Wrote the original a few years ago. Changed the story direction at the nodding of my youngest stepdaughter, and feel it now works far better than the original. The characters are sharper, better defined. All deeply flawed of course, but isn’t that half the fun of these things?
Anyway. For those who care for this kind of Sci-Fi,the following 7050 words (Excluding the italicised intro) are the story of Francis Yale, decommissioned Cyber-soldier and his fellow travellers.
Francis Yale, a decommissioned Cyber-soldier from the Army’s Augmented-Enhanced programme, with many of his ‘enhancements’ removed or disabled, is having a hard time readjusting to civilian life. Until help comes from an unexpected quarter.
Man that hurt! In the intermittent street light, blood mixed with the pouring rain, dripping onto cracked paving, tendrils of red washing down the debris clogged gutter into rapidly flooding storm drains. Yale stumbled over a cracked kerbstone, panting with the pain, snagging disobedient toecaps on the ground, shouldering clumsily into streaming walls. Soaked to the skin and shambling down dim deserted streets like some addled junkie in withdrawal, accompanied only by the soft roar of seasonal rainstorm.
Down by the canal towpath, under the remains of the old causeway bridge, two twitching bodies leaked the last vestiges of their miserable lives into the midnight downpour. He’d tried to talk Saulie and Kayle off, but they’d been too amped up on ‘Rage’ to listen. Good job they hadn’t really known how to fight or he wouldn’t have stood a chance. All over a stupid chocolate deal gone bad.
Just over fifty kilo’s of illegal Belgian had been snatched by those sneaky Customs bastards before he could make pickup. It hadn’t been his fault, but Saulie, number two enforcer for the Neverlanders smuggling cartel, had disagreed. They’d given him the job, which entailed a blood debt, so they’d said.
It had been a simple pick up and delivery in return for five kilos of protein bars. Enough to keep him alive and not starving for two weeks. Only there had been thirty plus armed Customs agents already lying in wait for the covert shipment.
Yale had watched them pounce from the other side of the street, confiscating the banned cocoa solids less than thirty metres away as he lurked in the shadows. What else could he have done but walk away?
Saulie didn’t see it that way, and his big tattooed friend Kayle had pulled a knife, a big, evil looking home forged blade, more like a mini-machete, and it had all gone to hell from there.
Saulie had been pretty quick with his gun, but Yale’s hands had been quicker. That was the thing about ‘Rage’, it made you stronger and faster for a few hours, but it couldn’t make you smarter or better trained. Which was why Yale was still alive, and they weren’t.
Flashover: The high speed flicker of Kayle’s knife tip clearing its sheath and Saulie’s ultra-quick right hand yanking at the gun stuffed into his waist band.
Instinctively Yale had spun left quicker than Saulie’s gun muzzle could track. Side step and throat punch, flipping around, right into Kayle’s blade, cursing himself for being so careless as he slapped open handed at the knifeman’s wrist, at the same moment mistiming his backhand elbow into Saulie’s skull, feeling the shockwave of the gunshot on his face as the bullet sped past. Then something heavy had cracked into his right cheekbone. A whisper of air past his shoulder and for the next few seconds it all got kind of blurry. Until he’d stopped, panting with exertion and pain over Saulie and Kayle’s rapidly expiring bodies.
Back in reality, the pain from his cracked elbow stabbed again, trying to outbid all his other agonies. The back elbow swing he’d put Saulie down with had messed up his old right shoulder injury.
Yale cursed inwardly. After all this time he should have learned he wasn’t the superman he used to be. Skin split to the bone all the way down his left forearm, from wrist to elbow, knuckles raw and bloody.
The fingers of his right hand hurt like hell and it was agony to try and straighten them. Two loose teeth, one painfully cracked down into the jaw. Partially dislocated right shoulder and elbow. Big ragged rip across his right forearm and two stab wounds, fortunately superficial, in his left thigh. Muzzle burn on his left cheek from Saulie’s first shot. Three ribs creaked. It would hurt way more when the adrenaline rush wore off.
But then something always hurt. About twice a year his back locked up with muscle spasm, meaning near paralysis and a week lying flat on the floor high on pain meds. There was the old right shoulder injury that had never healed properly as well as his troublesome right knee and a horde of other old combat injuries, knife, bullet and shrapnel scars from a war that hadn’t really been a war. Just a series of superfast hand to hand skirmishes in dirty back rooms and garbage-choked alleyways. Mano e mano. Close up and about as personal as it could get.
The decommissioning medics had warned him of course, but in the heat of a balls-out fight those worthy cautions always got lost. Still, good reflexes for a man of thirty seven. Way quicker than any vanilla human had any right to be. Quicker than the dead.
