[[Like the first tale, the story itself might not be too novel... most of the text doesn't even come from me, but the fun lessons you can find can render it worth a look, even if it's familiar. Skim if you feel like you must, but you might see some unexpected connections in this tale, considering what you've already read. However, the most important thing you should be thinking about is how I came by the story. I'm a big fan of stories that not everybody can come by...as long as a few can.]]

[[I didn't come up with the title for this one, it came pre-labeled...]]


Plug and Play (mf, inc, cons, slow)


It's weird. I don't actually feel like I have to say anything, but I said I would, so I will.

Where to start? Real stories don't really have good beginnings, they're all tangled up in other stories. That's life, right?

I guess the night I found it is as good a place as any to start. I mean, it made all this necessary, so why not?

In some ways, you could say this all started with a wish, though.

Earlier that night, I was lying on the roof of a dry-cleaning place, staring up at the sky, and there was a gap in the cloud cover. I wasn't looking at that gap... I had more practical concerns than stargazing, and you couldn't actually see any but the brightest stars, but as I looked up from my phone and did a long scan of the sky once more, my eyes fell on that uncloudy patch right as a shooting star streaked by.

I'm not superstitious, but that song lyric ran through my head, from that ancient netflix. "When you wish upon a star..." My mom used to sing that to me, when I was real little, and to my sister, too. And I fucking miss my mom. So, when I saw a shooting star, for her, I made a wish.

What did I wish for? The impossible, of course. I wished to reload my past like life was a game that I'd made the wrong choices in. I wished to rewind time several years back when Mom was alive, and Ray, and even my grandfather... when my sister Mitsy was still this happy, irrepressible tween girl who hugged me tight with both arms when I came home from high school, when I had friends and was popular and had a decent shot at a girlfriend I wouldn't have to share.

If you're going to wish, why not wish for the whole shebang, everything you want at once, right?

It's not like I expected it to come true. Ever since the whole Kessler Syndrome thing began, shooting stars are a dime a dozen. Granted wishes? Not so much. As always, they're something only the ultra-rich can count on, and they have to lay out some serious cash.

The wish was a harmless whim, but I regretted it anyway, both for the immaturity of wishing on a piece of space junk burning up in the atmosphere, and for the still-admittedly-immature thought that I might have wasted a wish on the impossible, that maybe a more reasonable wish would have a better chance of being granted.

When I left that evening, I had plenty of reasonable wishes already in the back of my mind. I needed to come back with a win, a realistic win, anything that fell on the spectrum between "a little better than barely adequate" to "might actually cheer Mitsy up."

The most I thought I could hope for that night was a long-delayed-but-thoroughly-righteous murder, or maybe, if I was really lucky, an orange. Considering the genetically-engineered blight that's been taking out 90% of the crop these last few years, the murder was probably the more achievable goal, at least if I was brave enough to go for it.

I knew where Slag Tremolo's gang hung out, and I knew what he looked like, and there was a chance I could find him and the drop on him and blow his brains out with the printed gun I scammed from one of the PiRats near where we've been living. The real miracle in the situation would be getting out alive again, and I couldn't afford not to, not with my sister depending on me. And, I was scared, I won't lie, I try to act tough but I'm a coward about a lot of things. Even telling this story terrifies me, but I'm doing it anyway. It's not like I really have a choice, right? Given the alternative, I mean.

Still, like many cowards, I was always brave in my head. I imagined killing Slag every possible way, fast, slow, sometimes getting the drop on him alone and abducting him for a long torture, sometimes being like an action hero taking out him and the rest of the Machetes all at once, cutting them out like the cancer they are, all without taking the slightest wound. I had fantasies of dropping Slag's severed head in front of my sister, telling her it was over. In reality that would probably have sent her screaming, but in my fantasy she'd come hug me, crying still, but happy tears this time. I was pretty sure that I'd be brave enough to kill Slag, if the opportunity presented itself, but I wasn't brave enough to go into his territory and seek that opportunity out... and it would take a minor miracle to stumble across him outside of it, alone.

Not as much of a miracle as finding an orange, though. Those were Mitsy's favorite fruit, back in better days. Every Christmas we'd go to our grandfather's and he'd have a box of those special kind, the easy-to-peel ones with no seeds, and Mitsy would probably eat half the box herself, and still squeal with excitement when she got of those orange-flavored chocolates that were made in the shape of the fruit, from Mom's old girlfriend in London.

The last orange we had, chocolate or otherwise, was just after we got kicked out of our house, while we still had a little money, and I knew my sister was sad and missing Mom and Ray, and it was too expensive but I went out and bought one with dinner for our first night in our new place, and she smiled and for a few hours we were actually optimistic, like we were going on a big adventure together. A fraction of that spirit lasted for a few days before it eventually wore down.

Of course, that was before Slag. Slag changed everything, in ways I couldn't even always anticipate. Maybe oranges wouldn't mean the same thing to her anymore, maybe it would only be a reminder of pain when she tried to peel it.

But I hoped for one anyway. Maybe the gesture, the symbol, would be enough to make her smile. And I had to do something.

The way I found her that morning, I had to do something.

I suppose I actually should have started the story there, but I didn't want to mention it, it felt more personal... but now I feel I have to, to explain. So maybe this is working after all.

Mitsy and I, we slept in the same room since we moved here. Nothing weird was happening between us, it's just... for all we're grateful for the space the PiRats found for us, there aren't many options, and... after all we went through, well, I'm protective, I feel better knowing that we're in the most secure part of the building and, if something were to happen, I was right there.

Our place used to be, before it was abandoned, a fast food place, or maybe a donut shop or something. All the labels were torn off, so I'm not sure exactly, and I never bothered to look up historical overlays. But I do know that the heaviest, most solid door is what once was the freezer, and we rigged up a big lock for the inside. The rest of the place wasn't very secure... somebody could bust in while we were sleeping and be on us before we got up. But in the freezer, we could lock it, and maybe robbers wouldn't even know we were there... who'd look for valuables in a broken-down walk-in freezer? And even if they did try to break down the door, I figured we could hold out for a long time, maybe long enough for somebody to show up and help.

It sounds weird, sleeping in a freezer, but it's not actually cold, the compression units were stripped out for scrap metal long ago, and there are small holes in the wall, so light and fresh air gets in from outside, and we have a mini-heater for the really cold nights. It's not even as dingy as you'd think, and the walls help filter out the noise of our neighbors, who sometimes argue or party a little too loud. At their loudest, we can hear them through the shared walls anywhere, but it's usually quietest in the freezer.

So it became the natural choice for Mitsy and I to make into our shared bedroom. With all the shelves removed, there's enough space for both of our roll mattresses to lie side by side, with a curtain hung between us for a little shred of privacy, but not so much that we were separate. We could hear each other fart, curtain or no curtain. I actually offered to sleep outside, because I was worried I wasn't giving her any personal space, but she asked me to stay. It just made sense. If she had a nightmare, and she had those on regular occasions, I could wake her, hold her tight, tell her it was okay, and sometimes, let her sleep cuddled up right next to me until she felt safe again. That wasn't common, but it was at least something I could do... ever since Slag hurt her, I've felt so fucking useless... I've just barely been able to keep us alive, and that's relying on a good deal of PiRat charity, which I resented sometimes. But I couldn't afford pride.

Sharing a room wasn't always comfortable for me either... not the least because I had to find somewhere else if I wanted to fap, which I always used to do right before falling asleep. But a more mundane problem is that whenever one of us woke up to go to the bathroom or something, the other one knew. And when it was Mitsy who woke up, I tried to do my best to stay awake as well, until she came back, although honestly, I fell back asleep pretty often no matter how I tried to be vigilant. It was hard to actually stay awake, because I had to pretend to still be sleeping. Whenever I got up to make sure she was physically safe all the way through a bathroom trip, she accused me of smothering her. Which I guess was true, but after everything, could you blame me? So when she got up, I'd lie in bed, listening for any sound that anything might be amiss, pretending not to be waiting for her, until she came back, and sometimes I would manage it, and at others, I was just too tired and I'd drift off for real, until I heard the door open again for her return.

That's what happened early that morning. The falling asleep part, not her coming back. I woke up, realized I still hadn't heard her, whispered her name, then turned on the little taplight by my bed to confirm my suspicions. She hadn't returned to bed.

It didn't mean anything was wrong, but I couldn't just lie there anymore. It's easy to fall back to sleep on a routine bathroom trip, but now that the worries had crept in, I was up, and probably would be awake for an hour even if she came back in right at that moment. So I got up and headed out into what used to be the kitchen area, now just an all-purpose living area with a shower attached. That was a PiRat invention, but instead of being in the tiny staff bathroom, it had to be set up where there was already a floor grate, so in one corner of our living area, that I guess long ago was a sink or something, was now a curtained-off shower. The air was slightly damp and while the showerhead wasn't on, it was dripping... Mitsy had taken a shower, and I'd slept through it.

Maybe she was in the actual bathroom now, but, rubbing my eyes to try and banish the pain and disorientation of the first morning's light, I automatically stepped forward to close the tap as far as we could... no sense using up our water allowance any faster than we had to. As I did, I spotted something unsettling on the chair nearest to the shower curtain. It was Mitsy's arm, lying above a duffle that contained some of our few possessions from the old days. Just her arm. Mitsy herself was still nowhere to be seen.

I looked down at the soft-looking plastic, unwilling to touch it. I'd done it of course, but only when I had to. To me, it was a bad omen, a symbol of my failure, a symbol of the charity that I'd begun to rely on, a symbol of how things had changed. I don't like those kinds of symbols.

Shaking myself out of those thoughts, I soon discovered that the door to the bathroom was open, so with growing worry, I began to call out my sister's name... her full name, Mitsuko. It means honey child, at least the kanji version... well, at least that's what my grandfather told us. I guess it's kind of bad that we don't actually know. We're several-generation American born, and only half-Japanese (three-eighths, to be technical, unless one of our biological dads had ancestry, but Mom didn't think so) and we speak a little of the language (especially the swear words), but a lot of the traditions lapsed. Mom had a very rebellious youth, and her respect for tradition came late and never as strong as her parents wanted. Right after the Japan Event, my grandfather tried to get us all back into it, to preserve what remained of our culture, but then he died, and soon after that, everything went to hell.

So, no more Japan, no more grandfather, no more Mom. Mitsy's the only thing that's kept me from feeling like a man cut off from my past entirely... sometimes I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I do love her... always have, always will, and that's the truth.

I called her name again, my heart starting to leap into panic mode, and finally I heard her voice. "Here, KK." I'm named Kane, after my grandfather, although of course I always called him Sofu. We both pronounce my version of the name in the American way, like Cain. Aside from a few people who I thought were longtime friends up until we became poor, my sister's the only one who's ever called me KK, the only one who still gets to call me that. She turned out to be just around the wall, in what used to be the customer area. I found her sitting cross-legged on the ground, staring ahead. I might have thought her attention was lost in the net, but we didn't have eyescreens or wearables anymore, not since moving to PiRat territory... that drove me crazy at first, but we've gotten used to it. So Mitsy wasn't doing anything, she really was just staring outside. We always closed the protective metal shutters over what was once a huge glass window (but now just a barren hole), but I guessed that she decided that, since she was already up so early, she might as well open them to watch the sunrise. Not that she could see the sun itself, there were buildings in the way, but you could watch the light bounce around the corners of other buildings as the day begins, and it has its own kind of beauty.

Mitsy's hair was still damp but starting to frizz out as it usually did when it dried, if it wasn't brushed properly. And she was wearing the same, dumb pajamas she wore that night, and she only had her left arm in the pajama top, what was left of her right arm just hung by her side, making it look like that psychopath Slag cut off her whole arm instead of just up to the elbow. When she dressed alone, it was sometimes too much of a pain in the ass to get it into the hole, even with just the stump. If she was going to school, or needed to use her prosthetic arm, she made the effort, or asked for help, but for pajamas, there wasn't any point.

If her halfhearted dressing and unkempt hair hadn't convinced me something was wrong, the wooden instrument in her lap did. It was her violin, one of our few possessions from the old days, Mitsy brought it with her when we moved out of the family home, not just for her own use but as a tribute to our mother, who played in a band in her wild youth and taught my sister. But that violin has been silent ever since Mitsy got hurt.

Sure, it's possible to play the violin with one hand... I've seen video of people doing it, tried to convince Mitsy that it wasn't the end of her dreams of playing in a retrozip band, or maybe one that's alternative-cubed. She studied classical of course, too, but she always preferred the more modern tempo songs. Mitsy just never seemed to want to try to relearn how to play, ever since her arm was cut off. Nor would she sing... she was convinced she had an awful voice, compared to the stars, but that's mostly software modulation. Sometimes, when she's in a cheerier mood, she hums or whistles... that's about the extent of the music that my sister had produced since she lost her arm.

And I knew that today, this sudden digging out of the violin wasn't a signal that she wanted to start again, it was a signal the bad thoughts had started to take over again, and she was dwelling on all that she lost.

I don't want to give you the impression Mitsy's just a depressive nut who can't move on from her trauma, because that's not the truth. Just because you've got a disability doesn't mean you're doomed to sadness. There was so much going on beyond just the loss of her arm, of course, but even that all came and went. Sometimes she's almost exactly like she was before, seemingly happy, optimistic about the future, even joking.

I remember when we first moved into the PiRat area, I was a little sour at what we had to give up as part of our initial seed, so, as soon as we were out of earshot of our guides, I rolled my eyes and muttered, "I can't believe they actually dress like pirates. And that guy had a tail, do you see?" It was the first I'd seen, though I've come to understand that the animated tail attached to a belt is a pretty common accessory for some bizarre reason.

Mitsy turned to me a wicked smile on her face, and she said, "I guess subtlety's not their strong point. You know, that's the problem with kleptomaniacs. They always take things literally." Maybe the joke's not so funny to you... and it's not even original. She probably heard it somewhere else and was saving it up. But it was perfectly timed, and I laughed, and she laughed, and it made the whole thing a little better.

When she's happy, I almost feel like everything's going to be okay... but the mood can turn quick, sometimes for no reason I can detect, sometimes for reasons that make perfect sense, but are unpredictable. When she has trouble with something due to only having one hand, sometimes she makes a joke, and sometimes it puts her into a funk lasting hours or even days. When something reminds her of home, sometimes we reminisce, smiling, and sometimes she stares off into space, remembering all we've lost. And, of course, touching can be a trigger too. If somebody other than me touches her, even innocently, she sometimes recoils, and that can set her off in a depression. I can't blame her for any of that, even if sometimes, and I'm not proud of this, I get impatient and wish she could just move on. I've lost a lot too, and it's not like people don't get limbs regrown or replaced... we just needed money. Of course, every time I think that I feel guilty and try harder to make her feel better.

That's what happened then... I had that brief, uncontrollable thought--Not again...--but I didn't say it, I just sat down beside her. "You took a shower?" She shrugged. "You want me to brush your hair?" I usually did, or at least helped. Again she shrugged. If a brush was within reach, I probably would have, but as it was, I just stayed put. "Bad dream?"

I thought I was going to get another shrug, but after a long moment she exhaled and said, "No... a good one." I knew that feel. I've had my share of nightmares, and they're terrifying, at least until I convince myself they're not real, that Mitsy's still safe beside me... or that they are real, but happened long ago. The good dreams? They can be fucking haunting, and stick with you all day. "Things were, like perfect. Mom and Ray were okay. You and I were sneaking around..." she took a deep breath, like she was sucking back tears to prevent crying. "Doing teenager stuff. And I was beautiful."

"You're still beautiful." I always thought she was, which, fetish-album-songs aside, brothers probably aren't supposed to think about their sisters, although I honestly thought of her more as beautiful than sexy. Her face was pretty, at least, though she didn't really have much of a body... she was sort of gangly. Despite being fifteen, she was almost completely flat-chested. She liked to dress to disguise this fact, but I'd seen her briefly without clothes, completely innocently, sometimes when she was showering, or after, when she had to fumble getting dressed. I'd never admit to anybody that I got a little aroused, but at the same time, a part of me also acknowledged that she didn't have a conventionally sexy body, and especially now that she was missing a piece of it. I just figured I had a hair trigger those days. And her lack of outright sex appeal, that was kind of a relief before, because I know how guys treat sexy girls, I've treated a few badly myself. Mostly, though, I was saying it automatically, to make her feel better, and she knew it.

"You don't have to lie to me, Kane. I'm a big girl. I was maybe cute, on my best days, before... and now, not even that." Her eyes drooped down to her side. The lack of a lower arm was probably going to be off-putting to most people, especially sexually speaking, I couldn't honestly deny that. So I just put my arm around her and tugged her to me.

"You're obsessing too much on this. This is temporary. Regrowth treatments are getting better, cheaper all the time. All we need is a little luck..."

"Yeah, because we've had so much luck already," she snapped.

"That just means we're due."

She shook her head bitterly. "Does that look like how the world works to you? Good people don't get luck."

"That's not true, Mitsy..."

"Isn't it? You remember the Venturas? I used to babysit for their little girl?" It was more of a playdate than babysitting, considering Mitsy was only a few years older and the Venturas could watch their child using nanny programs or remotely on the house cameras, but she took it seriously and made a little money at it. I didn't have as much contact with the Venturas, but they were good people. I sometimes joined in when Mitsy and the little girl played a game in the yard or kept her company on a gig. "They were so nice, and Paula was such a sweetie-pie. And you know what happened?" Of course I knew. They died. Not the little girl, but the parents. Just like Mom and Ray died, months later, although the Venturas were involved in an accident at work, it wasn't a murder. "Now she's with that awful uncle of hers..."

I muttered "Dick," under my breath automatically. The guy was a dick, on his own. The corporation he worked for was even worse, and a lot of my venom was for them. PATHcorp was Ray's employer too, but he didn't buy into the whole corporate shark mindset, it was just a job to him. And at the time, I didn't think much about it either. Not back then. Now, anyone who works for those sons of bitches are automatically dicks to me, at best, until proven otherwise.

See, after Mom and Ray died, while we were still devastated, grieving and trying to figure out how to move on, PATHcorp decided the time was right to sue. They had experts prepared who would prove that Mom died before Ray, which, in the absence of a will, meant that legally most of her assets went to him, even though he was in the process of dying himself. They then argued that when Ray actually did die, he did so without any descendants, which, according to their employment contract, meant that his assets, including most of Mom's, went to PATHcorp. Mitsy and I didn't count as Ray's potential heirs under the law because we were only stepchildren and he never officially adopted us, even though he often said he would. So suddenly, thanks to the most underhanded legal maneuvering in history, we were moved from the category of orphans to dirt-poor orphans.

Mr. Ventura may not have been involved in any of that--PATH's a huge company and he was a manager in one of their tech divisions and probably has no contact with their legal team--but he's still a dick just for working for them. And, independent of that, he's an asshole, based on what he did after. We saw him a fair bit that spring... he was temporarily living in his brother's old house while he made arrangements to sell it and while his niece finished up the school year. We were going through the court case at this time, and when it was done, he came over to give an insincere apology for how things "worked out," combined with the patronizing insult that it was just business and we shouldn't dwell on it or take it personally. I so wanted to punch him, but I knew I'd just wind up in court and what little property we had left would go to him. I half-suspect that's why he did it. Occasionally I even think that he really was behind the legal theft of our inheritance, that he tipped his company off, all because I once trampled on his garden while playing an alternate reality game. But nobody's that evil, right?

Maybe, maybe not, because there was more to his assholery. Mitsy once told me, before what happened with Slag but long after I was within punching range of Mr. Ventura, that on the day we were evicted from our home, he offered to let her stay with him in his. Not us, just her... I clearly wasn't invited, and that made the whole thing pretty sketchy. Mitsy was like, fourteen. So no wonder she referred to him as Paula's awful uncle.

"He's a dick," Mitsy agreed. "...yet he's rich. I bet nothing bad ever happens to him." I could almost feel the words she didn't say. That nothing bad ever happened to Him. Not Mr. Ventura. Slag. He's a psychopath and a murderer and he cut off a teenage girl's arm and who knows what else he's done, and he doesn't get so much as a parking ticket, because the cops don't dare go into Machete territory. She was right, it really was a fucked up world... but we had no choice but to live in it.

I didn't know what to say to those unsaid words, so I just addressed the ones she had said. "He lost his brother," I pointed out. He never seemed particularly bothered by it to me, but some people grieve internally. Maybe that was the reason he was such a prick every time I saw him. "Everybody has their burdens in life."

"Like me... I'm your burden."

"Mitsy... you are not a burden." She was, sometimes, but it was one I never complained about.

"Yes, I am. You have to take care of me, all the time, and it's not fair. And I want to pay you back, I want to take care of you too, to help you, but... I know I'm just not good enough. Every time I try..." The stump of her arm jerked beneath her pajamas and she looked at the space her hand might be if it was still attached and not under the shirt.

I shuddered a little. This was the conversation I was scared to have, scared to even approach. It was why I was too chickenshit to ask her for details on what happened, because until she told me, I could deny it, even though I knew, deep down, it was true. Her encounter with Slag Tremolo... there was no reason for her to be where it happened.

As a precaution, I made sure she had an app that warned her on her eyescreens when she was entering gang territory, if the AR signs weren't clear enough. Because I couldn't be physically around to protect her all day. Most of my time was spent working my ass off trying to keep us afloat, living in a crummy apartment but an okay neighborhood. I didn't have one job, but I did lots of short-term ones, whatever I could find, and I had a list of leads, left it all open to her so she'd know where to try to reach me if the net went down, as it sometimes did. Some of these job listings, the high-paying, were in bad neighborhoods. Dangerous not just because you could be knifed on your way to or from there but because they might be traps themselves, but for the right price, people would take a risk. One in particular was just inside Machete territory not too far from where we lived. I never planned on taking that one unless things got desperate, and they never did... I always had other options. But it was on the list.

Mitsy kept asking to help, but I took it all on myself, and then one day, while I was doing temp work, tearing the guts out of an old school that was being turned into a game-stage, I got the call that my sister was in the hospital. I thought it was an accident, then, but when I read on the invoice where she was picked up, it punched me in the gut. I was responsible for what happened, not just because I wasn't there to protect her, but because also she was trying to help me while she was doing it, taking a job to bring in some extra money.

Despite how it turned out, here she was, determined to help again. I wasn't going to let her repeat that mistake. "You don't have to do anything to help, Mitsy. We're fine here for a while. All I need from you is to keep going to school. That's how you can help."

"But I want to do more. How long until we're declared leeches?" I didn't have an answer for that. The PiRats were, as gangs go, the best option we had, practically a charity, in fact... but it was made very clear that they had no patience for people who just took and never gave back. So far, that had been pretty close to a description of us. "Maybe I should offer to join them."

"No," I snapped. That just wasn't an option for her.

She went on. "If they gave me a hook instead of that kuso arm, I'd fit right in." Despite the flatness in her tone, I knew she was trying to be funny, but I wouldn't have been laughing anyway.

"No," I said again. "You don't want that."

"You don't know what I want," she said. It was listless though, not really angry.

"Trust me, you don't know how they operate," I told her. "If things get that bad, I'll join them, but not you." I knew the rules, families of PiRats got much more latitude with everything... me joining was just as good as her. Of course, there were costs... costs I didn't like thinking about, but I wouldn't tolerate my little sister paying on my behalf.

"See? You'd do that for me." It wasn't gratitude, it was annoyance. "If it weren't for me, you'd never join, you'd just go off somewhere else, start fresh. I am a burden to you." She sucked in a breath. "Sometimes I feel the only thing I can do for you is not be here. You'd be better off right now if I did go to live with Mr. Ventura when he offered... at least you'd be free, you'd still have savings." Paying just the medical bill for the ambulance pickup ate up the last of that, and we still technically owe for the doctors not letting Mitsy bleed out. With the interest on that, practically any job I got wouldn't give me enough for rent and food. It was the last straw that sent us into the arms of the PiRats to begin with. "You could live your own life, instead of this comcastic one taking care of your ugly sister." Tears were starting to drip down her cheeks now, but her voice wasn't blubbering.

"You're my life." I put my finger under her cheek and made her face me. "Listen to me, Mitsy. You're the last thing I have in this world I give a damn about." Sure, from a coldly financial perspective, she was right, I would be better off if she had taken Mr. Ventura's pervy offer... but I'd never want it for the same reason I wouldn't want her to be a PiRat. She's my sister, and I love her more than anything.

Her face was looking at me, but her eyes were drooped. "Maybe that's not a good thing. Maybe if you let me go, you could find something better."

The conversation was really starting to give me this hollow, gnawing chill inside. In netflix, this was the kind of talk you hear before somebody kills themself. And that was always my biggest fear when she got this depressed over things. "No. I'd be lost without you, Mitsy. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. I know things aren't great right now. But it's temporary. We'll just save up a bit, and we'll get out of this damn city. Maybe this damn country, if that's what it takes to get a decent job. We can move to China. Land of opportunity."

Though that was another lie, because even if Mitsy didn't understand how the world worked, I did. China may well be experiencing an economic boom, but it was yet another thing we couldn't participate in, for one simple, stupid reason... our ancestry. Even though we were born in the US, we'd just be more Japanese to them, and they had enough of those refugees since the Event that turned the islands into a Lovecraftian mass of shifting black metal. From what people over there have to say, the Japanese tend to get the shittiest jobs, and the standards to get in are much higher. Old grudges die hard, I guess. I might be able to get permission to move there, if I could pay my way and fake a college diploma, and get some kind of stable job, one that would make it worth all that effort but... only if I was alone. I'd have to leave Mitsy. So China might as well be Mars, it just wasn't happening. But she didn't know that, she'd often talked about seeing the world, and I wasn't above lying to make her feel better.

