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Ch. 1 – Mood lighting

Derrick Yu heard a knock at the door. There was some shuffling around the alley outside, and a dog barking, but there shouldn’t have been any customers at this hour.

He shut the laptop lid, opened the plastic drawer beneath the desk, and twisted the scalpel attachment onto his right prosthetic arm. The tug at the root of his arm when it was fully twisted on always gave him a rush of adrenaline.

Padding around the spare parts on the floor that were due to be sorted, he slipped on his boots—no socks because he was in a rush—and crept across the dusty, tiled floor towards the door.

The peephole showed that there was a man with a shaved head standing at the door, with no obvious mods on him. Probably not a customer then.

Derrick waited, crouching in place, and hoped that the man would just go away.

Knock, knock, knock. It was timid, like he didn’t want to draw attention, but impossible to ignore. It was only one man, too. Instead of a gangbanger, Derrick now worried more that this man was a drunk who was going to piss on their wall.

We’re closed,” Derrick shouted.

Knock, knock, knock. “Hey, come on man, lemme in, I need an emergency repair.”

I told you, we’re closed. Come back tomorrow. We open at 10 AM.”

But I need help now!”

The sound of laughing came from outside. Tony had finally come back, and he had another bar girl with him.

Hmm? Another customer? What is it, like three in the morning? Jeez.”

Hey homie, you the owner right here?”

No, I’m the President and she’s my First Lady.” Tony guffawed loudly and the girl giggled. “Yeah, yeah I’m the owner, just fucking with you. What are you waiting for? Go on in!”

Derrick opened the door, and Tony pulled the girl inside. They smelled like fried chicken and a 6-pack of beer. There would probably be vomit on the kitchen floor next morning, but that was a problem for tomorrow.

The man tried to come in right after Tony, but Derrick pushed him back and glared at him. He was skinny, nervous, and wearing a wifebeater. Never seen him before. “Welcome to Hack Alley, what do you need?”

It’s . . . sensitive, you feel me?” He started walking in, but Derrick barred the door with his arm.

Whoa whoa whoa, hold it. Tell me what you need first, and then we can go inside.” He tapped the frame with his scalpel, and the man winced.

The man was looking around so fast, his head seemed like it was going to spin off. “Well why don’t we go inside? I gotta play it cautious, you know what I mean?”

No, I don’t. Can you be more specific?”

It’s . . . it’s . . .” he whispered, pointing at his crotch. “Fuck, man, I’m really about to show you right here,” he said, and started pulling down his pants.

Derrick shoved him out the door and slammed it shut.

WE’RE CLOSED.”

Come onnn, man.” A few more feeble knocks came, but the alley eventually grew silent again.

Derrick sighed. The sound of the bed creaking in the next room got louder as he went toward the desk. After opening the laptop and staring at the screen for ten minutes, he realized he wasn’t getting anything else done for the night.

So he tugged his boots off, tossing them into the corner near the trash bin, and twisted off the scalpel attachment and set it back in the plastic drawer. The dirty earbuds on the counter would do, after a quick wipe down.

He put on some music, flopped onto the bean bag, and closed his eyes. He really needed to soundproof his bedroom one of these days.

#

A motorcycle zoomed through the alley. Derrick rolled off the bean bag, and onto the floor, where he laid, until the motorcycle’s rumble merged with the general din of traffic. Poking through the gaps in the old metal blinds, shafts of daylight pressed on his eyes, driving him away from the sleep he dearly desired.

Well, there was no point in laying on the ground now. He got up and washed—the faucet was dirty—and then took stock of the room as he dried his hair. Nothing important seemed missing. His wallet and phone were still hidden behind the desk, and the miscellaneous parts on the ground were still accounted for. Spare hands were a pretty hot commodity among bar-girls; even if they didn’t have prostheses themselves, the bar owners usually knew a person who needed one. Last time, it had been a huge pain to track that one girl down . . . .

Derrick rapped on Tony’s door, and heard the bed creaking inside. “Wake up, man. I need your help checking out this cochlear implant. It’s not passing any of our tests, and we’ve got a patient coming in two weeks who needs one.”

