Susan Page’s eye scanned the room. It was a typical hospital room: sound-absorbent tiles on the ceiling, walls, and floor, a monitor by the bedside, a bedside stand, a bed. Page awakened, head fogged by drugs and shock, right eye moving without her conscious control. She squinted to get the device back in line, and turned both eyes toward her right arm. As she feared, it was gone from the elbow down. In its place was a cybernetic arm. She wriggled its fingers. It worked.
“I see you’re awake,” said Dr. Halsey, in his Boston accent. The familiar black man hovered over the bed.
Page scratched her nose with her new fingers.
“Good,” said Halsey. “I think that’s going to work out fine. You can probably leave tomorrow. Just take it easy for a few days, and try not to get shot again for a while.”
Page raised her right eyebrow.
“Want me to adjust the eye for you so it won’t look around while you’re asleep?”
“No, it’s OK. Thanks.”
“No problem. I’11 check back later. Buzz the kitchen when you get hungry.” He indicated a panel on the bedside table.
Page nodded to show she had heard.
Halsey walked out, nearly colliding with a man in a business suit.
“OK if I come in?” he asked Halsey.
Halsey glanced at Page. “It’s all right with me if it’s all right with her.”
“In that case…” The man stepped inside.
Halsey backed into the corridor, pointing to the man. “You could still stand to lose a little weight, Lt. Futura.”
“Muscle. It’s all muscle.”
Halsey shook his head and walked away.
Futura took out a bag of Potato Snax from inside his suit coat. He tilted it at Page. “Want some?”
He pulled the fastener at the top and poured out the popcorn-sized potato chips in his hand. “Mending well?”
“You know, if the law didn’t require us to investigate every shooting, we’d have given up on you by now. I’ve taken to duplicating my previous reports, and filling in a new date and site of injury.”
“Captain tired of sending you here?”
“Hell, no. We’ve got a pool on you over at the station, picking dates when Collins will shoot you next. The Captain won this one.”
“Oh? Put me down in the pool for Saturday.”
Futura laughed. Particles of Potato Snax bounced on his tongue. “I thought you’d get a charge out of that. I put money on the slot where it says he doesn’t shoot you. I haven’t won yet, but some day I might. I’m a sucker for long odds.”
Page said nothing. She felt tired. She wiggled her new fingers again.
The policeman put his bag down and took out his book-sized computer notepad. “I already got the place of the shooting from the paramedic that picked you up. Did Collins do or say anything unusual this time?”
“No, he just said, ‘Hey, Page, over here,’ and shot me.”
Futura put the notepad away. “Still going to stick with the Pacifists League?”
“What do you think?”
He shook his head. “I still think you ought to get a gun. No one’s going to deny you a permit, with your record. He ain’t going to give up. The fact that you won’t fight back just attracts him. He’s that sort of guy.”
“It has to start somewhere.”
He picked up his snack bag. “I admire your principles, but pacifists just don’t get on in a world like this.”
“If not here, where?”
He shrugged. “I’ll call you if we catch him, but don’t count on it.”
The next day, as she sat on a bench in the hospital entryway, waiting for her ride, she heard a patient arguing with a doctor. The sounds came from the nearby emergency wing.
“But I tell you, I just have to have a jacked-up arm.”
“Sorry, but it will take a police order to get an enhanced prosthesis.”
“I’ll pay you for it. I’11 pay big.”
“You’re about 20 years too late, friend. We aren’t paid by patients anymore. We’ re paid by the government, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m not about to lose my license by violating their rules.”
“Then I’ll go elsewhere! I’ll go to Russia! They’ll take my money!”
“Don’t bump your butt on the way out the door.”
Page heard a snort. A man stomped out of the emergency wing. His left arm was a cybernetic one, same as hers.
A soft “meep” caught her attention. Mark Ashcroft was outside. Page stood, shouldered her bag, brushed some lint off her khaki pants, and walked to the car. She got in the passenger’s side. The engine swished into life and they drove off.
Ashcroft glanced over at her. “Nice arm.”
“What did the police say?”
“Same as always. I ought to get a gun and shoot him.”