"Just please... you don't have to do it all alone. Let me help. I'll do anything you ask me to, Kane... anything, if it makes you happy. I love you."

"I love you too," I told her, and leaned my head into hers. "You know what? Let's do something fun." She drew back, to look at me, her tears still drying on her face but at least there was a hopeful look on her face. "There's a party in PiRat town every night somewhere, isn't there? We could go to one."

The hopeful look faded, and I realized immediately how I'd blundered. The old Mitsy had loved parties, but since Slag took her arm, people getting too close brought back bad memories, and the feeling she was being judged. If she was feeling her sunniest, she might be persuaded to try anyway, push on through, and even have a good time, but in her fragile emotional state it was like suggesting she go through one more trial. "Not for me," she said. "But you go. Maybe you can find a girl or something... someone who'll make you happy."

"Fuck that," I said. There was no way I was going to leave her to mope while I had fun. And as for girls, as appealing as that was, they'd mostly be PiRat girls. "That was a bad idea. How about this? I'll run out and try to borrow some glasses or something for today. We'll watch some netflix." In the old days we'd do that sometimes, sync a stream on our separate eyescreens, sometimes physically together, sometimes in separate rooms, but either way we'd be talking, making stupid jokes and insulting the stupid people on screen, or, where they were available, pointing out interesting alternate perspectives to each other (usually she'd be pointing them out to me, I'd usually be scanning for good upskirt or down-blouse views). Well, we had to give up our eyescreens as part of our seed, but sometimes we could snag a few pairs of glasses temporarily under the PiRat share-and-share-alike policy. We could also check out the public movie houses... the PiRats were always playing something open to the public, like they did in the old days, inefficiently projecting it onto a wall (with only the default perspective) instead of beamed directly into the viewer's retinas. But that ran up against some of the same problems as the party idea, and usually they ran weird old serials I've never heard of, so it was plan B.

"Maybe," she said. "But I have school later, remember?"

"You can blow it off." I didn't know if that was the best thing either. Being responsible is hard. At least school meant she would be out, and she had told me she was making some friends... maybe they'd be good for her too. At least there she had some access, too, something I couldn't easily provide. "Or we could do it after. It'll probably take me a while to find some free glasses anyway. But it's still really early. Can we go back to bed?" We'd already adapted to PiRat time, at least mostly. It was still weird to drop Mitsy off for school in the afternoon and pick her up at nine, and we tended to be wake up and get to bed earlier than the rest of the gang, but dawn was way too early for me and now that initial rush of adrenaline and worry that woke me up was fading, I was starting to feel it.

I did manage to persuade Mitsy to come back to the freezer with me, and got a few more hours sleep before waking up again, but in that time, I decided that some borrowed glasses weren't enough. I needed to pull off a little something extra for my sister, to show her that the world really did have miracles for people like us. Even if I had to steal one for her while she was at school.

Mitsy's school wasn't really anything like any I'd been to. Growing up in a private school, I was used to sanitary buildings, locked doors, monitored halls, tailored education plans with ad-laden curriculum. PiRat school was just a rickety ship off the harbor with one old teacher and a lot of pirated educational tutorials. But at least she was learning, there, and out of the house, so I decided not to push her to skip it, and she didn't ask to be allowed to play hooky.

I walked her down to the pier so she could catch one of the ferries to the boat, and kept my eye open for one of the few PiRats I'd made a positive connection with, the girl that calls herself Stephanie, with the bright pink hair. I knew she didn't often go to school, but even if she didn't she usually saw some of her siblings off, and even though things were strained between us personally, I thought she'd help out Mitsy. She had before.

I spotted her leaning against a railing, dressed in one of her usual outfits, the striped shirt with the vest, the pink pants, the beret, and the headscarf with the Pi symbol on it... her outfits were usually modeled after some old netflix serial she watched growing up in this part of town. The ferry was still loading up, but she wasn't on it, just waiting on the side, leaning back and waving goodbye to some of the real youngins who looked up to her. I saw Mitsy get aboard the ferry and, once it set off, sidled up to Stephanie and said, "Hey."

Her eyes flicked to me, then away. "Hey, Kane, finally decided I was worth talking to again?" I kind of deserved that. I had been avoiding her, ever since I discovered that what I thought was a special connection wasn't. Or maybe it was, but it wasn't exclusive, sexually, and I can't do that. I wish I could, but me and some friends participated in one of those shared girlfriend pools when I was still in school, and I found out I just couldn't handle it, it made everything cheap and usually all the girls really wanted to be with one particular guy, and that guy wasn't me, and my ego wouldn't take it. I kind of want to tell the story of that, too, but it's not important to the bigger story so I'm going to resist that urge.

Suffice it to say, I'd been avoiding Stephanie because of my own issues, but I never hated her, and now I had a reason to talk to her. "Listen, I need a favor."

"If it's a blowjob, you should know I'm PiRat property today, and I don't think Buck's up for a two-guy threesome today, since I'm his first girl in a while. I mean, I can ask, but you might have to blow him too..."

Ugh, what were the odds? After a few seconds I decided she had to be doing it deliberately to raise my hackles, but I wasn't going to rise to the bait. "It's not for me, it's for Mitsy."

She'd been smiling innocently when teasing me, but then her face twisted up into a grimace, like she realized it wasn't a joking matter. "I'm listening."

I didn't know how much I wanted to explain to her. My instinct was always to keep our problems private. Though I had shared plenty with Stephanie when I felt this deep connection with her that probably turned out to be mostly due to the fact that she was the first girl I'd fucked in months, she wasn't the only one in earshot right then. The others nearby pretended not to listen, but I knew they did. "It's just... could you make sure she gets home safe tonight if I'm not there?"

"Where are you going to be?"

"I'm heading out into the city..."

"The mainland? What for?"

I did my best to not roll my eyes. I'm not sure I succeeded entirely. We were already on the mainland. The only thing that separated PiRat territory from the rest of the city were the gang signs and some AR tags that I couldn't even see anymore without borrowing glasses. "I just... need to bring her something special today." I looked into her bubblegum pink eyescreens trying to will her to understand the meaning, that it was a bad time for Mitsy. "And I don't know if I'll be back in time, and... I just want to be sure she's taken care of, you know?"

She stared at me, then nodded. "Okay, I'll make sure she has an escort. But you know it's really pretty safe here, right?" She waved a hand around, only covering a small distance but I knew it stood in for the whole of the gang's territory. And I did know that. The PiRats may have their quirks, but I respected the reputation. There are gangs who'll rape or murder you if they catch you on their territory alone, or maim people for fun. PiRats may not respect physical property much more than they do intellectual, but they don't hurt people unless they're attacked first.

But my parents were murdered in a gated community, one of those places crime just isn't supposed to happen. I don't trust anywhere to be completely safe.

"Yeah," I said anyway, "but I'm a worrier." There was one more order of business. "Also, you know where I can find some free glasses for the night?"

"Jesus-rape-me-in-the-ass..." came a voice from the girl beside Stephanie, sitting cross-legged on a raised post. It was one of her friends, a girl maybe a year younger than me named Cadigan, with tattoos up and down her arms and glyphs on her cheeks. I guessed the glyphs probably didn't double as drug patches, since she was always kind of a bitch whether she had them or not. She wore a purple microskirt today, an open vest, and painted-on top over her breasts. She was a PiRat through and through, but was one of those that didn't dress in PiRat-themed gear very often, the only clear sign being the Pi symbol painted above her left nipple, the one with the piercing. "You want glasses now? Haven't we done enough for you leeches?"

I winced. It was the first time the L word had been thrown around by a PiRat about me and Mitsy. Not entirely unfairly, either. We wore PiRat-printed clothes, ate mostly PiRat gruel, and they gave us a prime location with running water, and presented us with Mitsy's artificial arm, which, as low-tech as it was, really touched me. In return, we hadn't contributed much back beyond our initial seed to get in and a little bit of money now and then. Sympathy for Mitsy's situation went a long way, but it would not go on forever. If enough of them felt we were only taking and not giving back, we'd be exiled, and then we wouldn't even have a converted restaurant, we really would be living on the dangerous streets of iCity. That knot in the pit of my stomach came back. One more thing I had to put on the list of things to do... find a way to balance the scales, even a little.

"Shut it, Caddy." Stephanie said to her friend. "Anyone can take glasses if they're not being used. But you're going to have to find them yourself, I can't help you today." That one must have been a subtle "fuck you" to me, considering she was hooked into the PiRat social network with her eyescreens and they've hacked up their own resource management apps. If she really wanted to, she could look it up for me in seconds. When we were first connecting, she'd do that sort of thing all the time, help find stuff that I could use on any given day, but I guess since I blew her off, that privilege no longer extended. "If you can find Banksy, he might know." That wasn't much help either, finding any individual person without PiRat access was just about as difficult as finding stuff.

But, like with everything else in my life lately, I was ready to take what I could get and be grateful for it. "Okay. Thanks." She didn't look at me, just gave a halfhearted bob of her head. I tried to put a little more feeling into it. "No, really, thanks. I've been a bit of a jerk lately, but... it's me, not you."

She shrugged, and still wouldn't look at me, then enthusiastically waved to a man ushering a small group of kids towards the school. Probably waving to the kids more than the guy, but maybe he was in her crew, one of the guys she fucked on a regular basis, just because they were both PiRats, and that was the PiRat lifestyle. I tried not to feel jealous, and just backed away. Cadigan was staring at me... I wanted to give her the finger, but I couldn't afford to make more of an enemy of her than I felt like I already had, so I just shot her what I hoped was an apologetic shrug and moved over to another part of the docks to watch the ferry, make sure it got to the schoolboat without trouble.

I never did find any free glasses. But I did manage to wait out the line for one of those public terminals and access my old social network, which was growing pretty sparse. Always was pretty sparse... I mean, nobody likes to use the global networks when the local area-limited ones are much more secure. And not only was I out-of-area, most people from the old days quietly dropped me from their lists of associates, like my family's bad luck might rub off on them. Or maybe it's just they didn't like the reminder that the same thing could happen to them at any moment. One minute they've got a good life and are on track to a decent career, the next they're scrounging just to survive. Those who didn't drop me didn't shoot me anything other than a "Hey, how are things?" message once in a while, which I never answered honestly anyway. They cared enough to ask, the least I could do was not bring them down with the truth. In the first few months some of them gave me work, some money in exchange for schoolwork done on their behalf (struggling to survive, I was cheaper than people who just wanted the money to buy the latest wearables), but that seemed to have dried up. Even this girl who said she had this huge crush on me, the last girl before Stephanie I thought I connected with, hadn't ever made contact since I left home.

I didn't even know that girl's name... that was kind of the point. We chatted on a location-limited anonymous network, under pseudonyms. She was Hopeless-Dreamer, I was MarkOfKane, so obviously, she quickly figured out who I was, and confessed she really had a crush on me. Which sounded great, but she was too self-conscious to reveal herself. I never understood why, we seemed to click on a personal level, and we lived in an area where nobody's ugly unless they stubbornly choose to be... but I've known plenty of girls who still compare themselves to others and obsess over tiny differences that guys barely even notice, and she seemed to be one of those, convinced she didn't measure up. So she wouldn't tell me who she was. Instead, she made a game of it. I could guess one name every week, and she'd tell me if I was right... the idea was that if I guessed, it proved we were meant to be. All I knew for sure, thanks to an independent verifier, was that she was actually a girl, and she went to my school, but that still left a lot of choices. I even started to have fun with the game... up until the last few weeks when we had to move and it became like a deadline. A deadline I missed. Once I was out of range of the network, I couldn't contact her anymore through that app, but she knew my real name. She could have contacted me on my regular profile, if she was willing to give up her anonymity, but as the days turned into weeks I gave up on hoping myself and considered that the end of it. On some days, I thought back on her and wondered if maybe she took my failure to guess her identity as a sign that I didn't really have feelings for her, but I had to take her silence as a sign that I was never really important to her at all. It was just like my so-called friends... if somebody really means something to you, you don't just let them go.

These days, my social networking was a purely practical affair. I had a few contacts, some notifiers set up from job share boards... they didn't often come up with anything, but every once in a while I could make a few bucks off it. And this time, I lucked out, I had a hit, a pure warm-body job. Some corporate douche my age wanted to duck out work early that afternoon to go to a Grind-Artist shoot, and just needed somebody his approximate height and weight to show up on the dumbest sensors until quitting time. In exchange, I'd get an insignificant fraction of his hourly rate, a fraction even of what he was paying somebody to dummy the video feeds. It was a ripoff, but it was better than nothing and it wasn't demanding.

I laid down dibs on the offer despite the fact that I'd have to rush and count on a little luck to make it. It was nearby, but without access on the way, it was easy to get turned around or wander into gang territory, and the autobuses don't run in PiRat territory, not that I could normally afford that anyway. So there was a risk I'd wind up being a no-show which would damage my chances for future jobs... but I made it in time, barely.

Of course, my employer looked down at me, sneering at my lack of wearables and the sweat pouring off me. I don't know what his problem was, at the rates he was paying, he couldn't expect anybody with any real money to take the deal... poor and smelly is the best he could hope for. Besides, he didn't have time to arrange anything else, just approved the transfer to my phone (with a hold on it so he could cancel if I ducked out) and gave me the quick rundown.

The job was at a mostly-automated distribution hub shipping out coffee to various iCity cafes, but they'd already got their incoming delivery for the day, which was apparently the last time he had any human contact. So all I did was sit in a room, satisfy the sensors and probably my employer's dad or uncle that he wasn't shirking off the little responsibility he was given, and watch as stuff got sent out in automated shipper trucks. If there was some kind of fuck-up I'd be on the spot, which was the only reason the job existed at all, but these things are pretty reliable. I bet Mr. Wannabe-Grinder never saw a single emergency and spent every day here just keeping a chair warm while pursuing his own interests online, but for me it was deadly dull. Without wearables of my own, I couldn't even do much beyond a little bit of fiddling on my phone. I hear there was a time people got most of their access with these bulky handheld things, but in the few months I've had one, I haven't found much use for it. Of course, I'm stuck with a barebones adphone. I suppose if they were good for anything other than making calls, holding identity credentials, and tuning in news broadcasts and ads, they wouldn't qualify as dumb technology, and we wouldn't be allowed them at all. The PiRats would have taken them along with our wearables.

The only one I could imagine calling up on it was Mitsy or Stephanie, and Mitsy was in school. And I didn't want to call Stephanie, didn't know what to say and wasn't prepared for the possibility she might answer the call while Buck or some other PiRat was banging her. So mostly I just listened to ads, tried to assemble a wishlist for after work. I'd already made up my mind to go poaching... that's why I brought the gun and some of the other dumb tools I'd gathered and managed to keep over the past few months. It was my only chance to afford a really nice surprise... but with the money I'd earned today, I might be able to afford a warm bowl of noodles if all else failed, which was marginally better than the PiRat gruel we'd been living off. Call that plan Z, after Slag's head, an orange, or something valuable.

I did think about just ripping off my employer and making off with some coffee, but that's the sort of thing that gets you blacklisted from the jobsites for life, and he already had my identity to turn over to the police, so any possible payoff wasn't worth it. Poaching, that was a risk, but it was a more manageable one, or so I thought. Cops rarely come out for a poaching job if you stick to the fringes, and if I was careful I could avoid getting branded a criminal and having that hang around my neck the rest of my life.

I was a criminal already, of course... I'd just never been arrested. All my crimes were under-the-radar, and I planned to continue that trend, and went to work decked out right for it. My clothes weren't even smart, so they couldn't be tracked around town, and the scarf I had tied around my neck was mirrorcloth that I planned to wrap around my face to prevent a drone from getting an identifiable view of me... assuming I managed to shoot one down.

Which brings me back to the rooftop, where I lay for a couple hours after quitting time, the mirrorcloth on my face, my hands sprayed with an invisible polymer that prevents me from leaving fingerprints. Now I looked like a criminal, just waiting for a crime. But I'd been waiting there far too long, so long my covered face was getting sweaty. I looked again and again for drones and that's when I saw that useless shooting star, which I made a wish on not really expecting one to come true. I was getting ready to admit failure, once again, and go with plan Z... my stomach was rumbling, and I'd already had to phone Mitsy, tell her I'd be late, bringing dinner, and to lock herself up in the freezer until I came back. Again, just in case, it was past dark and we didn't even live in the security of a gated community.

Finally, I spotted a moving shape against the clouds, no running lights, just a dark spot, very difficult to see. I have this little handheld zoom, old school, dumb technology, just using curved glass, but it was enough for me to get a better look and confirm that it was a drone, moving more-or-less in my direction. I didn't think it had any weaponry, but I was going to be taking a risk regardless.

It hit me then, as it had before, that even among poachers, having a little money made things so much easier. If I had eyescreens I could zoom in on an image-stabilized view and see every detail, use a targeting app that, since it's motion was relatively predictable, would not only tell me when to aim and fire, but tell me exactly where the package would drop if I hit. But because I was poor enough that I really need to go poaching, I didn't have that shit.

Mitsy's right, this is a fucked-up world.

I guess I should be lucky that I had a gun at all, though. It would probably be easier to just hold up somebody and demand their stuff, that just isn't in me. Not yet, anyway. If things get much worse, or we're forced out on our own...

Anyway, I didn't have a lot of advantages, all I had besides the gun was one thing, my old unenhanced meat brain. Luckily, I'm pretty smart, or at least I think I am. I don't make a big deal out of it, I don't usually want people to know, but if it wasn't for what happened to Mom and Ray, I would have been on track to go to college, maybe get a corporate sponsorship and a good job right off the bat. So I leveled the pistol and readied my shot, waiting for it to get as close as possible, then adjusting for wind and picking just the right moment so it would land on an accessible rooftop, rather than down on the street.

Or that was the theory, anyway. The pistol went off with a bang that sounded like lightning had struck right in front of me. I'd fired guns before, but somehow it seemed louder when the stakes were real. And I missed completely. And from this point on, it was only getting farther away.

So I quickly got over my disappointment and fired again. This time I hit it, taking out a rotor, and the drone wobbled, took a steep dive, and then corrected. But it didn't come back unscathed, the package was already tumbling down, dropped.

Other poachers had told me about this... whatever it was carrying was worth less than the drone itself (or there was no insurance or guarantee), so it ditched whatever it was and prioritized getting away. Another reason it's better to rob drones than people. People are unpredictable and might fight you for something worthless, but drones behave rationally. The economics of delivery take poachers into account and some algorithm decides exactly when it's worth cutting their losses. It was fine by me that the drone escaped, the spare parts might have brought in some cash, but it'd take time to sort out... I was hoping there'd be something nice in the package, something I could use directly.

I couldn't see exactly where it went down, and I heard a lot of banging which suggested it wasn't a smooth drop, but I ran towards it anyway, racing over the gaps between rooftops, not even slowing down over the wobbly network of planks already linking adjacent buildings together, which proved it was a high poaching area. Whoever got that delivery probably had to pay a premium to go through there, or maybe the company was willing to risk it to meet a contracted deadline rather than take a longer route around. Either way, I wanted to get to it before somebody poached it from me.

No box was in sight when I reached the building that I thought the package landed on, or near, so I started looking over the edge, down to street level. There, as I bobbed my head around, I thought I saw the glint of metal, and confirmed it with my handheld zoom. I'd lucked out, it had landed on a garbage bag, though the banging it took on the way down might still have damaged the contents beyond usability. Still, if it was electronics, the broken parts could be sold, and even if it was a meal, it might be messy, but they usually packed them securely to account for shipping damage or evasive maneuvers.

I scampered down the side of the building towards my prize. I knew I wouldn't be able to get back up easily from there, but it seemed safe enough to descend, aside from a few bone-shaking jumps, and after less than a minute, I was at street-level. I crouched over the box and opened it up.

When I realized what was inside, I could hardly believe my luck. I closed the box once again and shoved the whole thing in my pack, then walked to the other side of the alley and emerged on the far side of the street, strolling casually like nothing was wrong.

That's when I started to think something was wrong. It was quiet... too quiet. I passed by storefronts and normally, even if they were closed, I'd be inundated with ads targeting my movements and sonically beamed into my inner ear, playing in my head and my head alone, but there was nothing. Normally, that is, if I was in a good area of town. In sketchier areas, there'd still be that, but there'd also be wildcat transmitters, systems that recognized that I had no wearables and was a teenage male, and hit me with ads for porn or prostitutes or drugs or any illegal thing that they could plausibly deny if I happened to be connected to the authorities. Silence, though, that couldn't be a good sign in any neighborhood. Except in Silent gang territory, I guess. So I was starting to get a little freaked out.

Especially when I realized I didn't know where I was. Oh, on one level I did. I knew where in the city I was, more or less, and how to get home. But there's a lot of different layers of information, different ways to look at a city, and some of them, you're just too used to appearing automatically. When you wear eyescreens everywhere, you become too used to the Gangview app warning you you're straying into the wrong neighborhood, or seeing augmented reality signposts. Who actually bothers to remember the borders of the different sub-neighborhoods of iCity, especially when they change so fast?

I thought the rooftop I'd been waiting on was safely in neutral territory... but I wasn't sure, and I'd crossed several buildings since then. It's so tricky to navigate without markers and embellishments. I'd be a lot more comfortable if I could get a whiff of the AR, see the streets as a library or awash with blood and get a sense of who I might be dealing with. The city can change character in less than a block, and it looks very different depending on whether you're on the street or the top of a building. And, there on the street, I was becoming more and more aware of people behind me, a group of them, casually walking along. They were talking quietly, too quietly to hear anything more than the fact of it, but all that proved is that it wasn't the Silent.

I didn't want to look back too much, but I began actively searching, then, for the most last-resort markers, the old logos of the now-defunct Apple company, emblazoned on public utilities, net nodes, and various other spots, and used as low-tech signals of gang territory. Finally I spotted one on a long dead terminal, and my blood ran cold. "Shit." The apple had been defaced with three vertical lines that came from a stylized fist. Even without a link to a reference site, I knew that one... it was the Sniktbubs, the body-mod gang known not only for their initiation ritual, having a set of sharp claws grafted into their forearms, but for their willingness to use them. They were a gang that made sport of people, and, like most gangs, they'd strung up their own sensor network throughout their territory to detect and track interlopers. Which I, apparently, was. And worse, like the Machetes, they'd also been known for following and hunting people outside of their territory.

I clutched my gun in one shaking hand and began to pick up the pace. Any hope that the people following me weren't themselves Snikts was dashed when I heard one of them shout, "Oh, look, little piggie's scared!"

"He should be," another called out. "Gonna slice you stem to stern, bub." I started running, then, and was very conscious of the people behind me doing the same. I tried to duck down an alley, only to see a shadow at the end of it, lift up an arm and grin as blades came out of it. There wasn't the 'snikt' sound they were supposedly named for, but I might have missed it in the sound of my skin crawling.

I was fucked. Totally raped. They weren't just behind me, they were coordinating online. But I couldn't just lie down and die, I had to go down fighting. I ran past that alley, hoping I was still headed towards neutral territory and not deeper in trouble, and raised my gun, firing one shot... a warning shot. I cursed myself as a coward, but I didn't want to kill anybody if I didn't have to.

Well, there was another good reason for not aiming directly at them. Maybe they wouldn't kill me, maybe I could get away with just giving up the box, or they'd just hurt me to teach me and others a lesson. I couldn't count on it, but from what I heard about them, they had moods... and one sure thing that that would turn them into a berserker rage, if they weren't already in one, would be killing one of their gang.

"Come on, give up now and maybe we'll give you to our ex two threes."

I had no idea what that meant. Microslangs are hard to decipher without dictionary apps. But I didn't take the suggestion to give up seriously... one thing I did remember with my own brain was that they supposedly respected people who gave them a good chase, and even if it was just crowdsourced gossip with no basis in fact, it was all I had to go on. I kept running, aiming for the nearest street where there was traffic and auto-driving cars and beautiful, annoying advertising everywhere.

I bet in their heads they had awesome chase music going, but I couldn't hear any of it, all I could hear was the sound of my own pounding heart and, above that, the faraway hustle and bustle of a normal street... and what sounded like a loud, angry hum, distant but getting closer. As it got louder, I realized... it was like the ambient sound they play from cars to let you know they're there, only louder, like somebody's cranked up the volume.

Whatever it was, I couldn't worry about it, I just kept moving, looking behind me to see the handful of people who were there before was now about a dozen, following, and there were more I could see out of the corner of my eye.

The humming noise intensified and I saw a sleek green motorbike coming my way, blocking my progress, and I swore, sure they'd boxed me in again. I quickly turned in place once to get an idea where everyone was and try to make a choice about whether I should risk trying to pass the bike and maybe get razor-sharp claws slicing through me at a hundred miles per hour, get down on my hands and knees to beg, or maybe try firing my gun, somewhere.

While I was still trying to make my decision, the bike got closer and closer until my only option to survive the next few seconds was to wait for the best time to jump out of the way to avoid the razors.

