Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two

Dazz - Jennifer Pelland

Jamie came to in an alley. Again.

She blinked until her eyes could stand what little light filtered in from the street and found that she was slumped against a cinderblock wall, alone, save for her audience of rats. She opened her mouth to yawn, felt dried vomit flake away from her lips, and looked down to see that she'd thrown up all over her tattered lace dress. Damn. She'd liked that dress.

Jamie wiped her bare arm across her mouth, the gummy, half-dried puke peeling away from her face. She smacked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and spat chunks of half-digested chicken chow mein onto the cracked asphalt. She'd found the food in a dumpster the day before. It didn't taste any worse today. The rats swarmed over it, and she felt her stomach threaten to heave again.

She turned away from the feeding frenzy, took a deep breath, then slowly levered herself up to her feet in the early morning light. A wave of dizziness crashed over her, and she dug her fingernails into the rough bricks, clinging tightly until the lights in her head faded and she could see straight again.

When she opened her eyes again, the rats had fled.

One of her legs didn't feel quite right. Was it the dazz? She took a few hesitant, sluggish steps, one leg responding a little too slowly, one barely responding at all. No, it was definitely her leg, not the drugs. She reached up her dress, found the join, and snapped the prosthetic back into place.

Much better.

Still, it felt like her legs would need another power jolt soon. The next trick she turned would have to be for money, not for drugs. Or maybe she could just sell her left arm. Might as well get a good price for it before she got so fucked up that she damaged it beyond salability.

Jamie straightened her dress as best she could and tottered out of the alley on her cheap artificial legs. The few working streetlights flickered and she winced as she felt a slight shock in her VR port. She rubbed ineffectually behind her left ear to try and soothe the pain. Another cybervolley. God, she missed the VR-net. The real world was so boring in comparison. Thank god she'd found dazz.

She made her way down State Street, leaning hard against the boarded-up buildings, making her way past an old "Springfield, Massachusetts--Gateway to the Future!" sign, trying to remember who'd made the sticky feeling between her legs the night before. Probably best not to know. She'd gotten some dazz, he'd gotten some pussy. He? They?

She turned the corner onto Main Street, and the rising sun smacked her right in the eyes. She swore and collapsed to the ground, wrapping her arms tightly around her head.

She felt hands lift her from the ground. "Let's clean you up," a familiar voice said.

Shit, it was Officer Groton. Still, Jamie didn't resist as Groton led her into the Springfield PD cruiser. She knew she had a hot shower, clean clothes, a decent meal, and a bed to look forward to. It all sounded really good right about now, despite the one-woman good cop/bad cop routine she knew was coming. She crumpled into the back seat, fighting nausea as Groton peeled away from the curb.

She didn't uncurl until the car pulled up to the station and she was led inside, out of the early morning sun. Dazz on the downside didn't mix well with sunlight.

"I appreciate this," she said, thinking maybe instead of an arm, she'd sell her eyes and ask for replacements that weren't so damned light-sensitive. Eyes, though. That was pretty intense. If they gave her cheap replacements that conked out, she'd be screwed. Better crippled than blind.

Officer Groton led her down the familiar path to the showers. "I don't know why I keep doing this. You're just going to go back to the streets once we let you go."

Jamie didn't even try to deny it.

The hot water felt almost as good as dazz.

Well, almost as good as a weak dose.

Okay, it didn't hold a candle to dazz. But it was nice.

She washed everything, even undocking her legs and cleaning the stumps, taking care to scrub off the grunge building up around the little metal control nub sticking out of the bottom of each stump, even though it tickled something fierce. The doctors said the nubs weren't supposed to feel anything when the mechanicals were undocked, but that was bullshit. They were direct connections to her nervous system. How could they not?

The clothes they gave her were boring and gray and just a little scratchy, but they were clean, and they fit with room to spare, hanging almost comically off her scrawny body. The station nurse gave her a broad-spectrum injection to kill off any diseases, parasites, or fetuses currently inhabiting her system, and then she got a dose of valium. Just enough to keep the edge from creeping back. Not enough to make the world even remotely interesting.

"The shower logged four DNA prints going down the drain," Officer Groton said as she led Jamie to a cell. "Must have been some party in your pants last night."

"I was wearing a dress."

