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Rank Three: Chapter 2

Kristin Schmidt

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“I call shotgun!” Anna yelled, running out of the elevator.

 

Natalie rolled her eyes, adjusting her purse strap and following after her sister. Down the row of parking spaces, their old silver car chirped loudly, its lights flashing once. She walked down the aisle, watching Anna pull open the passenger door and jump inside.

 

“I guess I’ll sit in the back then,” Natalie muttered, “it’s not like I’m the one that needs to go somewhere or anything.”

 

“Don’t be obnoxious, Natalie. You’re sister’s only been allowed in the front for a few weeks, she’s excited,” her mother said.

 

She groaned, crossing the aisle and pulling open the back door. She plopped down in the seat, glaring when Anna smirked at her. The driver’s door opened a moment later and their mother slid inside.

 

“Seat buckles, girls,” she reminded.

 

Natalie ignored her mother, pulling out her phone and scrolling through the notifications. She heard two clicks and then the engine started.

 

“If Natalie likes this movie, can I see it later?” Anna asked.

 

“Absolutely not,” their mother answered, looking into the rear mirror and pulling out of the parking spot.

 

“Aw, why not? I really want to watch it!” Anna whined, “it looks really good!”

 

“You can see it. When you’re twelve. In two years we’ll see about letting you go to PG-13 movies, but right now? Absolutely now,” their mother said.

 

Her sister pouted, slumping down in her seat. A moment later she perked up, looking over the seat at Natalie. “Will you buy me some gummies from the theater?” she asked.

 

Natalie glanced up from her phone, “Sure, what kind do you want?”

 

Her sister shrugged, “I don’t care, whatever they have.” She yelped as the car was jostled, and a moment later they emerged from the parking garage. She turned back around, staring out of the windshield in fascination.

 

“So, is this the older theater on Davison road?” their mother asked, “or is it the new one by the old train station?”

 

Natalie paused, brow furrowed, “Uh, the new one. That’s Nickelodeon 18, right?”

 

“Yep,” her mom said, turning the steering wheel. “And you said the movie is over at six, right? Are you girls going to hang out afterward or do you want me to come pick you up after the movie?”

 

“I don’t really know. Brit said something about wanting to try that Mexican joint across the street, but we don’t have anything really planned,” Natalie offered, “I guess I’ll text you after we decide.”

 

“Alright, but you better not forget this time,” her mother warned.

 

Natalie grinned, “I won’t, promise.”

 

The car fell silent, and Natalie went back to her phone. She sent a message to Brit that they were almost there, and opened different chat to text another friend.

 

“Mom!” Anna screamed, pointing out the window.

 

Natalie’s head jerked up, catching sight of the the blue truck and the terrified man inside right before it hit. She was thrown to the other side of the car, her forehead cracking against the window and her vision went black.

Beep, beep, beep.

 

Natalie groaned, wincing at the noisy machines. Her eyes fluttered open. She blinked once, confused by the sterile, gauzy white ceiling. “Mom?” she said, her voice hoarse and scratchy. She turned her head, brow furrowed. Several machines stood by her bed, displaying a whole bunch of random information. She pushed herself up, grimacing at the painful pull at her left shoulder. She reached out to rub the massage the bruises, frowning when her fingers met cool metal instead of flesh.

 

Natalie looked over in confusion and screamed. “Oh my god, what the hell!” she yelled, holding up her arm in shock. From the shoulder downwards, her arm was missing. In it’s place, silver machinery shone, an exact copy of her real arm. Slim, almost dainty fingers ran seamlessly into a metal palm, a delicate wrist flowing into a gross parody of an arm. She flexed the digits, slapping a hand over her mouth when they twitched.

 

“Mom!” she yelled, flinging her arms out. The fake arm smacked into the wall, cracking the plaster. She yanked it into her chest, holding it against her torso with her other arm.

 

A moment later, the door burst open, and a nurse hurried inside the room. Before it swung shut, Natalie could see two bulky men take positions in the outside hall.

 

“Oh, you’re awake! That’s great news, honey!” she chirped, ignoring the startled look Natalie gave her.

 

She walked over to the machinery, pulling a clipboard off the side the largest machine. The nurse flipped through it, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a pen.

 

“You were in a pretty nasty crash, sweetheart,” she said, “the doctors weren’t sure if you were going to make it, even with the prosthetics.”

 

Natalie choked, “Wait, prosthetics? As in more than one?”

 

The nurse bowed her head, “Yes, prosthetics. The left arm from the rotator cuff, both legs above the knee, and the liver. You were hurt pretty bad, you’ve been out for two weeks. You went into shock midway through the operation, but luckily for you, Doctor Henry is the most experienced cyborg surgeons in the city. He got you patched up quick, but you went into a coma a few hours after the surgery.”

 

Natalie shivered, glancing at the arm clutched to her chest. “I’m a mech now,” she whispered. Her vision swam, and she fell onto the bed, eyes wide. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and her chest constricted until she was gasping the breath.

 

The nurse set the clipboard on the heartbeat monitor, taking a hesitant step closer to her. “Natalieandra,” she began, “sweetie, I need to you to calm down. You’re having a panic attack. You’re perfectly fine, no one will hurt you, but I need you to work with me, sweetheart. If you lose control the men outside will come in and forcibly sedate you. I need you to work with me, alright?”

 

She shook her head rapidly, staring up at the nurse in petrified horror.

 

“Natalie, can I touch you? I can help you, but I need you to let me help you,” she murmured.

 

Natalie sobbed, and nodded fearfully.

