the metallic hand, scrambling for the release. My middle finger hooks, tugs, and the arm drops onto my lap. “Ella, I’m so sorry.”
“You hate me!” she gets out past sobs.
“No, no. I swear I didn’t mean for that to happen.” Tears blur my vision. “I didn’t tell it to do that.”
She scoots to the tent door. The blood rolls from the cut above her eyebrow, dripping off her chin. We don’t have anything clean to stop the bleeding. It’ll need to be stitched, I think.
I crawl after her, my knees screaming, feeling like they’re full of broken glass. “It’s not safe out there.” I sit on my heels and reach for her.
Ella slaps at my hand. “Let go!” I want to grab her and hold her, but I don’t want to scare her. Not again. I couldn’t take it if she looked at me with such fear a second time.
“Ella, please. Please stop.” I put all the truth and emotion I can into my words. I have to make this right. “I would never, ever hurt you. I love you.” She has to know I love her.
She crawls into my lap, weeping. I grab the cleanest t-shirt I can reach. “Hold this to your head,” I say. I wrap my arm around her, bury my face in her hair, and cry. She still trusts me. I’ll do anything to make sure I deserve it.
“Super Hand hates me?” she asks, her voice so small.
“I think Super Hand hates everyone,” I murmur into her curls.
“I hate it back.” Ella squeezes her eyes shut and sniffs.
“I hate it too,” I say. “I won’t let it hurt you again.”
Once she’s asleep, I unzip the tent and step outside with the hardware.
The rain is over, but a heavy mist hangs low. It condensates on my skin while wet grass sticks between my toes. Everything is drowning now. I can’t see the cityscape in the distance.
I clamber over the low stone wall that separates our tent from the cliffside. I stop at the edge. The moon illuminates waves as they rage against rock, roughly thirty feet below.
I hold the hardware out over the drop, but I can’t make my human fingers release the metal arm. Tears prick behind my eyes. What kind of mother am I?
I clutch my hardware to my chest and hurry back to the tent. I’ll leave it outside from now on.
The path to the beach is made of rough stone and surrounded by jagged black rocks, some of which are taller than me. Ella fidgets on my back. She’s too clumsy to make the climb herself, so I balance her with my left hand. In my right, I clutch the bucket of forged clams and orange crabs. Sweat dribbles down my brow, my back, and my stomach. It’s humid and gray clouds hover overhead.
My knees wobble with each step. The tension in my shoulders loosens as I crest the ridge and my feet find firm dirt. I let Ella down, drop the bucket, and bend over, hands on my knees, to wheeze. My throat burns.
Ella pats my shoulder and repeats, “You’re okay, Momma. You’re okay.” It’s what I say to her whenever she skins her knees or bumps her head. You’re okay, Ella. You’re okay.
I straighten and my back pops in several places. I roll my head from side to side to work out the tension in my neck. Ella copies me, in her wobbly way.
Something shiny flashes among the buildings to my right, a quarter of a mile off. My heart kicks and I squint at the abandoned city. Another flash, on the move. Towards the cliffs. Towards our tent.
I hoist Ella onto my hip and spin back towards the ocean. A trick of the light, human or drone, I can’t take the chance. The rocky path stretches out before me, void of hiding places. The beach below isn’t any better.
I refuse to be a sitting duck. I take off toward the city, eyes on the area of the flash. Grass turns to asphalt beneath my feet, broken and uneven. My knees ache and the tension in my shoulders mounts as I pass under the shadows cast by the closest buildings. I stumble, and my metal fingers dig into the brickwork to slow my descent. Before I can regain my footing, the fingers lock up. I slip, fight to remain upright, fail, and land on my butt.
Ella pulls her legs up around my torso. I try to push us up, but Ella’s weight and the pain in my joints make the difficult task impossible.
The faint whizz of a droid in flight. It’s out of sight, but drawing closer. We’re not far enough in. We’re not hidden. I glance around, frantic, but only a lone dumpster on its side occupies the street.
“It’s time for the hiding game,” I say, quick and quiet. Ella releases her hold on me. I point to the overturned dumpster. “There.”
She wrinkles her nose, but climbs inside. I fumble onto my hands and knees and crawl after her. Sharp rocks and bits of glass bite at my palm and knees, but I make it. I push past bags of garbage and brown gunk, lean against the stinking interior and pull my legs to my chest. We’re out of sight. I pray it’s enough.
Cybers sweep the inner city in search of stragglers, scavengers. They’ve never come out this far before. With the Luddites braining everything with an upgrade, they don’t have to. One of the corps must be getting desperate for more bodies. The only way to avoid being dragged off to wherever they take the people they capture is to fight, run, or hide. I close my eyes and press my forehead against my knees. I can’t fight and I can’t run. Please don’t find us.
The sound grows louder. It’s just passing by. It will fade. It has to.
It doesn’t fade. Instead, silence falls, deadly and dangerous. The drone has landed. I wrap my arms around Ella, bury my face into her hair. The scent of salt and sand joins the stink of the dumpster.
I hold her close to protect her and keep her still. Any sound, any movement, and it will find us. I tighten my hold around her.
My hardware freezes again, splaying the fingers wide. It doesn’t return to normal. No. I release Ella and pull the latch, letting the arm fall into my lap, forcing it to shut down, to stop the update.
The motor starts clicking, too loud.
No no no.
The hardware only works when it’s connected to a power source. I am the power source.
“What’s happening, Mommy?”
I shush her as I try to push aside a small panel on the inner wrist to access the manual shutdown, but it won’t budge. I want to scream.
Drones. Flying hotspots. They’ve hijacked the hardware. I feel tingling at the base of my neck as the wires activate. My eyes roll back into my head.
“Mommy?” Ella whispers as the dumpster door is ripped from its hinges.
Everything turns to fire.
Gunshots. I hear gunshots.
I wake, back flat against asphalt. My head aches but my mind is still my own. The corps haven’t taken us.
Ella. I jolt upright and call her name.
“Mommy!” She turns to me, only a few feet away. Mae and another woman stand at her side, guns out. I freeze. The new woman is bald, long scars run the length of her round head. She wears an outdated prosthetic, one without wires. Behind them, a droid body peppered with bullet holes lays at the entrance to the dumpster.
Ella wraps her arms around me. “Mae saved us! Can we go to her house now?”
I eye the two women. It’s not in Luddist nature to save someone like me. But I’m not full of bullets yet, and they had the chance. The scarred woman stares me down.
Mae is not who I thought she was. “My offer still stands,” she says. “Nothing’s changed.”
I go to stand, to use my hardware to push myself up, but it’s not there. It remains inside the dumpster, abandoned. Dangerous.
Everything has changed. Still more will change, if I accept her offer.
Ella grins at me. “I’ll have friends!”
I’ve never had anyone love me as she does, so unconditionally. I can’t say no. I may not be able to remove the wires in my head, but I can protect Ella from them.
“Okay,” I agree.
Mae smiles and helps me to my feet. “You’ll love it. You’ll be safe, both of you.”
As we walk together, Ella’s hand in mine, I don’t look back.