Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bionic Woman: Rebuilt

That evening, Jaime Sommers wasn’t a bartender.

Her eyes traced patches of grass in the darkness, rushing past the closed window by her side. Dark grass, normal grass, dark grass, street sign – the car was driving too fast, and even when she craned her neck around, she couldn’t catch what the sign said. She closed her eyes and leaned against the headrest; a small array of tactile sensations keeping her connected to the ride. The soft whirr of the car’s engine in the top third of its RPM range, the minute ups and downs from the suspension, tiny shockwaves crawling up her back whenever the gearbox shifted – after a minute, it was almost like she could hear the transmission control electronics whisper in her ear, shifting whenever the engine’s whirr pitched too high or too low.

And yet, she couldn’t get any sleep.

Well, she knew what was to the right of her (grass, lots of it), she had a fairly good idea of what was ahead (50:50 split: that cute little stretch of road illuminated by the headlights on top, the boring part of the dashboard below), so she decided to complete the picture with a glance to the left.

The driver’s seat was occupied by a guy on the wrong side of twenty-something (much like Jaime herself, to her annoyance): light brown hair, permastubble, intensely focused on the asphalt ahead. That’s William Anthros, her memory told her, he’s your slightly-more-than-boyfriend. Bizarrely enough, when she considered this, it also made her remember a few lines of solipsistic thought: maybe he had just started existing then, along with her memories of him. That would be a crying shame, she reflected, because those were rather good memories, seemingly not subject to the Jaime Sommers effect.

“You’re thinking about how this will go wrong,” he said, eyes still fixed on the road.

Speaking of which…

“I’m thinking of us,” she replied.
“I’m fairly certain you’ve had your screw-up of the day,” Will said. “They didn’t have the strawberry smoothie.”
“No smoothie, true.”
“And that’s it. Had to be it, I think, because what kind of café runs out of strawberries?”
“It was a good date, still,” she said.
“Maybe we can grab a smoothie on the way in.”
“No offense, Will, I just kind of want to get home and sleep.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I just don’t think…”

Light from behind cast Jaime’s head in silhouette.

---

For a millisecond, William Anthros weighed 5 tons – well, technically, exerted a force on his seatbelt roughly equal to a mass of five tons under Earth standard gravity – but that was rather unintentional on the part of the universe, which was after all just following the rules like everyone else. As it turned out, Will was attached to the car, which had a much stronger case for most important tumbling object in this scenario, but the essential instigator – a heavy dump truck, perhaps guilty of intent to t-bone – was already in the process of driving away from the scene of the incident, taillights fading into the dark as the car came to a tumbling stop in the ditch at the side of the road. Following the problem of the (trash) heap, it was rather dubious whether the car could then still be called the same in this configuration.

Will Anthros was alive, that much he could be reasonably sure of: his main working theory to that effect was that hell couldn’t possibly be this painful. That thing attached to his left shoulder looked more like a well-worn stock photo for “compound fracture” than his good squash-racket swingin’ arm. His face wasn’t doing so hot, either, but he couldn’t see that from his position in the driver’s seat, and he had more important things to worry about in any event; ride the adrenaline before shock sets in, get out. So much for the plan, anyway: having a few PhDs doesn’t help with remembering that you’re still buckled in, though his persistent failure in climbing out of the car eventually set Will on the right path. The windshield was a spider-webbed mess, but he managed to unlodge that with a few good kicks (and more than a few bad ones); by the time his medical training made him consider whether he had damaged his spine in the crash, he was already outside, stumbling away from the car. To be fair, though, there wasn’t much of a choice between fighting your way out of a car wreck or quite possibly roasting alive in a fire, just on the off-chance of a fractured vertebra. He froze in position when he thought of Jaime, turned around and fixed his gaze on the twisted auto carcass.

It was at some point after that (a few seconds at most) that Will – broken and bruised William Anthros – realized that he’d been on the lucky side of the wreck.

First things first: he grabbed his cell phone (thankfully still untouched in his jeans pocket) and dialed 911 as he walked around the car, trying to spot Jaime in the big metal mess. The passenger side of the car was a little harder to identify under these circumstances, to put it mildly, but finally, he found her hand sticking out of the broken window, a bloodied harbinger of worse surprises still to come with her fingers sitting at a variety of obscene angles. In a daze, he reached out for it and grasped it, a few seconds of nothingness followed by a poor imitation of a strong pulse.

It was just a moment before the phone could click to life with a dispatcher at the other end of the line, but Will terminated the call at once.

He had a different number to dial.

---

“Who authorized this?” Jonas Bledsoe barked, which sounded rather like something a man looking like him would say. He had a face that could give you an ulcer just by looking at it, deep craters dug by 50 years of a not particularly nice life and a hairline receding like the Eastern Front in 1945. The evening ration of pure stress from managing a secret organization had been upgraded to an all-you-can-eat buffet, and Jonas didn’t fancy seconds.

Erm, this is to say that, when one of his chief operatives violated all security protocols and channeled his broken doll through the medical lab of the Berkut Group’s main base, Jonas hadn’t technically agreed with said course of action, due to not being made aware of it. But even if he had to play the gruff boss a bit longer (and he did like doing that), his brain was already working on damage control.

“He did it himself,” Ruth Truewell replied. “He has all the access codes, the medical personnel answers to him, there wasn’t a thing we could do to stop him.”

Truewell: Second in command, tough, commanding presence, expert psychologist, platin blonde hair. (Last successful relationship: 17 years ago. Defending your country takes sacrifices.)

“Oh, really? Nothing at all? How about detaining the son of a bitch until you can get me on the phone?”
“He called in MedEvac, then he pulled rank on the guards, I didn’t hear about it until after they hit the lab.” She bit her lip. “He made it sound like he was the emergency. And when the response team ushered them in all bloodied, well, people started forgetting some of the protocols. They’re doctors, after all.”
“Hard to believe that wasn’t intentional. Clever man, good under pressure,” Jonas said, his voice softening the tiniest fraction. “Of course, begs the question of how we make that work for us.”
“I can start on a profile update…”
“Sure, but let’s give him a little time. What’s done’s done and I need to take a look at the results. Oh, and call Kim. We may need him here soon.”
“What should I tell him?”
“Same thing as always, Truewell,” Jonas replied. “There’s work to do.”

---

Jaime Sommers woke up with a headache for the history books and little idea of what had happened to her; that lack of continuity got kind of scary when she found herself in a hospital bed, something covering half her face and an intimidatingly big IV port stuck in her left arm – with a nice, heavy cuff around her wrist, too. Will was standing there, too, a mask of concern pulled over his face (along with a few stitches on his forehead and his left arm in a sling). Her scrambled brain dug up more things past: that’s what it must have felt like for mom…at the end. It was the kind of messed-up thought Jaime had come to expect from her subconscious, but this one was different.

It didn’t really hit her all that hard.

“Easy, Jaime,” Will said, touching her left hand. “Take it easy.”
“Will? What happened to your arm?”
“We were in a traffic accident. My arm’s fine, mostly, thanks for asking.”
“Okay, then, what happened to me?”
“You had some serious injuries when you were brought here.”
“How bad is it?” she said, looking around. “That’s a nice hospital.”
“You should get some rest.”
“Haven’t seen this one before,” she continued, “but it’s not an ICU, I’m barely hooked up to anything except the IV…”
“Know a lot about hospitals, do you?” he asked with a teasing smile.
“Well, Mom, I told you about that, and then there’s General Hospital…what’s in the IV? Looks kind of milky, haven’t seen that before, either.”

Will’s eyes wandered from the bag to Jaime’s face, but his window of opportunity ended when Jaime squinted.

“What the hell is perfluorodecalin?” she asked almost innocently.
“You can read that?”
“Yeah, it’s like…really small, but also really sharp. Lots of text around that, can’t read that.”
“Okay, there’s a few things I need to tell you.”

Jaime fixed him with a questioning glance.

“Like why I’m strapped down to the bed?” Noting Will’s lack of response, she tugged on the restraint for her right arm suggestively. “Okay, go ahead. Explain this to me.”
“Ah…how do I put this?”
“Come on, Will, some answers.”
“Straight dope?”
“Tell me.”
“Well, technically speaking…that’s not your arm.”

Jaime, without quite intending to, ripped the restraint right off the bed’s frame. Will’s choice to stand on the left side of the bed was thoroughly vindicated.

Jaime considered her feat of strength for a moment, staring at her right arm. It looked perfectly normal, at least, so maybe the restraint was just…no, Will’s face told a different story. He wasn’t lying about that.

Okay, I couldn’t do that before.

“Please stay calm,” Will said, trying hard to follow his own advice.
“I’m calm,” she replied and meant it. “So what did you do to me?”
“My job.”
“You teach bioethics.”
“My other job.”

Will fetched a chair from the far corner of the room and moved it close to Jaime’s bed.

“Without saying too much…I’m involved in the development of a new generation of prosthetic limbs.”

Jaime raised her right arm to look at it. She watched it closely, flexing her fingers – there wasn’t a difference. Wait, prosthetic? You have to lose your limbs to get a prosthetic…

“People get stronger when they’re under stress,” she said without believing it, “adrenaline and all that. And you can’t just build something that looks and acts exactly like my arm. Is this your idea of a sick joke?”
“No, Jaime, that’s the point. We can make replacement limbs like that. Good enough that you can’t tell the difference. Think about this: you just ripped a top-of-the-line institutional restraint to pieces without even trying. That’s not adrenaline strength, that’s not PCP strength, that’s stronger than you could possibly be with a natural arm.”
“There’s no difference…”
“The earlier versions took much longer to integrate – and required skin transplants. You don’t believe me now, but all that means is that we’ve done a good job building an arm that looks like your own. How do you think you would react if you were looking at a metal hand?”

Jaime turned her arm slowly. There were differences. Little blemishes in the wrong spots, no hair…

Sommers effect, back with a vengeance.

“You would freak out,” Will said. “There’s already so many imperfections in the restoration, I didn’t want to pile on even more things for you to notice.”
“Like the lack of hair on the arm,” Jaime said, still distracted.
“Not just there,” Will added under his breath, his cheeks just a little bit redder for it.

Jaime hadn’t heard that or pretended not to; instead, she dangled the broken strap in front of his face.

“But this isn’t just restoration. You said it yourself, this kind of strength isn’t natural. Why go to the trouble?”

Will nodded without a word. She would have to grill him for details later, but at this point getting used to the ideas swirling through her brain was much more important.

“Can I…can I get up?” she asked.
“I’ll have to consult with the rest of the team,” he said. “You act like you’re feeling okay, but that isn’t exactly a…natural response.”

---

The Berkut Group’s headquarters were perhaps a little bit too enamored with industrial-style design, a whole underground complex of metal hallways and other clean, cold surfaces. The briefing room Will was headed for didn’t disappoint in this regard; he took a deep breath, stepped into it and let his eyes sweep the metal shell.

Jonas Bledsoe, standing behind the brushed aluminum conference table with his eyes fixed on a large wall-mounted monitor; he was watching the security feed from Jaime’s room. In a far corner of the room, Jae Kim lurked, five feet nine of lithe muscle poured straight into a good-quality Bruce Lee mold. His eyes were…somewhere, not focused on anything in the room. Ruth Truewell, staff psychologist, actually bucked the trends by a) sitting at the table and b) nodding to Will as he entered and closed the door behind him.

“Anthros,” Bledsoe said, still burning the security feed onto his retina, “how’s that arm of yours?”

As if in response, Will undid the sling’s fasteners, revealing a metallic sleeve affixed to his injured arm. With a tap on its surface, he activated the touchscreen interface, pale blue icons hovering in nothingness. Satisfied with the readout for now, he shut the display off, then pulled his rolled-up shirt sleeve back down, hiding the device almost completely.

“Healing,” Will replied and sat down at the table, specifically the end with the greatest distance from Bledsoe.
“Must’ve been difficult to do the surgery, with just one arm, complicated fracture, too…were you on painkillers?”
“I was just supervising the operation, Mr. Bledsoe-” Will began, but didn’t get very far.
“Seventy eight million dollars, Anthros,” Bledsoe snarled, still not turning to face Will. “Seventy eight million dollars of taxpayer money and you spent it on a freaking bartender.”
“She’s a viable candidate.”
“At the moment she’s a civilian who’s holding my technology hostage. Give me three good reasons why I shouldn’t have her shot.”
“You can’t-”
“Look, Anthros, you might not care if I ship your ass all the way to McMurdo Station for setting the project back by months, but if you can’t convince me that your girlfriend is the right person for the implants, hell yes I can have her shot. And I will make you dig out every last piece of tech that we can separate from her slowly cooling corpse.”

