Her toes seemed fine, Jaime decided as she stared down at her feet in the hospital room’s airlock. She wiggled her toes, and each one moved in perfect rhythm with the others. And yet, they felt very wrong at the same time. She could tell the floor was cold, but she couldn’t really feel the chill. Her weight bore down through her soles and she knew the texture and detail, but couldn’t feel the bones and tendons inside her feet. Those damn drugs were still in her system, so when she looked back up, all she could manage to say was, “I believe there is something wrong with my feet, Will.”
“What is it, Jaime?” Will asked. He was by her side in a flash, grabbing her left hand. “Are you dizzy? Do you need to sit down?”
That damned soothing calm rushed back over her. “No, everything is fine,” she said, then shook her head and tried again. “I mean, maybe.” She squeezed Will’s hand and tried to muster up enough emotion to smile at him. “We’ll find out in a minute. We’re going to get me checked out, right?”
“That’s right, Jaime,” Will said. “There’s just a, uh, short walk so we can do this in a nicer place. You’ll meet some of my coworkers and they’re just going to do a quick check to make sure everything is all right.”
“Okay,” Jaime said, and shook her head one more time. She worked her right hand, trying to get some of the dullness out of it. There was something she wanted to ask him, something important, but the drugs made it hard to want to dare ask a question. “What...where do you work, Will? What is this place?”
“I’ll let my boss explain that,” Will said, smiling a little like he was glad not to provide an answer. “What you need to know is that we...try to save lives.”
Jaime furrowed her brow at Will’s non-answer. “That’s not-” she groaned and rubbed her temple as the cooling wave swept over her again. She tried again, this time clenching her right hand next to her cheek. “That’s not really -” Again, another wave, even deeper this time, followed by another. Her right hand went slack and dropped back to her side. “That doesn’t really matter right now.”
Will frowned at her for some reason. “You’re right,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter right now.”
Soon, the airlock door opened, and Jaime’s eyes widened at all the space outside. They were standing at the bottom of a vertical shaft, big enough to contain a small skyscraper, and Jaime caught glimpses of both the modules hanging off a central spire as well as the many stacked subfloors running in rings around the periphery of the shaft. The very bottom was empty, except for them and a soldier - Captain Antoine Ginsburg, US Air Force, Honorable Discharge OCT/2004 - with a gun - Heckler & Koch G36C, 5.56x45mm NATO, 30 round magazine, red dot sight.
Jaime’s eyes went wide as she looked to her right. “Who said that?”
The soldier just looked at her. “Who said what, Ma’am?” he asked.
“Uh, it’s nothing,” Will said, waving the soldier out of the way as they walked past him; he fell in behind them, keeping his distance from Jaime. “What are you hearing, Jaime? Did you hear his name?”
“And...and the name of his gun, I think?” Jaime was about to continue when she let out a deep breath as the coolness came back and her voice flattened back out. “I...I think this is...I mean, it’s all right.”
“Yes,” Will said, and then he chuckled a bit. “It’s a little over the top, don’t you think? I think we should just switch it off.”
“....what is?” Jaime asked, her eyes wandering. “Turn what off?”
“Oh,” Will said. “I mean, I should stop...mumbling stuff.”
“Doc,” the soldier asked from behind Jaime, “are you sure she’s not...upset?”
Will kept walking, barely turning his head to address the soldier. “I’m quite sure, Captain, thank you for your concern.”
Will lead the three of them to a large cargo elevator, and that was when Jaime looked up and saw all the free space criss-crossed with walkways and hanging modules stretching above them. She had never been in a building like this, and for the ride up and the walk along one of those routes to their destination, all she could do was look around and take it all in, no question quite making it out of her mouth. There were more soldiers, but also people in suits and labcoats, their names quick whispers in Jaime’s ear with no time to dwell on any one of them. Jaime was still looking around when they finally seemed to reach their destination, with Will pulling the door in front of them open for her. On the other side was a room with a table large enough to seat a dozen people, and two of those seats were taken. There was a woman in a suit with blonde hair - Special Agent Ruth Truewell, CIA, Berkut Liason Officer - and a Chinese man dressed in black with a matching ponytail - Jae Kim. Both stood up when she entered the room, but neither came over to shake her hand as she blinked her eyes, trying to clear some of the cloudiness from her head.