The remnants of Augment-E technology would always heal him faster, make him faster and his bones stronger, but didn’t suppress the pain or protect from injury any more. He shouldn’t really have been drinking either, which always led to trouble. But bootleg booze took the edge off the other kind of pain. The kind that made a man drink. Deep down in the soul, where other drugs just couldn’t go.
Right now there was only one place to go. Pete’s. Pete always helped. Any time, night or day. And Pete had real know-how of leftover weapons-grade augmentation which normal Hospitals didn’t.
When he’d tried to get treated at a standard health service emergency unit, the human nurse on duty had taken one look and screamed for security. So he’d had to run. Or rather stagger away.
An hour of stumbling down the glistening darkness of deserted streets later, he arrived outside Pete’s little Cyber-Tattoo store front under the shifting front wall light mural.
The secondary lighting rippled a rhythmic pale blue. Pete was home. If they were cycling through pastels, she was out. He stumbled round to the armoured side door before knocking.
After a few moments a familiar voice drawled out of the door speakercam. “Yeah?”
“It’s me.” He grated into the microphone.
“Aw she-it Yale. You messed up again?”
“What was it over this time? Deal go bad on you?”
“Still arguing over women?”
“You dumb bastard.”
“Door’s open.” There was a click, the outer heavy security door slid aside and Yale stumbled in. The door clunked locked behind him in a sombre way and the air in the short entranceway began to warm before the inner door swung open into a small waiting room lined with armless black padded bench seats and a desk. A small jungle of plants in the corner relieving the stark artificiality of the walls and furniture. Two other doorways led in and out. One to the public tattoo parlour entrance, the other, hidden behind a full length wall hologram, to Pete’s very illegal body mod shop. Yale stood in the middle, swaying a little, dripping rainwater and watery blood onto the plain red resin floor. In the cool pastel light he waited unsteadily for Pete to make her usual appearance.
Platinum blonde haired Pete swept into the room in a glittering deep red silk kaftan patterned with an animated white oriental dragon crawling over her shoulder, forked tail twitching idly at her hip, metallic eyeshadow and lipstick black as sin, glossy as a Starlings wing. “Oh, you poor baby.” She breathed. “What have you been doing?”
“I got into it with a couple of Rage-heads.”
“How many times have I told you not to hang with those people?” She chided, waving him forward through the shifting illusion of the hologram.
“Sorry Pete.” He stepped through the concealed doorway into a clean and bright operating theatre, hydraulic bed and multiple lights ready for the next client.
She took his damaged hands in hers, deftly turning them over without hurting him. “I can clean that up.” She took in his other hurts with a professional glance. “Have to graft over though or it’ll scar too much.” A delicate sniff at his breath curled her elfin features inwards. “Sobriety tab.” She insisted. “I’m not treating you until you do something about your booze breath.” Delving into the folds of her kaftan she produced a small thin strip, placing it delicately between his swollen lips. Yale sucked it in, attenuated taste buds prickling as the alcohol metaboliser got to work. “Better.” Pete raised her hand to pat his cheek affectionately, noted the swelling and thought better of it. Yale breathed in deeply and shuddered a little as his head began to clear.
“What really happened?” She peeled back his rain soaked jacket with a little motherly hiss.
“I was minding my own business.” Yale lied.
“Really?” She knew him too well.
“Well, kind of. I was on my way home.”
“Mm-hm?” She examined a propellant burn on his ear.
“A couple of guys wanted my Comm.” He lied carefully. No sense in getting Pete involved with the Neverlanders. Pete’s place was way off their turf, but he wasn’t going to take any chances.
“Wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“And they were on Rage?” She cocked an eyebrow questioningly.
“Pinpoint pupils. Bad skin. Reflexes like greased cats on hot glass. Stank of ammonia like scented dog piss.” Yale’s hypertrophied leftover lexicon included an enhanced sense of smell.
“You could’ve run.”
“They had me boxed in.” Yale shook his head, not meeting her eyes in case she spotted the lie. He could have easily outrun them, but they or their friends would have caught up with him eventually.
“So?” Again, she hissed softly at yet another seeping wound.
“They didn’t give me much option.”
“I take it those two ‘Heads aren’t troubling the world any more?” She motioned him toward the lab door, which slid open with the distinctive hiss of positive pressurisation. Yale entered the brightly lit room and the door closed behind them. She took his silence as affirmative. The ‘Heads wouldn’t have left him alive, ergo they weren’t.
“Strip off my darling and let me see what else those nasty men have done to you. Clothing in the disposal hopper. On the table when you’re ready.”
