Bot smasher Nakato dedicated her life to taking the broken tech other people had abandoned and turning it into robots designs that the world had never seen. Only two things drew her from her home high in the Web: her best friend Rafah and commissions for customers she liked.
Those two things drew Nakato out of her comfortable rut when a commission for prosthetic arms for the orca War Tooth revealed just how much she had left to learn at the same time that Rafah fell into an abusive relationship that threatened her very life.
Mods is a thrilling cyberpunk story set in the Mouse and Snake universe that’s sure to excite.
By Meyari McFarland
Nakato stretched, her spine popping. Her nest was quiet. Better be given how much she’d paid to soundproof the spherical walls when she added on her workshop. Thick white sheets of insulation hung between radiating struts that supported the nest’s shell. Her tiny living area wasn’t half as quiet or secure, only having a fiberglass shell instead of synth and the lightest of insulation between shell and struts. Didn’t really need to be ‘perfect’ for Nakato. After all, it was just a place to sleep and keep Nakato’s meager supply of clothes, food and overflow tools.
It was her workshop that counted. She smiled as she looked around, working her shoulders and shaking her wrists to get rid of some of the ache from hours of close work. Thirty feet diameter, solidest walls possible, insulated perfectly; Nakato’s workshop was a top of the line nest suited for a family of six. It was perfect. The anchors she’d had installed to hold it in place were best on the market, too, and she’d had the place wired with the best computer system there was.
Nakato would live in here if it wouldn’t displace her tools and supplies. Shelves curved around the walls from floor to ceiling, secured between the heavy struts supporting the spherical shell. Each shelf held carefully secured boxes of parts, tools and completed sample bots she’d made for testing purposes. The only place that was open was the floor that dropped open so that Nakato could lower her bigger bots down when it was time for delivery. Wasn’t sure how that’d work when it was time to test her new orca-bot but Nakato’d figure out when it was time.
At this time of day, hours before dawn on a day that promised to be blustery early and clear later on in the afternoon, there wasn’t another person around outside. Or inside. She didn’t let many people into her workshop which might explain the persistent smell of sweat, grease and fried electronics. Every time Rafah came over her nose wrinkled as if she couldn’t stand the stink.
“Shows what she knows,” Nakato muttered as she slid backwards along the gentle curve of the nest’s floor towards the drain. It took her out of the slowly forming orca-bot’s shell. “Her place always stinks of pollen and wet soil.”
Her back cracked again as Nakato rolled to her feet. There was nothing worse than kneeling inside of a bot as she hooked up its nervous system. Always made her wish for that beautiful lab on the mainland that the big multinational corps tempted her with. Solid ground, no nest shifting in the wind, enough support structure that she could build her dream horse-bot and then enough room that she could ride it as it tested its functions out. She snorted and grinned, tasting dripped lubricating oil on her lips.
“Keep dreaming, girl,” Nakato said, amused.
It wasn’t going to happen. Maybe for Rafah, not that she’d ever leave her cozy little nest perched high in the upper levels of the Web amidst the grapevine and blackberry brambles. Rafah was small and sweet, cute in her sometimes-worn, sometimes-not, hijab. Nakato was never going to be anything other than a big bot-smashing black girl to the land-dwellers, no matter how many awards she won for her AI work.
“That’s fine,” Nakato murmured as she took her welding glasses off and shoved them into her hair without regard for whether they had oil on them or not. “Rather bash my bots out here and do people some good than be a corporate slave creating war-bots to be destroyed.”
*You always talk to yourself?*
Nakato jerked as she whirled towards the still-sealed door. No one was there. The seal around the door, the security system that Rafah’s mother had helped Nakato design, was still green all the way around. She frowned. No one could have gotten past her security system so what the hell?
No one could have snuck in. Nakato wasn’t half as oblivious as Rafah when she worked. She would have noticed someone physically entering. Even if they’d hidden on the shelves built into the walls, tucked themselves behind the carefully organized bot parts, Nakato would have seen them. She’d designed the workshop shelves to make it impossible for anyone to jump her, after all. Not going through that again.
That meant someone had hacked her system. Whoever it was, was watching her on her system feeds. Or they’d hacked her personal cybernetic mods, the eye mods that let her see to microscopic detail, the computer linkups that let her tap directly into bot programming with her mind. If they’d gotten into Nakato’s body mods then she was fucked, even with the firewalls she had around her brain implants.
*Who the hell are you?*
*A customer,* the voice replied.
It sounded male, amused, with the faintest hints of military tags around the edges of the system link. The tags were obsolete, broken, hacked so that they were pretty much indecipherable at a quick glance. If she wanted to, she could decode them, figure out who it was, where they served, but she didn’t think she had time.
Nakato frowned ferociously. She didn’t work with military. Never had. Never would. She’d seen too many people screwed over by the military since she started smashing bots.
