Content Warnings

Contains themes of trauma, stalking, and suicide.

This story is also available as an ebook.

When Jackie first met her next-door neighbor, she had no inkling whatsoever that there was six figures’ worth of military hardware grafted onto his body.

The man who answered her knock at the door of the neighboring apartment was somewhere in his early 20s, with the permanent five ‘o’ clock shadow of someone who only shaved with an electric razor. It was early autumn, not even cold, but he wore a hoodie and kept both hands tucked into its front pocket.

Jackie did her best to look friendly (a redundant effort, as she usually came across as the least threatening person alive). “Hi, I’m Jackie. I live next door.”

“Hi.” The neighbor looked pleasantly surprised, as if he’d opened the door expecting much worse. “Connor.”

“So, this is weird and I’m sorry to bother you about it, but my cat is on your balcony right now.”

The balcony was the major selling point of an otherwise standard crappy apartment. Everything was the same shade of Landlord White, and the kitchen backsplash had been ripped out and never replaced, but the building was in decent shape—although construction further up the block had rattled it beyond its usual tolerances, leaving cracks in the walls and ceiling. A balcony meant that Jackie’s cat, Greg, could get some unsupervised fresh air while she worked.

An acquaintance in the local esports league had hired Jackie to replace the control sticks in his lucky gamepad, which were starting to drift. The money wasn’t great, but she was between freelance gigs. The job demanded enough of her attention that it was only once she’d finished and put down the soldering iron that she realized Greg had gone wandering.

Connor left the door open and moved to his window, pulling the heavy blackout curtains aside. His apartment and Jackie’s shared the balcony, with a divider between. Somehow, Greg had made his way across the divider and now lay indolently in front of the sliding door on Connor’s side.

Jackie hovered at the apartment’s threshold. “Can I just—?”

Connor shrugged. Jackie bolted gingerly across the apartment and slid the door open to retrieve her cat.

Greg offered no resistance to being hoisted, even when Jackie held him up in front of her face and said, “You are a very bad cat.” She turned and waggled him at Connor. “Say ‘thank you’ to the nice man for the use of his balcony.”

In response, the cat only yawned. Connor, however, cracked a smile. With his left hand, he gave Greg a scratch behind the ears.

His right hand remained hidden, tucked into the hoodie.

Jackie next saw Connor on laundry day.

He came up behind her in the hallway outside the laundry room, where she stood with half a key in her hand and the other half wedged in the lock of the laundry room door.

“Did your key break?” Connor asked.

Jackie glared at the door. “Yes.”

Connor tried to pry the broken key out of the lock, but couldn’t get a grip through his gloves.

“I think you need fingernails for that,” Jackie said, and Connor stepped aside.

It took a few seconds, with Jackie chipping her thumbnail in the process, but eventually the broken key came loose and Connor unlocked the door.

As they commenced the intricate dance that only took place between near-strangers doing their laundry together, Jackie asked, “Why is this room even locked?”

“They found someone sleeping in here once,” Connor said. “Landlord got mad. Do you want one of my keys?”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a spare. I’ll just tell the landlord one of mine broke.”

Connor worked the key off the ring with his right hand, but handed it to Jackie with his left.

The fire alarm went off at three in the morning. Greg, the asshole, immediately hid under Jackie’s bed and had to be dragged out.

Jackie ended up outside in her slippers with the cat under one arm and her bed’s comforter over her shoulders. There was some consolation to be had that the building’s other occupants, scattered all over the parking lot, were in similar states of undress.

Connor was off in the corner, arms wrapped around himself; he’d neglected to grab a coat on the way out, and the night was chilly. His oversized t-shirt did nothing to hide the advanced mechanical arm grafted to his right shoulder where a flesh-and-blood limb had once been. Jackie faintly recognized the model from videos that crossed her feed every once in a while. It was a military-grade prosthetic, supposedly as dexterous as the human limb it was intended to replace.

People were staring. Connor did his best to ignore them.

Jackie sidled over, holstered Greg against her hip, and extended one side of the comforter. “Hey. You cold?”