“I know.” They’d done this before. Far too often during his army days. Yale painfully stripping out of soaking rags, unevenly cropped dark brown hair sticking up in tufts where the rain hadn’t slicked it to his scalp. Pete dumping his clothing into the replicator hopper for recycling. Carefully watching Yale’s outdoor tanned face, heavily lined with the stretch marks of pain. He sat gingerly on the padded table in the middle of Pete’s treatment shop before swinging his legs carefully up and lying down.
Under his clothing was a patchwork of scars and graft marks, some more expertly healed than others.
Except for a little wiriness above his groin, Yale was completely devoid of body hair. His left nipple was a pale puckered scar and his ears were scarred with fresher pink.
“They broke your nose.” Pete commented, slipping out of her Kaftan and into a biohazard suit.
She was a skinny transgender, almost completely androgynous when naked, dark olive skin with no visible tan lines or visible genitalia giving her an almost manikin-like appearance. “Again.”
“I’m getting old.” Yale swung carefully onto the examination table.
“Too old for combat.” She touch-sealed her light biohazard suit with a flourish, flipping the face mask down, putting a strip of dark plastic over his eyes..
“It’s why we are who we are.” He said sourly and closed his eyes just before sterilising ultra violet light flashed over his skin.
Fifteen years on anti-terrorism ops then dropped like roadside garbage. Alone and unemployable.
Not even able to get a club doormans licence. Nightclubs liked their customers, even the drunk and aggressively stupid, to get home intact and alive. No one needed the lawsuits.
He shuddered as she laid a cool, surgical gloved hand on a bloody shoulder wound. “Soldiers nerves, dear.” Pete commented. “We all have them.” A fine line of green scanning laser ran over one ragged cut. “Superficial.” She commented.
“Hurts.” Yale half gulped the word.
“As much as what drove you to pick a fight with not one, but two Rage-heads?” Pete observed, watching him with suspicious eyes.
“That’s a different hurt. Can’t seem to do much about it.”
“Have you seen Witherspoon? He’s often online, asking after you.”
“The duty trick cyclist? So last year. Wasn’t doing me much good so I bailed.”
“You go on at this rate love, and you’ll be jailed, dead or in a cyber assist inside a year.”
“Maybe.” He shrugged, then grimaced as the pain stabbed.
“I can fix most things, but Yale my darling boy, you have got some growing up to do.”
“Or what?” He grunted as she began to swab up the worst of the damage, using a flesh welder as she went.
“Like I said. I give you a year.”
“Yeah, yeah, a year, yeah.” He grimaced as she sealed ruptured muscle ends together.
“Probably less.” Pete said with a sly smile that only touched her mouth.
Yale had always been one of those blaze of glory characters, so wired by the need that he’d explode if he didn’t do something. She’d known him since school, then during their army days on field ops, hotwiring other adrenaline junkies. Augmenting their nervous systems, feeding the hormone-hungry healing processes that could make Cyber-soldiers like Yale almost impossible to stop or kill.
Latterly she’d seen several old friends die trying to climb down the long slow climb down the mountain, the perilous return to civilian life. Then she thought about herself and her own internal journey before firmly shutting that particular door. La-la-la, not listening little Miz darkness no more.
Before the decades long war on terror had ended in three overlapping E-Plague pandemics, the climax had damaged their little band of specially enhanced super-soldiers beyond redemption, turning them all into addicts and worse. Stuck in a matrix of lies and retribution that was hard to let go. Maybe it was just inevitable.
“Pete?” Yale winced as she began cleaning out yet another wound, ensuring no infectious material remained. “I remember them all you know.”
“All?” She said abstractedly.
“Everyone I’ve ever killed. Every face, name and file.”
“You shouldn’t dwell on it Yale.”
“Keeps me awake.” They both knew why. It wasn’t guilt. He missed the buzz of action, the adrenaline rush.
“So you drink.”
“You need a good woman, or man. Someone to love. Someone to heal with.”
“Like you?” That raised an ironic smile. Pete was notoriously celibate.
“Touché. This may sting a little.”
“Ah! You got that right.” He clenched reflexively as antiseptic hissed onto his skin, stinging as it found raw flesh.
“I am. Clench your right fist.” She rudely twisted his shoulder back into place with a muffled crack, repeating the process with his elbow. He clenched his teeth until the worst of the pain passed.
“Ah. That feels better.” He grimaced.
“You need help, Yale.” She said, meticulously checking her workmanship.
“You can’t just take this pain on your own forever.”
“Yeah.” He looked away, staring a million miles into the wall.
