The ring of metal on ceramic echoed off the walls of the upscale California bistro, polished steel glinting in the subtle lighting as plates of game - wild-raised and humanely butchered, of course - found their way in front of the couple in the corner booth. Jaime smiled up at the waiter and thanked him as Will frowned briefly at the interruption in his little symposium, but as Jaime turned back to him, Will was preoccupied with trying to gauge her reaction. His fingers tapped on the table as his pupils flicked back and forth, so Jaime smiled and mouthed a "Thank you" to him as well. After referring to the half-dozen reviews and listings celebrating the restaurant as an icon of sustainable California cuisine three or four times each on the drive up, Jaime had gathered that Will might have been feeling a little nervous about their first anniversary date. A smile managed to bob to the surface past Will's nerves a few times, but she still felt his eyes studying her every reaction as she leaned over the plate and took a good whiff. Rosemary, sage, butter, and the earthy scent of game flooded her nose.
“This smells amazing,” Jaime said to Will, her eyes wide.
“Doesn’t it?” Will said, not leaning forward to confirm. “I know it was a bit of a drive, but...I wanted us to do something special, and this seems...pretty special to me.” He smiled at Jaime again, more sure this time, though his fingers kept tapping. “So, uh...go ahead. Take a bite. Tell me what you think.”
Jaime picked up her knife and fork, then looked to Will. “Come on, you too.”
“Oh!” Will said, looking at his cutlery for a moment before picking it up. “Yes, of course,” he added, then looked back to her, waiting for her to make the first cut.
A slice of breast was removed from Jaime’s meal, and she waited for Will to do the same. “On three?” she asked with a nod.
Will nodded, his smile turning more genuine at the spirit of a little competition. He then turned to the plate and quickly sawed off his own slice, re-spearing it on his fork when it tried to slide off. “I’m ready,” he said.
“One, two, three,” Jaime said, and popped the bit of meat into her mouth, giving it a few thoughtful chews before swallowing. Her eyes went wide and she started nodding before she even finished the bite, the juices from the meat carrying just the right amount of game with a big hit of herb. “Oh, wow,” she said. “It tastes even better than it smells.”
“Well, a large part of how it tastes comes from how it smells, that’s why everything tastes dull when you have a cold,” Will said between chewing motions, finally swallowing that first bite. “So, as I was saying,” he continued, “it’s very exciting research, but we’re really pushing some boundaries, not just with the science, but also with - I suppose you could call it the morality of it. I mean, every surgeon has to accept that he’s going to do some deliberate harm in order to heal. And we’re looking at going beyond that, at - well, at fixing what most people wouldn’t necessarily consider broken, or even unhealthy. We’re going beyond the normal into regions not yet chartered.” He sighed. “It makes me feel like poor Victor Frankenstein some days.”
Jaime cocked her head a bit. “In...that he was tampering with powers and individuals beyond his understanding or control, or that he was too emotionally immature to deal with the consequences of creating new life?”
“I...was thinking more about the torches and pitchforks outside,” Will said, and Jaime could see him strain to integrate her words into his thoughts. “But I guess it’s the insecurity, too. Do we have the nerve to go through with it, you know, really go for it - as a species - when we figure out something that will change who we are, on a scale we can’t imagine right now? Or are we going to do what we do so well and run screaming back into the night? I mean, when you think about it, it’s not the science that failed Frankenstein, it’s humanity. The people are scared because they don’t understand what he’s been doing. They hate what they don’t understand.”
“Well…” Jaime said, and paused for thought. She fiddled with the potatoes on her plate before looking back up at Will and continuing. “In the movie, it wasn’t that they were afraid of Victor Frankenstein’s experiments, it’s that the Monster seemed threatening and vicious, and killed a little girl - but even then, it was because he didn’t understand what she was doing. It was their fear of his appearance and inability to understand the Monster, as well as Victor Frankenstein’s neglect in teaching the Monster about how to live, that lead to his downfall. He created the Monster, and then ignored him.” She took a drink of water, then continued. “And in the book, the villagers never storm the castle. They never get a chance - Frankenstein flees the instant he sees how ugly the Monster is and abandons the Monster. And then pretty much spends the rest of the book running from the consequences of his actions as everyone around him pays the price. His brother and his wife die by the Monster’s hand because he abandons him at his creation, and his fianceé dies after Victor goes back on his word to build the Monster a bride - and for some pretty racist reasons, too. At the end, his own selfishness and inability to deal with the consequences of what he’s done is what leads him to die on that ship. Even then he’s still selfish; he’s more focused on getting his revenge on the Monster for things that Victor himself arguably caused than thinking about the consequences of his actions, demanding the ship’s crew keep going into certain death.”
Jaime stopped and took another sip of water. “I mean, I get what you’re saying, Will. But...Victor Frankenstein isn’t the good guy.”