“Anytime you want, you can borrow mine.”
She glared at him.
“Sorry.” He smiled. “I respect your beliefs and all, but I don’t think that you’re obligated to stand around and let this guy shoot you.”
“Can you think of a tactic that I haven’t tried?”
“What about changing your identity and going someplace else?”
Page shook her head. “People like Collins are all over. If I went somewhere else, I’d have the same problem.”
“What do other Pacifist Leaguers do? What does the head of your outfit say?”
“Since we’re fairly new, no one has had a problem quite like mine yet. Harassment–habitual harassment–yes; multiple shootings, no. You know I’ve tried everything else: avoiding him, confronting him, talking to him, pairing with someone else, changing residences, going on an extended vacation…” She sighed. “If you think of
something else, let me know.”
“If it were someone gunning for me, I’d grab my gun and shoot him first.”
“That’s what makes the murder rate what it is today.”
He shrugged. “Got to survive, any way you can.” He stopped the car. “Want me to walk you to your room?”
“No, I can make it. Collins probably won’t try to shoot me again for a while.” She got out of the car. He went to put it in the garage. Page had a car, too, but since an ambulance had brought her to the hospital, hers was still in the garage.
The apartment in which they both lived was a four-story brick building. She walked up the stairs to her second floor apartment. The bare wooden floor had one area rug in the middle. There was one bookshelf, a rocking chair, couch, television, and a computer on her desk. Her bedroom had the bed and one set of drawers. She wondered how, in a life of 32 years, she had accumulated so little. At least it allowed her to save for retirement, that is, if she should live long enough to do so.
On the wall was a framed wedding portrait of her and her late husband, killed by crossfire after 14 months of marriage while coming home from the cleaners. Page had joined the Pacifist League even before the funeral. The newspapers picked up the story and published a picture of her as she was taking the oath at the local League headquarters. The day after the funeral Collins shot her for the first time; she lost her leg. The media picked up on that, too, even showing Collins’s old mug shot. Collins had plastic surgery before trying again. The police asked the media to stop showing Collins’s picture, so that he would not keep changing his features.
She looked again at herself in her wedding dress. “You wouldn’t recognize me now, Scott,” she said to the image of her husband. She slung her purse strap over a chair and sat on the couch. She cradled her head in the palm of her new hand, thrumming her fingers on her cheek. Flesh-and-blood fingers felt nicer, but she could get used to it, as she had gotten used to her new right eye, her new left leg (below the knee), the reconstructed hip, the artificial ear, the right half-foot, the left breast implant, the prosthetic shoulder socket, the ceramic jaw, and the mechanical left thumb.
Futura came around again while Page was at work. Page had a job at a local TV station, maintaining the equipment–cameras, computers, and such, and doing odd jobs around the place. Her employers were understanding about the amount of sick time she had been using, especially since others could fill in while she was out, but Page wondered if and when she would reach the limit of their good will.
The policeman walked in while she was putting up the set on an empty sound stage, making sure that the desks and chairs and props were where the director wanted them. He watched as she worked to screw two metal tubes together to make a tall light pole, and said, “You know, with this sort of job, you ought to put a special strength enhancer on that arm.”
Page set the fixture down. “Don’t you need a police permit for that sort of thing?”
He cocked his head to one side. “Nah, not with your kind of job. We let construction workers and such put them on all the time. Here, I got the tools in my trunk.” Before she could take a breath, he was out the door.
Minutes later, he came back, and put a tool box on one of the tables. “I worked my way through college as a cybernetic repairman. Did this all the time. Still keep the tools around . . . never know when they’ll come in handy.” Carefully, he took off his suit coat, folded it, and laid it on the back of a chair. He sat and opened the kit. “Here, put your arm down.”
She sat across from him and laid her right arm on the table. He took various pieces out of his tool box, laid them next to the girders and gears in the arm to see if they fit, and used his tools to add them to the assembly.
“You know,” she said, “if I put my hand around someone’s throat with an enhanced arm, I could strangle them in an instant.”
He glanced up at her, tongue pressed to the side of his mouth as if it was helping him in the effort. “You don’t say.”