No response. Derrick opened the door and backed away, as the nasty air from Tony’s room wafted into the kitchen.

Get dressed, dude. I’m going to clean this vomit off the floor, and I hope you’re up and washed by the time I’m done. There’s a glass of water for you on the counter.”

Derrick put his arms up and stretched. The missing weight on his empty mounting cuff made him feel naked. It tugged at his skin as he twisted left and right, working the kinks out of his back. His right hand was still sitting in pieces on a mat near the tool shelf.

The pieces were scuffed and the fingertips were worn, but a good coat of paint would fix that, whenever he got around to it. How many years had it been since Tony installed this for him? Derrick had replaced bits and pieces, but never the actuators themselves. For some reason, he was clumsy and stiff with any other model.

There were a few spare hands he could use to put his ‘real’ hand back together. Derrick twisted one of them on, and got to work.

#

With his hand cleaned and oiled, Derrick ripped another piece off the torn rag he had been cleaning parts with last night and mopped up the vomit, tossing it into a plastic bag. Luckily, today was trash day.

It was cool outside, which made it somewhat refreshing, despite the dust, smog, and smell of burning trash wafting through the air. The ‘Hack Alley’ neon sign rattled slightly in the breeze.

Twenty years of breathing in this air. There must be a pile of microplastic dust in his lungs by now, billowing around like the content of a snow globe with every breath.

He tossed the bag in their trash can, and dragged it out toward the entrance of the alley, which was piled high with empty cartons of beer, takeout containers, and bags that had overflowed from the group of other trash cans that spilled out into the street.

Wait, it was trash day . . . which meant a weeks worth of potential new parts was being taken away. He had been putting off the weekly dumpster dive, and now he would have to rush through it. He flicked through the notes on his phone until Tony’s ‘wish list’ popped up.

- Lithium-ion batteries of various sizes

- Transformers (from old audio systems)

- Motors (the smaller the better, certain brands preferred)

- Laptop and TV Speakers

- Connectors

- Regulators

- Large electrolytic capacitors

It was a lot of stuff, and Derrick had only found a few speakers last time he went diving. If only he could take the car to the scrapyard every week . . . but gas cost money, and he was diving for parts because they had no money. So he would have to walk.

The sounds of grunting, and scuffling feet on sidewalk, broke out from around the corner. Derrick stuffed his phone into his pocket and slunk back into the alley, crouching down behind a plastic crate that smelled like rotten bananas.

Back the fuck off. Stop. I’m telling you—” Smack. A man fell face-down at the entrance of the alley, and his glasses bounced a few times before settling on the pavement. He tried to push himself up with shaking arms, before a pair of men wearing white caps and jackets ran in and gave him a few kicks each. One of them had a prosthetic leg with claw marks painted on the side.

White Leopard gangsters: Chinatown’s oldest, lingering malady.

Were they coming down the alley? Would they spot him now, if he went back inside? He had been coerced into modding a few of their members, and even gave one of them first aid before, but that didn’t mean much when they were in a bad mood. It’s OK, I’ll just pretend I didn’t see anything. They only know ‘Derrick.’ They know I don’t want trouble. They won’t recognize me. I’ve got a new face. A new, ugly, face.

I warned you. No money, no fix. You try that shit again, and we’ll kill you for real. Fucking junkies.”

<Come on, let’s go big bro,> the other one said in Mandarin Chinese. <Or are we gonna’ forget to collect from Tony again?> They started walking towards the door to Hack Alley.

Shit! There was nowhere to hide. Derrick stepped out from behind the crate and put his hands up. “Hello, gentlemen. Sorry for sneaking around, I heard a fight break out and took cover.”

The one with the prosthetic leg looked older, and his white jacket had food stains that were more obvious up close. His partner barely looked fifteen—probably a recent immigrant—and was already beating up junkies and collecting protection money. That’s what the White Leopards did: hook their claws into kids and turn them into predators. Derrick kept his hands up as the pair circled around, cornering him against the wall and the crate. The messy eater’s leg prosthesis shuddered a bit with each step.