I was bracing for that, only it didn't try to run me down, instead it skid to a stop in front of me. The rider, a bare-chested guy in a leather vest, shouted, "Woooh!" and then looked at me, and the people chasing me. "You look like you could use a ride, man."

Normally, I'd never accept a ride from a guy like that. He was around my age, but he was big... like chubby, and you hardly ever see that except in old people. He even had boobs... not sculpted ones that indicated he was in transition, but just from having too much flab. His eyes were obscured by round, mirrored glasses, but his face sagged and he had an ugly double chin.

But what he lacked in native attractiveness, and fashion sense, he made up with accessorization. Two things made him the most beautiful man in the world for me, a guy who's about as heterosexual as they come. There was the long, pink tail that hung off his belt, and the bandana containing his shoulder-length hair, which was pink but had the greek symbol for Pi emblazoned in black right over his forehead. Both indicated the same thing.

Somehow, impossibly, a PiRat had come to my rescue. He was riding on an old motorcycle, gas powered if you can believe it... it had exhaust fumes coming off the end of it, like you mostly only see on big trucks. I haven't seen anything quite like it in a long time. It even had Kawasaki written on one side, in white, which meant it had to have been made in Japan, right? If it wasn't a collector's item already, it probably became one after the country went all black swan. About the only way the scene could have been more unbelievable is if he rode to my rescue on a horse.

I guess I was gaping, because he said, "Well? You coming?"

I didn't have any better offers and the Snikts were getting pretty close to slicing range, so I tucked my gun into my belt and hopped on the back and grabbed on tight to his meaty frame, and we sped off.

The Snikt's might prefer to use their implanted claws, but they do know their way around guns, and when I looked back I thought it looked like they might be drawing them, so I released the PiRat with one arm, pulled my gun again, and fired the last three shots I had in the clip, aiming behind us, not to hurt, but just to make them duck and give us a few more seconds to get us further away. I had no hope of hitting anybody, but they didn't know that. Good targeting apps are cheap so the first instinct when somebody actually starts firing at you is to dive for cover, and that bought us those precious few seconds. My rescuer cackled at the gun shots, and began leaning us in one direction, and I could swear we were going to tip over, but we turned a corner and pretty soon we were whipping between autodriven cars, flagrantly disregarding the traffic rules in a way only a manually driven vehicle can do. His articulated rat tail squirmed uncomfortably between us, like it was trying to get free and provide some sort of counterbalance, or maybe it was just reflecting his excited emotional state, but I was holding on for dear life even despite the wriggling thing jostling my crotch around. At the same time, I was starting to get a high from the realization that I'd just cheated death, I'd escaped a violent cyber gang and I was free and clear and on my way home.

My savior didn't ask where we were going, just drove us towards the waterfront, although by a different route than I usually took, and we went unchallenged, so I only knew we were actually in PiRat territory when he slowed to a stop and I saw an Apple symbol with a rat in a pirate hat (with Pi on it) drawn around the apple, like the rat had just taken the bite. The traditional PiRat logo signifiying their area.

The driver of the motorcycle shook off my arms and them climbed off the bike, looking back at me with a grin. He pumped his fists and shouted, "Wooh!" in a deep, throaty voice. "That was stellar, man! Interstellar!"

I got off the bike as well, and my legs felt like jelly, like the bones were only solid through force of will, and I had to put all my will into not collapsing. My gun, I slipped back into my waistband, and then I pulled down the reflective scarf that had been covering my face. "Thanks, man... if you hadn't come along..."

He nodded with a furious intensity like he was headbanging or hopped up on some kind of amphetamine, then pointed at me, and took a step closer to tap my chest with one finger. "You man, are the luckiest motherfucker I have met in a while."

"Yeah," I said, although I didn't feel it. After all, it was pretty damn unlucky to be in the situation in the first place, that I got out of it just sort of evened the scales. And overall, my luck still ran mostly bad. Still, I couldn't help smiling.

"I mean, seriously... if I had been in my usual hunting grounds... you'd be dead. If I hadn't found this baby..." A pat of the handlebars proved which baby he was talking about. "...lying around in some garage, you'd be dead. If I hadn't been driving nearby when I heard the gunshot and checked to see if any PiRats might need help..."

"Yeah, I'd be dead..." I blinked. "I'm not a PiRat, though..."

"Yeah, but you got the token." Right. A large fake coin that fit in the palm of my hand. We were given one to let us in and out of PiRat territory... I guess it broadcast our location at short range as well, maybe through a quantum torison antenna scavenged out of the wearables we gave them and repurposed. "And you'd make a good one, I think. That was so badass! Like something out of a netflix, you know?"

He lunged towards me, and before I could react, he wrapped his arms around me in an uncomfortable bearhug, my face mashed up into one of his bare shoulders. It was as if I'd just saved his life, not the other way around. "Yeah," I said with a strained voice. "It was pretty badass."

Finally, he let go, and backed away and put one arm behind his back like he was scratching something. "Seriously, I always wanted to come all knight-in-shining armor on somebody. To be perfectly honest, I was hoping it'd be a skirt, but I'm not picky. I'll accept a thank-you blowjob from you too."

I just stared at him. Sure the guy saved my life, but... there were limits to my gratitude. I stammered out, "Um, that's not really..."

He laughed and slapped his legs. "Man, I'm just fucking with you. I don't much go in for guy-guy."

Relief was my first reaction, but then curiosity. Not into guy-guy? "But, you're a PiRat..." I said. "Isn't that mandatory?"


I learned about the PiRats' particular sexual habits from Stephanie, on our third night together. Not really night, actually... very early evening. School was still going on, but neither of us were in attendance. Instead, we were in her place, a second floor former office painted in painfully bright pastel colors.

We had just had sex, not the first time for us, but the first time we did it with all the lights on, letting me get a great look at her tight, tiny body as it bounced up and down on my cock. One thing about Stephanie I loved is that she had a lot of energy, and she knew exactly what she liked. This was also the first time we did it with her on top, cowgirl style, and I squeezed her hips to help force her on me. Each bounce seemed to force me deeper into her expanding mattress for a second until it pushed back into its comfort-foam configuration.

As we fucked, my eyes couldn't decide what I wanted to see more, her shaved snatch swallowing my manhood, those perfect pink nipples as her tiny chest heaved, gasping for breath, or her expression... perhaps that was cutest of all, her mouth hung open and, as she was approaching orgasm, it looked almost like her eyes were rolling up into her head. Soon I was about to cum too, and one of her hands flew to her pussy, rubbing around the clit and mashing in the surrounding flesh while I pounded into her, until finally I came inside of her.

After we were done, she collapsed into my arms, and soon I slipped out of her. She pulled away only for a second, to open a window and feel the cool evening air on her naked body, then fell in beside me again. We cuddled together, sleepily.

"You know, I really like you," I told her, then looked right into her eyes, trying to make the moment meaningful.

She grinned her wide open grin. "You're not so bad yourself."

"I don't know if you want to skip school again tomorrow, but we could meet up again. Do... I don't know... something."

"Mmm... I'd love to, but I can't, I'm with Buck tomorrow."

I only met him briefly at an awkward orienteering party. He was a dark-skinned guy, big, but in his case it was height and muscle, not fat, and he was kind of creepy, because of the sheath he had built into his mouth, where he stored a knife, so it perpetually looked like he was biting down on a dagger. He'd take it out when he was talking to you and twirl it end over end like he was looking for somebody to stab. That wasn't very encouraging either. Stephanie had told me he used to be in another, more violent gang, but joined the PiRats after a turf war left most of his friends dead. "When you say with..." I asked, dreading the answer. "What exactly do you mean?"

"Well, I don't know exactly," she said. "He mostly likes anal... but we might make it a threesome with Veronica, since we both kind of owe her. So he might like to cum in me so Veronica can eat it out, and she's not really fond of eating ass, so..."

I winced and forced myself to look away. We hadn't actually discussed anything like exclusivity, so I wasn't angry or anything. She hadn't betrayed me or anything. I was just surprised, hurt, and disappointed. Stephanie and I weren't officially a couple, we just enjoyed spending some time together, not even just sex, but a lot of just talking. I thought we had a connection, but that didn't meant she couldn't also be seeing other guys. She said it all so nonchalantly, like she didn't even consider that this might bother me. I didn't want it to bother me, it was so... retro to be bothered by promiscuity. And really, I'm not, except when it's somebody I want to be with. I know I'm not the only one who still believes in one-to-one relationships... but at the same time, whatever Stephanie and I had was still pretty new, so I resolved to grin and bear it... I could settle for a while, in the hopes that I could convince her to eventually go exclusive. I didn't want to sound like I was judging her, since I knew that would just piss her off, so I kept my voice casual and asked, "So, you do girls too?"

"Of course. I have to."

I felt my brow wrinkling at the choice of words. "Have to?"

"Well, I want to, too. Being with girls... well, girls know what girls like, you know? And a lot of guys are lazy on the oral sex... not you, mind you, I have no complaints about you." She patted my chest lightly, and I smiled. I really did enjoy eating her out, but she seemed to enjoy it even more.

Yet there was one niggling detail I couldn't let go of. "But you said you have to."

"Well, yeah... they're in my crew."

I didn't get it. "So...?"

"So... I thought you knew?" she looked at me, but I guess it was clear that I didn't. "Being a PiRat's all about sharing. Sometimes even if you don't want to. Sometimes we share with people we like, like you, but we always share with other PiRats."

"You mean sex." I hadn't heard that about the PiRats, but I couldn't say it was a complete surprise. A lot of gangs had the girls as community property, little more than cumdumps, but that didn't seem quite like what was going on here.

"We share our bodies with our crew. Sometimes outside of it, too. It's a rule. There's a semi-randomized schedule. So you can't really be hetro... the girls all do each other, the guys all do each other, and all the guys do all the girls. But it's fun! It's bonding. We all get one-on-one time with everyone, and sometimes we get together for a big orgy. Nobody gets left out, nobody's lonely. Everybody feels loved. I love, I trust my crew like nobody else."

"Oh," I said, and the walls started closing in on my heart. How could I love a girl who loved several blocks full of gangbangers, probably more than me? It was like my early high school girlfriend pool all over again. Like what went down with Tara.

"You should join. I might be able to get us in the same crew." I was already starting to pull away, not just emotionally, but physically, too, though I was trying to do it slowly. "Everyone's really great. Even Buck, you think he's really rough, but he's like a gentle giant, you know? Especially with noobs."

"Yeah, I'm thinking about it," I said, not meaning it. I had actually been considering joining the PiRats... up until that moment. But right then my mind was on autodrive, and I was just trying to get away, until I could sort things out on my own. "Listen, I should get going, I need to pick Mitsy up from school." It was the first excuse I could think of to get out of there.

Stephanie stared at me as I slid my shirt on, not buying it. "The first ferry's not even leaving for another few minutes."

"I also need to grab something from the food depot," I said, putting on my pants and underwear. Another lie, and one she could probably verify, if the PiRats kept track of how much me and Mitsy were leeching from their system, as I'm sure they did, and if Stephanie checked, as I'm sure she could, she'd know that I got enough gruel for both me and my sister earlier that day.

She didn't call me on it, though. "So, you want to hang out maybe a little later in the week? I can show you more about what being a PiRat is all about."

"Sure, maybe," I said. "I'll see you around." My last lie, since after that, I did my best to avoid her, up until I needed her that morning, to make sure Mitsy got home safely.

Now I was having a conversation about this particular PiRat quirk with somebody who saved my life, the first one who seemed to think it wasn't all great to be bisexual, and my first hint that it wasn't absolutely mandatory. Were people able to opt-out after all? If so, I could see myself joining that night.

His next words squashed that hope. "Oh, yeah, I do what I have to do... and it's not even so bad, you get used to it, and my crew's really cool. But it's not my preference, you know? And most of the time with the guys, we just do mutual handjobs. It's more symbolic than anything else, you know?" I didn't, but even that sounded pretty uncomfortable to me. "And trust me, a little yaoi play? It's better than the alternative. I couldn't handle that."

"Not being a PiRat, you mean?" I guess I could understand getting that desperate, as I'd considered it myself. They offered protection, and regular meals, and you could extend that umbrella to others, so yeah, under the right circumstances, the occasional hand job might be a small price to pay.

He paused as though thrown off his train of thought. "Well, yeah, that too, but I meant the other path to being a PiRat. Way too intense for me." So there was another path, though apparently it was bad enough that a straight guy would prefer to regularly fool around with other guys. Still, worth exploring. But before I could ask about it, he said, "Shit, we haven't even been introduced. I'm Sterling." He extended a hand, even though we'd just hugged a few minutes ago. Not a fist bump, either, but to shake it, which was still weird to me. The PiRats had a fetish for old-fashioned things, clothing, old media, handshakes, public schooling.

The guy just saved my life, so he could engage in all the weird habits he wanted, and I'd play along, as long as it didn't involve me pleasing him sexually, or vice versa. I took the hand, shook it vigorously. "Kane," I said.

"Nice. Biblical."

I was all set to say, 'No, actually...' but correcting the person who just saved your life felt like kind of a douchey move. Instead, I said, "Anyway, I owe you one," hoping that, now that his joke about owing him sexual favors was revealed a joke, we could go our separate ways and I could get back home. "I need to jet off, though."

"Whoa, not so fast there, Kane," he said, putting one meaty palm on my shirt before I could turn away. "We still have a little business. Let's see what's in the bag."

"Huh?" I said, but I knew exactly what was coming, I just had the vain hope that playing dumb might get him to let it slide.

"You live on PiRat ground, that means we get first dibs on anything you got. What were you doing out there, poaching?"

"I... wasn't doing anything."

"Really. You were in Snikt territory just for a casual stroll. Man, I just saved your life and you're going to hold out on me? I guess you must have another place to live all lined up." He let go of my shirt and immediately poked me in the chest with a single, accusatory finger.

With a scowl, I bent down and opened the bag. It was impossible to hide the drone's payload... he probably saw the bulge in my backpack while it was still on my back. Upon seeing the actual box, he just grabbed it and went for it right away, laying it on the ground in front of him before doing a cursory check of the rest of the bag. Evidently he didn't find anything worth taking among my dumb-tools, because he went back to the box and lifted the top.

He whistled as it opened and the spicy aroma started to waft up. "Nice. What, you shoot down a Diaper Genie?"

"What? No, I... I think that's curry."

He laughed and picked up the small round tin, the first of three. "I know, but a lot of good shit gets sent by Diaper Genie drones, cause they think nobody'll want poopy diapers enough to shoot it down. Though I think they know that we're on to them, 'cause lately it actually has been diapers."

"Oh. This one was unmarked." As far as I could see, anyway. His eyes were focused on the tins, I hoped he didn't see what was lying flat up against the side of the box.

The top of the tin came off, and the smell got that much more intense. It was definitely some kind of greenish-yellow curry, with chunks of what looked like real chicken and vegetables inside. He set it on the ground, went for tin two, which was filled with deep fried breaded shrimp. Some of the breading had fallen off, probably due to the banging the package received, despite how tightly packed it was. It could have been printed food, but those always have a slightly deflated look... this, this looked plump and appetizing. Maybe vat grown. "Must be some wealthy fucker to get all this fancy a meal in prime poaching grounds."

"Wow, shrimp..." I said, leaning down into the box and placing my hand oh-so-casually on the flat treasure still defying gravity on the side of the box. It was probably partly smooshed, but still my best chance of impressing Mitsy. "I was thinking it was probably a corporate." It wasn't just the food, although such good stuff was pretty pricy, it was the included silverware, durable plates, fork, knife, and spoon... all that upped the delivery cost significantly. And they might not have been able to get insurance on it. Somebody got screwed out of some money, and I hoped it was somebody from PATH.

"Maybe. Could be a gang leader, too. Ripper, the head Snikt, he just got himself a reality deal. Our escape tonight might even be on the tubes already." Sterling grinned, like it was all part of a day's excitement, and he grabbed the last tin.

"Figures..." I muttered. Yet another way the world's fucked up. Crime can pay, quite well... not just by the proceeds of the crime itself, as it always has, but if you're bold and brazen enough, you're more likely to get a contract to play on the dark corners of the net than to get arrested. My gruesome death or maiming is illegal, but if the cops aren't willing to act, then it's just going to wind up being somebody's after-dinner entertainment, and only one entertainer will get paid.

The last tin was filled to the brim with rice. Not very expensive, but part of your complete dining experience. Sterling looked it over, then up at me. "Okay, so, I figure I'll take most of the shrimp, and half the curry and just a little bit of the rice. Still leaves you with a good bellyful." Not ideal, but as long as there was a good meal for Mitsy in there, I couldn't complain. "Oh, and I definitely want what you're hiding under your hand there."

Fuck. I lifted my hand, knowing he'd already seen it, but he must not have seen exactly what it was, because his eyes bugged out. "Shit, is that a Scarffen Bar? Mine!"

It shouldn't have been a big deal, but it was. Chocolate... real chocolate, maybe not deluxe chocolate, like the Scarffen Bars, but at least good chocolate... it was expensive, due to recent cocao crop failures, but it wasn't like oranges. The shrimp alone cost more than the chocolate, assuming it wasn't printed. But since my sister and I became poor as fuck, chocolate was off our shopping list. Sometimes I'd get some cheap store or vending machine chocolate, but that crumbly shit's mostly corn syrup, tastes like vaguely chocolate flavored sugar. A Scarffen Bar? Not only is it high quality chocolate made in traditional methods, but the cost isn't even half of the problem of acquiring it, it's the exclusivity. You pretty much have to order it by drone, or as dessert from a good restaurant, or buy one in a sweet shop in a good neighborhood, like our old neighborhood. Poor people just don't get a shot at them because you have to be well off before they're even an option. I took them for granted before, but now... now, a Scarffen Bar would be a win. Maybe my only win of the night. And now it was being taken away.

"Listen, don't do this, man... I get that you have to take your cut, but... let me keep the chocolate, at least. I can give you some money instead, I worked today, too..."

"Don't want money," he said, and grabbed it right from the box. "Want chocolate."

"It's not for me, it's for my sister..."

"Yeah, sure, I've heard that before..." But he stopped, his fingers started twitching, and his face took on that slack look people sometimes get when they're looking something up. "Shit. You're Mitsy Kishido's brother, aren't you?"

"You know her?"

"I see her in school, sometimes. Never talked to her." He looked down at the tray, scowling, then handed the chocolate bar to me. "Take it. Hide it before I change my mind." He made a show of not even looking at it, like he couldn't bear to watch it go.

I tucked it into my pocket. "Thanks."

"No problem. As for the rest..." He looked down at the rest of the food, took the spoon from the delivery box, dug a big spoonful of the curry, and shoved it in his mouth. "I'll just have this one bite, for formality's sake... and three shrimp..." These he picked out of the tin and placed them in a pocket of his vest, right above his man-boob. "And I'll mark you down as having shared it."

He said the last bit with his mouth still full of curry, like a total slob, but I could have cried and hugged him anyway. Figuratively, though probably not literally. Though, I guess I wouldn't be opposed to a manly hug if it was suggested. Regardless, I just stood there, stunned. I don't know what to do with charity, really. And I really did want to contribute, now. "I can still give you some money."

He swallowed. "Nah, don't worry about it... the Kawasaki, that's going to put me in good standing for a while. Still can't believe some yutz had it in a locked garage, gassed up and ready to go."

"Guess he's going to be pretty pissed when he finds it missing." It was a long shot, but maybe both the bike and the dinner belonged to the same person. If so, I hoped once again it once belonged to somebody from PATH.

"If he was that possessive of it, he should have been riding it. It's all part of the Pi, right, and he wasn't using his slice." That part of PiRat culture I knew already. Stephanie had explained it to me during one of our first conversations, about the transcendental number, the closest thing to a PiRat religious symbol. Because the digits of Pi go on forever, never repeating into a pattern, every string of numbers, no matter how long and specific, eventually crops up somewhere inside of it. I guess as a justification for stealing intellectual property, it has its merits... all data can be expressed as a string of numbers, so in the end, it's all part of Pi, and Pi, being a number, belongs to everyone. That's why they call their artists miners, because of this idea that they're just mining the transcendental number and presenting the rest of the world with the results. It never made sense to me how that applied to physical property, but I guess it's like all religions... it's mostly just an excuse to behave the way you want. And at least the PiRats had nobler ambitions than most. "We can chop it up, the tires'll make good feedstock for the printers, give some kids some new shoes, maybe. Maybe make the engine into a generator we can run on vegetable oil," Sterling explained.

I figured I'd try to offer my sage advice. "You know, it's probably worth more as a collector's piece..." Even PiRats had to contribute to the common good or risk expulsion as a leech... and so I wanted to be helpful, make sure he got the most value for it, especially after letting me keep most of the food.

He shook his head at me. "Man, don't be that way. That's a mainland-thought, corporate mentality, value over utility. I mean, what's the point of keeping things shiny and new and useless, just because somebody else says it's valuable? We use things, and if something's not useful, we tear it up and build something that is. Gonna be a shame, though, it is a beaut." He exhaled sharply, then looked at me with a grin. "So, yeah, I don't need your money. Besides, I already took your gun." He winked.

My hands went to my sides and for the first time I realized it was gone. It must have happened during the bearhug. "What...?"

"Only PiRats get to bear arms in PiRat territory," he said. "We were in a rush coming in, so I assume you just got caught up and forgot to declare the gun you found outside." But by the knowing expression on his face and the way he stressed the word 'outside,' I knew I wouldn't be fooling anybody if I claimed that, though he'd probably not call me on it. I was really starting to like this guy, more than just because he saved me, and despite the fact that he'd just stolen my gun. Like life was a game between friends and it didn't matter to him that I'd tried to cheat him, he cheated me right back and had no hard feelings, so neither should I. The truth is, I took it off a stoned PiRat when I saw an opportunity, just in case I wound up needing it, so I had no good reason to be mad anyway. "So, listen, how's your sister doing?"

How did I answer that? "She's... well, she's, you know... there are good days and bad days."

"The arm, though, that working out for her? Helping her at least?"

There was a certain eagerness in his voice, like he was searching for some kind of approval or validation. "You were in on that?" I guessed. Stephanie had organized the effort, but pulled in some friends. I wondered suddenly if Sterling was part of her crew, or a separate one.

He shrugged. "Yeah, a lot of us were... I didn't do much, just helped find some of the designs, was on the team trying to choose the best one, and chipped in some of my printer credits."

"It's.. it's just great," I lied, but unfairly. It really was a feat of engineering. With no electronic parts at all, Mitsy could at least cause it to open and close the fingers and so grasp some objects with it. It was also, unfortunately, unwieldy to put on and chafed uncomfortably if she used it too long. But we both really appreciated the gesture.

"There's so much better out there, you know, I just wish..." He trailed off, then started again. "You know how it is, man... we live on the razor's edge out here, the cops might look like they've given up, but they're just overwhelmed and taking it slow. And the one thing that will get us put to the top of their priority list is if we break the printer laws." 3D printers could make the world a paradise, but the government and corporations colluded to keep us down, at least that was the PiRat line, as Stephanie told me one night on the roof during a party. Growing up they said it was all done to protect us from terrorism, the horrors of a world where anybody could print off chemical or biological weapons or bombs or self-replicating robots like what destroyed Japan, but Stephanie, she insisted it was mainly to maintain corporate monopoly on technology. Whatever the justification, everybody can agree on the effects: the government goes ultra-harsh on anybody who even attempts to print electronics, drugs, biologicals, or a few other proscribed categories. Even the hint of a rogue printer operating gets instant federal funds for a crack investigation team, who might also arrest you for lesser crimes like copyright infringement, and, if you resist them too much? Well, the missile strikes on apartment buildings full of innocent people, just to destroy a suspected illegal print shops that the government later claimed were clear-and-present dangers, are all in the public record. They showed us the photos of one in school, called it a drastic but necessary precaution. I wasn't so sure, but, considering what happened in Japan, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Sterling went on, "Your sister really should think about joining up with us. Some of us on the team are still on the lookout for a better arm, but there's only so much we allow to let a non-PiRat keep." Stephanie had explained that, too. There are better prosthetic arms that they're not allowed to print because they have electronic components... if they ever did find one, they'd probably turn it over to us, and we'd be allowed to keep them in PiRat territory, even as outsiders, because they're simple enough that they're not worth tearing up for their parts. They're classified as "dumb" technology, just like phones and music players. But the really good prosthetics, even if they acquired one, would never be given to us, not as guests. Charity had its limits. If Mitsy or I joined the gang, it would be another matter, of course, but the chances of finding one seemed so small, so I hadn't made any commitments. Now Sterling was making the same pitch. "Personally, I'd welcome Mitsy in my crew. Both of you, really. I mean, you're already poaching, why not go all the way?"

My eyes narrowed. Given the PiRat habits, saying he wanted Mitsy in his crew could be a very polite way of saying "I'd like to fuck your sister." But given how nice he'd been already, I was willing to write it off as unintentional. Besides, he seemed to me like he wasn't thinking that far ahead... after all, he invited both of us to join his crew. Didn't he consider what that would mean? Still, my face turned stony, my voice cold. "No, I don't think it would work out for us." I couldn't resist one last barb. "Besides, you still couldn't print her anything better, could you?"

"Print? No. But she rises up in the ranks, we might schedule a raid for one from a hospital, or trade with a street doc. It's not just about the arm, though..." He looked away then leaned into whisper. "We might have to bail on the waterfront."