“I’ve heard that some cybernetic limbs can crush steel. You wouldn’t be enhancing it to that level, would you?”
“If I were, I wouldn’t tell you about it.”
“If I thought my limbs would kill someone without my conscious participation, I’d get them replaced, you know.”
“Nah, I’m not going that far.” Still puttering with his tools, he added, “Tell me something. If you wore bullet proof armor, and the bullet ricocheted off it and killed the shooter, would that violate your League oath?”
“Not at all. That would be considered the shooter’s fault.”
“Ever consider getting some?”
“How do you think I lost my eye?”
“Oh. Yeah, that happened before I was transferred here and got your case.” He put his fingers into her arm assembly and twisted something into place. “There. Finished.” He closed his tool kit. “Remember what Halsey told you: don’t use the cybernetic arm to lift anything you wouldn’t lift with your flesh-and-blood arm, or your artificial one could drop off. But you can give one hell of a handshake if you want to.”
She flexed her fingers. “I’ll remember. Thanks.”
He picked up his suit coat and put it back on. “Try putting another of those fixtures together.” When she had done so, much faster than before, he added, “Easier, isn’t it?”
He pointed. “Try removing that teeny tiny screw with your fingers. You should have the dexterity of a pickpocket, though I don’t recommend going into the profession.”
She tried it. It came out faster than if she had used a tool to remove it.
“Oh.” He took out his computer notepad. “Almost forgot why I came. Our informants tell us that Collins hasn’t changed his features since shooting you last, though I suppose that eye of yours can’t be fooled by simple surgery. Of course, he still doesn’t stay twenty minutes in any given spot. But if we catch him, we’ll let you know.”
It was dark. Collins was there. His arm reached up with his gun, as it had so many times before, aimed point-blank at her. She used her new arm to grab the wrist with the gun. She turned it away from her and squeezed. He dropped the gun. She kept squeezing. She heard the bones crack. He screamed. She laughed. The arm went to his neck. It closed. She could not stop it. did not want to stop it. The veins burst from his skin. He choked on his own blood. The man died, hanging from her clenched fingers, covered with gore.
She sat up in bed with a gasp. The fingers of her right hand were separated, relaxed, as they were on her flesh-and-blood hand. She did have control.
The vidiphone rang. She pulled aside the covers and went to the living room in her nightgown. The picture on the receiver was blank; there was sound only.
“Susan?” said a strained voice.
“What is it, Rita?”
“Can you come over right now? Tom got shot. He’s in the hospital, and they say he’ll be all right, but I don’t know what to do.”
“Stay calm, Rita, I’ll be right over. Listen, I’m going to hang up and call you again just to be sure this is you. The last time I got a call at 2 a.m. it was Collins and I got shot.”
Page slammed the receiver shut and kicked the desk for good measure. Collins, again. Ready to shoot her, again. Time to make plans, again. She sighed. If she got through this, she planned to write a guidebook for fellow pacifists. Perhaps she should title it, “How to Successfully Avoid the Truly Determined Sociopath.” But she had to deal with Collins, first.
She left a message at the police station for Futura, alerting him to Collins’s call. To be certain it was Collins, Page called Rita in the morning to confirm that Rita had not called her the night before, and that Tom was not in the hospital. She hoped that Collins would not start targeting her friends. The crime psychologist she had seen in order to cope with her loss of body parts said that Collins would only be interested in her friends to the extent that he could use them to get to her. So far, the psychologist had been right.
Page checked her car in the apartment garage before she left for work. She had the car made bullet-proof and put in the monitoring system before realizing that Collins never shot her unless she could see him pull the trigger. But it made her feel as if she was doing something to defend herself. The car had one-way reflective glass, too: no one could see in, and if it was too sunny, the glass created a bright sheen, making it too bright to look at comfortably.
She put on the protective vest under her clothes. It was too hot to wear on summer afternoons, but on a cool summer morning, such as this one, it was comfortable enough. It only covered her torso, and a bullet fired close enough with a high-powered gun could get through, but it afforded some protection.