At that, he finally turned around to face Will, his face frozen in a mask of indifference.

“That’ll leave you with nightmares and her with a closed casket funeral while I sign my name on a condolences card and move on with the project. Am I getting through to you? Are we on the same page here?”
“I understand,” Will said, his voice quivering ever so slightly. “And I’m not trying to stall here, but Mr. Bledsoe, you can’t expect me to argue that case.”
“If you want to keep your job and your girl, I have to argue that case, Anthros. What do I tell my superiors? Start talking and give me something to work with.”
“O-kay…alright,” Will said, collecting his thoughts. “First of all, she’s got a job where nobody will ask questions if she quits. Her mother’s dead and her father’s living elsewhere, so all we have to consider is her sister, Becca.”
“I’ve brushed up on some of Jaime Sommers’s files,” Truewell added. “Dropped out of college, twice.”
“She had to take care of her family,” Will said.
“How do we know she won’t flake out on us, then?” Bledsoe asked.
“Both times, she sacrificed something good for herself out of loyalty to others. When we explain to her how important this is, she’ll be on board, 100%. And we can protect one person, right? Protect Becca and she’ll have no reason to run out on us.”
“I’ll wait for a profile before I believe that,” Bledsoe replied, “but fair enough. Next?”
“We’re seeing a fast and trouble-free assimilation process. With some basic training, she could be ready much quicker than any other candidate we can pull in. Amputees take too much time to rehabilitate and most recent trauma victims don’t react that well. We can keep the psyche in check, but that doesn’t help if the system can’t bond with the body. In that respect, Jaime’s close to perfect.”
“Irrelevant, you only saw that after the fact. No indicators it would happen that way.”
“No, that’s wrong. As per protocol, I ran a blood test with the anthrocytes before the process, her compatibility was way above average.”
“By the time you came in, it was bionics or bust.” Bledsoe folded his hands. “You still put us on the spot.”
“If you’re going to fake files for this, you might just as well put a preliminary blood test way at the beginning, it means we had a promising candidate,” Will said. “The guys were still stabilizing her when I rushed the sample through the lab.”
“Then we can’t be sure you didn’t fake the result.”
“I’m not stupid, Mr. Bledsoe, the test is there for a reason. You do the procedure to someone who tests negative…dying without waking up would be much better. On a negative, I wouldn’t have gone through with the operation.”
“What would you have done instead?”

Will considered that for a long moment, then for another one. Finally, he answered.

“Morphine. 250 milligrams, just to make sure.”

Bledsoe smiled slightly.

“Go on.”
“She’s in love with me,” Will said, his voice regaining some confidence. “Gives her a motivation not to go against us, but I’m not on the mission staff so it won’t interfere with daily operations.”
“A good point,” Bledsoe replied. At least as long as you are loyal to us, Dr. Anthros. “I see you can be rational when needed.”
“I’m not endorsing this kind of thinking. But you asked me for justifications and this is one, even if I strongly believe we shouldn’t stoop that low.”
“A weapon of last resort, then, but even those get fired from time to time, Anthros. Anything else?”
“I knew her from a bioethics class I taught, so I had a good idea of her intellectual and moral background.”
“I can see the beginning of a candidate profile here. Why, Anthros, that almost sounds like you went out of your way to recruit her specifically. Someone with an…intellectual and moral background…that would be useful to Berkut. Circumstances forced your hand, but at least this way there was no chance of her saying no.”
“A cynical person might believe that,” Will said.

Bledsoe narrowed his eyes.

“Good enough to cover our ass for the moment,” he said. “We’ll have to make up the rest with results, and that means we have to move fast, give our sponsors a few success stories before they have time to investigate this in depth. Truewell, I want a profile on Sommers. Kim…Anthros will provide you with a full description of the system parts integrated into the subject. Prepare a training program, start from scratch.”

---

Jaime Sommers concluded that she could’ve stood to rest in the hospital bed a little longer.

Dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie, both in fetching Taxpayer Gray (Extra Bland), she sat in a cube of polished steel perhaps constructed as the mockery of an interview room, a large one-way mirror in an alcove above her and cameras in every corner of the room. It looked rather like a low-rent True Lies setup, she thought.

That line of thought came to a screeching halt when she disbelieved, once again, how she wasn’t thinking about the new arm, then realized that was merely another way of thinking about it and abandoned the entire line of reasoning as too meta. Okay, I have a robot arm. But it works just like a regular arm, except I can finally use the bench press without getting laughed at.

…but what the hell is one super-strong arm good for?


The door opened to admit a woman; perhaps ten years older than Jaime, blonde hair, angular features, femininity carefully hidden away under a suit. She extended her hand for Jaime to shake – the left one, as if to avoid Jaime’s newly enhanced right arm. Jaime played along, leaning back in her chair as the woman sat down on the opposite side of the table.

“Ruth Truewell,” she said. “Nice to meet you. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Water, please.”

With a series of thumps, Ruth dropped folders onto the small table, then turned through the still open door and relayed Jaime’s order. With another clank, the door locked behind her. Jaime had a feeling she wouldn’t be seeing that water any time soon.

“How do you feel?” Truewell asked.
“Fine…I guess. Thirsty. A bit bored, to be honest.”
“I see. Do you remember anything about the accident?”
“Can’t say I do,” Jaime replied. “One second I’m driving with Will – Dr. Anthros – and the next I’m lying in a hospital bed.”
“That’s to be expected. You might remember more later, but it’s not important right now.”
“Well, perhaps you could explain a few things to me, then.”

Truewell raised an eyebrow.

“I understand your confusion, but we don’t have a lot of time. There’s a lot of questions I need to ask you.”
“We’ve just established that I don’t know anything about the crash.”
“What makes you think I want to ask you about the crash?”
“Sounded like you were here to investigate this…then what do you do?”
“What do you think I do?”
“Oh,” Jaime said, straightening in her chair. “Psychologist.”
“Dr. Anthros has told you about the prosthetic arm you have received. How does that make you feel?”
“I don’t really have a strong reaction to that,” Jaime said, rolling her eyes.
“Please expand on that.”
“There’s just…you know, continuity. Had an arm before, have an arm now. I didn’t see what he did to me and frankly I don’t want to know.”

---

Much like Jaime, Sara Corvus had had better days.

Like a particularly mischievous cat, she walked down the hallway of a run-down apartment building, her left hand gliding over the wall and her head gently leaned back, bobbing with the rhythm of her steps. Every little crinkle in the wallpaper added a delicious tingle on her skin, the soft creaking of her leather jacket and the smell of old paint all summing up into a faint smile on her face. She seemed almost disappointed to find her destination in front of her; her hand broke contact but her feet didn’t break stride as she walked into one of the interchangeably awful apartments, barely separated from the world by unflinchingly ruined wooden door.

Inside, the man sat on an armchair in perfect stylistic agreement with the rest of the furniture, a mere half second after putting another stitch onto his right arm and now withdrawing the thin thread with the needle in his left hand. Corvus ignored that; as far as body modification went, she wasn’t easy to impress.

“Nice,” she said, looking around. “I like what you’ve done with the place. Impeccable reflection of the essential human wretchedness.”
“Business, Sara,” the man said with a faint Berlin accent, smiling weakly through his thick beard; the bushy brown mess seemed to be surgically attached to his prominent cheeks, all the better to frame his cold eyes with. “Did you finish the job?”

Corvus smiled.

“Not quite,” she said, “but the results were interesting. Can I borrow some of your toys?”

---

Jaime was finally alone, left to her own devices in a shower room styled with the same brushed metal chic as the rest of the installation. There wasn’t much to it; a few shower stalls, sinks, a clothes rack and wooden benches, but at least there were no guards, observers or security specialists watching her every move.

In the hours she had spent detailing her response to every hypothetical scenario known to man, they had actually procured marginally decent clothing for her. She set down the bundle – new underwear, jeans, a black t-shirt and sandals – and started to strip out of her ratty temporary attire. It felt like all that gray stuff should be thrown into the next incinerator, with the Ghostbusters on stand-by to capture any escaping specters.

She felt her new arm under the shower, hot water cascading down her body. Unsettlingly enough, the first gallon had a rusty sting to it, washing hardened blood out of her hair. She washed her face, eyes closed as the droplets of H2O impacted her forehead like a steady drumbeat. The water curled off her new arm differently; the surface was almost perfectly slippery under water, with not a hair in sight. She put her right hand against the wall and tapped her fingers, one after another, picking up speed and trying faster patterns. If anything, the arm was too perfect, every thought mirrored in precise action. This wasn’t just a prosthetic, or even a replacement.

This was an upgrade. Jaime turned that thought around in her head.

She had received this without pain, without the trauma of seeing herself crippled. Her mind provided suitable pictures…war casualties, victims of violent accidents like hers – and yet she’d come out so far ahead of the curve. Without further thoughts, she turned off the shower and grabbed a piece of soap, tossing the slippery block into the air with her new arm. She caught it, and tossed it, and caught it, and tossed it, and caught it, and…

Every time. As if it wasn’t even slightly slippery.

With brief attention to her modesty (not that there was anyone to observe, but old habits die hard), Jaime stepped out of the stall and wrapped a towel around her body, then let her eyes sweep the room. She found the rack and walked toward it with fresh purpose, wrapped her right hand around the uppermost horizontal bar and pulled herself up. What should have required exertion was a simple move, with no hint of straining or effort. I can do this all day, Jaime thought. So she did it again.

And again, and again, and again.

“Look, Ma, one arm,” she half-whispered, half-laughed to herself. This wasn’t the right place for it and that’s what made the moment perfect. After twenty pull-ups, she let go, flexing her arm. There was slight warmth, but no aching, no discomfort even. She took her pulse – slow and steady, as if she had just woken up.

A big grin spread over her face. Oh yes, Jaime Sommers thought, I can do something with this.

She rushed over to the sink, intent on drying her hair and looking somewhat less like a car crash survivor. The skin on her face felt tender, especially after the hot shower; the redness in her cheeks still showed a slight shadow where, just hours earlier, she’d had a bandage over her left eye. Come to think of it, she really hadn’t suffered any visible injuries anywhere…a binary cut-off between her arm being crushed and everything else coming out just fine, which kicked her skepticism circuits into high gear.

Will must have been desperate, she reasoned. And no matter how much he loved her, he wouldn’t throw reason to the curb just to repair her arm. He was making entirely too much fuss about her to account for a serious but not lethal injury…and truth be told, she hadn’t felt quite right since waking up and the feeling had only intensified under the shower. They just hadn’t told her all of it, and that idea ate up her smile pretty quickly.

…it also made her realize that she could read the clothes tag on her new “issue” t-shirt. From twenty feet away. In the mirror.

Definitely not all of it.

A half-remembered phrase from before popped into her head; after another look around to make sure there were no cameras watching, Jaime dropped the towel and inspected her body. The lack of hair wasn’t just limited to her new arm; except for the shoulder-length brown tresses on her head, her body had apparently undergone a rather thorough deforestation campaign. The smoothness was beyond even a good waxing – it made her feel like a well-molded puppet missing a few paint applications. Oh, there would be words about this.

---

Will was already waiting for her when she stepped out of the shower room, all dressed in proper attire and feeling much more like a human being for it.

“Jaime!” he said, moving to embrace her; she returned the gesture, if mostly on reflex. “I hope Ruth didn’t scare you too much,” he continued, leading her down the hallway.
“She’s just doing her job,” Jaime said, mindful of two armed guards walking some distance behind them. “Like meeting a bear.”
“Hm?”
“You know, as scared of you as you’re of it”, Jaimed explained. “The bear, I mean.”
“That’s…” Will said, then thought better of it.
“…not a very good metaphor,” Jaime said.
“Okay, you said that,” he replied. “I’m just trying to be polite.”
“I want the rest of the story, Will. It’s not just the arm.”
“…I didn’t want to scare you too badly,” Will said. “The arm was a place to start, as good as any.”
“I’m getting used to it, I’m doing great at it, too, you said that yourself. It doesn’t feel strange, no angst, no body horror.” Okay, some body horror. ANSI standard levels of body horror. Still manageable. “I think I can handle the truth.”
“You’re in luck, then. Briefing’s our next stop. You’ll get all the details there.”

---

The briefing room had filled up some more during Will’s absence; there were now two guards in the far corners of the room. Jaime was hot on his heels, taking in the ambience. A mere glance at the guards told her that they were carrying Heckler & Koch G36C carbines, Caliber 5.56x45mm, nine inches of barrel with an EOTech holosight…Jaime looked away. That wasn’t her arm talking.

