part one: i used to think there was no future left at all.
The reason Spencer gets the maintenance call in the first place is because a friend of a friend (okay, an ex-girlfriend of a friend of a friend) knows this lady that owns this place, and she owes some other maint a favour, and it's eight pm on a Friday night so clearly only Spencer Smith is available, seriously, please, I'll owe you so much--
"All right, already," Spencer replied, yawned, and disconnected the call. Jesus. You mention that you're available to take weekend calls one time. At least it's after-hours, off the books, which means extra pay.
Apparently the place he's checking out is a club, which is-- honestly, it's kind of seedy. Spencer sighs, because not only is he working on Friday night, now he's going to some shady synth joint where he'll probably be mistaken for an underage cyborg that, just, ugh.
So it's in fairly disgruntled spirits (which his biofeedback mentally beeps helpfully at him the whole train ride over there, thanks very much, new software) that he finds himself at the door of the factory.
Like, there are ways to advertise what basically amounts to a club - even with cage dancing and theme nights and a reputation for serving anyone - right? Spencer's seen those kinds of clubs, the outside are all classy. Ish. He's never really been in one, but he's seen a few that don't scream out completely tasteless. But this is so not one of them. There's even like, flashing, moving gears on the front of the building, oh so reminiscent of the industrial age they left how many eons ago? He figures it's probably supposed to be quaint, but somehow they managed totally fucking garish instead.
Spencer stares at the door off to the right (his buddy had said, "no, of course, no one's there right now really, and besides there's a big backstage" and Spencer had swallowed and hadn't wondered about what was onstage with a wince). It opens right as he's considering his options for just fucking off on this and going out like he'd planned, though, and he's implanted eye to face - one hundred percent biological face - with a really short dude with black hair and big smile.
"Are you the dude that's gonna help Ryan? You're early," the dude says, and then he scrunches his face up in what Spencer grudgingly admits is a fairly adorable smile. His biofeedback system, meanwhile, chirps deep in the extended processor devoted just to monitoring his biorhythms that he's, in this order: A. hungry; B. surprised; and C. in need of an attitude readjustment.
Spencer replies, "uh, yeah? I guess. I'm the maint, anyway," and makes a mental note to reprogram himself.
The guy says, "awesome. Ryan's, he's, well," and the guy waggles a hand as if to indicate what it is that Ryan is? maybe? Spencer's bio system then beeps a warning at him about mental stress levels and sarcasm, as if Spencer weren't actually feeling the thoughts it was pointing out to him.
The guy holds the door open to step through, and calls out over his shoulder, "I'm Pete, it's -- you've never been here before so probably come find me if you need anything, not, uh, well. Anybody else," and then Spencer is walking past the line-up of cyborgs and organics, all waiting patiently to get behind the literal glass curtain and into the darkened club.
Spencer follows Pete past the bouncer, and inside.
Spencer is introduced to Ryan. Or rather, Spencer is introduced to Ryan's output terminal, since Ryan himself is frozen.
"Yeah, so." Pete shrugs, stuffs his hands in the pocket of his too-skinny pants. "He does it kind of a lot? but like," Pete says, shrugs, looks away for a second. Spencer waits, projecting that demeanor of calm, careful help he mastered, while simultaneously rolling his eyes inside his head.
Somewhere deep in the enhanced part of his net, a spare circuit cheeps out what might as well be described as a giggle.
Pete shakes his shoulders out, finally shrugging again. "He's like. We really like him, so can you help him?" Pete finally offers up, and Spencer says,
"Of course, I'll be really careful." As Pete sighs in relief, claps Spencer on the back, Spencer registers that Pete's saying help, not fix; using terminology that half the cys Spencer knows don't bother with. Spencer squints at Pete, a full-organic who's careful enough to do such a thing, but then gets distracted as his tablet starts feeding him Ryan's data. He realizes that he's going to be here a while as even the basic diagnostic gets rerouted through seven different pathways just to figure out why Ryan's motor cortex is frozen. Awesome.
Pete helpfully adds, "there's drinks in the locker there if you want, but we don't serve food and I have to DJ soon, so uh, good luck," and wanders out.
So, the good news is that there isn't anything massively wrong with Ryan.
The bad news is, what apparently is wrong with Ryan is systems deep, pathways curling in on themselves. Spencer feels a little bad about routing through all his memory like that, since it's basically the equivalent of having your hands balls-deep in some full-robotic's mind, but then Ryan blinks at him, once, and his lips curve up in a little bit of a smile. The sensor clicks out some status readings: Ryan commenting back on Spencer's work, now he's at least partially pulled himself out of never-ending circular logic matrices. It seems positive. Spencer nods. Okay. He's getting somewhere at least.
Spencer mutters to Ryan, "it's okay, I think I'm -- I'm getting somewhere." He feels a bit stupid, sharing with a syn that's likely not aware enough to hear (or process) him speaking, but adds, "I'm pretty good at this, even if my experimental systems are goddamned rebellious."
Ryan blinks again, with effort. Spencer resists the urge to put his organic hand on Ryan's bony shoulder, resists the urge to wrap his arm around his shoulder to try and offer any comfort. His biofeedback system (tired of making snide chemical-formulae-based remarks at him) is quiet, save for blipping NaCl; which is its own little code word for the universal sentiment of putting your hand over your face and sighing.
"Like for example, I have my own code words with my biofeedback system," Spencer says conversationally, as he tweaks the sensor display. "And I'm pretty sure right now it's laughing at me."
Ryan curls the fingers on the hand in his lap. The diagnostic readings are giving Spencer contradictory information: that Ryan is simultaneously attempting to move, sing, and shut down. But clearly Spencer is getting *somewhere*, because (not without effort) Ryan mumbles back, "mine-- thinks I'm waiting for godot."
It takes him two hours to fix, and all Ryan says is, "that was faster than normal."
Spencer chokes back a wince with effort and doesn't reply, because that's pretty fucking painful to hear. He glances down at the data encoded on his tablet out of habit, and absently wonders if there's any way to minimize the pathways used in Ryan's subconscious processing to -- well, honestly to stop him from going paralytic. His bioloop burbles at him that there's a promising lead in Ryan's enzymatic responses, versus his -- and then he realizes that Ryan's disappeared onstage and Pete's talking to him.
"So, that was impressive, you didn't take hardly any time at all," Pete's saying, and then, grin like a shark, "I could give you a lap dance as a bonus. I don't offer to just anyone."
Spencer looks Pete up and down, carefully, trying to see any work done. He's reading as organic, though, full-organic even, but looks can be deceiving. Ryan's got nu skin all over too. Besides, there's like no reason for a full organic to be working somewhere like this.
Pete leans back, eyebrow up, and Spencer pretends to consider it, tilting his head. "Nah," Spencer finally says, "I'd rather get paid and get the lap dance for free."
Pete's face lights up as he laughs. Spencer waits patiently to get paid, and ignores the internal beep that signals arousal, the rushing of -- thanks, subsystem, for pointing it out. It's not like he hasn't been living in this body since before his rebuild, and all, and thus his own arousal isn't at all totally already fucking obvious.
"I can't believe how fast you helped him," Pete tells Spencer, and mutters something about how he'd like to see what Spencer could do given enough time. Spencer's not really paying attention, because he's still mulling over help, not fix. Even for an open-minded organic, fuck, even for most cys, as a syn most people would have seen Ryan as something to--
Pete claps Spencer on the back, squeezing his shoulder and successfully derailing Spencer's thoughts. "Come on, I'll buy you a drink and you can watch the main event tonight. You should see Ryan since you made him better."
But as Spencer trails after Pete back to the main floor of the club, he realizes that the decision not to hightail it the fuck out of there was probably a mistake.
His eyes are drawn to the cage dancers, of course, lighting dim and club just smoky enough for the figures to be slightly unreal. Ryan is at the centre and gorgeous up on stage, all sinew and none of the gawkiness Spencer would have envisioned from the diagnostic data he'd been sifting through for the last hour. The lights are low, and Ryan doesn't really connect well with the crowd. He stares out at nothing, or at least at no one and nothing in the audience; keeps his chin raised and eyes near the roof beams. But he's beautiful. Spencer can hear credit chits coming out.
Pete sits him down in the VIP part of the bar (closest to backstage and having the only few seats on the entire floor) gets Spencer a drink, then disappears into the crowd.
Spencer fiddles with his glass of mint, with the flap of his kit. Inside, he's got data on more than half of Ryan's systems; Spencer can't really get turned on by Ryan dancing when, in his bag, he's got half his memories from high school, from being an awkward build to trying to explain how that who he was mattered even if he was built from scratch.
Brendon's on the bench next to him, leaning back casually and in regular clothes.
(Pete deposited Brendon next to him once it was apparent he was needed in the DJ booth; "here, Brendon will keep you company and make sure you're not paying for drinks or whatever shit," were the exact words Pete used. Brendon shook his hand for a few seconds, and after a few seconds hesitation where Brendon raised his eyebrows, quirked his mouth in a slight grin, Spencer let Brendon into his interface. Spencer knows he's weird, not liking to let other cys into his input, but it's just-- he gave Brendon brief access to his basic biofeedback system, including the running commentary of how it doesn't actually provide any interesting information, and really is more of a schizophrenic second voice in his head telling him about himself, thanks very much for that, and Brendon gave him a memory at random. The memory Spencer got is Brendon, in school, in a band practice. He's playing the piano and laughing. When Spencer got a little more, Brendon's sadness later that evening, Brendon pulled his hand away.)
"Not into it?" Brendon asks.
Spencer shrugs, feeling awkward. "I dunno, he's good looking of course." Spencer glances up, decides he doesn't want to bother tempering his language or whatever, and adds, "but like. I just fixed him. His head, not just like. A joint, or something. It's weird."
Spencer darts a glance over at Brendon, at Brendon's face and his wide smile. Behind the glasses he's wearing (which have to be decorative, because really?) Brendon looks like he approves.
"Dude," the call starts, "I can't sit here for the next six hours listening to Pete argue French literature. The last time, Moliere froze me for hours, and normally I'd just let him ramble but for some reason I can't tune him out today, and like -- wait," and there's a pause, "who'd I call."
Spencer glances around the office, grateful that none of the other maints are still around. His company is pretty lax about employee hours at the best of times, but a lot of guys on his floor are free-lancing as much as putting time on the company bill, at this point.
Right. "Yeah," Spencer says, "this is Spencer. Smith."
"Oh," the guy on the other end of the line says, sounding, well. Sounding still pretty even-toned, but Spencer guesses he's surprised. Spencer starts packing up, because sitting at home trying to untangle the dump of Ryan's memories and neural pathways is way more interesting than playing solitaire at the office waiting to go home, and while technically he didn't have permission, the fact that Ryan's memories and emotions are already in his head kind of means Spencer knows he won't mind. "Right, Spencer. I guess I mis-dialed."
The voice on the call rises slightly at the end, as if Spencer would know the answer to that question. Which, okay. "Yeah, I guess? Who is this?"
Spencer grabs his shit and starts heading for the exit. "It's Ryan," the voice on the other end of line says. "I guess-- but yeah, Pete still sucks," he starts up again, and adds, "I have to get out of here."
Spencer knows that even with his new implant, he'll probably lose the call once he gets to the train platform in the basement because of interference. "Meet me at my station in twenty," he replies, "I'm going to lose you," and hangs up.
Spencer's train gets in twenty-two minutes later, because he knows shit like how long it takes to get from work to home precisely, because things like waiting around at work suck ass and also because he'd won a bet at one point that he had the shortest commute.
Fifteen minutes later, Ryan shows up on the platform, just as Spencer's biofeedback system starts beeping a warning about how grinding one's teeth is bad for the (fake) enamel. "Hi," Spencer says, "I'm seriously close to turning my systems off, I was getting that tired of myself. Let's go."
Ryan is wearing jeans, but the rest looks like something out of a classical movie about the 19th century. He's tall, and walking a little awkward, and he's wearing sandals. There's absolutely no sign that he's all-synthetic; he replies vehemently, "I hear that," and follows Spencer out.
Ryan talks, low, about what's been going on at the club the last few months as they wander the neighbourhood, pick up some nutrients. He's casual with his emotions, which is something Spencer wouldn't have guessed he'd ever be. Spencer thinks about asking if Ryan goes from stranger to 24/7 with everyone, but obviously not. Of course, Spencer's also seen data on Ryan's entire life, a sped-up movie of his best and worst, Ryan himself stripped bare and exposed and stuck up on his repair monitor, sometimes through his own inputs if the snarls of emotional loops are too complex for the monitor alone.
When Ryan comes into Spencer's place and sees data on his teenage abandonment, depression, whatever, Spencer's embarrassed, a little ashamed to be working on Ryan's private life. But Ryan just shrugs, asks, "Are you getting anywhere?"
Spencer's gut clenches painfully, and he resists the urge to wrap Ryan up in his arms or some shit. He doesn't know what to say. "I'm not sure," he answers carefully, "I mean," and Spencer shrugs helplessly.
Ryan gives him a crooked smile back. "Yeah, I know. I was there. At least Ashlee's paying you well."
Ryan stops moving, suddenly, swivels his head around to stare. The truth is Ashlee hasn't called again yet, and so technically Spencer may not get paid at all. He can't stop trying, anyway, because, because -- Spencer says, "I just. Someone should try. I'm just, I don't know how far I'll get? But I'm gonna try."
Spencer hasn't done a lot of interfacing with other cys, preferring to keep significant input to a minimum. It's always felt like cheating, vaguely, or a shortcut for really doing the work of being friends with someone. (Then again, Spencer hasn't really gotten that close to anyone since the rebuild months ago. He never could tell if it was because he wasn't that interested in getting to know anyone that deeply, yet, or something deeper.) Sorting through Ryan's neural pathways, having to dig and link as part of the maint, it was an automatic shortcut to knowing Ryan, a new sensation, and now feels almost natural.
He doesn't really find Ryan attractive, not after having to experience years and years of Ryan's life in sharp memory bursts of disappointment and pain and upset, all in an attempt to sort out the crossed wires. But Spencer's biofeedback system isn't wrong when it beeps out that more of the chemical signaling pleasure is currently being produced in his very organic brain; that it's being produced in response to Ryan taking his hand and squeezing.
Ashlee calls the next day. Spencer doesn't read too much into it; but as he wanders into the club just before the evening shift, Ryan looks up, smiles.
(Of course Spencer's called over to unfreeze various of Ryan's limbs twice between nine and midnight, so the glamour of sitting in the VIP balcony or -- mostly -- backstage has more-than lost its appeal. Ryan's face, each time, is screwed up in misery and frustration, but all he says is, "thanks," when Spencer's done.
Each time Spencer reroutes Ryan's fear down another non-essential processor, bypassing his motor functions altogether, the maint takes less time, too, so Spencer'll call it a win.)
By the end of the night, there's maybe a handful of customers drinking cy-specials in the back and ignoring poor -- Spencer isn't even sure who's in the cage; he hasn't even met most of the dancers yet. Pete's behind the bar, it's so dead, he's just letting the piped in music play.
The guy wanders in right before Pete's about to close the cash, right before Spencer gets to start really working with (not 'on', 'with') Ryan, and something about him catches Spencer's eye. The real one, not the enhanced one even. He doesn't need the infrared to tell the guy's too hot in his suit, uncomfortable, and sporting an energy weapon.
Later, Spencer won't be able to point to exactly what makes him say something; it's not like his biofeedback system jumps in as the guy surveys the room, or the hair on the back of his neck stands up or something when the guy looks over toward the bar where he's sitting. It's not even like it's his business, since he's a consulting maint, not a staff member, no affiliation at all.
"Hey," Spencer still says to Pete quietly, "uh, there's-- there might a problem?"
Pete doesn't look up from where he's counting receipts to reply, which startles Spencer. "Yeah," says Pete, eyes on the register, "I see him."
Pete's low voice, the tone, makes Spencer's lower back twinge. The new mods to his spine from a month ago, the maintenance team promised they'd be totally invisible, he wouldn't be able to tell any difference, but every time he gets nervous he can totally feel the little jolts of extra energy racing across the fibre connections down there. It's his body's early warning system, in some crazy way, so he just goes with it. It's better than his biofeedback system, which -- even though this could be a real threat -- is chirping away about exhaustion instead.
Spencer tracks the dude with his eyes, as he sits down in the back of the room. He thoughtfully places a typical chit in the slot for the last dancer, so whatever he's in the club for, it won't be too bad, not if he's paying the dancers. Spencer doesn't want to know; he relaxes, a little.
Pete eyes him for a second, and says, "Hey, Spence, can you watch the bar for a second? I'm going to go-- I'm going to go to the back for a second."
Spencer nods. Swallows.
Pete heads back, probably to make sure everyone's aware they've got an Authority in the bar, to warn Ashlee or whatever needs to be done. Briefly, Spencer wonders if Pete has the falsified paperwork for those teeth mods he's got and that Spencer definitely shouldn't know about -- what a stupid thing to be brought up for, illegal vampire teeth, but since Pete's all organic, it could be a problem.
Well, it could be worse (and from pictures Brendon pulled out earlier tonight, Spencer knows it was -- Pete could still have those ridiculous cosmetic fur implants).
There's something everyone needs to know about Ryan--
Okay, wait. There's a bunch of stuff people need to know about Ryan. But something most of the clients don't know about Ryan, that they really should, is that he's completely synthetic.
Most of the one-off patrons don't actually believe it if they hear it; Ryan's workmanship, man, it was good. His skin feels real, he sweats salty water with the correct pH levels. If he's having a good night, most people probably wouldn't even guess he's a cyborg, much less all synthetic.
On a bad night, of course, it's kinda way too obvious.
"Uh--" and some guy Spencer's never seen wanders out of Ryan's private room. The guy says, "I. Uh. Ryan's."
Spencer knows that look. Unfortunately, he's getting used to seeing it. "Uh, yeah," and he coughs, holds his metal hand up to his face. It's not Ryan's fault, and he knows it, but. "Yeah, don't worry-- there's, like. Talk to Ashlee for a refund, and I'll just--"
and the guy interrupts with, "hey, no, just. No." Spencer pauses, re-evaluates: the dude looks genuinely concerned, and -- more telling -- doesn't look the slightest bit flushed or rumpled. The guy adds, "It's, I brought him back stage, but they told me you could help him."
Huh. 'Help', not 'fix'. He goes up another notch in Spencer's mental tally. Spencer grabs his toolkit, and replies, "sure, yeah, don't worry," and goes backstage.
So then Spencer sees Jon around, like, daily. Apparently he's been out of town.
(Brendon helpfully gives Spencer the inside scoop on everyone, cheerfully keeping Spencer company while everyone else is working. Once or twice Spencer wants to ask why Brendon hardly ever takes a cage himself, but it seems kind of rude -- "hey, why don't you dance as much as the others?" -- so instead he decides to be grateful for the company and the information, even if it is delivered in such vague terms as to be basically useless.)
Jon's awesome, chill and stuff; he'll sit with Spencer while Spencer works, drinking actual beer instead of the cy specialty drinks. He's nice, quiet while Spencer's working and funny when Spencer's got time to chat. This is the problem: the more Jon's around, Ryan gets worse.
Later that week Spencer goes into the factory again during the day instead of what's becoming his routine night-visit to Ryan, because Ashlee calls him in for another contract on top of his weekly retainer for Ryan.
As Ashlee opens the locked side-door for him, Spencer peers around the washed out club, interested. The place is different when there aren't any customers in it: tables empty, floor kind of grungy. Light filters in from narrow window slits near the roof, but it still looks -- gloomy.
As they wander to the back of the club (where there's a maint bench set up, Spencer notices, as well as a few cys milling around) Ashlee says, "we only close from 6AM to noon, so this is really the only maintenance time the other guys have, and our regular guy isn't, uh, available, anymore. So I appreciate you coming out early."
Spencer nods, stifling a yawn. It's just seven thirty; normally his calls don't start till the afternoon shift. There's no particular reason he took this call. His biofeedback system blips, tries to tell him that he's lying to himself. Spencer ignores it, and follows Ashlee back down to the floor.
Brendon's nowhere, and Spencer's biofeedback system tries to tell him in his stomach that he's disappointed. He ignores it. "Hi," he says to Ryan, and then, "what's up?"
Ryan shrugs. His arms are folded in on himself, and he's slouching. "I, Ashlee's got the list," he mutters, and then says, "I'll just wait, you can probably get through everyone else while I diagnostic, man."
The thing about Ryan is, he really hates not working right. Like, he actually took two terms of systems analysis training just to try and fix himself. Spencer pulls the sensor out, hands it over, and resists the urge to pull Ryan's oh-so-soft hand -- covered in nu skin that people wouldn't isn't real even if they licked it -- into his metal one.