 

The nurse smiled and reached out, delicately taking her right hand. She splayed Natalie’s real hand and put it against her chest, right above her heart. “Alright, breathe with me, honey. In. Out. In. Out. Just like that, you’re doing great.”

 

Below her fingers, the nurse’s heart beat was steady. She rubbed her thumb in small circles over Natalie’s knuckles, murmuring random encouragements. Once she could breathe again, she pulled her hand away, holding it against her own heart.

 

She looked up at the nurse tears in her eyes. “Wha-what’s going to happen to me?” she sobbed.

 

The nurse sighed, “Well, how much do you know about cyborg ranks?”

 

Natalie choked back a laugh, “Enough, my sister is always going on about mech rights and stuff. She’s obsessed with it.”

 

The nurse smiled, “Alright, well, you’ve already gotten classified. You were pretty close there for a while, your left lung deflated and the doctors weren’t sure if they needed to have it replaced or not, but they managed to get it back into working order. And you’re pretty lucky they did. If you had that lung replaced you would have been a rank four, but right now you’re right on the rank three side of the fence.”

 

Natalie bit her lip, digging her fingers into the new arm. “What does that mean? Can I go home?” she murmured.

 

The nurse shook her head, “I don’t know, honey. Usually, no, but we don’t have a lot of young mechs here. Most people that come through here are adults or older teens. The board might let you stay with your family until you’re eighteen, but they might not. They’re meeting about your case in…” she pulled a watch out of her pocket, “an hour. When they reach a verdict I’ll come let you know.”

 

Natalie nodded, eyes watering.

 

“I’ll get your mom, alright? Both she and your sister are still here, I think they went down to the cafeteria a few minutes ago, and your dad stopped by as well a few hours ago.”

 

Her lip quivered and she nodded, ignoring the smile the nurse sent her. The door opened again, and Natalie got another look at the men outside, this time she could see the butt and muzzle of a large rifle in their hands. She shivered as the it swung closed. She dropped her new arm, letting it fall into her lap.

 

Her breathing hitched. The metal looked and moved to be indistinguishable from a real limb, muscle lines etched into the metal, and there were faint bumps on the hand that mimicked skin covered bone.  There weren’t any visible wires, but a series of small screws at the joints hinted at the machinery beneath the faux skin. Natalie held out the prosthetic, imagining curling her fingers as if she was going to grab an object. She gasped as the digits twitched into position, curling inward like a dead insect.

 

A loud knock came from the entrance, and muffled voices came from outside hallway. A moment later, it opened and her mom stepped into the room.

 

“M-momma!” Natalie cried, lurching upward. She threw the scratchy, cheap blanket off and swung her legs over the bed. She tried to stand, only for her legs to buckle under her weight.

 

Her mom ran across the room, catching her before she fell. “Don’t stand up, Allie,” she murmured, “Come on, back on the bed.”

 

Natalie shook her head, throwing her arms around her mother’s neck. “Momma!” she sobbed.

 

Her mother kissed her forehead, lifting and pushing her onto the bed. She took Natalie’s hands in her own, pulling them away from her neck and clutching them. “It’s alright, everything’s gonna be alright, you’ll see, baby,” she murmured, brushing Natalie hair out of her face.

 

“I don’t know what’s going on, Mom,” Natalie said, voice shaking, “I’m scared.”

 

“I know, I know you are, but I need you to be strong, alright, baby girl? Your dad is going to talk to the board, and once the hospital lets you go we’ll take you home and everything will go back to normal.”

 

Natalie shook her head, clinging to her mother. “No, no it’s not Momma! My arm and my legs are gone! I’m a freak, a mech!”

 

“You are not a freak,” her mother insisted, “you are an amazing, strong, smart young woman. There is nothing wrong with you or with being a mech. It’s going to be a challenge for you to adapt, but I know you’ll be able to do it.”

 

Natalie sobbed, “But how are we going pay for this?” she questioned, gesturing to the prosthetics, “we don’t have the money for these.”

 

Her mother gave a watery chuckle. “Let your father and I take care of the money, you don’t need to worry over the bill. Right now, we just need to focus on taking you home with us. The doctors are pretty optimistic about that, though. You’ve never gotten into trouble at school, and neither your father or I have a criminal history, they don’t think there’s anything that the board could use to take you from us. We’ll be home and safe before you know it, so don’t worry and just focus on getting better.”

 

Natalie’s shoulders shook, her nails digging into her palms. “How can I not worry, Mom? My life is ruined!” she cried.

 

“No, no it’s not, it’s going to be a little different from what you expected, but it’ll be OK. Everything will work out in the end,” she whispered, smiling at her daughter.

 

The door slammed open and Anna burst into the room, “Natalie!” she yelled, grinning wildly at the sight of her older sister.

 

Natalie yelped and flinched away, curling in on herself.

 

“Natalie! Natalie, let go of me!” her mom yelped, tugging her arm. Natalie released her mother, startled.

 

Her mother straightened up, rubbing her wrist and wincing. There was an angry red handprint over dark skin, and as the moments passed, the redness darkened to an menacing purple.

 

“Shit! Mom, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean too, honest!” Natalie exclaimed.

 

Her mom gave her a weak smile, “It’s fine sweetie, I know it was an accident. You’ll just have to get a handle on that strength of yours.”

 

“I will, I promise!” she insisted.

 

“Natalie?” Anna whispered, her voice soft.

 

She turned to her sister, eyes wide. Her little sister took a step forward, briefly hesitating before continuing forward.

 

“Can I sit down?” she asked. Natalie nodded.