Will sat back in his chair, absorbing everything Jaime had said, until he finally nodded. “I suppose you’re right,” Will said. “That’ll teach me to improvise my talking points. But...I love that we’re having this conversation. I mean, how many people in this restaurant would know all that?” He leaned forward, a smile forming on his lips. “How many people on my team would?” he whispered.
“Well, it’s all there in the text,” Jaime replied as she matched Will’s smile with her own. “Anyone who read the book and saw the movie would see it, I think.” She leaned forward to meet Will and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll loan you the book, I have it at home.”
Will accepted the peck and broadened his smile for her as Jaime returned to her seat. “I’d like that,” he said. Romantic moment concluded, he looked back at the pheasant on his plate, developing a frown that spread further as he made another cut into the breast. “Jaime,” he said, “would you do me a favor and do a test cut on yours, too? I think this might be undercooked.”
Jaime made a cut down the middle and took a peek. “It looks pink, but this is game, so it’ll be -”
Will turned away from her and scanned the restaurant for the nearest waiter, making sure to raise his right arm in a bid for attention. After a second, a waitress with a tablet of empty glasses saw him and nodded to him, dropping the tablet off at the bar before walking towards him.
“What can I do for you, Sir?” she asked.
“Yes,” Will said, “I’m afraid we’ll have to send these plates back to the kitchen. It’s not cooked properly.”
“Well, Sir,” the waitress said, “we generally cook our pheasant to 150 degrees, which leaves it a little pink. But that’s not a problem at all, I’ll have the chef bring it to a medium.”
“Please do,” Will said. “And you might want to put that on the menu, so people can make an informed choice before they order.”
“Yes, Sir,” the waitress said, bending over to pick up both plates before Jaime stopped her.
“No, no, that’s not necessary,” Jaime said. “Will, you picked this place for a reason, right? They know what they’re doing here. If they say that this should be served like this, then…”
“I’m just concerned, that’s all,” Will said.
“And I love that about you, but you don’t need to worry,” Jaime said. “If they say it’s fine, it’ll be fine. All right?”
“All right,” Will said. “I’ll...we’ll just try it.” He turned back to the waitress. “So, um, that will be all. Thank you.” Jaime just smiled and nodded to the waitress.
With the waitress turning away and getting back to taking care of her other guests, Will leaned forward again. “I don’t mean to ruin it for you, it’s just I’ve been reading up on some of the data for farmed game birds and -”
“And what was the meal that...I forget the name of the article you quoted for me on the drive up here, but what were they raving about?” Jaime asked.
“Uh, this,” Will admitted, a bit of a blush sneaking onto his face. “They never mentioned that it was rare, though. I know, it’s my fault, I should have checked more reviews and not let me get blindsided by this.”
Jaime smirked and put her hand on Will’s. “I think you said that it was what all the reviews said was the best meal here, and that we would have to try it.”
Will nodded. “I did say that, didn’t I?” he said. “Well, the first bite was great, I’ll give them that. Let’s just see how it holds up.”
Jaime returned to her fork and knife and smiled one more time for Will. “I think that might be a good idea.”
“It’s just that I was out of line,” Will said, his eyes on the road ahead, “and I thought I needed to make an apology with more than words, so a slight increase in the gratuity seemed like an appropriate way to communicate that.”
"I suppose so," Jaime replied. "Still, forty percent is...a lot." She chuckled. "If only every rude customer had the same idea as you."
“Do you get a lot of them at Finnegan’s Wake?” Will asked. He took another gentle curve with the Mercedes, already thinking about being back to work tomorrow. Three graft tests maturing over the weekend, the new Anthrocyte revision going through the first motility trials, and dealing with whatever insanity the DoD wanted this week - it all swarmed through his head, almost crowding out her voice. With a sigh, he pushed all that to the back of his mind and forced himself back into the moment. “It always seemed like a...nice place when I was there.”
Jaime put a hand on Will's arm and smiled at him. "I'll have to get you to come by on Friday night, then. It’ll be an experience for you."
Will felt the goosebumps crawl up his arm, thankfully hidden underneath the sleeve of his shirt. Irrational as it was, it felt good to be touched by her, and while that was far from the only reason that he had allowed her into his life, it wasn’t just something he enjoyed when it was there, it was something he actively missed when they didn’t see each other for a few days - days that would have passed Will by without notice, before he had met her. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Yes, we’ll - well, Fridays are usually when I do my best work, after everyone else has gone for their weekend, but - I’ll make the time.” He smiled at her again, then turned back to look at the road. “Maybe not this week right away, I mean, I do have a long-term schedule to consider, but I have a degree of confidence that I can spare an evening sometime soon.”
Jaime looked over to Will. "I meant that as a joke," she said. "Although, it might be amusing to see you squeezed between all of those college students -"
Blinding lights behind Jaime’s head. The brief roar of a truck engine. Then force and noise and tumbling, tumbling so fast, screaming.