"One of these days, you're going to wake up legless, you know. You're going to turn a trick with a pervert, and he's just going to pull those cheap prosthetics right off of your stumps and leave you helpless in an alley somewhere. Or worse."

Jamie stared at the officer for a long moment, then asked, "Can I have a jolt?"

Groton called for a portable battery and watched from the far side of the cell as Jamie recharged her legs. "I know you can kick this. My sister did."

The insult portion of her incarceration had ended. It was now time for the customary lecture. "You know, I'm really sick of hearing about your sister," Jamie said, watching the power indicator on her right leg creep out of the yellow and into the green.

"I wouldn't bring her up if I didn't think it would do you some good."

Jamie pushed wet hair out of her face and stared up at Groton. "Why the hell do you care?"

"It's my job."

"Yeah, right. And that's why none of the other cops give a rat's ass about me."

"That's their problem, not mine," Groton said, voice hard. "Look, you're a smart woman. You know you can kick any time you want. So just do it."

Jamie tapped on her port and said, "You have no idea what it was like to lose this."

"Cut the self-indulgent whining."

Jamie glared up at the cop. "I don't have to listen to this shit," she hissed.

Groton leaned back against the bars and crossed her arms over her chest. "You know, I'm glad your little project failed. If you hadn't, I'd hate to think how many junkies I'd be sweeping off the streets every time there was a power outage."

"The VR-net wasn't like that."

"So you became a junkie just for kicks, is that it? You're selling off body parts out of sheer altruism? Face it, none of you would be doing this to yourselves if you hadn't been addicted to VR."

"So what was your sister's excuse?"

"She was just young and stupid. You, you're too old to be this dumb. But if she kicked, you can kick."

Jamie opened her mouth, but no retort formed. The beauty of the VR-net wasn't something she could explain. How could she? There were no words for the infinite mind-expansion, for the dazzling colors that went far beyond the rainbow, for the way she could just melt into the other users, no skin, no bones, no ego. She closed her eyes, feeling the ghosts of all the people she used to merge with, and a shudder ran through her. There was no way to explain. It'd just be a waste of oxygen. She shook her head, then pulled the plug from her right leg and hooked up her left. "It was beautiful," she murmured. "And I can't get it back."

"Good," Groton said. "It would have been horrifying."

Jamie closed her eyes and lost herself in the dream that had drawn her to the project in the first place, the dream that they had come so close to realizing. "It would have connected the whole world. No interface, just direct brain-to-brain. You wouldn't even have to notice the computer if you didn't want to."

"And then what?"

"Anything. Everything."

She heard Groton snort, and Jamie opened her eyes and stared at the boring gray floor. Hints of color danced at the very edge of her vision, but she knew it was just a dazz tease. An after-echo of her latest trip. If she turned her head to try and look at them, they'd just keep dancing off to the very corners of her sight, beckoning her to take another hit so she could see them again full force.

Groton shifted her feet, then in a quieter voice, said, "This shit is killing you and you know it."

Jamie yanked the power cord from her left leg. "It's the closest I can get to what I lost."

"Until the cyberterrorists are caught."

Jamie experimentally flexed her feet. "They'll never be caught."

"You don't know -- "

"We're never getting the VR-net back," she snapped. "You weren't there. You never saw . . ." Jamie swallowed hard, nightmare images crowding away the teasing colors. "You never saw someone get their wires fried. You never saw your best friend lying in a hospital bed, too brain damaged to wipe the drool off of his face."

"I've seen you too stoned to wipe the puke off of your face."

Jamie looked back at the floor.

"I'll be by before I leave."

Groton left her in the small gray cell with nothing but the wallie for entertainment. Jamie lay down on the cot and tried to find cartoons, but all she could get was news and educational programs. The news was the same old gloom -- economy spiraling down even farther, no new jobs, more attacks by the cyberterrorists, and still no sign of rain.

Whatever.

At least the cyberterrorists made it a little interesting by breaking into the broadcast with cool fractal patterns and an audio of their latest demands. "You are all slaves to your computers. Networking used to mean human interaction. You're helpless when the power goes out. Computers used to be tools--now you work for them. Kill your computer. Regain your humanity. If you don't, we'll do it for you." It was followed by the usual cybervolley. Jamie sat in her dim cell, hands pressed against her eyelids so she could get the light show back, and waited for the power to come back up.