 

Her sister smiled and sat beside her, brushing their sides together.

 

“Be careful, I don’t know what it’ll do,” Natalie muttered, gesturing to her metal arm.

 

“I’m not worried about it,” Anna said, putting a hand on Natalie’s thigh. “Can you feel it when I touch the metal?” she asked, brushing her fingers along the seam between her thigh and the mechanics.

 

Natalie bit her lip. “A little,” she admitted. The sensation wasn’t like regular touch. She could sense that something was putting pressure on the metal, but the nuanced parts of touch like texture or temperature were lost.

 

“I was reading a bit about the details of prosthetics,” Anna admitted, “I found out that in the beginning, mechs couldn’t feel anything, so they had a tendency to underestimate their strength and put their limbs through walls. But after a while, scientists figured out how to attach pressure sensors to the ‘skin’ of the prosthetics, and then wire that to the mech’s nerves. I found a bunch tips on how to learn to control it though! When we get back to the apartment, you can practice! Think about it, you’ll never need a nut cracker again! And you’ll be able to open those sealed plastic packages without scissors, it’ll be awesome!”

 

Their mom chuckled, “Maybe with those metal legs you’ll finally be able to catch the school bus for once.”

 

Anna snickered, “That’s if she remembers to actually wake up.”

 

Natalie giggled, and leaned into her sister. “You’re so mean,” she complained.

 

“It’s because I love you,” Anna said, wrapping her arms around Natalie.

 

She smiled and hugged her in return, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “I love you too, little nerd,” she whispered.

 

The door opened, drawing everyone’s attention.

 

“Dad!” Natalie gasped.

 

Her father walked in, a small, sad smile on his lips, “Hey, kiddo. How’re you feeling?” he asked, pausing at the foot of her bed.

 

“Like I got hit by a truck,” she said.

 

Her father chuckled sardonically, “Well, you say that enough, I guess it was bound to happen at some point.”

 

“Markus!” her mother hissed.

 

“Alright, alright. I won’t make any truck jokes,” he relented.

 

“It’s fine, Mom. We’ll just have to Ford-ge ahead,” Natalie said.

 

“Oh my god! Truck puns!” Anna howled, cackling.

 

“Oh geez,” their mother muttered, “you lot can’t be serious for more than five minutes.”

 

“Aw, come on, Isabel, lighten up,” their dad said, chuckling.

 

“You are all ridiculous. Mark, could you pull up a chair? My legs are starting to ache.”

 

“Of course, dear,” he said, grabbing the pair of chairs sitting by the door and dragging them towards the bed. He set the chairs in front of the sisters, gesturing for his wife to sit.

 

When both her parents sat, Natalie spoke up. “What happened? I remember the truck coming towards us and the collision, but I hit my head after that and passed out. Why did I have to have things amputated?” she asked.

 

Anna squeezed her shoulder, cuddling close to her.  

 

Her mother sighed, “After we got hit, your head crashed into the car window. If it had stopped there, you would have had a concussion and a broken shoulder, but another car rammed us from behind. You went through the window and landed on the road. But the car… it rolled on top of you.”

 

Her sister shivered, reaching out and grabbing Natalie’s metal palm. “I never want to be in a car crash again,” she whispered, “I thought we were all going to die.”

 

Their father put a hand on her knee. “But that didn’t happen. Nobody died and now we’re all safe. Natalie probably won’t be able to attend that magnet high school she wanted, but past that, nothing bad will happen to us.”

 

She sniffed, “Are you sure?”

 

He chuckled. “Yes, I promise. We’re your parents, it’s our jobs to protect you girls, and we won’t let you get hurt.”

 

Anna nodded, rubbing her face with her sleeve.

 

“Natalie, honey, are you hungry?” their mother asked.

 

Natalie shook her head, “I’m fine, Momma. I don’t think I could stomach eating right now.”

 

“Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?” her mom joked, “the real Natalie never turns down food.”

 

“The cardboard they sell here doesn’t count as food, Isabel. I think she’s got the right idea,” their dad said.

 

Anna giggled, “You didn’t have to eat it for three days, Dad.”

 

He raised a brow, “And neither did you. You were in the other hospital.”

 

Natalie frowned, “Wait, what do you mean other hospital? Aren’t we in Capital Hospital? What other place is there?”

 

“Er, Natalie… You know mechs aren’t allowed in regular hospitals, right?” Anna said.

 

“What do you mean? What on earth is going on!” she demanded.

 

“Calm down, honey. We’re in St. Anthony’s. It’s the one right down the street from Capital,” their mother soothed.

 

“The prison hospital!” Natalie yelled, head jerking around, “why are we here?”

 

Their father winced. “Natalie, you need to stay calm. If the guards outside hear someone yelling they’ll come in and sedate you. St. Anthony’s isn’t a prison hospital, it’s a mech hospital.”

 

Natalie looked between her parents. “Wait, this is the one with the barbed wire around the outside, right? The one that’s always swarming with cops? If this isn’t a prison, why are they here?” she questioned.

 

“Natalie, do you remember a few weeks ago at dinner when I was talking about rank four mechs? About how they’re shipped off to the mining stations?”

 

Natalie nodded.

 

“A few decades ago, in some other city, a rank four freaked out when they woke up from their operation. This was when there were only a few security guards, but this girl woke up and freaked out. She punched a nurse so hard he ended up in a coma, and then ran away so she wasn’t sold off. The cops went after her and she ended up killing three people before they eventually shot her. After that, mech hospitals were all equipped with electric fences, armed guards, police dogs, that kind of thing.”