He loomed over Derrick and jabbed a finger in his face. “Who’re you?”

<That looks like Tony’s, uh, nephew, I think?>

Ah, the doc’s boy.” He glanced up at the Hack Alley sign and backed off a bit, giving Derrick some space to breath. “Well, Tony’s late on his payment—been late for a while. We were in the neighborhood, and stopped by to collect. Where is he?”

Hung over and in no shape to answer the door. Tony hated the White Leopards when he was nice and sober. But when he was hungover . . . . A group of Leopards once came to Hack Alley the morning after Tony had been drinking, and they all would have come to blows if he hadn’t vomited on their shoes (they billed him for the shoes, but were too disgusted to pick a fight).

He’s not available right now, but if you come back later in the afternoon you’ll probably find him.”

Are you telling us to make another trip? Is that how it is?”

No, no sir!” Derrick peeked out from behind his raised hands. Don’t look them in the eyes. What if they see?

<Then bring out Tony, and make it quick you asshole!>

Wait, please!” Derrick held the young Leopard away from the shop’s door with one arm, like he was reining in a dog. This gangster really was just a kid. “We don’t want any trouble, and I’m sorry we’re late. But we don’t have enough to make the payment this month. Can you give us another week to get everything together?”

Okay, then give us what you have right now, stupid. We’ll come back and get the rest later. Might add on a fee for wasting my time.” There was that shit-eating Leopard’s grin.

They needed that money to buy parts before the scalpers took them all. Losing it now was not an option.

Speaking of not wasting your time, sir, you’ve never been our customer before, have you? How would you like a free tune-up on your leg?”

Nice try. I’m guessing you wouldn’t be broke if you were any good.”

Respectfully, sir, we are good. We’ve helped a few of your brothers out in the past.”

They’ve got trash mods. Mine’s top-class; it’s above your pay grade.

Well, I noticed your leg is from Stoneridge Prosthetics, and it seems to be out of order. We have a lot of experience with Stoneridge products, and we’re right here, while their nearest shop is two hours away in the big city. Why not give us a try?”

The Leopard looked down at his leg, and kicked with it. The shudders vibrated his thigh, and made him wobble a bit.

And you want to postpone your payment, huh?”

Yes, please. We’ll make sure your leg is in top shape.”

The Leopard was massaging his leg, and looked up at the neon sign once more.

Ah, why not, it’s out of warranty anyways. Alright, I’ll try you out. You better not fuck my leg up, or you’ll regret it.”

Fantastic. Could I have your full name and availability, sir?”

They call me Big Mike.”

They scheduled an appointment, and the White Leopards left without taking a penny, stepping past the collapsed junkie on their way out. Derrick made a note on his phone to tell Tony they had another unpaid job to do. The poor got poorer, it seemed.

Now, about that junkie. “Hey, are you okay?”

The junkie groaned and shifted on the ground. He had probably blown in from a different part of town, or he might’ve been a refugee, as Derrick didn’t recognize him. Either way, he couldn’t just leave the man on the ground; it was bad for business.

It was always tough dragging limp bodies around, but Derrick managed to tug him ten feet away from alley’s entrance, and prop him up against the wall. There was a bottle of water in the back of their fridge that had been crumpled up so it was barely standing, but it would have to do. He stuck it in man’s lap so he’d have something to drink when he woke up.

And with that, Derrick grabbed his bag and set off to the nearest dumpster. He had a long day ahead of him.

#

Derrick pinned the bag under his arm as he dug around in his pockets for the keys. The bag was fairly light, since the garbage trucks had already taken most of his potential loot by the time he started diving. There had been a lot of walking, and empty dumpsters: a good analogy for his life at the moment.

The late afternoon sunlight glinted off the lock—a new one, since Tony had lost his key last week. As he swung the door open, someone called out from the far end of the alley.

Yo dog, you open now?”

It was the skinny man who flashed him last night.

In the daylight, he seemed even smaller than before. His shirt wasn’t over-sized, but rather, draped over his coat hanger of a body.

Derrick eyed him from the corner of his vision, and prayed that he would go away.

Yo I came back today, just like you told me. Now can you help me with my fucking problem?”