The semi truck had actually gone on for about a hundred feet, dragging itself from the road over the ditch, and hit the treeline before it could tip over. Inside the cab, the bang of the airbag had just stopped echoing, and with only the flickering lights in the dashboard for illumination, Sara pulled her head free from the slackening plastic. The parts of the steering wheel where she had braced her hands just before impact had buckled under the strain; she looked for the seat belt buckle to no avail and instead reached for the still visible wall mount, grasping it and ripping it loose from the cab’s side wall. The door to her left was up against a tree with most of the weight of the cab leaning against it, while the right side of the cab had gotten the worse end of the frontal impact, with the door on that side mangled beyond hope. Sara cast off the remains of the belt and contorted herself, bringing her foot up to set it against the windscreen. She only had a few inches to work with, but her kick against the spiderwebbed safety glass punched a hole clean through it.
No damage reports from the system. Good. Sara reached forward and grabbed the edges of the hole she had made, her hands rolling the jagged edges of the glass back. Now with something to work with, Sara tensed her shoulders and pulled the windscreen apart, ripping a hole through the laminated safety glass big enough for her to squeeze through. The immediate area in front of the cab was a mess of glass and branches and leaking mechanical fluids, so she pulled herself all the way on top of the cab before taking the jump, landing in the gravel of the ditch behind the crashed semi. After a quick scan of the surroundings, she darted into the treeline, her eyes adjusting to the profound dark in a heartbeat. Her left hand reached for her clavicle, where she found the taped-up cell phone cable; she ripped the tape off her chest and smoothly worked the connector into a disguised port behind her ear. Her right hand reached underneath her leather jacket, withdrawing a pistol. Sara was on a schedule, but she needed this done right - quick press check, pull back the slide to make sure there was a round chambered, which of course there was, but she hadn’t survived this long through blind faith in anything, even herself. Still, she allowed herself a smile. Revenge was just a short walk away.
Within seconds, she had eyes on the wreck she had caused. The silver sedan was stranded on the shoulder, its right crumpled side still towards the street as it bled hot oil, gas and transmission fluid onto the gravel. She was still fifteen meters away when the driver’s side door opened for the last time in the car’s life and Will came crawling out. Sara shifted her left foot a half-step forward, and the gun came up almost by itself. The front sight hovered dead center over Will’s head, which was shining in false-color shades of white on her infrared vision. It would have been too easy to fire a killshot right then, for her and for him. Sara’s breathing stopped as her stance hardened. But there was something else, someone else - the system dutifully picked out the mangled shape of a passenger hanging out of the destroyed side of the car. Sara involuntarily sucked in a surprised gasp, but managed to hold herself to a whispered, "Oh, shit."
Even at this distance, she could hear Will’s ragged breaths turn to sobs. “Jaime?” he cried, then spit out a wad of blood and sucked in a deeper breath. “Jaime!” he shouted.
There was no answer, but Sara could see the body in the car stir and twitch. It gave her enough pause that the gun lowered from her field of view, while the system highlighted the body and began the arduous task of locating limbs and a face for an ID. “Fuck,” Sara whispered. She already knew who it was she had just killed from the name Anthros was shouting - Jaime Sommers, the bastard's girlfriend. One look at Sommers' broken body, arm bent into multiple angles and torso crushed tore open a deep wound in the pit of her stomach, and for a moment she felt desert heat, not the central California night. "No, stop," she ordered, but the system ignored her. Attempting Facial Reconstruction - 17% - 46% - 65% - 84% - 84% - 84% - Search Terminated (Injuries Masking ID) - Best Match: Jaime Anne Sommers, Female, Age 28 - "Fuck, ID off!" she hissed, “Overlay - ID off!”
The system dutifully obeyed, but when the ID overlay vanished, the broken body of Jaime Sommers was still plain as day. This was supposed to be simple - GPS tracker on the bastard's car, hit it on the passenger side to disable, make him beg for his life, and then end it. She hadn’t gotten within a mile of him all evening, just to make sure there was no way they’d see her, but then again, she hadn’t exactly wondered what would make him abandon his very secure usual routine. Sara had never hated the system quite as much as she did in that moment as it showed her the bruised and broken face of the woman she had just almost killed.
Will had crawled back into the car, and in the muted light of the wrecked car's interior, ran his hands over her to assess the damage Sara had caused. "Stay with me!" Will cried, his hands feeling Jaime's compound fractures and broken shoulder. His hands flew to her neck for a pulse, found it, then went fumbling for a flashlight. “Jaime, please! You’ve got to fight! Stay with me!” He climbed through the wreck toward the backseat, spying the dislocated first aid kit resting on the leather.
His pleas, however, were answered only by the car’s dashboard; after a few moments, a pleasant little chime rang out, to be followed by a soothing voice. “Good evening, this is Lucas with 360 Services,” the voice said. “We’ve detected that your vehicle may have been in an accident. Do you need any assistance?”