 

Natalie scoffed, “They think I’ll go crazy and kill someone? Because of some chick years ago?”

 

“Yes. Yes they do,” Anna said.

 

“Anna, don’t scare your sister. Natalie, the guards are there so that new mechs don’t hurt themselves by accident when they wake up. You’re handling this very well, but most people don’t.”

 

Natalie glanced between her parents, unsure.

 

“It’ll be fine,” her dad said, “but you need to try to keep it down, alright? As long as you’re on your best behaviour nothing will happen.”

 

“Let’s talk about something else, thinking about this so much won’t help,” her mom said.

 

The family acquiesced, and the conversation turned to anything that wasn’t the accident or Natalie’s new limbs. They chattered aimlessly about classes, the new client their dad had, the new family that moved into the empty apartment down the hall, random, unimportant topics. A few minutes in, Anna had grabbed her arm, and for the first time in years, Natalie didn’t pull away. They talked all the way through the hour, Natalie hadn’t even realized the time before the door opened and the guards walked inside.

 

“Natalie Hera, your case is being heard in conference room thirty-two. Come with us and we will escort you,” one of the men ordered.

 

Natalie glanced at her father, clenching her hand around Anna’s. He smiled at her, standing up and holding out a hand. She grabbed it, pulling herself to her feet. She nearly fell forward, but Anna tugged her back to steady her. Natalie stumbled to find her footing, eventually settling with one foot in front of the other.

 

“Maybe she won’t be able to catch the bus after all,” her sister muttered.

 

“I can hear you, you know. I’m working on it,” Natalie grunted.

 

With her father holding her up, she took a few hesitant steps forward, brow furrowed in concentration. Pulling her leg up to step forward pulled on the pink skin along the seam between metal and flesh, and a few times she had to stop to give herself time to recover. With her family’s guidance, she managed to make her way to the exit, growing more and more confident in herself as she went.

 

They walked out of the room, Natalie stumbling along after the guards. The men pushed the family through the corridor, leading them too an elevator on the far wall. The four of them piled inside, the guards moving between Natalie and the door. They stared at her for the duration of the ride, adjusting their weapons every few seconds.

 

She clenched her dad’s palm, pressing herself into his side. He squeezed in return and gave her a confidant smile. Natalie glanced at the screen, watching the numbers climb as the elevator rose. As the numbers reached seven the car slowed to a stop, jostling the occupants. Natalie yelped as her legs buckled, pushing into her tender thighs.

 

In an instant, the guards’ guns made a quiet click sound, the muzzles pointed at Natalie’

She froze, eyes wide. Anna whimpered beside her.

 

“What the hell are you doing?” her mother yelled, stepping in front of her daughters. `

 

The guards stared at her a moment before moving their weapons. “Standard procedure, ma’am,” one of them declared, “new mechs are unpredictable.”

 

“And your solution is to threaten children with firearms?” she accused.

 

The guard scoffed. “These don’t fire bullets, they’re just tranquilizers. Perfectly safe, it won’t hurt her if she got shot.”

 

“Isabel, stop. We can’t afford to make a scene,” her father murmured, grabbing his wife by the wrist.

 

Her mother spun around, fury etched into her face. She opened her mouth, but a glance and Natalie and her sister had her falling silent.

 

“This way,” the left guard ordered, gesturing into the hall.

 

The family filed out, clustering around Natalie. The men led them past several dozen doors and around a corner, stopping outside a wooden frame with a plaque that declared it as conference room thirty-two. Their guards opened the door and took up positions on either side, glaring at Natalie.

 

Her father wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her into the room. She glanced around, taking in her surroundings. It resembled every conference room from any movie ever, a long table with chairs lining the sides, a large hologram projecting medical records on the far wall.

 

Underneath the hologram, a trio of lawyers sat, two brunet men and a blonde woman.

 

“Ah, the Hera family, I presume? Please, sit,” the man seated in the middle said.

 

Natalie bit her cheek, glancing at her parents. Her father pushed her forward, pulling out a chair at the end of the table for her. Her parents sat either side of her, and Anna sat on a plastic chair leaning against the wall.

 

The woman cleared her throat and pressed a button on her watch. The hologram jumped forward, coming to a stop in front of her. “You are Natalieandra Grace Hera, correct?” she asked.

 

Natalie nodded.

 

“Twelve years old, you’ve categorized as a rank three cyborg while you were in your coma, were you made aware of this?”

 

Again, she nodded.

 

“Good, good. Now, you are in a legal limbo. You are a minor, and too young to be emancipated and judged as an adult. If you were an adult, you would have be sent to a cyborg town to find work and pay your medical bills, but you are too young to work. I’ve also been informed that the Marie Allen Charitable Foundation has paid for your surgeries and prosthetics.”

 

“It has?” Natalie sputtered.

 

“Yep, a week ago a representative got in contact with us. They offered to cover the full cost of the medical bills,” her father said, smiling.

 

“Oh…”

 

“Yes, well that puts you in a strong position. We pulled your school and legal records, you’ve never been arrested, and your school had nothing but good things to say about you,” the second man said.

 

“Wait, does that mean I can go home? I can go back to school?” she interrupted, her heart in her throat.