"Yeah," Spencer says instead, and lets Ryan go about diagnosing himself. He pulls up the stool, and gets to work.
Spencer's fourth, and last, fix is Pete's teeth. Ashlee actually drags him over and forces him into the chair, and Ashlee stares at Pete, hard, and Pete sighs. "Okay, fine. Okay. It was close this time."
Spencer knows that, technically, Pete's not allowed to mod himself at all; that Pete was born of man and woman, still classified as such, and thus is subject to all those rules. Spencer knows that, really, it's dicey him even working in here, much less asking if Spencer will install a phone inset to his wrist.
"Just a small one?" Pete asks, hopefully.
When he's done with Pete, Ashlee comes over to credit his work account right away for the expenses and his time, even though Spencer was totally about to write up the invoice. He'll still do the invoice, of course, but -- "seriously, this is a lot easier for me," she says to him, "I know we can be a tough crowd, and things move kind of... quick, around here. It's better for me to cover it up front." She smiles, casual, adds, "you can square it with your accounting people, right? It won't be too much trouble?"
Spencer's bioloop blips at him, one pulse like a tap to the back of the skull. He has no idea what it means, and it's jarring as hell. But Spencer replies, "no, yeah, it'll be fine," because whatever else, the fact that they're paid in advance? Never been a problem.
Pete's running a tongue over his newly-restored teeth, frowning absently as Spencer watches him. "Hey, you should drop by some time when Ryan's not -- on a regular DJ night, Smith," he says suddenly. "We've got a good guy in on Thursday," he tells Spencer, full thousand-watt (and non-vampiric) smile turned on Spencer.
"Uh," Spencer says to them, because that's really about all he's got. His bioloop has gone back to calculating his iron deficiency, no more weird sensations, as Pete presses a flyer for next Thursday (VIP access! Drink ticket included!) into Spencer's metal hand.
At work the next day, Spencer fills out the invoice, marks it 'paid', and starts to fill out the original copy to send to Accounting, keeps the second for his files. He realizes that Ashlee didn't give any client information for the cys, no billing address other than the club, which is a little weird, but not unheard of for a restaurant or venue.
The maint that started there the same time Spencer had, Craig, bounds into Spencer's cubicle. "Heard you got a strip club call yesterday!" he says cheerily.
Spencer shrugs, and doesn't bother to correct him, doesn't tell him he's been there before (though not billed through the office). Most of the guys do work off the books, but Spencer's still uncomfortable about it. Craig's smile is wide, showing a million teeth, and Spencer finds himself comparing it to Pete's shark-grin. Spencer tells him, "yeah, it was interesting."
"I'll bet," Craig smirks.
For some reason Spencer doesn't want to examine too closely, his hackles go up at the insinuation. He wants to protect the club, make sure no one goes to heckle from the office or something and he totally doesn't trust that Craig won't pull the file and find out where it is. Spencer pulls out the invoice. Scanning it, the business name and address is fine, it's generic, it's nothing, but, yeah, there's information on the diagnostics and, he'll have to fill it out again to make sure nothing revealing is listed.
"So?" Craig asks impatiently.
"Dude," Spencer replies impatiently, " it's not like," and then he just stops talking, because Craig's laughing, it was clearly just a set-up for -- whatever.
Craig wanders off when it's clear Spencer isn't going to dish any more on the fabulous world of barely-adult entertainment (Craig's exact words). Spencer re-opens the invoice file and removes all the details, checks off the boxes for type of maint ("other", "other", "limb adjustment", with no comments). No one needs to know a cy's business other than the cy, and if Accounting has a shit-fit, Spencer can whip out the 'they already paid us' card, which should shut them up.
"Hey Smith," Craig calls out, "you going for lunch?"
Spencer's bioloop suggests ingesting nutritious food as an appropriate action to take at this time of day (bitchy piece of programming it is), but Spencer yells out, "nah."
part two: bang bang
Against his better judgment, Spencer listens to the devil on his shoulder (shaped a lot like Pete's grin, waving a DJ night flyer in his outstretched hand) and goes to the factory on his night off.
It's early on Thursday so there are still dancers in a few of the cages, which means Spencer almost fled, but Pete spotted him immediately and steered him to his usual corner before Spencer could protest. Pete and the guys seemed so happy to see him, too, that Spencer got trapped and now he can't leave, it would be rude. Even if he can't bring himself to watch.
"I mean," he says, "it's not like I would come here to, look."
Pete nods in an offhand fashion, to indicate he's listening without really actually listening. Spencer glances at the cage, where the last couple of guys are dancing. They've got some pretty hardcore skin mods between the two of them, and are grinding up against each other. One snakes a hand all the way around to get into the other's pants, slender wrist and ultra-long arm vibrating in time to the music. He should be intrigued, maybe interested -- but Spencer just wonders how their joint work allows for that extra reach without it being too fragile to support the limb. Whatever it is, it's clearly beyond the regular fabrication units (at least all the ones Spencer's used) and it makes him want to study it, see the scans and structures. It doesn't even at all mean he wants them to take off their pants.
At least Spencer knows how pathetic it is that he's interested in the dancers because of their bones, not beauty -- not the beauty other people see, the skin and, whatever. He stares glumly down at the bar, and his stupid face reflects back at him; maybe that last mint oil was a bit much. In the marble counter, with the lights underneath making constant multi-coloured patterns, Spencer looks completely organic.
Pete stands up, hops up and over the counter enough to reach the bottle of mint oil, and tops up Spencer's glass.
"Thanks," Spencer says, and then, "yeah. Cause like." He rubs his organic hand against his face, sweeps his hair out of his eyes. "It's not like I can look," Spencer tries, again. He looks over to Ryan, who's just crawling into a cage himself. The colour in his wrists is moving on its own, reacting with the strobe lights, so it looks like he's constantly changing shape, line, form. Everyone crowds around. Ryan, in this lighting especially, is popular. Spencer adds, "Because I've seen their basic operations, you know? It's just, not right."
"Uh huh," Pete says. Pete's eyes follow Ryan, go a little cross-eyed from trying to keep up with the moving patterns. "Do you think I'd look cool with that kind of ink?" he asks Spencer, oh-so-helpfully. "I'm thinking about getting some moving tattoos, maybe that react to sound? So when I'm in the booth, you know."
Spencer stares at Pete, who's still watching Ryan. He thinks about replying, just decides, no.
Spencer decides to lay off the oil for a while, and is instead sitting at the bar in his work corner, staring at where Ryan's having problems standing upright in a casual fashion. Ryan's reactions have been a bit off all night, except on stage. His body language screams 'nerves' -- and Spencer knows from long exposure to 'Ryan' and 'nerves', but he can't seem to figure out what the nerves are from. It's seriously fucking weird, whatever it is, and Spencer's almost ready to go over there, except--
"Is he frozen again?"
Spencer swivels around to where Pete's filling glasses with a suspiciously green liquid. He shrugs. "I can't tell from here," Spencer admits, because that's the problem: he can't tell if Ryan's broken, or just socially inept. Spencer wonders if he himself is broken, or just socially inept, because he's also got one eye -- two when Ryan looks like he's handling himself fine -- on Brendon serving drinks. He tries not to watch Brendon the few times he has been dancing, even though Brendon tends to just wink if he catches Spencer looking, because it still feels weird. But serving drinks, that's totally okay. Or something.
Ryan leans into Jon's space, Jon laughs.
Pete slides a beer towards Spencer (and that might actually be the best perk of this whole 'retainer' job, free drinks and no cover and interesting people to watch on the floor all night, even if it does also include trying to avert his eyes from good-looking young cys dancing provocatively). "Hear about the latest Council vote?"
Spencer blinks. "On?"
Pete shrugs, goes to fill one of the other cys' (Frank? Spencer thinks) order -- a row of shots for one of the tables in the corner, and a couple of beers. He flips the guy sitting at the other end of the bar another pale-yellow oil flask, then comes back to Spencer. "Mandatory maint fee increase for non-organ fabrication. Only on the materials, not labour. So far."
Pete glances at Spencer for a moment, and Spencer gets a creeping sensation his bioloop suggests is mild dehydration. Spencer absently dismisses the suggestion, because he knows it's part embarrassment that he hasn't been paying attention to local politics, and partly because obviously Pete has. "What happened?" Spencer finally asks.
"Tabled," Pete tells him, and then adds matter-of-fact, "though if it passes it'll mean a lot of hardship for people trying to get limb replacements." Off Spencer's baffled look, Pete says, "red tape." Pete shrugs, takes a swig of his beer. "It'll mean it takes twice as long for people to get limbs fabricated post-rebuild, which'll mean there's more chance they won't function with the existing nerves."
"Huh," Spencer replies. "You know an awful lot about what goes into limb fabrication," because really, Pete does. Spencer knows all that, obviously, but then Spencer's maint specialty so far has been limbs and joints, so of course he knows what goes into fabricating combination organic-synthetic replacements.
"I'm a man of many talents," Pete tells him, and it's a line that should sound like a joke but so clearly isn't -- Pete says it so seriously -- that Spencer blinks. Pete glances over to where Jon's waving three fingers at them, and salutes back; then starts carefully pouring mint oil and vanilla vodka into double-sized shot glasses, careful to ensure the layers don't mix.
Oh, that can't be good for *anyone*, Spencer thinks, because mint oil can be potent for cys, and vanilla vodka, god--
Instead of saying any of this, Spencer carefully asks, "What are you doing?"
Pete grins, and it's like a flip is switched, he's immediately back to cheerful and unrepentant. He asks, "Do you want an answer to that? Consider carefully," and Spencer decides to go back to work, because really? No.
Out of the corner of his eye, Spencer catches Ryan pulling Jon into a private booth, tray of vanilla-vodka-and-mint-oil in tow. Okay. Well. If Ryan's not broken yet, the combination of him and Jon plus Pete mixing drinks means it's just a matter of time. Spencer grabs his kit, and makes a mental note to try and read the paper tomorrow to see what's going on.
Ashlee comes up to him in a break in the sets, and tells Spencer, "Whatever it is that Pete wants next--"
Spencer thinks back to the last dumbass thing Pete had-- "Malleable tattoos," Spencer dutifully tells her.
"Right," she says, "so anyway, at least make sure the paperwork's a good enough forgery that it'll scan, okay?" Spencer's a bit surprised she'd just up and say it; technically he's supposed to politely-but-firmly discontinue all contact with a business that breaks the full-organics code (depending on the infraction, report it). She looks over to the corner, and when Spencer follows her gaze, he realizes Ashlee's probably more concerned with other things because sure enough, there's an Authority drinking quietly at the table furthest in shadow. Again.
She adds, "I can't like, stop him? But sometimes I'm tempted to kill him myself than try and get the papers."
Spencer looks at his glass. It's empty.
The next time he's in the club, Pete brings him the design for the tattoos he wants; Spencer was kind of hoping Pete'd forget about it, but no, of course not. Spencer takes one look, and he knows that even if he can get the right kind of ink, even if he can convince an artist to do it, and even if he can figure out a way to get the paperwork, there's absolutely no way to do this much ink in non-enhanced organic skin without some seriously damaging side effects.
He tells Pete this, and Pete says, "can I get the grafts then?" His face is hopeful, wide smile, bouncing on his toes a little the way he gets when he's really excited. Spencer's known him roughly two weeks but it feels like forty-eight years, and it's definitely long enough to know that look on Pete's face.
Spencer turns on his heel and walks away. He'll message him later with the name of an artist, obviously, but sometimes you want plausible deniability.
"Uh," and Spencer glances over to where in the DJ booth is currently occupied by Pete and some skinny dude (not that that really narrows things down that much, in this place, but it's too dark for Spencer to really see who it is). Spencer asks, "did Pete forget his deck again?"
Brendon shrugs. His tee's too tight again; Spencer can see the gleam of silver under the sleeve, little curls of smooth, malleable metal where bicep joined shoulder. He turns around; Spencer swallows hard, even though there's no reason for him to need to. God. Brendon. "Probably?" Brendon says. "He's, you know--" and he waggles his hand to indicate whatever it is that Pete is.
"How long has he worked here again?" Spencer asks.
"Uh. I think. Like. Him and Ashlee opened the place a couple years ago?"
Pete's flipping a bunch of buttons; Spencer suddenly can taste the electricity sparking in the air. Christ, now that Pete's playing with the static charge switches they won't get anything done. Brendon shivers, and Spencer does too; involuntary nerve reaction, tingles all up and down his -- Yeah, fucking awesome Pete, because it's a thousand times harder to work when you're shivering with want all of a sudden.
Behind the bar, Ryan straightens up suddenly, spasm-ing a bit. Oh awesome. And Ryan's reacting to the sparks, too. Brendon glances over, and pushes off the wall. "I'll tell Pete not to do that till he's sorted out," he mutters, and wanders to where Pete's playing with the records.
Spencer rubs his creaking hip -- it needs some maintenance, the skin and muscle aren't taking to the new joint the way they'd accepted the old one -- and sighs. His biofeedback system echoes it back at him, and Spencer pushes at it to see if it can damp the static electric charge running goosebumps all over his skin, the sparks and, yep, nothing the bioloop can do. It's contrite, if a control processor can be contrite, offering to increase oxygen to his red blood cells on the off-chance he can do something else about the piercing, shaking desire in his body?
And fuck, that's the opposite of helpful. Spencer closes his eyes, and tries to ignore the little shocks all over his skin, worse when he watches Brendon walk away.
When Brendon finally gets Pete to stop fucking with the static charges, Spencer only has to deal with his normal totally-inappropriate desire flushing through his system. At least the bioloop can help with it, even if it's being unusually reluctant.
Not that Brendon's helping, either. "So I was wondering if--"
"No," Spencer says, then relents almost immediately and sits down. "Fine. What do you want, Brendon?"
Clearly Brendon has been sneaking looks at his research into his biofeedback loops, because that swooping stomach, heated face reaction Spencer's getting right now can't possibly be accidental. Brendon even flutters his fucking lashes, which, ok. That's just not -- no. Spencer closes his eyes. Brendon says, "but please?"
"No," Spencer says weakly, and ignores the smooth metal finger that runs down his cheek. Spencer's not letting Brendon into his memory circuits. Again. Spencer knows it's not common, his resistance to sharing his input, but.
When he opens his eyes, Brendon's gone; his oh so organic cheek is tingling -- a sign of complex emotions being played out in his nervous system, his biofeedback loops explain to him, complete with chemical formulae. Spencer curls a fist in his lap, and wishes for a few moments to be Ryan, so he could actually fucking shut himself off. Then he watches Ryan walk into a doorway while tugging on the sleeves of his jacket, and takes it back.
"Well, do you like him?" Spencer asks, and then makes another notation in the data-file of things technically labeled 'emotive matrices sub process 12' but in Spencer's head is actually called 'List of Awkward'.
Ryan tilts his head, glances over to where Brendon is playing some, stringed instrument. It's early enough in the club that few patrons are milling about, and the noise level is low enough that they can talk without having to yell. Spencer watches Brendon for a second, and then once Ryan looks up to meet Spencer's eyes, looks back at the hands folded carefully in his lap. He finally just says, "It's different. Besides. I mean."
The monitor flashes at him, and Spencer's biofeedback loop flashes NaCl in a bright neon sign saying 'lol'. Spencer, however, just opens another data-file, and saves it 'emotive matrices sub process 13', which he has mentally labeled 'Stuff About Ryan I Totally Don't Get', and starts fiddling with the monitor.
Spencer knows it's not professional to label someone's subconscious with pithy one-liners. But it actually helps him sort out the many, many different fucked up inputs that flash through Ryan's programming into useful categories, makes it faster to help Ryan reroute them. It's a bit like reprogramming psychoanalysis-style, which is kind of hilarious, but it works, so Spencer'll call it a win.
Since he started working at the factory he's been thinking that a lot.
"Right?" Ryan asks, suddenly. "It's, like. It's different. Right?"
Spencer honestly only has a vague idea what or who Ryan's talking about anymore. "Um," he replies helpfully, and watches Ryan's face again. He resists the urge to scan Ryan's systems more deeply, no matter the data. Ryan's programming is already twisting itself into knots, all but overloading his language processes, just having this stilted conversation. Spencer doesn't want to push it and have Ryan upset again.
"Yeah, I dunno. It never works," Ryan says, "and it's, like. It's so complicated." Ryan glances at Brendon again, who's walking on his hands. His shirt's rucked up a little, and Spencer can see the beautiful line of the work on his spine, the metal there curving around to where his hip turns into real flesh, real bone. Spencer doesn't know how you'd ever give that up, but it seems like Ryan might have.
He makes another notation in sub process 13 which basically amounts to :( and immediately tries to shield it from Ryan's gaze.
The monitor beeps, and as Ryan runs a hand through his hair, Spencer feels a twinge of something. His biofeedback system tries to tell him it's just hunger, and it is, indeed past dinner-time. Spencer thinks it's a little sad that even his own systems are lying to try and protect him now, but whatever.
Spencer fill out another line of crossed pathways into emotional matrices sub process 13, and ignores the pang in his stomach.
He lets Ryan change the topic, Spencer not even remotely listening to him. Spencer finds that watching Ryan's emotional matrices while Ryan rambles a much better indication of what he's saying. While normally he'd be a bit weirded out by the opportunity to eavesdrop on Ryan's emotions, Ryan's happy to share (or over-share, depending), so Spencer's got over it. He drifts, letting Ryan's low monotone wash over him, when--
"Wait, what about religion now?" Spencer asks, not a hundred percent sure he wants to know the answer.
Ryan's spinning around on the bar stool as fast as he can go -- what the fuck, like that's going to end well, even if the input isn't in his wrist anymore -- and surreptitiously not looking at Jon, drinking with another scruffy dude in the corner and facing the wall. They're paying the strip-club prices, and they're paying the automatic tip for the dancers, but why they're bothering when neither of them is actually watching the stage--
"--so Pete said, and I don't know, it makes sense," Ryan's saying.
"Wait, Pete? I wouldn't have figured. Um."
Spencer doesn't finish the sentence, because he doesn't know how and it seems kind of rude; but Ryan seems to know what Spencer was about to say. He leans forward on the stool. "He might act it but Pete's not registered atheist, apparently he and Patrick always--" and then Ryan clamps his mouth shut, looks away; finally looks back at Spencer with his mouth a thin, unhappy line.
Spencer's only been working around this club for about a month, but the evidence goes something like: if Ryan's bored, not on stage, and Spencer's in the vicinity, typically Ryan will be murmuring on and on and on about everything and everyone, poetry and customers and this new flavour of juice he tried. He doesn't do it with most other people, but even when Spencer's tuning him out Ryan keeps going, a low, unchanging tone, babble in the background.
(when Spencer asked about it, Ryan shrugged uncomfortably but replied, "well, you basically already know how fucked up I am. You've seen my circuits, my pathways, you've already got all my memories. We might as well have grown up together. And you're still here. Why would I worry about what shit comes out of my mouth?"
It made a strange sort of sense, and Spencer was irrationally grateful for the trust. He'd never really felt like a best friend before.)
So, but anyway, Ryan basically never shut up. So now, mouth closed and staring over in Jon's direction as if he's never going to say anything again, Spencer's moved to ask, "what the fuck?"
"Dude," Spencer says, "You-- what?"
Ryan finally turns back. His face is all twisted up in a way that makes him kind of endearing and kind of gross looking. Spencer makes a subtle notation on his data tablet to try and get Ryan to recreate it when they're testing next, just to see what the hell's going on in his cheek muscles to make that weird shit happen. Ryan finally says, "I can't-- I mean, it's. Pete wouldn't like it. I shouldn't have talked about him."
"Him?" Spencer suddenly gets a shiver, a pang low in his belly.
Ryan glances around. "Yeah. I mean, I would, it's not -- it's just, Pete's." Ryan kind of waves his hand around, scrunches his face up even more. "He's kind of."
"Yeah, okay," Spencer finally says, and lets Ryan off the hook. Jesus, these dudes all have secret lives or some shit. Spencer grins. "You can't talk about it, I get it." A thought occurs, and he adds, "I shouldn't ask Pete about this, right?"
Ryan shakes his head. "No, don't. I mean, he won't be mad, at you, he'll just." Ryan lowers his voice even more, eyes wide, bites his lip. "It'll probably just make him sad."
Sad, Spencer thinks. Okay. Sad. Well, he wouldn't want to make one of his bosses sad, especially since -- he gets another twinge, this one of fear and shock, that sensation at the base of your neck when you realize that you should have known something earlier but didn't figure it out till now -- he hasn't worked for anyone else since Ashlee called him in.
