"I don't understand why you felt the need to come along," I say to the gaggle of teenagers surrounding me.
We are pushing through one of the fish-and-trinket markets of Stiltsville. They sell a lot of kinds of...well, they live in the water, so I'd call them fish, but I'm used to earthling fish, you know? These things are hard-shelled but they have tails, or they're soft-shelled and they have legs, or occasionally there's something that looks like an earth fish because convergent evolution makes nature less creative than you might guess, but there's also stuff that looks like trilobites. The trinkets, meanwhile, I can't figure out what any of them are supposed to do, and anyway I've barely got any credits in my pocket so the whole market is a panoply of bright canvas and loud people hawking their wares and I can't participate in any of it, so the whole thing weighs on my mind.
It's a crowded place, but my young acquaintances have taken it upon themselves to intimidate people out of the way. Or try to, at any rate. I think I'm doing most of the intimidating. These twerps couldn't intimidate a mound of jello, but the people literally made of spikes and the most aggressive beggars are springing aside.
"It's simple," says the Lake-blue Gworb. "If you have on a helmet and you are alone, people think you're trying to hide. If you have on a helmet and so do your numerous friends, everyone thinks you are part of a gang, so they stay out of your way."
"So that's why everyone is letting us through," says Ramon. "Seems a little brutal, though. Couldn't we have, I don't know, claimed diplomatic immunity or something? We have a personal connection to Smith and we kinda saved the mining station."
"We also BROKE the mining station," says Smoky Quartz. "And we're currently keeping it in the equivalent of a back pocket. So maybe we ought to keep letting Smith vouch for us through the back channels she knows before we go and do something crazy like reveal your faces to the world."
"We?" says Lake Blue.
"I am blaming our impetuosity for causing the disturbance that led to a situation that required Sword Lesbian to go through channels so dangerous that she had to violently defend her vehicle against machinery. Not that I lay the blame on us entirely, of course, and it sounds as though a great many poor decisions from multiple people led to the station's current predicament. I do hope Smith will be able to explain that notion to the Council, and that we do not see the equivalent of a volcanic eruption from this distance. In any case, as we were part of the web of poor decisions, I consider that we are caught up in the same mess as our tall, intimidating friend here, and perhaps we have common cause."
"Do we?" says I. "You sound as though you want to smash the system. Ramon and I are just trying to keep a step ahead of the Student Loan Company so that we can get enough money to pay them off."
"I don't know," says Ramon, "maybe if we smash the system we don't HAVE to pay back our student loans."
"I have not forgotten your proposal of attempting to find a City Buster gun. I just don't think it's feasible. Even if we could get it, we'd have to mount it, and then power it. Oh, and deal with the resulting massive financial fallout and probable execution squad, plus grieving families, plus political chaos."
One of the twerps takes off their helmet, revealing a mane of black hair that looks like it wouldn't have fit. Then again, my long hair is stuffed into my own helmet. "The Student Loan Company chose to allow its forces to be used in war. Its operations are now fair game for reprisal," says Black Hair. "Let us find a City Buster Gun."
"Seconded," says the twerp who I remember has yellow hair. They don't remove their helmet.
"Now hang on a second," says Aquamarine, "even if we're willing to draw attention to ourselves by using the gun, we shouldn't be discussing the matter in public. Let us find more private quarters. Weren't we going to see someone about a hand, anyway? Why are we looking in Stiltville? We'd find better parts in Bubbletown."
"On the legal market," says Ramon, "Sure. But Bubbletown probably has security cameras, and people who could call the police on a gaggle of people dressed up like a gang."
"You're all talking like a bunch of violent people," I say.
"Par for the course in Stiltsville," says Lake Blue. "Duck."
I duck as a stool flies over our heads. Someone on one side of us is cussing out someone on the other side of us. There's been a fair amount of that since we got here. This time, it's turning into a fight.
Actually, it's already a fight, and somehow I've managed to intimidate my way into and through it without a scratch. I maintain my posture and hustle everyone out of the scrummage of Squelchians, Clockerbockers, and Altairians.
I look around. There's at least a few such altercations happening farther down the wooden walkway. Nobody seems fazed.
"I think I'd rather be in Bubbletown right now", says I. "I imagine it's quieter and more orderly."
"Maybe," says Ramon. "Or maybe Bubbletown is just better at hiding its violence behind closed doors. Come on. We've got to go see the guy I know about."
We followed Ramon through the sorts of streets that result when you have no zoning regulations and no plan. A lot of wending ways, although once there's the real semblance of a street nobody is dumb enough to build a house across the middle. Usually. We hit a few closes and loops. I can't figure how Ramon knows where he's going. "Hey," I say, "Do you actually know where this guy is?"
"Not exactly," says Ramon, "but I asked a guy a while ago how to find the place, and he says it will find us."
"Hello," says the voice of an old man behind me.
I turn around. There's a little old Squelchian man leaning on a cane. Squelchians are little to begin with, but this one has become shrunken and wrinkled with age. Squelchians share much of their body chemistry with grapes, though they are typically sea-green. Uncharitable people call them Sea Grapes.
"My name," says the man, "Is Mister Mist. You are wandering lost and you are missing a hand. I assume you want me?"
"Why couldn't you just put up a dang sign?" says Black Hair.
"Oh," says the little man, "there are reasons to be discreet. Reasons that have much to do with the effectiveness of my business. It renders the handling of unpaid invoices somewhat...problematic...if I want to handle them in a non-violent fashion. I assume you folks have enough scratch between you to cover my bill?"
"Depends on what you're offering," I say. "Do you have a range of cheap options for prosthetics or is more like a custom-job thing?"