“Yeah me no yeah’s Yale. You need help.”
“Nice work.” He returned from wherever he’d been a moment ago and tried to change the subject, examining her repairs with a critical eye. Pete was still one of the best.
“Now try not to break anything for at least a week.” She’d finished on the right arm. Now for the rest. A quick spray hypo to hold the pain at bay while fixing the other superficial damage. A nasty slash mark, possibly fingernail induced, needed extra cleaning. That was fixed with a dash of skin sealant. No major bone damage. Well there wouldn’t be. Not for a modified human like Yale. Even after the Army had taken back all their nano-implants some things could not be surgically removed. Those deep muscle and bone enhancements were with him for the rest of his life. However long that was. Right, now on to the next set of injuries.
“There’s always Calvin.” She tried to sound artless, but he wasn’t fooled.
“Get lost. He’s still a copper.”
“He still owes you. Last year? The child prostitution ring?” Pete pointed out.
“That was three years ago.” Yale corrected. “Maybe now he doesn’t owe me enough.”
“You could ask.”
“He’d see it all in my head. Whether I wanted him to or not. He’d have to turn me in for tonight’s little bust-up. And a few others.”
“You’re an Oggie, Yale. Aug-E. An augmented human. Different, a permanent outsider. So is he.”
“He’d still have to call it in. I don’t want to go to jail. Not again.”
“Mind reading doesn’t count as admissible evidence. Where did it happen?”
“Towpath.” She knew where he meant. It was still pouring with rain so no-one would be out this time of night. Besides, that was right on the edge of quarantine, down where only the stupidly desperate went. Not even the rats would go anywhere near. Come to think of it, he’d never seen any of the many urban packs of scavenging stray dogs down there. Not alive anyhow. Even after all the decontamination and scorched earth demolition, everything still died. Wasta est.
Not that there were any decent people around any more. The final and most fatal E-Plague had seen to that, filling up plague pits and the air with the smell of tainted burning pork and sewage.
The E-Plague, an airborne cyberbacteria contagion created in some home lab, unleashed on the world by a crazy religious sect. It had spread across the world like a dark stain. Reacting with human tissue, wasting muscle and nervous systems. Annihilating whole cities like a modern day Black Death.
Yale curled a lip. He remembered his first and only post army job as a disposal operative, spraying infected bodies with a sterilising accelerant, putting them six or ten at a time through the cremation oven, sometimes disinterestedly watching the dead writhe and crumble as they burned, until the bodies were reduced to sterile bones and ash.
Dumping the ashes in a twenty metre square clay and plastic lined pit, covering them with acidified sand and a layer of clay and plastic steri-sheet, repeat until full, then cover pit with clay and tamp down with the digger to seal. At the end of each shift spraying the burial yard equipment with toxic levels of disinfectant before a surreal journey through a plastic tunnel and flash decon. Then the promise of a hot food and a warm bunk for the night. Good credit. Pity he’d drunk it all.
“Yale.” Pete nudged him onto his right side.
“You got to straighten up. Detox. If not, you’re dead in a year.”
“Sure. You know, that’s why you do it. Mister Death Wish.”
“Maybe.” He conceded.
“Others have made it.” She pointed out.
“You?” He teased.
“Hurrens, Javek, Powell.” Pete said distractedly, a red line of reflected laser light flickering on her visor. Enhanced flesh steamed as the nano sealants within it were heated to operating temperature. The sour fleshy smell of not-quite cooking pork tainted the air. “Steady civilian jobs, girl and boyfriends. Homes, lives. Hurrens even has two kids now.”
“So you keep in touch? Ouch. That stung.”
“Done.” She stood up to her full diminutive height. “I keep up with their link stuff.” She flipped up her visor and eyed her work critically. “I could do better if you weren’t such a fidget.”
“How are your folks? I know your Dad’s still alive. He’s helping organise that new refugee area over on the West side.”
“We haven’t talked since I signed up for Special Ops. Mum, well, you know about her.” Yale shrugged.
“I know.” Pete said a little sadly. “Yale, you still got to talk to someone. Apart from me. You come in here all busted up. Face and hands looking like they’ve been in a war. You got to remember you’re not Aug-E any more. Not an Oggie. You’re just plain vanilla human.”
“Yale!” Pete chided sharply. “Wise up.”
“Why?” Yale snapped bitterly.
“Because there are people who want you to.” Pete said slowly after a long pause.
“Aw come on Pete. You of all people?”
“Do you want to end up in jail, or worse, face down in the street?” Pete turned away so Yale couldn’t read her face. She busied herself putting her toolkit back in order.