“Yes!” Will shouted, grabbing for the first aid kit and sliding back towards the front. “Yes, this is Dr. Anthros, there’s been a...there’s been an accident, I need…Jaime! Come on!”
Sara had heard enough. The thought of how badly things had gone wrong almost paralyzed her, but there was a simpler, deeper impulse running her now: escape and survive. No time to think about the woman she'd left the way al-Zarqawi's boys had left her: with help for Anthros on the way, every second she spent standing around here would draw the noose around her neck tighter. With a final glance at her gun, she knew that she couldn’t do what she had planned to. She holstered the gun and turned away, sprinting through the brush towards her dump-off car, just a minute and a mile away.
Inside the car, Will still labored to get a good look at Jaime’s injuries, shining the light here and there and here again as his mind raced to an inevitable conclusion. He wedged the flashlight into place, then began to unpack the kit and assess his supplies. Sterile wound dressing, adhesive tape, disposable gloves, three foil packs of clotting agent...
“Sir,” the voice said, “do you need assistance? I can call emergency services for you.”
“Yes,” Will said, then went silent for a second or two. “Actually, Lucas, no, that’ll be fine. It’s...it’s fine. Just a, you know, just a little fender bender.”
“Sir, are you sure?” the voice asked.
“Yes,” Will said, pulling on a pair of gloves and fighting to keep his voice even. “Absolutely. But do me a favor and put me through to my workplace contact, okay?”
“...of course, Sir,” the voice said. “If you need anything else, just press the red button. I’ll connect you now.”
After a few clicking noises, the call connected again, with another young man on the line. “Operations,” the voice went. “What’s your twenty, Doc?”
“Nathan,” Will sobbed, “there’s been an accident. Jaime’s hurt - she’s [i]dying[/i].”
“Hang in there, Doc, I’m getting the fix on your location,” Nathan said. “Dispatch shows an ambulance last reported cruising through Rohnert Park, I’ll jack the frequency and reroute them, ETA...ten minutes.”
“No,” Will said with a sniffle. “No, she’s not going to make it. I’ve stopped the bleeding as best I can but she’s...she’s not…” He broke down sobbing for a moment, but then hit himself in the head until it stopped. “No! No, William, pull yourself together. Jaime needs you now.” He took a deep breath as Nathan waited on the other end of the line. “Send the retrieval team. Full loadout, and prep augmentation suite one.”
There was a pause on the line, long enough that Will began to fear he’d lost the connection, but then Nathan spoke again. “You got it, Doc,” he said. “Operations to all points, be advised we have a medical emergency involving project personnel. All medical personnel to duty stations. Team One, report status.”
“Ginsburg here, Team One on standby,” another voice said. “What’s the situation?”
“It’s Anthros, he needs a retrieval with full medical,” Nathan said. “Transmitting location.”
“Say again, a retrieval?” Ginsburg asked.
“Confirmed,” Nathan said.
“Copy, prepping for retrieval, we are wheels up in five,” Ginsburg said. “Doctor Anthros, do you need any assistance managing the casualty? I can talk you through this.”
“I’m the doctor here,” Will growled, as his hands went feeling for wounds on Jaime’s chest. “Just get here before she bleeds out, have two bags of Ichor hung and ready by the time you get here.”
“Copy that, Sir,” Ginsburg said.
Will grabbed onto Jaime’s blouse and ripped it, then he opened the foil pack and poured the white granules into the largest wound. The dressing followed on top, with his right hand putting pressure on the wound while his left hand spooled off the tape with the help of his teeth. He ran the tape around what he could reach, securing the dressing in place, before ripping off the end and placing it along Jaime’s back. Subclavian and femoral, Will thought, grabbing for the heavy-duty adjustable tourniquet straps from the box. No sense treating the many lacerations on her limbs - he would just have to cut off the circulation at the shoulders and hips. When he tightened the first strap around her right biceps, he thought he heard Jaime moan. One last check that he had pulled the strap tightly enough, and then he spared a few seconds to caress her face. She was pale from blood loss and the right side of her face was shredded from broken glass and broken bone, but she had just enough strength to turn her head towards Will and mouth his name.
“Hold on, Jaime,” he whispered to her. “Just hold on.”