Another cop delivered lunch. Jamie nibbled at it, then switched the wallie off and napped. There was nothing else to do. Everything was too dull, too quiet, too flat.

Groton woke her up. Looked like she was in good cop mode. "I'm off shift in a minute."

Jamie struggled to sit up. "Have a nice night."

"Is it even worth calling your family?"

"I don't think their opinion of their 'worthless junkie daughter' has changed, no," Jamie said, and tried hard not to think about them. That was another life.

"They dropped the theft charges."

"Only because a trial would have meant embarrassing stories in the papers. Bad enough I'm a junkie whore. Last thing they want is for the neighbors to know it too."

Groton shook her head and headed for the door.

"Say hello to your sister for me," Jamie mumbled, too low for Groton to hear.

The next morning, after a hot meal, more valium, and another shower, Officer Groton put Jamie back into the police car and dropped her off at the rehab clinic. She handed Jamie a slip of paper with a drug counselor's name on it and said, "Look, you've still got some social services money left before your allotment runs dry. Could you at least try to go clean this time? It'll cost less than getting picked up again."

Jamie took the slip, wrapped her arms tightly around herself and shook her head, her combed and plaited hair knocking back and forth across her shoulders. Dazz was her life. If she went off it, she'd have nothing.

"What the hell do you see in it?" Groton asked. "I mean, you're on the streets, you wake up covered in puke, you're starving. I don't see the appeal."

Jamie looked out the window at the boarded-up buildings, the panhandlers, the rats scurrying boldly out of the sewers, the too-bright, too-dry sky. "It's better than this," she said.

The Strykert and Sons chop bus pulled up across the street. Jamie fumbled with the door and staggered out before the good cop went bad. "Gotta go." She tottered across the street on legs that were no good for running, ignoring Groton's grumbled curse as she drove away. The counseling referral fell from her hands as she opened the door.

She peeked her head in, and the chop man cried out, "Jamie!"

She smiled at the warm welcome. She didn't fool herself into thinking that he remembered her from last time. She knew he'd just pulled her record up on his earbug. The VR-net was supposed to make earbugs obsolete. Another failure to add to the list.

"Hey," she said. She tapped her fingers nervously against plastic thighs through her ugly prison pants. "Um, so I'm thinking about making another sale. You know, maybe try to rent a place for a while when winter hits." She twirled one half-blue braid between two thin fingers. Her brown roots almost reached her nose. "Maybe re-dye this."

"Sit down." The chop man gestured a flesh arm towards a plush, crimson sofa. None of the chop workers were chopped themselves. They didn't need to be. They had jobs. Good ones, at that. She sank into the soft cushions, grateful for a taste of luxury.

He sat in a large armchair across from her and draped an arm across the back. "So, what were you thinking of selling?"

She swallowed hard, pushing away the fear. Money was more important. Money brought easy dazz. "Maybe an arm. Maybe an eye."

He drew his lips thin. "We only buy eyes in pairs, and prefer arms that way too, although we do take singles at a discount. Blue is a popular color, so you'll get a bonus for that. 20/20 vision, I assume?"

"Yeah. Only pairs, though? What if there's a systems failure -- "

He waved a hand. "Those are so rare that they might as well be nonexistent."

"Well, it's just that Mary -- "

"Did she sell to us?"

Jamie shook her head. "To the hospital."

"They gave her government-issue eyes. Ours are much better. Even our baseline models, which I assume is what you'd want. You take home more money that way."

"Um, do they . . .?" How did she say this without bringing up drugs? One word about her habit, and he'd be legally obliged to end the transaction. "Do they act totally like human eyes? You know, do they have problems with bright lights?"

He grinned. He got it. "For a nominal fee, we can make them glare-resistant."

"Still, eyes. . ." She trailed off, picking at her plain gray pants. She looked down at her left hand. Did she really need it? Maybe an arm was better than eyes, even if they did pay more for pairs. "It's just . . . well, if I have too many mechanical parts, what happens if I can't keep them charged?"

He leaned over and rested a broad hand on her arm. "Don't worry. Repeat customers can come back to the bus for a free recharge at any time."

She looked into his eyes, then swallowed hard and looked down at the floor. This was easy money. She just had to keep reminding herself of that.