Hell it was sweet of her, he knew it. It was sort of nice that someone cared whether you were breathing or not, but Pete; well, she was as much a freak as he was. Another oddity the Army didn’t need any more. Decommissioned and disabled. A broken weapon cast aside. Junk human.
“All right.” Yale relented. “I’ll go see someone. But if my ass gets thrown in the hole…” He left the sentence unfinished.
“Talk to a counsellor at least.” Was Pete pleading with him?
“I’ve talked to them. None of them understand. All they’ve got is that touchy feely BS.”
“So you need someone to what?”
“I need to talk to someone who can.” Yale said. “Understand.” He lowered his head, staring at the tiled floor, a great feeling of numb deadness spreading from his gut. “Someone who can listen. Who’s been there.” He tapped his forehead with a splinted finger.
“Anyone can listen.” Pete replied.
“But how will they know what I’m talking about?”
“Maybe that’s not important.” Pete handed him some clean underwear with loose fitting shirt and pants from the workshops replication unit.
“It is to me.” Yale replied grimly, slipping into the proffered clothing. She followed him out of her lab. He went over to the front entrance, picked up his ragged, rain sodden coat and gave it a shake.
“There’s a spare bed out back.” Pete stood in the middle of her workshop, arms folded. “Sleep on it.”
“Can’t sleep. That’s half the problem.”
“Booze will just make it worse.” She warned, watching him slip into his battered sockboots.
“Yeah.” Then the door was closing behind him.
He thought he heard Pete’s aggrieved shout; “Oh, for fucks sake, Yale!” As the door clicked shut. Hunching his ragged coat against the incessant drizzle, he told himself he’d pay the favour back, he always did, but this wasn’t a time to be around people. Any people. Not even a kindred soul like Pete.
Half way down the street, feet splashing through puddles, he almost stopped, hypertrophied combat senses tingling. There was someone, watching. Not far away.
Keep moving, make an opportunity to get eyes-on without being obvious. Converting the pause into a mis-step he lurched towards the empty left hand kerb, left arm flailing slightly in the anaemic streetlight, like a drunk looking for support. Reach the edge of the road, drop down on one knee, one hand on the kerb as though ready to empty his guts into the gutter. In reality wound like a spring, dynamically poised to bounce back and take down his observer.
“Cut the drama Yale.” Shit! It was that Mindfucker Calvin! “Pete called.”
“You were quick.” Yale stayed exactly where he was, but his body screamed at him to react, to attack. He gritted his teeth and took a deep breath, trying to wind down. Calvin’s shadowy form was leaning on a corroded but very solid stanchion across the rain slick street. He wore a long Drovers coat with the hood up, lean features a deeper shadow within shadows.
“She messaged me ten seconds after you rolled in through her door all tattered and torn.” Detective Sergeant Paul Calvin continued in that quiet but carrying tone he used when he wanted your full attention. “I’ve been waiting half an hour.” He added, knowing full well there was no one but ghosts within earshot. The ones only he could hear. So the rumour went.
How far away was he? Eight metres? One quick backwards kick off and a mid air twist….
“Yale, you never were much of a tactical thinker, were you?” Calvin shifted easily behind the rusting steel upright of the lamppost. Confident of his ability to know exactly what Yale was going to do next. “Uniform have already found those two ‘heads you wasted. I know it was you.” There was a pause. “But you know what I’m going to do about it?”
“What?” Yale grated, still trying to work out how to get a tactical advantage on a mind reading ex-copper. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Not much.” Said Calvin easily. “Providing…”
“Had a feeling there was going to be a sting in the tail. You’re a fucking scorpion Calvin.”
“Sort of.” Calvin acknowledged. You could hear him grinning.
“What?” Yale swung around and upright in a single lithe motion.
“Go back inside. Pete needs a favour.” Calvin’s shadow didn’t move.
“Is that it?”
“For now, yes.”
“Mind telling me why?”
“Because I’m asking you to help her. Then you can pay your debt to me. For keeping my mouth shut. About those two ‘heads.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Go back in and find out. You owe her.”
“Favours get me into trouble.” Yale hedged. Besides, favours? Favours for who?
“I know. Me too.” Calvin agreed. “All the time. See you.” Then he turned and began walking, ably dodging piles of rubble and other street garbage in near total darkness.
Yale stopped again, puzzled. Calvin only had that mind reading….. oh the sneaky fucker. “Get out of my head.” He snapped.
“I’m only borrowing your enhanced night vision, Yale. Think of it as part payment.” Calvin, still hooded against the rain, kept on walking.