That was totally new information. "What?"

"Not, like, today, or anything, but retreat strategies are being drafted, just in case." He tapped his nose for some reason, a gesture clearly full of meaning I didn't understand. "You know the corporate cops pretty much wiped out the local Juggalos, right?" I shook my head. Without access, in my eyes, at my fingers at all times, it's easy to fall behind. Though, now that he mentioned it, I did notice there were a few clown-faced kids coming to school these last few weeks. I figured it was a new trend, but maybe they were refugees. "That's actually why I was able to rescue you today. Normally I range out to the west, but with the Juggalos gone, the corporations have swept in there with a "revitalization project." They've got a construction site up with big DFWMs." He saw my expression, then explained, "'Don't Fuck With Me's. Big guns. Guy I know on another crew almost got his balls shot off trying to snag some materials. And I like my balls, so I figured I'd find somewhere else. We're starting to think that, one of these days, they might come for us, too. We keep a low profile, and we send a little money the way of the cops. So they'll probably go after other gangs first, but that's why we won't take any chances on printcrime. All the bribes in the world won't protect us from that." I wasn't so sure. It of course was no surprise that the PiRats bribed the cops to be left alone. I'd also heard that, instead of fighting the more violent gangs, cops bribed them to not make trouble outside of their borders. Is that fucked up, or what? The mostly harmless gangs pay, the real criminals get paid. I wonder if it all circulates through the same account.

"So what happens if they come?" I asked him.

He shrugged. "We can maybe fight for a while, but I don't know if we will. Discretion is the better part of valor, and all. If we have to bolt, though, we're not worrying about rounding up guests, it'll be PiRats and family only."

Great, one more thing to worry about. I grimaced, but I wasn't going to join on the spot, so I just gave him a shrug.

"Well, think about it. I think you guys would make good PiRats. But nobody can force you." Well, no person could, but circumstances could absolutely force me. He started heading back to his Kawasaki, and told me, "Anyway, I better get this baby into a Faraday cage before I find there's a hidden tracker on it and somebody sends an assassin after me." I nodded. "I'd suggest leaving the box by the side of the road, by the way. I haven't heard of delivery restaurants making an example out of poachers in a while, but... it happens."

Shit. He was probably right. "Yeah. Listen, thanks... for everything, Sterling. I do owe you, big time. You ever need anything, just ask, I'll do my best."

He revved up the engine, then saluted with one finger off his hairline, smiled and said, "Don't pay it back, just pay it forward."


I did take his advice and left the box there... instead I just shoved the individual tins, along with the plates and cutlery, back in my bag. They might have tracking devices on them too, but right then, I figured it was less likely, and if they did, it wasn't likely to be able to make a connection. We lived pretty far from the nearest PiRat node and much of the area's been three-striked out of corporate access due to repeated copyright infringement. Even our phones can't get access except through the PiRat nodes, and they filter.

I walked home from where Sterling left me, my high of survival and accomplishment fading as I did. It was only a few blocks, but once you get to thinking in a certain direction, those thoughts prey on you, only getting worse. I was thinking, of course, of the possibility something happened to Mitsy, that all my fantastic luck of this evening had to be a cosmic joke and I'd find out I'd be too late, she'd have killed herself or something dumb like that, I'd find her bleeding on the floor. Another, scarier part of my brain told myself it wouldn't happen like that, at the very least, Mitsy would want to avoid causing me pain, she'd disappear and jump off a pier or something with only a note begging me to stay strong. It was scary because I actually found that a comfort, like it was a possibility I could keep going without her, but I'd be like that part, without a soul, just thinking of cold facts, benefits and liabilities, like a corporate.

So by the time I stepped into the converted restaurant that was now our home, my heart was pounding. "Mitsy?" I called. No answer. I called again.

The door to the freezer was closed. That was a good sign. I banged on it, called out once more and said it was me, then, heard the lock being undone, and, seconds later, there was Mitsy.

She was smiling.

That cold, soulless part of me was actually a little annoyed for a second. Here I'd gone and risked my life just to cheer her up, and she'd gotten over it on her own. But the majority of me was happy, though skeptical. I knew as well as anybody that a smile could hide depression.

But it was nice to see, anyway. She called herself ugly, but, especially when she smiled, she was beautiful. What is it with girls, do they all think they're ugly, or is it just being surrounded by other people's physical perfection, you can't see your own?

"Come on. I got dinner." I threw my jacket and scarf in a pile, then, with my backpack, headed to the counter we usually ate at, side by side. Mitsy disappeared back into the freezer for a moment, just to bring the little handheld music player she was using inside, but then followed, and her eyes widened in surprise as I pulled out the tins.

"You bought that?" I hadn't been able to splurge for a good meal in a while.

"Not quite..." I grinned. "I did get some work today, though. Today was a good day." If you leave out the almost dying part, which I intended to do.

She gasped, a cute little noise as I lifted the lid off the first tin, the curry, then looked to me, unbelieving. I paid it no mind and opened the shrimp. Her eyes were now totally wide, astonished. "You weren't kidding..." she said. When the rice was revealed, she realized that nothing else was coming (I decided to save the Scarffen bar for a final surprise), evaluated the portion size, and said, "We'll still need some of the gruel, on the side."

"No, I'll have gruel, you..."

"No." It was firm, almost angry. "We share."

I knew better to argue. "Okay, I'll get it after." By this time I had the plate out, and was dishing out some rice. "Do you want the curry poured on the rice, or on the side?"

"Mixed in, please," she said. "But you take the plate. The tin is easier." She held up the arm, and I saw the point immediately. With two hands, I can corral food with both a fork and knife, but Mitsy had trouble maneuvering... but in this case, the sides of the tin could serve the same purpose (I'd considered that chopsticks would be easier for her, but we never picked up the habit, much to my grandfather's disappointment). So I made up a small plate for myself, and left much of it in the tins, prepared to insist that it was the same amount and any difference was an optical illusion.

She didn't press the issue, though, just took the fork and took a mouthful up to her lips, testing it. It was still warm... those tins were actually some special carbon composite and made extremely good insulators, and she made a sound that indicated she thought it was delicious. I tried a bite, and I had to agree... the curry tasted even better than it smelled.

It was a small meal though, at least for two people, so I did go fetch some gruel to beef up our plates. We usually ate the PiRat-made vegetable mash pellets dry, except sometimes in the morning we turn it into a porridge or roast it just for a little variety. This time, I poured a bunch of the plain pellets on my plate and ladled a little bit of extra curry juice on it for flavoring, which was sure to help a lot. Gruel's not bad at first, but the blandness gets boring after a while. Even though there's probably less than 20% potato actually in it, it still sort of tastes like fries, and like fries, adding a little bit of some kind of sauce can do wonders for it. When I was done with my plate, I poured a smaller amount for Mitsy in the tin that used to hold the rice before it was mixed in with the curry. She followed my lead and also poured some of the sauce on top.

As we ate, we listened to songs, and we talked. Or I got her to talk, about school. She wanted me to talk about how I got the food, but I was just vague, and changed the subject, and the job, I could honestly describe as boring, so I could only talk about that for so long.

"You happen to know a PiRat named Sterling?" I asked at one point, mostly to change the subject from my night. She looked at me blankly, so I described him.

"I think I've seen him at school sometimes," she said. "Why?"

"Just met him today. He seems like a nice guy." She shrugged, so I guessed he really had made no impression on her.

She was quiet for a few seconds, and then, her previous question deflected, she went for another touchy one. "So do you want to tell me why Stephanie walked me home today?"

I blinked, decided honesty was the best option here. "I asked her to."

"Her? When you're not even talking to her?" I grimaced at that. She'd tried to ask me about it, but I didn't want her to know, either the extent of my relationship with Stephanie, or why it suddenly ended. "It's because of how I was this morning, wasn't it?"

"I just wanted to be sure you were safe."

"It was just a bad night, KK." But she looked down, and I was certain I sensed the deep sadness that still lay behind her mask that was currently so intent on convincing me she'd gotten over it.

"Okay," I said, anyway. That's the thing when you're that close to each other. She knew I was worried about her, and what specifically I was worried about, and so she acted like nothing was wrong, and I knew that she was acting, and she probably knew that I knew, too. But you can't acknowledge it, except in the most general terms. "Here, take the last shrimp," I said, nudging the tin towards her, and I ate a little more gruel... it was all that I had left, and it didn't even have any of the curry sauce on it. I ate the good stuff first.

"No, I'm stuffed. Besides, I don't want my stomach getting too used to eating real food."

I put my fork down abruptly. "Yeah."

"Oh, KK, I didn't mean it like that." She put her hand, her real hand, on mine, her thumb caressing the side. "I know you're doing all you can." Her head leaned against mine as well.

I knew she didn't mean it, but the reminder that I wasn't able to provide for her like she deserved still stung, and even the words 'doing all you can' sounded like an acknowledgment of my failure. All I could was not good enough. "Yeah," I said again.

"Thank you," she said, sincerely. "The dinner was so good. Seriously. I wish I could do something even half as nice for you. I wish I could make you happy."

"You don't have to do anything for me, Mitsy. I'm fine."

"Fine is not happy," she pointed out, with that wisdom beyond her years that I knew so well from her, even when it sometimes infuriated me.

I could say I was fine, but it didn't feel right to lie to her and say I was happy, like I knew she wanted. But I could force a smile. A smile may be a lie too, but it's an easier one, especially when there's some real pleasure behind it. "Anyway, the night's not over. I have one more surprise for you. Something very special." I was thinking, of course, of the chocolate. She pulled back, looked at me, a squinting side-eye, like she was trying to read my mind and guess what it is, so I smiled even wider. "But not right away." If she was stuffed, we could wait. I picked up the shrimp, waved it at her. "Last chance?" She smiled, shook her head, so I popped it in my mouth, savoring the little rubbery pop before I burst the soft flesh within, one of those things the printers can't quite duplicate. And I wasn't full... Mitsy probably had some gruel at school, the teacher there insists on it, but I hadn't eaten anything since just before I dropped her off. So I savored that shrimp and then cleaned up. Just because I was getting paranoid about hidden trackers, I collected everything that was from the drone box. Even a fork might be trying to phone home, and as unlikely as it was to get access, I didn't want it in our home if it did. Besides, we could get plenty of decent forks and plates from the print shop. "I'm going to dump these outside. I'll be back in a few, okay?"

Mitsy nodded, then headed to the bathroom, and I ducked outside, walked around the block, gently placing everything on a corner. I didn't think of it as littering... some PiRat would probably pick it up, maybe turn it into feedstock. I didn't know how it worked, but why not let somebody who did take care of it?

The sky had already gotten pretty dark by that point, and even the streetlights seemed dimmer than usual... and, what with the usual, loud parties going on in the distance, I wasn't quite as aware of my surroundings as I normally would have been. So when I got right in front of my house and I realized that there was a car in front of it, I once again practically shit my pants. Especially when it lit up and began speaking to me.

"Kane Kishiro," it shouted, in an artificial voice that felt like it was coming from inside my skull. The lights were impossibly bright at first, but once my eyes got used to it I realized that it wasn't a heavily armored police car, like my first instinct, but rather an old-fashioned rounded top car. Which didn't mean it wasn't dangerous, of course.

It wasn't just a car, it was an autocab, and it took me a second before it twigged a memory and I realized it was one of those branded tie-in ones from that Love Bug flix a few years back... the one about the autocar that gained sentience as a full AI and called itself Herbie. It was surprising the cabs were still around... despite all the promotion, the netflix flopped, although Mitsy and I streamed it together with a neighbor girl she was looking after.

The cab was speaking to me with the same kind of holosonics they use to blast targeted ads, so even though it sounded loud, I was probably the only one who heard. "Kane Kishiro," it repeated. "This is a delivery mission, through Frank's Logistics Yard, for products of value, to be delivered only to Kane Kishiro or Mitsuko Kishiro. Accept delivery of package?"

I don't know what was more surprising, that somebody had a package for me or that it came for me here. Autocabs just don't come into PiRat territory, not without huge... well, huge DFWM guns, guns I didn't see, to dissuade the PiRats from descending on it and stripping it to useful parts. There's a lot of useful tech in autocabs, computers, internal displays, holosonic systems, the retina lasers that paint custom ads on people... even drones don't fly over PiRat territory, and drones are simple, practically dumb technology. An undefended autocab is a treasure trove. Yet here was one, in front of me, delivering a package, something valuable, to me by name. It sounds crazy, but I swear this is exactly how it happened.

I didn't answer, for fear that if I admitted who I was, it would signal my arrest or execution, since some kind of elaborate trick also seemed more logical than a mail delivery. How would anyone even know where I was? But I didn't have to speak. "Identity confirmed by physiognomy or voice recognition," it said. The door popped open. "Please remove the package." Well, it already knew who I was, so I got in close to see the long package on the floor. It was a plain box, much like a drone box in appearance but made of stiff, biodegradable cardboard, a little longer than my chest is wide, but only maybe half a foot high. But what the hell, even if I couldn't understand it, I wasn't going to turn down a free gift, so I picked it up and backed away to the sidewalk. It wasn't as heavy as I thought it might be.

Once I removed the package, the voice in my head returned. "Thank you. Powering our vehicles with love, for old time's sake, and Frank's Logistics Yard sends their regards, and we wish you a good night."

"Yeah, whatever," I muttered. They really needed to work on their slogan. Poor branding probably explains why I never heard of them. Probably foreign. The car drove off, while I took the package into our home, lay it on the counter, and opened it. And that was the first time I saw it.

Mitsy came out a few seconds later (or maybe I'd just been staring at it a really long time and I lost track of everything else in the impossibility of the discovery), and she stepped forward to peer inside the box, and she saw it too, and must have assumed it was the surprise I mentioned. Her eyes snapped up to mine, glistening, shining really, with wonder at the miracle. "What... how did you... ?" Then her expression turned angry and she shoved me with her intact arm. "Did you break into a hospital?"

"No, I..."

"You could have gotten yourself arrested, or killed! Do you know how that would make me feel?"

"Mitsy... I... I didn't do this."

I guess she must have felt my own astonishment, because she didn't dispute it. Her face just scrunched up, trying to process the idea. "Then how..."

I hadn't quite processed it myself. "It just... arrived."

It was, of course, the arm. It was grey metal, not perfectly smooth but made of interlocking plates that could bend and expand slightly. The metal was covered in parts with soft black patches, mostly covering the hand and in strips below the wrist, like whoever made it was too cheap to cover the whole thing. It looked far less realistic, or attractive, than Mitsy's fleshlike plastic arm... but you could tell that this had some serious technology behind it, the fingers were extremely articulated and it had a full range of motion. It smelled faintly of disinfectant, like it had come directly from a prosthetic factory, and I lifted it out and you could see that it attached itself around a stump and then, presumably, interfaced with the nerves to provide sensation like a real arm. There was a little card, with "self-attaching, just plug and play" written on it, which became visible when it came out of the box.

"Do you want to try it?" I suggested, and then started worrying again. What if it didn't fit? Even if it was self-attaching, there was a wide range of arm sizes, and this didn't look custom-fitted.

She continued to stare for a few seconds, but then slowly reached into her shirt to undo the strap that held her existing prosthetic over her shoulder. That, she was getting good at doing one handed. Once released, the soft plastic hand fell dropped away, the straps sliding through her sleeve and slowing their descent to the ground.

Mitsy held out the stump, and then, turned her eyes away, like she couldn't bear to look, especially not if she was going to be disappointed. I pressed the end of the cyberarm to her, and then saw that my fears about the size were for nothing... the thing actually moved, tiled sections stretched apart, revealing more connectors in between, and petal-like flaps closed around what was left of her arm, securing it in place. The arm had automatically adjusted to the correct length, more or less. It was still a little long, and notably thicker than her real arm, but... it was an arm.

Mitsy gasped, and the fingers began to move immediately. The metal hand grasped my own forearm. "I can feel..." she whispered. "I can feel your arm." Luckily, as intimidating as an oversized artificial arm looks, it didn't grip me especially tight, owing to the soft padded sections that were also probably sensors.

"How does it feel?"

The fingers began to probe around my own arm, moving up to my bicep. "Good... could be more muscular, and there's a teeny bit of flab on it but overall..."

"No, dummy, how does it feel on you?" I could tell she knew what I meant, which is the only reason I called her dummy. She was in a good mood. I was in a good mood. We were playfully ribbing each other like the old days (after a few months living lean, even without toner, there certainly wasn't much flab on my arm). My wish upon the star earlier in the night may not have come true, but it had come closer than I'd ever believed possible.

"I don't know," she said, as she pulled away. I half-expected the arm to fall off as soon as I let go, but somehow it held, and the hand began to twist, the fingers flexing, like it was run on actual muscles that had gone stiff. Her other hand ran down its length, and then she began scratching the soft black plastic on the back of her new hand. "Oh my god, I've had that itch forever..." Next, she held the arms side-by-side, palms up, thumbs out. "It's too big. The fingers are too long."

"Forget how it looks," I said. "It's a hand, Mitsy. It works, right?"

"I guess. But it's ugly," she said. The good mood of the moment had faded awfully fast.

She wasn't whining, it wasn't that tone of voice... it was just pointing out a flaw. Still, the obsession with finding the few flaws in this gift that might as well have fallen from heaven was starting to irritate me. When she got the other prosthetic, she only complained after a few hours, about legitimate complaints, like how uncomfortable it got. "Who cares if it's ugly?" Was she really that shallow?

"See, you agree, it's ugly."

"It's functional. That's what's important. You can feel stuff!" I took the hand, squeezed it, hoping it was sensitive enough that she could actually feel the slight pressure. "You can go back to playing music."

She frowned, looked towards the clothes pile we stashed the violin with--so that a wandering PiRat wouldn't see it and think it was valuable--like she was considering. "The hand's not the right size, it's probably just going to throw me off."

"You can compensate for it!" I almost felt like growling in frustration. "Why do you keep looking for reasons not to be excited by this?"

She looked back at me, her eyes wide, still glistening, but now like it might break into tears. Her voice was resigned, and very small. "Kane, you know we won't be able to keep it."

Now it made sense. She didn't want to get her hopes up, she didn't want to get mine up, either. Because she was right, this arm was definitely in the category of "smart" technology. The kind we shouldn't be allowed to have while we lived here, without permission. I had one thin hope. "For all we know they sent this..."

"It doesn't really seem like their style."

She certainly had a point there. When they gave us her previous arm, it was accompanied by a group of raucous PiRats, led by Stephanie, who all brought booze and music and turned it into an excuse to party. Our housewarming was an excuse to party. So was when they installed our shower system. That we weren't always really in a partying mood never seemed to cross their minds, it was like it wasn't really about us, it was about them showing off how cool they were, giving us this stuff for nothing, and throwing us a party, to boot. So an anonymous drop-off? That didn't feel like a PiRat gift.

Of course I couldn't be one-hundred percent sure. Maybe some PiRat had stumbled upon it and wanted to give it to us anonymously... maybe they didn't want their friends to know what they'd found and given up, not to the group, but to a non-PiRat. Or maybe it was a trap, to try to trick us into not declaring that we'd found some smart technology, to make us prove ourselves leeches. Both possibilities seemed about equally likely. "You don't know that," I told her. "I can't think of anybody else who'd send us an arm, can you?" She shook her head. "So it's ours."

"And what happens if they accuse us on holding out on them?" It was made very clear... not only did could anything we own get claimed by the PiRats, hoarding technology useful to the community would be severely punished. Our music players, phones, and other minor doodads were classified as dumb technology... the PiRats could take it if they wanted, but they probably wouldn't, everybody already had their own. Slightly smarter technology, like AR-enabled glasses, could be borrowed for short terms, as long as we were willing to turn it in regularly so everybody else could have a shot at them. But anything smart that cost more than fifty dollars was restricted to PiRats and PiRat family members, without prior permission by a local Browncoat, and I hadn't even met one of those yet. Trying to get around those rules could get them very pissed off at us, get us keel-hauled, as they called it.

There was one other possibility though. It might not be a trap. It might be a lure, dangled in front of us to try to convince us to make a move. "No, I'm not going to make you give it up," I said, "If I have to, I'll join the PiRats." Once the idea took root in my head, it genuinely seemed like it might be the most likely scenario. Someone could have sent it to encourage one of us to make that leap, to join them. If it was a lure, it was a good one. For this, at least, it might be worth it... this wasn't a vague promise that they might help her someday, it was real, it was something she needed.

And something my sister rejected. "No," she said, her voice firm. "I won't let you."

Let me. I forced a smile. "Let me? It's not really up to you. Look, really, I've been thinking about it for a while. This just makes one last good excuse."

"It's my arm, so it's my responsibility. I'll do it."

"You don't know what you're saying, Mitsy."

"Yes I do."

"No, you don't." How could I put it gently... "When you're a PiRat... you're expected to... do certain things."

"I know what they do, KK... I talk to PiRats in school all the time."

I still wasn't sure she knew. She always seemed innocent to me, and for all I knew, she thought I meant that they steal from people who are perceived to have more than they need. Still, I gave her the benefit of the doubt... PiRats were anything but shy. "Then you know why I have to do it, not you."

Her mouth compressed into a line which then contracted, as though she was eating something sour. "No," she said again. "I know that's not what you want. You want one person to love, a partner, who loves you the same way, completely... not to share." That proved that she did know what I meant about what PiRats did, but it still surprised me. I didn't think I'd ever mentioned that hope to her, or my problems with the girlfriend pool. "And you deserve that. I won't have you give that up for me. You've given up so much already."

"I'm not giving anything up," I told her, lying shamelessly. "It isn't so bad, there's a definite upside."

"Oh? You started liking guys then?" My eyes slid away. I'd lie to her, but there were limits where I knew I wouldn't be believed. "No, if anybody joins, it's going to be me."

That just wasn't an option. I tried to be as gentle as I could, but I was going to have to be harsh to try to shock her out of this stupid idea. "Don't be stubborn, Mitsy... I'm the logical choice. Even if I didn't want to do it, I could handle it. You know you couldn't. You know you don't get a choice, if you're a PiRat, you'd have to have sex with guys..." I didn't know if girls would be as much of an issue as guys were for me. Mom was bisexual, and they said there was a small genetic component to that... not enough to affect me, but maybe Mitsy inherited it. It was one of the things we'd never discussed, because it didn't matter to me, but I had faint memories, before our lives turned to hell, of her, while we were watching something together, making complimentary comments on how some of the female stars looked. And I'd never known her to have a serious boyfriend. Maybe she was always into girls, and now, after Slag Tremolo, that might be all she could be interested in.

"Yeah, but they'd have to have sex with me, too," she said, sounding tough. "Maybe that's the best I can hope for."

Why did she have to be so dense? I wondered. I didn't want to spell it out, but I had to make her see. "Mitsy. You flinch when a guy touches you."

"Not you," she said softly.

"Yeah, but... anyone else."

She shrugged. "It's just a little PTSD," she said. Like that was nothing. "I can get over it."

"Really? You think you're going to be okay when some guy's about to crawl over you, and do what..." I almost said his name, but that was a name I'd never say in front of her. "That fucking psycho did to you?"

She tilted her head and looked at me, eyebrows twisting together. "He never raped me, KK..."

It was like somebody had suddenly changed the gravity, and now I wasn't even sure what was happening. "What?"

She rubbed her real arm with her fake one, then looked down at it, as though surprised that the motion had actually worked, like she'd forgotten the arm on her at all. "He didn't. He never touched me, not like that."

We'd never talked about exactly what happened. So I made a lot of assumptions. The scenarios played out in my head, and because she never refuted them, they became truth to me. That he tried to rape her, she fought back, he overpowered her, took what he wanted, and, just for spite, cut off the arm she struck him with. It wasn't completely conjecture... I'd studied his police record, heard he'd had other victims with similar stories. And what do you say to that? "I'm sorry, I thought..." The words stumbled off of my tongue, out of rhythm. "We never talked about it."

"I didn't want to." She was still looking down, but her whole body trembled. "I was ashamed."

"You had nothing to be ashamed of..." I told her, stepping close to her, holding her, feeling her face in my chest. "It wasn't your fault."

"But it was!" she said, and then looked up to me, into my eyes. I just waited, and I knew that now was the time, she was going to tell me. "I thought I could help... I could make some money. He said he'd give me some if I gave him a piece of my body... I thought... I thought, okay, I just have sex with this guy, and maybe you wouldn't have to work so hard for a while..." Her head once again buried in my chest. "So we agreed on a price, went to this building, and... I took off my clothes." She choked back a sob. "He told me he didn't want me like that, my body wasn't worth it. I was too ugly to sleep with... He just wanted a piece to add to his collection." There was no choking back the sobs, they flew freely, and I held onto her with all her might and she hug back and just let it out.

"It wasn't your fault," I whispered to her, several times. It wasn't, it was mine, as I'd always worried. If I'd made more money, she wouldn't have felt the need to help out. But I didn't worry about that so much then, I was completely focused on trying to make her feel better. After she calmed, and her breathing became more regular, I told her, "I'm going to join the PiRats." I couldn't undo the damage, grow her a new arm, not yet... but this was as close I could get. Being with guys still freaked me out, but Sterling had said something about there being another way. I could explore that. "I was going to have to do it soon anyway."

