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I decide to go to the clinic in District S because Gina usually cuts through District T. It'll reduce the chance that she'll surprise me as I'm struggling to get there.

As I hobble my way down the old glass streets, I try to distract myself from the pain in each step. I remind myself how exciting it will be to finally get to carry my own weight, and then smirk at the irony as I struggle under the weight of my backpack. I should have just left my crap at home to retrieve later, but I wanted a clean break. I'll talk to Gina soon — as soon as I can show her that she doesn't need to take care of me anymore.

I look down at the crosswalk outlined by the LEDs inside the textured roadway glass, and I'm excited to think about what this new life will hold. The little lights activate in front of me, one foot at a time, until I've crossed the road safely. I'll come back and get Gina soon. Even if she doesn't want to join up, she won't need to wait for Drustan to save her.

The pain in my legs, back, and shoulders escalate steadily to a shrill pitch, but I can't rest. I'll never get started again if I stop. I concentrate to turn the pain into white noise, and the effort keeps me from worrying or second-guessing my choice. I've walked so far now, I can't make it back home anymore.

Just a few more blocks.

After what seems like hours, relief washes over me as I catch sight of the clinic. It's a tall, blocky building with a shiny marble exterior. There are curved metal benches outside, and a couple of small patches of pristine, green grass that must cost a lot to maintain.

When I push against the front door, a wall of air warms my wind-bitten cheeks. God, I hate the fall. I don't have a Citizen's ID, or CID, yet for the building to register when I walk in, so I know I'm immediately flagged as a shirker. I'll get assigned one after my brain is wetwired and registered.

People in the waiting room are staring at me, and it makes me nervous. Do I smell? I try to ignore them as I head for the self-service kiosk on the wall.

GOOD AFTERNOON, it chirps in a cheery voice. WHAT ARE YOUR NEEDS TODAY?

I select JOIN/REJOIN THE COMMUNITY on the touchscreen. I enter my name, ARTHUR COMYN MALLOREY. NO, I haven't been a Community member before. YES, I am signing onlymyself up for citizenship. NO, I haven't been inoculated before. NO, I don't have a place to live. Gina would freak out if my answers led someone home. Of course, she'll freak out worse when she knows I've done this.

The kiosk asks if I want to participate in a free health screening, and I stare at the screen until my eyes begin to burn. My heart races, which is dumb because this is the whole reason I'm here. Gina and I were born with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome — a genetic connective tissue disorder that makes our bodies more fragile and dysfunctional. Our DNA has a bad blueprint for collagen. It's a basic building block for holding your body together in one piece. I smile when I think of how often people call my constant sickness "falling apart."

Mom was terrified of being labeled as ill or disabled. She'd rant and rave that we would wind up killed or locked in an institution. Hell, even if I did end up in one, it can't be as bad as the Dregs. At least I'd have running water.

I take a deep breath. YES, I want a health screening.

I'm instructed to place my arm on the armrest that slides out of the wall. A large cuff descends to take my blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and pulse. Then the kiosk scans my skin and draws a large vial of blood.

CONGRATULATIONS! I startle when the armrest is quickly withdrawn, and tiny fireworks display on the screen. HAVE A SEAT. A TRANSITION COORDINATOR WILL BE WITH YOU SHORTLY.

I limp over to the padded, mauve chair closest to the door labeled ADMITTING and collapse. My spine is now throbbing so severely that I can't stop trembling. I try to ignore it and close my eyes.

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