Fuck. Well, they needed the money, so it was time to get to work.

Yeah, we’re open. Just keep your pants on until we get to the office.”

I feel you, homie.”

Please don’t.”

Tony was in the bathroom, blowdrying his hair. He would always wash his hair when he got up, even if he didn’t shower or brush his teeth.

We got a customer, Tony. I’ll bring him to the operating room, and call you if I need to.”

Tony mumbled something that was drowned out by the blowdryer. He would probably get back into bed after washing up.

Derrick swept some components out of the way and pointed down at the cleared path. “Watch your step and follow me, please.”

The operating room was the cleanest part of their office by far. Derrick wiped down the reclining chair, and motioned for the man to sit down. The apron was freshly washed, the nitrile gloves were new, and his zoom lenses were polished. It felt good to be fully equipped.

First and last name?”

Xavier. Williams.”

So, what’s bothering you? I’m guessing it’s your little friend.”

Yeah, it’s a fucking mess right here.”

And what exactly is the problem?”

I got a mod, you feel me, and it was working fine, but actually it wasn’t. I was balls deep in this bitch, you know how it is, and right when I’m about to come, it goes soft.”

Soft?”

Yeah, it actually goes soft. It goes as limp as—uh, as limp as an old hotdog, you feel me? Like one of those really cheap ones.”

Are you sure that’s not just—well, never mind. Let’s have a look. Take your pants off.”

The man pulled his pants down, revealing a misaligned, and frankly unimpressive prosthetic penis. The synthetic skin was uneven and broken, the vertebrae simulating the corpora cavernosa formed an unnatural arch in the middle of the shaft, and the part of the crotch around the mod looked inflamed and poorly melded to the mod’s mounting points.

Jesus…where did you get this done?”

Twenty-Seventh and Sons.”

That old chop shop? You’re lucky they didn’t take your balls out by accident while they were at it. Why did you get this mod?”

Man, do you really want me to say it? I had problems! I have problems! You know. Nothing worked. A player’s gotta play, so I had to get that mod, you feel me?”

This was a highly involved mod, that most likely had connections going to the sacral plexus to detect arousal and erect the prosthesis. The chop shop boys probably stole a busted high-end model from the manufacturer’s disposal and slapped it on the man, with a handful of generic components to keep it together. But how did they connect it to the relevant nerves? Specialized mod shops had machines from the manufacturer that could automate some of the surgery, but those were expensive and well-guarded . . . .

Look, I’m not one to judge, but that’s an important part of your body to mod. I don’t know if I’m qualified to be working on this, to be honest. You need to go to a real doctor, and a specialist.”

Homie, I need this fixed yesterday. And I can’t go anywhere else; they’re too expensive.”

Go complain to Twenty-Seventh and Sons, then.”

Twenty seven sons of bitches, more like it. ‘Cause I didn’t even know they was going to fuck me up this badly, why would I go back?”

Derrick sighed. “Do you have insurance?”

No, but I got cash.”

Okay…there’s a consultation fee of ten dollars. You pay that, and I’ll see what I can do. No promises, though.”

Consultation fee, that’s just letting you know, like this place is legit, right? I’m ready to walk outta here feeling like a new man.”

He pulled his phone out of his pocket, and hesitated. “Uh, hold up, on second thought…” He got off the bench and rummaged through his pockets, with his ass hanging out in the air, until he pulled out a crumpled ten dollar bill.

An anonymous payment. This was sensitive indeed. The bill was a bit greasy, but otherwise fine. “Alright, thank you, sir. Go ahead and take a seat back on that chair, and I’ll be right with you.” This job called for a little more personal protective equipment. There were still a few face-masks in the closet, but those would be running out soon. Goggles were another must; Derrick didn’t want to catch an infection from this guy’s shitty mod install, if he really had to cut him open.

The man was still in his chair, poking and prodding at the prosthesis, which responded halfheartedly to his stimulation.

Hands by your sides, and spread your legs, please.”

Damn, I can’t believe I’m really spreading my legs for a dude.”

Come on, don’t give me that. You had to open your legs for Twenty-Seventh and Sons.”