"Wow," Spencer says, "I haven't done any other jobs since I came here, you know that?"
Ryan smiles, a little one, just part of his mouth quirking up. "We can be insistent, all needy and shit. Ashlee's got you on a weekly stipend now at least, right? It's enough to pay for everything?"
"Yeah, it's--" Actually, it's not. It's almost enough, Spencer may just have to move, either into a smaller space, or in with someone else. "Other than my place, I'm good. I might just have to move."
"Aw, moving sucks," Ryan starts off with, and then the low hum of his chatter starts up again. Spencer lets it soothe him, the words totally irrelevant, just lets Ryan talk and occasionally puts in a 'hmm' or 'yeah' for good measure.
It's almost nine pm and the club's starting to fill, the music's getting louder. Ryan's not on tonight until at least midnight, so he's not even bothering to go change, just sits beside Spencer and talks, once and a while saying hi to a regular. Spencer keeps working on the maint logs. Ashlee has him looking at Alex's knees (substandard parts, Spencer may have to replace them altogether, though he'd rather not since technically it's beyond his capabilities, and also, it'll be hella-expensive and even more painful, even if Alex says he can take it). He hesitates over the 'details' sections; since coming here he hasn't bothered, accounting doesn't care what he fills out other than their internal client number, basic ID and dollar amounts.
Ryan glances down at the data tablet, at the blank details. He asks, "You gonna fill that out?"
Spencer just barely stops himself from asking whether he should; shrugs. Ryan's gaze makes it feel like a test; Spencer answers, "It's kind of a lot of work when the office doesn't care, you know?"
Ryan nods seriously, and Spencer shuts the tablet off. The club is full enough that Spencer can barely make out Ryan's voice, the lighting flickering above them, the music loud and vibrating all through his parts. It's not a special night, so it's just music and the dance floor, though they do have a guest DJ. Spencer notices when she takes the booth, and wonders where Pete is. Finally Spencer spies Pete, who -- unusually for him -- is sitting at a table in the corner, the one closest to backstage that's always marked 'reserved' for the staff.
It's not him sitting at the table that's unusual; it's the frown of concentration, the total transformation of his face when he's not smiling or pouting or making a face. Spencer doesn't know Pete that well -- he totally likes the guy a lot anyway -- but he hasn't ever seen that particular distant stare before.
Pete glances up, sees Spencer, and smiles at him. Spencer knows it's a real smile, too, soft and genuine. Spencer turns back to his data tablet, and doesn't watch as Pete goes back to his. Spencer doesn't wonder what Pete's doing, and he definitely doesn't wonder what the fuck when Jon's friend slaps Pete on the back all amiably as he leaves.
His biofeedback system calls bullshit by flashing a complex series of pheremonal path analyses at him, all for fight-or-flight responses.
part three: pull my strings and cut my rope
The first time Spencer sees -- no, wait.
The first time Spencer meets Gabe, he's wearing a lime-green tee-shirt, skinny retro pants, a huge belt with various tools hanging off it, and big sunglasses. He sticks his hand out, smiles wide, and says, "Hi, I'm Gabe. Welcome to the end of the world."
The first time Spencer sees Gabe, he's sitting quietly in a corner with a charcoal grey work suit on, just like any of the other customers in the club. The only similarity is the sunglasses, effectively masking his eyes from view. He's not sitting in the front, but he's not sitting in the rear either. He's ordering bottles of relatively acceptable beer, paying the automatic +20% each time Brendon goes to his table to serve. Spencer's sitting at the corner of the bar, like usual, with work tablets spread out in front of him.
Why Gabe catches his eye at first, he's not sure; he looks like most of the other businessmen paying for the dancers. He even smiles briefly at Brendon as he puts down his drink. Spencer's biofeedback system blips a spark of jealousy at that (increase in acid in his stomach, thanks) but it morphs quickly into a more nebulous feeling. Gabe is watching the dancers -- interested, polite, clinking credit chits in every time a new song is played -- but something's off.
Spencer realizes what it is when he watches Gabe lean over to joke with Brendon as he drops another bottle of beer on the table. Whatever they're saying, Spencer's too far away to hear. And maybe that's what made him look twice, Brendon's reaction rather than Gabe's, all familiar and-- and comfortable, Spencer realizes with a start.
But whatever it was that caught Spencer's wandering attention at first, it's what's in Gabe's other hand that keeps his gaze. Before, his hand was firmly under the table. Spencer had just assumed that his hand was in his lap for the typical reason, but now he realizes that Gabe's artificial, smooth plastic and metal hand, it's gripping a data tablet.
Spencer glances down at the ones spread out in front of him. It's Ryan's latest breakdown, and it spells out emotional hopelessness in ones and zeros. The emotional hopelessness *of* ones and zeros.
Brendon leans over him, reaching behind the bar to drop Gabe's latest empty into the sink with a clatter. "How's the tin man coming?" he asks Spencer, leaning up all into Spencer's personal space.
Spencer ignores the flutter in his chest, and his biofeedback system running diagnostics to figure out whether he's somehow injured himself due to his rapid increase in heart rate. "What? Oh, Ryan. He's. Yeah."
It's not at all an answer, but someone else is calling for Brendon, so he has to go serve more drinks. When Spencer looks over at Gabe again, the data tablet has disappeared, and only one hand is visible above the table.
Spencer knows that Ryan's tablets aren't transmitting, and his data security as a rule is at least moderately good. After a moment's unease, a moment of uncertainty that's cloudy fear, unfounded, irrational -- he locks the tablets, and turns them off.
It makes even less sense when he sees him the next week, on Spencer's routine morning maint visit. "What's the end of the world?" Spencer starts with, and then, "Wait. You look familiar."
It's the sunglasses, the sunglasses and the same feeling of unease that his biofeedback system is going batshit crazy for, twisting itself into knots trying to explain it, the cause, the root of that jolt of fear, while Gabe is saying, "I dunno, I'm just here for a few hours to tech," and Spencer says,
"no, you were--" and he wraps his arms around his stomach, metal hand tucked close to his body, "you were here last week."
Gabe glances around, mouth suddenly a sharp line. "I've-- listen, I have to get to work in the booth and fix some stuff. Why don't we talk for a minute?" The smile is no less sharp. Spencer hesitates, but his stomach's still roiling, and the booth is glass, is open and visible from the floor, so.
In the booth, Gabe starts actually pulling out tools and sensors, so Spencer figures whatever else, he's a tech as well. "So?" Spencer says.
"So," Gabe starts, and then he sighs. "Look, when did you see me?"
"Last week, Wednesday-- wait, you've been here more than once?"
A flash of teeth, as Gabe pulls out the first deck to set a sensor in place. "Uh. Fuck. Yes."
"Listen," and Gabe turns around suddenly, leaning forward. Now his posture suddenly reflects a cyborg, whereas before -- without realizing it and other than Gabe's hand, Spencer'd pegged Gabe as organic until just now. Now he's got the perfectly still posture of a full synthetic, one waiting on input or clarification. Somehow it makes the blank look on his face seem more sincere, not less, even if that makes no sense. Spencer relaxes a little despite himself, a little reassured. "Listen," Gabe says again, "I promise I'm not going to turn you in," and Spencer tenses right back up again, because yeah, that's the opposite of reassuring-- Gabe says, "Pete knows me. I know, Pete and I are friends, we go way back."
"So what are you--"
"Not right now, okay?" Gabe turns back to the console he's working on, sticks another sensor in. Absently Spencer evaluates the progress, and decides that yes, Gabe knows what he's doing. Gabe swivels back around on his stool, half the guts of the second deck clutched in his organic hand. He's facing Spencer completely, facing away from the windows. Gabe hesitates, finally says, "I, talk to Pete, then we'll talk again. Okay? Okay."
His artificial hand goes to the glasses, and he pulls them off. Behind them, Spencer can see snake tattoos where his pupils should be. The eyes are -- off, somehow. Spencer nods, once, sharp. Stands.
He walks mechanically back down to floor, posture relaxed and still: a reserve of motion. He lets his artificial parts take over his outward motion back to the corner of the bar he's started considering his workbench. Spencer sits down, allowing his automatic processes churn out data on his systems. Pete is coming back in two hours. He will talk to Pete then.
His nervous system screeches at him, and Spencer flips it to 'standby'. Spencer pulls the data-tablet toward himself with the latest maint reports. All of Ashlee's dancers come to him now. He has work to do.
Spencer grabs a bottle of beer. It is eleven-thirty in the morning. His artificial hand shakes, the one he normally extends to greet other cyborgs. He pulls the cap off the beer, but doesn't drink it.
His biofeedback system -- typically shouting warnings and conflicting, confusing data at the slightest problem he feels between his synthetic and organic parts -- is eerily silent.
When Pete comes in, he comes across shifty. Immediately Spencer is suspicious. Oh, he doesn't do anything; he hops around, annoying Ashlee, sitting down and earnestly talking to Brendon. Sometimes Spencer is amazed at how effectively Pete makes himself into a caricature; he'd believed the act for ages (his bioloop whispers to him how short a time it really was, how comfortable he'd got with Pete in such a--).
"So," when Brendon finally comes over to the chair in Spencer's corner, "how's my favourite maint?"
Spencer only just resists squinting into Brendon's eyes.
"Fine," Spencer answers. His biofeedback system was the last warning system to shut itself down, and it's currently running a systems-deep diagnostic. Spencer'd okay'ed the procedure, but it's a little worrying that the system chose to initiate it on its own. "What do you need?" he asks Brendon.
"Just thought I'd come and say hi," Brendon starts, and says, "oh, but if you could tighten my elbow again, it's not behaving the way it should."
"I can do that," Spencer replies. He pulls out the micro-laser to recalibrate Brendon's joint. Mostly his synthetics are moving fine. There's a slight shiver on the back of his synthetic hand as Brendon ghosts one finger over the skin there. Goosebumps rise over his hand, and then arm. His biofeedback system has nothing to say.
"Hey," Brendon says. Spencer looks up, and bam, yeah, okay. Spencer's hand starts to shake, and Brendon squeezes the artificial one in his warm organic one. Spencer tries not to read anything into the fact that Brendon shielded his data transfer point. "Hey," Brendon says, shaking Spencer's arm a bit. "What's up?"
Spencer swallows. His throat is dry, and he doesn't look at where Pete sat himself down at Jon's table, how Pete is totally watching the two of them. "What's the end of the world?" he can't help asking.
Brendon drops his hand after a moment, smiles crookedly. It doesn't reach his eyes. "Shouldn't you be asking when?"
"Okay," Spencer says agreeably. He'll agree to anything that might get more out of Brendon. "When?"
Brendon's artificial eye rolls up and into his head. The other one winks at Spencer, and Spencer gets an internal gust of the same unease, shivers along his spine, as when he first saw Gabe. Brendon says, "about three years ago. According to Gabe, of course," and then yells across the room, "Pete, come talk to our maint."
Pete looks up, tilts his head in a question. Brendon nods, Pete nods back, slaps Jon on the back, but then disappears out the back door instead of coming over. Spencer fights the tickle at the base of his spine that's urging him up off the bar stool and out the front door. His biofeedback system has almost completed the diagnostic, and has begun to bring systems back up slowly. Something is tickling at the nape of his neck, it's telling him something, a little ghost of a whisper of unidentified chemicals crossing the neural barrier.
Brendon murmurs, "you could come find me when you're done with him," and slides easily away. Spencer's synthetic hand starts sweating. The currently-operative part of his biofeedback system offers to correct the problem; Spencer declines.
Pete finds Spencer in the storeroom, working on Alex's knee as promised. Spencer's trying really, really hard not to hurt him, because he likes Alex, as well as is expecting Alex to kick him in the balls if he twists a nerve ending wrong. (It's come pretty close already.) Spencer's just lasering the organic nerve to the steel reinforced joint -- which is a difficult enough procedure even without the vibrations coming from the dance music piped in from the front room, bass playing fucking hell with his equipment.
Sometimes Spencer suspects that most of these dudes live at the club, the way they're never anywhere else. He knows that Ashlee and Pete do. He thinks that Ryan does.
Pete shuffles in, and it's with all the grace of a full organic, no mods to quiet his steps -- and besides, Pete always fidgets. Spencer flicks the laser off, because as much as he wants to not prolong this pain for Alex (the wincing on his face is only a small measure of the agony he must be in), he also doesn't want to accidentally sever the main nerve in his leg if Pete makes him jump or some shit.
"Yeah?" Spencer says.
"So," and Pete crosses his arms. Spencer flicks his glasses off, looks up at Pete. Pete's face is guarded, serious; Spencer swallows. "So, yeah. Gabe's gonna be free about midnight? We'll be in Ashlee's office."
Alex inhales, sharp -- Spencer has to glance down and make sure that the surprise didn't inadvertently fuck up the work he'd been doing all night on the joint. No, still good. Spencer looks back at Pete. Pete's face doesn't change; he blinks, stands, waits, then when Spencer says, "okay", Pete casually wanders out.
"Okay, let's try and finish," Spencer tells Alex. He curls his hand into a fist, the organic one. His biofeedback system is screaming at him, a shrill chemical alarm for fear and anticipation, a warning to get the fuck out. He can taste the adrenaline at the back of his throat.
"Dude," Alex starts to say. Spencer looks at him. "Dude," Alex repeats. "Are you-- it's." He runs a hand through his hair, frustrated, and then he says again, "Are you okay?"
Spencer thinks about it: no. Not really. But he triggers a loop to suppress the reaction, because much as he'd like to freak the fuck out about later, he still has to stitch up Alex's knee. "I'm good," Spencer replies. "Let's close this fucker man, you must be in agony, you're hardcore."
"So are you, man," Alex replies. He laughs, wry. "Shit, Pete just, and you didn't even-- shit," he says. "Shit."
"Yeah," Spencer says, because he has no idea what Pete just but figures -- he checks the clock system in his phone implant: it's nearly ten pm -- in just over 2 hours he'll be finding out.
He thinks about going to find Brendon, but Spencer isn't sure what would be waiting for him if he did; and besides, he's got more than enough work to do to keep him occupied for the rest of the night, especially if he starts digging into Ryan's logic process like he was--
Ryan himself hops up on the stool beside Spencer, tilts his head. Spencer can barely hear him as he talks; Ryan has to lean in close, shout in his ear. "Brendon was looking for you," he shouts. "He wanted you to go find him."
"Did he," Spencer says in his normal voice, because Ryan has some kind of thing, programming or whatever, that helps him filter noises out from the crowd.
"Yep," Ryan tells him serenely. "So I said I'd come and find you. He said," Ryan adds, speaking directly into Spencer's ear (and that's not a bad call or anything; the way he's tipped nearly off the stool, all it would take is one bad move and Ryan'll end up face-first on the floor); "he said that you might listen to me," and Ryan grins. "I knew better, but I said I'd deliver your message."
"That's kind of a lame message," Spencer tells Ryan. He slumps a bit.
"Dumbass," Ryan replies fondly, "not that, this." Ryan stands, and gently takes Spencer's artificial hand in one of his own. He tugs Spencer so they're nose-to-nose, and Ryan murmurs, "It's important to him, you know?"
--and then Spencer, through his input port, gets a blast of a memory.
It isn't Ryan's, he knows that immediately, because it feels like he knows Ryan's own memories and emotions as well as he knows his own; he's been sifting through Ryan's emotional and mental sub-processes for over a month, their connections, their networks. He knows Ryan inside and out, he's literally had his inputs in Ryan's metaphorical heart. This memory doesn't come from that, from Ryan. No. This tastes different, feels different, even if the fear is similar. This is Brendon's memory, of, of.
This is Brendon's memory of the first time he met Pete Wentz.
part 4: heat the pins and stab them in
"Why'd you give it to me?" Spencer says without preamble.
"Hi," Brendon replies. "Want a dance?"
"What?" Spencer paces the little room. "No. Why'd you show me that? Shouldn't you be more careful?"
Brendon shrugs. "Calculated risk. You came to find me, didn't you?"
"But--" but Spencer has to admit, that's true. His internal phone reminds him it's quarter to midnight, and he has to get up to Ashlee's office. He tries again. "But, what if I. It could have." Spencer paces to the door, turns around, paces back. He says, "Brendon. You have to be more careful."
Spencer's staring at Brendon, so casually sitting down in jeans and nothing else just after Spencer saw, smelled, felt, tasted, heard -- whatever, experienced when Brendon and Pete killed an Authority before cracking a transit tube and hopping a freight train. Spencer can still smell the metal in the air, the crackling static buzz of the cargo hold as the two of them hid among the freight destined for a faraway city. He can feel the slippery blood on Brendon's hands, can feel the tears as Brendon cried about it, can hear Pete's nonsense murmurs of 'it'll be ok'. It's maybe a ten second memory, maybe twenty, watching the lock door clang shut, and Brendon crying over what they'd done.
"Did, Pete. He. Should I."
Spencer's not used to feeling this out of control of his reactions even with his faulty loop; he only just stops himself from triggering another calming reaction. Brendon stands and puts his hands on Spencer's shoulders. "Pete doesn't just kill, Spencer. I promise you." He holds out his synthetic hand, palm out, offering Spencer another chance to see the whole thing, adds, "we called someone to get the guy some help even after he tried to tear me apart. I mean, I don't know if they found him in time, but he doesn't just-- Spencer. Come on."
Spencer feels strange; in an odd way, he feels like he's somehow taken on the burden of Brendon's loss, his guilt and fear, but all his loops had nothing to say on the matter. He doesn't take Brendon's hand. He says, "what if I'd shown someone else? Brendon, you-- you shouldn't show people stuff like that."
Brendon drops his hand, grabs Spencer's organic one instead to squeeze. It helps the knot in Spencer's chest unfurl a little bit. Brendon replies, "I had to. Because I want you to say yes to Pete."
Brendon squeezes Spencer's hand again; says low and careful, "I want you to say yes to Pete. Maybe it's selfish, but-- fuck, whatever. Okay. I-- you have to go find out what's behind the curtain now, Spence. Be good."
Brendon walks out. It's five to midnight. Spencer feels his palm tingle, feels Brendon's hand and someone else's blood on it like ghosts.
So the second time Spencer meets Gabe is the first time he really meets him, when all's said and done, because Pete introduces them. Later, Spencer understands gut-deep, deeper, like preprogrammed instinctive memory, that, if Gabe introduces you to Pete, or if Pete introduces you to Gabe, well.
That's the only meeting that counts.
Pete's standing in the DJ booth, Gabe sitting beside him. They're both bopping their heads together, big grins, hands tapping out the rhythm on the decks, on the arm of Gabe's chair. Gabe has his sunglasses on. Spencer figures he doesn't show off his eyes to just anyone, and somehow is angry that Gabe so casually removed the glasses for him, as if Gabe had the right. It makes no sense.
"Spencer Smith!" Pete yells, and he's in full-on mode, one hundred and ten percent Pete. Spencer can see, curling up past Pete's tee-shirt, a spindly line of tattoos that are furling and unfurling with the bass line. Inwardly, Spencer sighs; of course. The thing is, it's so normal, so obvious, that Spencer forgets for a moment why he's crammed in the booth with the two of them. Pete, he thinks to himself, oh Pete -- you got the tattoos, and Spencer forgets for a second that Pete also has that serious, oh so serious face, closed-off and pained.
Gabe leans forward. He's wearing another lime-green tee shirt, and his sunglass frames match. "Yes, indeed," Gabe says, "Spencer Smith."
"Dude," Spencer says, because, yeah. It's him. So fucking what? Spencer glances at Gabe's sunglasses, rolls his eyes to cover the tremor he can feel starting in his fingers, in his hands.
"You ready for this?" Pete yells. Spencer opens his mouth subconsciously, then off Gabe's smirk, glances around, closes his mouth -- and good thing, too, because apparently Pete's just asking if the floor's ready for the next record. It comes on with a shrill siren. The dance floor screams, and Pete sits back.
"Let's--" Spencer says, and then he sits on the stool that's almost, not quite, in front of the two of them. It means he's facing away from the floor, away from everyone else. He yells over the music and noise, "can we cut out the theatrics, dude? I mean, yeah," he finishes lamely. "Like. What, already?"