“Jaime, I want you to meet my coworkers,” Will said, pointing with his left arm as he began with the unnecessary introductions. “This is Dr. Truewell, our psychologist, and Mr. Kim, our...physical therapist.”
“Miss Sommers,” Kim offered, with a little bow of his head.
“Please, have a seat,” Truewell said, indicating the empty side of the table.
Jaime clenched her hands tight enough to keep the coolness away as she slid into the chair, her legs betraying her. “I...guess so.” She took a few more breaths, her head clearing up as she sat down. “What’s first?”
“Just a quick test of your cognitive functions,” Truewell said. “The way this works is that I’m going to ask you a few questions. Answer them as best as you can. It’s all right if you can’t answer all of them, this is just to see what you might have trouble with. Do you understand?”
“Great,” Truewell said. “First, I’m going to give you an address. In a few minutes I will ask you to repeat that address back to me, so please try to remember it. Are you ready?” She waited for Jaime to nod again. “The address is John Brown, 612 Monterey Boulevard, San Francisco. Do you need me to repeat that?”
Jaime shook her head. “John Brown, 612 Monterey Boulevard, San Francisco. Got it.”
Truewell nodded. “Good. Can you tell me today’s date?”
“Uh…” Jaime thought for a moment. “Is it tomorrow already?”
Truewell smiled as she made a quick note. “Yes, it is now 2 PM on the day after your accident. Can you tell me the date?”
“Monday the 14th, July, 2008,” Jaime replied as she craned her head over towards Truewell. “What are you writing down?”
“Just that you’re having no trouble with the date,” Truewell said, forcing a quick smile. “Actually, the test just requires that you remember the date, not that you account for the passing of time since you lost consciousness, but that’s a very good sign. Very good. Now, this is a little creative.” She grabbed a sketch block with a pen resting on it and slid it across the table toward Jaime. “I want you to draw the face of a clock. Write down all the numbers on it. Can you do that for me, please?”
“Uh, sure,” Jaime said, and quickly sketched a rough clock before sliding the paper back to Truewell.
“Very good,” Truewell said, then checked her watch. “It’s actually coming up on ten past two now. Can you draw the hands of the clock to show that time?” She slid the block back over to Jaime.
Two strokes of the felt-tip pen later, and the clock was complete. “Anything else?” Jaime asked.
“Excellent,” Truewell said, jotting down another note. “Can you tell me about something that’s been on the news lately?”
“Uh...there’s a bunch of wildfires east of San Francisco,” Jaime replied. “They evacuated a bunch of people, but they’re already losing their homes. It’s pretty sad.” She looked to the soldier, who gave her a raised eyebrow, but Truewell’s voice soon drew her back.
“Yes it is,” Truewell said. “We’re almost done. Can you just repeat for me, one more time, the address I asked you to remember at the beginning?”
“John Brown…” Jaime paused in thought for a moment. Will almost seemed ready to whisper the rest of it to her, while Truewell’s pen hovered over her stack of notes. Kim said and did nothing, while the soldier tapped his thumb against the side of his gun. “John Brown, 612 Monterey Boulevard, San Francisco.” Jaime smiled. “There, are we done?”
“Yes, we are done,” Truewell said. “That makes a perfect score. Very good.”
“I told you, she’s fine,” Will said.
“You did say that,” Truewell replied. “Jae?”
Kim slowly rose from his chair, then indicated an empty part of the room. “Would you please join me over here, Miss Sommers?”
Jaime stood up and stepped over in front of Kim. “Ready and willing,” she said with a smirk.
“Stand on one leg, please,” Kim said, taking a step back to give Jaime room.