“I’ll introduce you,” Will said, then pointed out faces to go with the names. “You’ve met Ms. Truewell, that’s Mr. Kim, Mr. Bledsoe, and…Nathan.”

The final name belonged to a man who looked like he’d stopped developing his body language at 17, despite his mid-thirties age; of all the people in the room, he was the only one to get up and shake Jaime’s hand, then sat back down quickly. Jaime’s eyes followed him for a few more seconds; dark hair, scraggly beard, constantly fidgeting around in his seat. He looked as nervous as she felt. Etiquette stabbed at her from the murkier parts of her subconscious to go around shaking more hands, or at least say “Hello”, but instead of backing down in light of the stonewalling, she just folded her arms in front of her chest.

“Take your seat, Anthros,” Bledsoe said, his eyes locked in mortal combat with Jaime’s indifference. “I have to begin with an apology, Ms. Sommers,” he continued. “It wasn’t our intention to pull you into any of this.”
“I see,” Jaime said. “Can you get more specific on what ‘this’ is?”
“The Berkut Group. A think tank, most of the time. We develop new concepts, strategies and technologies to protect the United States of America. The system that saved your life was created here, with our funding and expertise.”
“There’s a lot of guns in this place for a think tank. And the air pressure is way off.”
“Really.”
“14.9 psi,” Jaime said, looking mildly surprised. “It is now six minutes past 2 PM. Just popped into my mind. Something in my head is telling me this, and you put it there.”
“That’s not all it does,” Bledsoe responded. “It’s also telling you how to disarm the guards, how big this room is, which direction you’re facing.”

Jaime’s eyes flicked to focus on a nearby trooper. Felix Mendelson, Army Ranger background, ruined his right leg on a HA/HO drop. Best approach: Fake to the left, use Will as shield, get behind Mendelson, blood choke, use his gun to threaten Bledsoe (highest chance of compliance from other personnel)…all figured out in her head, just waiting for “Go”.

“Okay, that’s creepy,” Jaime said. “And I’m not sure what accident victims like me need that for.”
“You’re carrying 78 million dollars” – Will rolled his eyes at Bledsoe’s pronouncement – “of military-grade human augmentation technology in your body. As it happens, all of that was intended for someone who would act as our…field operative. You represent a sizeable investment of Uncle Sam’s money, Ms. Sommers.”
“And just what the hell am I supposed to do with it? I’m a bartender, not James Bond.”
“I wouldn’t be talking to you if I didn’t think you could pull it off.”
“I generally appreciate a vote of confidence, but…I don’t know about that. I don’t think those 78 millions dollars can replace knowing what the hell I’m doing. And ‘human augmentation technology’ doesn’t actually tell me anything about the things you put in my body.”

Bledsoe didn’t say anything to that. Instead, he nodded to Will, who picked up a small laser pointing device from the table. As if in response, the big screen at the end of the room lit up, displaying a schematic of an obviously female body. Within seconds, the right arm, both legs and large parts of the head and torso faded to the background.

“This is,” Will began, “this is how you came in. There are photos on file, for reference, but…this will explain things better. All those faded parts represent injuries you sustained during the accident.”

With a flick of his hand, the image moved, extruding into the third dimension as the schematic rotated to show depth and more detail.

“This, this, these” – he pointed to various injuries on the mannequin – “all inoperable. We had to use Ichor.”
“Cthulhu blood,” Nathan threw in under his breath.
“Actually, ichor is the blood of the Greek gods,” Jaime said, smiling a bit but not making eye contact. “Lovecraft liked the symbolism, everybody else copied from him.”
“What it is,” Will continued, “is a blood additive we were developing for the US Navy. Among other properties, it greatly increases the blood’s capacity for carrying oxygen and carbon dioxide, reduces the chance of decompression sickness, gives us full control over the clotting process…and a few other details. We don’t have a lot of normal blood stored here and you needed something that would stop the bleeding, so we used it.”
“If it’s so great, why isn’t it out there?”
“Ichor is a fitting name in multiple respects,” Will said. “First, we’re only manufacturing it at low capacity and there are no other facilities in the world that can produce it, at least currently. Second, it breaks down very quickly. Third, decayed Ichor is poisonous. When it decays, the byproducts quickly build up to a lethal concentration in your body, and your kidneys can’t filter them out. The only way to counteract that is permanent dialysis and a supply of fresh Ichor, at least until your body recovers enough to replace all the blood you’ve lost. And even then you have to be sure to flush Ichor out of your body, and that can literally take a week. As it stands…it’s powerful, but the cost and equipment requirements make it a no-start outside our lab.”
“What about that breakdown, then?” Jaime asked, trying hard to keep up with her mental notes on the terminology.
“The bionics – uh, that’s what we call the implants, bionics – are built to filter your blood and manufacture new Ichor internally. In the first respect, they support your kidneys, in the second you can consider them to contain artificial bone marrow. Speaking of which, we had to clone and cultivate your marrow to make up for the loss of some of your natural skeletal structure…on the plus side, you’re helping to make some waiting lists shorter.”
“Oh, I’m advancing medicine,” Jaime said, “where’s the consent form?”
“Uh,” Will conceded, “well. I mean, the culture’s already there and we’re keeping it for future use. If you don’t want it used for other people…”
“No, you can do that. It just feels nice to have a choice, you know?”
“Point taken,” Will said, but didn’t go on with his lecture. Jaime found herself at the center of attention.

“So,” she said, “I’m guessing this blood enhancement stuff is what was in the IV.”
“That and a nutrient mixture with a good dose of dextrose,” Will continued. “The bionics generate their own power and working chemicals from nutrients in your blood. You’ll have to eat a bit more to compensate.”

My diet coach is going to love this, Jaime thought.

“Okay, but you didn’t spend 78 million dollars just to make me survive. What are the enhancements?” Jaime sent a short glance at Bledsoe, who took the presentation with a sort of inscrutable boredom.
“Ummm, let’s get back to the schematic,” Will said, collecting his thoughts. “As you can see, we’ve replaced several bones, your right arm, your legs…your left eye. And the internal structure of your right ear. The ear’s the most straightforward implant, so let’s begin with that.”

Ear…

“I’ve got a question,” Jaime said nonchalantly.
“Uh, yes?” Will replied, his laser still pointing at the magnified schematic of Jaime’s skull and the not insubstantial amount of artificial parts placed within.
“Did anyone,” she asked, “did anyone take care of my sister?”
“Becca,” Bledsoe said; Jaime nodded. “We’ll send her a nice postcard from Lake Tahoe in your handwriting.”
“No,” Jaime replied, “school’s been out for thirty minutes now. I said I’d pick her up, which means I’m going to pick her up – and that is not negotiable.”

---

Fifty miles away, a COBOL-85-programmer-turned-teacher looked around the room. Contrary to stereotype, Adam Merchant wasn’t near-sighted, but a nice frame with plain glass in it made for a better persona in the classroom, especially on something as dry as computer science. Five years ago, when he’d started at the school with a full head of neat blonde hair, he had held on to a grand vision of teaching students the essentials of C, Lisp and maybe even some Perl. These days, he supervised the computer lab and considered not finding any porn sites in the server logs a reasonable standard of student achievement. Bonus points for managing to browse interesting-but-not-indecent pages, if they required the student to bypass the school’s (admittedly rather leaky) content filtering program.

So Merchant was balding prematurely, but fragments of rebellious spirit clung to him; enough to recognize a budding hacker at the keys when he saw one, and the clues were there. Absorbed in a fountain of color-coded text, one. Stack of photocopied technical specs, two. Self-taught ten-finger typing, strike three, you’re profiled.

“Ms Sommers?” he said, hurrying over to her screen. It took him a moment to remember that she couldn’t hear him, so he tapped her on the shoulder. She hit a few more keys to finish the line (and that train of thought), then turned to face him.

Becca Summers, 16, female, deaf. Light brown hair, generally satisfied with being 5 pounds over a nebulous target weight, soft face with a prominent nose. Never been caught.

“What exactly are you doing?” Merchant asked, making sure to speak clearly.
“Oh, just amusing myself,” Becca countered. “I finished the assignment and my sister said it’s okay for me to stay a little late.”
“Your assignment was…” Merchant said, checking the sign-up sheet, “drawing binary trees in Java. Are you done with that?”
“Yes, Mr. Merchant. Really pretty, too. Made them change color on each iteration.”
“Print the listing and turn it in, then.” He looked at the screen. “Trying to poll a USB device?”
“Old webcam,” Becca replied. “I thought reimplementing the driver would be fun.”
“I think it would be,” Merchant said, his eyes wandering from screen to the photocopies. His face wore a slight smile. “And I’d love to help you, but I’m not familiar with the ‘EEPROM Writer’ brand of webcams.”
“It’s, uh…obscure.”
“Well, in my experience, if you’re working with ‘obscure webcams’ and such” – even Becca could hear the quotes around that – “you’ll probably need a soldering iron. I’ve got a spare and some flux core from a project, it’s yours if you want it.
“That would help me a lot.”
“Talk to me tomorrow, I’ll have it ready for you.”
“…thank you, Sir,” Becca said.
“One more thing.”
“Yes?”
“Don’t sell modchips in my lab,” Merchant mouthed.

Someone with experience in lip-reading might have guessed at it semi-accurately, but Becca understood him quite clearly. She smiled in response, despite herself. Merchant mistook it as tacit agreement and turned away, internally satisfied that there was at least one student at this school for whom AP Computer Science was slumming. Talent like that had to be nurtured and directed in productive ways, and hey, that’s what being a teacher is all about, right? He just had to make sure that his rear was covered, but the thought of mentoring a promising PFY had him elated all the way back to his desk.

Inside Becca’s head, there was that old familiar sting of being underestimated.

Hacking game consoles? You must be joking.

Officially, students weren’t allowed to bring flashdrives into the lab; unofficially, Merchant didn’t worry about that. There was nothing of consequence on or physically connected to the lab computers. Simply rebooting them would pull a fresh operating environment from the file server, perfectly erasing whatever software manipulations students could smuggle past the meager permissions of their user accounts. With every computer in the lab being configured for Wake-on-LAN, Merchant didn’t even have to go around pushing buttons in the morning, just start a script that would stagger the startups over fifteen minutes - to make sure the server wouldn’t be flogged by three dozen workstations trying to pull several hundred megabytes worth of data at the same time. Like all good hacks, it had taken way too much time and effort to set it up just so, but worked with a simple elegance.

So when Becca Sommers attached a USB stick to her workstation, Merchant saw it, but shrugged internally.

Becca didn’t have mischief in mind at that particular moment, though she certainly had some ideas about what a flashdrive – or something disguised as a flashdrive – could do. She just saved a copy of the device driver in progress onto the stick, then shut down the workstation and went outside.

Still no sign of Jaime, and no phone call either.

But Becca, what would you need a car for? I can pick you up from school.

The really bad part, Becca realized, was that everyone she knew had left right after class – so much for bumming a ride. With every reasonable alternative exhausted, Becca concluded that she was in for a ride on the bus.

---

An almost suspiciously indescript minivan hurtled south on the 101, easily qualifying for the carpool lane and the attendant speed benefit. On the back seat, Jaime made another go at Becca’s phone number.

“It’s ringing, that’s a start,” she said; shooting a quick glance at Will. Said bionicist preferred the view of the Marin Headlands; one minute to the Golden Gate Bridge, fifteen to the 280, then ten more to Becca’s school. He had the drive all figured out already, mostly because he enjoyed applying his smarts to more mundane problems on occasion.

“If only she wasn’t so stubborn,” Jaime said, hanging up on another wrong number.
“What does that have to do with the situation?” Will asked.
“It’s her new phone number, I had it written down somewhere but of course I don’t remember it now. Becca just gave it to me two weeks ago because she got a new cell phone – I really don’t see what was wrong with the one I gave her, but-“
“Teenagers,” Will said.
“Something like that. Probably a Becca thing on top of that. It’s got wi-fi and three gees and twitters, and I didn’t even know math tutoring paid that well.”

Giving up on calling Becca, Jaime switched the phone off and flipped it closed. The two guards – Mendelson driving, a fresh face in the passenger seat – said nothing, and that was for the best: their thoughts regarding Jaime’s pseudo-filial entanglement were unflattering at best. At the south end of the bridge, Mendelson paid the toll with cash. No use being in a more-than-Top Secret agency if you leave footprints with your FasTrak account.