It was a polite fiction on both sides: Jackie pretended not to notice the arm, or the fact that she’d offered Connor the side of the comforter that would cover it, and Connor pretended not to see right through the gesture. He ducked under the comforter with a quiet, “thanks.”

They huddled together in the parking lot until the fire department showed up. After all that, it turned out to be a false alarm.

The building was only three stories tall, with no trash chute. Instead, Jackie had to haul her garbage bags down to the dumpster in the alley.

Someone had left a bedside dresser—slightly beat up, but still solid—on the ground next to the dumpster. Connor hovered over it with an air of uncertainty.

“You taking that?” Jackie asked.

“I don’t know.” Connor had his hoodie on, with his right hand tucked into the front pocket; the arm hung limp from his shoulder.

“I could help bring it up,” Jackie suggested.

Connor ducked his head, avoiding her eyes. “I can’t lift anything. My arm’s not, uh. Working.”

“I can carry it. Just get the doors for me, okay?”

It was a little awkward to lift, and the stairs were a bitch, but a few minutes later Jackie set the dresser down next to Connor’s bed. It was just a mattress on the floor, no frame.

Jackie stretched, hands at the small of her back. “Can I ask you an awkward question?”

Connor cleared his throat. He still wouldn’t look at her. “The VA hasn’t paid the bill yet.”

“For your arm?”

Connor nodded. “There’s a fee every month, from the company that made it. The VA covers it, but sometimes they’re a few days late.”

“So the company switches the arm off remotely.”


“You tried modding it?”

Connor rubbed his shoulder; it had to be a strain, hauling that much dead weight around. “Like how?”

“You could try disabling whatever antenna receives the lockout signal,” Jackie said. “Or cracking the firmware. I could help, if you wanted.”

“Is that legal?”

“More or less?” Jackie shrugged. “It’s the kind of thing the law has trouble keeping up with.”

Connor looked uneasy. “I’ll think about it.”

Amelia’s scoff came through Jackie’s headset like a burst of static. “Again, Jackie?”

“What? What’s ‘again?’”

The rest of Jackie’s regular gaming group had gone to bed hours ago, leaving Jackie and Amelia to claw their way up the leaderboards late into the night.

Jackie didn’t particularly like Amelia.

“This thing where you’re nice to some guy,” Amelia said, “because you’re nice to everybody, and then he decides he’s in love with you. And then you have to move halfway across the country because he won’t leave you alone.”

“So I should just be a bitch to everybody?”

“It’d make your life easier.”

“I don’t believe that.”

There was a knock on Jackie’s door.

“I’ve gotta go,” she said.

“Yeah, sure.”

Jackie closed the game and dropped out of the chat server. When she opened the door, Connor was there, looking sheepish.

“Hey,” he said. “Sorry, I know it’s late.”

“It’s fine, I was up.”

Connor rubbed his shoulder again, although his arm seemed once again able to support its own weight. “So, that thing you suggested. About the arm. Could we try?”

“Yeah, absolutely.” Jackie moved to let him in, then hesitated. “Actually, let me grab my tools and we’ll use your place. Less cat hair.”

They set up at Connor’s dining room table, which—like the dresser—looked like it was salvaged out of the trash. Connor changed into a sleeveless shirt, and Jackie got her first full look at the arm.

The prosthesis didn’t stop at the shoulder; the shoulder blade and part of his spine had also been reinforced, the whole apparatus clearly not designed for easy removal. The casing wasn’t metal, like Jackie expected, but some kind of polymer. Where it met flesh, there were scars: long furrows, clumsy and chaotic and not at all surgical.

There was an access panel on the arm’s shoulder, and the screws holding it in place all had a distinctive head. “Security screws,” Jackie said. “You need a proprietary screwdriver for these.”

“So we can’t open it?”

“What? No, I have the screwdriver here.” The toolbox rattled as Jackie fumbled through it. “You can buy them online. They’re like five bucks.”