 

“Not quite,” the woman said, “rank two mechs and below are forbidden from public education. But it is possible for you to return to your home. Typically, in cases like yours, you’ll be put on probation. That means you’ll have to meet with an officer from the Cyborg Control Agency at least once a week, and you must attend physical therapy. You’d have therapy either way, but it’ll be far more pleasant from home. If you fail to meet with your parole officer more than once or you are involved in a violent incident where a non-cyborg is injured you’ll be sent to a group home for cyborg children. Once you reach eighteen your case will then be reevaluated, and either you will be sent to a mech town or sent to another city. Capital city has laws against mechs with criminal histories staying within city borders, but depending on the severity of the offense you may be forgiven by the Cyborg Relations Office.”

 

Natalie nodded, a grin spreading on her lips. “I can deal with that, no problem!” she declared.

 

“I’m certain you can, the law is more sympathetic to minor mechs. As long as you stay out of trouble, you’ll be able to go home,” the first man explained.

 

“That’s wonderful news, honey!” her mother exclaimed, placing a hand on Natalie’s shoulder.

 

At once, the trio’s faces fell, their gazes locked on her mother’s wrist.

 

Confused, Natalie looked followed their gazes and froze. On her mother’s wrist, right where Natalie had grabbed her, was a menacing purple bruise, the exact shape and size as her new hand.

 

“Mrs. Hera,” the woman murmured, her voice calm, “where did you get that bruise?”

 

Her mother yanked her arm back, wrenching her sleeve down.

 

“I did it!” Anna interrupted, panicked, “the guards scared me, and I grabbed her!”

 

“Mrs. Hera, is that the truth?” the woman questioned, “please do not lie to us. It will only hurt your daughter’s case further if you try to cover up anything she did. Remember, we have the security cameras.”

 

Her mother grimaced and rubbed her wrist. “I was holding Natalie’s hand, and the door slammed open. It startled both of us. Natalie squeezed my wrist, but she didn’t know how hard she was grabbing me. It was an honest mistake, an accident, she just doesn’t know her own strength yet.”

 

The trio glanced between each other, the man on the left leaning to whisper to his compatriots. She muttered something in response, and he straightened up.

 

“Miss Hera, step outside, please. The guards will take you back to your room,” she ordered.

 

“Go on sweetheart, we’ll be right behind you,” her father murmured, patting her shoulder.

 

“Are you sure, Dad?” she whispered, looking between her parents.

 

“Yes, I’m sure. It’ll be fine honey, give just give us a moment,” he said.

 

She let out a shuddering breath, standing up and walking to the door, almost falling flat on her face. She fell onto the doorknob, trying to keep her shaky legs upright. Once she was sure of her footing, she straightened up and pulled open the door, glancing between the guards with apprehension.

 

The one on the left grabbed her real arm, hauling her out of the room. She yelped, and the door closed behind her, leaving her alone in the empty corridor with the two men. Without a word, the pulled her down the hall, ignoring her stumbling attempts to keep up. The one that didn’t have a hold on her pressed the button, and the doors opened a moment later.

 

The guard pushed her inside, snickering when she almost tripped.

 

Natalie grabbed the railing with her real hand, locking her arms to stay upright. The car jolted into movement a moment later once again jarring her legs.

 

The ride down was silent, tension thick in the air. When the elevator stopped she stepped forward, shaky but managing to walk unassisted. She stumbled through the hallway. This time around, nurses and other non-mechs were bustling around the corridor. Nurses in light blue uniforms ran around, and civilians congregated outside rooms and near water fountains.

 

She shrunk back from the curious looks sent her way, wrapping her arms around herself and ducking her head. As they reached the end of the hallway, they walked past a small bench next to a large potted plant where a man with a dirty hat coat sat, reading a holo-novel.

 

They passed a few more doors until they reached her room. The taller guard pulled out a key chip from his pocket and held it up to a smooth metal panel next to the knob, waving it around until the door let out a quiet click.

 

“Inside,” he ordered, pointing into the sterile room. His partner released her, stepping away from her and wiping his palm on his pants.

 

She stepped past them, making her way over to the bed. The door slammed shut after her with a bang. She flinched, losing her balance and stumbling into the mattress. She groaned and pushed herself upright, wincing at the sharp ache in her shoulder. She turned and sat on the bed, rubbing the bruised flesh. Lowering her arm, she held it in her lap, side by side with her new one. The shiny, silvery metal glimmered next to dark brown skin, a mocking parody of what she had lost.

 

“This is really happening isn’t it?” she whispered. She laughed, eyes watering. “Of course it is, my life is over! My arm is fucking gone! I can’t even walk properly!” She sobbed and slammed a fist into the bed, screaming in frustration. She sat there, tears dripping down her face while birdsong chirped outside and sunlight shone through the window, illuminating her silver feet.

 

The door slammed open, and the guard stormed into the room, a teeth flashing in a grotesque smile. “Natalieandra Hera, your case was just decided. After you are discharged, you will be transferred to a group home for delinquent mechs.”

 

“No, no, no, no, the woman said I had a good case!” Natalie yelled, pushing herself off the mattress.

 

The guard smirked and lowered his gun at her. “Come on, just give me a reason,” he taunted. The second guard flew through the open door, crashing into his partner and knocking him to the floor. His head hit the metal bed frame with a sickening crack.

 

The man in the dirty hat burst in a moment later, locking eyes with her and sprinting to her. He grabbed her wrist and tugged her towards the door.

 

“Hey, let go of me you hobo freak!” Natalie yelled, digging her heels into the floor.

 

The man growled, “Shut up, brat!”

 

She tried to yank her wrist out of his grip, but the old man somehow held on. He looked like he was about sixty and hadn’t seen a shower or a decent meal in about thirty years, but he managed to withstand the force of her mechanical arm.

 

“That ain’t gonna work on me, girlie! Now either shut up or I’ll knock you out!” he hissed.