Gabe scrubs a hand across his face, rubs his eyes under the glasses where Spencer can't see. "This is -- there's kind of a problem," he starts, and then as Spencer narrows his eyes, Gabe tilts his chin over to the little cluster of tables on the balcony. Jon is sitting up there; Spencer thinks maybe Ryan's actually serving that section, which on another day would be out-and-out hilarity, since Ryan hates serving. There's a group of girls, trying to convince -- who is that, anyway? -- to give a lap dance. And there's--
Oh. There's an Authority sitting there, with no drink, at the balcony itself, right against the rail. He's got mirrored glasses on, which actually look a lot like Gabe's, if stupider (which is kind of a huge feat in and of itself). Spencer wonders what kind of data's being transferred through them, what the dude is reading through them. He flinches, automatically. His biofeedback system pings, which so far had been quiet on all recent developments. Other than the sudden decision that Gabe isn't a threat, the system had all but died on him, and Spencer didn't have time to figure out why or what the fuck was going on with it.
The fact that it's suddenly registering a warning after so long dormant makes him jump, rear back, nearly hunch over. With effort, he forces his body to mimic casual even though he can't really convince it.
"Yeah," Gabe yells. The music is so loud that even then, Spencer can barely hear him. "So we're gonna have to do this the hard way. Normally I wouldn't do this, since it's kind of a big fucking risk, but Brendon and Ryan vouched--"
Pete jumps in to say, "and well, they've been around long enough to know," and Gabe grins, continues,
"yeah, and they'd know, so like, here." Gabe sticks his hand out, the metal one. Spencer blinks. Obviously Gabe's offering a data exchange. Spencer only just resists looking back up at the balcony; but then he realizes, the way Pete's sitting to reach the decks, the way Gabe's leaning forward to get his drink, and the way the decks protrude into the DJ booth, there's no way the Authority up in the balcony can see this. He probably can't even see Gabe's face, and Spencer would have realized it sooner if he'd been more fucking observant and less fucking scared.
Okay. So yeah. He nods, but says, "Brendon, he showed me already."
Gabe drops his hand. "I know," Gabe replies. He's leaning close enough to Spencer that he's not yelling, he's trying to talk right in Spencer's ear. Spencer leans forward, too, so Gabe's face is still behind the frosted glass partition between them and the balcony. Gabe tells him, "this isn't quite like that. That's -- I know you don't like to share your input, Smith, but it's the way we do things. I'll tell you that for free. Right now, I'm gonna make you a job offer, basically, and you're gonna decide if you want it."
Spencer watches Gabe, who slowly sticks his hand out again. Spencer knows that the deciding part, it's not after he knows, it's this, it's right fucking now, no take-backs. Just as slowly, Spencer claps Gabe's hand in his.
Spencer remembers some of his life before his rebuild. Like, despite the warnings and unlike a lot of other cyborgs, he even keeps in touch with his parents and siblings and shit. Not all the time, since they live pretty far out and they still kind of get weepy once and a while about all his mods, but for the most part him and his family are good. They get together for holidays and stuff, so Spencer's walking that thin tightrope of time before and time after without too much worry. He honestly doesn't think about it much, that there should be this huge dividing line.
Mostly he figures that's because he can't remember his death at all, or most of what happened to cause it, or the pain right after. So if he can't really remember the line, it doesn't really exist too much, right?
And here's the thing: him and his family have always had the rebuild box checked on their medical records. They've never been all that religious, or been tagged by the Authorities as fundamentalist, so the practicality of being given another life basically won. Add to that they've always had the insurance and it meant his family were, like, sad, but they basically figured he'd be rebuilt, so it wasn't a huge gaping wound when he died; they had hope. Even when they weren't 100% sure it'd happen, they were pretty sure. Plus, it only took a few weeks to get him modded and started on the path to recovery, so his parents didn't actually have much time to mourn or whatever.
Gabe gives him memories from before he was modded, from his protests about the unfair requirements for rebuild, the memory of rallies and demonstrations he'd organized, the rightness of the cause he'd felt, the anger at all the people he'd seen at the hospitals begging for their family members to get into the program only to be told they didn't have the funds or the right insurance or their names on church contributor lists disqualified them or whatever. The memories of trying, desperately, to change things, to give things back to people Spencer didn't know existed, until Gabe shows him faces, deaths, hospital room after hospital room. Tears.
Spencer didn't know.
Gabe also gives him the memory of being shot and nearly burned to death by the Authorities for daring to speak out, the rally that was only barely contained before the people there were all taken out, efficiently, quietly. Not painlessly, though. Spencer can feel the burn of the flash bomb, blinding him, can feel the laser hitting Gabe's lung, puncturing it. He can feel the shock set in, can feel the fiery pain where the lasers are trying to ruin his body, he can feel the wet rasping of his lungs filling with fluid, the all-over *ache* as the world goes fuzzy, that last moment of black confusion, that--
He can feel-- he feels it as Gabe stops fighting, can't keep fighting, and slips away.
Gabe gives him after, too; waking up in an underground centre, a solemn promise by the doctors and maints that had worked on him that no one outside of them knew he survived. That they'd grabbed and rebuilt everyone they could, but it hadn't been that many. Spencer sees, through Gabe's eyes, that wake up, looking around at the cyborgs they had managed to save, recognizes a few of the faces from Pete's bar. Alex. Frank. Pete's face a ghost in the background, tending the sick, not sleeping; fading away to nothing. Spencer can feel the pain in his head, a dark haze over the memory as Gabe's new vision, experimental optical mods, compensating for the permanent loss of his eyes.
So like, Spencer's felt big data-dumps once or twice. He's dealt with lots of memories all flooding his mind at once before. He's even had to deal with other people's painful memories a couple of times. And for sure, he's sifted through Ryan's emotions, felt them through his inputs as well as the sensors he uses to try and fix Ryan's crossed wires.
He's never, never felt this before, because Gabe gives him memories that Spencer doesn't even have himself. Gabe gives him the memory -- in every painful, shocking, excruciating detail -- of his own death.
It's not like he technically blacks out or anything. Spencer remembers ducking out of the DJ booth and heading backstage; kind of remembers stumbling to Ryan's corner and laying down on Ryan's bench. He closes his eyes, though, and curls up. He imagines he looks pretty fucking wrecked to anyone wandering past, but that's the point, he realizes -- anyone wandering past will know why he's fucked up, because everyone here knows these things, everyone here--.
When Spencer finally sits up, Pete hands him a glass without comment. He takes a sip; it's an energy shake. "Thanks," he finally says, after wracking his brain for something better.
Pete shrugs. Says, "you'll need to, like. You'll probably feel pretty dehydrated tomorrow, too."
"Yeah," Spencer replies, and-- yeah, okay, of course Pete knows he will, Pete's seen this before. Spencer wonders how many times; he studies Pete, trying to discern the answer in his body language, in his ease or discomfort. Pete's sitting on the bench opposite, knees curled up to his chest. He looks exhausted, Spencer thinks suddenly. Pete's exhausted, and he's sitting here with Spencer instead of sleeping. Pete's arms are wrapped around his knees. He looks painfully small. "Why," and Spencer pauses, feels something unfurl in between his lungs, behind his artificial chest-bone, for Pete sitting across from him with his chin pressed into his knees.
Instead of whatever fucked-up question he was going to ask, whatever thing would push Pete farther, Spencer tells Pete, "you look totally fucked up, dude. You should go to bed."
Finally, Pete gives him a crooked smile. "Probably," he agrees.
Spencer checks his phone implant; it's only barely one am, the club's still open. He can hear the music, the beat, once he listens for it. All of that in less than an hour. "Who's out in the booth?" Spencer asks.
"Gabe. He can manage. He likes to DJ," Pete says, "plus, usually after that, people -- they find it hard to see him, so," and Pete shrugs. "I get to do this part." He stares down at the toes of his bright purple sneakers, wraps his arms even tighter around his knees. "Which is kind of stupid," Pete says, "because I haven't even died, so like. What the fuck do I know?"
His biofeedback system beeps up that the energy shake isn't going to cut it; but right now nutrition isn't really high on Spencer's list of priorities so he ignores it. "I don't remember mine either, so until tonight, you knew as much as I did."
Pete closes his eyes at that. "Fuck," he says. "If I'd-- goddamned. Sorry. We wouldn't have. Fuck."
Spencer isn't sure if he's angry or not at having to live someone else's trauma when he'd basically avoided his own. "Yeah," and Spencer shrugs. "Whatever, I guess." His bioloop tells him there's an over-abundance of stomach acid being produced due to the high level of stress currently being experienced by his nervous system; does he want to correct? Spencer ignores it. "I guess, I never thought about it before."
"Sorry," Pete repeats.
He's still got his eyes closed, which is maybe why Spencer feels like he can ask. Maybe he just wants to inflict a little something on him, too. "Pete, who's Patrick?" he blurts in a rush. Pete cracks an eye, and Spencer shrugs again uncomfortably. "Ryan just, he. He didn't mean to say anything by accident, but."
Pete lays his head sideways on his knees, pulling himself into an even tighter ball, his back curving into an unnatural shape, toes pointing inward. "They took him, we think," he tells Spencer, and smiles painfully. "My fault."
Spencer wants to apologize for asking, because he likes Pete, and only really wants to blame him for making this so hard tonight. By tomorrow, Spencer knows he'll have mostly forgiven the both of them for fucking him up; besides, carrying someone else's memories around isn't the same as feeling his own. Spencer knows his parents, and he knows himself, so like, mostly, he knows he's okay. Watching Pete's face, Spencer gets the feeling that, whatever happened, Pete is so far from okay with it that he can't even make the words come out.
Spencer wants to apologize, but he doesn't know how. After a second, Pete tells him, "yeah, it's basically that," and stands. As he's leaving, Pete adds, "if you need me, just call, I promise I'll be there," and then, "also, check your calendar. First meeting tomorrow night."
Just like Pete said, as Spencer checks his phone scheduler, there's a blinking message that says "one new appointment" at eight thirty-nine pm tomorrow; an address in a residential district across town; and a stylized snake design under 'who'.
Spencer goes to work the next day like normal, because he doesn't know what else to do. The other maints don't even notice he's been out of the office more than in; but Spencer knows that being attached to a registered maintenance firm is the only reason half of them come in anymore. It gives them accreditation and credibility, which to a maint is gold. And it gives them an all-access pass to systems, tools, and information.
Spencer never appreciated how much access that gives him until he runs a masked systems check for Jon's name. He almost uses Gabe's, but something makes him think better of it.
The terminal blinks 'deceased' at him in friendly orange letters -- not 'rebuilt' in blue. Spencer searches for Frank: 'deceased'. After hesitating for a moment, he runs Brendon, and barely stops himself from choking as the screen blinks red: 'terminate'.
So. Okay. There's an order out on Brendon to, to disassemble and cremate; Jon and Frank's mods weren't even registered at all.
He wonders who's IDs they're using to keep the Authorities from raiding the club on deceased cyborgs, but then (after a business search on the club itself) realizes that the tags are all for underage cyborgs, not deceased ones. The Authorities have been watching them because they think the IDs are faked for age, not identity.
Spencer relaxes a bit; they've covered themselves as best they can. He erases his search, then takes his tools, his tablets, and heads out because he doesn't know what else to do. Work doesn't need him. He's put in his hours so he'll keep his accreditation, and he can't put off avoiding the factory for that much longer, even if he wants to.
Spencer leaves that afternoon to take the train to the club from work like always; when he's on the above-ground few kilometers before the station, he glances up and is startled to find himself looking at unfamiliar terrain. It's not really that this sector of the city has changed, he just didn't quite notice it, buried in reading and work during his commute until now.
Spencer glances around at the rest of the passengers, mostly cys on their way home because this is a mostly cy neighborhood. They all look a little bit off, like something's missing. He shudders. He listens to the squeaking and rumbling of the tracks, feels the slight vibration in his teeth as they jar together, and avoids everybody's eyes.
part five: tonight i'm gonna kick it down
Once he sets up at the factory, Ryan comes up to Spencer and throws an arm around his shoulder. "Are you coming tonight?"
Tonight. Across town. Spencer wonders how so many dancers are going to get away without someone noticing; then sees the "special guest DJ, dance floor!" poster. It was the third guest DJ this week. Spencer halts that logical train of thought, because it would have meant his brain asking the reasonable question of where all the regular staff were going.
Ryan waves a hand in front of his face. Right. Tonight. Is he going. Ryan watches him. Spencer shrugs.
Ryan says, "you should come. I mean-- yeah," and Ryan nods, firm, as if he'd decided and thus, bam, Spencer, yeah. Whatever. Ryan repeats, "you should come tonight."
"To Gabe's revolution," Spencer says carefully. He's not testing the words in his mouth, the way they sound in the air and not in his head, whether Frank looks up as he says them. He's not testing Ryan, the way he flinches or doesn't, what he'll do, hearing the words. What Spencer's doing is testing his own reaction, the anxious ball in the pit of his stomach, the heart-wrenching fear as he admits it out loud. Spencer feels his teeth grinding, his jaw tight, his molars crunching together. It hurts.
Ryan squeezes Spencer's shoulders, says casual, "you can't un-ring a bell, right?" and goes to find something else to do. Spencer keeps sitting at the bar, staring at tablets he's too preoccupied to read, wondering if he's ready to find out how Gabe's managing to rebuild rejected applicants, wondering if he even wants to know, if he wants to touch the question (because the amount of resources and illegal activity required to do so is so far beyond--).
But, you know. Spencer goes.
He worries about the way his eyes shift around, taking the train east to the place ("someone's basement, quit freaking out"). He's anxious about how his hands rest, how he curls his fingers to cover up his input. His new hip aches. He can think of a thousand things that are going to go wrong; he's more than half-way to accepting that they will.
But Spencer goes. Brendon opens the door for him.
That first meeting Gabe introduces himself by crowing, "drink up, bitches, because we are a new species!"
Spencer's startled, a shocked tingle running all up and down his spine. He sniffs his glass carefully, and then surreptitiously decides not to partake. He stands off to one side of the basement, watching Gabe pace back and forth in front as Gabe listens to his implant -- getting news? Rocking out to Prince? Hearing about the latest hospital admissions? Spencer has no idea. Finally he stops in front of Pete.
Pete, Spencer notes in the back of his mind, is sipping nothing but water. He's not the only one.
Brendon slides up to him as other people are still drifting into the basement -- whatever, so Spencer's always punctual -- and murmurs, "you should drink that."
Spencer looks at it carefully, looks at Brendon carefully. His skin, synthetic and otherwise, feels hot, and he replies, "okay," and he drinks a big gulp. It tastes like water, a hint of metallic aftertaste, but nothing to write home about. Spencer's almost disappointed. It's a bit of an anti-climax, honestly, until Brendon brushes the inside of Spencer's synthetic wrist, right where his input is, and ghosts a faint echo of a memory along the brief connection. It feels like a reward.
Everyone finally gathers and Spencer realizes, with a start, that it's exactly nine pm.
Gabe solemnly puts his organic hand on Pete's shoulder, and makes a face, a cross between -- well, Spencer's not that sure. Maybe Spencer needs some instructions on body language signifiers. The two of them are kind of standing in the front of the room; at least, they're standing along the wall that all of a sudden becomes the front of the room, because everyone lounging around suddenly turns to look in their direction.
"Do you know how long I've known this motherfucker?" Gabe asks the room. "A lifetime. Since before my rebuild, that's how fucking long." Pete looks at his shoes. "Do you know," Gabe continues, "what this motherfucker wants more than anything else in the world?"
Spencer would probably have bailed at the suspicious liquids portion of the evening, except for two things: a. Brendon is still sitting on a stool near the far right, hands clasped loose around a bright red cup, and b. Pete, of all people, had told him to stay -- and for some reason that was important, deep in a place that didn't even touch his biofeedback system. Still, Spencer had figured that there'd be a little more strategy, planning, action, and a little less waxing philosophical.
"Pete is part of an old species," Gabe continues quietly. Spencer has to strain to hear him; probably all part of the dramatic effect, but effective, so. "More than anything, Pete wants to mod." Gabe turns around, pointing at skinny Ryan standing behind Brendon. Spencer didn't even see him sneak in. "And more than anything, Ryan wants to age."
Pete shrugs the hand off his shoulder, rubs his face. "I know you like this part when we've got new people, but we need to get down to it, man. Brendon says they don't have more than ninety minutes, and I have to be at the supply depot before curfew."
"Fuck, okay," Gabe answers, and immediately schools his expression into something-- blanker, more focused, more guarded. More natural and yet more alien at the same time. He pulls out a remote, and clicks on the network projector in the middle of the room. A map of the region shimmers into life, a 3D model of the construction and transit nodes, as well as tracts and routings that Spencer doesn't recognize. There's several unique circuits of -- are those supposed to be waste tunnels? -- beneath the train station Spencer frequents daily, and the nodes apparently connect to the tracks in a way that Spencer flat-out knows is not true.
"I know some of you have no real idea what the fuck is going on, here," Gabe says, and then, "but I'll say this now. You walk out, right now, or you're in."
Gabe then walks up to the map, synthetic hand out. He spins it around, dimming most of the regular transit routings and obvious, surface infrastructure. He leaves the hi-fi network, and all the other mysterious lines, but he also inexplicably leaves the grey-green areas of network static, the largest of which is centered on their location. He glances around the room, back at Pete, who has his arms crossed over his chest, wrapped tight.
Pete meets Spencer's eyes for a moment, and even though Spencer still knows that Pete's all human, he knows that no one in the room (other than maybe himself) could be good enough to do the mod it would take-- Spencer still thinks that maybe, just maybe, Pete's pupils take the shape of something else.
When Pete looks away, Spencer follows his gaze over to a couple of dudes, and then a girl that was introduced to him as Cassadee. None of them move. When Pete finally nods, Gabe sticks his hand back into the map and says, "So. For those of you who haven't graced us with your presence before, this is it."
Gabe clicks the remote again. Spencer feels a minute pressure behind his eyelids, in his sinuses like the air pressure right before a storm -- and then his biofeedback system goes fucking crazy reporting a system-wide infiltration of foreign nano receptors (so that's what was in the metallic water; Spencer's impressed), thousands of them. After a ten second interval that according to his systems nearly fries everything, but really, the biofeedback looping program is pretty fucking melodramatic, so whatever-- anyway, Spencer can feel the receptors working themselves into his nerves. They're not intrusive, he has complete control, but now he has, something else.
For the moment, they're quiet.
Spencer's suddenly wrenched back to the room, because then Gabe says, "We're not a guerilla organization, we're not terrorists, and most of all? We're not disorganized."
And then, and then, the nanos kind of just, they wake up. Spencer swallows, tasting them in his throat, feeling them in his fingers, and not only that, but actually. The receptors are faintly aware of -- of other receptors, other things near him. But. No. Not just other receptors, like.
Spencer swallows again. Other cys.
The nanos are telling him about Alex's hunger, Frank's impatience. Brendon humming under his breath tickles his tongue; he can feel some kind of low buzz from each and every one of the thirty plus people in the room -- and above all, ringing out like yelling over whispers, Gabe's flat-out, crazy, balls-to-the-wall determination. Spencer curves his hands into fists against his thighs unconsciously, fingers clenching with the force of it, Gabe's raw, steely, fucking nerve. He can't help it, feels his fingers clench involuntarily, can taste the adrenaline at the back of someone else's throat.
Gabe looks over at Spencer, eyes uncovered, and nods once; pleased. Pete grins at the room sharp, teeth white and too big, and adds, "and we're not going to lose."
They don't ask anything of him that night other than his ID number so they can watch the networks for signs of trouble. Spencer nods, since Gabe already got it from the transfer the night before. He doesn't picture his screen at work flashing 'deceased' when he looks over at Frank. He presses both metal and organic palm against his eyelids when he glances at Brendon, trying not to see the command to 'terminate'.
Spencer spends the rest of the time testing the new nano-network for flaws, for holes, but he can't find any. Whoever designed it, they're more than good, because the network is flawless. It's integrated into his physical nerves in a way that most maints would only dream of; the subconscious control Spencer has is better than any previous nervous system work he's ever seen before, and it's transmitting and receiving naturally with every other cy with receptors.
Throughout the discussion of transport troubles (something about train schedules that Spencer doesn't even try to follow) he can slowly feel the receptors get-- like, louder. The volume inches up or something, as they work their way into his brainstem probably. What started out kind of like static in the back of his brain slowly separates to be individual signals that (with a lot of effort) he can concentrate on, and listen in.
Spencer closes his eyes, at one point, and feels everyone else in his skin. To say that he's distracted the rest of the meeting -- evening, up till Ryan walks him to his front door -- is an understatement.
When Spencer goes back to the club in the morning for his routine maint jobs, he expects that something should have changed, but he's not sure what. He's got -- he upgraded, last night. That's how he thinks of it, or how he's trying to think of it, how he was thinking about it last night when he couldn't sleep, staring at his ceiling trying to understand the network. It had been impossible, though, because the nanos really don't do anything by themselves except irritate his biofeedback system with their constant presence.