The screws were all slightly different sizes, just to make Jackie’s life hell. She placed each on the table in a pattern roughly corresponding to where they’d been on the panel.

When she tried to pry the panel up, it didn’t move. Closer inspection revealed it was also glued in place.

It was probably unwise, not to mention impractical, to stick Connor’s arm in the oven. Luckily, Jackie had a heat gun. She tried to keep it away from Connor’s skin, but he still flinched every time the nozzle got a little too close.

Once the panel was off, Jackie grabbed a pen light and examined the board beneath. The network chip that received the lockout signal was easy enough to spot; it was, of course, glued to the board. Everything was.

“Chips are glued down,” Jackie reported.

“Can you melt the glue?”

“Probably shouldn’t,” Jackie explained. “Sometimes they like to layer acid between coats of glue. If I try to dissolve it or pry the chips off, I might damage the board.”

Another sweep of the pen light revealed a port without a connector.

“When they were setting this thing up,” Jackie asked, “did they have any cables plugged into it?”

Connor shifted in his seat. “I don’t remember. Does it matter?”

“Maybe. I think I see a debug port. They would’ve used it to calibrate the arm while it was being installed. If I can solder on a new connector, that might get us the access we need.” Jackie grabbed her laptop. “I’ll have to order the connector online, though. None of the suppliers in this city are anywhere near a bus stop.”

Connor said, “I have a car.”

“Is it the one with the tree growing out of it?”

There was, in the parking lot, a car with four flat tires and a tree growing out of it. It wasn’t a big tree—barely a sapling—but the fact that it was there at all was not a good sign.

The look on Connor’s face was all the answer Jackie needed.

A few days later, the courier delivering the new connector called Jackie and said, “I can’t find your address.”

“Oh. Your GPS is pointing you down the wrong street.” Jackie sighed; this was nowhere near the first time. “That’s the pedestrian entrance. Car access is through the parking lot, one street over.”

“Could you come down?”

Jackie groaned. “Yeah, sure.”

The courier hung up.

Jackie was only halfway down the stairs by the time her phone rang again. She answered without looking and said, “Hey, I’m on my way down.”

A voice that was not the courier said, “Jackie?”

Jackie stopped dead, her heart pounding up into her throat. “Wyatt. Hi. How’d you get this number?”

“I got it from Ethan.” Fucking Ethan. “I heard you moved.”

“Sure did,” Jackie said. With any luck Wyatt hadn’t heard where to.

“I’m gonna be out your way pretty soon. We should have coffee or something.”

Jackie’s mouth went dry. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Because I asked you to leave me alone, Wyatt.” Jackie took a deep breath that rattled in her chest. “Please don’t call me again.”

She hung up, blocked the number, and managed to stop crying by the time the courier finally showed up.

In retrospect, it should’ve been obvious that soldering parts onto a board was much harder when the board was attached to a human being. One who, on occasion, had to breathe.

“How the hell did they even install this thing?” she grumbled, holding the soldering iron away from anything sensitive as she waited for Connor to settle.

“I was out for most of it,” Connor replied.

Distracted, Jackie asked, “‘Out?’”

“I was in the hospital. IED.”

Jackie had to put the soldering iron down. “You got blown up and then they stuck a robot arm on you? Don’t they have to get consent for stuff like that?”

“When I enlisted, I just signed whatever they put in front of me,” Connor said. “There was a form I could fill out to get an extra few thousand a year. I didn’t read it too closely.”

Jackie took a moment to calm down, picked up the iron again, and went back to work.

Once the connector was on, Jackie plugged in her laptop, opened a terminal, and pulled up the arm’s internal drive. There was a long list of utilities, all with arcane names and no indication as to what any of them did.

“This might take a while,” she warned Connor.

“How long?”

“Long enough that I shouldn’t sit here plugged into your arm the whole time.” Jackie typed out a command to copy the firmware to her own drive. “This next part is going to be very boring.”

Around midnight, Jackie closed her laptop and announced, “I need caffeine.”

Connor, half-asleep, grunted in agreement.