 

“No! Screw you! My family is back there, I can’t leave them!” Natalie yelled.


The man spun around, yellow teeth bared. “Listen here, girlie! Your family can’t help you now. I’m trying to save you from the damn mines! You lost your case, if the hospital find you they’ll send you off to work in a factory in some backasswards town and you’ll never see your family again. Come with me and you’ll have your freedom.”

 

Natalie glared at him. “Why should I believe you?” she spat.

 

“What the hell do I want from you?” he shot back, “What benefit do I have from rescuing a pissy little pre-teen brat? If I wanted to use a mech, I’d get an adult. As I see it, you either have some faith in me or you become a slave.”

 

Natalie snarled, clenching her fist. “Fine. Where are we going?”

 

The man chortled, “I’ll tell you after we get there. If you fuck up and are caught I won’t let you drag the rest of us down with you.”

 

“The rest of us?” Natalie questioned.

 

“Mechs, you stupid child. Now shut up,” he said, putting a palm over her mouth.

 

She recoiled as he touched her, the stench of body odor and tobacco smoke overwhelming. She knocked his hand away, trying not to gag.

 

He ignored her, peering around a corner of the corridor.

 

“This way,” he hissed, gesturing for her to follow. He crept into the hallway, leading Natalie towards a set of swinging doors. He held them open, pushing her through.

 

She stumbled, but an arm snapped out and grabbed her. A old hispanic man was standing behind a shelf, out of sight of anyone in the hallway, smiling at them.

 

“Al, don’t push the girl, she can barely walk,” he scolded.

 

“Shut up, Fingers,” the first man, Al, said.

 

“Sorry about him, Al’s just a little crotchety,” he said, turning to Natalie. “What’s your name?”

 

She blinked, “Natalie, Natalie Hera.”

 

He grinned, “It’s nice to meet you, Natalie! As nice as it is to chat, we should leave. We don’t want security to find us after all!”

 

Natalie nodded, dumbfounded.

 

“Come on, moron,” Al growled, grabbing them both and dragging them down the abandoned hallway.

 

“This is the old morgue,” Fingers explained, “There’s an an entrance to the basement from here, and from there we can escape without alerting the guards.”

 

“Be quiet! I think I can hear someone,” Al said.

 

The other man fell silent, the smile dropping from his face. His eyes hardened, and he stepped in front of Natalie.

 

Al released them, stalking forward. He peered around the corner, posture tense. Without looking back, he waving the other two over. “Clear so far,” he whispered.

 

Fingers nodded, “All right, let’s keep going.”

 

Al shook his head. “The kid can’t be quiet, it sounds like she’s stomping everywhere. I’ll scout ahead, make sure a nurse didn’t come down for a smoke or something,” he said.

 

Natalie bristled, but a look from Fingers stopped her from protesting. Al smirked and disappeared around the corner. Natalie heard the creaking of a door and then the corridor was silent.

 

Natalie glanced at Fingers, biting her lip.

 

“Don’t worry, Al’s been doing this for a long time, he knows what he’s doing,” he murmured.

 

Natalie shivered and leaned against the wall. “If he finds them is he going to hurt them?” she whispered.

 

He shook his head. “No, if they’re in a side room somewhere he’ll just note where they are and figure out how to avoid them. If they’re in the way he’ll knock them out. If he hurt someone, the cops would think you did it and would come after you. We’d never rescue you then.”

 

There was loud crash from Al’s direction, and she could hear Al’s muffled shouting. A few moments later, he came stomping back, a sheepish blonde boy in tow.

 

“You need to keep a better eye on your apprentice,” he spat, pushing the boy towards Fingers.

 

“Really, Jake? You followed us?” he chided.

 

“Sorry, I just wanted see the new girl,” the boy said, rubbing the bright handprint on his wrist.

 

Fingers sighed, “Was that necessary, Al? You need to be more gentle with the children.”

 

Al scoffed, “Pretty Boy here needs to toughen up. The coast is clear, though, pretty boy did one thing right.”

 

“I have a name, Al,” the boy, Jake, said.

 

“You’ll get a name when you earn it. Now move!”

 

Fingers rolled his eyes and prodded Jake and Natalie forward. They walked along a long, thin hallway and then down a flight of stairs. They immersed into a dark, abandoned room. Cobwebs hung all along the ceiling and dust covered sheet covered furniture, but past that the room was unremarkable.

 

Al walked into the middle of the room, putting his hand against a large filing cabinet. “Boy, come here and push this,” he ordered.

 

Jake rolled his eyes, pushing up his shelves to reveal two silvery metal arms. Natalie’s eyes widened as he stepped forward, glancing at her own, clenching her real fist. Jake placed his palms against the cabinet. He pushed it forward, wincing as the metal scraped across the floor, the cabinet screeching long and slow as it scraped against the floor.

 

“Don’t mark the floor, boy!” Al barked, crossing his arms. His sleeve crept up, and a sliver of dented metal shone.

 

Jake grunted and shoved the cabinet forward. He turned to Al, glaring at the irritating old man.

 

Natalie’s brow furrowed. The flooring that had been under the cabinet was completely unremarkable, dirty old tile that was indistinguishable from the rest. “Was there a point to that? There isn’t anything there,” she sputtered, looking to Fingers.

 

He laughed, “Of course there was! Jake, would you mind showing her our little secret?”

 

The boy scowled at Al before kneeling. He shoved his fingertips into a small crack and heaved.