"Jamie?"

She looked up at him.

"Would you like something a little nicer to wear?"

"Um . . ."

He smiled broadly, showing gleaming rows of perfect teeth. "You're such a good customer. I'd really like to make you more comfortable."

"I . . . I don't actually want to make a sale today."

"I know."

She walked out ten minutes later in a long red sleeveless dress with a black spider web pattern. It was hanging off of her, but she still felt pretty in it. No shoes. With plastic feet, she didn't see the point. She also had dutifully taken a brochure, even though she had no intention of reading it. She'd decided she could wait. She was still getting plenty high off of a single dazz tab, and she could still find ways to afford her next dose. She'd bank her remaining body parts for later. Probably not too much later, though. Her arms would eventually get too skinny to sell.

The skyclock said it was twelve thirteen. Too early to turn tricks, so she went to the clinic and got some more Valium to tide her over, pitched the Strykert and Sons brochure in the trash, then went to the Tower Square Mall and stood outside the sports bar begging people for their doggie bags. At one point, she thought she saw her brother walking out of the drug store. She stood and stared, daring him to look her way, but he blended into the small lunch hour crowd and disappeared.

Doggie bags in hand, she made her way over to the old playground, now overgrown with weeds. Someone -- no one could remember who anymore--had hung one of the old WNEC recruiting signs from the swingless swing set: "Help build the future of the Internet! Exciting job opportunities for talented programmers! Make virtual reality a true reality!" She hated looking at it, but couldn't be bothered to spend the energy to take it down. At least it marked the spot as theirs and kept other junkies away. There was something about strung out, college-educated, former-professional programmers that made the smack and crack users nervous.

"I brought lunch," Jamie said to the figures curled up under the rotting wooden jungle gym. As they stirred, she handed out the bags, dodging around Ricky as he staggered to the fence to vomit. There weren't enough bags to go around, but they shared. They always shared everything, except for dazz.

Jamie sat down on the ground, legs sprawled in front of her, and one of her fake feet clicked against Loren's. She laughed and reached out to give Loren's arm a squeeze.

It was solid to the touch.

"Hey, wait, you sold your arms!" Jamie cried.

Loren tossed her straw-blond hair out of her eyes, her face all gaunt angles and dark shadows. "Yeah, just got back yesterday. Where you been?"

"In the lockup." Jamie grabbed one of Loren's hands and stared down at the fingers. From a distance, they looked a lot more convincing than Jamie's toes. Up close, they were clearly plastic, but still, not too bad. "Do these work okay?" she asked.

"Yeah. No complaints." Loren flexed her fingers, then wiggled them individually. "I spent a little extra to get good ones. Gotta keep them jolted up high, though, if I want to pick up small things."

"Makes sense. So if you've got money, what are you doing out here?"

She shrugged. "I'm saving up. Wanna make the money last. I figure I'm almost out of saleable parts."

"Eyes are good," João said, tapping on his fake pair with long, ragged fingernails.

"Who'd you sell them to?"

"Strykert and Sons. Didn't you sell your legs to them?"

"Yeah," Jamie said. "How're the replacements?"

"Pretty good. A little static if there's a cybervolley, but nothing I can't handle."

"Cool."

Ricky staggered back from the bushes, hands clutching at his stomach. "Uch. I can't take this anymore," he groaned

"You've still got all your parts," Jočo said. "You could start selling them."

"No, I mean . . ." Ricky sighed and ran his fingers through his knotted hair, tugging hard when they got stuck. "I'm so fucking sick of this life. I'm thinking of trying to go clean."

Jočo snorted. "You said that last week, and the week before, and -- "

"Yeah, well, maybe I mean it this time," Ricky said, casting a sidelong glance at Loren. Loren didn't seem to notice.

"Can you afford it?" Jamie asked. "I mean, is there enough left in your social services allotment for rehab?"

"Probably not, no. I'll probably have to go to one of those Christian groups."

"They'll make you pray."

"It might be worth it." He reached out and grabbed Jamie's hands. "Come on, Jamie. Do it with me."

She startled back. "God, no."

"If we do it together -- "

She shook her head hard. "Ricky, just stop. You know I can't."