---

Will’s carefully-plotted route was aborted about 3/4ths of the way through, inserting a stop at Jaime’s home into the sequence of events. The inherent silliness of showing up to fetch Becca in a new car with two strangers in the front seats had struck Jaime at the tail end of the drive, and considering that her automobile was still parked in front of her apartment block, a quick switch to a more familiar context was well worth the two minutes the stop would add to the projected pickup time.

Except that there was already light in Jaime’s apartment.

Upon stopping the minivan and getting out, loud music was added to the sensory impression – Jaime briefly wondered whether she was picking it up with her newly enhanced ear or if Becca had somehow managed to find an even more annoying notch on her stereo’s volume dial, but finally decided that the safety of her little sister outweighed those concerns.

“Don’t follow me,” she said to Mendelson, who merely shrugged; his assignment was to protect her, not to obsessively walk exactly five feet behind her.

Will did follow her. Jaime decided that she was okay with that.

Reaching the front door allowed Jaime to realize that she’d lost her house keys – like everything else – during the crash; Will wordlessly handed her his spare. For a second, she looked at him as if last night hadn’t happened.

“Becca!” she shouted upon entering the apartment, knowing that it was useless but feeling obligated to announce her presence somehow. The music was definitely scratching on the upper bounds of the word “loud”, and with Becca that would have to be directly correlated to her current amount of teenage anger. Not that she doesn’t have a good reason, Jaime thought, then stepped up to Becca’s room, pushing the handle downwards three times without opening. With no response to her replacement knocking, she pushed the door open. Becca was lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling; movement at the corner of her vision made her turn her head and look at Jaime.

“Where have you been?” Becca said, supplementing her words with signing; Jaime did the same for her answer.
“I’m sorry, Becca, I forgot the time. Could you turn down your music?”

To Becca’s credit, part of her “I don’t wanna be a teenager” shtick involved a certain amount of picking and choosing her rebellions: she switched the stereo off, but her gaze still hurled accusations at Jaime.

“I waited for almost an hour and then I took the damn bus home. I could have walked here twice over in the same time,” Becca said. “You should have texted.”
“My phone’s broken. I tried to reach you with Will’s, but I didn’t have your number handy.”
“You know, if I had a car...”
“We’re not having this discussion now,” Jaime said.
“Or you could have left me the keys for your car. It’s not like you needed them for the trip with Dr. Anthros.”
“Becca…”

Becca’s expression softened slightly, followed by rolling eyes.

“I brought Will over,” Jaime said; Will followed her into the room, right on cue. “I thought we could have some dinner together.”
“Hello, Dr. Anthros!” Becca said with fake cheer; Will nodded politely, then wandered away.
“That was unnecessary.”
“So was waiting for you.”
“Okay, screw-up admitted, score one for your side. How about dinner, now?”
“Cool with me,” Becca replied, “but your shift starts in fifteen minutes.” Not so responsible now, are we?

If Jaime was surprised by that, she didn’t show it.

“Dinner’s more important now.”

Becca recognized Jaime’s ‘I’ve got it covered’ face and got up from the bed, ready to walk to the kitchen; instead, Jaime rushed over to her and drew her into a tight hug.

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Jaime said, knowing that her sister wouldn’t hear it; Becca returned the hug, if reluctantly.

---

Against all odds, Jaime Sommers’s day was starting to swing back to normalcy, in the manner of a skyscraper swaying in a particularly strong wind. She still had a million things to sort out – quitting her dead-end bartending job being next on the agenda – and any of those could blow up in her face, but she didn’t panic. Part of it was her experience at rolling with the punches…but it was like someone was riding on her shoulder, whispering in her ear that everything would be alright. Having found the usual parking spot closer to the bar full – little wonder, now that there were customers –, she had parked her car further away, chancing a walk through the night to get to work. In her own clothes (jeans, shirt, leather jacket), Jaime felt a bit more like herself again.

The small alley – two blocks away from her technically-still place of employment – was a bad idea, but so was circling around it; Jaime decided to tackle the problem head on. Away from the streetlamps, she noticed her vision oscillate, trading color for brightness and back again. That would have to be a night-vision setting or something; item Nr. 26 to ask Will about during the course of the next week. She silently promised herself to get to the bottom of it, learn every detail about her implants, just to be on the safe side, but in a way the extreme ease of use was working against her here; no urgent need to figure everything out.

It did distract her long enough for the attacker to make his move. He didn’t even threaten her, just a guy in average clothes with a blade in his right hand. He was in front of Jaime as if he had appeared from nowhere, his knife stabbing for her side.

What happened then would never show up in a self-defense manual, mostly because it was physiologically impossible. For a normal human.

Jaime’s left leg snapped backwards in a violent move, not as an attack but merely to drag her hips (and the rest of her body) with it. The amount of force it used was precisely calculated, and with her right leg firmly planted on the ground, Jaime’s body swiveled sideways, the blade’s trajectory narrowly passing her ribs. But the rotation served a second purpose; it helped get her right arm up to speed, and combined with its own power, it leapt forward like a coiled snake, synthetic fist driven against the assailant’s throat. The strike was delivered with an amount of force that would’ve made even a highly-trained pugilist blanch; suffice to say that the man crumbled to the ground with only a pathetic wheezing sound trying to pass for a scream.

Jaime ran.

It wasn’t a good solution; it wasn’t a solution at all. She just broke into a sprint, rushing for the next road, back into the light. Her footsteps sped up, carrying her all the way across the street and to the next passage before she even managed to consider stopping. Running at over 70 feet per second gave her plenty of momentum to bleed off. She leapt off the ground, as vertical as possible, letting the jump and air resistance take care of slowing her down at least a bit. The ascent took her as high as the third floor of a fire escape; she desperately grabbed a vertical part of the structure with her right arm, her legs automatically tucking in and balancing her as she swung around the pole and fell back down to the ground level after her 180 degree turn. The landing was hard, but her legs took most of it, with her bionic arm stretched before her to arrest the last bit of kinetic energy. Slowly, she rose up from her crouch, her heart beating at a solid 160 bpm. Her breathing was steady and subdued. The little stunt back there had excited her, but it hadn’t even started to exhaust her.

Almost subconsciously, her vision flickered back into its light amplification mode, zooming in on the last alley and her first…opponent?

Well, there was a figure staggering away from the alley, though with both light amplification and distance involved Jaime couldn’t quite make out the details, and after a ten-second barrage of cross traffic that threw off her eye’s focus, he was nowhere to be seen. Still, Jaime breathed a sigh of relief. Intuitive user interface was one thing, almost murdering a stranger on auto-pilot quite another.

At this rate, just asking Will wasn’t on the table. First thing tomorrow, she’d read the whole damn manual.

---

The bar Jaime entered five minutes later made her reflexively wince from the loud music; her nice molded earplugs were probably lying in a ditch a hundred miles East and the automatic volume adjustment on her bionic ear didn’t cover for the eardrum-pricking noise invading her natural sonic sensor. Likewise, her new eye made some vague attempts to adjust its light sensitivity, then gave up and focused on matching the adaption of her natural iris. So much for super-senses.

The stereo system – almost painfully overdriven cabinet speakers hooked up to a faux-old school jukebox in a corner – pumped out some forgettable 80s 'tough chick' rock, trying desperately to sound like Joan Jett and failing rather spectacularly at it. Jaime’s eyes were fixed on the bar, however: only two girls there, rather overworked. The attrition of college student bartenders (all over 21, of course) was high, and so Jaime only felt a brief sting of regret over not remembering their names. Even if she had been there to help – it was her shift, after all –, they would have struggled to keep up with the 'Oh My God It’s Monday Again' crowd. One more reason she wouldn’t miss the job.

“Sommers!”

She could hear the shout with a frankly amazing amount of fidelity, cutting through the music and the crowd with little effort. Almost instinctively, her eyes swiveled to look in the direction of the voice’s origin. Tom Zucker – nightshift manager – was cleaving his way through the crowd rather like Indiana Jones would clear a path through the jungle.

If Indiana Jones was a 35-year old failed artist and allergic to his own sweat.

The visual metaphor was apt enough, even down to Zucker’s looks – though few things could look as irritating as a well-groomed pattern of un-stubble – and Jaime braced herself in more ways than one, her legs automatically shifting to an almost defensive stance.

“Where the hell have you been, Sommers!” Zucker shouted, the sleeve of his shirt riding up as he tapped his watch with an exaggerated motion of his right hand. “Shift started four hours ago! The crowd’s eating Stace and Ronnie alive!”

Another glance at the bar. Jaime associated one girl – hazel hair in a ponytail – with the name “Veronica”, so she concluded the other to be Stace or Stacey or whatever her real name was. Jaime’s best guess was that having a boyfriend disqualified her from being on a nickname basis with Zucker.

“Sorry, boss,” Jaime said, not taking her eyes off the bar. For all the stress the job involved, she was pretty good at it and it had gotten her through some tough times. “Next time I get mugged, I’ll just tell the guy he can have my cell phone after I call ahead to work.”
“You were mugged?” Zucker asked, quickly going on the defensive himself.
“Yesterday on the way home,” Jaime replied. “Nothing serious, but he did hit me in the head and they kept me there to watch for a concussion. I had to check myself out.” Lying shouldn’t be this easy, Jaime thought, but Zucker was eating it up.
“I didn’t get any calls from a hospital…” he said, trailing off into quiet muttering about the yellow pages.
“Anyway,” Jaime said, “I just left there.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Jaime,” Zucker said. She finally turned to face him. First name now? She couldn’t figure out whether that was fake or sincere, which meant she couldn’t decide whether to briefly hate him or herself.
“There’s…one more thing,” she replied. “I’m quitting this job.”
“!”
“I’m sorry, but that attack…I have other priorities now.”
“Okay,” Zucker said, “okay. Okay. You’re quitting. I got that. Okay.”
“You can stop telling me it’s okay. I know this is sudden and not exactly two weeks’ notice, but I just have to make a change.”
“No, Jaime, I understand that. I see where it comes from, now, but…” he said, then sighed. “Look, this is probably the last thing you want to do, but I need someone at the bar for the rest of the night.”

Jaime gave him a skeptical look.

“I’ll pay for a full shift, of course,” he said. Jaime’s opinion of Mr. Zucker stopped ascending rather abruptly.
“Shift ends at 2,” Jaime said, more force in her voice. “I want my money in cash, ready when I close up.”

It wasn’t necessary, of course. She could have just as well waited for the paycheck, but a small feeling in the back of her head told Jaime to gather a reserve of cash; this was as good a place as any to start. He just nodded, stalking off to his office.

---

Stace – that did turn out to be her real name – and Veronica were quite glad to have Jaime joining them; they’d resorted to having Stace take care of the orders and billing aspect, while Veronica – at four weeks’ worth of experience only half as green as Stace – had been stuck with actually mixing the variety of alcoholic beverages customers demanded. Neither had consented to be eye candy, but it hadn’t made them consider calling the bouncer over, either. Just the usual level of leering, really, and it took the customers’ minds off how slowly the drinks were coming.

Then Jaime got on the mixing job and things started to work out.

Truth be told, Jaime never was a particularly flamboyant bartender, not meddling with feats of flair or synchronized dance moves, but there was a certain minimalistic elegance to her movements, an economy of motion and multitasking ability that had her churn out cocktails at a prodigious rate. Having almost encyclopedic knowledge of various intoxicating concoctions helped, too. Sometimes, Jaime felt like those damn drink recipes were the only thing she could really claim to remember.

A woman from out of town ordered a Blowjob, and the male cheers gave Veronica enough time to go through her little recipe book and conclude that said drink wasn’t in there. Jaime looked up from her latest creation, locking eyes with the smartly-dressed blonde woman and her angular smile.

Hello, Jaime, the woman said without moving her mouth. Jaime just stood there for a second, dumbfounded, then put the shot glass on the bar and went to work. With a few deft moves, she poured Kahlua and some Irish Cream, then reached back to the mini-fridge and retrieved a spray can of whipped cream to top it off. To top it off, she added some flourish by throwing the can up a foot or two, easily catching it behind her back without looking.

“Ta-daaa!” she said, feeling a bit silly. “One Blowjob. No hands!”
“Thank you,” the woman said, then grabbed the glass. “But I already tried that once and it didn’t work out so well.”
“One gulp, then,” Jaime said, putting the can back into the fridge. That didn’t seem to be a problem for her newest customer; the lady tilted her head back and finished the drink easily.
“How much for that?” the woman asked; Jaime shot her a quizzical look.
“Call it five,” she said; the blonde paid her prompty.
“Leaving already?” Jaime asked.
“I try not to work up a tab. It’s a big waste of paper, and I…don’t like wasting paper.”