Yeah, but for a second time though.”

The prosthesis seemed even faker under the examination lamp’s glare.

Near the root of the shaft, there was a small flap, under which was supposedly an interface port. Derrick flipped the switch on the bedside monitoring tool, and gave it a few good whacks until the image stabilized.

Sit back and relax. I’m going to give your mod a scan.”

It was standard procedure to swab the entire area with clean disinfectant wipes before any internals were opened, but an old rag and some alcohol would have to do. Opening the flap required some finagling with a pair of tweezers. The inside, and the port itself, looked a bit askew, as if someone had roughly yanked a cable out.

The connection fit in the port, albeit a bit loosely, the screen flickered, and…nothing happened.

Ah nuts, of course it’s locked down.

Hey . . . did Twenty-Seventh and Sons tell you what brand this was? Like, which vendor they got it from?”

What you talking about? I got it from them.”

Well, this could take all morning.

Thankfully, it only took half an hour to find a similar design on the internet, on the website for Revolute Prosthetics. Some disgruntled employee had leaked a package of their internal credentials a few months ago, so they would likely still be valid for this patient’s mod. Derrick dug through the small box sitting beneath the display to find the matching USB drive, and then stuck it into the monitoring tool.

Lines of identifying information with abbreviated labels appeared on the screen:

Rvlte

P/N: 091374

Frmwr rvsion: 1.53

Good, the part number matched the model on the Revolute website. There wasn’t any information for technicians on the website, though, and Tony’s shop didn’t have preferred access to vendor documentation anymore . . . . Derrick would have to play it by ear.

The following lines had fluctuating values, and seemed to indicate the current status of the prosthesis.

Arsl: 7%

Erct: 5%

Mr. Williams, I need your attention for a second.”

Xavier shook out of his doze and gazed at Derrick with unfocused eyes. He had fallen promptly asleep after Derrick started searching the internet for the brand of his crestfallen unit.

I’m going to need to stimulate you forcefully to give you a diagnosis. So I’ll be holding this tiny button hereDerrick pointed at the security button near the interface portand then after that, you’re going to feel like you’re getting erect, OK? That’s normal, so just relax.”

Xavier nodded and dozed back off, only to jerk up in his seat as the prosthesis activated.

It’s okay, it’s okay. Just relax. This is part of the diagnosis.”

Derrick waited until the room was quiet to hold down the button, and then, after ten seconds, the monitor started reading the signals from its activation. There was a quiet whirring sound as the vertebrae moved, until they halted and crunched, before popping the rest of the way up into the fully erect position.

How long has it been doing

“—That shit’s normal. It’s been doing that since day one, when I first got it installed.”

Okay then.”

Arsl: 13%

Erct: 100%

This model of penile prosthesis could have been attached in a variety of ways. The x-ray machine had been broken since last month, so there was no way to say for sure . . . but, since the patient still had his balls, the mod was most likely linked to the urethra, and either replacing or aiding the muscles that controlled ejaculation.

This meant that his vas deferens, which moves semen out of the testes during arousal, was natural. And that meant a manually stimulated ejaculation would feel like a penile dry fire.

There were a couple of dirty rags peaking out of the bottom shelf of the cart. They were about to be thrown out anyways, so Derrick draped them over the patient’s thighs, and got a dusty plastic cup from the cart. “Here, hold this cup up to the tip. We’re going to see if we can manually force an ejaculation, so we can tell if the mod itself is broken, or if it’s something else.

I hope to God it ain’t something else. I paid enough already for this shit, it’s supposed to fix my problems, not cause ‘em, you know what I mean?”

I know.” Derrick selected the option for manual ejaculation, and steadied his hand over the keyboard.

Do you want to continue [Y/n]?

Alright, prepare yourself. I’m about to manually force the ejaculation, so it’s going feel strange in the area inside and above your crotch. Your balls might feel a bit tingly too, so get ready. Keep a good grip on that cup, please.

Three, two, one . . . .”