Spencer gets on the train, and glances down at his hands. Nothing's different about them, no one on the train can see the difference. Just an upgrade.
When he gets into the club, he realizes how wrong he is.
Frank's behind the counter, cleaning up some shit or whatever that got broken the night before; Spencer can feel the buzzing behind his eyes, in the backs of his hands, as Frank half-grumbles, half-hums to himself while he works. He stops, swivels his head to watch Frank a moment, then feels the exhaustion in Frank slowly giving way as Frank gulps his coffee. Frank doesn't look up, but one hand is raised behind his head, his shiny middle finger straight up. Spencer grins.
Brendon's at the piano near the stage; he can feel him, too, in the back of his head, a denser buzzing because Brendon's concentrating. Spencer can tell that Brendon hasn't noticed him yet, and Spencer takes the opportunity to look, really look, for half a second. He can hear Ryan sneaking up behind him, but doesn't bother replying. Ryan's shoes are pretty loud, anyway.
"So," Ryan says.
Spencer leans his head carefully on Ryan's bony, plastic and warm nu-skin shoulder. He's wearing a button down with a suit jacket, over jeans. Spencer doesn't even know; it looks like Ryan slept in them. "So," Spencer agrees. He can tell that Ryan's smiling, can feel the tingle in his lips even though it's different than Brendon. Ryan is-- Ryan is.
"How're you -- how's the input?" Ryan asks him.
Spencer keeps watching Brendon, although now he can feel Brendon's sudden awareness of an audience, his heated cheeks, the inaudible catch in his breath of embarrassment. Plus, the back of Brendon's neck is bright red and he suddenly hunches over. But he keeps playing. Spencer feels thirsty, seriously dying of thirst (his bioloop beeps at him that it's patently not true, despite his mouth and throat feeling parched and scratchy; the loop beeps again, faintly irritated that Spencer isn't paying it more attention, and Spencer flips it off) -- and then Spencer remembers Pete's warning, wonders if it was for this as much as for anything. He looks at Brendon, and isn't sure.
Spencer wraps a hand around Ryan's wrist, wiggles Ryan's hand around a bit. "Uh, it's. My feedback loops are pretty fucking pissed off," he says, instead of the million things he could be saying: he's fucking terrified, he can't stop peering around at people, wondering what it is he's feeling, just under his skin. He didn't know what he was signing up for and Spencer won't lie, he might not have done it if he had.
"You know," Ryan says, but stops.
Spencer nods. "Yeah, I know." He shrugs. "It's okay."
He knows that now he's in, they can't let him out. He doesn't even really want out, now. He can feel Frank and Ryan and Brendon, and he knows Alex is a few blocks away. Spencer suspects he can tell it's Alex from the excruciating pain radiating in his knee as the joint slowly heals, poor dude. He thinks that the blank, strange static upstairs is Pete.
Speaking of. "So, like, Pete."
"Uh," Ryan interrupts. "Yeah-- um, Pete, he's kind of embarrassed about the extent to which he's tried to get it to work, but so far nothing. Except that."
Spencer figured as much. The static is, it's something, but the nanos aren't even registering it as *someone*. Spencer answers, "I could try to, I guess. I mean. Maybe it wouldn't help."
"Always helping, Spencer Smith," Ryan says, and quirks an eyebrow.
Spencer can feel the rhythmic hum of Ryan in his chest, and Brendon in the back of his skull. Goosebumps raise on his arms, as each of them taste different, buzz against his skin and bones different. He really should be more freaked out about the whole thing, especially considering the extent he used to go to in order to avoid linking inputs. This just, feels different, somehow, and Spencer's calm about it even though some of his systems aren't. His biofeedback system helpfully suggests another round of adrenaline, possibly anti-viral agents to remove the nanotechnology from his cerebellum and organic and synthetic nervous systems. Spencer denies the suggestion, and makes a mental note to try and figure out how to reprogram a biofeedback system to stop acting jealous.
Ryan snorts. "Your biofeedback loop is jealous, now?"
"Wait," and Spencer turns around. "You can hear me? Like--" and he swallows, "when I'm not speaking? I can't hear you."
Ryan shrugs again, replies, "Not really, no. It doesn't work like that." He pauses a second, and grins, "But I can hear your bio-loop, probably because it's way less complex than your brain, dude, it's transmitting clearer."
"Weird," Spencer says. He suddenly wonders what else it -- what else other people can feel. He makes a stronger mental note to check into that, pronto. He glances to Brendon, and puts a star beside it.
The second meeting Spencer attends is three days after the first, and is a lot less interesting; a lot more network review and a lengthy discussion of new clinic protocols that Spencer doesn't bother to follow. He doesn't know what they're doing with the networks (a voice in the back of his head points out he probably wants to keep it that way), and he's never been to any of Gabe's illegal clinics, so protocols for rescues and maints done at them don't really affect him. Spencer figures until someone gives him specific tasks to do that relate to either, he can probably let his attention wander.
Gabe finally offers him a credit chit to take a Tuesday morning maint shift; Spencer hesitates. Gabe says, "at the club, dude, it's the same shit you were doing there, you'll just have other dudes," and Spencer nods.
Tuesday morning rolls around, and Pete takes him through the back into the storage area. Spencer meets the other maint, Mikey something, holed up in the office next to where Pete shows him to lay his shit out. "Think of it this way: it's all the same work as before. This is one of our secondary clinics, cys who can come in on their own, but can't get everything fixed at a hospital," Pete says before he goes back out to the main room; then Pete spins around, snapping his eyes to Spencer's face and asking, "You good?"
Spencer has his tools, and he's got a feeling that he's not, actually, good. But what he is, and has always been, is adaptable. "Don't send anyone my way that's beyond my certification," Spencer replies, instead of the other things in his head.
Pete nods solemnly, grins once, scruffs both Spencer and Mikey on the head, and wanders away. Spencer gets to work.
The cys are friendly and patient, able to withstand a tremendous amount of pain considering the work he's rushing to complete. But then, a lot of the work he's doing is clearly repairs from inadequate maintenance in the first place. He doesn't know who's responsible, but he gets the feeling that they're a, not very well trained or b, possibly not trained at all. In three cases, he has to tell them they're going to have to come back multiple times to fix the mess that the nerves and tendons are wrapped in. They're not even angry about it, just resigned.
Once, he finds a knot of nerve fibers tangled around the girl's lung, malfunctioning and causing a painful wheezing every minute or so. "How much pain?" Spencer asks, and grimaces. He told Pete not to send him anyone above his certification, this is shit-all but a storage room with two benches and a state-of-the-art terminal at least, but here's--
Mikey comes in before the girl can answer; says, "Hey, I heard the, can I see the scan?" He frowns, pushes his glasses up. "Okay, yeah, this is gonna be major. We can't do this here, not right now, but I can -- talk to Pete, I can do it later, okay?"
The girl nods, swallows, fights for breath into her chest. Smiles at both of them.
"You can do it?" Spencer asks Mikey, and then bites his tongue. He didn't actually mean to ask, because then Mikey might answer, and he really doesn't want to know all that much more about Mikey because Mikey's face is one Spencer didn't even see at the meeting. He just showed up today from the other end of the hallway, and Spencer's pretty sure he doesn't want to follow that train of thought right now while he's still got three knee adjustments to complete that morning.
Mikey shrugs. "I think so. We've got, one of the other. I've got more resources at the other clinic."
Spencer knows that if Mikey's telling the truth, and if Mikey's planning on doing this by himself, he's good. Really, really good. And he can tell Mikey's being honest because the nanotech tells him so. "You do organs?" Spencer asks.
The next dude comes into the room, limping and gritting his teeth with every step. Instead of answering, Mikey gives Spencer a bit of a smile, and wanders out. Spencer works.
When Pete looks like this, it's never a good sign. Spencer might not know that much about the shit going down, but he sure knows that.
"So," Pete starts, then picks up Spencer's diagram string.
Spencer waits for the rest, inwardly wincing as Pete wraps the string around his (very organic) finger. Those things aren't cheap, for one, and for two, it's coded to Spencer's motions; Pete fucking with it's going to de-calibrate the fucking thing. He doesn't take it away from him. Instead he says, "what?"
Pete puts it down anyway, perfectly in line with the strap of Spencer's bag. "So say you were hired to put together a security system on a microbial warehouse," says Pete. He's watching his fingers make minute adjustments to the string, not looking at Spencer. "Say, one for skeletal marrow grafts. Where would you start?"
Spencer almost laughs; there's only one synthetic marrow supplier in the entire region, and they only have two depots. The microbial lab equipment may be available a few other places, but not likely in any great stock. "I'd start by shipping direct to the hospitals, Pete," Spencer answers with a grin. "You can't steal most of the shit you need for a marrow replacement anymore, dude, they either go with an alternate or make it onsite--" and then Spencer stops talking, because.
Synthetic bones have a bunch of problems, not least of which being weight. Effective spongy tissue just isn't doable very often, and metal doesn't bend quite right. Silicone fibers and a plastics-marrow replacement kind of works but the system has a really short shelf life out of the cy, and the fabrication itself is a tricky procedure. Reanimation studios are large-scale units in hospitals; they have the resources to have their own synthetic bone labs. Hospitals make the synthetics marrow onsite, craft the bone, then install it in the cy right away. It avoids the need for security, but also means there's no way to 'borrow' any should you need it. The only real way to be able to get synthetic bones these days is to fabricate them yourself.
Pete's watching Spencer patiently, head tilted a little to the left. In his hand is Spencer's laser sight. He's rapidly spinning it through his fingers; Spencer snags it out of Pete's hand, saying absently, "seriously, quit playing with my shit. A synthetic limb -- and motion joints?" because joints require integrated nerve circuits, the graftable kind, as well as the tough joint tissues. Off Pete's slow nod, Spencer frowns, chews his lip. "A full limb reintegration unit," he's saying to himself, because either Pete knew you can't steal the shit or he didn't, but either way you can't and obviously Pete doesn't know what they do need.
The enormity of the question sinks in. Spencer shakes his head, momentarily stunned; Pete talking about stealing the fabricated parts is one thing, but setting up a unit is something else, and it would require more than -- "I only know how to use some of it," Spencer warns. Pete looks surprised at that, which Spencer isn't sure comes from him volunteering to use the thing, or that he's not an expert. "You'd need another trained lab tech. At the *least*."
Pete replies, "we always need more than we've got, dude. I'm sure you'll be fine." He scratches the back of his head, and Spencer feels an answering itch, somewhere on his neck. Finally, Pete asks, "okay. Can you get me a list? Equipment and raw materials, a wish list, and then the bare minimum. And what your lab tech needs to know."
Spencer feels the itch become a prickle, concern and possibly more than a little of his bioloop's warning. He nods.
part six: when i was seventeen i had wrists like steel, and i felt complete
Spencer comes in to do his regular maint hours on the staff the next week only to find the club's been shut down for the morning and lunch crowds. It doesn't even say "private function" on the marquee, no vaguely hinted-at implication of a high-roller function, no alternate hours. It just says 'closed', which, Spencer basically never sees the place closed, and even when it's not open to patrons it's never actually empty, never feels empty, never feels closed.
This feels closed.
Spencer goes around to the side door and opens it with his code, peers into the darkened interior. And there's another thing: the club is never completely dark inside, it's always bright or neon or day-glo or blacklit, but like, lit. Spencer shuffles into the place, just far enough to let the door shut behind him with an echo-y bang. He doesn't go any farther into the place; says "hey?" into the darkness, instead.
"Hey, hang on!" he gets out of the depths of -- no, wait, from by the stage, and then there's a flicker and a row of lights come on.
With enough light to see the tables and the dance floor, Spencer wanders to the table where Brendon's just sat down. "What's going on?" Spencer asks. "Where is everyone?"
Brendon grins, same as always, but it's strained. "They're. Something came up."
Something. Spencer waits; he had two joint replacements due in this morning that can't wait; the tendons were tearing themselves apart. "What?" Spencer asks, "and what are you doing here, anyway?"
Brendon shrugs. The nanotech sings out in apprehension. Brendon replies, "going over the club accounts. Dancers just aren't bringing in as much money as we used to."
Brendon the accountant? "And why am I here? Ashlee said--"
"Yeah," Brendon interrupts, "they're -- they're not around, cause."
As Brendon trails off, Spencer lets him off the hook by saying, "something came up, right."
The nanotech is registering dismay, but also that Brendon's hiding something, too, all at the same time. Spencer waits, because like, what else is he supposed to do if Brendon's hiding something and everyone's elsewhere? Brendon's biting his lip, shuffling his feet; Brendon finally says, "it's not like," and he runs his hand through his hair, his metal one. "They're downstairs, in the clinic space."
A storage room at the end of the hall doesn't make a clinic, is Spencer's first thought. After what Brendon's told him has actually sunk in, his second is, wait, downstairs? Granted Spencer doesn't hang around in the back rooms except the dressing room, hasn't peered into every closet in the place, but he's pretty sure he hasn't seen a stairwell anywhere but up and into the DJ booth. From the outside, the place is one storey, and one storey only.
He swallows, fighting those thoughts, because that's not going to get him anywhere. Spencer asks again, "yeah, okay. So why am I here?"
"To keep me company," Brendon answers promptly, which isn't a complete lie -- he can tell through the nanotech -- but sure as shit isn't the whole truth. Spencer raises an eyebrow, and Brendon adds, "okay, and they're worried about something going wrong and needing you."
"Going wrong with what?"
As he asks it, Spencer's pretty sure he's not going to like the answer, but like everything he's found out about in the last little while he's pretty sure there's no way to avoid the answer whether wants to or not. Brendon doesn't look at him, decides instead to busy himself with his tablet as he tells Spencer, "the reanimation."
Right. Of course.
So, okay. Spencer knew, in some abstract way, that Gabe's merry band of tricksters are going around rescuing or stealing the rejected dead in order to give them a chance at a rebuild. In theory. He knew that somewhere in the city Mikey's capable of doing organ work, rather than Spencer's tweaks here and there on joints that are out of alignment, knees stretched too tight, Ryan's networks all confused and upset and alone.
Ashlee doesn't make enough to furnish a proper reanimation theatre downstairs, for *sure*, even if it would be possible to collect the people (specialists, network analysts, doctors, maints, his mind supplies helpfully) and equipment (the bay, for one; the heart and pulmonary monitors; possibly a whole nerve network mapper; and of course the surgical, microbio and cryo equipment to make the cellular restart possible in the first place -- even portable, that's still completely fucking impossible) all together downstairs on the morning the club's closed, because it had to be last-minute since Spencer hadn't got word--
"Calm down, Spence," Brendon says. Something in his voice is hard, even if his tone is quiet. Spencer glances at him. Brendon's smiling, but it doesn't reach his eyes. He adds, "it's going all right so far."
Spencer grasps onto something he can comprehend. "Mikey's downstairs?" he asks.
Brendon nods. "And Pete," he says, "and Ryan, and one of our doctors. Ashlee's at her other office."
Spencer wants to ask which office, even opens his mouth to ask, but decides that it's not worth it for two reasons. One, he's pretty sure that Brendon won't tell him (the nanotech has Brendon wrapped up tighter than Spencer's ever felt him, nothing leaking through, all harsh static and nothing else); and two, he's pretty much hit the end of what he wants to know, even if Brendon would be willing to tell him.
Eventually, Spencer stops his mind from whirling around the question of how they could have pulled together such a complex operation -- in the basement of a nightclub, for chrissake, what kind of resources it would take to secure the mobile cellular lab, nerve regeneration shit, and whatever else Spencer doesn't know about but regardless he's sure they'd need -- and starts thinking about the here-and-now. Which is him, sitting across the table from Brendon while downstairs, someone is attempting to give a reject new life.
Spencer asks, "so what are you really doing up here then?"
Brendon says, "waiting for you," and Spencer knows it's the truth. He also says, "and, uh, I brought him in."
Spencer spends a tense three-hour stretch waiting for news from downstairs, and so it's completely anti-fucking-climatic when Pete finally opens the door to backstage, wiping his hand over his sweaty face, and says, "yeah, it went okay. I think he'll pull through."
Spencer, without thinking, asks, "who is he?"
Brendon throws a glance his way, but it's Pete that says, "hopefully you'll meet him soon." Spencer doesn't miss how that's so the opposite of a reply, but it's really maybe the information he wanted, even if he didn't realize it. "We could use you later, Spence," Pete adds, "cause Mikey has to go and I don't know anyone else who can deal with the rest of his patients this afternoon."
Spencer considers arguing, pointing out that for one, Mikey's patients are probably completely above what he's qualified to take care of; and for two, he's got a real job, but Pete looks totally wiped, and so he nods.
The next morning Pete says, "if you have some time, we could use you..." and Spencer would argue, but the guilty look on Pete's face as he says it makes the protest die in his throat.
His bioloop tries, on its own, to calm him down; Spencer (strangely irritated with himself, not Pete) shuts the whole loop down, shuts his automatic processes down, ignores the exhaustion and everything else, and gets to work. Absently, he sends a message to the office that he'll be gone for a few days, and gets no reply.
However, later that night and after a pretty short conversation with Pete (who apparently is in charge of passing on the will of the Cobra this week, aka Gabe's intel), it's been decided that Spencer's job is more valuable to them than having Spencer around to patch people up twenty-four seven. Which means that, unfortunately, Spencer has to show back up at work at least two days a week.
"Hey man, where you been?"
Spencer glances up from where he'd been staring at the laces in his shoes.
He's standing in the doorway to the cubicle portion of his maint office, swallowing compulsively with every step. It's weird, he finally decides, to be back. It's weird, and it's -- but it's not frightening no matter what his bioloop is hissing at him, no matter what nightmare strings it's trying to feed him. Because that would mean that fear might show on his face to Craig.
Right, Craig. Spencer blinks, reluctantly lets his bioloop calm him down. His biofeedback system's so pleased that he finally let it do something it quiets down to nothing. He slaps Craig's hand where he's holding it out, normal as can be. "Yeah, it's been a week?" Spencer says, "feels like forever though."
Ain't that the truth. A flash of the terror Spencer felt as he tried to work on a pulmonary system reprogram just yesterday, Mikey on another reanimation and the guy going into critical, all-but hitting pulmonary failure. Spencer hadn't sweat through the programming, but only because his bioloop moderated his response.
"And not long enough, right?" Craig's saying, which jars Spencer back into the here and now -- he tries to pay at least some attention. Craig adds, "How was the vacation?"
"Not long enough," Spencer replies easily, and if ever there was a prize for understatement, well.
Craig nods, smile in place, duty to ask about co-worker's vacation over, time to move onto office news that out-of-town co-worker may have missed out on. Man. Spencer's just getting ready to tune out some seriously boring gossip when Craig says, "you hear someone broke into our locked files last Wednesday? You missed out. We got a free afternoon off while the Authorities filtered through our systems."
Which is, well. Not just office gossip.
Spencer carefully doesn't tense up, carefully holds his head no more sharply tilted, doesn't stick his chin out any more than he was. If the Authorities were at the office on Wednesday, then... Tuesday night. So. He nods absently as Craig rambles on about new security protocol, thinking about how Ryan and Frank had been missing on Tuesday night, and of course they had access to fake Spencer's ID, so why would they break into-- "What was the verdict?" Spencer tries to ask casually.
Clearly it doesn't work, because Craig claps a hand on his shoulder, says, "hey, no worries, man." For a second, the nanotech buzzes out a warning -- intruder! it says -- then he removes his hand and the nanotech is quiet again. Spencer swallows. Craig says, "Dunno, they think bank access records maybe? Whoever it was isn't very good, cause they didn't even know how to get into our accounting software to steal the accounts."
Or maybe they know exactly how to try to get into the accounting software to make sure you don't know they went anywhere else, some deeply buried part of Spencer's brain supplies helpfully. Maybe it's the nanotech itself giving him the answer, who knows. He'd bet anything that Ryan got the employee data while Frank fucked up the accounting matrix, at least. Frank'd have fun doing that kind of thing.
"Hey, you okay dude? You don't look so great."
Right. Work. No time for this. Spencer shrugs, yawns to cover up whatever expression is on his face that made Craig ask. "Just tired," he replies, because 'tired' in the office lexicon means 'fuck off, please'. Craig thankfully takes the hint and fucks off.
Spencer sits down in his cubicle. His plant's been watered, nothing's really changed, but then he never really personalized it to begin with. So being back in the office is weird. But not frightening. Nothing to be worried about.
There are five hours before he can back to the factor -- Spencer mentally amends, before he can go home.