Before she drove away from the garage, her eye scanned the street. She often wondered if Collins regretted shooting her eye out, since the scanner could spot him in a crowd, even at a distance. It was partly because of the eye that he had to work harder to get her in his targeting sight now. In fact, the average time between shootings was becoming longer. Her goal was to make that interval infinitely long. Futura often said that Collins was so heavily involved in the underworld that someone ought to kill him one day, but she was not about to stake her life on that possibility.
She got to work without incident. Collins had not yet tried to breach the security system there. She got home safely afterwards, and for two days after that. She was in her garage, unloading groceries from her car to her pushcart, when her artificial ear picked up the sound of metal grating against metal. Cautiously, she peered around the door. The sound came from the direction of the apartment building. She suspected Collins was around the corner, waiting for her to come out laden with the heavy bags.
He had gotten her that way before; this was why she had bought the pushcart. She went back into the car, dialed the emergency number on her car phone, and explained the situation. She knew the police car was approaching when, from behind the shelter of the garage, she saw Collins run to his car. The police gave chase; she took the groceries into her apartment.
The next time she saw him, he was hiding behind a glare-glass partition at a sidewalk automatic teller station. He seemed unaware that her eye could spot him through it. The glass would prevent a bullet from reaching her–he would have to step out of the station to shoot her. She walked toward it, as if to go past it, but as she reached the edge, her artificial arm snaked in and grabbed the gun. She jerked back; the gun came loose. She tossed it through a storm sewer grate. Collins, apparently in shock, was still there as she turned back to him and grabbed him by the collar, intending to march him to the nearest emergency box and call the police. He struggled violently as she dragged him along; the artificial hand gripped the shirt more tightly. With a savage twist, he lunged forward. The shirt tore loose. She was left holding a large scrap of cloth while he ran, tattered rags on his chest and back. The pedestrians, used to seeing murders in the streets regularly, stared briefly at the strange nonviolent scene and went about their business.
Two weeks and one more failed attempt later, Page was still alive and unshot. Futura came around her workplace and told her that he had won the current pool; the dates had run out. They had started another pool in the office, he said, extending through the next month.
One day, as she stepped out of the building where she worked, something fell on top of her, knocking her down. She looked up and saw that some empty scaffolding had collapsed, trapping her left leg. Collins appeared, running, from behind a corner. Her eye saw every freckle in his face, measured his frame, counted the teeth in his grin.
“Got you again, Page!” he said triumphantly, and shot.
She twisted and put her hand up, as if it would shield her, but the impact hit her back, on the left lower side, below the bullet-proof vest. Collins sprinted off. She turned and used her artificial arm to move aside the debris that had fallen on her. Her artificial leg ignored the trauma of the rest of her body, and hoisted her to her feet. Ignoring the rivulet of liquid running down her back, she stumbled to the nearest police box and pushed the medical emergency button. She slumped to the sidewalk and managed to stay awake long enough to see the ambulance park beside her.
“You awake, or is that just your eye scanning the room?”
She came to her senses and focused on Futura standing above the bed. “I’m awake,” she said groggily.
He hefted another dollop of Potato Snax to his mouth. “I don’t know whether to congratulate you on your new kidney or go to the funeral for the old one. What do you think?”
“I’ll think about it.”
It was a Thursday. Page checked the street before leaving the indoor part of an indoor/outdoor restaurant. There, sitting at an outdoor table, eating, was Collins. He was facing away from her; he did not seem to know she was there. Or did he? Perhaps she could take him by surprise for once. He might just be shamming, waiting for her to get in range to shoot her again, but then again, he might just be eating lunch. Whichever was the case, it was time for her to take the initiative. She was tired enough of being victimized to accept the risk.
She walked cautiously until she was just behind him. He turned, and with a look of genuine surprise, dropped his fork. He twisted in his seat and began to rise. She slammed him back into his chair. “Time for another talk,” she said, easing herself into the chair beside him, keeping an eye on his right hand, his gun hand, which clutched the edge of the table.
“There’s nothing to say,” he sneered. “I’m not joining your League, and I’m not quitting on you, either. You’re a thonk. The world don’t need no more thonks.”
“I know. You’re so obsessed with not being a coward, that you have to keep shooting me to prove to yourself that you’re not the coward you really think you are.”