The patient grunted and shook in his chair as the mod vibrated—most likely a premium feature. “Ah, FUCK! Yes, homie! Damn, I didn’t even know how bad it was until now!” He laid back and gasped for air after his ear-piercing tirade had finished.

It seems like it’s working just fine . . .” Derrick said. He took the cup and put it on a tray. If it wasn’t a mechanical issue, it might be a psychological one. Or maybe the mod couldn’t properly detect his arousal levels?Where were you when you had this issue before? In your bedroom? In a hotel?”

Everywhere, homie.”

Alright, let’s try something out. It might not work, but if it doesn’t, I won’t charge you. You’re going to go into the bathroom and try to rub one out, just like normal. We’ll keep the door closed, but I’m going to monitor you with this cable—or maybe a longer one—and see what happens start to finish.”

Right here? How the hell am I supposed to get in the mood in your bathroom with you watchin’ me and shit?”

I’m not watching you, I’m just taking the readings from the equipment. And you have to do it here. This monitoring equipment is expensive; no way I’m bringing it out of the office. Look, this is the best I’ve got. You don’t like it, go somewhere else.”

Okay, okay.”

Good. Relax for a second while I get things ready, sir.”

Derrick peeled his gloves off and put them on a clean pad for re-use. He would probably need something at least fifteen feet long if he wanted to snake it under the door and up onto the monitoring cart, if he put it right outside the bathroom. If only the office was organized. Plastic drawers and bins were stacked five high along the walls.

Dust rained from above as he pulled four unsorted boxes down before finding a long enough cable, and then stacked them all back into place.

The monitoring cart rattled as he weaved it around the parts on the ground and next to an exposed pipe outside the bathroom. The cable would indeed just barely reach.

The patient was flicking through his smartphone. Derrick put his gloves back on and cleared his throat. Alright sir, go ahead and grab that same cup and follow me. Watch your step, please.

He ushered the patient into the bathroom, and brought the long cable over, plugging it in. “Be very careful not to hit the cable when you’re doing your business. If you knock it out, you might damage the port, which means it’ll be impossible to service this mod in the future.”

The patient nodded, and then wrinkled his nose. Man, it’s kinda nasty up in here.”

Yeah, sorry; I’ve been meaning to clean it. But let’s not waste any time. Catch it with the cup, and then leave the cup on the floor near the toilet. When you’re done, wash your hands and knock on the door. I’ll come and unplug the cable for you.”

You got any magazines or shit?” He looked like a panhandler who was disappointed with someone’s spare change.

Magazines?! You’ve got your smartphone, right?”

Yeah, I guess. It ain’t the same, though.

Derrick gave him the Wi-Fi password, closed the bathroom door, and then put on a pair of headphones. The arousal and erection values on the monitor slowly went up, and up, and stayed at an elevated level.

A minute after the levels peaked, they dropped straight down, and then shortly after, there was a knock on the bathroom door. Derrick took his headphones off.

I’m done, homie.” The patient’s muffled voice sounded utterly defeated.

Okay. I’m going to open the door. Stand back and make sure not to tug on the cable.”

Derrick unplugged the cable from his end and eased the door open, waiting for the patient to shuffle out of the way. The patient dragged his boxers, which were hanging around one leg, on the ground as he went over to lean against the wall and stare at his feet.

So . . . how did it go?”

What you think? Same as always. Man, you got my hopes up.

It really did seem like it was going fine, but then—”

“—I got soft. Fuck! What am I gonna do?”

I’ll tell you what. You go home for now. I’m going to look through the information on the monitor, and then contact you again if I find anything. Otherwise, try to get some more sleep, exercise regularly, that sort of thing.”

Yeah, whatever—WHOA, what you doing?”

I need my cable back.”

Oh yeah.”

#

The rest of the day was more of Derrick’s eternal uphill struggle. He sorted parts, and junk that he hoped could become parts, and exterminated some nasty fuzz that was growing inside the fridge. After he wiped off his sweat, Derrick sat back down at the workstation, head in his hand, and tapped his chin with his fingers. The electricity was due, the water was overdue, and they had to find the parts for another unpaid job. How would they make it through the month?

Hey, you’re back, Derrick!”