He leaned towards her, eyes pleading. "Come on. I know how hard it's gonna be. But I'm sick of living on the street and puking in the bushes every morning. Aren't you?"

"Ricky -- "

Out of the corner of her eye, Jamie saw Loren pull a tab of dazz out of her pocket, and she turned to stare, every cell in her body magnetized by the sight. The craving pulled at her, made her body scream, and she dropped Ricky's hands, unconsciously reaching towards the one thing she still loved in this world.

Ricky dove for Loren, saying, "Wait, you shouldn't take a whole--" but it was too late. Loren put the entire tab under her tongue. Her eyes rolled up in her head, and a low moan escaped from her throat. She braced herself against the ground with plastic hands, skinny flesh shoulders shuddering. Ricky grabbed her just as her arms gave out.

"God, that looks good," João moaned. "I should sell something else."

Loren hummed, her body swaying back and forth in Ricky's arms, and Jamie bit back tears. That should be her. She should be flying right now.

Ambrose tossed her now-empty food bag into the weeds. "Fuck it." She pulled a tab of her own out of her grimy jeans and put it under her tongue, then crawled over to Loren and wrapped an arm around her. Loren smiled, then started coughing. Ricky held her head up as she gagged out some vomit.

"She shouldn't be throwing up so soon," Ricky whispered. "She shouldn't have taken a whole tab. There's not enough of her left."

Jočo crawled over to sit back to back with Loren, who cooed and dropped her head against his shoulder. She was totally gone.

God damn, Jamie wanted that to be her.

She struggled to her feet. She couldn't stay and watch. She needed to get some money and get a hit of her own. It had been too long. Over a day. Felt like an eternity. "I'll . . . I'll see you around."

"Y . . .yeah," Ricky said, voice shaky. His brown hands were balled so tightly that they looked nearly as pale as Jamie's. "We've got her. You go."

"I'll be back with food. Tomorrow."

He nodded. "You go."

Jamie forced herself to turn and walk out of the playground. That was it. Tomorrow, as soon as the chop bus came out, she was selling her damned arms. What did she need flesh arms for anyway? They clearly stood in the way of an amazing high.

She headed out to the Campanile to watch the public wallie so she could try to forget. Soaps, mostly. A few terrorist demands. It fuzzed out briefly during a cybervolley, the skyclock going dark as well. Pain shocked her port, and when it faded, Jamie counted three other people rubbing behind their ears. Were they former coworkers? She couldn't remember anymore. Didn't want to. Most of them looked about as bad as she did.

Night, finally. Jamie went to the old Amtrak station and waited for the cars to come down from the burbs. The pros were all under the one working streetlight, but Jamie was with the rest of the addicts, slouching against the stone wall in the dark. The pimps left them alone. The junkies weren't any competition. They didn't attract the same clientele. She saw Ricky, but she didn't say anything. He always talked about kicking, and then he always ended up here. She kind of admired him for even thinking of trying to go clean. She wasn't strong enough even for that.

A green luxury hydrovan with Connecticut plates pulled up, flooding them with its high beams. Jamie didn't even wince. It had been too long since her last hit. The valium had worn off, and every cell of her body felt jittery. It wasn't bad yet. But if she didn't turn a trick soon . . .

Two men in expensive jeans stepped out of the van and headed towards her. "You look clean," the taller one said. "Not too scrawny."

"Just got out of lockup," Jamie said. "Got my shots and everything."

"How deep are you?"

"I won't puke until morning, if that's what you're asking."

"Good." He jammed his hands into his pockets and exchanged a glance with his silent compatriot. "And the legs are all you've sold?"

"Yeah."

"I guess that'll do. So, one hit of dazz, and ten credit strips."

"Two hits -- one for now, one for later -- a place to stay the night, and breakfast," she countered.

"Done."

Jamie took the dazz right away, and the quiet man pulled her legs off and started rubbing himself on her stumps before the van had even started to move. She didn't care. She was flying, her brain expanding in a million different directions at once. She was connected to every atom in the universe, barely tethered to the sack of meat that housed her. And if she listened carefully, she could almost hear the whisper of the voices from the VR-net resonating all the way down to her phantom toes. It was beautiful. As good as she could hope for. Almost, almost perfect.