Or giving me a tip, Jaime thought, feeling just a little sick. One more reason to get out.

“Don’t worry about that,” she said, taking the glass back from the blonde. “I can keep your total in my head.”
“And you mix pretty well.”
“They don’t call it mixology for nothing,” Jaime said. Just the kind of dumb bartender non-thing she usually wouldn’t say out loud.
“How long have you been doing this?”
“Couple of years. It’s my last day, though.”
“Oh. That sucks for me, then, here I thought I finally found a place to relax. This city’s killing me.”
“It’s not so bad,” Jaime replied. “Gets better when you’re past the initial soul-crushing phase.”
“Born and bred?”
“No, just passing through.”
“Same here,” the blonde answered with a smirk. “One last blow-out tonight and then I’ll be on the plane back home tomorrow.” Jaime felt a slight sting at the word ‘home’.
“Is this a business expense, then?”
“No, that’s coming out of my private recreational fund,” the woman said.

Jaime’s stomach was spinning up to full uproar. She didn’t know exactly what it was, but she knew she’d pushed herself too hard, too soon. Damn it, Jaime, you almost died in a car accident. You should be in a hospital, you shouldn’t be walking, you shouldn’t be…

“Excuse me,” she managed to spit out. Then she made a run for the Ladies’ Room.

---

So much for Will’s noodles, Jaime thought, staring into the mirror and wiping down her face with a wet paper towel. Despite her immobile state, she was freaking out on the inside, her eyes focused on something far beyond the mirror. Part of her face reacted differently to the wetness, part of that skin wasn’t hers and worst of all even the discoloration was starting to fade. It wasn’t just other, soon she wouldn’t know what was her and what wasn’t and then, well, what the hell then? Here she wasn’t rushing from one little crisis to the next, ticking off boxes, getting things done, pretending to be Jaime Sommers when she really wasn’t, not anymore.

It made her skin crawl. God, “her” skin. She slammed her eyes shut, trying to slow down her breathing. She kept thinking about Will. He’d told her to stay calm, and in control, but she’d seen the fear in his eyes. He was a smart man. He knew what Jaime could do now, and it scared him. It was starting to scare her, too. Maybe she was finally wising up.

“You okay?” came her voice from behind Jaime…way too close behind her. Jaime opened her eyes…that woman, smiling just a bit. She hadn’t even heard her come in. “You don’t look so good.”
“Not feeling so good, either,” Jaime said, closing her eyes again.
“Maybe you should just…concentrate more.”
“On what?”
“Like on what you can see.”

The blonde was way too close to her now, almost whispering in her ear.

“Open your eyes. Look at yourself. Really look at yourself.”

Jaime opened her eyes. Her cheeks were pale, but she blocked that out. Loud music in the distance, blocked. Strange woman breathing down her neck, blocked.

After a few seconds, her vision shifted. Black & white, she appeared, but her face was almost pure white compared to the grey of her clothes. It reminded her of those shots from Desert Storm, smartbombs raining on Baghdad while little Jaime sat on the couch, snuggling up against her father for comfort. What’s a war, Daddy?

It didn’t look like the light amplification mode from earlier. Night vision? No…heat vision. Infrared.

More looking. Her face wasn’t just one white; when she focused on it, she could make out darker blotches on it, beyond the shadow of her eyes and other features. Artificial skin, she thought. Almost half of her face…her eyes flicked to the side, watching the blonde woman behind her.

Half of her face, too.

“I know where your boyfriend lives,” Sara Corvus said.

Then she grabbed Jaime’s hair and slammed her head through the mirror.

---

Jaime came to with the great-aunt of all headaches (actually not as bad as the last one, not that Jaime cared about comparative cephalalgia) and a face full of glass; fortunately, the simple act of raising her head caused almost all of it to simply fall off. Cautious touches revealed nothing about to cut into her eyes from opening them, so she did and surveyed the damage with the next mirror over.

There was a rather large shard sticking out of her cheek. With little hesitation, she pulled it out. The pain was…bearable. Enough to let her know she’d been in a fight, but not nearly at an incapacitating, ‘screaming in agony’ kind of level. Jaime suspected that this was by design. As she watched, her cheek pulled taut, stitching itself together in a few seconds - then slowly expanded again, with new skin to restore her normal look. Fast healing…handy.

She hurried out.

Her jacket felt lighter…as she walked out, she became aware of her cell phone or rather the lack thereof. So much for warning Will – Jaime made a mental note to finally learn to memorize phone numbers. At least her watch was still there. The woman had a head start of about five minutes; substantial, but not impossible to beat. She turned to the exit.

“Jaime!” Zucker called from within the crowd. “What happened?”
“Got mugged,” she shouted back. “Sorry!”

Jaime hurried out of the place, as fast as her legs could carry her. All she left behind was a confused boss.

“What?” Tom Zucker asked nobody in particular. “Again?”

---

William Anthros had a rather involved penthouse – not obviously so, as his personal tastes tended towards a sort of elegant minimalist approach to furniture, but still swanky and swimming with some of the newest home automation techniques. If there was such a thing as indirect lighting applied to music, the surround system provided it, a barely audible playlist of 1969’s Let It Bleed a better companion for Will’s glass of red wine than the salmon.

Maybe it had something to do with what Will knew about them: he had converted the music himself, one solid 192 kilobit FLAC directly from the vinyl source in stereo with just the lightest twinge of post-processing to fill out the room better. That vinyl, in turn, had followed him everywhere for years, something to fall back on when it seemed like med school wasn’t worth the stress and the tears and wondering if he’d ever have a life beyond staying on top of the heap. The music had anchored him. Sure, it was just data now, a hyperreal abstract, but it still pulled him through the night. As for the salmon, well, he had bought it in the supermarket, pulled it out of the freezer and poached it. It hadn’t done a damn thing for him.

The music faded into complete nothingness, to be replaced by a pinging sound – even with the best system audiophile money could buy, Will still hadn’t found a satisfactory ring tone. Sporting a curious expression, he tore himself away from staring at the walls and walked over to the kitchen counter, or rather the control panel build into the artificial marble.

Call from Jaime. He smiled and took it; maybe his little surprise candlelight (second) dinner was still salvageable.

“Hey Jaime,” he said. “How was quitting?”
“Invigorating,” Jaime said. “I got you a little surprise on the way, Will – you can see it from the living room windows.”
“Can anybody else see it?”
“I don’t think so, but I also don’t care all that much. This one’s for you.”

With a small smile of anticipation on his lips, he walked over to the extended window front of his apartment.

---

On a rooftop almost a klick south of Will’s apartment, Sara Corvus was multitasking fairly well. The blanket under her kept her safe from the dirty ground, while the Cheyenne Tactical Intervention M-200 precision rifle was pressed against her shoulder just so. For a normal gunman, this would’ve been a rock-solid shooting stance, the culmination of decades of experience. For Corvus, it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

“I can almost see you,” she said…or rather Jaime did. Because Jaime was talking to William Anthros, luring him out for a clean shot. Oh, the joys of having an artificial voicebox – and a Bluetooth headset to drown out the small imperfections in her quick & dirty “Jaime” voice.

So Corvus kept lying and waiting.

---

One thing Jaime hated about penthouse apartments: they’re all the way on top of a building. In the tight staircase, her only advantage was her new endurance – she just couldn’t get up to speed.

---

“So, where’s my surprise?” Will asked, looking out at the city below. Nothing out of the ordinary, not that he could see much in the dark other than his faint reflection in the window.
“Here it comes,” Jaime said.

---

Faster faster faster

---

.408 CheyTac muzzle velocity: Just shy of 900 meters per second.
.408 CheyTac ballistic coefficient: Pretty damn good.
Total time to target: 1.35 seconds.

---

Without warning, the window in front of Will shuddered from a heavy impact. It wasn’t so much a single sheet of glass as a composite panel with half a dozen layers, all intended for a different purpose: the outermost one, though, was engineered for toughness. Even then, it couldn’t stand up to the full force of the impact, spiderwebbing like cave of araneae but finally letting the bullet through. That still left five layers, four of which were of no greater consequence to the projectile. The last one was a spall liner, though, intended to form a final flexible and translucent barrier against fragments and shrapnel. It caught what was left of the bullet’s initially substantial kinetic energy, stopping the slug well short of its target.

---

.408 CheyTac standard bullet: Not optimized for anti-material applications.

---

It would have been an expression of supreme confidence for Will to smile and raise his glass to the unknown assassin, knowing that he could step out of the line of fire at his leisure well before the window would finally let a bullet through.

Didn’t happen that way, though.

The glass was left to its devices and the tender ministrations of gravity as Will dove for cover behind the heavier armor built into the walls. To give Berkut some credit, they had made sure that their chief surgeon was well protected in his home…but it wouldn’t hold off a determined attacker for very long.

---

Jaime heard the bullet impact two floors shy of the penthouse; in response, she picked up her pace, almost rebounding from the walls of the staircase on her way up.

No time to knock, Jaime thought as she reached the door on top; using her momentum and leading with her right shoulder, she slammed her body against the door, producing a screech like a material fatigue groan jumping to Hyperspace, but it got her through the door. Her eyes focused on Will, crouched against the wall, who snapped up a pistol – SIG P226, Caliber 9x19mm Parabellum, 4.4 inches of barrel, 15 round magazine… - and aimed it at her.

“Jaime!”

That was punctuated by another impact against a different window, this little copper bundle clearly intended to turn Jaime’s head into a bloody mush. To her credit, she wised up quickly, keeping her head down and joining her boyfriend/lifesaver/foxhole buddy behind more solid cover.

“We should be safe here,” Will said, giving the shooter five more seconds to cycle another round and releasing his breath when no further shots came in. “As long as we don’t step out in front of the windows again.”
“I never knew that glass was bulletproof!” Jaime exclaimed. The weird just kept piling up, and Will with a gun in his hands was the cherry on top.
“Composite smartglass,” Will babbled. “The lotus surface repels dirt, you can adjust the opacity…and it stops bullets up to .50 caliber.”
“That’s great,” Jaime replied. “Why does this woman…”
“Woman?” Will said, cutting Jaime off quite handily. “Describe her.”
“Well, she’s…”

The next one to cut off Jaime’s answer was the apartment itself, or rather, the sound system. Will’s home automation software wasn’t exactly off the shelf, and the smooth synthetic baritone of its expert system had to cope with some unusual events.

“Laser designation detected,” the speakers blared, both loud and with the voice’s calm never faltering. “Evacuate the area. Laser designation detected. Evacuate the area.”
“She’s blonde and she knows about me and you!” Jaime managed to shout, but Will wasn’t really listening anymore; with a start, he grabbed her shoulder to get her attention.
“Smash the window and jam the laser!”
“Laser designation detected. Evacuate the area.”
“How? Will, how the hell do I do that?”
“Destroy the window, jam the laser, just do it!”
“Evacuate the area.”

Jaime would have loved to stay and complain, ask for explanations, but instead she was already back on her feet, running for the windows – hadn’t Will just told her to take cover? – and winding up a punch with her right arm. Her bionic fist went through the fractured smartglass like a stunt car through a billboard, opening a hole almost her size in the windowfront. The bullet Jaime was waiting to catch from that stunt didn’t come, though – it sent its condolences by way of its bigger cousin (twice removed), a small missile shooting up into the night sky. Jaime’s eye automatically tracked the smoke plume to a distant rooftop, giving her just enough time to zoom in and see Sara Corvus grin at her, her hand still on the trigger. Jaime almost froze at the thought that she might have just made a terrible mistake. Saving Will meant being at the mercy of this…woman.

Then the missile reached the apex of its flight and zeroed in on Will’s apartment.

“Laser designation detected,” the system sounded once more for emphasis. Jaime blinked her eye at the rapidly-approaching missile, and with no warning the right side of her vision went black. Before it had a chance to stay that way, white text – scrolling almost too fast for Jaime to focus on – scrolled through her field of vision, as if somebody had hooked her optical nerve directly to the monitor output of a VAX computer workstation.

INC LAS PRF 4354
MSL DETECT AGM-114N
LINK OK
CM…
CM…
CM…

And then the missile…swerved, for the lack of a better word. It didn’t curve to the sky, because it wasn’t that maneuverable, but somehow the previous trajectory was wrong, and the designator signal was somewhere else, and

WHOOOSH

The missile flew past the building. It was now firmly convinced that it should blow the crap out of the Pacific, which – while environmentally unsound – was much better than waking up a random Bay Area resident with a faceful of burning fluoridated aluminum.