Around lunch (Spencer's got used to eating late at the club because most of the staff do breakfast near eleven, and Ashlee always gets in around three with lunch for everyone) the receptionist comes to find him. She's a cute blond, and Spencer can't tell whether she's organic or not. Like Ryan, if she's got work done, it's *good*.
They haven't conversed much; she mostly writes down appointments for the more junior maints, and he mostly works from home. He can't even readily come up with her last name. She says without preamble, "you aren't religious, are you."
It's the kind of thing that should be a question, but she doesn't say it like she's asking, more waiting for confirmation of what she already knows. Spencer gulps, senses in his body alive and suddenly ringing out shrill warnings, nanotech dancing along his skin raising goose-bumps and biofeedback loop registering adrenaline. His fingers shake, he feels his stomach clench. Spencer bites his tongue to keep from giving any outward signs. The best defense, they say, is a good offence, so he leans back in his chair, crosses his arms -- thanks the heavens he can clench his jaw to stop the trembling elsewhere -- and asks, "Why?"
She disappears. There's now three and a half hours before Spencer can leave. He takes off early anyway.
The club is full when Spencer shows up; he parks himself down in the DJ booth, because there's no sign of Ryan or Brendon and the kid in the cage closest to his usual spot is anything if he's over sixteen, so Spencer would prefer not to have quite so unobstructed a view. Pete's fooling around with something on his tablet, letting the automated system run the lights and the sound; it's early yet and not that many people are on the floor.
Ashlee's door is closed, the windows to her office dark; she's sitting with two men (almost positively full organic) at a table in the VIP section. Spencer's never seen them before, and asks, "What's Ashlee doing?"
"Paperwork, I think?" Pete interrupts. He flicks off his tablet, glances at the table, then, "yeah, paperwork."
"Uh, quarterly city budgets, I think?" Pete tells him, and Spencer blinks. "What," Pete says, "you think that badge she hides is for show?"
Pete waves over to her, and Ashlee gives him a quick smile. Pete taps his shoulder, cocks his head in Spencer's direction, and she stops smiling. It's dark, and the automated system has the spotlights flashing on and off in a lazy pattern, vaguely following the beat of the music. It's hard to see anything, but the silver ribbon stitched into Ashlee's skin, along her collarbone, is unmistakable when she moves her sweater to show Spencer her shoulder.
He still doesn't know whether Consul Simpson is a cy or full organic.
Later, once he searches the network for information on her, he still doesn't know. He does find out she's on the committee that allocates the budget for at least one of the city's reanimation hospitals, and suddenly things make a lot more sense.
The first maint procedure Spencer completed after he was certified was a tricky knee-recovery. The cy was a dancer, a younger girl, who'd been in a horrific accident and whose insurance would only cover the basic rebuilt joints, not strength-enhanced ones; as a dancer, it would probably have ruined her career.
Spencer didn't look at the rest of the diagrams when he first saw her, just studied the knee for a while, the magnified fractures, the blown-up images of tiny cracks in the micro-filaments holding her tendon together. It had been six months since her initial rebuild, and it was clear the original input was woefully inadequate to the amount of stress the girl was putting on her knee.
He had her in for a consult, and after the standard questions he'd put down his tablet, studied her for a minute instead of the imaging. "Listen," Spencer said, "I can't fix it if I don't know what's really going on. You're dancing still, right? And it's fucking up the joint because the artificial cartilage and bone can't take it, which is tearing the tendon."
The girl denied it, but the shifty way she wouldn't meet Spencer's eyes told him all he needed. He chewed his lip, reading the paperwork for a minute. Obviously she needed elite joints, something stronger and more reliable -- but that would be flagged as elective and thus not covered. In the back of his mind he knew that technically what he was trying to do was against policy, but he was just trying to fix the kid's knee.
"Here's what we're gonna do," he told her finally. "We're gonna but it down as a rejected materials reaction, a slow buildup of adverse reaction. I'm going to recommend a different set of tendons, which'll be stronger and as a result, you'll probably have to replace the entire joint with something tougher. That'll probably increase the stress threshold on the joint enough to make up for the dancing." The girl stared at him, awe and gratitude in her eyes, and Spencer shifted uncomfortably. He added, "It's basically true -- the stress on the joint is rejecting the tendons." He shrugged. "It's gonna be painful, and it'll take a while, cause we have to fix the regeneration circuitry and replace all the spongy bone servicing both knees."
It was the first maint that Spencer performed all on his own. Staring at the near-exact wear and tear on a joint in the middle of the basement of the club, Spencer wonders how many fucking referral doctors in official hospitals had looked at these scans and dismissed the fix as above the paid-for mod, dismissed the kid from the exam room without even giving him a chance to see a maint.
This cy's a skater, not a dancer. He waits patiently for Spencer to pass judgment on his knee. Anger flares hot, for a minute, and Spencer clenches his fist -- but he bites his tongue, and tells the kid he can fix it.
part seven: i know this world is changin'
Brendon disappears for a week.
Spencer doesn't think about it. He doesn't think about it, and doesn't talk about it, and doesn't look people at his office in the eye. He doesn't go out for beers with the guys from the office either, because he knows how to keep a secret and now he's got a big one, someone else's even, and being able to keep it is more important.
He learns to ignore the nanotech while he's on his office calls, boring joint recalibrations, and while he's at the club fixing up much more serious problems downstairs. He ignores it while he's lying in bed, not sleeping, and while he's out picking up groceries.
The nanotech, however, never ignores him. It hums lullabies to him as he falls asleep, it whispers good morning to him. Someone in his building knows Gabe, clearly, maybe more than one, maybe more than just knows. That or his nanotech is adapting again, growing outward, little signal tendrils starting in his brainstem and nerves and going outward, receiving input from farther and farther away. Whatever the explanation, the little buggers stay constantly buzzing in the back of his mind, constantly shifting, constantly telling him hello.
Alex sits beside him at the bar and orders two beers. "For your troubles," he says, and slides Spencer a bottle.
Spencer plays with the label, sticky and fluorescent in the dark neon, harsh light from behind the bar, the shadows from the dance floor. He doesn't want to drink, particularly, not anymore.
"Are -- I can feel someone at my apartment building," Spencer mutters to Alex, because, whatever, Alex seems nice and Spencer doesn't feel like being that nice back, tonight. He asks, "is someone following me or something? Or does the fucking network just constantly change?"
Alex stares resolutely at the mirror behind the bar, at the garish lights. Somehow, there's always an empty stool beside Spencer while he's working, no matter how full the club is. "Brendon's back later," Alex offers up, nonchalant, casual, quiet. "Tonight, I mean. If you're here."
When Spencer doesn't answer, Alex bumps his shoulder in comfort. The nanos don't even give him the possibility of assuming it's not comforting, that it's not friendly and affectionate and warm. Spencer fights the urge to get up and march out the front doors. Swallows. "So," he says. "I'm trying to envision Gabe dating somebody," and he's not, he's so far from envisioning anything that isn't Brendon's face coming through the door safe and sound with Frank behind him, because they've both been gone for six days and it's driving Spencer crazy.
Alex takes a long swallow from his beer, and slides off the barstool. Spencer can read something low beneath Alex's skin, some kind of slow burn, anger or fear or desire or frustration or some combination of them all. It's more distinct, sharper, than it would have been yesterday. Spencer doesn't know if it's directed at the question or whatever, but all Alex says is, "why, you thinking about trying your luck?"
"I could be," Spencer says.
Alex answers agreeably, "you could be," and doesn't comment about how now Spencer's tilted his head to face the back door. Instead he claps Spencer's shoulder, grabs his beer, and maneuvers between dancers and tables to the door marked 'employees only'. Spencer can feel the sticky floor beneath Alex's feet, feels Alex's mild disgust with the tacky surface even beneath his boots. Spencer feels everything, except Brendon and Frank safe and sound.
Behind the bar, Pete replaces his empty beer bottle with a full one. Spencer didn't even notice it was gone, that he'd drunk it down quick and watery. He can feel Alex's calm, talking to -- some dude, because Alex knows just about everyone Gabe does, so Alex knows a lot of people. He doesn't try that hard to figure out who exactly it is.
Spencer stares at the back door. In the corner of his eye, he can see two skinny underagers with their jeans on getting way too friendly for his line of vision. Spencer tilts himself away from them, leans over the bar, doesn't look at Pete. "Is it weird," Spencer says, "that I remember Gabe's death sharper than my own?"
Pete's face pinches up for a brief moment, and slowly Spencer raises his face to look at Pete. Only when Spencer's looking him in the eyes does Pete answer, "Me too," a funny smile plastered on his face. It would be cute if it weren't so painful.
"I didn't know you were there," Spencer replies carefully -- because, yeah, Gabe's hazy recollections of his rebuild are in Spencer's memories, but it doesn't give him any details. And Pete might talk a mile a minute but not about things that matter. Spencer's painfully aware that he knows next-to-nothing about Pete and Gabe Before.
Pete grabs Spencer's beer and swallows down half the bottle in one gulp, head tilted back, throat working. His eyes are closed. "Yep," Pete tells him. "I was there. Alex, Frank, Victoria, Gabe, Nate, Joe, Mikey, Jon, like, everyone was there." Spencer isn't imagining the nanotech static in front of him, the soft blurry -- blurry noise? blurry tingling fingers? whatever, the thing that means he can kind of feel Pete -- getting a little more sharp. Not more focused, but, louder somehow. He doesn't have to have nano-sensors that can exchange thoughts and feelings and physical sensations with Pete, he doesn't even have to ask out loud, to know that everyone in that list is a rebuild. Or worse.
Pete adds, "Patrick called me their lucky charm, because I got through security all the time, you know?" He shrugs, and hands Spencer his beer bottle back.
Spencer brings it up with Ryan because he doesn't want to make Pete look that way ever again.
Spencer says, "so?"
Ryan's staring into the mirror as if it contains the meaning of life, carefully applying an elaborate pattern of eye shadow to his eyes, his brows, his cheeks. Spencer recognizes the style from the fuzzy memories of Ryan's high school career; it's totally different than his usual style in that it's not at all vintage or careless, instead totally made up, almost like a doll. It's beautiful in a creepy way, and a totally different way than Ryan's typically beautiful. Spencer thinks the theme night tonight is some kind of circus act, though, and so he figures Ryan'll fit in.
He keeps at the minute brush strokes while he answers Spencer, careful not to smudge; "Pete used to write protest songs, you know?"
"And this zine, he, I guess until people start listening to you, like, the Authorities don't care what you say." Ryan says it quietly, but how much of that is just him, lost in the colours on his face, and how much of that is in deference to what Pete lost because of it, Spencer isn't sure. Ryan adds, "I used to read his zine, so."
So, what? Spencer wants to ask, because that doesn't explain anything at all, doesn't explain what Ryan's doing living at the club that Pete co-owns, how he went from two semesters of systems analysis to serving drinks.
Ryan seems to sense Spencer's confusion, and switches the makeup brush into the other hand, tilts his head back with a smile quirked, before he holds out his wrist, palm up. Input out.
so Ryan apparently met Pete at a coffee shop after stalking his zine publication office.
which is fair.
"He just hired you?" Spencer asks.
The memory is blurred somehow, a screen out of focus, noise in the background, just like so many of Ryan's memories. He's got Ryan's impressions floating in his head, not the crystal-clear picture quality of Gabe's life story (repeated so many times for so many people, those few images etched in steel for everyone) or the sharp tang of Brendon's fear (heightened senses even if the factual remembrance isn't clear). It's Ryan's memory of being happy.
"Well," Ryan replies, and then shrugs, a graceful lift of his skinny shoulder. He's fiddling with his hair in the mirror, now. "Mostly I think he wanted to make sure he could keep an eye on me. I mean, they were already about a year in," he's saying, "and like, not that many people would have recognized Pete on the street even if he did look about the same, and -- plus, it's hard for synthetics to find work sometimes? So money was getting pretty bad."
It's true; Ryan pretty much has to tell people he isn't a cy, is synthetic, eventually, and a lot of even cy employers don't want to take on the extra maint burden of a syn. Plus most of them aren't as well-adjusted as Ryan; aren't as grown up or complex. Spencer's seen a few systems analyses of malfunctioning synthetics, from both the first wave (barely-emotional automatic slaves; most hadn't made it past ten years) and then the second attempt to popularize the AI designs (modeled after true humans, they often couldn't cope with the complexity of maneuvering through society and their own sadness).
"Did Pete -- did they," and Spencer finds himself asking something he never thought to ask before, "did you, like, pick me? target me because I, I dunno?"
Ryan shrugs again, turns away from the mirror to watch Spencer. His face is kind of alien with the make-up, but his grin is the same. "Ask him," he says, "I have to go earn my keep."
Spencer says suddenly, "Ryan, what do you do with all the tips you get? I mean," because Ryan's living at the club, he's clearly broke as shit, and yet he's one of the most popular dancers.
"Pete Wentz saved my life," Ryan replies. He's got a funny little grin on his face, the hint of a smile; adds, "if I even am alive. Plus your salary ain't cheap, man. I do what I can."
Spencer talks to Ashlee later, because he doesn't want Ryan to find out and Pete will tell Ryan.
"Cut my retainer, okay?" he says to her. His stomach burns hot and sour, full of shame. "I don't -- I'm not the one that needs it."
She says, "no."
Ashlee's young, oh so young; then she pulls her wrap around herself, tugs on a pair of oversized sunglasses and suddenly she's beautifully ageless, mysterious, unapproachable. Hidden. Her Consul badge peeks out of her collar, mostly hidden by the wrap. "If I don't pay you," she tells Spencer, "then you have no reason to be here and people will ask why you come." She pauses, taps one long fingernail against her lips once, twice. "I'll lower it," Ashlee says, "and you can put whatever you want in Ryan's tip jar."
Spencer doesn't know why he looks up the name of Pete's zine; it seems like the thing to do after Ryan talks about it, seems like the kind of thing that might make Pete's completely indecipherable moods -- the energy levels, the tense silences -- a little more predictable.
He can't find any back issues on the network of course (zines are so impermanent anyway) so he logs into Craig's machine while Craig's out on a job. Someone really should change their network password more often, Spencer thinks to himself as the borrowed tablet boots into Craig's workstation. After a moment's (well-founded) paranoia, he performs a reckless boolean search on Pete's name.
The most interesting thing that comes up is a short-lived column in the news archive of the local leftist newsroll, from when -- from Before. It's helpfully titled take this to your grave, apparently for the oh-so-hilarious play on words about the choice to rebuild or bury your loved ones. It's part-vitriol, part-impassioned plea: for cyborg rights, for better hospital wages, for the rights of children and elders to rebuild, too, not just the prime-aged.
Spencer skims the headlines, noting the dates more than the content. The column spans twelve issues and four months, and then there's complete radio silence on the networks about Pete. The paper apparently replaced his column with an equally sarcastic, but much more vapid, critic for local gourmet restaurants.
Spencer logs out and goes home. He doesn't bother to clear the cache; he leaves the work tablet sitting in Craig's space. No one sees him leave. Even if they had, apparently no one cares.
At home, Spencer looks at the paperwork for his apartment, checks the clauses carefully for sublet, for resident restrictions. There's nothing that says he can't sublet it; he sticks an ad up, no pictures. Just to see if there's interest.
Spencer's sitting on a bar stool like usual, eying Ryan -- on the floor for once, by himself, dancing with his eyes closed in a pair of jeans and in no hurry, movements slow and almost balletic. It's a slow night but people are tipping him like usual with the jeans on. Spencer squints in the ultraviolet, and the tattoos that were moving last week are strangely still, glowing a little but otherwise silent. He turns back to the bar.
He can't sense anything from Ryan right now, either joy or pain, anything. He can, however, feel the bass through his feet and through Ryan's too. It's a weird echo-y reverb in his heels and traveling up through his calves, almost reverse pins and needles. Spencer shakes his leg out to try and make it stop.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Brendon asks from behind him. Like always, Spencer is facing the bar and not the stage, work spread out. On one tablet is a delicate jaw replacement, filaments wired through the cy's skull to give back taste buds. It's going to be a painful, complicated repair, and he's not looking forward to doing it in the basement of the club. Even in a fully stocked maint office, this one would be hard.
On the other tablet, Spencer's got a piece of code Gabe asked him to analyze for-- and Spencer had held a hand up, stop, because he didn't need to know what Gabe's going to do with the code in order to try and find a way through it. He glances at that one, then turns it off before turning back to Brendon. "I put my place up for sublet," he gives Brendon, instead of anything else.
The nanotech tells him as much as Brendon's raised eyebrow, and his, "Yeah?" that means Brendon knows that's not what's actually wrong, but--
"It's nothing," Spencer replies.
There's a break in the music, and so Brendon doesn't have to raise his voice to say, "bullshit."
Bullshit, indeed. His biofeedback system is busy attempting to analyze the combination of headache pounding through his skull and the weird feeling in his stomach. It's not quite nausea, it's not quite hunger. It's more of a gnawing sensation like his stomach is full but doesn't realize it, thinks there's something missing.
"As fucking awesome a metaphor that is for your life, Spence," Brendon murmurs into his ear -- the music's back up and so Spencer can barely hear him, though the nannites provide enough detail for him to get most of the words -- "you can ask."
"Yeah?" Spencer says. He's skeptical, raises an eyebrow to show so in case the nannites can't properly convey to Brendon how much full of shit that statement seems to be.
Brendon shrugs. The nannites don't give him any more information than Brendon's face. "You can always ask," Brendon says again.
In the DJ booth, Pete's spinning records without his usual flair; no drama, no screaming between songs, not even any whistling to the dancers. Ryan's disappeared backstage, the twins taking over his cage. Ask, huh. Spencer folds his arms, drops them, cracks his neck awkwardly. Brendon watches him, waits. "Okay," Spencer says. "What happened to Patrick?"
Brendon tilts his head. Spencer's biofeedback system suddenly churns out several lines of extraneous data, as if it's registering biological input from another cy -- which, fuck. Of course it is. It's Brendon's sudden anxiety. The nannites are giving his biofeedback system Brendon's anxiety, Brendon biting his lip.
"Come on, then," and Spencer follows Brendon to the back room, picking up his tablets on the way.
Here's the thing: Spencer actually isn't that old. His family is pretty well off, non-political and non-religious. He has very little frame of reference for things like revolutions, things like cy rescues. Until a few months ago, he didn't even think about rescues, just figured that everyone who had a good biological chance to get rebuilt, well, they'd be assigned an ID number, and eventually they would be.
Here's the thing: Gabe and Pete were activists for a while before that rally. So were the people that were killed, rescued and rebuilt from it. Spencer knows this now, and since he felt Gabe (his gut twists, since he felt himself die) he's read some stuff on the topic of rebuild policy, but it hasn't maybe sunk in as deep as it should have.
Spencer realizes this about the same time that Brendon pulls him into a private dance room and locks the door; he realizes it because of the look in Brendon's eyes, the downward tug of Brendon's mouth.
"You might want to sit down," Brendon says, and offers Spencer his hand. After a minute, Spencer grabs it and lets Brendon at his input terminal.
Spencer flops into the chair, still attached to Brendon's wrist, and after a moment he's fucking grateful he did.
The memories start organized and calm, more like data input than sensations and emotions. Spencer can sort through and see names and ID strings, dates, status data. He almost makes a note to link up to his office database to check each cy ID, but then Brendon moves onto the stronger, qualitative strings attached to each ID, the emotions; a girl with beautiful brown hair and a sultry smile, nearly cut in half by a laser cannon. Mikey, his arm just burned off, Frank clutching his waist and throwing him down into a tunnel. Gabe's shooting from another angle, heart bursting as he falls off the podium, Pete jumping forward to pull him out of range of the shot aimed at his -- they can't be aiming at his head.
But they are, they're fucking aiming at Gabe's *fucking head*.
Before Spencer can process that, the data sets morph into faceless Authorities with high-powered weaponry, military precision. Spencer sees actions one after the other even though his brain tries to tell him each discrete event is actually happening simultaneously; he watches as one girl falls, shot, and then she's marked, bagged, and loaded into a bay. He watches as another pair of dudes, painfully young, go down, and as an Authority pair with blackened helmets pick the two of them up into another set of bays. A blonde girl with wicked-dangerous looking nail mods is tagged in the head -- Jesus, Spencer thinks, sick, head shots -- and the Authorities leave her on the ground. Black trucks wait behind the Authority barriers to take bay after bay after bay. They leave the head shots on the ground (Spencer swallows against nausea; no chance for brain chemistry, no chance for rebuild, and jesus, they're left there just like garbage--). People are running around, dodging; nearer the stage where the crowd's thickest, Spencer sees a few people hauling friends up out of the line of fire and away.