 

Natalie squawked in surprise as a large square of the floor came loose. He grimaced and pushed until the tile was leaning against the metal cabinet. Nestled in the concrete was a rusty metal disk printed with the city’s crest. “Is that a manhole? Are we going into the sewers?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.

 

“Yep! It’s not so terrible, you’ll see,” Fingers said, pushing her forward.

 

“Fingers, you go first, show the kids how it’s done. I’ll keep watch,” Al ordered.

 

The other man nodded, stepping forward. He knelt and grabbed the disk, pulling it up to rest against the tile. “Down the rabbit hole we go,” he murmured, gesturing to the dark hole. He turned around, putting his leg into the hole. He stepped onto the rung and gestured for her to come forward.

 

She stepped towards the hole, eyeing it. Dirt and filth encrusted the wall, and there was a dead cockroach in a notch in the wall. Fingers was standing on a series of metal rungs embedded in the wall, and several yards past him she could see a concrete path.

 

“Come, we need to leave as fast as possible,” he urged.

 

Worrying her lip, Natalie followed. She stepped down the same way he had, clinging to the metal. She glanced into the hole, watching the older man descend. When he reached the bottom, he stepped away and gestured for her to follow.

 

“Don’t jump,” he warned, his voice echoing.

 

Natalie nodded and lowered herself, trying to avoid the filth encrusted walls. After a few moments, she reached the bottom. He clapped her on the back, giving her a wide grin.

 

Jake jumped after her a moment later, landing silently in a crouch.

 

“I thought Fingers said not to jump,” she accused.

 

Jake shook his head, “He was talking to you. I only have one mech leg, and I know how to land without cracking the concrete.”

 

There was a loud scraping sound from above and a moment later Al joined them. “Let’s go, the faster we put distance between us and the hospital the better,” he ordered.

 

 

The group walked down the tunnel, Natalie hurrying to keep up. Her legs weren’t acting as she expected them to, and she kept stumbling over the debris littering the path.

 

Al slowed to walk beside her, pulling her to her feet whenever she stumbled. “You’ll need a lot of practice, kid,” he grunted.

 

“I’m not a toddler, I know how to walk,” she growled.

 

Al raised a brow, “Fine.” He sped up to walk beside the other man, ignoring her.

 

Natalie grit her teeth, glaring into the old man’s head. She focused on placing her feet, making sure they were firmly planted before pushing forward. She kept up for several tunnel lengths, somehow managing to not face plant on the concrete.

 

After they rounded a dozen turns Jake spoke. “So, I managed to pickpocket this dude at the hospital,” he admitted.

 

“You are a moron, it’s a miracle you didn’t get caught,” Al growled. “Was it a good score?”

 

The younger boy shrugged, “It was decent, I guess. He only had a few bills on him, a hundred credits at most.”

 

“You robbed someone at a hospital? What is wrong with you?” Natalie hissed.

 

“It wasn’t a patient!” Jake stammered, “It was a nurse! I’m not a horrible person.”

 

Al scoffed, “So what if he pick pocketed someone at that damn place? Bios have plenty of cash, we need it more.”

 

Natalie stopped, gaping at them. “How can you be so callous? They could have sick family, they might need that money for hospital bills!”

 

“Natalie,” Fingers interjected, “There are no sick people in that place. That isn’t a real hospital. It’s a mech factory. Even if Jake went after someone with family there, a hundred credits won’t help them. Do you know how much your attachments cost?”

 

She paused and shook her head.

 

“Four hundred and fifty thousand credits. Per limb. That’s about half of the average person’s income over their entire life. Either they’ll have the money to pay the bills now, or they never will. Either way, that much money is irrelevant them, but it will help us. We have our own sick that need medicine, hungry people that need to eat, children that need care. Taking that money means we can stay alive for one more day.”

 

Natalie crossed her arms, “It still doesn’t seem right,” she muttered.

 

“We don’t care, princess. Give it a while, once you’ve gone to bed hungry for a few weeks in a row you won’t care about some lifted pocket change,” Al growled, “now either keep moving or we leave you behind, got it?”

 

She glared and closed her mouth.

 

They spent the rest of their trip in silence.

 

Al led them through the sewers, Fingers beside him, but Jake slowed to stay with her. He nudged her away from potholes hidden in the darkness and pointed to pipes or wires hanging from the ceiling.

 

The sewers twisted back and forth, and there were long stretches where she could have sworn they were moving closer to the hospital. The longer they walked, the more uneasy Natalie became. Dozens of narrower channels intersected or branched off theirs, and once in awhile, humanoid shadows danced along the walls. The only light came from a series of flickering light bulbs strung along the ceiling, casting the tunnel in an unnatural yellow hue.

 

The group rounded a new turn, but instead of another dingy corridor, an old, stained cloth draped across the opening. Rags tied it to a series of hooks embedded into the wall, obscuring the rest of the tunnel. After looking it over for a minute, she realized that it was a curtain cut into two pieces instead of a single solid sheet.

 

Al strode forward, pushing the cloth aside.

 

Natalie winced at the brightness that flooded the tunnel, shielding her eyes. Jake pushed her toward the curtain, and she stepped past the fabric.

 

She found herself in a wide cavern, standing on a raised platform. Several people sat scattered around the room, carrying out various tasks. A man and a young boy stood off to the side, hovering over several enormous cooking pots. A group of teenagers were sitting in a circle, sifting through a heap of clothing and chatting. An elderly woman perched on a battered sofa, a clipboard and several binders beside her.

 

“Hey, Al and Fingers are back!” a girl yelled from the circle of teens, waving a rusty metal arm at the newcomers.