Wolf Creek was almost completely dark when the black helicopter approached for landing, with only infrared strobes to illuminate the helipad for the helo’s night-vision gear. The few acres of clearing in the middle of the woods, ringed by chain link fence, were only noted in US Army records as a weather research installation with a small complement of Army personnel and civilian scientists assigned. When the passenger door on the helicopter slid open, the blackout blue interior lighting cast a ghostly light onto the concrete below, and Will was the first to jump out, ducking under the still-moving rotor blades along with the black-clad members of Team One. Together, they heaved the stretcher with Jaime on it out of the helicopter’s passenger bay. Jaime was strapped down tightly; her mangled limbs had slowly lost color as the tourniquets kept blood from flowing into them, while she had been fitted with a stabilizing collar, intubated and prodded with easily a half dozen needles - sensors and IVs. The two largest needles belonged to two pint-sized plastic bags that Will held over her, filled with the milky white Ichor. Sticking out of her side was a plastic chest tube, draining her chest cavity to keep her internal bleeding from crushing her lungs and heart. Another plastic bag strapped to the side of the stretcher collected the runoff - the first drainage bag had been almost all pink, nearly pure (if thinned) blood; now, only white Ichor ran through the tube, the fluid collecting in the bag free of any blood at all.
Together, they rolled the stretcher into the nearby hangar, past several dozen parked cars and into the waiting elevator. Will counted every second as the heavy-duty doors closed behind them and the air around them hissed from the integrated airlock. Finally, the elevator cab started moving, dropping down for about twenty meters before it came to a halt. The doors opened with another hiss, letting them out on the first of Wolf Creek’s two dozen sublevels. A small squad of doctors and nurses surrounded them in seconds, one even taking the IV bags from Will, and for the first time in maybe half an hour, he had a moment to catch his breath, allowing himself to feel the burn of the cuts and bruises on his own face.
“Christ, Anthros, look at yourself,” came another voice, and Will groaned. He knew that he’d run into Colonel Bledsoe sooner or later - but he had definitely hoped it would be later. “You look like you went a few rounds with the highway. Get yourself to the lab and have someone check you out.”
“There is no time for that,” Will said, not bothering to stop and address the colonel. “Captain Ginsburg checked me for injuries on the flight over - against my objections - and cleared me, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m a little busy saving Jaime’s life.”
“With my men and my gear,” Bledsoe said. “We’ve been dark for a year, now you’re calling a retrieval op. I need to know what the hell happened out there, Anthros, and you -”
“There’s no other way!” Will snapped back, turning mid-step to shout in Bledsoe’s face. The two men glared at each other before Will turned back around and kept walking with the stretcher. “She is dying, Jonas, and I am the only one that can save her life, so either help or get out of my way.”
Bledsoe pointedly stayed behind Will rather than step into his way. “She’s here now, we can keep her alive,” he said. “But you’re aiming a hell of a lot higher than ‘alive’, Anthros. I’m here to remind you that this path you’re on? It has consequences, for both you and her.”
That managed to get Will to pause. It was only for a moment as the stretcher moved on past them both, but he still took a second to think before he looked Bledsoe in the eyes again. “I know,” he said. “It’s better than the alternative.”
“I hope you’re right,” Bledsoe says. “Get yourself cleaned up at least. I’ve got a few calls to make.”
“No time,” Will replied. “I’ve got to scrub in and lead the procedure.” He turned to run after the stretcher, but looked back to Bledsoe as he hustled to catch up. “Make your calls, Jonas, I’ve already made mine.”
Bledsoe watched Will chase after the stretcher, his mind already swimming with a thousand thoughts on how to deal with this situation. In the end, all he could do for the moment was shake his head. “Arrogant bastard,” he muttered to himself.
Jaime stirred, curling her shoulders in discomfort. She'd always been a light sleeper, and that extended to sleeping on her side. Whenever she went to sleep upset or agitated, she ended up on her back, and if she ended up on her back, she'd be awake in minutes. Jaime tried curling over onto her side, but that just brought a sharp, tugging pain in her arm and side - did Will roll over onto her arm while they slept?
"Hey there," she mumbled as she slowly opened her left eye as her right eye felt sore, "you think you can just hog all the covers -"
It took a few seconds, but when her vision cleared, all she saw was the side of a hospital bed. "Wha -" Jaime forced her other eye open, and then she could see as plain as day - she was in some sort of fancy hospital room. The surprise jump-started the rest of her awake - she wasn't wearing her oversized t-shirt but a hospital gown, her body ached and was sore all over, and - and was that an IV going into her arm?
Jaime snapped bolt upright - and her arms failed to follow her, as she found out that she was strapped to the bed at her wrists and ankles. "He-help!" Jaime shouted. "Somebody! Help!" Her heart pounded in her chest, but no one was outside to hear her. Her eyes snapped back to her arms - God, those are huge IVs, and they're going into both of her arms - and now her head really started to swim as her breathing became ragged, the walls started closing in and she started to sob, "Someone, anyone, help me -"
And she was helped. The sob stuck in her throat before it floated back down, just like she felt her muscles relax, guiding her back to rest. Her head quickly emptied of fear and doubt, until there was just one soothing thought calling to her. Everything is under control. Jaime let out the choked sob as a slow breath, then drew a fresh one, deep and true. She was alive, and in a safe place, and whatever was going on, it would work out if she just let things happen.
Everything is under control.