Jaime stood on her right foot, her arms hanging by her side.
Kim took his time circling her, watching for any sign of instability but finding none. “Now lean forward,” he said. “Stretch out your arms and free leg.”
Jaime did as asked, her smirk growing a few millimeters. “You want me to do anything else, you’ll have to give me some ballet classes first.”
That got a chuckle out of Kim. “That’s not too far off from what I do,” he said. “May I touch you?”
Jaime looked over to Will, who gave her a nod. “Sure,” she said.
That was all Kim needed; his hands shot out to feel her back and belly before working their way up her left arm. “Tension is acceptable,” he said. “Above-average muscle tone. Minor spinal issues. The arm needs work.” With his glib dismissal of Jaime’s fitness complete, he stepped back from her again. “Thank you. You may stand now.”
He didn’t wait for her to reply; instead he walked to a corner of the room and retrieved both a step ladder and a metal bar with two vertical arms. Jaime watched him set up the ladder, climb it and then hook the bar into fasteners on the ceiling, leaving it hanging about two feet below, just in reach of her arms. With careful steps, he climbed down again, folded the ladder and carried it back to the corner.
“Can you perform a pull-up for me?” he asked Jaime.
“Uh, maybe one or two,” Jaime said. She started to work her arms around a few times to warm her shoulders up, but stopped mid-swing as her right shoulder felt off. “Feels weird,” she said, putting a bit more effort into her right shoulder.
“Can you describe the weird?” Kim asked.
“Like...like it’s too smooth,” Jaime replied as she continued to work her shoulder. “I can’t feel the muscles and the joint moving around, it’s just...moving.”
“It does that,” Kim said. He clearly wasn’t here to reassure her. A quick glance at Will showed him giving her another nod, though.
“Is this wrong?” Jaime asked. “I mean, I can’t really feel anything when I bend my knees or take a step either, everything just kind of glides.” She poked at her right arm a couple times. “And it all feels a bit dull or numb, and that definitely can’t be right -” Jaime stopped mid-sentence as another calming wave broke over her, her shoulders slumping as she exhaled a long breath.
“There will be time for that later,” Kim said, while Truewell scribbled something new on her notepad. “Perform the pull-up.”
Jaime blinked a few times, but her face stayed impassive. “Yes, right, I’ll do that,” she replied, stepped up to the bar, and with a hop, grabbed ahold with both hands and performed one quick pull-up before letting go.
“Another one,” Kim ordered. Jaime repeated the performance and let go once again.
“Are you having any trouble with this exercise?” Kim asked her.
“No,” Jaime replied. She shook her head a few more times, and cleared some more of the drug out of her mind. “It’s not too bad. It’s pretty easy, actually, easier than the last time I tried it.”
Kim smiled. “Have you ever done it one-handed?” he asked.
“No,” Jaime replied. “Never even thought about it.”
“Try it,” Kim said. “Start with your left arm.”
Jaime didn’t jump this time; instead, she stood on her toes and grabbed the bar with her left hand. She strained for a few seconds, but couldn’t make more than a few inches of headway before she gave up and dropped back to the floor. “Nope - and ow,” she said.
“I see,” Kim said. “And your right?”
“Don’t really see the point,” Jaime replied.
“It is part of the test,” Kim said. “Do it. In fact...I want to see five repetitions.”
“Uh…” Jaime said, and looked back to Will. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I was just in an accident yesterday, and I had surgery on my right arm, some kind of new therapy tech or something -”
This time, it was Kim’s turn to look to Will and receive a nod, though a reluctant one. Truewell’s pen picked up more speed as she added a flurry of notes to her pad. “It will be fine,” Kim said. “Just do it.”
Jaime shrugged. “Okay, whatever you say.” She got back on her tiptoes and grabbed the bar with her other hand - and with almost no effort lifted herself until her chin went over the bar. “Holy shit!” she exclaimed, failing to notice that she was holding herself up above the bar with complete ease.