Tony ambled over from his bedroom, and grunted as he squatted down to sit on the floor, supporting himself with his two, meaty hands. There was a crunch as his bottom flattened a circuit board. He held it up, saw that it was split cleanly in two, and shrugged his shoulders. “Eh, it was junk, anyway.” He tossed it towards the bin of trash parts, and it landed on the pile, only to slip and clatter onto the ground. Sigh. Sorry I woke up late, Derrick; I had wayyy too much to drink. But that girl—ohhh boy—that girl was something special.”

You say that all the time, Tony.”

Yeah, but this time it’s different! She’s different. She really cares. About me! She’s so genuine.

Whatever you say.”

Bah, you’ll understand when you’re older.

Hey, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. The White Leopards stopped by this morning: new faces, and they wanted protection money.”

Ohhh shit, we’re late, aren’t we—ah, who cares that we’re late! Those parasites always want a handout. One of these days, I’ll—wait, so did you pay them?

No, I managed to delay the collection. But, the bad news is: I offered to fix one of their legs for free in exchange. It’s a Stoneridge model, so we’re going to need more parts . . .”

Tony chuckled. I see the problem. Well, the good news is we’re getting paid soon.

Wait, really? From who?”

I know someone at a high-end shop in the big city. They take on contractors to help with mods that need surgical work, and he hired me a few years ago, knows I rock it in the operating room. Apparently they scheduled themselves up the ass next week, so they’re bringing me on for a few days. It’s shit pay for what I’m worth, but it’s more than we charge at Hack Alley.”

But, your license . . . it’s expired, right?”

Inspectors are paid off, and the shop doesn’t care. Plus, we’re working in a team, so it’s not like anybody will know when the masks are on.” Tony wiggled his eyebrows.

Well that’s a relief. Tony, you’re the best.

Geez, don’t worry about it my boy. You always look like you’re eating shit. Now, show me that cochlear implant.”

Derrick fished out the transmitter and receiver, and put them on a work mat. The first time he saw them, they had looked a bit like a pair of stethoscopes, and there was at least something to that comparison; a stethoscope passed along heartbeats to the doctor’s ears, and a cochlear implant passed along sounds directly to the patient’s auditory nerve, bypassing certain types of hearing loss.

The transmitter piece connected to a microphone array that hung on the ear like an earpiece, and the receiver was surgically implanted into the patient’s head, with its long, thin electrodes inserting into the cochlea, deep inside the ear. Magnets on each piece made it easy to hold the transmitter in place; it would be attracted to the receiver, which was right underneath the skin. This way, they were close enough to transmit and receive the wireless signals that simulated sound.

There’s nothing wrong with it at first glance, but something must have been broken internally, since it won’t receive signals from the test transmitter. And the transmitter isn’t bad . . . or at least, I hope it isn’t.”

Hmmm.” Tony clicked on the light and held up the subdermal half of the device, rubbing it with his finger, as if it had a speck of dirt he couldn’t get off. The sound of phlegm persisted as he kept clearing his throat, before he got up, and filled a glass of water in the sink.

He sat back down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “The transmitter is probably fine, but I’ll bet that the receiver has a bad connection. Here, let me try something.” He held the receiver up to his ear, and held an electrode between his fingertips, shifting it just a smidge.

You hear that?”

All Derrick could hear was the hum of the office, and the sounds of the streets outside. He leaned in closer, close enough to hear Tony’s breathing, and held his breath.

Ptt. There it was: something quieter than a click, and possibly imaginary. Ptt. Okay, now Derrick was fairly sure it was real.

Yup, there it is. The electrode’s not attached correctly.” He set it back down on the pad like a newborn baby.

Wow, how did you figure it out so fast?”

Tony grinned and puffed out his chest. “You really wanna know?”

Okay, never mind, I’m not that curious.”

Hey! Give me a break, I just want to look cool sometimes. It’s experience, my boy. I’ve seen this enough times.

So . . ., can we fix it? Granny Chu’s the one who’s been scheduled for two weeks from now, and she’s been having trouble taking care of herself since her son moved away.