There was a convenience store a few blocks away. Jackie lunged for the drinks fridge the moment they arrived, grabbed two, cracked one open, then wandered toward the snack aisle for her usual ten minutes of indecision.

On the walk over, Connor had asked if Jackie was from around here.

“I like that the rent’s way cheaper.” Jackie wavered between chips and jerky. “I never could’ve afforded to live alone back home.”

“Don’t you miss your friends? Family?”

“My kind of people don’t hang out much in person anyway.”

Momentarily distracted by a display of sour candies, Jackie almost missed it when Connor said, “I don’t talk to anyone. From before.”

It was a weird thing to say right then. Jackie suspected Connor had been trying to say it for a while.

“They all felt so bad about it,” he went on. “And then I’d end up apologizing to them over how bad they felt. And then everyone kept ‘checking in,’ and complaining that I wouldn’t open up to them, and had I talked to my therapist lately, and ...” He rubbed the back of his neck, eyes trained on the floor. “Eventually I just liked it better when I was alone.”

Jackie said, “Do you want some gummy bears? They’re two for one.”

“Yeah.” Connor’s laugh was short, brittle, but genuine. “Thanks.”

Halfway back to their building, Connor said, “Somebody’s following us.”

Jackie stumbled; Connor steadied her and urged her to keep moving.

“He was outside the convenience store,” Connor explained. “I wasn’t sure until we turned that last corner.”

“What should we do?” Jackie fought down the urge to look back. “The last time this happened I hid in a diner bathroom and called my mom, but she’s not—”

Connor turned on his heel and charged down the sidewalk, back the way they’d come. He had the guy by the front of his shirt by the time Jackie caught up.

She knew that guy.


“Jackie!” Wyatt struggled indignantly in Connor’s grip. “What the fuck?”

Connor said, “You know him?”

“Somebody I knew back home,” Jackie said. “He followed me here.”

“He do that a lot?”

“He’s ... kind of why I had to move.”

Connor’s face settled into a cold mask. Whatever happened next was too fast to follow, and then Wyatt was on the ground, clutching his arm, howling.

There was blood, so deeply red it was almost black under the anemic street lights. Something protruded from the red-black mess, white and jagged, at a sickening angle from the natural line of his arm.

Jackie screamed.

Wyatt scrambled back and staggered to his feet. Jackie tried to help him stand, but he lurched away.

“No, no, wait,” Jackie was babbling, “please let me take you to the hospital—”

“Fuck you, bitch,” Wyatt spat, and bolted.

Connor ignored him. He was staring at her, eyes wide; his right hand reached out for her, but faltered.

She ran.

Jackie didn’t leave her apartment much for the next few days.

In spare moments, she sifted through her copy of the arm’s firmware: opening each utility and fiddling around until she’d figured out what it did. It was time-consuming, but comfortably monotonous—at least until the words “DEBUG TOOLS” appeared at the top of her terminal.

She still had the laptop open in her hands when she knocked on Connor’s door. Connor opened it, then stared at her without speaking, guilt etched across his face.

“Hi,” Jackie said.

“Hi,” Connor replied. “I figured you weren’t talking to me anymore.”

“Yeah. Well.” Jackie cleared her throat. “You scared me.”

“I’m sorry. I was just trying to help.”

“I know. You didn’t, though.”

“I know.”

“So. Uh.” Jackie hefted her laptop. “It looks like the company left their whole suite of testing tools installed on your arm.”

“And that’s good?”

“Very,” Jackie said. “They would’ve used all these scripts and commands to run tests while they were developing the firmware. They’ll let us completely bypass the security on your arm and start switching things off.” She lowered the laptop. “You still want to do this?”

A shaky laugh escaped Connor’s throat; he leaned heavily against the door. “Yeah. I do.”

They settled back in at the dining room table, and Jackie plugged her laptop in.

The trick wasn’t getting the arm to ignore the lockout signal. The trick was getting it to respond to the manufacturer as though it had initiated the lockout, even though it hadn’t. Jackie wound up scripting a workaround so that the arm would receive the command, report back like a good little robot, but otherwise completely ignore the lockout order.