Yale smarted and looked along the street at Calvin’s receding back. “What the hell.” The rain dripped off his canvas hood. He stared angrily after Calvin, who shrugged. Mind readers didn’t need to look.
Calvin simply carried on walking, reaching the safe fringe of reflected light at the end of the street. Yale let him go. Calvin might know that Yale had snuffed Saulie and Kayle, but knowing and proving were two totally different things. Turning around he found Pete, standing in the open doorway.
“Calvin tells me you need something from me.” He said gruffly.
“I need some help.” Was that desperation in her eyes?
Yale hissed reluctantly. “Okay.” He said cautiously.
“I need someone I can trust. Someone who won’t talk.”
“Can we talk inside?” If Calvin had found him, no doubt the Neverlanders were looking.
“Oh, sorry.” Pete stepped back and let him in. The outer security door clunked shut. “The kettle’s on.” She said, leading the way into the tattoo parlours little kitchen and living area. Yale glanced into Pete’s spacious bedroom as they passed and did a double take. A clear oval tank, half full of cloudy fluid stood next to Pete’s narrow little bed. “What’s that?”
“Oh.” Pete appeared at his elbow and saw what Yale was gesturing at. “It’s the favour I want to ask.”
“You want me to get in that?” A fuzzy memory from his own gene treatments surfaced.
“It’s not for you, it’s for me.”
“What’s the deal Pete?”
“It’s for the full biological.” She sounded suddenly tearful. “I’m going to go the whole hog. XY to XX. Ovaries, uterus, clitoris, the whole deal.”
“No. It works. It’s based on the tech we used on you guys. I even tested it on a dog and a cat. The cat lost it’s external sex organs and grew ovaries. The Bitch I tested it on turned into a dog. Penis, testicles, everything. Then I tested their DNA. I’m half way there anyway. No balls, no dick, no urges.”
“Pete, you’re risking a lot.” Yale said. “You’ve been a good friend. This could kill you. We got warned about the cancer risk. Two guys out of our original intake went out that way. It ain’t pretty.”
“It’s not such a big risk to me. If I can’t do this, I’ll probably kill myself anyway. You don’t know what it’s like, being in the wrong body. Cancer is the easy way, believe me.” Pete said, her voice quivering.
“Sorry. I didn’t know how bad it was. But why are you asking me? I’m no med-tech.”
“Yale, you dumb heap of meat, I love you like my big brother and you’re the only one I trust to see this through.”
“Okay. What do you want?” Yale said reluctantly.
“Watch over me while I’m unavailable. Mind the shop. Take the money. Keep the place clean. Call the repair techs if one of the Cyber-tattoo machines break.”
“For how long?”
“Six weeks. It’s not so long.”
“Like, from now? Tonight?”
“Tomorrow if you want. I need to purge my system, get rid of my implants before I get in the tank. I’ll hook up all the feeds myself, so all you have to do is watch.”
“What do I do if things go wrong?”
“Get me out and take me straight to the Harben Clinic on the other side of Quarantine. I’ve got enough credit for emergency treatment. Come on. Don’t look so worried. It’ll be fine.” Pete gently touched his hand and led him into the little living area to drink tea.
Five weeks and three days later everything seemed to be going okay. Until one of the Neverlanders walked into Pete’s tattoo parlour for a small piece of leg art. Yale had taken the barter and said nothing as he set up the machine, hoping that the guy hadn’t recognised him.
Afterwards he looked in at Pete’s cloudy form floating motionless in the oval tank. The monitor said everything was okay, but how would he know if it wasn’t?
For the next two days he felt wired, obsessively checking the tank and watching external security feeds.
Over the next two days customers came and went, some paying with money, others with less legal tender, most via e-trades. Yale barely sleeping until two evenings later when an alarm sounded. He lifted a bleary face from folded arms and staggered into Pete’s room.
Sputtering and lank haired, breath mask discarded, a naked girl was sitting up in the cloudy fluid. Yale tried not to stare. It was Pete but not Pete. The face had been elfin before, but the forehead was smoother, the nose more upturned and overall very feminine. His eyes drifted down to well formed breasts and he abruptly turned his eyes away. “Pete?”
Soft grey eyes blinked open. “Frank?”
“Holy shit Pete. What have you done?”
“I think it worked.” Pete reached down below her waist. The eyes widened. “I think it really has worked.”
“I’m a woman Frank! A real live one hundred percent woman!” She cried happily.
Yale’s eyes narrowed. Pete’s voice had changed, it was still throaty but there were no male undertones like before. “What?”
“Give me your hand.” She tugged and took his fingers in her own, plunging them down into the warm fluid, guiding them to….