Jaime was rather glad when her eye stopped puking uncomfortably short Milspeak over her field of view and got back to letting her see stuff. In particular, it let her see Sara Corvus on the rooftop. The woman was nodding, as if in respect, and then her voice was in Jaime’s head again.

Nice save. Now come over here, we need to talk.

Jaime still stood behind the window, utterly baffled. Just jumping down to the street seemed like the fastest way, so she did that.

---

Jaime’s (theoretical) terminal velocity: 35 meters per second.
Total height from Will’s apartment to street level: 68 meters.
Actual influence of air resistance: minimal.
“Air Control” subroutine of Jaime’s kinetic control loop: Version 7b.

---

Falling from a penthouse isn’t just stepping off the edge and screaming all the way down. Jaime had to jump off to reduce the risk of hitting the building’s side, and spread her limbs as far as possible to influence her orientation. The part of her brain that processed fear had already gone on strike during the encounter with the missile, and her actions were barely more than letting the implants use her body, even hijacking the natural parts of her body to accomplish their goal. She had to reach that woman, and as quickly as possible – no time to consider, no time to plan, just run on autopilot and sort this mess out later.

After all, she had just told an anti-tank missile to pack up and go play somewhere else. The only way to get through this was to be faster than her opponent, adapt and chase her down before she could try something new.

And then there was the ground. Her legs tucked in and Jaime closed her eyes.

---

7B (hex) in decimal: 123
Nathan’s code management practices: idiosyncratic

---

The impact was harsh but not unreasonably so; having artificial legs and hips gave Jaime the shock absorption needed to not snap her bones on hitting the ground, but that didn’t mean that there was no pain. Despite rolling, her back felt like it was on fire for a few seconds before she managed to pick herself up, and her left hand was wearing several nasty scrapes. The leather jacket had seen better days, too.

She started running again.

---

Will wasn’t in a very good place, mentally. His physical position was almost enviably safe, crouched behind a solid foot of reinforced concrete in his apartment, gun in hand, but his head was moving from side to side, trying to figure out the next step.

“Anthros?” came Bledsoe’s voice from the computer panel in the kitchen, sounding vaguely annoyed. “We’re flashing red from your location, what the hell is going on?”

Will took a few deep breaths, then – gun forward – he skedaddled across the floor to the heavy counters of the kitchen area, sacrificing a dignified mode of locomotion for speed and keeping his head down.

“Anthros?” Bledsoe called again; Will rose from behind the counter, pistol aimed at the night outside his window. Without taking his eyes off the darkness, he punched the panel behind him, then sunk back behind cover.
“I was attacked,” he said, too scared to sound scared.
“Understood. We’re scrambling a response team, ETA ten minutes. Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine…are you tracking Jaime?”
“She switched her cell phone off. We had a brief blip two minutes ago but couldn’t trace it. Mendelson says they’re still on the job, though, I’ll have him take her to a safe place.”

Sure didn’t see any guards following Jaime, Will thought, but didn’t quite make the connection.

“Uh, I don’t think that’s going to work. Jaime was here, just a few seconds ago…”
“What? Where did she go?”
“I don’t know…I lost track of her when she jumped out of my window.”

With no reply forthcoming, Will released the magazine from his gun, checked that it did, in fact, contain bullets, then snapped it back into the weapon. The cold salmon on the countertop crept back into Will’s mind.

“So, uh,” he said, “you might want to send that response team to her location, when you know where she is…”

---

It had to be a half-completed skyscraper under construction, Jaime thought; there were more stairs for her new legs to climb, and she wondered briefly how much mileage her artificial knees were rated for, mostly because she didn’t care for the idea of taking herself to the shop at some point. She’d seen that woman on the roof, and dammit, she was going to get some answers.

Once on top, it was only instinct that had her grab onto the nearest handrails before she kicked the sheet-metal service door off its hinges. This was fairly dramatic, as far as entrances went, but also intimately reminded her of Newton’s third law – her new strength was easy enough to figure into plans of action, but Jaime hadn’t fully adjusted to all the consequences yet. Her arm absorbed the shock just so, almost propelling Jaime out onto the roof on the rebound.

That woman did indeed wait for her on the roof; on seeing Jaime stumble out of the doorframe, she smiled, said a chirpy “Hi!” and raised the gun – Heckler & Koch P3000, Caliber 9x19mm Parabellum, 3.9 inches of barrel, 15 round Yeah, yeah, shut up - in her left hand to aim squarely at Jaime’s chest.

“Not very impressed so far,” she said; Jaime put her hands up. “I don’t want to shoot you right now, mostly because I think you deserve a little time to realize just how thoroughly screwed you are.”
“Who are you?” Jaime asked. It seemed like the thing to do at the moment.
“I’m Sara Corvus,” she said, before she pulled Jaime’s cell phone from her jacket. “The first bionic woman.”

Well, crap.

Jaime waited for the shock to come, realized that that particular reaction seemed to be a non-starter today and instead went for rational. Okay, name and clarification that she has implants, probably similar to mine, maybe more primitive if she came before me…now I just need to warn Will.

That particular problem wasn’t long in existing, because just like that Will got another call from Jaime Sommers.

---

Will actually felt a vague sense of boredom. Still sitting behind the counter, he wanted to move on to the next phase of defending himself, but not knowing what that was turned out to be a serious handicap. He was a scholar, after all, not a secret freaking agent, and the parts of his brain that weren’t deadlocked into a stalemate over whether to get the hell away or stay behind cover were quite busy worrying about Jaime. The small bug-out pack slung over his shoulder was stocked with all the usual trappings: a handgun (already removed), several full magazines for said handgun, cash, credit cards, prepaid cell-phone, fake IDs, address list for safe houses, packets of trail mix and a small first aid kit.

Then, the phone call. Jaime’s voice.

“Will? I’m…I’m scared. I thought...I thought you fixed me, I thought I wouldn’t be afraid anymore.”

Sobbing.

“I thought I could be strong, Will, strong as you made me. But I’m not. Not strong enough. I never was.”

A gunshot.

“Jaime!” Will heard himself shout, darting up to the computer panel…past it, past the counter, up to the window. He curbed his instincts, channeled them into other moves, turning away from the windows then back to it, tears welling up in his eyes. So many things he’d achieved, and he was still powerless after all.

Jaime laughed, and Will turned around to face the panel. Little by little, the voice mutated into something horribly familiar. Laughter.

Her.

“Oh, that was,” Corvus said, words bubbling up between barely suppressed giggling. “That was rich. Felt sooooo good. I wish I could see your face right now, Anthros.”

Will’s gun rose all by itself, pointing into the darkness. His eyes frantically tried to pierce the night, but he had no chance to spot Corvus.

“Oh, wait,” her voice proclaimed proudly, “I can.”

At this range, Corvus’s pistol didn’t stand much of a chance of actually hitting Will, but he still jumped for cover; seconds later, three bullets slammed into the still-intact smartglass panels. As he picked himself off the ground, something inside him stirred – maybe just his pride, or maybe the first glimpse of an idea.

He rushed off to find his laptop.

---

“I’ll probably have to kill him later,” Corvus said, swinging her gun back to cover Jaime. “What, no heroics? I thought you’d try to jump me.”
“You’re too far away and I’m unarmed,” Jaime said. “And I don’t even know why you’re doing all this. I’m not a trained killer.”
“Trained, obviously not,” Corvus retorted. “So, this thing with Anthros, don’t tell me you’re still all torn up about it. I figure you’ve had some time to rethink your ‘relationship’ with that creep.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Nobody gave him permission to do this to us, Jaime,” Corvus said, her voice breaking slightly. “To ‘help’ us by turning us both into killing machines.”
“Both of us?” Jaime spat back, perhaps a bit too forcefully. “Look, Corvus, you’re the one running around shooting at people. I haven’t killed anyone and I don’t intend to.”
“Really. Crushed anyone’s throat lately?”

Jaime felt sick all over again.

“I saw him walk away,” she said meekly.
“No, you saw someone carry him away. You didn’t want to look too closely. What do you think he did, huffed and puffed until his windpipe popped back into shape?”

With a mix between a shrug and a throwing motion, Corvus tossed Jaime’s cell phone back to her.

“Here,” Corvus said, “ask your boyfriend. Or your new boss. These guys following you…they weren’t just there to protect you, they cleaned up after you.”
“Then why aren’t they here now? What did you do to them?”
“Oh, relax,” Corvus said, her pistol never wavering. “I knocked them out and put them in the trunk of your car. They’re fine; it’s more than they’d do for me. Now, tell that scumbag what you think of being lied to, but make it snappy. This place will be crawling with Berkut stooges in a few minutes and we need to make a clean getaway.”

Jaime raised the phone to her ear reluctantly. We…it would have been easy to write this off, but despite everything there was something about Corvus that made Jaime want to listen to her – maybe just Jaime’s own misgivings about her situation. Right there, she wanted nothing more than to close her eyes and wake up the day before.

“…Will?” she said.

The other end of the line went dead. Jaime closed the cell phone and put it in her jacket. She was running out of people to trust; if God had answered her prayers that night, he would have given her a cosmic time-out to sort through the confusion.

---

Should’ve gotten Nathan to document this, Will reflected, hacking away at his laptop. A USB cable stretched from one of the laptop’s ports to a similar installation below the apartment’s computer panel, patching the small portable into the larger communications network. The system was in place, but all things considered this wasn’t the best time for a field test.

With a final keystroke, he sent the screen into a convulsion of rapidly-opening windows, all in the service of one massive program. The next ten seconds were automated; enough time to grab his own cell phone and talk to Bledsoe again.

“I’m in,” Will said.

---

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Corvus whispered as she watched Jaime’s defeated expression. “Now, are you with me?”

Jaime? Don’t talk, just listen.

Will’s voice. In her head. Jaime was rapidly running out of patience for lectures.

Corvus is lying to you. She’s dangerous and we need to take her down before she hurts any more people. Please, Jaime, you have to trust me on this, we don’t have time to explain.

“I don’t trust you,” Jaime said.
“Good,” Corvus replied. “Don’t trust anyone just because you think you have to. Berkut did all those things to you and they really haven’t told you anything other than that they own you now, that they’re fighting to protect the United States. Doesn’t that make you just a bit suspicious? And given what they did to you, what do you think they’ll do when you realize that you don’t have to be their puppet? It really doesn’t get any easier than this; I’m the only one who can save you. You don’t have to believe in my goals, you don’t have to like me, but you have to realize that they will use you unless you let me help. Now, choice time.”

Half of Jaime’s vision went dark again.

Jaime, we’re almost ready, hold on…

“Not coming with you, Sara.”
“Okay. Sorry to hear that.” Without missing a beat, Corvus’s finger slipped onto the trigger. “Plan B, then.”

LINK OK
+++ AT OPCODE 802807FF80CE8EB3C9EE48E0EE19D0D9
REMOTE COMMAND OK
: AT Z


The shot rang out, but instead of Jaime’s heart it grazed her (decidedly more robust) leg. That much, Jaime could tell, wasn’t deliberate, and it didn’t take the return of her bionic eye to visual mode to see Corvus lying on the ground. She was twisting and thrashing around in a way eerily reminiscent of a robot having a seizure, which – as Jaime concluded rather quickly – wasn’t all that far from what was actually happening.

“What the hell?” she said to nobody in particular (not much of an audience on a construction site roof on Monday at midnight), only for Will’s voice to answer her again.
The fiber laser in your bionic eye can be used for short-range communication. Nathan sent a shutdown signal to her implants.
“Could she do that to me?”
No, fortunately not. We keep the command codes under lock & key for just that reason.
“Could you do that to me, then?”

Jaime freed the gun from Corvus’s hand to the sound of complete silence in her head. If Will – or, really, anyone at Berkut – could just get into her system and start bossing her implants around, then why the hell hadn’t he done that to Corvus directly? Her right thumb pressed the decocker on the back of the pistol as she hefted it away from her downed opponent; all arm, no Jaime, who didn’t particularly care about the flood of operating instructions and performance data on the weapon spilling into her mind. Not that they’d be of any use, but…

“Jaime.”

She whipped around, gun rising to a firing stance, but that’s exactly what Corvus had figured would happen. Jaime’s right arm was hit with a perfectly timed snap kick, flinging the weapon out of her hand, toward the edge of the roof and finally off the building. The implants went into full combat mode in an instant, whirling Jaime around in a low sweeping motion – very fluid, but misaimed, as Corvus had already departed the ground in favor of a back flip and sent her right leg to meet Jaime’s torso. The resulting recoil took Jaime off her legs as easily as it propelled Corvus further into the air, giving her the height necessary for a full flip with a picture-perfect landing.