Maybe no, maybe so.” Tony lifted the tray with both hands, and got up to his feet, bumping the table in the process. “I’ll see what I can do in the shop; I’ve fixed a few of these before, and they worked just fine. In the meantime, can you call up the big suppliers again, and see if they have any stock? Probably not, thanks to those fucking fake cops.”

Huh? Private security? What happened with them?”

You know how it looks like they’re always scratching their heads, right? They’ve actually all got cochlear implants for encrypted coms, and that’s them switching out the transmitter to change wireless channels. Last week, the vendor recalled a whole batch of implants because they were getting hacked and knocking these guys out with an audio-bomb. The automatic suppressors were fucked, apparently.

A week ago, they had found an unconscious man in Hack Alley who was lying face-down and covered in drool. They pulled him in because it was freezing outside, but he just wouldn’t wake up no matter how they slapped him. So that guy in front of the shop with the angry pals . . .”

Yup, that’s what happened! Can you believe it?

Derrick and Tony laughed, louder and louder as they let the week’s stress out, and then fell silent again as the weariness set in. The shop was still a mess, and the faint smell of vomit still drifted from the kitchen.

Welp, I’m going to take a look at this implant. Let me know when dinner’s ready.”

Alright, thanks Tony.”

Tony lumbered away, and Derrick set scraps and parts in a few large, unsorted drawers—temporary storage, he called it—before tossing his clothes in the hamper, taking his hand prosthesis off, and stepping into the shower. Mildew had crept up along the grout again, and he had put off cleaning for long enough. The last time mold got into the shop area, a whole pile of materials had to be thrown away.

The old sponge in the corner was shredded to pieces, but it was the only one left. Derrick scrubbed at a black spot on the grout, watching blue pieces of sponge fall onto the tiled floor. After a few sprays from a bottle of diluted bleach, and more scrubbing, the spot went from black to dark gray. He went through a few more before his hand cramped, as he was putting down the sponge and picking up the bottle for the tenth time. Then he closed his eyes and let the lukewarm water wash over him.

#

Derrick threw the shower curtains open, and grabbed a towel. Drip. Drip. Drip. The shower head had been leaking for weeks, now, but that was a problem for another day.

Hm, there was a new crack in the mirror, right next to his new, ugly face

Derrick ducked his head down and tsked. The countertop was nice, and clean, and pretty. The countertop was safe to look at.

I just had to ruin my own day, huh.

#

After sending dinner to Tony, Derrick sat down on the bean bag and booted up the shop’s laptop. The reader showed line after complicated line, as he scrolled mindlessly through the log file from Xavier Williams’s consultation visit. It probably wouldn’t pay well, but there weren’t any better leads to follow.

Whatever Tony was doing was probably more interesting and useful. Thanks to those private security companies, there weren’t any more cochlear implants left to buy. I hope they get hacked again, those assholes. They always hoard the good mods, and not just cochlear implants—

Something in the log caught Derrick’s eye.

Starting mood_light download for @tdavidson:moodlighting.revolute.com

got lighting instructions for @tdavidson:moodlighting.revolute.com

Completed mood_light download for @tdavidson:moodlighting.revolute.com

Instruction list for @tdavidson:moodlighting.revolute.com now up to date

Mood lighting?! Does a penis mod really need to do all that? It looked like the mod had received instructions from a remote Revolute Prosthetics server, for the account of a certain Mr. Davidson, maybe. It was likely a stolen mod, after all.

But the items were logged around the same time that the patient was in the bathroom and had reached full arousal . . . .

Derrick leaned back in his bean bag and sighed at the absurdity of it all. So mood lighting can somehow make you soft? Who would have known?

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A note from fearlessli

Hey ya'll, fearlessLi here!

I'm an amateur writer trying to overcome my fear of writing on a consistent schedule.

I've written novels and short stories before under a different pen name. But this is my first time releasing a web serial, so I'm ready for all sorts of new challenges. (Let me know in the comments what you guys think about the story's pacing).

It's also my first work on Royal Road: so exciting!

Hope you enjoy :)


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fearlessli

Bio: Author of Hack Alley Doctor, a Sci-fi web serial

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