 

The crowd turned to gaze them, staring. Natalie could feel them watch her, judging her.

 

“Who’s this?” the girl called.

 

“Mira, stop yelling,” Al growled.

 

She laughed, shaking her head. She strode forward, brilliant red curls falling over her shoulders to frame her face. “You’re no fun, Al,” she complained. She turned to Natalie, “Ignore him, he’s harmless, just really crotchety,” she said, winking at her. Natalie blinked, “Uh…” Mira giggled, “What’s your name, hun?”

 

“Natalie. Her name is Natalie,” Jake interjected.

 

Mira grinned. “Nice to meet ya, Natalie!”

 

She jerked her head. “Yeah. Um, nice to meet you too.”

 

“Come on, I’ll introduce you to people,” Jake said, pushing her into the cavern. Mira followed behind, They spent the next few minutes doing whirlwind introductions, and Natalie forgot almost everyone’s names within a minute. There were dozens of mechs in the large room, but according to Mira, many people weren’t there at the moment.

 

“A lot of the kids are in another of the tunnels, we try to educate them, at least a little. Emmy and Juan run a little unofficial school that helps them learn to read and write, do math, that kind of thing,” she explained, “and then some of the adults are out getting supplies.”

 

“Is that where Ivan and Adohi are? I thought the three of you would die if you were more than five feet apart,” Jake joke, coming up from behind Natalie.

 

Mira rolled her eyes. “Hardy har har, I’ve never heard that before.”

 

Jake laughed, “I’ll be here all week.”

 

“Unfortunately,” Mira grumbled, crossing her arms. “Anyway, most people go out in pairs to gather supplies, it’s easier pull of hits if you have a partner. So once people leave this place clears out in a hurry. It’s almost dead here during the day, but once it reaches about ten o’clock everyone comes home.”

 

Natalie nodded, mulling over the information. “So, what do you do during the day?” she asked.

 

Mira shrugged, “This and that. Depends on the day and the time. On a normal day, we’re organizing supplies and taking note of what we need Fingers to get. But besides that it a mishmash of watching the kids and helping Pierre cook.”

 

Natalie bit her lip, brow furrowed. “What will I have to do?” she asked.

 

“It depends on your mentor,” Jake answered, “and if you have a particular talent for something. For a few weeks you won’t be able to go up to the surface, the cops will watch for you too closely. But in the meantime it’s up to your mentor. When I first got here Fingers showed me around the tunnels until I could walk anywhere with my eyes closed.”

 

“I had Ivan shovel rubble out of a tunnel for two weeks,” Mira chirped.

 

“Yeah and he wouldn’t stop complaining while you and Adohi laughed at him,” Jake shot back.

 

Natalie blinked, “I am so confused,” she stated.

 

Mira laughed, but took pity on her. “Once a new mech comes here they need to learn to do stuff so that they don’t get us all caught. A mentor is someone who’s been here longer and has some amount of respect in the community. They teach them how to control their new limbs, how to steal, how to fight, stuff like that. Fingers is Jake’s mentor, has been for about five months now. I was Ivan’s mentor, but we worked really well together, so now he’s my partner along with Adohi.”

 

“Are partners the ones you go out with after you don’t need a mentor anymore?” Natalie questioned.

 

“Yep! I have two, but that’s pretty unusual. Though usually it’s only me and Adohi going after hits, Ivan usually follows us and only steps in if things blow up. For some reason people are pretty wary around a six foot two Russian guy,” she joked, smirking.

 

“Only because they don’t know you,” Jake snorted, “otherwise they’d run for the hills whenever you showed up.”

 

“Jake! Be nice to Mira,” Fingers scolded.

 

The boy yelped, spinning to face his mentor.

 

“Fingers! I wasn’t… I didn’t…”

 

The old man chuckled, “Don’t try to lie to me, boy. I heard everything you said. But that’s not why I came over. I actually need Natalie.”

 

“What do you need?” she asked.

 

“I was explain and tell you about mentors, but I see that these two beat me too it. We’ve picked someone out for you, and it would be best if you got to know each other immediately.”

 

“Who got her? Anna? Trevor? Sota? You aren’t taking on another kid are you?” Mira questioned.

 

Fingers shook his head, “Oh goodness no, this one is more than enough trouble for me.” He elbowed an indignant Jake.

 

“Alright, where are they?” Natalie asked.

 

The man smiled, “Come with me. Mira and Jake can come along if they want.”

 

Mira shook her head, “Nah, I’ll talk to you later, Natalie. I have to finish divvying up the new clothes.”

 

Fingers smiled. “It’s so nice to see young ones who actually do their work.”

 

“Hey, I do my chores!” Jake protested.

 

His mentor laughed. “I never said you didn’t.”

 

Jake huffed. “You implied it,” he accused.

 

“Yes, yes. Natalie, would you follow me?”

 

She blinked but nodded. They walked back across the room to the entrance where they had first entered.

 

Al was there, along with a group of older adults who were discussing something quietly. They fell silent once Natalie came within earshot, glancing at her.

 

“That was quick,” an old woman in a faded sweater commented.

 

Fingers smiled, “Yes, Jake and Mira decided to fill her in, so I didn’t have to do anything.”

 

“Just as well. As long as she knows what’s happening,” the woman said, “we decided on a mentor for you, child. Alexander will teach you how to live among us.”

 

Natalie frowned “Alexander? Who’s that?”

 

“That’d be me, girlie,” Al said.

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The Official Student News of Green Hope High School
Rank Three: Chapter 2