Kim smiled at that. “It is working,” he said.
Jaime lowered herself back down, and then cranked out the four remaining pull-ups in rapid succession, and then kept going. Another set of five was completed just as quickly as the first, and when she finally let go, her mouth hung wide open in disbelief. “What...what did you all do to me?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t even feel tired or sore, and I just pulled myself up one-handed ten times like it was nothing.”
The silence that met this question lasted for a good two seconds, but then the door opened and another man - Colonel Jonas Bledsoe, US Army - walked in. He was balding, wearing a suit without a tie, and his sheer presence seemed to drop the temperature in the room by ten degrees.
“Everybody but Ginsburg and Sommers leave,” he ordered. “Now.”
“Jonas -” Will piped up.
“You heard me,” Bledsoe replied. “Leave us alone, now. Captain, in the back.”
“Sir!” the soldier called out, and made his way to the back of the room as ordered - as far away from Jaime as he could get without leaving the room, essentially.
Jaime got to share one last look with Will when he and his coworkers walked out, and it wasn’t a happy one. “Will?” she asked, her heart pounding in her chest. “What’s going on -” Will opened his mouth to reply, but didn’t get a chance before Jaime’s eyes glassed over once again as a tsunami of calm crushed her sudden terror flat.
He didn’t even look back that one last time before he shut the door from the outside, and then that left Jaime alone with two soldiers and no idea what was going to happen. Bledsoe looked her over and tried to smile at her.
“Relax,” he began. “You’ve done nothing wrong, Miss Sommers. But I think it’s time the two of us had a talk. I’m the man in charge of this place. You can call me Mr. Bledsoe.” He waved his hand toward the table. “Let’s sit down.”
Jaime looked at him for a bit, trying to figure out what to think as she struggled to stay above the cooling calm. She had been...changed, made stronger, she was seeing things and Will had done it to her, and now there was this new man, Bledsoe. Jaime’s eyes rolled back and she took a deep breath, but instead of demanding to know what was going on, to see Will, to see Becca, to simply get out of this place, all she felt capable of doing was sitting down in her chair again. “Okay,” she finally said, then walked back to the table to sit down.
Bledsoe followed and took a seat opposite her, then leaned forward and put his elbows on the table as he folded his hands.
“First off, I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. “We all are. When you came in here, you were in a very critical condition. How Dr. Anthros worked to save your life was...nothing short of a miracle.” He sighed. “However. Even miracles come with a price. What did he tell you?”
“He…” Jaime paused to shake her head. “He hadn’t said much. I…what have you done to me?”
“A fair question,” Bledsoe said. “When you came in, you had dozens of broken bones. Your legs had been crushed in the accident. The right side of your head was bashed in. Finally, you were bleeding out, fast.” Bledsoe shook his head. “I’ve lost good friends to less than that, Miss Sommers. You were lucky we had a medical unit on the scene so quickly. Once you came in, our medical staff evaluated your condition. They quickly realized that there was no way to stop the bleeding from your limbs, nevermind any hope of saving them. Dr. Anthros made the call. We had to amputate.”
“Am...amputate?” Jaime asked. Her shoulders slumped and her head drooped, but she fought back upright. “But I have...everything?” She looked at her arms. “And I have my legs.”
Bledsoe nodded. “You do,” he said. “Except these are brand new.” He paused for a moment. “How much has Dr. Anthros told you about his work here? I imagine he’s had to dance around it a lot, considering that most of it is top secret. But he’s mentioned that he’s working on breakthrough medical technology, right?”
“We’ve made great strides in prosthetics over the last few years,” Bledsoe said. “People who have lost their legs in accidents can take their first steps again. Soldiers who lost an arm in combat can now get artificial replacements that let them button their own shirts. I’m sure you’ve seen that on the news.” His expression darkened. “But that’s child’s play compared to what we’re researching here. I don’t settle for first steps. We’ve created a suite of parts and implants that can completely replace a natural body part, do everything it does and look completely natural at that. More than that, even. They’re better than the original parts. Stronger, tougher, more flexible.” He locked eyes with hers. “We call them bionics.”