“Jesus!” Yale jerked his hand back, splashing fluid up the wall. “That feels, er… you know.”
“Sorry. I was so happy I needed your confirmation. Don’t freak out on me, please.”
“Sorry Pete, it’s just..” His sentence tailed off.
“Help me out of here.” She reached out pulling him toward the tank then wrapped happy arms around his shoulders. He easily lifted her out. “Have I lost weight?”
“Er, I’d better get you a towel.” He was trying not to blush, head and hormones colliding in disturbing ways.
“Oh.” Her legs buckled and splayed as he put her down on the bed and he could see quite clearly the changes the gene treatment had made to her body.
“You look like a woman.” He observed, handing her a fresh towel and pointedly looking away.
Pete giggled. “I’m having that effect.” She noted.
“Ah.” His face coloured.
“I’m flattered Frank. And I owe you.” She wrapped the bath towel around her, sitting up on the bed. Catching a glimpse of her reflection in the tanks side, she remarked. “Jesus H Christ on a bike. My hair’s a mess.”
“Your hair can be fixed.”
“Unlike your dress sense.” She said, then stopped. “Did I just say that?”
Yale nodded carefully. Pete giggled again, hand covering lips that looked fuller, more… No! That just felt too weird.
Pete sniffed. “I need a proper wash. My pheromones must be off the chart.” Yale turned away and nodded, strangling an embarrassed cough.
Pete struggled to her feet and pushed unsteadily past him into the bathroom. He went back out into the shop.
After a while he heard the shower and happy humming punctuated by very female laughter. After a while the sounds died away and there was the sound of a hair dryer. Much later, Pete appeared at his side wearing a glittering black silk kaftan, platinum blonde hair tied back in a neat ponytail. “I need a new name.” She declared.
“Are you asking me?”
“Well, duh.” She smiled. “I want you to use it first.”
“Oh. Petra maybe?”
“No. Too much like Piotr.”
“My birth name. Piotr Alexander Freedman.”
“I never knew that.”
“No shit?” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Hey Frank, I got another question for you while you’re thinking about that.”
“How do I pay you?”
“I hadn’t thought about that.”
“I want to do something special. Can I make it a surprise?”
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to.” She leaned up against him for a brief hug. “Be back in a minute.” She returned with a small blue plastic oval in her hand. “Lean forward.”
“Okay.” Yale did as he was told and was rewarded by a buzzing sensation at the base of his neck. The sensation drifted up his spine to the base of his skull.
“That should do it.” She said brightly and slapped Yale’s buttocks.
His head snapped around. “Pete.” He protested.
“It’s Rheya now. I didn’t like anything beginning with P, or Q. Or Z. Too cliched. Sorry Frank, but you do have a really nice ass.”
“What did you just do?”
“You’ve been relying too much on booze.”
“Not for the last six weeks.” He paused. “Rheya, okay, I can handle that. I might call you Pete once in a while.”
“I can live with that.”
“What was the thing with the neck massage?”
“I unlocked two of your limiters.”
“You did what?”
“I wiped the limiter code on two of your implants. The ones the decommissioning techs modified when you left the army.”
“Jesus Pete! You know those things can remotely stop my heart. It’s one of the things they warned us about.” Yales’s eyes widened in alarm.
“It’s BS Frank. I was a decommissioning tech, remember? Besides, after the E-plagues the Aug-E program was shut down permanently. There’s no-one home to take that call.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“You’re more at risk from the Neverlanders.”
“This is neutral territory.”
“Take a look on the security feed.”
“That’s Ariana with at least a dozen of her top guys heading our way.”
“Stand still Frank.” Again the buzzing sensation. This time followed by a bleep and a series of green lines and circles appearing in his vision.
“My targeting system’s rebooting. They took that out didn’t they?” The lines converged.
“Shut up and stop fidgeting Frank. I’ve got to reactivate four more chips.”
“I just saw the receipts. Lolly Mac came in for a new leg tat last week. He’s been a runner for the Neverlanders ever since.” Pete / Rheya said flatly. “You think he wouldn’t have gone and squealed. I’m amazed Ariana and her goons weren’t kicking in my door two days ago.” She moved the activator down his back. Yale’s fingers and toes tingled. “I can’t re-activate all your enhancements, but you’ll be fast enough to dodge pistol rounds. You remember how to do that?”
She gave him the traditional techs salute. “Take care of those meat sacks trooper. Then come back alive.”
“On it.” And Yale blurred out through the open side door. Stopping on the building’s blind side, he paused to enjoy the familiar rush. He’d be hungry as hell afterwards, but he could deal with that.