Jaime was doing worse on her B-score, flung backward with a broken rib or two and quite rapidly headed for the edge. Again, her arm came through, thrusting its fingers into a nearby wall. That stopped Jaime from going over the edge, even if it felt like it should have ripped that arm right off her shoulder; with a pained cough, she righted herself. As she pulled in a few more breaths, her gaze fixed itself to Corvus.

“You had me going for a bit there,” Corvus said. “Here I thought we’d play without dirty tricks.”
“Who’s playing?” Jaime responded.

Corvus flexed her neck; her eyes turned black, and then she hurled herself at Jaime.

Jaime’s body shifted into a fighting stance all by itself, which was problematic insofar as it meant putting her left – decidedly un-bionic – arm forward to block with. The problem with that struck Jaime at about the same time as Corvus’s leg; the kinetic control loop of her implants kept her arm in position, overrides went to town on getting the sensation of pain down from ‘crippling’ to ‘informative’, but no system in the world could cover up the noise of Jaime hearing her own bones snap. Normal people would concede a fight after having their arm broken in the opening salvo, but the bionics were riding Jaime, making her draw her natural arm back, bringing the right one up into a hammer punch to Corvus’s face and shifting her stance further forward.

Attack and block and attack and attack and block, and oh, by the way, 20 seconds before you can use the arm again. Would you like some more endorphins? Here, have some more endorphins. How do you feel about hook kicks?

Jaime had to remind herself that she wasn’t winning this fight, that much was obvious or seemed obvious or maybe she now had a chip in her head that told her all that, but however she knew, it was hard to dispute. One overextended attack too many and Corvus had her by the wrist, ramming her elbow against Jaime’s nose. Then she pulled Jaime in for a hip toss that Jaime actually recognized from a Judo class, not that it did her much good; getting chucked onto practice mats hadn’t been fun, but it seemed like a day at the spa in comparison to being pounded into concrete.

With the taste of iron on her tongue and a growing collection of bone fractures, Jaime didn’t have many options. Trusting the system to keep her body together, she spat out a little blood and delivered a full-power kick to Corvus’s right knee. That, at last, seemed to stagger her opponent a bit, if not from pain, then at least from damaging an important joint. Jaime struggled back to her feet; Corvus could have done the same to her at any time, but this wasn’t the time to be grateful for charity. New plan, Jaime Sommers: break her legs and do it fast before she can counter.

With the strength of desperation behind her, Jaime hurled herself at Corvus, wild swings of her arm driving the blonde woman toward the edge of the roof. Although her left arm still dangled from her side, Jaime could feel her muscles tensing strategically, realigning her ulna into its proper position. A surprise low kick thrown against Corvus’s other knee found its mark, dropping her limping opponent to a crouch. Intending to finish the fight right there, Jaime drew her fist back to deliver a final haymaker punch.

Well, that was the plan.

Corvus shot up again while Jaime was still winding up, caught the punch, deployed a knife hand chop to Jaime’s right shoulder and threw her to the ground again, this time twisting the arm behind Jaime’s back and putting her booted foot against the spine for additional laughs. Jaime gritted her teeth, her measure of victory relocated to not letting the scream in the back of her throat escape. That hadn’t worked at all.

“Is that all you’ve got?” Corvus shouted; her knees were already fixing themselves with a series of clicking sounds, but she hadn’t expected this kind of viciousness. “Huh? Is that it, Jaime? I’m listening!”
“No, you’re not…” Jaime squeezed past her teeth. “I’ve got…”

And then Corvus heard it, too. Saw it. Chopper inbound.

“I’ve got friends,” Jaime laughed.

Corvus took off, releasing Jaime’s arm rather rapidly; Jaime turned around in time to see Corvus reach the edge of the building, then freeze. With a wicked grin on her face, Jaime stood up, the feeling in her left arm restored. Corvus just looked at her, then reached beneath her jacket to draw a second pistol. When Jaime realized what that meant, her smile defected to Corvus’s face once more.

This isn’t over, came the voice inside Jaime’s head.

Corvus just took a step back and leaped off the building, disappearing into the night. Any other day, Jaime would have taken it for suicide, but she’d made the same fall ten minutes ago. When you’re wearing the world’s most advanced shock absorbers as your legs, you don’t need a parachute for BASE jumping. And when you have a supercharged version of natural healing, you don’t need six weeks and a cast to heal a broken arm. Just like that, Jaime felt her arm being okay again. Good as new.

The helicopter hovered right over the roof, dispensing a group of serious-looking men with G36C automatic carbines, tactical webbing and balaclavas to surround Jaime. She looked right through them, past them, because even while they were busy securing the rooftop and grumbling their findings into laryngophones, Jaime Sommers pondered the future.

---

Jaime’s first glance of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory came from the perspective of being strapped to the gurney, which admittedly didn’t make for a very good vantage point. She wasn’t so much restrained as supported, with her body secured against unintentional movement; having the kinetic feedback loop switched to black hole mode took care of any attempts at intentional movement. A fresh IV was feeding into her left arm and her bionic eye was stuck in the open position, fixed in a neutral forward position. At the very least, they had let her change into a hospital gown herself this time. Well, that, and foot sacks. There really didn’t seem to be a better description for those; they certainly weren’t socks, and they certainly weren’t comfortable – designed to be worn over shoes she didn’t have on. Then again, it wasn’t like she could actually get a cold from exposure on mechanical footsoles.

Aside from the nurse in scrubs – Jaime hadn’t managed to learn his name yet – she could make out Will in the next room, cleaning his hands before suiting up. She hadn’t really paid attention to that before: is washing your hands an acquired skill? A surgeon would need to be quick about it, and thorough; Jaime wondered if Will’s every move under the faucet was an acquired reflex by now, or if there was still room for uncertainty in it. A chance to screw it up.

If not, well, she had that covered.

The whole blessing / curse oscillation of the original accident was starting to look like a cinematic master of disguise wearing seven latex masks on top of each other and peeling them off, one at a time, for an uncomfortably long gag. Perhaps, she mused, getting beat to a semi-pulp by Corvus would turn out to make her win the lottery, or something like that.

Jaime Sommers effect, welcome back, how I haven’t missed you at all.

Will stepped into the room, gloved and clean; the nurse fixed a surgical mask to his face. Nathan was hot on his heels, splitting off from the surgeon’s footsteps to grab a tablet PC wired to the gurney. He tapped something on the screen, and Jaime felt her jaw unclench.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” Will said, the mask stripping the worry from his voice. “You really pushed yourself and we need to make sure that everything’s working as intended.”
“I don’t call killing people ‘working as intended’, Will. You might want to check that.”

Something in Jaime knew that she shouldn’t have said that, but the bigger part of her had wanted to do it anyway; of all the people in the room, she surely had the best excuse to be cranky about how things had gone down.

“You didn’t kill anyone,” Will said, his voice still calm. “You knocked that man out, your bodyguards called in an ambulance.”
“So she was lying.”
“Yes,” Will replied, more interested in Jaime’s arm than her face. “I don’t even know how she got up again…”
“We pretty much blew our chance there, then,” Jaime said. “Can’t expect the same trick to work twice.”
“Please,” Nathan said, “she’s a ‘borg, not a Borg. There’s no magic limit on how often we can transmit the kill code –“
“System shutdown sequence,” Will threw in, hoping to deflect that particular verbal blow. “It doesn’t literally kill her.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” Jaime said.
“It’s just…you see…” Nathan began, thought for a second, then started over. “When we engineer something, something that needs to be turned off for safety reasons, we give it a kill switch. Same principle here, but obviously we can’t have a physical button on an augment. So this is a kill code, and it can be flashed by a strobe light or a laser, as needed. Switches her systems off, all of them, no questions asked. In theory, she should have been blind and paralyzed for as long as we wanted.”
“If it was me–“ Jaime said, thinking that this could very well be her, given some time –“I’d do my best to remove that kind of ‘safety feature’. Especially if I wanted to take on the people who built the implants.”

Will’s eyes shot over to Nathan. Jaime couldn’t quite tell if it was a ‘Don’t think about shutting down my girlfriend’ or a ‘Did you make the new version better?’ kind of look.

“I’m sure she tried,” Nathan scoffed. “But good reverse engineers don’t fall from the sky. It’s called ‘kill code’ for a reason, and I used every dirty trick in the book to make it hard to crack. State of the art for Berkut, 2004…which is Rest of the World 2012, if I don’t miss my guess.”
“Every trick in the book, huh?” Jaime replied, defaulting to sarcasm in lieu of a more intellectual riposte. “But that book has changed. A new edition, if you will, and I’m sure there were a few…errata.”
“Nathan wrote the book,” Will said, grabbing a scalpel from the tray. After a moment of reflection, he decided to abandon the metaphor instead of going down with it. “He built the system, he’s the only one who can take it down.”
“This isn’t like your vanilla DRM scheme where you get a script-kiddie with a debugger, trace a couple hundred steps and change an address jump to bypass the whole security program. It’s in there for good, and God would I love to see how she managed to mitigate it. In any event, even if she can recover from it, it’ll still take her down. You get her to look at you for a few seconds, we can scramble her again.”
“The trick is getting her to look at me,” Jaime said. Nathan tilted his head sideways, not quite nodding, not quite shaking his head.

Awkward, Jaime thought. She went off in search of a new faux pas, just to keep the conversation fresh.

“Will, what are you doing with that scalpel?”
“Tissue sample,” he said, digging the blade into her arm. For all that Jaime’s nerves were telling her, he might as well have cut air.
“Oh. Cool.”
“…cool?” Nathan asked.
“I can’t feel it all,” Jaime said. “It’s been the same way ever since the jump. I'm not scared at all. I just feel kind of...feel kind of invincible.”
“Is she always like this?”
“No, she’s not,” Will said, retrieving a tiny piece of Jaime’s skin from her arm and putting it in a small glass dish. “Nathan, start the scan.”
“On it.”

From Jaime’s perspective, nothing of consequence happened, but then again, lying immobile on a gurney wasn’t much of a catalyst for action. Another question, then. It felt like being six again, asking the grown-ups about their strange games.

“Shouldn’t you two be wearing lead aprons or something?”
“We’re not using X-Rays,” Will replied, carefully applying a small band-aid to the incision on Jaime’s arm. It certainly wasn’t bleeding and again, she felt nothing, not even the vague sensation of pressure a strong dose of opiates would leave her with.
“And you’re not putting me in an MRT tube…”
“You don’t wanna climb into an MRT,” Nathan said, “trust me. This one’s your area of expertise – Dr. Anthros.”
“You’ve probably noticed,” Will began, then stopped himself and pulled down the surgical mask.

Every Victor has to be handsome, of course, but does every handsome guy have to be Victor? Jaime’s brain became deadlocked between pondering her relationship woes (case reopened!) and trying to muddle her way through a shaky interpretation of set theory, but Will’s voice brought her back.

“…bloodborne nanotechnology that enables your body to recover from many dangerous injuries and attacks. I developed the general design, a superclass of microscopic robots that we refer to as anthrocytes. The current subspecies count stands at 658, but of course we’re still working on covering all our bases.”

It failed to keep her there, though.

So if they can directly block my pain receptors, what else can they do? Mess with my emotions? My memories? Everything’s tied into the system – everything. But Corvus got that under control, got past the system, now it works for her.

“…establishes nodes within your blood vessels and lymphatic system that serve as power and command structures for the robots. The nodes form a mesh network that ties into the system and can be polled for a very accurate assessment of your health – it relays any injuries or blood impurities you may be suffering at the moment, too. Also, I wear polka dot boxers and like to eat unicorn steaks.”
“No, you don’t,” Jaime said, her natural eye focusing back on Will.
“You looked like you were zoning out there.”
“I am zoning out. Haven’t been paying a lot of attention…”

Will nodded to that.

“You’re tired. You should get some sleep.”
“I could use some sleep,” Nathan offered.
“Maybe we can all bring our pajamas and tell scary ghost stories,” Jaime said. “Do some team bonding.”

Nathan scoffed for the second time in as many hectoseconds.

“We couldn’t bond in a swimming pool of cyanoacrylate,” he said; Will had to suppress a smirk before putting on the more serious ‘Play nice now, children’ face.
“We’re all done here,” Will said; Nathan replied by way of tapping a few more buttons, ending Jaime’s paralysis.