The next morning, she woke up small and alone in the back seat of a stripped-down, abandoned car behind the old vocational high school, a pair of sunglasses on her face and mealpack sitting on the ground next to her second hit of dazz.

Second hit of dazz.

She knew she should wait. Save it for when she really needed it.

Jamie put the tab under her tongue.

She woke up in the hospital. They'd taken her legs so she wouldn't try to run.

"You were flatlined when we found you," Officer Groton said. "Choked on your own puke. We're going to get you clean this time."

Two days into her court-ordered rehab, Jamie's social services account ran dry, and word came back from her family that they wouldn't pay her hospital bills. Program over.

Officer Groton drove her back to the rehab clinic with a voucher for one free session. Jamie just sat in the car, hands lying limp at her sides, her entire body a raw nerve. She didn't even have valium to cushion her. Her brain felt naked, vulnerable. She could hear her thoughts rattling around in her empty skull, and it scared her. She had to find some dazz, fast.

Groton switched off the engine, looked down at the steering wheel and said, "Jamie, I can't even pull you in off the streets anymore. I mean, even if you o.d. again, I'm legally obligated to leave you there. Look, just . . ." She let out a long breath and stared out the windshield, her eyes unfocused.

Jamie had never seen her look so lost.

She reached quietly for the door handle just as Groton snapped back into herself. "Wait. I'll pay for your rehab. I'll find the money somewhere. You don't need dazz."

Jamie picked at her gray clothes with thin fingers. "I do. What else have I got?"

"Look, I'm sure if you try to get clean, your family will take you back."

A harsh laugh choked out of Jamie's throat. "Yeah, right. Just like your sister."

"My sister -- "

"I don't care about your damn sister. Never have."

"She's dead."

"Oh." Jamie's hands went numb, and she looked down at them, wondering if artificial ones would do the same. "I'm sorry."

"She's been dead for a year and a half, actually."

Jamie's world went into slow motion as she turned and gaped. "What?"

Groton shook her head and stared down at the steering wheel. "She overdosed. We'd gotten her clean, she was doing fine, and then one night she went out, hooked up with her old friends, and took a whole tab. Her body couldn't handle it, and she . . ." She closed her eyes. "She wasn't as lucky as you. No one found her in time."

Jamie just stared, aghast. "I can't believe you lied to me."

"I couldn't . . ." Groton stopped, gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white. "You were the first junkie I picked up after her funeral. And stupid as this sounds, I just . . ." She trailed off, looking so much smaller than before.

"You made me your fucking pet project," Jamie spat, and turned toward the door.

Groton snagged her wrist in an iron grip. "I screwed up with her. I will not screw up with you. I am paying for your fucking rehab. You will get clean."

"Not until I get the VR-net back."

"Fine, so do something about it."

"I can't. It'll kill me."

"And doing dazz won't?"

Jamie snorted and wrenched her arm free.

"Jesus Christ, Jamie. You know I'm right. What the hell will it hurt to try? Wouldn't you rather go out fighting than choking on your own puke?"

"I'm not that brave. Hell, it would be safer just to build a new one than to . . ." Jamie froze, eyes focused on the empty space between her body and the door, possibilities racing through her naked, exposed brain. Holy shit. Holy fucking shit.

"Build a new one? Yeah, right."

"No, I could do it." Jamie spun back to face Groton. "It wouldn't be a real VR-net, but I could build a small LAN here for all my friends. Maybe plugging a handful of minds into it will be good enough."

For once, the cop looked genuinely interested. "And it'll keep you off of dazz, right?"

"Maybe. I think so. God, I hope so." She tapped her port with two fingers. "The difficult part's already hardwired to our brains. I just need to set up a couple of mainframes and recreate the programming. And I won't need to worry about security if I don't connect it to the outside world."

"You can do all that?"

Jamie rolled her eyes. "I was one of the original programmers, remember? Maybe I'll even be able to find a copy of the base program on the Web. That'll save a hell of a lot of time."

"Shit, Jamie. I've never seen you look so animated."

A huge smile spread across Jamie's face, straining underused muscles. "I don't know why I didn't think of this before."

"Probably because you were too busy getting stoned."

Jamie ignored the slam. "Other people must have tried this. I can't imagine that I'm the only one to think of it. They just must be keeping it quiet so they don't get overrun with users."