She pushed me away again, like my trying to help her was some kind of insult. "No. No way. I told you. You deserve real love. Old-fashioned love." Again, I wondered how she knew me so well. I'd used those exact words once, even though one-to-one relationships were hardly old-fashioned... even in high school plenty of people followed that model, but after being in a girlfriend pool it didn't feel that way. So I'd, occasionally, used the phrase "old-fashioned love" when I described what my perfect romance was, with somebody who claimed they liked the same thing, with the anonymous Hopeless-Dreamer. The only thing I could think of was that it was a friend of Mitsy's who had talked to her about it. "You broke up with Stephanie because you didn't want that. I'm not going to be a burden on your whole life just so I can keep a stupid arm." She started pulling on it, like she was trying to figure out how to take it off.

I put my hand on hers to prevent that. "You're not a burden," I said. "But look, are you honestly telling me you'd want to be a PiRat?" She described what she wanted for me with such feeling, I guessed that maybe it was also what she wanted for herself. "To be shared around among guys and girls?"

She shrugged, which meant the answer was no. "It's not like I'm going to get what I want anyway," she said. "What guy's going to want me?"

My heart broke a little. "Don't be so down on yourself... you're beautiful."

"No... everyone at school was always prettier than me, and now..." She looked at the arm again. "I'm damaged. Who would want to be with me now, when there's so many perfect looking girls out there?" I know, intellectually, how shallow a mindset that is, there is more than just looks, but I also know it feels true when you've not been the first choice of anyone you've wanted. Before I could open my mouth to reassure her that she would find somebody, she added, "So I wouldn't be losing anything by joining the PiRats. You would. Let me protect you, for once."

I shook my head. "That's not how it works."

She turned away from me. "It is this time. You're not sacrificing that for me. I won't let you. I can do without the arm."

"It wouldn't just be for the arm," I said. "Maybe I want to join anyway. It's my decision."

She looked over her shoulder at me, clearly not believing me. "And this is mine. If you really want to join, join. But, I swear to you, if you join the PiRats, I'm joining right after."

I chuckled a bit, despite myself. She could be so stubborn sometimes. I guess it ran in the family. "You haven't really thought that through," I pointed out. "We can't both be PiRats. We might wind up in the same crew. How do you think they'd handle that?" I honestly didn't know.

"They don't care," she said. "Even if you're related, you're expected to share your body... I know a girl who does that with her brother." She looked away again, down at the floor.

Weird. "Yeah, but they probably grew up with this..."

"We're only half-siblings, you know."

I took a step closer to her. "We don't know that for sure." It was theoretically possible we had the same father. Mom never checked, and neither had we. "And anyway, regardless of blood, you're my sister."

She turned to face me, but I was going for a reassuring hug, so now she was so close that we were practically dancing. She looked up at me and asked, "Does that really matter? Erin Zula's in a relationship with her brother."

Or so they said... I personally always thought it was just a hoax to provide hype for her album Kinship and her later movie career. It's no longer shocking to just write a song about the fantasy of doing it with your brother... every other artist is doing a fetish album these days, connecting to their fans by singing about their most perverted fantasies, often including ones about incest. Crooning about the things you'd never do, yet that turned you on... it was practically mainstream. And even if it wasn't your fantasy, the songs sometimes caught on, first by people who wanted to sound edgier than they were, and then it just became part of the popular culture. "Do me Daddy," by Mad Hattie got like that. It had an awesome beat to it and for a few weeks everybody at school was singing it.

Erin Zula's situation was different, one step beyond. To actually be in a real incestuous relationship, or pretend to do it, that got headlines. I had no hard evidence which category she fell into, but everybody knows stars are attention whores, so I could easily believe it was just a stupid lie in Erin Zula's case. Her music was good, but like many artists she was a persona with an image, and we never got to hear her real voice under all the processing. She probably wasn't even that good, just some random person with a look that a corporate headhunter thought would appeal to a certain demographic, plucked out of obscurity, given her debut song, and her voice electronically massaged to make it a hit. That's how most musicians are made, even when they seemed to come up through the ranks of indie bands... a story can be just as manufactured.

Having to listen to my sister practicing the instrumental versions of the songs for hours on end, not to mention belting them out red-faced during a babysitting karaoke night, I knew my sister really liked Erin's music (even though Mitsy's own natural talents were in my opinion far superior), and sure, she also grooved on a few fetish album songs by other bands that had incest in them, but that didn't mean anything. I doubt most of the people who liked Mad Hattie wanted to fuck their dad (though one of the girls in the girlfriend pool I belonged to confessed that she did want to), and if I thought even half the girls who sang "Knotted" when it came out actually wanted to fuck dogs, then if I ever get out of poverty, my get-rich-quick plan would be to open a pet rental place in our old neighborhood. They're just songs. So I assumed my sister never considered actually being with me. "You don't really want to have sex with me... you certainly don't want a relationship with me."

"Don't do that, I hate when you do that."

"Do what?"

She looked away, turning only her head. "Speak for me when you're really speaking for yourself."

"What?" It was like it literally couldn't process what she said, like a garbled signal, and for a second I thought that she thought I said something like "nobody would want to date me" and she was mad at me for being down on myself and reassuring me that people would.

"I guess I should just say it," she said, sounding defeated, dejected. "Bust the cherry quick so it doesn't hurt as much, and you can get freaked out and let me join the PiRats so you don't have to worry about me anymore and you can get out of here and move on with your life." She took in a breath, necessary after that rush of words, then let it out. I wanted to interrupt her, reassure her, but my mind was still reeling and, underneath that, I knew she didn't want to be interrupted, she was holding something in and wanted to get it out. "We've always been very much the same, Kane," she said. "We both want to be with just one person, that we can count on, our whole lives, who makes our heart beat a little faster, and... who's just as devoted to us. The difference is, I always knew I wanted it to be you."

I stood there, stunned, for a moment. "If you're trying to drive me away, it's not going to work..." That seemed the most logical conclusion, that she wanted to tell me something shocking so I wouldn't see her as my little sister that I had to protect, so I would leave her.

"I'm not. It's the truth." She began shaking her head and backed away, like, now that the admission was made, the thing she wanted to do most was escape the conversation. "I mean, I'm not crazy, I knew it was hopeless... compared to other girls, I'm nothing."

Hopeless. That was the word that made it click, and I reached out to grab her hand to prevent her from going any farther, to keep her near while I sorted through it. "Wait... all this time... you were... Hopeless-Dreamer?" The rest of what she said fit too, it was what my anonymous chatgirl had always said, when I asked why she was too scared to just tell me who she was. It always seemed like a ridiculous fear, that if I knew, I couldn't really want her, because she wasn't good enough for me, that she was nothing, compared to others.

"You finally guessed," she said, with a smile, but it was a sad one, like she expected that, underneath, I was already secretly horrified. "I wasn't good enough for you then, and now..." She looked down at the cybernetic arm. I could practically hear her thoughts. Too big, too ugly, hiding an even bigger imperfection, a stump of an arm hacked off by a madman by her own stupidity. Who would want this?

But she was still beautiful, arm or no arm, and I loved her. I wasn't horrified... that fact was maybe a little terrifying, but I wasn't disgusted or reeling away. My heart was beating hard, it felt like it was jumping into my throat in fact, but it wasn't from horror. "Mitsy, I love you more than anyone..."

"But..." she filled in, expecting it.

I let go of her arm, but I wasn't ready to let go of everything I'd grown up believing, not yet. "No. It's just... you know we can't be... like that. Shit, you probably don't even want it, you just think you do." Like I thought I wanted to bang the hot girls in my class, only it turns out once I could, it was hollow.

"You're putting your words in my mouth again," she said with a pout. "I know what I want. So go ahead, just say that you don't. That it disgusts you. It's not like it's something I don't already know... I've offered again and again, and you always turn away."

Offered? I couldn't think of a single time she even arguably offered herself to me. Unless she counted late nights when she rubbed up against me, I thought while she was asleep, and I literally turned away to keep it from getting uncomfortable... but I always assumed that was accidental. The thought that she had been deliberately coming on to me... that was what it took to get my penis to suddenly harden. And once I realized she could actually make me hard, my mind started to go down that path. It was crazy, but... ever since Mom and Ray died, my whole life's been dedicated to making Mitsy happy, giving her what she needed. So if this is what she needed... or what she thought was needed... isn't it a small price to pay? Hell, at least it was better than being with another guy, just so I could join the PiRats.

"I'm not turning away now," I said. I told myself that I was saying it to call her bluff, even if she didn't consider it a bluff, that she didn't really want me, that it was like that Bacon-Mushroom-Cheddar Flavored Jelly we tried once... sounds like a good idea, but when you actually try it, you realize that you can't take it. But, since I have to be completely honest, a part of me, deep down, wanted it just for me, that after living for her for so long, I wanted that kind of love for myself, even if I wasn't at all sure I could transform my love for Mitsy into it. And a much larger part of me just wanted sex, almost regardless of who it was, even if it was my own sister. I had neither had sex nor masturbated since Stephanie filled me in on how many guys were also filling her, and that primal part of me was yelling at me not to give up an opportunity to get off.

She blinked a few times, looking into my face with wide eyes that I felt like I was seeing for the first time. And she reached out, tentatively, with the artificial arm, onto my chest, and then stepped on her toes like she was going for a kiss. I leaned in, opened my mouth, closed my eyes, just ready to let it happen, see if this could work...

Her hand dropped, and I felt sudden, unexpected pressure on my dick, from multiple directions at once. She was squeezing me, through my pants, with her artificial hand.

I flinched, took a careful step backwards, but luckily she let go immediately. "Whoah," I said.

Mitsy's face fell. "See," she said. "You can't stand the thought of me touching you." She looked down at the cyberhand, and said, "It's not even my real hand. You can't even bear your half-sister not-actually-touching you with a robot hand."

"Sorry, it just caught me off-guard," I said. "I didn't expect you to move quite so fast... or squeeze like that. You know, some of those cyber-hands can bend metal and stuff..." I shuddered.

She looked at me skeptically. "So... it was... the hand that bothered you?"

"You just got it, Mitsy... maybe just be gentle at first."

She advanced again, this time using her flesh-and-bone left hand. I wasn't telling the whole truth... the fact that she was my sister was at least part of the reason I pulled away the first time. But this time, I knew it was coming and steeled myself not to flinch as her fingers flexed around my bulge, and there was a bulge. She was staring at it for a few seconds, then up at me, like trying to judge if I was going to turn her away or freak out, but I just smiled... a little uneasily, but I guess it didn't show, for she crouched before me and began undoing my buttons.

My conscience was yelling at me, pointing out that this was my sister, that what we were doing was wrong, but a larger part of me liked it, wanted to see how far this feeling could extend. I felt a little sick, but it was a good sick, the kind of nervousness you get when you're outrageously turned on by something you know you shouldn't be.

So I didn't stop her, and let her take my bare dick in her hand, let her stroke it up and down, all the while watching me for any sign of disgust. So I forced that smile... I say forced because my true feelings were still so mixed that it couldn't come naturally, even though it felt so good, like my skin was alive. It wasn't just the action... handjobs from the other girls I'd been with, they were okay, but never really did much for me, except for the very first one. This felt like the first one again, that sense that I was doing something forbidden, something I wasn't quite ready for, but that I couldn't resist. It wasn't just that she was my sister, though... in fact, even more than that was the confession that she'd always wanted me. Most of my experiences were with people who were just caught up in the moment, or who really wanted somebody else but I was the one there, or where there might have been genuine feelings, but we were both trying to play it cool and see where it went. The idea of somebody actually wanting me, above all others, and being open about it, that was arousing beyond belief.

"Do you like it...?" she asked, the eagerness evident in her voice.

"Yeah," I said. "It feels great. How'd you get so good at this?"

I was exaggerating, her technique was good, there was even a slight milking squeeze on the upstroke, but it was more the context than anything else that was exciting, and so, since I was focused on sounding convincing, it was only later that I realized my words could have been taken as a suggestion that she'd been behaving slutty. "I've never done it before," she said, a little defensively, but not offended about it. "Not on a person. But there was this bootleg AR Game, you can play on a sausage..."

I'd never played it, but I've done similar ones that were supposed to teach you how to finger a girl, by overlaying a porn star or cartoon character in AR over an onahole (or jello mold, if you're cheap) and anything soft for boobs, monitoring your exact finger position and technique through nail stickers, and rewarding you with an animated orgasm if you did well. They were fun and all, but absolutely shit at teaching you... experience did it better. They might work better for oral, if you've got a tracking tongue stud, but by the time I got one of those, I had real girls to practice on.

"Of course, I used my right hand, not my left... so I might not be as good."

"You're doing fine," I said. "If you want, you can switch, just... don't squeeze."

"It doesn't freak you out?" She traced my belly with the soft and surprisingly fleshlike plastic, 'feeling' parts.

"Not as long as you're careful."

"It's still ugly," she said. "But I guess it's less freaky than seeing just a stump."

"However you are, it doesn't matter to me... as long as you're still with me, that's the important thing."

She interleaved her fingers, natural and engineered, around my cock, giving a two handed hand-job (my first for that), pressing them together gently. And as I closed my eyes, I realized I couldn't easily tell the difference. I knew which was which, but to my cock it felt the same. Much like the hand of my sister there felt like any other hand... except for the emotions.

The double-stroke was slower though, and made it more like a tease than a promise of release, pleasurable but I wanted more. At the same time I didn't want to press. I looked down at her, and she was looking up at me, into my eyes, and then down at my cock. She lowered herself, pointed my dick towards her, and, looking right at my eyes, took me into her mouth.

That I was not expecting... I figured that was probably coming, eventually, but not so fast, so brazenly. Her lips slid halfway down my shaft, up to the point where it met with her thumb, and I could feel her tongue writhe on the underside as she tried to accommodate me without gagging. And all the while, she looked up at me, in the eyes, with what seemed to me to be a mix of apprehension, a little naughtiness, but also love. I could have been reading into it, but that's what I saw.

She slurped up and down just twice, before pulling off and said, "I was so sure you'd pull away..."

I laughed a little while I answered, finding it funny because I, in the seconds before she started, I was too busy being certain she wouldn't go through with it to think about what I might do if she did. "Uh... was I supposed to?" Deep down, I still thought maybe I was, whether she wanted me to or not.

She shrugged, then laughed too. "Wow, so... we're really doing this?"

"I guess," I said. "We don't have to do anything you don't want to."

"I want to." My dick was still right in her face, so she gave it a lick, which made me feel guilty and self-conscious since I hadn't showered. If my sister was going to suck me off, shouldn't I at least be clean?

She didn't make any sign it bothered her, so I said, "I want to too."

"So you want to go into the freezer?" she suggested. "So we can have a bed?"

"A bed?" My voice squeaked as I spoke, like I was a pubescent kid, but once again she'd gone further, faster than I'd expected. I thought she was just referring to continuing the blow job, and she was already thinking about taking me to bed.

"Tell me you don't want it and we won't," she said. "But it feels like you do." She squeezed my cock with her real hand, her other moving down to the ground to steady herself. "And if we're both going to be joining the PiRats, we might as well find out what it's like..."

"You're not joining them..."

"Not unless I have to," she agreed, her voice cheerful, but her steely gaze leaving no doubt in my mind that she still wouldn't allow me to do it for her, alone. "So, what do you think?" She cocked her head towards the freezer, where our beds were, normally apart, though it looked like we would be putting them together.

It wasn't explicit, but I took the way she brought up the PiRats and then suggested going to bed as a hint. She wanted me to give her a reason not to join them, and words wouldn't be enough. I had to show her that she could do something for me other than be a burden. And I had to do it with my penis.

Or so I told myself. I didn't want to admit that I just wanted to fuck her, and that if she was willing to let me, I would even look past my worries that it would be bad for her in the long run. That's not completely true, either, of course, because the plain fact was that I just didn't know what was right. If I was sure it would hurt her, I knew I could, would put a stop to it. But I wasn't sure. Maybe I'd be helping her. Maybe it was what she needed to feel like she could be loved, attractive, as she was. I may have been thinking with my dick, but my dick legitimately thought it might be the right call. It was ambiguous. And if you're not sure what the right call is, doesn't it just make sense to do what you want to?

"Let's go." I offered her my hand, and she reached for it with her left, but then stopped herself, and used her new artificial hand to grab me and pull herself to her feet, and, with a sly little grin, led me to the room we normally slept in. Since my pants were already undone, and it seemed pretty clear we were headed for this anyway, I found myself kicking them off as we walked.

As romantic first-time spots, it probably left a lot to be desired. There wasn't much to the room, just our beds, the privacy curtain, a few paints along one wall from better days when Mitsy had the idea of painting the wall nearest to her side, although she grew unsatisfied with her progress partway through and abandoned it. She never did tell me what it was going to be. There were blues and greens and purples blocked in, I think it was supposed to be a landscape scene. She actually was a good artist, or she used to be... she'd done some nice pieces with Sai and used to do wonders on photo-editing when we had access to Shoopapps, but traditional media turned out to be outside her skillset, although maybe working with her left-hand was part of the problem.

But I wasn't there to play art critic, I didn't even think about the painting just then, nor was I thinking of romance. We practically fell onto our beds, my bed, actually, but the soft magic-foam cushioned our landing, and I lay lounging, staring at my sister, wondering how it was that I was seeing her in a whole new way. I loved her, but now, it seemed, we were about to become lovers, and every step along the way was awkward and full of second-guessing.

"Do you want to..." I started, and then trailed off. I was going to ask if she wanted to take her clothes off, but how do you ask that of your sister? I felt like I discovered a secret of the universe, the reason incest didn't happen more often wasn't because the people weren't attracted, it was that it was just too awkward to get started.

"Maybe we should..." she started, and she too couldn't finish whatever she was going to say.

I decided if I was going to feel and act like a nervous virgin, that maybe it would help to think back to my first time. Except I couldn't remember much about it... not the lines I used or the moves I made. My mind wasn't exactly clear at the time, it was a wild party, and although we filmed it, I cringed whenever I tried to watch it. What I do remember is that, as nervous and insecure as I felt, I did my best to act like it was no big deal, like sex was an everyday thing. Some of my friends, who did watch, told me I did okay on that front.

So I did the same here. I already had my pants off, so I just causally took off my shirt. My sister watched this, her gaze lingering on my chest like I was the one who had boobs. I took off my boxers next, while she continued to stare, although it's not like she saw anything that hadn't already been in her mouth.

Finally, my shoes and socks. Once I was completely naked, I waited... the ball was in her court. If she was going to chicken out, I'd be left pretty embarrassed and with blue balls, but maybe it'd be for the best... if she couldn't go through with it with me, she couldn't very well join the PiRats. I could pretend this night didn't happen for the sake of our relationship.

She reached for me... and then her hand moved past me and landed on the widget that controlled the room's lights. Instantly, the room darkened... not pitch black, there was a thin dribble of illumination that came from the lights being on their lowest setting, but until my eyes adjusted, it was pretty much the same thing, I couldn't see Mitsy, I could just feel the warmth of her body leaning over me.

"What..." I said.

"We should do it with the lights off..."

"Um..." Clearly I'm not at my most eloquent when I'm about to have sex.

"That way, you can imagine I'm whoever you want."

"I wouldn't..."

"It's okay," she said, cutting me off. "I don't mind. I know you don't feel how I do, and I'm okay with it, but at least... at least I'm helping you."

That broke my heart. I was actually okay with doing it with the lights off... I thought it might make it less awkward. But even though I couldn't see her face, I could hear the sadness in her voice, the certainty that I would be imagining somebody else. She bared her heart, told me she wanted me, but she never believed that I really wanted her, she thought that, at best, I wanted sex, and she could serve as a convenient hole.

I wasn't even entirely sure whether she was right or not... my own feelings were all still too new and confused. What I was sure of was that I still loved her as I always had, and I had a duty. I couldn't let my sister think she wasn't worthy of whoever she wanted, that she wasn't good enough in any way. I couldn't let her have her first time like mine was, as somebody's second or third or last choice. I had to convince her I wanted her, and nobody else.

I reached back and turned the lights on. "I want you. You." I repeated the word, making sure she looked me in the eyes, and trying to will her into believing me. Something in my head reminded me that actions spoke louder than words, and I found the confidence that I'd been lacking since we started heading down this path. I leaned in and, for the first time, except maybe when I was like seven, kissed her on the lips.

They were warm and twitched a little at my first contact, but soon she leaned in, and my mouth and hers seemed to open. Our tongues touched only tentatively, rather than a full-fledged making out, but it was sweet and tender and seemed to carry more feeling than any other real kiss I'd had. We broke, and I gazed into her eyes again.

"We don't have to do this," I reminded her once more. "But if we do, I want it to be with you, no pretending. And that means I want to see you."

I saw her swallow, whether out of nervousness or just a delayed reaction to the slight saliva exchange, I didn't know.

She was wearing these skin-tight black leggings, and a loose blouse that hid her shape (and was open enough that her original prosthetic arm never got snagged on anything and could be adjusted in a pinch. The leggings she liked because all she had to do was step into them and roll them up, or down, as necessary... easier to do with one hand. And this is where she started, rolling them down, with her left hand, her cyborg arm now lying limp like it was depowered... of course, it wasn't... the simple truth was that in a task that had become routine, in a context that was everything but, she'd forgotten she could use both hands. The fabric crinkled and bunched up, and as it came down, she tugged her underwear with it.

When her pussy became visible, Mitsy didn't even try to hide it... I guess we were past that point. It was beautiful. Or at least it felt that way, in the way these things do in the moment, even if there's no reason to find a pussy, or any other body part save, perhaps, a face especially beautiful. I'm sure most guys notice that they can, with a little imagination, make some random crease in their body look, if they squint, like a pussy, but I never found that beautiful. This was, even though it was just a crack in flesh, not even any visible inner pink or clitoris. My brief glimpses of her before had usually been too quick, or from a poor angle, and so while I had some awareness that she had pubic hair, it was the first time that I'd had a good look at it. There wasn't very much of it at all, and to my surprise, it was 'scaped... her natural color, black, but in a lightning bolt design starting an inch or so above the pussy. It was all short-length with well-defined borders. Otherwise, the whole area was smooth and bare, and I couldn't imagine my sister had an elaborate trimming regiment, so I assumed that this was now her natural state, a relic of the last styling she'd done with a stencil and some FollicleToggle cream. I knew she kept her legs and underarms bare, so I guess it wasn't that much of a shock that she'd managed everything else, but it was a surprise that she'd specifically designed a pubic hair shape, like she planned somebody to see it.

It had to have been done back when we lived in our old house, since that was the last time we had any of the cream. It's just one more luxury too expensive to indulge in once we began living poor... last time I got my hands on some, it was just to kill any facial growth potential... shaving every day was just one more hassle, no matter how much I used to like having various kinds of 'stashes.

I did like the way a little hair looked on her, though. Normally I'm a fan of hairless girls, but something about the lightning-shaped patch above her pussy aroused me more, it was like it was a symbol that she really was old enough, it was okay to think of her in this way instead of as my little sister. And it was just elegant, nothing anywhere I might put my tongue, not an overgrown tangle that obscured the view, just enough to make that point. My sister was a woman. Not just a woman, a woman who was... "Beautiful," I said.

She let out a breath of air that sounded skeptical. "You only gave it an eight."

It only took a second to realize what she meant. Most people in my neighborhood did it, shared proximity-limited photos of their dick, pussy, nipples, sometimes anonymously, sometimes identifying themselves, and asked to be rated. I must have, at some point, rated my sister without realizing it. "Eight's about as high as I go," I explained. Girls are more honest about their feelings (at least, I hope so, since my own average score was about 7.3, which I rounded up to 7 and a half, which I then felt justified in rounding up to 8), but too many guys rate 10 for everyone daring enough to show, which makes the whole thing sort of meaningless. My 'honest' scores don't make that much of a difference, but it's the principle of the thing. I've given a few nines, but most of the pretty-looking pussies scored an eight. "You showed?"

"Once. Anonymously."

"Yeah, I kind of figured." It wasn't as Hopeless-Dreamer, who never showed me any part of herself, and it certainly wasn't under her name. It must have just been one of those purely anonymous pictures that crop up all the time, focused right on the genitals so nobody could say for sure who it was (of course, some people who'd done it like that had been named, if somebody else had seen identifying features in person, or could convince other people they had). Those anonymous pictures were too common and, after the first few, not very exciting. I still looked, of course, because... why the hell wouldn't I? But usually just long enough to give a rating and move on. This time, it was exciting, and I stared hungrily, taking in every subtle curve and shade and variation on the skin. "It's beautiful. You're beautiful." She shrugged. "Let me see the rest?"

Her eyes darted away, to her own feet. "I'd rather not."

"I didn't give them a low score, did I? I swear, half the times I barely give those rating things a second look."

She shook her head. "No, I never showed them..."

"Why not?"

Another shrug. "Why would I show off my worst feature?" Now she looked at her arm... not her new hand, but the stump it was attached to. "What used to be my worst feature, anyway."

I didn't say it, but I thought her worst feature was her lack of confidence, her tendency to give up. Yeah, the arm thing was a bit disturbing, but there was nothing wrong, in my book, with small boobs. I didn't want her to be self-conscious of them... of anything, really, tonight. If she got self-conscious about one thing, she might get self-conscious about what was happening, and I was too swept up to want to stop. "Mitsy, this is me. There's no part of your body I'm going to find ugly." She had a look on her face, like she could think of one. "Do you trust me?" After a second, she nodded. "It's just you and me here. I don't have eyescreens. There's no cameras anywhere. I can't post this anywhere online--I mean, not that I would anyway. And if you trust me, you know I'm certainly not going to make fun of you. I just want to see you... all of you.