“And…” Jaime looked back at her hands. “You did that to me?”
“Yes,” Bledsoe said. “It was either that or let you die.”
“So…” Jaime’s eyes started to tear up. “What...what did you have to take?”
Bledsoe reached across the table; Jaime found her hand sitting still as he touched it.
“Your legs,” he began. “Your right arm, eye and ear, too.”
“And…” Jaime stopped and sniffled. “And there’s no way to get them back?”
“No,” Bledsoe said, shaking his head a bit. “I’m sorry, Miss Sommers. We did what we could, but in the end we just didn’t have a choice.”
“So,” Jaime started. She wiped her eyes, then continued. “So, when can I go home? What happens now?”
“As soon as possible,” Bledsoe said. “First, we need to talk about a few things. There’s a reason our research is classified. You’ve noticed how easy it was to pull yourself up with your new arm, how strong it is.” He paused for a moment. “Imagine what happens when you can punch someone with that kind of strength. Imagine what the people who would want that kind of power would do with it - and how far they would go to get it. We have to make sure that nothing bad happens with this technology. We need you to keep this secret with us. Nobody can know this exists. Nobody can know what happened to you here. Do you understand that?”
Jaime nods. “I understand. I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”
“Good,” Bledsoe said. “That brings us to the most important part of our little chat. I’m sure you’ve already figured out that we work for the Department of Defense. As it stands, you’re wearing about seventy million dollars worth of their cutting-edge hardware. And that’s before we consider operational support and maintenance.” He frowned. “Much as I’d like to just help people like you, I don’t get to run a charity here. But there’s a simple solution that will helps us both. Work for me.”
Jaime felt the drugs pulling her down again, weakening her resolve. “I...I don’t…I can’t…I want to help, but…”
“Speak your mind, Miss Sommers,” Bledsoe said. “I’m listening.”
“I...can’t,” Jaime finally spit out. “I’m just a...a bartender, a librarian, I’m not a soldier.” She took a few deep breaths, and finally managed to look back at Bledsoe’s eyes. “I’m not a killer.”
“That’s not who I’m asking you to be, Miss Sommers,” Bledsoe said. “I have plenty of shooters and doorkickers. What I need is someone who can solve problems with more than brute force. Someone who’s quick-thinking and adaptable. Someone who understands what it means to protect people who can’t protect themselves.” He paused. “And I think you can be that someone. Let’s not kid ourselves, Miss Sommers. You do a good job as a bartender, sure, but that’s not exactly the limit of your ambition, is it? It’s just something you do that pays the bills. But you can do more than that. Be more than that. I’m offering you that chance. I know you’re not a soldier or a trained operative, but hell, if training is all that it takes, that’s the least of my problems.”
“I want to be a teacher,” Jaime said. “I don’t want to be a soldier. Or a spy. Or whatever it is you want.” She braced herself on the table with her arms, trying to stay upright. “I will do what I can to repay you...but I can’t...I won’t do that.”
At this, Bledsoe’s expression hardened, and the semblance of warmth in his voice drained quickly. “Neither of us are in a position to choose ‘no’, Miss Sommers,” Bledsoe said. “There’s a world out there trying its darndest to break itself every day, and every day we go out there and try to keep it in one piece. You’re the only one who has bionics. That gives you capabilities above and beyond anyone else I could recruit. There are problems out there only you can solve, fights only you can win. If I have to pick between making you do this or benching you and letting innocent people die, you can be damn sure I’ll send you out there, whether you like it or not.” He took a breath. “There is one choice you have right now, Miss Sommers. You can do this on your terms, or on mine. But when I said ‘work for me’ - that was not a choice. That was a fact.”
“N-no!” Jaime said. “I won’t - you can’t…” Her eyes rolled back into her head for a moment, as the drugs came on strong enough that she nearly hit her head on the table.