Groton leaned forward, propping her elbow on the armrest of her chair. "Doesn't matter. Let's get started. What do you need?"

Jamie closed her eyes and let the LAN form in her head. If she just built it for her friends, she'd be able to keep it pretty small: a couple of used servers, a handful of converters, some cables, VR plugs, serious surge protection, and a backup module. "Can you get me a place to set this up?"

"Yeah, you can have my sister's old room. What else?"

"Equipment. Look, tell the gang down at the park that I'll have a . . .hell, call it a mini-net. Tell them I'll have a mini-net set up in about a week. God, this is going to be great! Thank you!" She reached out and squeezed Officer Groton's hand, then stepped out of the car and started across the street towards the chop van.

"Wait!" Groton jumped out of the car and grabbed Jamie by the arm. "What the hell are you doing?"

Jamie flung her free arm towards the van. "I need the money to buy the equipment."

"Oh no no no no. You're not doing what I think you're doing."

"I have to. It's the only way."

"Look, I have some money. You can have it."

"If you don't know how you're going to pay for my rehab, then there's no way you afford this. I can't just build it with a cheap PC."

"Jesus Christ, you're talking about selling your arms, aren't you? You're just going to be a torso and a head in a couple of days."

"I know. I don't care."

"We'll raise the money some other way," Groton said, undaunted. "I'm sure we could get some rich folks to cough up the cash if we pitch it as a way to solve Springfield's drug problem."

"Oh yeah, right. And they've been so generous before."

"Please?" Groton's voice cracked. "Please, just wait. Don't go in there and let them chop you up. Just wait."

Jamie slowly shook her head and pried Groton's fingers from her arm. "I have to do it now. If I don't . . ." She looked over her shoulder at the addicts shuffling into the rehab clinic, then looked back at Groton. "If I don't, then I'll go back to dazz until you raise the money. I can't afford to o.d. And I don't think you can afford that either."

"Shit." Groton looked away in disgust.

Jamie took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. All her misgivings faded away. They were a fair trade. If she could get even a small taste of the VR-net back, it was worth it.

She crossed the street and signed the papers.

When she came to in the hospital, Groton was there again, looking like she hadn't slept in days. "It's not going to work."

Jamie shook her head weakly, too woozy from the anesthetic to speak.

"It's been tried before," Groton said, holding up a handful of printouts. "In another hub city. Pittsburgh. It just replaces one addiction with another. Instead of a group of drug addicts, you get a dazed group of wireheads that are so lost in their tiny little VR world that they shit their pants, drool all over themselves, and don't eat unless someone unplugs them and spoons food into their mouths. Best guess is that dazz-damaged brains treat VR like the ultimate drug, but no one's exactly pumping money into the problem, so they can't say for sure." She dropped the printouts on Jamie's bedside table and slumped back in her chair. "When they hook up your new arms, you should read this."

Jamie stared at the papers and tried reaching a phantom limb out to grab them, but all she saw between herself and the table was empty air. Her breath came hard, black fingers squeezing her vision down to a tunnel. This couldn't be happening. It couldn't be.

Groton slowly pushed herself up from her chair and sighed. At the door, she stopped, looked over her shoulder, and said, "Oh, and the state collected all your donor money. They overspent your social services allotment on your last hospital stay. So even if your plan could have worked, you couldn't have afforded it."

Groton left.

For the first time in a very long time, Jamie cried, choking on snot and tears that she was powerless to wipe away.

They fitted her with new arms -- not quite as nice as Loren's. The state only left her enough money for the basic model. They worked, though. They'd do just fine. Some johns really liked quadruple amputees. The faker her arms looked, the more likely they were to hire her. And that was good.

Officer Groton stopped by as she was getting discharged and slipped a small baggie in her hand. "Three quarters of a tab," she murmured. "Don't turn tricks tonight, okay? Go find your friends and take this. Come back to me tomorrow when you need another one."

Jamie nodded vacantly and marveled at the empty space inside her. The operation had taken away the last of her limbs, but Groton's news had cored her. If she rapped on her chest, she knew she'd hear an echo. There was nothing for her anymore. She knew that now. And so did Groton. Things would be so much easier from now on.

A cybervolley hit, and Jamie tightened her new plastic hand around the baggie and smiled.

- END -

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