She very slowly pulled her top off, using her cyberhand, and then moved her arms behind her back, letting me see, or trying to thrust what she had as prominently as possible. But that didn't change what I'd already seen from fleeting glimpses over the years... she didn't have much, almost completely flat, with just a hint of a shadow between her breasts and underneath them. But I wasn't lying, either, it didn't matter to me. And the nipples were perfect, lightly colored with a round nub I just wanted to take into my mouth. "See," I said. "They're perfect." I leaned forward, and soon we were kissing again, making out, her arms around me, and when they released me, I slid down, kissing down her neck and to her breasts, right on the nipples. Her breasts might not look big, but they had a pleasant softness and more than enough give to make me not care about the size. "There's no part of you that's not beautiful."

She kissed me on the forehead, then said, "It's sweet of you to lie."

I couldn't help but sigh. "Stop saying that..." I said. What a way to ruin the mood of your sister wanting to fuck.

"I'm sorry, it's just... I know the truth, Kane. I mean, look at this..." She held out her arm towards me, artificial hand up. "It's okay to admit it's not pretty. I mean, I'm... I'm mutilated." She breathed out, heavily. "That's why I thought we should leave the lights off."

She reached towards the light to make that happen, but I grabbed her by the wrist. "I said I wanted to see you," I reminded her, and then looked down at the point where stump and metal met. "Do me a favor... take it off for a second?"


"Just... do it?"

She held the arm by the wrist, and said, "I'm not sure I know...." but then before she could finish, it pulled away. She handed it to me, and I set it beside us, then slid my fingers along her newly-shortened arm until it lifted up, stump pointed towards me. I'd always avoided it before, partly from disgust, partly from some insane worry that I'd be hurting. No matter how much I understood that it was healed, in my gut it felt like an injury, and injuries hurt when prodded. This time, I didn't avoid it. I placed my lips upon it, not the actual stump, but the edge of it and the part that was the side of her natural arm, now slightly red and creased from the connection to the cyberhand. I kissed, and then slid my lips around, down the unnatural curve, and kissed again. She shuddered, just a little.

Then she jerked it away, kept her gaze downcast. "I don't buy it, KK, that doesn't turn you on."

"I'm not saying it does," I told her, and waited for her to look at me. "I'm saying it's not ugly. I'm saying I'm not turned off. If you wanted to... make love, like this, that's fine. It doesn't bother me. I accept it... I accept you, because I love you. All of you, flaws and all. This..." I ran my hand over the stump. "This doesn't make you not beautiful, okay? Beauty's not all on the outside, and one flaw can't ruin it." The thought went through my mind again that this was a repairable flaw, given enough money. In some ways, it already was repaired, now. I looked down at the metal arm, and had a sudden flash of memory, of my grandfather pouring tea into an old, once-cracked bowl.

I picked up the detached limb, and held it up towards her, and as she made the connection to reattach it and make herself whole once more, I thought about exactly how to word the idea that had seemed like the perfect metaphor. "You remember grandfather's tea bowl?" Her brow furrowed at the sudden change in topic. "It was... shit, what was the term for it... Kint... Kint something. You remember, where the cracks were filled in with gold?" The bowl was dark and the repairs stood out, like they were golden veins. I hadn't seen the bowl since he died... I guess his last girlfriend inherited it.

"Kintsugi," she said, as the limb sprung into life once more and no longer needed to be supported by me.

"You remember you asked why it looked like that?" She must have been ten or eleven. Years earlier, I'd asked him a similar question, although mine was more "why don't you throw this out and get another one?" and I got cut out of his access for the rest of the visit to teach me respect. As much as I sulked at the time, I guess it worked, because what he said stuck with me. "He said that just because something is a little broken, it doesn't mean it's useless, that with a little work even the flaws can make it more beautiful." I was paraphrasing... I didn't even remember the exact words, just the concept. "That's you, now. So don't argue when I tell you you're beautiful, okay?"

I didn't think she entirely bought it, but at least it made her think, she looked at the metal used to replace her own broken body, flexed the fingers, and said, "It's not exactly gold." But her tone wasn't argumentative, she wasn't disagreeing with my point, it was more like a humorous nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking.

So I responded in the same way. "We'll paint it, if it makes you feel better." Fuck, it might even look good. At least, the metal part... I'm not sure paint would be good on the touchy-feely parts. "So can we keep the lights on?"

She shrugged and said, "If you want."

But we didn't make any moves... even though she was still nude in front of me, it felt like our moment was gone. I don't know if it was because we're related, or just because we've known each other so long without much sexual tension, but every interruption we had seemed to kill any momentum we'd bought up, made it no longer natural to move to the next step. If we wanted to continue, and on some level both of us still did, we had to move slowly again.

"Music?" I suggested, looking for something to distract from the obvious awkwardness, and without waiting for her reply, I reached for the nearest music box and called a random song up. Kerry Eurodyne's "Animal Style." I couldn't have picked a better one if I had a context app. The song itself was one of those that tries to be coy about the sex, pretending to be a commercial jingle to some kind of extinct burger joint (from his album Sellout), but of course it was really just an excuse to have a video full of girls writhing on tabletops, on all fours while Eurodyne grinded against them, and clothes gradually started coming off. In my neighborhood, there was a tradition of adapting it for school dances, getting as wild as you could without the chaperoneware or proctors catching it. And outside of dances, people often recreated it for fun with no boundaries but what they set for themselves. And horny teens don't set many boundaries.

Mitsy must have been thinking along the same lines, because she began bobbing her shoulders in time to the music, and gave me a sultry grin. "I like this song."

"Yeah?" I asked. "Can you do the dance that goes along with it?"

She raised one eyebrow, and then smirked, and turned away from me, braced her hands on the mattress, and got on her knees, aiming herself so that her butt was aimed right at my face. Though I'd never tell her this, her butt was actually less attractive to me than her breasts, a little flat and bony, and although mostly clean, subtly darker inside the crack than I expected in a way that made it slightly unappealing. Objectively it was less attractive than many of the other girls I've had but, even so... it's not a thing a guy's going to be that picky about, especially when it's bobbing alluringly at you, and you can see her sweet pussy regularly coming into view with her undulations. That got me hard again. "You know..." she said, looking over her shoulder at me. "It's not a one person dance..."

Of course, I couldn't actually do the dance from the video exactly, since she wasn't on a table, but I could improvise by staying on my knees, and I shuffled behind her, pushing my groin into her. I didn't penetrate her, not yet, it still seemed too early, though a part of me wanted to more than anything in the world, just to get it over with and eliminate any chance that she could back out. But I savored the movement, my dick rubbing up against her, sometimes slipping between her legs or the up the crack of her ass.

We hit the 'bumper' part of the song, where, to follow the dance exactly, I should have pulled her hair back hard while bumping her back and forth (and technically I should just be wearing underwear at this point, so that would be the only thing keeping it from being outright fucking). I did grab her hair, but very gently, and bumped slowly, and then on one bump I realized my dick slipped right between the lips of her pussy... not going inside, just spreading them a moment and then sliding away, and I heard a little groan from my sister (I don't think there was one from the song).

The 'In-and-Out' section was coming up next, and I let go of her and slowed, then, finding it hard to resist anymore, I grabbed my dick and slid it deliberately on her pussy, feeling the wetness and requiring just a little pressure to go inside... a little too much, though, to do it easily.

She was tight... very tight, tighter than the pussy of any girl I'd been with, not quite as tight as an willing asshole, but close, and, even though it was almost certainly overly paranoid, I became gripped with the idea that I might hurt her if I just plunged right in. Like with anal, I needed to go slow and get her ready for it, although the precum on my dick was mixing with her own wetness and providing a lot of lube. I probably could have pushed right in, if I tried.

But I didn't want to hurt her, especially if this was her first time, which I wasn't completely sure of but I thought might be the case. I needed to make sure she was loose... and short of physically stretching her out, the best way I knew to do that was to make her really, really relaxed. I pulled away, put my hand on her butt and guided her into a turn.

"What? Is something wrong?" she asked, suddenly sounding worried.

"No. I just want to make sure we do this right," I told her. "Turn over."

"You don't want to do it 'Animal Style'?" But she did comply, and swung her legs around so they pointed in my direction.

"Let's take things a little slower." I leaned into her, and then whispered, "Lie back..." She did, but rested on her elbows, watching what I was about to do, maybe a little unsure of her ability to make the right moves without seeing my approach.

But I didn't need her to make any moves, I just needed her to be open and accessible and not be fighting me as I lowered myself down to her, almost lying down myself but face down, and with my face at her breasts, and descending, like I was just continuing the trail of kisses that I'd aborted a couple minutes earlier, and now going further down, past her belly.

I stopped, momentarily, as I had to hop over the pubic hair, then took one look at the beautiful, inviting tight little pussy my sister had. It looked good before, but now, better than ever, it had taken on a flushed look, and the lips were slightly parted, revealing the clit and even a round oval within the lips marking her hole. That, along with her evident wetness, proved that she was turned on, something I always loved in a girl. I gave her a kiss, first, and then thrust out my tongue to take a long lick at what looked like a delicious feast.

I was wrong. It didn't turn out to be very delicious at all.

I normally enjoy eating girls out, but most of the girls I've done it on used some kind of TastyPeach products, so that it tastes and smells fruity. But of course, neither of us had access to those kinds of supplements. When I ate Stephanie out, she tasted a little like the bubble gum flavor, but like she hadn't taken a dose in a while and it was starting to wear off and taste more natural, so I'm not even sure if PiRats have access to them regularly, but it wasn't the kind of thing we'd ever asked about.

With Mitsuko, there wasn't even a faint, lingering flavor... she tasted... sweaty, mostly, with a sort of sour flavor. I couldn't call it pleasant, but at the same time, I was surprised at how little it bothered me. Once I got over the first moment of disappointment, it didn't really play a role, the taste was overwhelmed by the sound of her whimpers of pleasure, the sublime sensation of the flesh of her mound giving way to my mouth, the gentle motion of her body as she undulated in time with me, and, eventually, the feel of a hand on my head directing me not to stop.

When she did that, I brought my finger into play, inserting it and sawing in and out as I licked around the edges, up towards her clit, and her moans became shorter and higher pitched, her body starting to twitch with every flick of my tongue. Finally, she started twitching even when I wasn't licking, and her butt, too, lifting off the mattress, and I put my face in and gave her a long French kiss, rubbing her clit with my nose, and she sucked in her breath and held my head tight to her, until she finally let go and exhaled in a deep sigh.

I licked around her mound, not directly on the clit, because some girls get super sensitive right after an orgasm, until her near-hyperventilating slowed to a more normal, although still somewhat excited, pace, and then looked up at her. She had a goofy, dreamy smile on her face, like she'd just gotten high, which I guess, in some ways, isn't so off the mark.

By this time, the music had shuffled twice, and was now playing some purely instrumental piece I couldn't name, but it swelled dramatically, like it was in the moment of some cheesy romantic netflix where two characters profess their love to each other, and Mitsy and I locked eyes, and she said, "I want you inside me."

I smiled. Most of the other girls I'd been with would just be like, "Fuck me, now." But not my sister. Mitsy's always been real classy.

And eating her out, feeling her orgasm beneath me, that kept me rock hard despite the taste, so I was ready to give it to her. I pulled myself up into a kneeling state, and then pulled her closer, so that once again my cock was brushing up against the lips of her pussy, though this time from another angle. It still felt tight as I pressed against the hole, but there seemed to be more give, more lube, and most of all, more urgency... I'd been hard too long to hold back now, especially when she'd just asked me to go inside her. So I pressed forward, feeling her surround me slowly, a tight, comforting squeeze all the way through but no real resistance. It was only when I was all the way in, and my balls pressed against her, that I heard a little grunt, like maybe that was all she thought she could take, or maybe she was disappointed at the realization there wasn't more. I thought it was the first one, though, enjoying the thought that we were perfect for each other, and briefly wondering if there was some genetic factor at play, that because we were related, we were perfectly matched in the genital area, that this was the reason incest was such a taboo... because if people found out about this secret, everybody would be fucking near relatives. Then it occurred to me that I couldn't have been the first one to think that, there was a chorus in one of Erin Zula's songs about "fitting together like hand in glove."

Of course, it could have just been coincidence we were perfectly matched, but either way it felt incredible being inside her, my heart was racing and my dick was jerking, crying out for motion. I stared down at my sister, who was still looking up at me with what seemed to be unreserved love, and I leaned forward, so my body would be closer to hers, on top of hers. She responded by lifting her legs and wrapping them behind us. Her flesh hand went up to my chest, stroking down from my pecs with gentleness. The other she held behind her head, and her hair almost completely obscured it, like maybe she was hiding it.

I braced myself on my own hands, on either side of Mitsy's body, and, now that I was in a position with some leverage, began thrusting in and out, slow at first but picking up the pace, trying to keep my mind on random shit so that I could make it last, wanting her to cum again, although knowing I was getting pretty close myself.

As I continued, I noticed I found my upper body sinking into her, more and more, not so much that my arms were getting tired as that I was getting tired of this artificial distance, one I had started with but was now growing intolerable, I just wanted to press my body against hers.

I wasn't the only one, apparently. As soon as faces got close enough, Mitsy lifted her head and began kissing me, and I kissed back. I was still thrusting (although now it was more of a rocking motion), and it was a spontaneous attempt, and so it turned out being incredibly sloppy, at first, more lips on cheek with tongue trailing, although we did lock lips and wrestle tongues for a few second before it began to overwhelm me. I fell almost completely against her then, though with our head on each other's shoulder, and she held me tight with one arm, moaning, getting close to that pitch of sounds she made while I was licking her, and then she turned her head ever-so-slightly and nibbled on my ear, and I lost it... my cock went into overload mode, building up pressure and about to blow. I grunted, a long, undulating sound, one that surprised even me, but didn't warn her in any way other than that. It wasn't like either of us were fertile, thanks to implants Mom insisted on when we each hit puberty, and it was so much more fun to cum inside a girl, so that's just what I did, my self-awareness quickly shrunk into nothing but a feeling of intense pleasure and well-being and the physical sensation of shooting out a geyser of cum. I even held my breath until I did, then gasped for air when I couldn't take it anymore.

It was done. I'd just fucked my own sister. There was no going back from that.

"Wow," she said, wiping her forehead after I rolled off her. "That was... nothing like I thought it would be."

"In a good way, or bad way?" I asked, the shame of what I'd just done starting to build, now that I was no longer outrageously horny and the bliss of ejaculation had worn off.

"Good way. Very good. I kind of want to go again..." She said it just like that, like it was a ride at some kind of thrillpark.

Even through my worries, I couldn't help but smile at the image, remembering a trip we took years ago, Mom designating me to take Mitsy on the attractions while she went to some adult club, and Mitsy always chirping, "KK, let's go again!" after a particularly fun ride. "We can do that..." I said, as I usually said then, too. I just needed a minute or two, and we'd have to take it a little slower. But I was worried that maybe now that it was done, the guilt was starting to set in for her, too. "But... you feel... okay, though?"

"I feel... hungry. Very hungry. Is that weird? I mean, we just ate." I was about to tell her it wasn't weird, but she was talking very fast and went on, "Too bad all we have left is gruel."

A pop-up window went up in my head. "Wait here. One sec." I got up and sort of crouch-ran to the door, slipped out, and tried to remember where I'd left the Scarffen bar. I knew the chocolate was in my jacket, but I couldn't remember exactly where I dropped that after I came home. It only took a few seconds, though, before I spotted it slumped on the ground, and retrieved the prize.

I returned to our room holding it behind my back. Mitsy was sitting up on the mattress, an expectant look on her face. "Ta-da!" I said, and revealed my last surprise.

Her eyes widened. "Holy shit..." she said. "A Scarffen Bar? I'm dreaming, aren't I? This is all just one big mindfuck, isn't it?"

I could see her point. A great meal, an arm, sex, and now chocolate? But it wasn't a dream. You just know, you know? Even though, when you're dreaming you usually believe it's real, the moment you question it, you're not sure... but when you're not dreaming, you know it in a way that transcends any doubt. "Maybe we're finally getting our run of luck." I plopped down on the mattress beside her, and handed her the chocolate.

She tore through the wrapper, smelled it, waited a moment, snapped off a square of it and popped it in her mouth. I could see her rolling it around on her tongue, savoring it, letting it melt naturally, rather than chewing and swallowing like I would have, and it warmed my heart. She held it out to me. "Try some." I shook my head. "Try some," she said again, more forcefully. "I'm not eating this whole thing."

I was ready to accept on the second offer, but she didn't give me a chance, she shoved it right towards my mouth, like she was force-feeding me, and I opened it at the last second and took a bite. Man, it had been a while, but that shit is good. Sweet, with just a shadow of bitterness, smooth and rich. The reason I typically chew and swallow quickly is because I get the sensation if I don't that it'll just drip all over my mouth and evaporate there, a thought which has some appeal but then I won't get to swallow it and get the sugar high.

After that, I tried to beg off, but she still wouldn't have any of it, and I gave in... it was too good to not eat. We took turns, each breaking off a square and eating it. Even though she's right handed, she still broke off the pieces in her left hand, using her artificial one to hold the wrapper. It was probably just because, these past few months, she had gotten used to finer manipulation with her left hand, but it turned out for the best, because, by the time we were done the bar, the fingers on our eating hands were brown and sticky.

I must have scratched my nose with that hand without thinking, because she snorted, and told me I had chocolate on my face. So I touched her with my chocolate fingers. I aimed for her shoulder, but she leaned backwards and I got her chest, a dark smudge just above her nipple. She tossed the empty wrapper aside and lunged at my face, and I grabbed her by the hips and rolled, surprising her, but she still got my chin. Then, to my surprise, she licked me, on the chin and nose, and I grinned, remembering where I'd got her. "So is that how we're going to get clean?" I asked.

She made a 'I don't know'-type noise, then said, "Shame to waste good chocolate."

I agreed, and when she pulled away, I said, "Well, you've got some on your lip." Instead of licking, I kissed... there wasn't much there, it was mostly an excuse. "And some here..." I touched her boob again, though no longer was I leaving very much chocolate, at least nothing visible, but I kissed there, and licked where I left the more significant deposit.

Pretty soon we were both pretty well clean of the chocolate (I even sucked her fingers clean), but I was hard again and my sister was ready to go, emboldened either by the chocolate or the fact that we'd already done it once and the awkwardness barrier was broken. She wasn't lying when she said she wanted more, and I was ready to oblige her... although this time, she took charge, crawling over me as we kissed, clearly wanting to be on top. I was okay with that, it being one of my favorite positions. Nothing gets across the signal that a girl wants you than when she does the work.

This time, we lasted longer, much longer, and I did have a moment of doubt, where I saw her on top of me, looking into my eyes, and a part of me reminded me this was my sister, and I guess I wilted, just a bit, but she leaned in close and kissed me, then drew back and ground against my pelvis and, well, how can you hold out against that? And there was another moment that stood out more... when I thought back on the night later, I wasn't sure if it was before or after, but right now I'm pretty sure it was after. I looked up from where her pussy connected to my cock, towards the rest of her body, and noticed, really noticed, rather than putting it out of my mind as I did most of the time, the artificial arm, how that made her unsymmetrical, and yet, at that moment, I truly did find it more beautiful for that. Maybe it was because right then she wasn't insecure about it, hiding it, subtly keeping the arm behind her body as she had at other times, and instead she was rubbing the flesh above her clit like there was nothing strange about it, because it was a part of her and she didn't seem ashamed. Or maybe my mind had just truly latched onto the Kintsugi idea, not just as an excuse to make her feel better, but as a real truth in itself, that all the tragedy she'd endured and yet she was there, living out her most impossible dream, made her all the more beautiful. Now, no longer in the moment of intercourse, honestly, I still wish she had two natural arms, the flesh certainly appeals to me more than metal and plastic, but I still see the beauty in the repair work, and would have no complaints if she was a cyborg forever, as long as she was happy.

She seemed happy then, with me inside her, filling in one more crack. In fact, she had an orgasm shortly after that moment of revelation, the first she'd had while we were actually having sex. More than perhaps any other impossible moment of that night, surviving the Rippers, finding the arm... that felt like a true miracle, like we'd done something impossible. Something magic. Two poor orphans in a crumbling building in a slum, doing something most of the world still considered an abomination, had somehow created a moment of such pure beauty that was more perfect than anything else in the world. I wanted it to last forever, but of course, it couldn't. I could feel her clench on me, her pelvic muscles spasming as she gasped for breath, although again, she was nearly silent in the moment. I like hearing a girl moan, but watching them struggle not to is almost as exciting... if I hadn't just blown a load, I probably would have cum then too, and as it was, I had to sort of blank my mind to keep from going down that road. I wanted to last long enough to give her another on top of that.

I didn't, though. Once she rode out the orgasm, she gave me a dreamy smile and then leaned forward to kiss again and the lack of movement helped me wait out the sensation that I was close to cumming. But once we began slowly rocking together and that picked up into her bouncing on me again, I couldn't hold out for more than a couple minutes, and Mitsy wasn't anywhere near a third orgasm. But I let loose and held her tight as I shot off inside her once more.

After I came, I was pretty well wiped out. "Sorry," I said through deep breaths, although she wasn't exactly aware of my intention or that I failed at it, it was what came out.

"For what?" I was still inside her, but wilting, and she could sense that, for she'd stopped moving as well.

I shrugged. "I just wanted to go longer."

"This isn't the kind of thing you normally go all night, is it?" she asked. "Because I'm up for that, but... I do have school tomorrow."

I grinned. "Good point. Maybe we should get some sleep. It has been a pretty long day."

Her face was unreadable for a moment, and especially so once she looked away a second later, but she said, "Okay," and climbed off me, lay down facing away, then turned back, slowly snuggled in close, and, after a few seconds, leaned up to kiss me. I returned it, but it was brief, a little hesitant, on both sides, I thought, and then she turned and reached for the light, and lay beside me. A few minutes later, she got up to pee, which reminded me that I needed to as well, and I did so after her, and then we returned to bed together.

But I couldn't sleep, even twenty minutes later. Normally I found it hard to stay awake after really good sex, but this time, I was starting to get worried again. This was my sister, and we'd just had some spectacular sex, and redefined our relationship in ways I couldn't even guess at. I could tell my sister wasn't sleeping either, just by the way she was breathing... she was trying, but it hadn't actually taken hold. If she was anything like me, I knew the questions that would be rolling around in her head too, and until we answered them, at least a little, neither of us would be able to nod off peacefully. So, after about twenty minutes of lying in the dark together, I thought I'd open the discussion. "Mitsy?"

She didn't answer for about ten seconds, and I thought maybe I was wrong, she actually was asleep, but she said, "Yeah?"

"So where are we, now...?"

"Wow, I was that good, huh?" she joked. "That you got amnesia?"

"No... I mean... what just happened..." I felt her body tense against me, took it as a sign to proceed with caution. "I mean, I loved it, but... where does this put... us?"

"Where do you want it to put us?" I didn't answer right away, and she spoke quickly, defensively. "It can just be something we do," she said. "Until you find somebody else." Until I find somebody else, not until we each find somebody else. "Or we could just embrace the PiRat life..." Join the same crew, and keep fucking each other, along with everybody else.

"I don't want to join them," I said. "I don't want you to, either."

"It's that," she pointed out, "or we leave, or we give up my new arm. We can do that... we can just go back... to how things were, yesterday. Pretend today never happened. If you want, KK."

I was a little unsure of myself and my feelings, but at least I knew that I didn't want that. I wanted it all. To keep this new sexual twist to our relationship, for her to keep her arm, to stay here, or move somewhere better, while not being forced to behave like PiRats. All of it at once seemed impossible, but after tonight, I was ready to try for the impossible. But more important than anything was not crushing Mitsy's heart. She said... or at least implied she was in love with me. My own feelings, well, they were a confused tangle, as curiosity and desire and responsibility and protectiveness wound the strings of my heart in every direction, but I was willing to explore them, put the doubts aside, even, for the moment. And she didn't sound to me like she wanted to go back. "How could I want that?" I said, and kissed her on her forehead. She relaxed, instantly, telling me I was correct, that her suggestion was something she was worried I might choose, something she was preparing herself to accept. "We're together now."


"If you'll have me."

She shuddered against me, and I felt tears on my body... she was crying. "Of course," she said, with no trace of sadness. "If I've got you, I don't need anything else."

"We're keeping the arm, too." I'd just, I hoped, gotten her on the road to accepting it, and by extension her injury, as not being an ugly reminder, but as part of her. Not far along the road, maybe, and probably I was a little full of myself and too self-congratulatory, but I didn't want to undo any of the progress I'd made.

"Don't be crazy."

That was crazy? Not having sex with your sibling, or wanting it for who knew how long? "I'm not being crazy. This... helps you, and it's a symbol of our new life. So I'm not going to give it up without a fight. We're going to try to have it all. I think life still owes us one, don't you?"

"I think it owes us a couple dozen. But if the PiRats find out..."