Jaime took one more breath, then looked around again. Those IVs were still there, but now they didn't seem quite so large, and they were probably there for a reason, no need to worry. One was clear - probably medicine of some kind - but the other was milky and white. The bag was huge, at least a quart, and, well, maybe that IV seemed a little large, but that wasn't a reason to worry either. She looked up at the label - it was upside-down, but after a second it seemed as easy to read as if it was right in front of her. ICHOR - 20% CAPTURED PERFLUORODECALIN BY MASS - CONTRAINDICATIONS… And it continued for another paragraph or two in a very tiny font that she none the less could read perfectly, even though it was upside-down and at the top of the IV pole. That also seemed strange, but it wasn't really worth worrying over.
She looked over to her right - maybe there was some kind of signaling device to let someone know she had woken up, or maybe ask politely for a glass of water if it wasn't too much trouble - and saw a rack of computers sitting there. She had never seen computers like that in a hospital room before, but then again, she'd never seen a patient in a hospital with an Internet cable sticking out of their arm, and that's what she saw next. An Internet - Ethernet cable, she heard her little sister Becca say, stuck out of a plug in her shoulder and wound its way across the floor to the computers. She followed it with her eyes the whole length, then turned back to watch the door and wait for someone to come. It had to be there for a reason, no need to worry. She should just wait for someone to come and tell her what is going on. Everything is under control.
What Jaime didn’t know was that the hospital room she had woken up in was anything but - it was the friendly interior of the armored self-sufficient containment unit euphemistically called “Augmentation Lab 1”, and together with its three siblings, it stood on the concrete disk that terminated Wolf Creek’s lowest sublevel. There was only one way to reach it - the remote-controlled elevator Will was riding down to meet his girlfriend. Of the twenty hours that had passed since the car crash, he’d been up for nineteen and a half, maybe three fourths if you wanted to count the few minutes it had taken him to fall asleep in his lab despite his exhaustion. The elevator shuddered to a stop and the safety cage parted with a groan, setting Will free to run the gauntlet of soldiers and medical personnel that had made camp outside the labs. Will ignored them as best as he could, silently waving away Captain Ginsburg and his men, then took a deep breath and cranked the release lever on the laboratory airlock. Hissing air answered him, but once the pressure was equalized, the actual door swung open smoothly, letting him inside. When he laid eyes on Jaime - strapped down and wired up, but alive - he teared up almost instantly, covering his mouth to catch the sob that tried to escape.
Jaime gave Will a small smile. "Hello, Will. What's going on?"
“You’re awake!” Will said, immediately chastising himself for both the lapse of self-control as well as the rather blunt opening. He carefully adjusted the soft smile on his face and walked over to Jaime. “It’s...how do you feel, Jaime?”
"Fine," Jaime replied, her eyes staying with his as he stepped closer. "Are you all right? You look like you got hurt."
“It’s not so bad,” Will said. His hand wanted to reach out and touch her, maybe stroke her cheek, but he thought better of it. “Jaime, what’s...what’s the last thing you remember? Before you woke up?”
"Dinner at the restaurant," Jaime replied straight away. "We both had the pheasant, and we shared a slice of cheesecake. Then we got in your car and left Sebastopol, and then nothing more."
“We were in an accident,” Will said. “It was...it was a bad one. You lost consciousness. I had to bring you here to get treated.”
Jaime nodded. "Good. Thank you, Will."
Will grimaced, but even that didn’t seem to move her expression at all. His glance at the screens next to the bed told him what he already knew: the controls were working, and they were working at full tilt.
“Jaime,” he began, “are you...are you okay? You know, if there is anything I can do to make you feel better…”
Jaime hadn't moved at all, her stoic un-expression locked in place. "I feel fine, Will. Thank you."
“Okay, then, that’s - that’s all right,” he said. “So, uh, you should lay back and try to rest a little more. I have to go talk to my colleagues now, but I’ll be back soon, and then we can...talk.”
"All right," Jaime said, and laid back down. Her eyes stayed on Will just a few seconds longer. "Come back soon. Please." She smiled, but Will saw he could have sworn her pupils were as big as they could be. He couldn't help but sneak a peek back to the readouts - the controls were still pushing, keeping her panic suppressed. By the time he turned back, though, she had closed her eyes.
Will sighed to himself, then slouched toward the door, pushing it open to get out and locking it closed again behind him. The soldiers outside had settled into a somewhat more relaxed formation, keeping their distance, which left center stage to Colonel Bledsoe and his second in command, Ruth Truewell. Will saw Truewell angrily saying something to Bledsoe through the security door, a discussion that Bledsoe forcefully ended as the door slid open.
“So?” Bledsoe asked. “Is she stable?”
“The controls are keeping her from panicking,” Will said. “But she’s...completely flattened, almost no natural responses at all. She’s definitely no threat to anyone. We need to turn the controls down and have a grown-up discussion with her about what happened.” He took a breath. “I can’t...I can’t talk to her like this.”