“Hi Frank.” Ariana’s voice came from the drone that dropped into his field of view. The element of surprise was gone.
“Hi.” Frank gave the drones camera a quick grimace.
“You owe me. We’ve come to collect.”
“I owe you nothing. Customs took your shipment.”
“Saulie and Kayle though. I can’t let you get away with that.”
“They started it.” He heard stealthy footsteps from around the corner.
“It’s not them. I can’t let you diss us.” Yale saw the shadow of the gun’s muzzle and tripped into speed mode.
His three metre standing jump and fast backhand smashed the tiny machine and he twisted in mid air, grabbing at the brickwork and bringing the toe of his boot in at the gunman’s head height. The hooded figure’s head snapped back, breaking the spine, but Yale was already sawing his right hand across the throat of the guy behind him. Whoever it was dropped to their knees in slo-mo, choking on the sudden gush of blood in their mouth.
A solid backhand cracked a skull against the wall and he head it pop. The soft crack-whoosh of a pistol at fifty times slower than normal made Yale pirouette into a splaying jump that sent fingers into eyes, toes into groins and throats in one fast fluid motion. More bodies dropping, blood spraying like some stunted up snuff-vid action sequence.
Eight down, maybe that many to go. No, two dropping their weapons and turning to run, another three exchanging expressions of surprise and terror. Four shambling into a slow run, bladed weapons raised.
Behind them, Ariana, habitually smug expression morphing into a vengeful snarl as hands drifted to the cut down shotguns she habitually carried. Frank shadow-danced past his assailants and took her guns before she had time to pluck them out of their holsters. A flick of a thumb to eject the chambers before throwing them, hard. Wooden grips exploding in splinters against a dilapidated concrete wall.
She was still turning, leather coat tails splaying as Yale drove her jaw into the back of her neck. Time elapsed, three seconds. Nine down, five turning to run for their lives, four missing. The front door of Pete’s place still swinging closed.
Yale followed. He found the last four grabbing Pete / Rheya, who was kicking, open mouthed and yelling defiance, toe catching one in the gut as they struggled, overturning equipment, scattering loose items across the floor. Her robe riding up over her waist, showing her new female nakedness as one of the gang pulled at his own waistband.
Yale easily punched him flat, ribs splintering, smashing the next assailant across the shop into the wall where he bounced, mouth spattering blood. Then the blooming expressions of surprised outrage before he put the last two down. Then it was over and Yale stopped, feeling his aching body slip back into real time.
Pete / Rheya was face down on the floor, a small blossom of blood on her nose and lips, eyes wide, discarded blade sticking in her side. “Balls!” Frank swore. Outside there were distant sirens.
Someone had called the cops, who for a change would arrive on the same day. He took a breath and slipped out of speed mode.
Footsteps crunched on broken glass when, a few minutes later, Calvin stepped inside the wrecked tattoo parlour to find Yale cradling Pete / Rheya in his arms, silent tears streaking his face.
“Yale.” Calvin said softly. “Frank. Paramedics are on their way.”
Yale looked up. “Five got away.”
“That many?” Calvin stepped back as two bag-toting paramedics stepped into the wrecked shop and began checking the inert bodies, shaking their heads in resignation as each life was declared extinct. He looked at the form in Yale’s arms. “Is this…”
“Yeah. This is Pete. Says she wants to be called Rheya now.”
“So it did work.” Calvin squatted down for a closer look and gave a low whistle. He waved to the paramedics, who bustled over and found Pete / Rheya still breathing. They summoned a drone stretcher, stopped her immediate bleeding and snuggled her into a portable body web, leaving the dead for the local coroner.
“I’ll have to put in an official report. Means legal trouble.” Calvin said, offering his hand.
Yale swung easily upright. “For me or the Neverlanders?”
Calvin saw what was in his mind. “A little of both. Can you handle that?”
“Guess I’ll have to. For her.” Yale said.
Calvin raised an eyebrow. Rising to his feet he nodded to himself. He looked thoughtful for a moment before speaking. “There’s a way around. I can use an informant, an occasional quasi legal helper. Especially one with your talents.” Calvin said, looking at Yale from under questioning eyebrows.
Ex-Sergeant Francis Yale, Augmented-Enhanced 33rd Regiment Special Forces, looked back up at Calvin and understood. He was being offered a chance to be wanted, to feel useful again.
But perhaps that was all that was needed for a little redemption. A chance for validation. To once again do what he was really good at. Maybe even in a good cause. For a given value of good, maybe. Taking a deep breath he paused, turning to Calvin before speaking. “Okay. I’m with you Calvin. I’m so bloody right with you.”