"Come inside, come inside," says the little man. He waves us toward the open door of a green-painted house that looks barely different from any other.
We pile inside. It's dark and as each of us filters in through the door it gets more cramped. The light is off. The only light available is from the blue cloud of electricity that has replaced my hand. The wooden walls in here are close. There doesn't appear to be anything else in here. Until I see the wooden wall slide to the right, revealing a place that looks like the combination of someone's living room, kitchen, and machine shop. Hanging upon the walls are a wide array of tools, metal hands, metal arms, metal eyes, metal faces, and one metal head. I guess that's a more drastic replacement.
"If this guy can give someone a prosthetic head," says Ramon, "Then he's got to be good."
The little man pops up from behind the work bench. "That's a bit of a joke," he says. "I've only tried it once and the patient decided he preferred the taste of metal. Unfortunaately i hadn't yet replaced his digestive system. Gave him an awful stomachache. Anyway, replacement hand. Let's see." He plucks a hand from the wall and hands ( ha ha) the piece to me.
I stare at it. "Do I just...slap it on or something?"
"Hm? Oh! You are a first timer here. You can't just slap it on and hope it will stick. You have to place it on the stump, tighten it with the twisting part, and wait for the neurons in your arm to connect to their counterparts in the hand. It will sting a bit."
I place the hand on the end of my arm and tighten the twisting part. The arm feels like I'm being jabbed with needles by a discount acupuncturist.
"Can you move the fingers?" says the little man.
The hand is surrounded by the blue cloud of electricity.
The fingers do not move.
"Nope," I say, "no luck."
"Bad fit then. Try this one." He hands me a slightly larger prosthetic.
I repeat the process. The pain in my nerves is less this time, but still there. And the blue cloud surrounds the hand. And the hand doesn't move.
"Looks like your blue cloud doesn't want to be usurped," says Ramon.
"Electricity plays hell with prosthetics," says Mister Mist. "The people who work in electrical substations, I have to build them hands and legs that are insulated from working too close to the wires. I could do it for you, if you like. Set up a payment installment plan."
"I'm already in debt," I say. "I honestly don't think I could afford even one of your items."
"In that case," says Mister Mist, "Come sit on the couch and we will discuss the future."
He moves pretty quick for an old Squelchian. He's sitting in a chair facing me before I can even sit down. Ramon sits beisde me. The six teenagers of the Reisistance lean over the back and over my shoulder, or sit on the armrest, or sit beside the couch.
"So this is your combination machine shop and therapist's office," I say. "Why the second part?"
"You've never lost a limb," says Mister Mist. "The full impact of your loss does not appear to have hit you yet, but trust me, it will happen. Part of the reason I do this is because I've had so many people come into my shop who are down in the dumps. Quite a bit of anxiety, a heap of shellshock. It's a shock to lose an arm or a leg. Some people don't handle it well. I like to stay in contact with my customers, and I know that with a prosthetic, satisfaction is not as simple as getting a new limb. I try to help them adjust. What I want to know is, how are you holding up?"
"Me? Fine. Fine and dandy. I'm more worried about my friend. She lost an arm fixing an engine."
"Oh, then she ought to come see me -- "
"And her legs fixing another engine."
"She definitely ought to come see me. I imagine she is feeling the effects or her loss quite a bit more strongly than you."
I slap the seat cushion. "That's just the thing! She says she's fine! Right now she's working on prosthetics and doesn't sound like she's lost anything! I don't get it!"
Mister Mist leaned forward. "Have you considered that she may very well be supressing her grief?"
"It is a thing many people do," says Mister Mist, "when they consider the expression or acknowledgement of grief more costly than its supression. It is why you get people acting curiously calm after having been through a battle, or similar instances of disaster."
"Bonci here took three days to express any emotion at all after we fled Altarnia," says Lake Blue, jerking a thumb at Black Hair. "She still doesn't want to tell me why."
"I just don't feel anything," says Bonci. "I'm not trying to suppress grief. It's just not there. Everything happened so fast. I might cry later when I get around to remembering what we lost, but..."
Mister Mist sighs. "So it is with people who lose a limb. The things you could do yesterday, you cannot do today. That which was, is now more difficult, or impossible. Life as it was before the trauma is unreachable. The only thing to do is move on, in a manner as constructive as possible. You say your friend is attempting to build prosthetics? Well, it may be that she has chosen the healthy path out of depression after all. But if not...well, you know where to find me. Until such time as you are out of debt, let our sessions be free of charge."
"Right kind of you," I say. "I may have to take up your offer after all. In the meantime, we ought to be getting back to the car."
"Cars," says Mister Mist. "Ah, yes. Those things. Do you know, I saw the most unusual and disturbing sight this afternoon? A genuine 1970 Plymouth Barracuda descended from the skies and landed in a nearby parking lot."
"What?" says Ramon. "Oh, that was us."
"You?" says Mister Mist. "You were driving that thing? No wonder you came to me with a case of a missing hand! That vehicle is cursed! You need to get rid of it right now."
"It's my damn car," says Ramon. "I bought it for two whole dollars."
"And two of your crew appear to have paid in blood. The car will be your doom. Leave it behind here - -no, no, leave it adrift in space."
"I will do no such thing!" says Ramon, drawing himself up. "And if you continue to insist on disposing of the car, I have no need of your services!"
"Although I probably will," I say. "Hang on, I'm getting a message on the communicator here. It says 'come to the Council Dome immediately.' Oh boy."
I run outside the shop and look to the sky over Government Sector. There is no volcanic eruption.