"And I have to re-express my concern about using technology designed to prevent PTSD from combat to suppress and control Miss Sommers," Ruth said as she continued to give Bledsoe a harsh glare. "This is completely out of line, and puts Miss Sommers' recovery at grave risk."
“Concerns noted,” Bledsoe said. “I prefer these kinds of results, though. Besides, the controls will disengage once Miss Sommers calms down by herself, right?”
“Which we don’t know if it would happen at all in this situation,” Will said. “The controls are designed for transient stress spikes, to provide a stable baseline, not to permanently suppress major trauma. Listen, Jonas, we can’t rely on the system fixing her. I need to do this myself.”
"That is, if the controls haven't already made things worse," Ruth interjected.
“There’s no way to change what happened now,” Will said. “The point is, I can bring her to a state where she’ll be lucid enough to process all this while still leaving enough safety margin to prevent accidents. I can make this work.”
“Let’s step back from that for a moment,” Bledsoe said. “The first question we should be asking is where this is heading. I understand your motives, Anthros - for once. You saved her life, and that’s grand. But your girlfriend’s wearing seventy million dollars of our gear. She’s an augment - a viable one, I hope. She’ll be joining us. The question is in which capacity and at what pace. This is something you can take the lead on working out with her, if you want to be the one to bring her the news.”
“Jaime is not a soldier,” Will fumed.
"And she is in no way trained or psychologically prepared for Berkut operations," Ruth said.
“Which isn’t what I asked Santa for,” Bledsoe said, “but Anthros created the facts on the ground, and all we can do is deal with them. I like the idea of a civilian getting looped in even less than you two, so if there’s an alternative to front-line duties, I’ll find it and I’ll go to bat for it. But that’ll be over the objections of the DoD, and I have my work cut out for me just getting them to not shut us down for this stunt. We just spent their money, now we need to show something for it. However that goes, stability is the word of the day. I need her brain in working order, so if you think it’s medically dangerous to keep the controls running at full tempo, by all means go and turn them down. But do not compromise her viability. We are not going to lose her.”
“That’s not your decision to make,” Will started, but Bledsoe’s glare cut him off.
“You really don’t want to test me, Anthros,” Bledsoe said. “Truewell, I need her profiled. Find me something to work with so I can sell this to the SecDef.”
"That'll have to wait until the controls are completely off," Truewell said. "They are literally there to blunt any emotional reaction, so unless you want an incorrect profile, they need to come off."
“I’m aware of that,” Bledsoe said. “There’ll be time for a proper assessment later. Right now I need a file on the SecDef’s desk by breakfast that convinces him not to send in the Marines and shut us down. Can you manage that?”
Truewell nodded. "I can work with the surveillance we have on her before, that should suffice for now."
“Good, good,” Will said. “Now, if you’re done selling Jaime, can I proceed?”
“Go ahead,” Bledsoe said. “I’ll be in my office. I expect news in an hour. And good news, I hope.”
“I’ll do my best,” Will said.
Jaime watched as Will came back in through the doors to her hospital room. Perhaps he had additional information to tell her, or perhaps he was going to tell her what she needed to do next; after all, he was a doctor and she was a patient, so she should do what he said to do. Nothing else to be concerned about.
She kept her eyes focused on his, waiting for him to speak as he walked through the door.
“Uh, hello, again,” Will said, smiling at her. It wasn’t a good smile, but that was okay, too. “How are you feeling now, Jaime? Everything still...fine?”
Jaime nodded. “Yes, I am still fine. What do you need me to do?”
“Uh, yes,” Will replied, with the smile getting shaky. “Jaime, I’m going...I’m going to change some things about your...medication, and I need you to tell me how that feels for you, okay?”
Jaime nodded. “I can do that.”
Will nodded back at her. It was nice. He walked around her bed, to the computers at the side of it, then tapped some sort of code into the touchscreen and began to play with the colorful bars showing on the screen. “Okay,” he said, “you should start to feel a difference any second now.”
Jaime waited, her eyes fixed straight ahead, for any changes. It was probably very important that she do exactly what Will said; he was a doctor and she was a patient - a patient in a very strange hospital room, she noticed. Jaime had been in a few hospital rooms in her life, and she couldn’t remember them having doors quite that thick. Or an airlock. There weren’t any dressers in her room, either, no furniture really at all except for her bed and the stack of computers next to her. She tried to lean over to look around, but her arm was stopped - wait, why in the hell was she strapped down? It wasn’t anything to worry about - no, of course it was. She tried to speak, but her words seemed heavy and fat in her mouth. “...W-Will, why am I…” she tried to ask, but stopped when her voice sounded flat - probably the drugs Will was adjusting. Jaime shook her head in an attempt to clear her words and sound more upset, but couldn’t muster the right feelings. Why was she so upset? Everything was under control - except for the fact that she was strapped to a hospital bed with IVs in her arms - and she couldn’t remember why. Okay, that was upsetting enough to clear her head of the fog, if only for a moment.