"They won't," I promised. "We'll hide it. Maybe you wear it only at home, at first, and in the meantime, I'll focus on getting us out of here. We'll go somewhere else, somewhere nobody knows us, and we won't have to hide the arm, maybe even somewhere we won't have to hide... us."


"Well, the world won't accept us together, probably." It was one of the things that my mind had gone over and over again as it tried to untangle the knot of my feelings. Fetish albums about incest might be popular but the real thing was still pretty taboo. The worry that other people would think it was wrong, and never allow it to continue, might even force us apart, that seemed more intense, more real and certain, than my own feelings that it might be inherently harmful. "But there are ways around that. We could save up and buy a forged identity for one or both of us."

Her body shifted against me, and it felt like she was snuggling closer. "Maybe we could sneak off to China," she suggested. "Land of opportunity, a couple new immigrants, nobody would know us... we could pretend we were a married couple."

"Yeah, maybe," I lied... not just because I doubted we'd ever go as far as even a pretend marriage, which still seemed like a crazy, scary thought. But also because I still thought China itself was impossible. Crossing a border like China's hard, they'd do a battery of genetic tests and would not only turn up our sibling relationship but also our Japanese heritage. And I hear China's databases are more secure... the Googlepocalypse never hit them so bad. I think it comes from reaching the information age in a totalitarian regime, you learn how to centralize and control everything. Here, conflicting records are a fact of life that people are used to, and if you're good, you can invent new facts out of those disagreements... but in China, inconsistent data is an anomaly to be stamped out. But I figured, why trouble her with those details? China might make a nice goal for her to focus on while I figured out other, more realistic, arrangements.

"Okay... if you think we can hide the arm, we'll try that. Just remember, if we have to, I can give the arm up. I don't care about that, as long as you're mine," she said. "Here, there, where-ever... I'm happy."

"Me too," I told her, and we kissed again, which turned into more, but they remained soft, tender, and didn't escalate... we were too tired as it was, and, this big issue, of us worrying what each other really wanted, settled, soon we fell asleep in each other arms. It wasn't until the next day we had sex again, in the shower before I walked her to school. The day had seemed to arrive far too early, but that shower certainly helped. I had a smile on my face all the way to the docks, kept wanting to hold her hand, but I always walked with her on her right side, and I'd just be grabbing plain old plastic.

That walk was one I'd taken on almost every day, but now it was all different, and those differences would continue, blossom, in the coming days. My whole life had changed, in more ways than I could count. It seemed like I had hope again. I wasn't just trying to keep me and Mitsy alive out of duty or habit, I had my own reason to want to live. I'd always loved her, but the absolute truth was, sometimes she felt like a burden, especially emotionally... now, it was like we really were in it together, and just knowing she was there lifted me up. Love, romantic love, may not have started immediately--for a while I was just sort of playing along because I didn't want to crush her, and of course enjoying the sex...--but love can sneak up on you, and I guess it did for me, because I may not have ever acknowledged it before, not even in my own head, but now, I can say that I do love her that way. I can't exactly lie about it now, not even to myself.

Even before I could admit it, I found myself thinking of that first night a lot... not just the sex, but the moment I started my story with. The shooting star. It felt like I'd found the true magic of shooting stars, that they didn't give you what you wished for, not exactly, but maybe they gave you what you really needed. Every time I thought that, I chided myself for being foolish, but I did it with a goofy smile on my face nonetheless. Because I believed in magic again... not literal wands and fairies and wishes, but the kind of everyday magic that makes life worth living.

I may not believe in literal magic, but I do believe in irony. Mostly as something that comes and bites you in the ass. Because it was a night of crime and gunfire and violence that introduced this miracle into my life, and it was a day of public service and a gift of music that threatened to tear it all down.

I couldn't really work towards my eventual goal of moving us out of PiRat territory right away, but that didn't mean I wasn't busy. Paying work was still pretty slim, but now, while Mitsy was at school, instead of killing time or going into the rest of the city looking for things to steal, I'd been volunteering at various PiRat projects. It wasn't actually civic-mindedness... I thought that we really needed to fight off the label of 'leech', especially if we were going to be keeping the arm a secret. Maybe, if I made myself useful, they might be more forgiving if we ever got caught. I hoped I could figure out one big score or some kind of permanent job, one that could set us up in a better place, and in the meantime, I worked for the benefit of the PiRats.

I tried out various things, depending on what they needed on any given days. I was on the MOOP-squad a few times (where I learned that the same autocab that delivered the arm was later poached by pirates and torn into parts). I drove around the bookmobile, delivering old-fashioned physical books on paper to people, mostly non-PiRats, who requested something to read that the PiRats then printed off. I spent some time changing water filters and adding solar panels to buildings or helping with maintenance of PiRat nodes or other infrastructure. I worked on the gruel production line. I was planning to say I grew to like the work, but that's not true, so I can't. Work's never fun... the one place I actually did like working, a little, was in one of the big gardens, but when I trampled this edible kudzu they're working on I was asked not to return, even though I'm sure the green stuff survived. Oh, and when I was sent to take some stuff to the rail cannon and I got to watch them take out a surveillance balloon, that was pretty cool, even though you couldn't actually see anything since it was so high up and the projectiles were so small. Everything else, it was just work, work I wasn't getting paid for, work that sometimes left me exhausted... but I could tolerate it, more than I otherwise would have been able to. I didn't enjoy the work, but I did like the feeling that I was helping out, and some of the people I worked with were cool, and I felt like I was starting to make friends. And I had somebody waiting for me at home, so my social life was better than it had been for a while.

On the day we were caught, though, I was back on the MOOP squad, cleaning the streets and sorting the trash for input as feed stock, and later transitioned to helping do the same with material brought in by PiRats from the outside, which included some big metal pieces, not only heavy, but awkward to carry, forcing me to use different muscles than usual. And, toner being so expensive, I hadn't kept up with treatments ever since Mom died. My muscles may not have been flabby, but they were all getting weaker, especially the ones I didn't use much.

By the late afternoon I wasn't only tired, but sore, and what with it being a half-day at school, I had no time to relax and unwind and maybe track somebody down with a low-grade painkiller (the harder stuff was in short supply since the Juggalo bust, but I knew some people who had mild pills like aspirin). I had to pick Mitsy up. I guess I didn't have to, but I wanted to, I liked seeing that restrained smile when she got off the boat, like she wanted to run up and kiss me but couldn't, because people were watching.

On the walk home, she noticed my limp, and I explained my soreness. She ran her left arm up along my back, gently, while saying, "Aww..." and then leaned in close and, in a quiet voice, suggested a massage. That sounded pretty good to me, especially if it turned into an erotic massage. We didn't need much excuse to get sexual anymore, but excuses can sometimes be fun nonetheless. She could rub my body all over, and then I could rub hers, and then we could rub together. In a similarly low voice, I suggested this possibility, and she giggled and bumped her hip against me and I laughed, and suddenly I wasn't as sore anymore. That didn't mean I wasn't still interested in a massage, though.

Once we were safe in the privacy of our own home, in the freezer that we used as a bedroom, we kissed for a minute or so, giggling, and then she told me to lie down and take my shirt off. While I did, Mitsy took off the inferior arm she wore to school, and changed it for the deluxe model. With it attached, her hand instantly came alive. We'd gotten over any awkwardness around the hand, and she was getting used to it, even if we had to keep it secret. She was even getting into the habit of reaching for things with that hand rather than her left.

Lying on my stomach was another of those situations where I actually couldn't easily tell any difference between the two hands. The hard parts rarely touched my back, and there was probably a slight temperature difference, but it wasn't striking, and even though the artificial arm might possibly have been able to crush steel, the force was fully under her control, squeezing just hard enough to knead tired muscles. My sister's massages felt incredible, a mix of pleasure and a little bit of pain as the tension finally gets released.

I had my head turned to one side, and I was looking right at the pile of stuff that my sister used to hide the arm when we weren't there, now moved into our bedroom for extra security. PiRats don't exactly have a healthy respect for property or boundaries, so we agreed to hide it in a pile of clothes and other assorted items, itself hid in the most private room in the place, in case somebody got nosey and went looking for something to steal.

It was also the strategy we employed with Mitsy's violin, which not only had sentimental value but also had some monetary value, since it was made of real wood. The arm was far more valuable, so she hid it underneath the violin, but now, after she retrieved the arm, the violin was left out, right in my sight.

I didn't say anything then, but that planted the seed in my mind for my later mistake. I began to think about when she played music, how good she was and how proud she was of having a talent that people enjoyed, how excited she was that she was chosen to be part of a LongSong (I think the one she contributed to is still going on, now at something like three and a half years of continuous music). I began to think about her dreams, dreams she used to think she had a chance at, and how now both of our futures seemed to have shrunk, so the only dream we had was to be together.

I wanted her to have a dream again, to believe in one again, one outside of me.

At that moment she started kissing my back, and asked if there was a muscle up front that was stiff and needed a little attention, and pretty much every other thought ran out of my head. I turned over, and she stroked that particular stiff muscle as we kissed, and she climbed over me so I could enter her, on top again but this time I was more in a seated position so after she slid down on me we continued to make out, leading to a much closer and more intimate connection as we slowly rocked together and I kissed her neck. But eventually I wanted to be a little more active, so I nudged her off me and she rolled onto her hands and knees and I took her from behind, thrusting into her doggy style and feeling that rising energy until finally all it felt like all the tension of the day had exploded at once, inside of her, as she moaned her own cry of pleasure.

Afterwards, we lay together for a while, but she grew concerned that she was getting smelly from all the sweat we'd worked up, and wanted to take a shower. I went with her, supposedly to save water, but we started fooling around in the shower, too, probably spending more time than the two of us taking a separate one, although we didn't have outright sex and I didn't actually cum. I wanted to save something for bed.

It was only a little later in the night, after we ate some gruel and were listening to music while Mitsy did some studying, on an old fashioned book borrowed from school, that I looked over at the violin again, and those thoughts that had vanished when sex came into the picture started coming up again.

I waited though, until she was done her reading, and then a short time later I moved over to the pile of stuff as though I was just going look for something, and "noticed" the violin case. I picked it up, looked at Mitsy. "Hey, have you given this a go?" I asked, knowing she hadn't. She looked at it like it might bite her. "Why not?"

My sister shrugged, and said, "I don't know."

I thought maybe I'd made a mistake bringing it up. "Sorry, I just thought you'd want to... you used to love playing." She didn't say anything. "And I used to love hearing you."

"I guess I'm just afraid," she said after a moment. "What if I'm not any good?"

"You'll never know unless you try," I pointed out. "But I know you're good. And if your new arm messes up your timing or coordination or whatever... that doesn't mean you're not good, it just means that your arm isn't as good as we thought." I gave her a second, but she didn't seem to say anything, so I added, "You don't have to, but I would love to hear you play again sometime."

Finally, her lips curled up into a smile. "Okay... for you. Except... what do I play? I can't see any music," she said, waving her hand in the direction of her eyes to emphasize the lack of any eyescreens, and so also the lack of apps that made the notes of whatever piece float in the air ahead of her.

"Do you really need any?"

She bobbed her head a little, her body language conveying grudging agreement. "I don't know if I want to improv, not yet... it's..." Her head shook, unwilling to complete the thought, but I thought I could understand. If she was just playing directly from her soul, and it didn't sound right, that was somehow a lot worse than if she messed up on a technical level, a mistake that could be entirely blamed on the her being out of practice or unused to the hand. "There are some songs, ones my teachers drilled me on, I know pretty much by heart."

"I'm not exactly going to spot any mistakes," I pointed out. "Play for me." I held out the case towards her.

She took it, put the case on the ground, then opened it and retrieved the violin and the bow.

They say cybernetics is the perfect fusion of humanity and machine. But in my opinion, they were beaten a long time ago, by music. That's sort of what happens, the human, aided by an artificial extension, turns into a machine for making music... it even looks that way with some people, my sister included. She's concentrating so hard on getting it right, so her face loses most expression, and her body moves in ways that look mechanical, like a programmed robotic routine, making adjustments so precise and fast it would be hard to believe a person could do it. Her new artificial arm only emphasized the visual effect, like it was playing her.

But I knew that wasn't the case. The sound that streamed out of the violin was alive, dark, occasionally brooding, but somehow providing an overall uplifting sound in only a few minutes. It was fully human, and it was absolutely from my sister, even if it may have been composed by somebody else and produced by something more than human flesh and bone.

"That was beautiful," I told her honestly, once the tune ended, and she let out a breath. "What was it?" I'd half-expected her to choose an Erin Zula song since she probably also knew those by heart.

Her face was red, but not just from the compliment. The motion and rush of performing, even when she did it alone, often left her flushed and even a little sweaty... but most importantly, it left her happy and excited. "It's called 'the Angel Theme,' by Darling Violetta." I'd never heard of her, or him. I guessed it was somebody from the classical era. "I chose it because... well, you're my angel."

I smiled at that. "No, you're my angel." And I moved in for a kiss.

She kissed me back, then pulled away. "I made a few mistakes," she said.

Even happy, she was self-critical. "I didn't hear any..."

"But it was better than I thought it would be."

"Better than listening to the same old songs on shuffle," I said. "Hell, we get out of here, put you on a stage, maybe you can start being the breadwinner." She smiled at the compliment, but in a way like you do when you don't believe it. I wasn't just flattering her, though, live music is a legitimate way you can make a living, if you're good, and I may be biased, but I thought she was.

And I guess I wasn't the only one, because it was only a few minutes after she stopped playing that we heard banging on the door. My heart leapt into my throat, but I put up a finger to my lips and edged out to the freezer door, which wasn't the one being knocked at. Mitsy did the smart thing and ripped off her arm and started hiding it, it and the violin, and once I was sure she had, I went out to see who was outside.

It was Cadigan, Stephanie's friend, dressed in what looked like a young girl's pink pajamas, although sized up for an adult. But that was the only thing that suggested she might be ready for bed. She wore a glowing glyph on her cheek (that old Egyptian symbol, the Ankh), and there was a horizontal strip of black face-paint over her eyes, and she had elaborate earrings on, so either she wasn't just roused from bed, or she goes to sleep wearing some strange makeup. It was awfully early for a PiRat to be sleeping though, so I didn't think that was it. More likely she was at some sort of nude party and took PJs for the trip there and back for warmth or processing power. Whatever it was, the look seemed to clash.

What also clashed was her presence at my door. She rolled her eyes the moment they landed on my face, like I was a distasteful chore, and for a second I wondered if she was relaying some message from Stephanie, who I hadn't talked to since me and Mitsy became intimate, despite, and probably partly because of, how I felt I still owed her. "Can I help you?"

"I guess you'll have to, won't you?" She pushed her way past me... I let her, more out of surprise than anything else. If I'd stood firm in the doorway maybe I could have succeeded in keeping her out, but once she was in, I'd have had to physically force her, and threatened the wrath of her whole crew... but the moment had passed me by. "Good news, you can finally make yourself less of a leech. I want something, you've got it."

I felt a hard lump in the back of my throat and did my best to swallow it without looking suspicious. "We don't really have a whole lot here..."

"Relax, it's nothing tangible." My stomach relaxed. The arm was definitely tangible. So this had nothing to do with that. But she was still walking further, into the kitchen area. "Where's your music library?"


The door to the freezer opened then, and Mitsy stepped out, her arm off, stump showing. Cadigan looked at her, at the stump, then just gave her a nod and looked back to me. "Your music player. I'm not going to steal it, I just want to copy that song you had on."

Mitsy and I exchanged a panicked look. Sound does travel... there's holes in the walls, even in the freezer. Usually there's enough noise from other sources to cover it up, but tonight... it'd been a quiet night. Our neighbors were off partying elsewhere, but Cadigan, she must have been near enough to hear it. "You must have made a mistake..."

She snorted derisively. "Please. You think I don't have apps that can triangulate a sound? Come on, it's not like it costs you anything. Turn it over."

I was at a loss. But I did have a music player... maybe I could just let her copy the whole thing. "Wait here..." I said. I went into our bedroom, grabbed it, and by the time I turned around, Cadigan was there, right at my back. I glared at her.

"You're on PiRat territory," she said defiantly, by way of explanation. "I'm a PiRat. You're a guest. I go where I want in my territory."

I handed her the block. "Here. Just copy it all and go." She took it, stared at it for a while, syncing her eyescreens to the library and bypassing the clumsy manual controls.

Finally she said, "It's not in here."

"How do you know?"

"Cause I know," she said. "This is my thing. And you guys are acting awfully shifty. I'm about this close from calling in a full audit." She raised her hand and moved two of her fingers very close together to demonstrate how close.

I pictured a team of PiRats combing through every inch of our place... they'd certainly find everything then. I thought briefly about threatening to kill her, but it was one of those passing thoughts. If I couldn't kill Snikts trying to kill me, I certainly couldn't kill her. "It's just..."

"You can't find it on there," Mitsy said, and she strode purposefully towards our pile of stuff.

"No, Mitsy, don't..." I said, lurching one step in that direction to stop her, but it was too late.

"She's going to find out anyway..." She pulled out the violin case, opened it, a two part job because each latch had to be done with her left hand. "It was done live."

Cadigan nodded. "I guess that explains why I didn't already have that version. I'm surprised... you're quite good." She looked at me. I guess she didn't suspect a one-armed violin player, or an extra-special arm lying just beneath where the violin case was, barely concealed by some clothes. "So why were you trying to hide it?"

I figured I'd try to go with it. "Yeah, well..." I started. "I thought you might take the violin. It's one of the only things we have left from... before."

"I could," she said. "I'm sure I could find someone who could find some use out of it." After a moment, she said, "But I won't."

"Thank you."

She picked up the violin, and the bow, and handed them to me. "You'll just have to play it for me live, so I can save a clean copy."

It was a deadly flaw in the plan that I should have seen all along. But when you're out of options, you'll try anything, no matter how desperate. "It's... it's different when you know somebody's listening... I don't think I'll be able to with you here."

"Come on... from what Stephanie said about you, performance anxiety isn't exactly one of your problems."

"I don't know if I can even remember the song."

Her eyes narrowed. "'Song'?" Shit. It wasn't a song, it was a piece, or a composition or something... I didn't know, didn't have to... but a real musician wouldn't make that mistake, and she knew it. "You played the Angel theme from memory before. Try." Her gaze was like a dare to lie to her.

I picked it up, tucked it under my chin, and, even though there were no shooting stars, I wished for another miracle.

But you only get so many of those. I never had a lick of musical talent. So, I made one sound, like a wounded cat, and put it down. Cadigan turned to my sister. "You?" Mitsy shrugged, sheepishly. "And how exactly did you manage that?"

We were out of lies. Oh sure, Mitsy could have claimed she did it with her first artificial hand, grabbed it, put it on, and tried a performance, but... all it would have done was delay the inevitable. I was sure she could eventually learn to play with the PiRat-made hand, but... without any practice?

It might have been worth a try, or trying to come up with some excuse why Mitsy couldn't play now might have, but we would have had to think fast... and neither of us did. The hesitation caught us.

Maybe she was good at reading people, or maybe she had an app that analyzed our body-language. But our eyes must have darted a little too often to the place my sister hid the cyberarm, because Cadigan looked there too, and with what I swear was an evil gleam in her eye. "You got something interesting in here?"

"Wait, don't..." I said, but that only made her want to more. I tried to get in between her and the stuff, hoping physical imposingness might do the job, but she reached into a pocket that I didn't even see and pulled out a small gun, just about the size of her hand. Tiny, and covered with elaborate ornamentation to make it look like something out of a prior century, but I had no doubt she could kill me with it.

I backed off and let her fish one-handedly through the pile, until she finally revealed the arm beneath clothes. "Well, well... what do we have here? Something you shouldn't have."

Now it was time for my thoughts to start racing in a different direction, searching for justifications, excuses, or anything that might lessen the damage of what she'd just found. "I didn't think it would be a big deal. It's not like it's something anybody else could use." I hoped maybe if I pretended I thought it was a minor matter, she might take pity on me. Fat chance, but I had to try it.

"You'd be surprised what we can use."

"Please," I said. "Just let this slide. You don't have to tell anybody about it." She looked at me, and I thought maybe I was getting through to her. "My sister's been through so much, don't take one more thing away from her." Cadigan looked over to my sister, who wasn't pleading, didn't even look nervous. It was like she just expected this to happen sooner or later. "Just let us keep it, and I'll owe you one forever..." I took a breath. "Just... have a heart!"

Cadigan looked down at the arm, then to me, then smiled. "Somebody's been holding out on us," she said. She wasn't talking to me. She was spreading it all over the PiRat network. "Time for a council. My location."

And then she just strode out, holding the arm above her head like a battle trophy. My sister was in her way, and Cadigan barreled past her like she was going to plow into her if she didn't move, and so Mitsy skittered out of her path at the last moment. Cadigan paid her no mind, just set out to ruin our lives. I don't know how she could hate us that much... or maybe she was just an evil bitch at heart.

Mitsy stared at me, like she was saying, 'Do something!' But what she said was, "What's going to happen now?"

"Whatever happens, you tell them this was my idea, that I convinced you it was allowed, okay?" I told her.

"No, it was both of us..."

"Yeah, but they'll only punish me. There's no room for solidarity here, Mitsy... if they punish both of us, we're twice as screwed." And I knew the punishment. Mitsy probably did too, since they explained it to both of us, but those first few days were overwhelming, so she may have forgot the specifics.

They called it 'Keel-Hauling', borrowing the name from some old punishment from real pirates, when they used to sail the seas, even though the actual punishment was nothing like it. That had something to do with dragging you underneath the boat. The PiRat version... they stripped you of all of your possessions, including your clothes, and exiled you from their territory. I would have thought 'Walking The Plank' would have been a better name to steal, since it amounted to throwing you into a hostile ocean to fend for yourself, but that was already used for the rare executions, and involved an actual plank-walking over a vat of toxic chemicals. I'm not sure that wasn't more humane. And 'Marooning' might have been an even better term, but that was apparently something they only did when exiling an official PiRat, so that was out, too.

I hoped that if I took all the blame, Mitsy might be allowed to keep her possessions... maybe even be allowed to stay in the building. But I wasn't sure. I did, however, have another option. "And they might not do that much." Her wide eyes stared at me, waiting for an alternative. "I'm going to ask to join up."

"We'll both do it."

I shook my head, and started digging around in our pile of stuff. "Don't argue, Mitsy. This..."

"We both join," she said again. "I promised you. Or we could just run. Grab everything we can, and go."

But we couldn't grab everything. The arm was already gone. And I wanted it all. Not just for Mitsy... the arm had brought us together, had made her happier, and that meant it was special to me, too. Besides, I didn't think escape was realistic. The PiRats watch their perimeter, and they'd probably be expecting us to bolt. I might be able to take on the blame for this, but if we both ran, she'd probably be considered just as guilty. "Please, Mitsy, just trust me on this. I have a plan. It doesn't mean what you think." I finally found what I was looking for... my phone. Your access is easy to lose when they're not worn on you like they should be. But as it turned out, I left it in my pants pocket when I took them off.

I called Sterling. I made it a point to find him after the night he saved me because, even though I was in a positivity haze exploring these new feelings with my sister... I wasn't stupid. I knew that getting caught was a possibility, one way or the other, and that I might have to join... and he'd mentioned something that stuck in my mind.

Since at this point I didn't have his number, I had to track him down in the physical world. PiRats don't give out contact info easily to outsiders, but telling me where his crew hung out, that was a different matter. From there, I managed to convince one of them that I wanted to thank him for saving me... and I did, but it wasn't my only motive. So they directed to me where he slept.

His apartment was a weird place. All the walls were painted bright colors, kind of like Stephanie's, but with heavy black lines on all the angles, so it looked like you were stuck in one of those AR overlays to make it look like a cartoon.

My arrival was unexpected and, although he claimed he'd been 'mining Pi', I'm pretty sure he'd just been watching porn, probably fapping to it, when I knocked. He had a sort of flushed look and there was that... smell. Of course, it's not like I was going to bust him on it, nor would I ever tell anybody... except, I guess, right now, where I just did.

To balance the scales, a tiny bit, for my life, I wanted to bring him some kind of token of my esteem... all I could come up with was a beer, bought with some of my limited cash reserves on a special trip outside of PiRat territory. I didn't even know if he drank, but it was something, and I was relieved when he took it with a grin, and told me that I didn't have to do that, but in that way people do where you can tell that they're happy you did.

"Least I could do, you saved my life," I said. "And everything after, too."

"Your sister's doing better, then?"

"Yeah... yeah she is." I couldn't help but smile at just how much better, but I covered it quickly. "Listen... I've been thinking about what you said. About joining the PiRats."

"Oh, awesome. I can hook you up with a Browncoat."

I put up a hand. "I'm not sold yet. There's a few things about the lifestyle that... aren't for me."

"It's the gay thing, isn't it? Really, it's mostly just a mental hurdle to get over."

That was a major factor, but it wasn't just that. It's not true that I didn't want to be with anybody else but Mitsy. I wanted to not want it, but I'm human. There was a large part of me that just wanted to fuck any hot girl that I could. But it was true that I hated the thought of being disloyal to Mitsy, hurting her... if the price of avoiding that was being loyal, it was a fair one. And if I was going to fuck somebody, I wanted it because they wanted me and only me, not because it was a schedule. "I just don't think it's in me," I said. "But you said there was another way..."