It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job.

“Okay.” Jackie opened up another of the test utilities. “I’m going to send a fake lockout signal to the arm, now. Let’s see what happens.”

“If this works,” Connor said, “I owe you dinner.”

“Don’t promise that,” Jackie warned him. “I’m not a cheap date.”

The false lockout signal went through. The arm sent its report back, indicating that it had done as it was told.

“Try to move your arm,” Jackie said.

Connor’s hand twitched, then closed into a fist.

They took the metro downtown. The train rattled and shrieked the whole way; the cars themselves looked to be at least twenty years old, but had been gutted at some point in the last few years so the seats could be “upgraded” to hard, molded plastic. It didn’t deter anyone from sleeping on them.

Connor decided not to wear gloves.

Jackie had found the sushi bar online. It was basically a closet, but the reviews were good—deservedly so, as it turned out. They (mostly Jackie) had demolished at least four rolls and several orders of nigiri when Connor said, “I washed out after they installed the arm.”

Jackie paused to chew and swallow before answering. “Right after?”

“The plan was to send me back out there,” Connor said. “They figured I’d wake up, be grateful for the upgrade, and go right back to fighting. I couldn’t.” He shook his head. “I felt wrong.”

Despite her best efforts, Jackie recalled the scars around Connor’s shoulder. Scars that could’ve been made by fingernails.

“Anyway.” Connor smiled at her. “Thank you.”

All in a rush, Jackie said, “I don’t want to have sex with you.”

Connor’s head tilted to the side, like a confused dog. “Okay?”

“I just need to make that clear, because sometimes I get friendly with a guy and he thinks things are going in that direction and then gets upset when they don’t.”

“I don’t.”


“I don’t think things are going in that direction.”

“Oh.” Jackie slumped back into her seat with relief. “Good.”

Just as the metro was pulling into their station, it came to an abrupt screeching halt. Out on the platform, someone screamed.

Dread pooled in Jackie’s gut. “What’s going on?”

An alert came over the speakers overhead, announcing that all passengers needed to exit the train immediately. There was an edge of panic in the air as they disembarked.

On the platform, a crowd had gathered in front of the gap between two train cars. “What happened?” Jackie asked.

“He jumped,” someone said. “He jumped in front of the train.”

Jackie went cold as the fear in her gut started to spread. “Is he—?”

Connor was taller than most of the others; he leaned over them to look down through the gap between cars, to the tracks below. Recognition flickered across his face.

“What?” Jackie grabbed his sleeve. “Who is it?”

“Nobody.” Connor hooked his arm through Jackie’s and steered her away from the edge of the platform.

Jackie tried to turn back, suspicion dawning. “Is it him?”

Connor didn’t answer.

“Connor.” Jackie tugged on his arm, heart racing. “Is it Wyatt?”


She blinked, rapidly. There was something in her eyes. “Are you lying to me?”

Connor shook his head, and Jackie let him pull her up the escalators and out of the station.

It was wordlessly understood that neither of them wanted to be alone, so they ended up in Jackie’s living room while some mindless video played on the TV. Jackie lay on the couch, curled up on her side; Connor sat on the floor next to her head, Greg sprawled purring across his lap.

Eventually, Connor said, “It’s a stupid way to try and kill yourself.”

Jackie didn’t know how to answer that, but he didn’t need her to.

“The train is slowing down as it comes into the station,” he continued. “It’s not going fast enough to kill you. At least not right away.”

All at once, Jackie understood why Connor lived in a building only three stories tall. Why he shaved with an electric razor. Why his car sat unused in an open-air parking lot.

She saw the shape of the grand gesture Connor had ruined by ushering her away from the train before she could see who it hit.

She knew she could check the news to see who it was, and decided she wouldn’t.

Jackie slung one arm around Connor’s shoulders and pulled him into a hug, resting her forehead against the back of his neck.

Connor took her fragile human hand in his mechanical one and held on tight.