*Fuck off,* Nakato snapped. *I don’t work with spooks.*
Shutting down her system links to the outside world wasn’t something she did all that often. Rafah always freaked when Nakato did it but being hacked was a totally worthy reason. Besides, Rafah should be asleep right now. Should. Might not be given that new lover of hers, Annie or Andrea or whatever her name was. If the woman lasted longer than a few weeks Nakato might invest some time in learning about her. But only maybe. Something about her set Nakato’s teeth on edge. Nakato sent Rafah a quick ‘been hacked’ message before cutting the links to everything outside of her nest.
It was a lot like having her cybernetic mods removed for maintenance. Nakato felt like she’d just cut off her right hand and one foot along with removing her eyes. Not being linked to the net, not being peripherally aware that no, no one was outside, that yes, the wind was rising and the cloud cover was building overhead while the barometer dropped, felt very much like being completely blind.
She could still see. Her eyes still worked. Her ears did, too. But all the extra information that her mods gave her was gone, leaving her almost a normal human. If the spook actually came into her nest she’d show him just how effective her physical mods had been. Nakato wasn’t officially modded for strength but she and Rafah had figured out how to increase her muscle strength and reflexes years ago. That was all off the books entirely.
*Nice,* the voice said. *Very complete. Not effective but very complete.*
“The hell?” Nakato shouted as she flung herself back onto the net, looking for the spook.
She got the distinct sense of water, teeth snapping together and a tail smacking against the surface of the sea. Nakato froze. Seriously, what the hell? A marine? Dolphin or orca, probably. The whales who’d been modded didn’t come under the web. It was too claustrophobic for them, too tight, especially with the western section of the web that’d fallen a decade ago during the big storm.
“You’re marine?” Nakato asked. “The fuck? What’s a marine need with me?”
*Like I said,* the marine said, still laughing at her. *I’m a customer. Got in on a big haul, tons of money. I want cybernetic arms, special design. You’re the best so I came to you.*
That made a certain amount of sense. Nakato had started out doing cybernetic mods before she’d turned to bot-smashing and AI creation. She still did a lot of work giving people prosthetics. Shark bit your arm off? Nakato could create a new one for you, better than the original. Everyone knew that.
“The hell sort of haul’d you get in on to afford me?” Nakato asked. She opened a digital window, setting one of her personal helper-AI’s to track down who the marine was and where he was swimming at the moment.
*Private one,* the marine replied. His firewalls rebuffed Nakato’s little AI, sending it scooting back to her home system to quiver in the corner of her digital domain. *My partner doesn’t want to be known. Got enough trouble to deal with, you know?*
“No,” Nakato said slowly. “I don’t know. Gimme some details.”
The marine snorted. The snap of his jaws through the net made her think orca. Big males liked to intimidate humans with their teeth. System talk didn’t have the same emotional interplay that face to face communication did. The nonverbal cues just weren’t there. But she got the feeling that he was protecting his so-called partner.
Which… odd. If it’d been his pod that got the haul, he’d have said ‘pod’. If he’d teamed up with someone marine, dolphin, whale, whatever, then he would have said so, more than likely. Marine always loved bragging when they got one up on humans, especially land-dwelling humans. Of course, Nakato did that, too. Most everyone who grew up in the web did.
“They’re human?” Nakato guessed.
*You are good,* the marine replied. This time there was an impression of a tail slap against the surface of the water.
Nakato nodded. “What sort of arms we talking about here? It’s not easy to seal prosthetic implants against sea water. The recovery period’s gonna be a bitch, you know.”
*You don’t have to worry about the mods,* the marine said. *I got those, healed and everything. I need arms to go with the mods.*
That rocked Nakato back on her heels. She stepped up from the curving drain onto the walkway around her partially-built orca-bot. If he’d gotten the mods for arms then he should have the arms. They were part and parcel of the mod process.
You generally didn’t give someone prosthetic limbs, which is what arms for orca were, with the assumption that they’d be switching them out frequently. Took too long to learn the new body part. Orca had a huge learning curve when it came to hands and fingers. They handled sensory mods easily, more easily than humans. Strength mods went well too. But their brains just didn’t cope well with the addition of new limbs, in general.
“You gotta be military,” Nakato said as she opened the door to her living quarters. Unlike her oil-spotted but otherwise pristine workshop, her living quarters were cramped, messy and smelled of last night’s salmon curry.
*Was,* the marine snapped. *Not anymore. You interested in replacing my arms or not?*
She froze on the jamb, staring into space as she realized that had to have happened. “They took your arms away when they decommissioned you? What the ever-loving fuck?”
Even with her focus on the system talk with the marine, Nakato was aware of the difference in temperature from her workroom to the kitchen area. It was way too cold in her living area or maybe it’d gotten too hot in the workroom. Either way, she shivered as she punched the door seals to lock the lab up again, more for the thought of his arms being removed than for the temperature difference.