He told me then, about the code.... The PiRat life was based on a bond of ultimate sharing... but there were two ways to do it. They didn't want to exclude anybody who, through upbringing or trauma, or personal hangups, couldn't bear to share their bodies... so they decided they could share their souls instead. All new PiRats have to go through lie detector tests, to prove that they're serious, but some people go further, telling their darkest secrets and having them recorded. An intense experience, and, in Sterling's opinion, far more intimate than simple sex, and not just as a one-time thing, either. Not even one in ten PiRats go that route, and not many of them keep it up for long... and I didn't want to do that, either. But I thought maybe I could bluff my way past it. I figured they'd be using lie detector apps, based on body language... and a lot of people don't know this, but they're not really very accurate. I've fooled them before, but then I've always been a pretty good liar, at least with people I don't care about. The lie detector apps work largely because people think they do, and people give off signs when they know they're suspected. Confidence was the key, and even confidence that the tests were bullshit could be enough. Sure, if you do deep brain MRI scans, you can't fool them without drugs, but I couldn't imagine the PiRats having one of those machines.

Of course, I didn't know about the Storyteller drug, either.

I kept this option as my backup plan, and, after Cadigan discovered our secret, it was time to put it into action. I called Sterling, briefly told him about our situation, asked him if there was still time to join and salvage the situation, or if I could spare Mitsy by talking all the punishment myself, or if we should just try to run and get out before we were officially evicted. I didn't actually say that last part, just in case he would feel honor-bound to warn his friends of that.

"If you ask to join up before you're officially sentenced, you're clear... probably even get the arm back," Sterling told me, which is just what I wanted to hear. "If you've got somebody to vouch for you."

"So... uh, man..." It would probably have to be him or Stephanie to do the vouching, and I'd been virtually ignoring Stephanie again since the last time I asked for a favor.

"Yeah, you can say I vouched for you. I know you were thinking about it before, not just because you got caught. Your sister, too, if you want. But that just gets you the interview before a Council. It's not a guarantee, you know, and if they reject you, they'll go right back to sentencing you. Course, I guess you've got two shots at it, so you're probably be okay."

I didn't bother to correct him. There was only one chance... but I figured I could get in... they certainly didn't seem to be picky, and I was trying. I thanked him, then turned to my sister, who was still looking at me like she was heartbroken. I'd never told her about my Plan B.

Now was the time, though I had to do it quickly. "It'll be okay," I told her. "We'll still be together. Me only for you, and you only for me. I promised. I just have to give them a good story, and buy us some time." I tried to briefly outline the Storyteller role, rushing my words out and I'm not sure how clear I was, for she just listened without saying anything or asking questions. I don't think I could have answered them very well either. My mind was half on the story I was going to tell, and reminders to myself to be confident, and a good chunk of the other half was worried that Cadigan might be arranging my official sentence right that second. I had a feeling PiRats resolved things quickly, haphazardly. Once I finished trying to explain, I kissed her, first on the lips, then on the forehead, holding her tight to me. "Whatever happens, I love you."

"Don't," she said again. "Let's just run, KK."

"And go where? Just trust me," I said again. "I'll handle it."

I left, then, even though she followed, I couldn't look at her, she might make me lose my nerve. I knew I had to do this, and I had to do it this way.

Outside, standing in the middle of the street, Cadigan already had an audience, her fellow PiRats, those who weren't too busy partying or in the middle of sex or with something else more interesting than two people who broke a stupid rule... or maybe they were the type that was especially interested in that, who got off on watching people get punished. The night safety lights, that had been installed in old streetlamps, had been cranked up to a level I hadn't imagined possible, giving her something of a spotlight. "We give people shelter, we share our food, and all we ask is that they try to contribute, and they follow our fucking rules. But some motherfuckers don't care, they mock our ways, they see us as fools, and they just want to take, take, take... they want to be leeches. Does anyone here like leeches?" She swung the arm around at people, pointing at them in turn... she actually curled the fingers into a pointing shape. Whoever she pointed at either said no, or shook their head. She turned towards me and Mitsy, right behind me. "And there they are... Leech One, and Leech Two." The crowd parted slightly so that anyone who was blocking our view wasn't. "Many of you have given your time, your knowledge, materials, your friendship, to help them... some of you helped make her an arm. If they seemed a little ungrateful, well, there's a good reason... because they had this." She lifted the arm again. "I found this lovely piece of technology... inductive neural interfaces... Seebeck cells... full proprios. All shit that we could use. All shit that guests are not allowed. And we can't tolerate that. Can we?" She pointed again. And this time, now that I was closer, I saw that the person she pointed to had bright pink hair.

She looked at me, and her face looked a little sad when she said it, but there wasn't a waver in her voice as Stephanie said, "No. No we can't."

"No we can't," Cadigan repeated. "The PiRat code demands that we make an example of them."

I didn't know exactly when sentence would be passed... this could be the opening statement of the prosecution, or it could be all that was required before somebody in power said to Keel Haul us. So I couldn't afford to wait anymore. I stepped up, right beside Cadigan, who got into a defensive stance, holding the hand up like a club. "I'd just like to say..." Suddenly it all seemed to go quiet... everyone was looking at me. A couple faces I recognized, people I'd worked with recently, but none I was especially close with, and they gave me no comfort. They were waiting completely on what I had to say. Being the center of attention is not something I'm comfortable with, but I tried not to let it show as I continued, "It's true we have... something we shouldn't. That's my fault, and I should take all of the blame. I found it a couple days ago... Mitsy wanted to give it up, but I told her it was okay and she believed me. I thought it would be okay, too... I know it was against the rules, but I had made a decision, and I was just working up the nerve to actually do it. I planned to become a PiRat. And I still do, if you'll have me. Right now."

I spared a look over at Cadigan who was scowling. "Convenient, but do you really think any of us here are willing to take you?"

"Sterling vouches for me," I said, and took some satisfaction with the way her lip jutted out, disappointed that she couldn't bully the crowd into not backing me up.

"Everyone knows you're just covering your ass now that you've got caught. We all know what you think of our ways." I had no idea anybody knew anything about me other than a handful of them that I'd talked to, but I guess they were gossips on their private network.

But Sterling had said there'd be some kind of vote, and I didn't know if any of the people here would be voting, but it wouldn't hurt to butter them up. And what I said was mostly true. "I like your ways. I like how you share everything you can. I like how you help people who need it. I like how you find value in things other people discard. But yeah, there's one thing that... that I didn't know if I'd be able to handle, and that's why it took so long for me to step up. Except it was only recently I learned I might not have to. Sterling told me there were two paths... share your body with the PiRats, or share your soul. I choose the second one."

I don't know what I expected. Some kind of gasp, maybe. Or a cheer. Instead, there was mostly silence, although a few tilted their heads in interest, like it was something they hadn't expected. "You couldn't handle it," Cadigan sneered. "Pampered little leech like you, I can't imagine you have anything to offer us." That might have been the reason for the lack of interest. It's not even entirely unfair. Most people who aren't in gang territory, and especially most people from the gated communities like us, they only dream about doing wild and fun things, they don't actually do them. Most minors in my old community are still virgins. But there's always some percentage of people who have parents who don't believe in exhaustive monitoring, or who find a way around it, and who get into the same kinds of things teenagers have done since time began, if the netflixes are to be believed. So I could understand the freewheeling PiRats not believing I could possibly have a story worth sharing. I just had to hope they'd keep an open mind.

"He deserves the chance to try," I heard Stephanie said, and I shot her a grateful smile.

That was when somebody peeled out of the crowd. He was maybe twenty, black, with a scruffy beard, wearing only a white shirt and leather-style pants. He spoke in an accent that sounded like an imitated British accent. Or maybe it was real, but it sounded very theatrical. "Well then... let's give him his chance. A toast, to our prospective new Storyteller!" He produced a flask, offered it to me. Relieved at this provisional acceptance, I drank, tasting the familiar moonshine they called Grog. There was a cheer.

After that, things got fuzzy quick. My feet seemed to want to go in different directions, and then disappeared entirely. There was a falling sensation, and things went black.

Next thing I was aware of, I was strapped into a chair. A girl leaned over me, black, wearing an inappropriately shiny nurse's outfit and black-rimmed glasses. She shined a light in my eye with a finger-sized wand. As soon as the light was gone, my gaze went to her cleavage... the top was very low cut, and I couldn't help but look. "Where am I? How did I get here?" I had no idea how long it had been. It might not even be the same day.

"Your interview," she said. "We like to spring it on our applicants, so they don't have time to get countermeasures in place." She stood up, and I was able to look at her face, and I realized that there was resemblance to the guy who gave me the drink. They could be siblings.

Which made me think of my sister. "Where's Mitsy?"

"I don't know, not my department. I'm just your dealer." She grinned. "I'm pretty excited, it's not often I get to do a full dose. But we'll start you off slow, for the routine questions." She fiddled with something, just out of my vision... I tried to turn my neck to look, but it was also restrained, and I realized there were sensors pasted to my head, and, when the doctor was out of that view, there was an apparatus, with glass bulbs that were probably cameras at eye levels.

This was it, the lie detector. And I realized for all my bluster before... I actually wasn't confident. Not just because I was disoriented, and not just because I suddenly remembered part of the reason body language apps were so unreliable was that eyescreens automatically disguised your pupil dilation... and I didn't have any of those anymore. If that wasn't enough, there was also the mention of drugs. "What are you giving me?" I asked when she returned. She took my pulse, and with her head bowed, I noticed she had some weird round mirror on a band attached to her head, and in it, I saw a distorted glimpse of myself strapped in the chair, helpless.

Once she'd gotten a measurement, her head tilted back up and she smiled. "It's our wonder drug. It's called Storyteller. Some Scientologists developed it... they use it in their audits." I had no idea what she was talking about and I certainly wasn't in a position to look it up. "Don't worry, at this dosage, it just encourages you to be honest." She patted me on the head, and then turned around. I was relieved at first, to see she didn't have a PiRat tail peeking out from under her dress. Then my eyes finally began to focus on stuff more than a few feet in front of me and I realized that we weren't alone. At the other end of the room was a creepy group of faceless forms in robes. They were people, not mannequins... I could see them subtly moving, but they just sat, waiting. I wondered if was maybe prelude to a human sacrifice. One nodded, and that's when the questions began.

The doctor asked them, but every once in a while, she looked to the hooded people, as though they were the ones feeding her the questions. Even though the odds were stacked against me, I readied myself to lie...

Only I soon realized it wasn't necessary. The questions they asked were mostly stuff I wouldn't lie about anyway... stuff they already knew, like my name, whether Mitsy was really my sister, whether I was paid to infiltrate PiRat territory, whether I had ties to law enforcement or any copyright cartel... stuff I guess they had to be worried about with new recruits, but wasn't an issue with me. The only things they asked that I would have lied about was how long ago I found the arm, and how long I was seriously considering being a PiRat... I was going to say I'd just found it a few days ago--I thought it looked better than if I had kept it secret for more than a week--and that I'd been thinking about joining up for weeks before that. But at that point, I figured, fuck it, why not tell the truth?

I also had a little trouble with the question about special skills that might benefit the PiRats... I'm smart, always got good grades, but I realized that it was undirected smarts, I really didn't have anything specific I thought might be useful, and the PiRats were all about useful. I wanted to make something up, but nothing would come to mind except the truth.

After the questions were out of the way, I thought maybe we were done. The doctor-girl looked to the robed men, who nodded, and then she turned to me. "Okay, now we're just going to up your dosage with a special little kicker..." She leaned out of my view again, and I stared at the jiggly dark line between her breasts again, and then she pulled away, came up with a little water bottle with a hose attached, and held it towards my mouth. I opened, and she squirted inside, and I swallowed. She then affixed it to a metal arm, and curved the tube towards me, within range that, if I needed to, I could take a sip by puckering my lips. "I just wish I could stick around..."

"What? You're just going to leave me here...?"

"Have to. The next part's only for the council over there to hear, at least until you get confirmed. Make it something exciting though, something with sex and crime and loads of angst... those are the stories I like."

"No prompting, Mona," came a voice. She looked back at the robed figures and pouted. "How long?"

She leaned over me again, stared me right in the eyes and said, "Judging by his pupils, another thirty seconds should do it." She was quiet then, like she was counting off the seconds... it seemed to go a lot faster than thirty seconds though, when she said, "Okay, we're good to go..."

"Then leave us," said one of the voices from the crowd. My eyes were having trouble focusing on them, or much of anything, they seemed to be darting around, and I only got peace when I started to close them.

As she shuffled out of the room, she said, "Okay sweetie, I'll just be in the next room in case you start vomiting uncontrollably or something and start to ass-fix-he-ate. But don't worry, side effects like that are very rare." She gave me two thumbs up and an open mouth smile, and then backed her way through a door.

By now my eyes were starting to jiggle too much that I couldn't bear to look, particularly at anything moving, even to the limited degree that the robed figures did. As I finally decided to close them completely, I wondered if maybe that was why they stood so still. Seconds, or minutes passed as I began thinking of things, my parents, my sister, my first time. And I heard a voice, like it was coming from far away, in another world. "Bare your soul, and tell us a story, Kane Kishiro, a story you didn't think you'd tell anybody."

I tried to prepare my fake story, the one I'd made when I made this planned, but... I just couldn't think of it. Instead, my thoughts seemed to crystallize about what brought me to this point, how that seemed to be a story worth telling, like all the most crazy things to happen to me in my life were fit into one night... and weirdly, I no longer had any fear, or shame about it. I thought I could just leave out the embarrassing parts. I licked my lips and began to speak. "It's weird. I don't actually feel like I have to say anything... but..." I began. And as soon as I said the words, I realized that it felt good, like even just those first few words were unburdening myself from a great weight, and I wanted to go on. "I said I would, so I will. Where to start?"

I thought about the nature of stories themselves, and how life was different, and continued, "Real stories don't really have good beginnings, they're tangled up in other stories. That's life, right? I guess the night I found it is as good a place as any to start. I mean, it made all this necessary, so why not?"

A better starting point suddenly occurred to me. "In some ways, you could say this all started with a wish, though..." I thought back on the moment, and suddenly it became incredibly sharp and vivid, almost like I was reliving the memories as I spoke them. And I wanted to relive them, even the painful or scary ones. "Earlier that night, I was lying on the roof of a dry-cleaning place, staring up at the sky, and there was a gap in the cloud cover."


"He's going recursive on us," someone says, then. "Where are you Mona? Snap him out of it."

Mona, the sixteen-year-old black girl with glasses and a headband with a big round metal mirror attached leans first into view of the open doorway, then enters the room and salutes. Approaching the chair, she reaches into her glitter-speckled lab coat (which covers a short skirt and low-cut top), and pulls out a patch and peels off the plastic. With her other hand, she leans over the young man, Kane, strapped to the chair, now telling the story of him telling the story of his darkest secret. It's usually best to let a Storyteller session end naturally, but sometimes those on it get into loops. The watchers let it go this long because they were interested in knowing what he planned on lying about even though he couldn't lie, but now that he was telling the story of telling the story, it had to be stopped. Mona snaps her fingers in front of him, says, "Okay, that's enough. Story-time's over."

When interrupted, he stops speaking, but only for a moment. "I can talk about something else. You know, when I was twelve, I found this site on the net about bondage, and I... Ow!" Kane yelps as she tears off the glyph on his forehead, a glyph he likely didn't even know was there.

The doctor attaches a new patch, then adjusts the drip. "No, save some embarrassing stories for next time. Nobody's listening."

Kane frowns, but does, finally, stop speaking, and the Doctor gives a thumbs up to the assembled crowd, then walks out, leaving him once again alone with the people he told the story to. His whole confession has been watched by fifteen lurking youths, black-robed, masked observers, who didn't speak once, just let the Storyteller drug do its work, and recorded the revelations forced out of it.

Formalities must be observed. Although the robed ones are all identical, save for their different heights and slight variations on the masks, one is clearly in charge, for he gestures theatrically to the man in the chair and says, "This man wishes to become a PiRat..." He turns to his fellows. "He has shared his soul, confessed his darkest secrets and given them to the group. What say ye? Do any speak against him?"

"He's not a real PiRat," one says, and, although exhausted and distracted coming down from the drug, Kane recognizes it as belonging to Cadigan. "He doesn't believe in what we believe, he's a leech at heart. He is only doing this to get out of punishment for keeping the arm from us. Selfish with stuff, and selfish with love."

"Many of us started with less than noble reasons," says the leader. "The culture endures. And you heard him, he thought it might be a PiRat gift."

"He still knew he should have turned it in," Cadigan says. "Otherwise why hide it?"

"I don't care. He's got a good reason to want to be one of us. He's got a good story."

"Are you kidding?" This is a new voice, a male. "Okay, fine, the story might be okay... but he's a poor storyteller. He explains too much that everybody knows, digresses too easily. He just skimmed over exciting bits like the chase and the sex, and we never even did get the backstory with Tara or whoever. And I'm pretty sure he said 'beautiful' like a zillion times. Learn some adjectives, man."

Another new voice, another girl, speaks next. "He's not too bad, he just needs a good editor. Of course, it's not going to be me. Not if he's only going to fuck his sister." The disdain for that is obvious in her voice... she is a woman who can understand a PiRat not wanting to have to sleep with every PiRat, but can't understand every PiRat not wanting to sleep with her.

The conversation turns then, to the quality of Kane's storytelling, and some make comparisons to other PiRat stories, some positively, some negatively, although detailing them would be unnecessarily recursive and boring to folks like you. A few more points are raised, in favor and against, and then nobody has anything to say, except the one who started the discussion, who decrees that it is time to vote.

They do this in a shockingly old-style way, not on the PiRat network, and supposedly with no witnesses, the group simply withdraws into a second room and, one by one, each of the jurors puts a 3D-printed marble in a bag, either black or white depending on whether they want Kane to be included. Nobody should know what anybody else voted, but if you heard the discussion most votes weren't hard to figure out.

Since she knows him the best, she's the one to break the news. She enters the room where he sits, still in the same chair where he made his long confession under the storytelling drug, though his head's in his hands, trying to ride through the after-effects with the minimum discomfort. Mona paid him another visit while the vote was going on, unstrapped him and removed the headache patch, but she's gone again. Kane and Stephanie are the only ones in the room. "We had a vote," Stephanie says. She's removed the mask and the cloak, and is once again wearing a pink outfit to match her hair.

Kane looks up, eyes bloodshot, but penetrating. He's awake and aware, the drugs not totally out of his system, but he can hold a conversation without lapsing into a long story about some deep dark secret. "And?"

"Eleven-to-four. It wasn't even close."

Kane continues to stare at her expectantly. He doesn't know enough about the PiRat culture to be able to tell which way was more likely to win, and he can't read Stephanie very well, she's smiling, but it's not really going up to the eyes, the smile of somebody who'd been hurt and is trying not to show it. Finally he can't bear the tension. "And?" he asks again.

"Yo-ho-ho and fiddle-dee-dee," she says, in a sing-song voice that makes her suddenly seem twelve. "If you really want to be..." She completes it with a flourish, her hand extended towards him, "You are a PiRat. This is all still probationary, of course, but as long as you follow the code, you're in."

Kane exhales, a long weary breath, completely unimpressed by the musical accompaniment to her announcement, but then he's not very familiar with the reference, either. "And the arm?"

The song in her voice goes away. "Your sister can keep it, under our family plan." He nods, relieved. "If she doesn't decide to join herself. She wanted to, tonight. Asked me to vouch for her."

The panicked, half-heartbroken look on his face as his head snaps back up at her is almost comical. "What?"

"She did promise that if you joined, she would too. But I don't think she entirely understood what you're going to be doing. She still thinks there's going to be a celebratory orgy with you as the star. Or maybe she doesn't think it's fair that you're sharing your soul without consulting her. You probably should have discussed this plan with her more, explained everything instead of trying to be the hero."

"I have to talk to her..."

She lays a hand on him to keep him from getting up. He's weak enough that one hand is all it takes. "Yes, you do. But it can wait. I managed to convince her to give her decision a few days. But if she asks me again, I am going to vouch for her. This is a good life, and she deserves a real part of it. If your relationship is so weak it can't stand anybody else, well, maybe she'd make a good Storyteller too."

"I don't want to put her through this..." Left unspoken is his own uncertainty that he wants to do this again.

She plays along and ignores it, changes the subject. "Anyway, we decided to put you in Sterling's crew." He tilts his head at her, and Stephanie smirks. "Don't worry, it's just for organizational purposes. You won't have to have sex with any of them, unless you want to." Her voice softens as she has to tread again on the topic she just avoided. "You will have to do a Storyteller session every month. It'll be easier. We'll match you up with an Editor to help focus you, so sessions won't run as long. Your stories all go into our archives, and any PiRat can access them, as long as they don't have recording devices. Anonymized versions will also be torrented to PiRat clans across the globe, though you and your sister have some distinctive features that might make it easy to identify you." Security through anonymity has never been very a good strategy. "We try our best to keep it out of the hands of non-PiRats, but it's data, so there are no guarantees...." This should come as no surprise to anybody. As secure as PiRat networks are, there's one thing, a fundamental logic, you can count on: Hackers gonna hack. "When you get right down to it, it's all part of the Pi." Kane is starting to look like he might throw up, and she adds, "It's how it works. No one said it'd be easy. If it gets too intense for you, you can switch back to the normal way, or you can quit. The arm stays behind if you leave us, though. Unless your sister joins in your place."

"I'll be fine," he insists.

"Sterling and his crew will guide you through the PiRat code until you get used to it, they'll get you some wearables and teach you to use our network. They're a good bunch, you'll like them."

He nods, then adds, conversationally, "You know, I know Sterling vouched for me, but... somehow I was sure I was going to wind up in your crew. But I guess Cadigan wouldn't..."

"No, I vetoed that," she snaps. "Cadigan actually wanted it... she didn't want you to be a PiRat, but now that you are, she wants to be able to watch you and pound you into shape if necessary, and get you kicked out if you can't hack it. She's not actually so bad, she would have given you a fair chance. But me..." She shakes her head. "I just can't. No... I don't want you in my crew."

He looks at her, hurt, but it fades, like he realizes it was only right and natural for her to feel this way. "I'm sorry. I can understand not everybody being okay with what's going on between me and Mitsy..."

"Give me some fucking credit, Kane. I'm not mad you're with your sister," she says. "I'm happy about that. You both deserve somebody. I'm not even mad at all, really. Shit, I voted for you." But anyone watching would know she is in fact mad, but not just mad. "I'm just... hurt. I really did like you. A lot. I thought maybe I was special to you."

"You were," he says. "You are... under the drug, what I said..."

"Yeah, I heard it," she says. "You said you had feelings for me, but the truth is, I wasn't ever a part of your story, not really. I thought I was... maybe you even thought I was, but, it turns out, I was just a minor supporting character. The wrong girl, before you found the right one under your nose all along. Very tropey, like in any good romantic story. And again, I'm happy for you. It just sucks to be a part of it, when you're the wrong girl who thought it was the one right guy."

His brows come together, confused and angry. "The one right guy? You have sex with tons of people!"

Stephanie rolls her eyes. "That's just sex." She looks behind her to where the vote took place, like she's wondering if she can change hers now, since Kane clearly doesn't get PiRat culture.

"So how can you be angry?" he finally asks.

"I'm not! I want to be friends, eventually. Just... not right now." She's silent for a few seconds, and it almost looks like she's going to leave it there, but then she adds, "I guess it kind of hurts that in your whole story... you spent more time talking about the food you found than about me." This isn't actually true, but no data miners have gone to work on the story, nor any fan stats-accounts, so it's understandable that she might think that. "I thought I meant at least a little more to you."

"I'm sorry," he says, and he is, because despite what happened with his sister, he does still have lingering feelings for Stephanie, and his instinct is to try and make it right. "My mind was just sort of just trying to put everything in some kind of order, I wasn't thinking about it. I couldn't exactly control what I was saying..."

"If you could, that would defeat the purpose." She smiles, again not reaching her eyes, but at least it doesn't look quite so fake. "Us being in the same crew, it's just... probably not a good thing, for a while. And I really don't want to fuck up things with you and your sister, even accidentally. So we could probably both use some time to let our feelings die down. Besides, it's going to take a while to get used to a friend I don't fuck. That is, if you still want to be friends."

"I do," he says.

"Okay. Maybe in time. I'll see you around."

She starts towards the door, intending to leave, and stops only when she hears him say, "Wait." She turns, waiting, and Kane looks around the room, palms up. "So what happens now? Do I just wait here? Go home? Do I need to cobble together a pirate-themed outfit and a rat tail? Go on raids? I know I'm supposed to be a storyteller, but aside from that, I don't really know what a PiRat is supposed to do..."

She shrugs. "The council's already gone, so you can go home if you want. You do need to have that talk with your sister." Although that may well have been what he was trying to avoid. "Sterling's crew will probably be dropping by later for an orientation party. As for everything else... it's just like the old song."


She bobs her shoulders a little and says the line, "Do what you want cause a PiRat is free."

The End


[[Perhaps that one didn't do anything for you, recycled as it was. I tried to add a little extra context to the end, but really, this was all mostly to prove a point. Anyway, I feel like you want something more punchy, less romantic. Another dirty secret, but this time a story told with no audience in mind, save the author herself, but teased out of a distant server just to provide you with a voyeuristic thrill? Well, it just so happens one has fallen into my hands...]]

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