Spencer gets the feeling that if the sound were saved along with the visuals, all he'd hear would be screaming: fear, terror, pain -- and above all, rage.
There are a lot of head shots.
These aren't Brendon's memories, he knows, or at least most of them aren't. He feels a bit dizzy, even if Brendon's giving them to him with the sound off and sensory input blocked; like a silent film reel in his head, clarity of picture but nothing else. Spencer can't smell or taste the ionized residue in the air from the energy weaponry, he can't hear the sizzle of burning flesh. It's not like the memories overwhelm him, not like Gabe's, so the storage room they're sitting in stays in focus. He stays in himself while he watches the rally massacre play out, and it's pretty clear from the memories, all overlapping each other, that the body count was pretty fucking complete; that it's a miracle they got any bodies out in any shape to rebuild them.
Each cy ID string has a status photograph attached, too, which is the final piece of database input that Brendon transfers to him. Some blink "deceased:stored", and a nondescript (non-standard) bay number; some are pictures of the rally day, and blink "deceased:lost". A few are coloured the red of intense grief, and blink "cremated:nonvoluntary". A bunch, especially newer entries, blink "deceased:rebuilt" with a new ID number, subtly new faces -- just enough change to the facial structure, Spencer knows, to be lost in a crowd. Spencer knows that the photographs were collected either from these nameless memories or from the clinics afterward, and they constitute the entirety of Gabe's network, every cy he's helped give life again.
Spencer chokes out, "why -- sweet fucking jesus, Brendon."
He doesn't get to finish the sentence though, because Brendon terminates the upload, and Spencer finally realizes with a shock -- like, seriously, a shock so strong it's almost violent, it makes his stomach roil and he nearly throws up on Brendon's shoes, it's so bad -- that two entries are missing.
Brendon strokes a hand down Spencer's arm, almost but not quite running his hand over Spencer's input. "You asked, Spencer Smith," Brendon said. "You did ask."
He sure fucking did. Now he wishes he hadn't. Spencer digs a few more times through the neatly arranged files -- Alex, Frank, Brendon and Ryan, even himself, they're all saved up with pictures, IDs and names -- to make sure he didn't miss them, just in case.
To forestall the question he should ask, he says to Brendon, "isn't it fucking dangerous to give me this?"
Brendon's answer is a short laugh, bright and sharp, that the nanotech correctly identifies as harsh grief. "Why, what can you do with it?" he says to Spencer, "you're already in, and you've got security to keep other people out."
Which is true. He's already in, and he's in deep. Spencer nods, eventually, and decides he might as well just get it over with; those two missing entries stand out like an abscessed tooth, like a meteor crater. "So where are they?" Spencer asks. His throat is still hoarse, mouth dry. No more fucking mass data dumps into his system. His biofeedback system blips in agreement.
Brendon's slumped a little bit, curls into himself just a little bit; he says hesitantly, "well. Pete, and his still-beating heart, are upstairs in the DJ booth," because Pete is in the DJ booth, and Pete doesn't have a rebuilt ID because Pete didn't go down. The only one they missed, even pulling Gabe away.
Spencer doesn't ask, because eventually Brendon will either get to the fucking point, or Spencer will choke him. His fists are curled up.
Brendon sighs. He doesn't look at Spencer. "And Patrick -- we don't know. no one -- yeah. like."
No one knows.
part eight: analyze ekg, can you see a memory?
The next day, Spencer moves out of his place, and Brendon shows him the way into the factory from below.
"I feel stupid saying 'below'," Spencer grumbles as they climb through worker tunnels off the nearest transit station. "Like, I dunno."
Brendon's in front of him, and he shrugs in reply. "That's what it is, dude," Brendon says oh-so-helpfully. Spencer scrabbles along, nearly tripping himself over some goddamned crack in the concrete down here.
This is how it went: Brendon met him at the station near the club, smiled as he glanced around, then opened a door marked 'employees only'. Apparently no one seemed to find it weird, because Spencer followed him through without anyone saying anything. The door wasn't covered by any cameras; and then they were in service tunnels that had the same magnetic bite to them as the train-tracks, the over-abundance of static electricity jolting him.
Brendon glances back, and Spencer nods. "Okay, so we call it coming in from below. Not the basement." Brendon waits; Spencer chews on his lip. "Because if we say 'basement' then someone might hear and know the club has a basement?"
Brendon doesn't nod, but he can feel the jumble in his stomach that's Brendon's pleasure as he opens the door to--
"Oh," Spencer says, surprised, as they emerge into, yeah, into the basement. More specifically, into one of the storage closets Ashlee apparently uses to store shit for the club instead of the clinic. Crates of flavoured oils and alcohol line two walls and are stacked up in the middle of the little room, an ice machine (a broken one) is stuffed in one corner.
Brendon shows him the cryo-bays in the next room next, four to a wall, twelve in all. Spencer suppresses his sigh, but only just. Brendon says, "yeah, I know, but..." and trails off because, yeah, but. There's no way they could house every cy that seems to live/stay at the club in their own room, and there's no way Spencer was even hoping that was the case -- but. But.
Spencer shrugs. "Oh well," he says to Brendon. "I guess, well."
"We'll work on finding you somewhere else nearby," Brendon tells him, "like," and he scrubs his hand through his hair. "Not that many people stay here permanently. It's," and Brendon laughs a little, "it's just convenient, mostly until new cys get back on their feet."
Spencer swallows. The nanotech means he can't hide his disappointment from Brendon even though he desperately wants to; he wants to be the kind of cy that'll gladly give up his four rooms and comfortable salary to make a difference, he wants to be the kind of cy that has no weaknesses, or at least none that anyone knows about.
At that thought, Brendon grins, moves closer to Spencer. "Hey," Brendon tells him softly, "you've pretty much given up that right all to-fucking-gether, you know that?" And, yeah, Spencer does, because the irritating buzzing of Frank's impatience (is he seriously going to get in some customer's face again?) and Ryan's -- what is Ryan doing upstairs, anyway? Spencer can't shut them out, he can barely keep the noise in his head down to a manageable level, sometimes. So he fucking knows that everyone can hear him, okay? He does.
"Do you have another place?" Spencer asks, because.
Brendon's eyes narrow, just a little. "Uh," he answers. "Well. No. It's -- I'm on the road enough it doesn't make sense."
Spencer suspected as much, but it doesn't make him feel any better. He knows Brendon's gone more than he's here, but. But.
Now that his permanent residence is below the club, Pete has him in the clinic nearly every day, even with work. He likes the thought that this is his place, helping cys that can't get maintenance. It makes sense, too, since Spencer has no life and besides, once you see such need, you can't just not try as hard and as fast as you can. Spencer can't go to work two days a week and then -- what? He can't not come in and do the clinic hours too.
Frank cocks his head at that; Spencer's wiping down his terminals with an anti-static cloth. Mostly it's just to keep busy, to avoid meeting Frank's eyes. "You do know you can't fix everything, right? Like, you can't even fix most things."
It should be pretty insulting, all things considered. Frank often seems to say things just to seem insulting when in reality they're anything but, though, and the nanotech is recognizing Frank's genuine concern and replying with appropriate gratitude.
"Whatever," Spencer says out loud. He rolls his eyes, even if he can't dissemble or anything, even if his mind and body will betray the truth anyway.
"Hey Smith, we've got your back," Frank says, and slaps Spencer on the shoulder. It stings a bit, where Frank catches bare organic skin, and yet the sensation isn't bad because it's primary sensation, his own, not ghosted through his body from someone else.
"I know," Spencer tells him. It's not glib or a quip, even though it could be, probably should be.
Frank says again, "seriously though. You can't fix everything." He glances at the patient schedule, ducks his head out the door at the line waiting to see Spencer, then adds, "you start to think that way, you'll lose yourself, you'll start to go crazy." Spencer raises an eyebrow, and all Frank says is, "you've met Pete, right?"
Instead of saying anything, Spencer just narrows his eyes. Frank chuckles, and the nanotech yells out Frank's merriment at Spencer's attempt to be off-putting, but he lets it go, which was what Spencer was aiming for in the first place and so counts as a win. Frank beams, happily reveling in Spencer's discomfort, and rolls his eyes at Spencer's head-tilt meant as a warning.
Clearly, Spencer's body language is lacking.
"Anyway," Frank adds (rapidly shifting onto a whole other conversational train, which Spencer is grateful for until he actually hears what Frank tells him, and then Spencer gets a feeling of foreboding), "so also, Gabe wants to see what you're made of."
He doesn't offer any explanation, but he does offer up his wrist; Spencer takes it. A few flashes of network code -- Ryan's code -- is all Spencer gets. "Talk to Pete if you want more, man," Frank tells him, already shrugging his jacket on. "The reason we've got you tapped for this is because I have to be uptown tonight."
"So, what exactly is it I'm doing?"
Frank grins as he leaves, but doesn't reply.
Well, Spencer thinks. That's a good sign.
Turns out it's a network hack. Spencer isn't sure exactly what they need him for, other than to watch Ryan's back, which, okay. Spencer's okay with that being his job. So he goes out with Ryan, no explanation other than they're digging for someone's ID string. Ryan hadn't been any use, and Spencer stared at Pete for a long moment, because--
see, this is the thing.
Each cy's ID is unique, just like each registry of live birth is unique. Obviously it's not that hard to fake one, since each dancer at the club has a fake ID (Spencer knows that from his few forays into the ID net through work). But, like, there's no reason to *hide* an ID.
("what if you're hiding the cy, though?" Pete answered, and Spencer swallowed, and so.)
They're below the transit station near an Authority sub-office. Spencer's palms are sweating a bit. He's pretty fucking nervous, and his bioloop offers to turn off some of his nervousness. It's actually kind of insisting on it, which is vaguely creepy.
"Tell your bio-loop to shut the fuck up," Ryan mutters, "I'm kind of busy and it's distracting me."
Spencer does so. It seems a pretty easy network hack, all things considered. He kind of thinks Gabe sent him out here with Ryan as a test, a milk run, to see what's what. When he'd mentioned that to Ryan earlier, of course, Ryan denied it, but then Ryan is spacier than usual from all his concentration being on the hack and search. "Did you bring the breaker code, Ryan," Spencer asks.
Blank look. "Huh?"
Oh for the love of -- Spencer stands up, stretches his neck out. It's a calculated risk, because technically they're not supposed to be in this tunnel, and there's a slim possibility that someone staring either at a security monitor, or down the tunnel itself, could see him as he pokes out of the service hole they're crammed in. Nothing happens, as Spencer figures it wouldn't. "Ryan, we need that stupid code to get into the system?"
Ryan blinks at him, eyes back on the present instead of in the data he's about to sift through. "The -- oh, yeah. I've, it's in the bag, the second tablet should be it," he replies. Spencer bites his tongue.
When he asked Ryan what was wrong earlier, instead of being cranky or cynical Ryan shut down, closed off and quiet. Spencer knows something is seriously wrong, and has two or three good possibilities in mind. He can't do anything about any of them, so he lets it go; Brendon will be fine on the run he's making, and he and Pete will be back soon. Spencer thinks it like a mantra. Whatever it is that has Ryan tied in knots is a waiting game for all of them.
"Okay, here," Spencer says, "let's get in, plant the thing already, and get out."
Pete has them reprogramming the network in a suburban train tunnel for god only knows what purpose at the same time as the database search, too. Spencer's starting to think it might be for none at all, except his initiation -- to test Spencer, make sure he's truly on board. "It's not," Ryan mutters absently. He's jacked right into the network, fingers wrapped in wires, the main feed plugged into his wrist. "He's not testing you. It's important."
Ryan shoves the objective through their link, and Spencer kind of wishes he hadn't, or at least had waited until they were out of the tunnel, because apparently what they're doing is hacking into Authority lab data, data available only on the lab hard-line, and--
motherfucking pete wentz.
Ryan tells him through the link that apparently Spencer's maint protocol is the thing that got them in.
There's a distinct lack of people to rail at regarding the hack he'd been dragged on once he gets to the club for his regular (well, at least more normal) maint hours. Alex is sitting at a table with his glasses on, but clearly he's wrapped up completely in whatever's on his tablet, so Spencer doesn't want to interrupt him. And he can't feel Pete in the vicinity, or Frank, or, well, anyone he could feel moderately justified in blaming.
When Brendon slips in from below (Spencer feeling every step up the stairs, even though he couldn't feel hardly anything from the bartender), it's a relief, until Spencer realizes that he probably can't yell at Brendon for this one. Besides, Brendon's exhausted face, nervous energy, kind of robs him of the desire anyway. Fuck.
Instead, he blurts out, "why'd you, with Pete that night. What."
Spencer can't finish the sentence, it isn't even the beginning of a sentence, practically half a fragment mashed out of his mouth. The nanotech, ever-buzzing companion, probably lets Brendon probably read him like a neon billboard of what the fuck are we even doing here anyway.
But Spencer is. He's so asking, he almost *needs* to know why Brendon's in, what made Brendon sign up. He feels it, but he doesn't *know*, can't put the events into place, and Spencer has to know, because every day Spencer feels the walls close in a little farther so he might not get another chance to ask, and even if the nanotech is telling Spencer that Brendon's heart rate is up, his hands are shaking a little, and he's more jittery than normal, it's not telling him if those physiological responses are because Brendon's nervous in answering, or nervous in answering *him*. Spencer waits, resists getting his biofeedback loop to calm himself down even though it offers, because -- because he's an honest kind of guy, and Brendon should get the chance to spy on his physiological responses if he wants to. Spencer wants to let him.
After a second, Brendon quirks his lips, and disappears backstage.
While Spencer's staring after him, Ashlee appears behind him like a ghost. He jumps when she puts her hand on his shoulder. "Tough love, right?"
Spencer turns. "There's a meeting later, right?" he asks, sidesteps her question as easily as Brendon sidestepped his.
Ashlee tilts her head, unnaturally wide eyes rimmed with eyeliner like usual. She looks rueful. "Sure," she says, "yeah, okay. There's a meeting. We'll need you," she tells Spencer, and kindly doesn't look in Brendon's direction.
The babble dies down when Gabe stands up and hollers, "Okay you fuckers, calm down."
Apparently one of the teams is late getting back; Spencer doesn't even know. Alex is in the corner, surreptitiously still massaging his knee and wincing against someone's shoulder. Spencer makes a mental note to grab him to fix it before everyone disappears.
Once the room's quieter, Gabe says, "so let's hear it. Go."
He points to one of the outer network dudes, who's covered in tattoos and an angry grimace. The dude starts to tell the room about security and the network tube they were cracking, and then he says, "and Gabe, dude, you know I respect -- but what the hell have you got us doing? We're supposed to be helping people and I'm fucking hacking the--"
Gabe lets him go for a while, and Spencer can feel a slight tingle in his nano sensors, even if it's clear that this dude doesn't, or can't, or whatever. Spencer frowns, suddenly, while the dude keeps relaying the security measures they had no idea would be in place; he can't sense at least half the people in the room, it seems. Or rather, he can only hear them faintly, like the nano-sensors aren't tuned to the right frequency or some shit. His network used to put everyone on more-or-less the same footing, but now.
He hears Gabe chuckle; then Gabe says, "yeah, you're right," which makes the dude pause in his rant. "So you're on recon and retrieval for the core network this month, okay?" Gabe continues. Gabe's sunglasses reflect no light, the lenses matte grey. Battleship grey. Spencer hears a curious murmur start up, which Gabe ignores; he gets it, though, because Gabe just handed over primary control of the rescue network to somebody else. Something's going on. Something serious is going on, and it seems like only a few people in the room seem concerned or anxious enough to realize just how serious it is; the murmurs sound curious, not really fucking wary.
Alex rubs his knee again; Spencer feels an answering pain in his own joint, and a sharp anxiety besides. Whatever's up, Alex has an even stronger taste.
"So now that that's settled," Gabe says, and the dude replies,
"What's been settled? Are you--"
"I've got something I have to do, so I'm gonna let the teams work without me this month. You guys all know what to do and how to do it. I know you'll get it done," Gabe interrupts. It's not the most stirring speech, but it seems to do the trick, at least in that it calms almost everyone down. Spencer feels a hole in his stomach where the buzz of Pete's static should be, and then his stomach clenches as he consciously realizes Pete's nowhere to be felt. While Gabe's giving away the farm, Pete's just, absent.
The teams break off, planning for hospital retrievals. Spencer stays frozen in place, too wrapped up in wondering what the shit is going on to really register that he's not on a team -- or not on one that has any members in the room, at least. Gabe saunters over to Spencer, Frank a few steps behind, before too long anyway. "Can you crack this?" Gabe asks without preamble, and hands Spencer a tablet.
It's the data from their hack yesterday.
Spencer licks his lips, evaluates it rationally and ignores the warning bells in the back of his mind. Can he crack it? The data's triple locked. Maybe with a week or so, or a query string to work from -- "with some time, and maybe extra data, yeah. Maybe." Spencer pauses. "What is it?"
"Storage facility data," Gabe answers quietly.
Okay. Storage facility data shouldn't be this important, and Spencer knew that when they went underground yesterday. The kids routinely crack storage data for rescues, or to scout supplies. The security's nothing more than a single password string, and Spencer's never heard of them having to crack the line itself. Even out of the secure network, this string is protected by bank-vault security. "I'll probably need Ryan's help to do it, but if you've got a faster way to do this," Spencer says honestly, "I'd use it, not me. You clearly need it, like, now," and Spencer knows he does, because he can taste Gabe's impatience, "so beyond the first few lines, you'll probably have to wait too long for me. This isn't," Spencer finishes unnecessarily -- because Gabe should fucking know this -- "really my area."
"Yeah, you'd better do it," Gabe tells him.
It should sound insulting, but Spencer listens to the nanotech underneath the words, and he can almost see the what ifs and buts racing through Gabe's mind as he comes to the conclusion that Spencer's his only option. Spencer knows he shouldn't ask, because curiousity and Gabe are always sketchy companions at best. Frank is fidgeting, shifting one foot back and forth. He's got both hands in his pockets, and he looks even shorter all slouched over. Spencer can't sense hardly anything from him right now, which means he's wound up tighter and smaller than ever. Frank's silence is still louder than most of the kids in the room.
"What is it really?" Spencer finally asks, because, well, knowing he shouldn't doesn't mean he won't.
"Location data for someone's storage cell, I hope," Gabe replies without hesitating. A storage cell would at least give a reason for the security, Spencer realizes. A storage cell means a criminal holding facility, and that means a resistance member. Spencer waits, and Gabe tells him, "her name's Victoria."
A spike from Frank -- shock, anger. Frank says, "if you're. Gabe, seriously," and then he palms his face, "Dude, if you'll do it for, then you could. I mean. We could maybe."
"We could maybe," Gabe says seriously, and asks, "Spencer, what do you think? Can you find an ID in that?"
Spencer shrugs; his maint protocols are trying to tell him he can't, but then, they told him he and Ryan couldn't hack the hardline in the first place. He abruptly gets waves of Frank's pain and anger, almost visual, a thin infrared haze. It almost drowns out Gabe's apprehensions. Spencer replies, "If I can borrow someone's process for security. I should still have access to any ID string that isn't falsified well. Or that hasn't been changed."
"Changed?" Frank asks sharply. "They change people's IDs? Like, after you're rebuilt?"
"...sometimes," Spencer admits.
He'd only heard about it once or twice, rumors from the office, but it was a serious enough warning that he'd tried to shy away since then. One guy had been fired, he recalled dimly, for going after it; the Authorities had fined the company or something. Spencer gulps, hoping now it'd only been that, and not something worse.
Spencer adds, "I don't know a lot about it, but if whoever you're looking for is stored, or whatever, and has a different ID string, there's not really, I mean," and he can fucking feel Frank crumbling before his eyes, even if he can't see it. He can feel Gabe's miserable sympathy. Spencer finally says, "I could maybe figure it out in the facility itself, because there might be a log of the change attached to the name. But maybe not."
Frank eyes him, face stoic but nano sensors trembling. His hands are clutched fists. Gabe slaps a hand on Frank's shoulder, and nods, once, to Spencer. "Right," Gabe tells them, "Congratulations, Spencer, you're now officially valuable enough to us to be expendable. We'll try the warehouse this week."
Gabe cuts Frank off with, "Look, I know your priority, okay? So he'll be one of mine. There's a reason I put everyone else in front of running the clinic and rescues from the hospitals: they can manage without us." Gabe looks right at Frank, into Frank, and tells him, "dude, I'm not leaving people this time."