The marine’s response was angry snaps of his jaws, a couple of tail smacks and what she thought was cursing in his pod’s private language. It came across as clicks and whistles that made Nakato wince. No way would she scold him for it. Some bastard of a military doctor had literally amputated his arms and then tipped him back into the ocean to survive without the limbs he’d learned to reply on.
“Oh,” Nakato breathed, realization finally hitting her. “War Tooth. No fucking wonder your partner wants to be unknown.”
*Yeah, me,* War Tooth said. *Yes or no, leg?*
“Yes,” Nakato snarled at him. “And I want to know who the bastard is that ordered your arms cut off. I’m gonna tell my best friend Rafah and we’re going destroy him, her or it. That’s God-damned torture!”
War Tooth snapped his jaws at her, clearly, distinctly, through their respective systems. It didn’t feel like anger though. To Nakato it felt more like he was surprised, confused by her anger. Given that he’d had his arms ripped off by other humans she couldn’t blame him for being surprised that she’d give a damn about him.
She kicked a discarded boot out of the way, stomped to her tiny fridge, and pulled out a bottle of water. The first taste made Nakato grimace at the flavor until she remember that she had oil on her face. Over the system, War Tooth blew a blast from his blowhole, much like a human snorting in disgust. He didn’t comment as Nakato quickly washed her face in the tiny sink.
“You know the design you want?” Nakato asked as she dried her face off. “Any special tech you want added in?”
*Yeah, I know exactly what I want,* War Tooth said. *Not sending it over the net, though. Whole damned web would know pretty quick.*
“My system’s more secure than that,” Nakato snarled at him.
*Maybe,* War Tooth replied with a matching snarl, *but I’m monitored. All you legs think I’m some sort of damn threat. Partner thinks that it’s because legs are scared of me collapsing the web. Damn foolish idea.*
Nakato froze with the bottle of water halfway to her mouth. She started laughing at the sheer stupidity of it. As if one orca with hands was going to be able to topple the entire web. Maybe if it was suspended from a handful of support columns it’d work but that day’d been done decades before Nakato had been born.
There were way over a thousand, close to two thousand support columns spread across the area that used to be Seattle. Thrusting up from the seabed below, they ranged from massive concrete and steel structures that would withstand a nuclear bomb to simple columns of synthsteel that started fat down deep and narrowed to needle-like points thousands of feet in the air. All of them were festooned with the cables of the web.
Seattle’s residents had tried desperately to survive the rising seas by climbing higher and higher, suspending homes and businesses amidst a web of cables, platforms and columns that had become the Web that Nakato knew. As they climbed the connections had grown until some places the cables wove together like a shifting synthsteel fabric. Other places they stretched thin like spider webs connected by jury-rigged suspension bridges. The web clustered and interlinked like a neural net recreated on a grand scale and just as flexible. It was always moving, always changing, always growing.
Where Nakato lived there were close to a hundred layers to the web, filled with all sorts of nests in all sizes and shapes. Spheres were most popular, most likely to let the rain carry on down, but every other shape existed, swaying in the wind as the net shifted and moved around them. Most all were decorated by vines that grew wild amongst the intersecting cables. Nakato encouraged blackberry brambles to grow over her both for the berries and the thorns that decorated the vines. The web wasn’t eternal, nothing in this world was, but it was solid enough that War Tooth wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing to topple it if he wanted to.
After the collapse ten years ago they’d reinforced everything. It’d take a full military strike, demolition teams and probably enough explosives to cause a tsunami across the Pacific to take the Web down. No way could War Tooth do it by himself. Even his whole pod working together wasn’t doing to do more than maybe clear out a few barnacles along the support beams.
She shook her head, drinking the water and then refilling the bottle from her personal filtration system. Some people were ridiculously stupid. Not that it mattered. There were arms to create and a customer to meet face to face.
“Where can I meet you?” Nakato asked. “I need to do measurements as well as get your specs.”
*Here,* War Tooth said.
He sent a location to her, way hell and gone on the far western side of the web. It was down at the water, of course, but it was also in a dead zone that no longer had people living in it. Maybe. Could be scavengers in the area but they wouldn’t have net access and the only power they’d have would be their own personal solar panels. Or maybe illegal hook-ups to the wave generators close-by.
“Take me a couple of hours to get there,” Nakato said.
*Noon?* War Tooth suggested.
“Should work,” Nakato replied. “And I mean it. I want the name of whoever took your arms, War Tooth. They’re gonna get it.”
He laughed as he cut communication. Nakato shook her head. She’d best get into her spare warm-suit and eat something before she headed out. The trip was going to be a long one, both going and coming back.
“Might be easier to just drop to the ocean and jet my way there,” Nakato sighed as she pulled last night’s eggplant leftovers from her fridge. “That’s one hell of a climb.”
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