He banged the table with his fist and stood over her. “You shut up! I’m not a thonk! Only little cockroaches like you are thonks!”
She stared up at him coolly, as he sat again, her eye giving her brain the information that he was six-foot-one, 197 pounds, 20 years old. The blond hair was straight, unruly, and had a cowlick in the back. His shoulders were slightly stooped, and he was double-jointed. She was not surprised by his anger; her psychologist had predicted he would react that way if she said that. “You’ll be relieved to know,” she added, flexing her artificial arm under the table, “that I’m not here to try to talk you into not shooting me this time. I know now that no one can stop you but yourself.”
He smiled mockingly. “And I ain’t going to stop myself.”
“I don’t expect that, either. What I do expect is that sometime, soon, you’re going to make a mistake. Your luck is going to run out. And I’m not going to sit idly by anymore waiting for you. From now on, you had better watch for me.”
“And just what are you going to do?”
“Figure it out.”
He looked up and leered. “That’s supposed to scare me?”
“No, I’m just telling you: for my own satisfaction, not yours.” She stood. “Bye, now.”
When she was at the street corner, he stood and aimed his gun at her. “Got you again, Page!”
She looked on calmly as the gun clicked. Holding up the ammunition clip, she said, “Wonderful what cybernetics can do nowadays, isn’t it?”
The passersby looked on curiously at the crazy scene. She went back, unscathed, to the TV station.
Collins left her alone for a month after that. Futura won the pool again; it had never been so long between attacks before. As the time lengthened, Page kept up her state of alertness until it became instinct. Futura told her that although they knew Collins was still in town, and the warrant for his arrest was still outstanding, the department was putting her case on the back burner. The lieutenant still came around work every once in a while, to check if she had seen Collins lately, but he came by less frequently than before.
She began to catch glimpses of Collins, when she was on the street, out shopping, coming back from work. She avoided him when he was far off, but when he was closer, she would circle around behind him and disarm him. If he was trying to intimidate her by showing his face and doing nothing, she could do the same. She kept Futura informed of each incident. He told her that the office had started another pool.
She spotted Collins again after a long day at work. He was looking away as she came out, apparently bored with waiting for her. She went inside again, came out the back entrance, and lifted his gun from behind, tossing it, as usual, into a storm grate.
He swung around with a roar, barbed metal shaft in his hand. Her cybernetic arm blocked it almost without her conscious thought, then twisted around and folded it as if it were a cardboard tube. He pulled out a sling; she tripped him with her artificial leg and the missile flew above her head. She bent down to pick out a bulge at his waist; he pressed the nozzle of a mini-spear shaft gun to her left breast. “This is the end, Page,” he said, and fired.
The ricochet off her implant threw her backwards. She landed on her buttocks. She sat there, stunned, seeing that the projectile had bounced back to Collins, catching him under the chin. The other end of the shaft protruded from the top of his head.
Futura was the first policeman to respond to her call. He ran up, gun drawn, took a look at Collins, and put the weapon back in his holster. “Looks like I’ve won the final pool,” he said, indicating the body with a nod.
“He did shoot me,” she said.
He waved her statement away. “Nah, it only counts if he injures you.”
She peeked inside her blouse to be sure that nothing was damaged, then turned back to the corpse. “He must have forgotten that he had shot me there before,” said Page. “It was some time ago, relatively speaking.”
“Or else he didn’t know that all your implants were armored and enhanced.” She turned to him aghast; he added, “Oh. Didn’t I tell you that? Authorized by the city precinct. The papers are in your medical files, somewhere.”
She shook her head, but smiled.
“Ah, listen, in this business, we need all the living pacifists we can get.” Two beat cops ran up; Futura nodded at the corpse. “Why don’t you two take charge here; I’ll be at the station later to write up a report.” He turned to Page. “How about dinner in the meantime? I’ve got to blow my winnings somehow.”
copyright © 1991 by Joan Marie Verba
Originally Published in Science Fiction Review, Summer 1991 issue
Author’s note: Thanks for reading my short story. I hope you enjoyed it!
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