“Yes, I can,” Bledsoe said, and his voice softened just a bit. “I don’t like it, but doing things I don’t like is pretty much my job description. That’s what it takes to keep America safe, Miss Sommers. Do you think the bad guys aren’t as smart as we are? Or as determined? We don’t live in a very nice world. That there are still a lot of people who think we do is the only credit I can take for my work.” He shook his head. “We’ve given you a second chance, Miss Sommers. Another life. If you won’t take that chance, then all that’s left for me to do is to take back all that hardware we put in you and let nature take its course. Am I making myself clear?”
Jaime could barely keep her head off the table, let alone look Bledsoe in the eyes. “What will...happen?”
“You’ll die,” Bledsoe said.
“Oh,” Jaime said. The drugs relented enough for her to sit up somewhat straight. “What...what do you want me to do?”
“For the moment, our priority is covering up the accident,” Bledsoe said. “We’ll give you a final checkup, you get dressed and go back home to reassure your sister that everything is fine. After that, we’ll establish your cover job. A little surprise windfall for you and Rebecca. When you’re not needed for an operation, you’ll be here to train. When you are needed, we’ll brief you on the specifics. We’ll be providing you with cover stories, alibis, documentation, whatever you need to maintain the cover. Clear so far?”
Jaime nodded. This time, it was defeat, not the drugs that kept her eyes low.
“We can formalize the rest later,” Bledsoe said. “For now, the important part is that you understand what I need from you and that you’re on board.” Then, he smiled softly like he hadn’t just threatened to kill her. “I think we both deserve a break now. Coffee?”
Jaime shrugged, and laid her head down on the table in her arms.
Bledsoe watched her, just a bit of concern breaking through his expression. “I’ll take that as a yes,” he said, then got up from his chair.
Leaving the room behind, Bledsoe stepped outside into the hallway. On top of the security team, Will and Truewell were already waiting for him.
Truewell’s arms were crossed as she stared past Bledsoe into the room. “Sir, you are aware that Miss Sommers needs to be on suicide watch immediately, I hope.”
“Naturally,” Bledsoe replied. “We have the SOP for a reason, Truewell. Take it from here.”
“Right away, Sir,” Truewell replied, and walked past him into the testing room.
“It’s just grand to hear how much you care about Jaime, Jones,” Will threw in. “She’s almost zonked out by the controls and you still manage to scare her half to death.”
“We don’t have the time for softballs,” Bledsoe said. “And your right to object to this ended the second you called for a retrieval, Anthros.”
“I wanted to save her life!” Will shot back. “Not...conscript her into this madness.”
“This is no longer about what you wanted to do,” Bledsoe replied. “Believe me, I would have preferred a different candidate - a soldier who’s grateful for a second chance to serve his country, for example. I told you there’d be consequences, I warned you this would happen, and here we are. So you don’t get to go over my head and then play the victim card, Anthros. Pull yourself together, do your damn job and get me a report on the bionics. It’s time you start thinking with your head again.”
“Oh, are we allowed to think now?” Will said. “I couldn’t tell. After all, Jaime’s so doped up she barely knows what she’s saying.”
“I seem to recall that being your parameters on the controls, Anthros,” Bledsoe said. “And that’s something else to fix - the baseline is too high, any stress at all and she went limp. It was like talking to a heroin user. Maybe that’s what you should focus on for the moment, adjust the baseline lower so she can look normal in public, and moderate the full effects so she can remain combat effective unless she’s about to become hysterical. I need you to make sure that she can stay on task, but won’t try to kill us. In every other regard, I’ll settle for ‘reasonable’. Do you think you can manage that?”
Will’s eyes narrowed to a glare, but he held his tongue for that critical moment. “Yes, Sir,” he said.
Bledsoe turned away to the sound of Will’s silence, but only made it a few steps down the hall before that broke. “You know she can’t be what you want her to be,” Will said quietly.
“For her sake,” Bledsoe replied, “I hope she can.”