“Will, what am I doing here?” Jaime asked. She felt a spike of fear in her chest, and the two feet between her and Will seemed an intolerable distance with her arms strapped down, unable to hold him - but even still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was fine, everything was under control, and no tears came.
Will sighed and looked around like he wanted to pull up a chair that wasn’t in the room, but also didn’t sit down on the bed or move closer to her. “Do you remember that I told you we were in a car accident, Jaime?” he said.
Jaime had to think for a second to pierce the fog, but then nodded. “Yes, you did, but...this isn’t a normal hospital, Will.”
“No, it isn’t,” Will said. “There’s no nice way to say this - at least that I can think of…” He paused, as if that would give him that inspiration he needed, but finally he just sighed. “Jaime, your injuries were life-threatening. I…” He sighed again and lowered his head, blinking his eyes. Jaime saw him wipe a few tears away, and wondered why she didn’t have to do the same for a moment. “I knew I had to do something, Jaime. I just...I knew. I knew that if I didn’t, you wouldn’t…” With that, he stopped and looked back up at her. “I had to do everything I could to save your life, Jaime. And I did.”
Jaime looked back at herself, laid out on the hospital bed. She tried to kick her legs, and the covers moved - well, as much as her leg restraints would let her. She tried to move her arms; first her left, then her right, which had something strange sticking out of it - “Holy shit - what the hell - Will, there’s a cable sticking out of my shoulder!” Jaime shouted, her panic overwhelming the drugs trying to tell her that everything was fine and under control. She turned back to him, her eyes wild. “What - what is going on?”
Will took a breath. “I had to…” he began, paused, then closed his eyes and took another breath. “I had to...use my research to keep you alive.”
Jaime shook her head. “What?”
“I work on experimental medical technology for the military,” Will said, “and I - I had to implant some of it in you to save your life. That’s why you have, well, have a cable plugged into you. It’s nothing to worry about, Jaime. It’s just part of the...the implant.” He sighed. “I couldn’t tell you about this before, I wanted to, but...but now it’s what’s saved your life.” He smiled and took Jaime’s hand. “Isn’t it amazing?”
Jaime stared at Will, her eyes wide as she tried to process what he had just said, but before she could turn a few stuttered words into sentences, a voice sounded out from a speaker above the door. “Dr. Anthros,” said a male voice. “Please observe the safety and security protocols.”
Whatever the safety protocols were, Will stayed with Jaime, holding her tight.
It took a few seconds for Jaime to get herself back under control enough to speak again. “Will...what safety protocols?”
Will sighed. “I’m not...I’m not supposed to be this close to you,” he said. “It’s...it’s a safety thing. Just...forget about that for now. All that matters right now is that you’re alive.” He hugged her again. “How do you feel now?”
“Scared,” Jaime said, her voice cracking. “Confused. The drugs, they...they make me feel numb, and I have to fight to say what I want to say. I don’t know what’s going on, Will, and...and I have a cable sticking out of my shoulder. I don’t understand what you did to me, and that’s scary, too. But...I’m glad I’m alive.” She blinked a few fresh tears out of her eyes. “And I’m glad you’re here with me.”
“That’s good,” Will said, and gave her another squeeze. “And I will explain all of this more later, but first I need to...talk to my boss again.” He sighed. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Is that okay?”
Her panic broke loose one more time before she felt the drugs start to wrestle it back down. “I...I guess so.” Jaime pulled against the straps on her arms and legs one more time. “Could you get rid of these restraints?”
“...yes,” Will said.
“Dr. Anthros, the protocols,” the hidden voice said again.
Will sighed. “I work for...very careful people,” he said. “Listen, Jaime, I trust you, okay? I think you’ll be just fine when I take these off. But…you need to be very careful with how you move right now, okay? Don’t make any quick movements, in fact, it’s best if you don’t move much at all if possible. Don’t try to lift anything, and...be very, very careful when you touch anyone. Okay?”
Jaime gave a quick nod. “Right. Because of...what happened to me. Right?”
“Yes,” Will said. “You’ll...you’ll need to get used to that.”
That said, Will scooted back off the bed and took a knee.
“What do you mean, get used to it?” Jaime asked as she craned her head over to see what Will was doing as much as she could.
What she couldn’t see - but Will did - was where the straps met the bed frame. It was a heavy-duty institutional model, and as such had proper mounts for the restraints - all of which, Will was sure, were not supposed to be bent outward from their respective tube steel frame by more than a full inch. He looked at the others to check; both legs were bent in much the same way, while the left arm restraint was intact.
“Ah, well,” Will said. “There’s just some adjustments that we’ll all have to get used to.”