With a weary groan, Jaime rose from the gurney, her bare (clad in surgery sacks, but still, effectively bare) feet touching the ground of the surgical theater. There was a brief sensation of coldness without the actual discomfort, which felt a bit like looking at a picture titled ‘Night Sky’ consisting solely of the words “This is black” scrawled on the canvas.

With Nathan and the nurse excusing themselves rather quickly, Jaime and Will were left on their own in the room; a quick glance upward at the one-way mirror didn’t reveal the mysteries behind it. Jaime’s eye struggled, her vision shifting quickly enough to resemble a kaleidoscope, but nothing showed beneath the surface. Almost in defeat, her eye returned to its default mode.

“You just wanted to get me into this thing again, didn’t you?” Jaime said, shifting her hips sideways and pulling up the gown’s hem just a fraction of an inch with it.
“Yes, that’s it,” Will replied, no particular stress on any part of his speech. “I spent ten years in higher education because I love fondling twill tape.”
“And seeing attractive women in revealing clothes.”
“That I will cop to,” he said. “But I’ve seen my share of ugly wounds and not-strikingly-handsome men, too, so it’s a zero-sum game at best. The gown is just standard protocol for the check-up.”
“I don’t see any reason for this, though,” Jaime said. “I feel perfectly fine. The bionic implants fix all injuries anyway.”
“They keep you alive. Without boring you to sleep again, they don’t magically put everything back just as it was. Think of the anthrocyte system like getting stitches – first it takes care of the injury, then it restores functionality and helps your body heal itself. But that doesn’t keep us from looking at all major injuries to make sure there are no complications, not to mention the usual testing on the implants.”
“Got it. Now, if there’s nothing else…”
“Oh, we’re done for today, Jaime.”
“I’m going home, then.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“Do you…”
“No, I can’t. Still need to prep the samples and send them down to the lab.”
“Okay,” she said, letting her left shoulder drop slightly.

There was no guidance more obvious than the “Exit” sign over the door to the prep room; Jaime cast a last unreturned glance at Will, then turned and walked out, slightly enjoying the sound of her sack’d feet on the cold floor. Will’s eyes did follow her, enjoying something else.

One of the perks of being a surgeon: easy to separate the mental picture of the shattered crash victim from that of your girlfriend’s shapely body.

---

Jaime needn’t have worried about the observation lounge of the bionics lab, because nobody was using it. That crucial process was instead taking place in the observation lounge of Berkut’s intensive care facility. In the brightly lit room below, Felix Mendelson was sleeping away his nightmares, heavily sedated. Jonas Bledsoe was rather more awake, up in the semi-dark as the man behind the mirror. His eyes were fixed on a spot just to the left of Mendelson’s bed, mostly because he was done watching a sleeping man but not quite willing to turn away yet. Behind him, the door clicked open and two pairs of footsteps entered the room.

“What’s the assessment?” Bledsoe asked, deliberately terse.
“He was locked in the back of the car for half an hour with two corpses,” Ruth Truewell said, her voice vibrating – she clearly wasn’t enjoying the idea of something like that happening to her. “Only weakly responsive to contact. We’re doing what we can to make him comfortable for the night. Too early to tell if it’s full-blown post-traumatic.”
“Mendelson is tough,” a deep male voice said. Bledsoe didn’t acknowledge it.
“It’s not a question of toughness,” Truewell replied, sparing Bledsoe the lecture on the need to move beyond the Neanderthal approach to psychological health. “It’s an issue of reliability. Even if he wakes up and says he’s fine, we need to debrief him and make sure we deal with the incident before he internalizes it.”
“Then schedule a debrief for tomorrow,” Bledsoe said. “We can’t afford to lose good people and we need every detail we can get about Sara Corvus’s activities.”
“Mr. Bledsoe,” Truewell said, “I’ll also have to report to my superiors that Sara Corvus is still alive.”
“Then do that. I’ve got nothing to hide and we could use the manpower in our search.”
“Very well.”
“You’re excused, Truewell.”

Footsteps, the door closing behind her. For all the times that reporting to multiple agencies had caused Berkut trouble, Jonas Bledsoe did appreciate having a decent portion of the US government on standby for favors. He turned away from the mirror, facing the remaining guest in his private domain.

Antonio Pope looked calm, his expression neutral but edging on slightly positive. At just shy of six feet and 200 pounds (12% body fat), Pope was a man with a casual elegance to his stance, elevated to his physical and mental peak by hard work and iron will. Aside from his square chin, there was not a sharp edge to his face nor a blemish on his chocolate-colored skin, deep brown eyes staring back at Bledsoe with a curious edge.

Bledsoe had to smile as memories of past undercover stings floated back to the surface. For all their bluster, he had never met a white supremacist who could have taken Pope in a fight. Or a debate.

“What did the team find at the scene?” Bledsoe asked.
“The rifle and a launch gantry for a Hellfire missile,” Pope said. “Dr. Anthros’s apartment shows impacts from multiple rifle and pistol bullets, but we were unable to secure the pistol. Serial number on the rifle is missing, we’re still checking if the ballistics match the slugs. We should have a report by Wednesday at the latest. The launch gantry looks like a Swedish model. Either way, that must have been a lot of trouble to acquire, never mind getting it in place.”
“Corvus?”
“Nowhere to be found. We pulled CCTV footage of the area and are analyzing it as we speak, but those are just a few convenience stores and banks. I don’t expect to find anything.”
“And our mystery corpse?”
“Still in autopsy, but he’s undergone significant surgical alteration. We’ll have an IAFIS result by Wednesday. No image hits in the employee databases of the agencies, obviously. Bone structure doesn’t match any of our own records, either.”
“We are better off than yesterday, Pope,” Bledsoe said. “Yesterday we didn’t even know about Corvus being alive. I didn’t know, anyway, the Department doesn’t tell me much of anything these days.”
“Are we going to have a problem, Mr. Bledsoe?”
“No. I’m just saying that I sent her body to the DoD and that she was more than sufficiently dead at the time. It felt wrong, and I should have trusted my gut. Now, Pope…you’re doing your job reporting all this to the DIA, but I need you to put on a few different hats in the next few weeks. You’re their man at Berkut, I need you to be Berkut’s man at the agency. Start checking the program for leaks.”
“Anything else?”
“Sommers hasn’t met you yet,” Bledsoe said. “When you have a moment, get close to her. I want to know what she does when we’re not watching.”

---

Jaime walked out of the dressing room – in her own tattered clothes, thank you very much – feeling steadily more tired and awake at the same time, a clear divergence between her body’s natural response and the demands of the bionics. Something about burning the candle at both ends popped into her head.

Footsteps behind her. In milliseconds, the sensation of exhaustion was completely overpowered.

“You look like you need a ride,” Jonas Bledsoe said, increasing his step until he was walking right beside Jaime.
“I’m good to drive,” she replied.
“Has anyone ever said that and actually been good to drive?”

Jaime turned her head to look at Bledsoe, who had his eyebrows pulled up just a bit.

“That was a serious question,” he said.
“Guess I really should know better than that. No, just drunk jerks.”
“There are several reasons why you shouldn’t drive. You’re still recovering from your injuries, you’re tired, and you don’t actually have a car parked here.”
“—good points, all of them,” Jaime conceded.
“And I’d love to provide you with a company car, but unfortunately you don’t work for us yet.”
“I’d walk, if that means walking away. Maybe wander the Earth a little bit, fix wrongs where I find them and drift from town to town.” She paused briefly. “Too bad I have a life.”
“I don’t blame you if you want to get away from it all,” Bledsoe said. “It would be – inconvenient isn’t really the right word, but there would be major problems. I’m just saying I understand that there are better situations to find yourself in. I do think you should work for us, Ms. Sommers. ”
“You shall judge of a man by his foes as well as by his friends,” Jaime said. “I’ve met one of your enemies. Who are your friends?”
“All will be revealed.”
“When I’m ready for the truth?”
“No, when your background check is finished,” Bledsoe said, smiling slightly. “We can get you up to Secret with interim clearance in a week, after that it gets a little dicier. But we’re on good terms with the people who make those calls, so I think we can set you up within the year.”
“And what do I do in the meantime?”

Bledsoe smiled softly.

“Training.”

---

There really wasn’t much to do on the drive back into town. Documentation on Jaime’s implants couldn’t leave the facility, and another stern reminder about her lack of proper clearance shut down most other lines of inquiry quickly. Another drive home in the night, and Jaime on the passenger seat yet again. It scared up a few images of the accident, the few that she had managed to register before losing consciousness.

It wasn’t until Bledsoe pulled up a block away from Jaime’s house that they spoke again.

“I’ve got three things for you,” he said, fetching a carrying case from the backseat of the car. It looked rather like messenger bag, but with a more rigid framing inside. There was a large front pocket and a rigid main compartment held closed with two latches, each with a small locking mechanism on it. Bledsoe opened the front pocket first, then handed Jaime a cell phone. It looked…well, it wasn’t exactly her old one, maybe a generation or two more recent. Still rather plain, though.
“Another phone?”
“Forensics got back to us with the contents of your phone. Slightly nicer model, but this has all your old data on it and your old number, too. Use it for private calls from now on. The one Anthros gave you is for official use only. Keep it switched on at all times.”
“Okay.”
“Number two…” Bledsoe said, pulling out a sealed envelope. “Standard paperwork package. New job with a front company including acceptance letter in a separate envelope, a work contract you can sign and show your sister, a work contract on flash paper that you will read and then burn before you sign the real one at Berkut, some supporting documentation, work ID and a debit card in your name. There’s a rather substantial sign-up bonus on it, and I want you to use that to start paying off any financial liabilities you have.”
“Just some student loans, Mr. Bledsoe. And a couple of credit cards.”
“Pay them. Go through your paperwork and see if you owe anyone else any money. Start paying them back, too. What’s left you can use for your own purposes. We’ve also started an investment portfolio in your name.”
“– thank you.”

Bledsoe smiled slightly.

“I’ve seen too many agents crash and burn from silly problems. Gambling addictions, late on a mortgage payment – those are vulnerabilities we can’t afford. Whatever might come up, Ms. Sommers, I want you to know that we can take care of it. Berkut protects its investments, and we’ve spent-“
“78 million dollars,” Jaime said.
“More, actually,” Bledsoe replied with a smirk, “aviation fuel isn’t cheap. Neither is ammunition. Which brings me to the next vulnerability we can’t afford – having you walk around without the means to defend yourself.”
“I suppose this ties in to item number three, then?”

Bledsoe produced a set of keys, then unlocked the main compartment of the bag. Nestled into semi-rigid foam was a pistol - SIG P226, Caliber 9x19mm Parabellum, 4.4 inches of I know, I know – as well as three spare magazines, a cleaning kit and a manual.

“Berkut standard issue. You’ll get a proper range qualification, of course.”

Jaime weighed the weapon in her hand. Nothing, she thought, should ever feel this right.

---

Becca was asleep, of course, though Jaime wouldn’t have had the energy to chastise her if she hadn’t been; more and more, the mental fatigue was piling on, clouding her thoughts, although her body didn’t allow itself yawns or aches. She briefly pondered taking a shower, but finally just threw her clothes over the next chair and sat down on the edge of her bed. Without quite knowing why, she grabbed the pistol from the bag and looked at it.

With an easy move of her thumb, she dropped the magazine free of the pistol and put it aside; with a delicate move, she pulled the slide backward and locked it, then grabbed the loose cartridge from the chamber. One round. She looked at it. She had never fired a bullet, but in her hands, this could be a death verdict all by itself. She had fifty more of them, and that was just the emergency pack. What kind of emergency could require killing fifty people?

She retrieved the magazine and pressed her left thumb down on the topmost cartridge; her right hand slid the loose round in position beneath the feed lips, topping the magazine off. Cautiously, she inserted the full magazine back into the gun and released the slide. There was a sharp, snapping sound of metal against metal, a spring inside the weapon’s guts driving the slide forward and locking it there. The hammer was cocked. Ready to go, Jaime thought.

Then she pressed the decocking lever, lowering the hammer back into its resting position. With a final look at the gun, she laid it on her nightstand. She would have to find a good hiding place for this, and quickly, too. First thing tomorrow.

With a heavy sigh, Jaime finally climbed into her bed. The noise in her head wasn’t subsiding, or even showing signs of letting up: too many things to worry about. The world had started to look like a puzzle painted in gray smudges, and she held just a few of the pieces. The only thing she trusted at the moment was the gun on her nightstand.

Jaime Sommers wasn’t a barkeeper anymore. She wondered if she would ever sleep again.

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