Spencer has no idea what Gabe's talking about, who Frank is so miserable and angry without. He has no idea what Gabe just volunteered him for, either, but apparently that doesn't really matter. Spencer supposes he could tell Gabe to shove it, since this seems to be not only pretty far beyond what he's qualified for, but highly illegal and incredibly dangerous -- and, maybe most importantly, something Spencer's not trained to do. He thinks the game board might have got a bit bigger.
"Don't worry, mi amigo," Gabe replies casually, "the game board got a lot smaller. And none of us know what we're doing."
Spencer watches him walk away, and frowns, because wow. He knows it was supposed to be reassuring, but way to abjectly fail. The nano sensors buzz quietly, giving little indication of Gabe's mood, but permit him to feel Frank, Alex, and Ryan in the other room. Nothing of Brendon, who's been gone two days with Pete. Nothing of the tattooed dude save his existence. He should probably be concerned that apparently the nanos are slowly allowing Gabe's revolution farther and deeper into his brain activity as well as his sensory input, but mostly Spencer's just relieved that he -- even if it's just his subconscious, somehow routing the nanotech through his emotions and memories or whatever -- is in control of who's allowed in.
Spencer isn't one to believe in karmic payback or fate, really. Because, seriously, rebuilds defy fate all the fucking time. What he does believe in is revenge, for cracking the hardline maybe? For having too much hope? For succeeding at something? He's not sure.
It's weird to think of the Authorities wanting revenge, but it's just a little too fucking coincidental, what happens next.
Spencer's downstairs; he was working on Ryan's arrhythmic process until Mikey needed help with the nerve fibers for his second lung repair of the night (and seriously, sometimes Spencer thanks god for his advanced systems programming that lets him have total control over his biofeedback system -- even if he doesn't use it that often and even if it does argue with him, the fact that he can stop himself from sweating through the tension and stress is fucking handy right now when a drop of sweat might totally fuck up this girl's chest cavity).
"Hold," Mikey says in his monotone, and Spencer freezes. His hand is cramped up, millimeter by agonizing millimeter feeding the nerve bundle through her autonomous nervous system and into the control processors for her lungs. Mikey cuts a little more of the soft scar tissue away, tightens the net around her lungs. "Okay, a little more," he starts to say, and then -- fuck. Fuck.
Spencer feels something go seriously wrong upstairs.
Muffled shouting starts up, buffered by thick concrete walls around them, the roof above them.
Mikey says, unnecessarily, "hold."
Spencer likes working with Mikey, because no matter how hard the job is Mikey seems to know exactly what shortcut to use to get it done. He kind of suspects that Mikey, somewhere in his machine parts, has a hospital download clogging his emotional systems, maybe even overriding them, all the tricks and steady hands of a surgeon who's got thirty years experience. On the table below them, the girl's lungs are being compressed and expanded slowly by the monitor they've got hooked up, Spencer's programming taking over for her brain until they can rewire the faulty autonomous connections.
Mikey's hands don't shake even though both of them can taste adrenaline at the back of their mouths -- a sensation Spencer's getting all too used to. Something's going wrong upstairs, something's going seriously wrong.
Spencer breathes shallowly, the ionization from laser weapons filtering through the air vent; crashing and yelling, still through concrete and filtered through Spencer's body as pinpricks of pain like electrocution. Gabe's not in attendance tonight, but they've got a few of the dancers (he feels a flash of hot, sickening guilt when he can't remember which cys are here tonight), they've got bartenders and servers, and--
"goddamned," Spencer murmurs, and closes his eyes against hot, aching tears, "Mikey, Pete's DJ'ing tonight. he's--"
Mikey can't take his hands out of the girl's chest, because her lungs are starting to slow. Spencer can feel him chewing on his lip through the nannites, even with his own eyes closed. The pinpricks under his skin intensify. Spencer knows Mikey isn't as unfeeling as sometimes he seems to be, and he knows that if Mikey cares about anyone it's Pete. "Hold," Mikey says quietly. "We're -- we can't."
then the power goes out.
The noise tumbles into silence, and Spencer opens his eyes to darkness save the little red light above their closet door signaling the automatic lock engaged. Spencer didn't even know that there were automatic locks down here.
Mikey tells him, "this deep under the club, yeah. Pete had them installed when he and Ashlee bought the place. So the clinic at least would be safe."
Spencer realizes his hands are threatening to tremble inside the girl's lung. He triggers his biofeedback system, which after a moment's argument tamps down his jitters and horrible sense of dread. The electrical burning in his skin fades, he calms, the terror fades. The nannite input he dials up, using his biofeedback system to override the emotional input and everyone else's pain triggers, keeping just the information. His hands steady again on the nerve fibers they still haven't managed to finish up. Without power to the monitor, they'll lose the girl pretty fucking quick, because her own body won't be able to manage the strain of breathing on her own, and that'll mean her pulmonary system will degrade beyond repair.
He says unnecessarily to Mikey, "we're gonna lose her, aren't we?"
Mikey glances down at her face, to the dead monitor. There's barely enough red light from the lock to see Mikey's face. "Probably," he replies. "Maybe. It depends on whether they get the power back."
Spencer knows that they're not the only surgery going on tonight, though since they're both on it the rest of them probably aren't quite as life or death. It's one small consolation. He can sense Frank downstairs banging on something, kicking it in frustration -- Spencer realizes it's the transformer as he can hear, clear as day, Frank cursing it out.
He can't really get any sense of upstairs anymore.
"It's okay, I think. There were so many people in the bar tonight, they didn't figure on that? And they announced a warrant before the power went out," Mikey tells him. He shrugs without moving his hands. "So I think, yeah. I think everybody but Ashlee got downstairs."
"How -- what's she--" Spencer starts, but Mikey interrupts,
"She's pulling rank," he says, "trying to use her Consul status." Mikey shrugs again. "I don't think it's getting anywhere."
Spencer closes his eyes, trying to hear whatever it is from upstairs that means Mikey knows what's going on. There's nothing from Ashlee at all -- though, a Consul's blood couldn't have foreign contaminants in it, so of course. Right. Spencer feels Alex: he's in a storage closet just below the bar and two floors above them, and he's got a deep gash in his thigh. Alex is slowly bleeding out, systems working overtime to try and compensate, but he's not built to withstand that much blood loss.
"Alex isn't going to make it if we don't get him," Spencer says. It sounds way too casual. His biofeedback system blips in agreement, offering to let the emotional-affect chemical processes back online. Spencer overrides it with difficulty, shutting out the little trickle of fear and horror that makes it through, a shudder making its way to his lower back before his bioloop shuts it down.
"Nope," Mikey says back, just as casually.
Spencer can suddenly feel that peculiar static that signals Pete's arrival in a room. He's practically next-door, on their floor -- even with his bioloop overriding the instinctive reactions that are trying to rush through his brainstem, Spencer breathes a shaky sigh of relief.
There's a banging on their actual door, and he and Mikey glance at each other. Frank's outside, after Spencer examines the nano input -- Frank's outside and pissed off to fuck. "Guys," he calls through the door, "I've got you a battery," and oh, Frank knew that the only desperate surgery was theirs.
"We can't unlock it, we're in the middle of the fucking repair," Mikey calls back.
"Fuck," Frank says. There's a moment, then Spencer cringes as he tries to shoot out the lock. He's not sure whether to be grateful or concerned that a mid-caliber energy weapon totally slagged the lock and got Frank in; if it weren't Frank--
"Yeah, hurry the fuck up," Mikey says. "We're going to lose her."
Spencer doesn't watch as Frank hooks the battery up to the monitor; he doesn't stare as her lungs start breathing again that slow, careful rhythm. Instead, he follows Mikey's instructions as they fuck the scar tissue and get her wired up to the control processor in less than ten minutes.
When it's over, her eyes flutter open, and she coughs a bit. "Careful," Mikey says. She nods, and closes her eyes again. Mikey scans the monitor; "she's out," he tells them.
Frank doesn't look away from where he's been covering the door with whatever weapon managed to jimmy the lock. Spencer glances down at the mess their interrupted repair made of the scar tissue on her lungs. "She was gonna be all better," he says quietly, and sighs.
"She was gonna be," Mikey agrees. There's really nothing more. A repair that should have totally fixed her has ended up leaving her wheezing for good. Spencer flips the monitor closed, washes his hands in the basin of chemical disinfectant. Mikey finishes, and does the same. After another minute, Mikey pulls the thin blanket over her; her nu-skin protecting her chest cavity from contaminants. She shuffles a bit in sleep, but doesn't wake up.
Mikey moves to put his tools away. Spencer glances at Frank, then does the same, dialing the nano input up even more, straining his ears and senses and everything, putting his tools methodically away, everything a charade to stop himself from racing upstairs to see the damage, the missing people, the holes in their ranks. They can't leave this floor, shouldn't leave the room. Through other people's eyes he knows that an Authority covers every route to Alex's spot, every twist in the upper hallways; there's no way to get to him.
Spencer feels his knuckles ache at the strain his biofeedback system is under, keeping the emotional overload at bay that's feeling Alex slowly, painfully bleeding to death, the anxiety and overload from the nanotech sensory input nearly overriding the bioloop.
Mikey passes the cloth over; Spencer dries his hands. He sends Alex a silent plea to hold it together until they can get him, feels Alex cough in return -- and stops himself from thundering down the hall to find Pete or Ryan.
part nine: tonight your ghost will ask my ghost
It's the fourth meeting Spencer attends, and this one's more shielded than anything Spencer's seen before up to and including that time he visited the District Court with his dad to pay a parking ticket. Spencer gets the message in the middle of the night, a blip of time (less than an hour from now) and place (thankfully two stations away), Gabe's tag glaring in his calendar (of course; who else?). He barely has time to call into work before meeting--
"Brendon, uh, hey."
Brendon, apparently. Brendon's got on these silver sunglasses and a thick padded jacket, because it's the middle of the fucking night almost. Spencer walked to the station from the club, and a quick query to the transit node beside them lets him know that they've got a few minutes to wait until the very first train of the day pulls in. "Hey," Brendon says, "Sorry we had to wake you. It's, the trains don't come very often out here, this time of day, so we had to pad the timing a little more than normal."
Brendon hands him a one-use transit pass, even though he's got a monthly all-inclusive. Spencer takes it without question, getting the feeling that asking so soon will just lead to problems later on.
They sit quietly side-by-side on a westbound, then northbound, train, Brendon humming and Spencer mostly sleeping. He considered being more alert, more aware, but then most of the other passengers are asleep too, so looking too aware is probably a worse idea than letting Brendon lead him blindly through train stations and, finally, out onto a suburban street in the ass-end of the city.
"So," Spencer says, but stops himself as Brendon jumps the steps two at a time to a little library. He opens his mouth to ask something else, whatever, but Brendon grabs his hand, squeezes just a little bit this side of painful, and then puts a kiss to the side of his mouth carefully. Between their hands, their input ports brush; Brendon's order of quiet rings out through the nanotech. He may as well have said it out loud.
Spencer swallows, blinks, then nods, pastes a smirk on his face. Brendon pulls him inside.
Inside the librarian looks up at them -- at Brendon, really, who pulls Spencer in close and drapes his arm around Spencer's waist. He's acting like a newly-fucking-wed, eyes soft and smile big, but not quite right, just a little bit wrong, not quite affectionate. Spencer figures he's the only one (through the nanotech but also weeks of watching Brendon's normal expressions) that notices.
Brendon tugs on his hand, and wanders casually through the stacks to the conference rooms at the back of the first floor, then through an unmarked door, down the stairs to the basement.
Spencer raises an eyebrow, tries to ask without saying something that could be overheard.
"The library was built on top of an old, ancient really, jail," Brendon tells him. He's pacing his steps so Spencer is beside him, but now they're downstairs Brendon's dropped his hand. "So the basement here, it opens up onto the underground."
They go through another hallway, down more stairs, and through a security door. Brendon fiddles with a code breaker (he recognizes Ryan's programming on it), and then through the security door--
It's a tunnel, and it looks like it runs below the trains. The concrete is wet, mildew-y, and obviously Brendon just broke through the security doors that block the library -- the sealed, cleaned, painted section of the building above -- from the abandoned section of old city below.
"Come on," Brendon says, speeding up now as he strides off into the dim tunnel, "we don't have that long before another train comes, and some of the newer models have security sensors."
Spencer follows, because, yeah. "How do you know what trains are overhead?" he asks Brendon. Apparently this part of the city doesn't have any monitoring equipment -- though, it doesn't look like anyone's been down here in years, maybe decades, so that makes sense.
"We stole a transit authority chip," Brendon tells him, and taps the back of his neck. "The night I met Pete."
Spencer follows him down the tunnel for a few minutes, and eventually they reach a T-junction where Brendon turns left, then another, where they continue straight. The tunnels were obviously originally meant for workers of some description, because they're not water channels and they're not wide enough for trains. At the end of this tunnel, there's another thick steel door; it looks like the reinforced doors in the basement of the factory, Spencer realizes, only those ones are cleaned and cared for. This one looks rusty, damp; a hundred years old, possibly a lot more.
"Yep," Brendon says, and Spencer jumps a bit to hear Brendon's voice echoing off the concrete. A long way down the tunnel, he can kind of hear water dripping, but nothing else. "Ashlee had to look for like six months before she found an industrial building on top of three major trains and the old water service," Brendon tells him. "The factory might not look like much, but it sits on infrastructure, dude."
Spencer doesn't wonder whether these tunnels could possibly intersect the ones under the club. The network maps that Gabe highlights so frequently and with such vehemence start to make more sense.
Brendon's fiddling with the modern security box on the door; it's a bulky self-contained unit that's welded to the old-fashioned door latch, with a blood-match scanner and personality matrix interface. It looks painfully out of place in the tunnel, which is all darkened steel and rotting concrete, and as Brendon sticks the lead into his input terminal, the door swings open.
"About time," Pete greets them with; Brendon lets the door close behind him. Spencer expects some kind of loud bang, but whatever spring mechanism keeps the door moving smoothly is still functional because it only gives off a little click. Pete's squatting beside a battery-lantern that's giving off a sickly yellow glow, and a portable old-style screen. There's a couple of benches tugged around a long table, and an ancient terminal at the end of the room, but that's it.
"Hey," Spencer says to Pete, because he doesn't know what the fuck he's doing here today, hasn't attended any underground meetings (they've been in people's living rooms, casual affairs more akin to the weekly maint office staff meetings than any clandestine activities). He has, in fact, spent the majority of his resistance time patching up cys, just like his life before save for less pay.
His biofeedback loop offers up an analysis of the chemical tells of his nervousness; he ignores it.
The EM from the two functional electronics in the room -- Pete's lantern and screen -- would be so negligent that if there was a patrol outside the door, it wouldn't be noticeable. And, of course. Pete, the only one of them with no tech, the only one of them that could enter undetected, Pete's setting up a low-level device that Spencer recognizes as some kind of thing to generate static, masking the energy signals they may be giving off. Masking them.
Pete grins. "Didn't know you were coming today, Spence. Congrats, I guess you graduated."
There's a rustle, and another dude slips into the room -- a tall skinny dude Spencer's never met, with some seriously wicked skeletal mods -- who says, "yeah, trust Gabe to fucking spring him on us with no warning, right?"
Pete replies, "worse from his end, right?"
"Still," the guy says, "like we need any more fucking surprises."
He sounds unfriendly, at best, but the nanos reassure Spencer. The dude's not angry or resentful; Spencer's getting to know first-hand Gabe's ways and he's pretty sure the dude's frustrated, for sure, but he's frustrated at Gabe and meant it literally: an exasperated comment on Gabe's methods of introduction, Gabe's trick-up-the-sleeve way of operating, nothing personal.
But the guy doesn't introduce himself, so Spencer doesn't ask.
Brendon and Spencer are the third and fourth to arrive, respectively. The only ones beside Pete and Brendon that Spencer recognizes at all are Frank, and Gabe himself; none of these people have been at the other meetings. He resists the urge to look up the faces in the resistance database locked safe in his memories.
Eventually, maybe, but not now.
Gabe's the last to arrive, and he shuts the door before setting a scan inhibitor on the ground. Spencer figured the signal static pretty good security, but apparently it was only for arrivals because Gabe's gone and done a hundred times better. Scan inhibitors are monitored so fucking close that Spencer can't believe even Gabe with his connections could get a hold of one. "Present from Ashlee. Breathe easy, crew," Gabe says, before anyone has the chance to ask.
He activates it with a low whine, and Spencer feels the nanos go dormant.
Off Spencer's surprised look, Gabe says, "yeah, it's the only downside, but the security's too important to take the risk."
The tall dude that didn't introduce himself snorts. "No fucking shit, Gabe. This is the first time we've all been in the same room for like, a year."
"Yeah, I know, and I have a good reason," Gabe says. "You must have heard by now I gave up the rescue network. All will become clear."
"Speaking of," one of the other guys starts to say (a dude with a huge fro and a serious pissed off frown), "how come a clinic maint's here? I mean," and the guy glances at Spencer with -- something Spencer can't identify without the nanotech.
In fact, Spencer's never realized how much he's starting to rely on the nanotech until he's surrounded by Gabe's people and can't read them through it. Even Brendon, eyes serious and arms crossed, is a complete enigma.
"He's not just a clinic maint anymore, man. He's coming out with me and Alex tomorrow," Gabe replies to the dude, shrugging. "Figured Spence might as find out the stakes here as anywhere."
The dude with the fro (and some seriously awesome cosmetic mods, Spencer can see now that the guy's got his head turned to Gabe again) shrugs, apparently accepting the explanation. Almost everyone else seems to glance at Spencer and move onto other things in their head, too; even Pete, who claimed he had no idea Spencer was coming today. Only Frank spares him more than a passing look, and it's not like it's an improvement, because Frank bares his teeth, a gleeful, expectant grin on his face.
Gabe pulls up the tablet Pete was playing with. "Okay. First. Clinics?"
Pete says, "we're having supply issues. I've got the lists, but I'm gonna have to send someone out for over a week to get it all. We've been tagged in two lots already."
A serious girl (who looks all of sixteen) adds, "they're still bringing in rescues but my resources are nearly gone. We've been storing them, and that means using shipping bays, it means generators, and I'm running out of room in our warehouse. And we lost almost a dozen bays last time, and the truck with it."
Gabe sighs, but nods. "We knew that might happen." He turns to the really tall dude. "Any problems with transport?"
The guy shrugs, replies, "there's nothing I can do about clinic supplies right now, man. I need another code breaker." His voice doesn't tremble or give anything away, he could be discussing the weather, when he adds, "I couldn't broadcast it, but I lost Tom this week."
Spencer doesn't need the nannites active to feel the air shift as he says it. He tenses up along with everyone else, even though he has no idea who Tom is, doesn't know what lost means (in his mind, some fucking sadistic buried practical-process helpfully tells him it probably means captured, or terminated).
Pete closes his eyes, says, "*Fuck*."
Gabe swivels to stare at Pete; his eyes narrow, then slowly start to change colour, the pupils fading into the iris. "First Victoria," he spits, "now Tom. Goddamned."
Pete doesn't open his eyes, and the tall dude nods, smiles grimly. Finally the tall guy shrugs again, a fluid move giving nothing away. "So, yeah," he says, "I have a few more serious problems than the clinic transports right now."
"Ryan could manage it," Brendon says from beside Spencer.
Pete's eyes snap open; he bites his lip, shakes his head as Gabe says, "yeah, no, he might seize up and we'll lose a whole train full of -- no."
Brendon repeats stubbornly, "Ryan can do it," and adds, "if Spencer makes sure Ryan's able."
The tall guy throws Spencer a sharp look, but Gabe laughs. It sounds too loud in the small space, his laughing, sounds way louder than even the argument they were just having. "Relax, Bill, Spence is the one that's been fixing Ross."
The tall dude -- Bill? -- chews on his lip for a minute. Spencer can see him put everything away, focus on the thing in front of him. Gabe's eyes are still milky, opaque colour with no pupils, but at least he's smiling again even if it is a little harsh. "With Ross," Bill's saying, "if he's functional, I can get the last of those supplies in from the coast, probably. That would help."
Gabe says, "do it." He shifts in his chair, rubs a hand over his face. Everyone is staring back at him; "with Tom gone -- and, goddamned, can I just say again -- we may be compromised entirely. And we nearly lost Alex this week, too."
The other guy next to Spencer, so far silent and still as a ghost, says angrily, "what the fuck happened?"
"They cut the power to the club," Pete replies before Gabe can even open his mouth. Pete's face is dark and closed; "cut the fucking power, and came in with sniper rifles." He starts to stand up, then folds in on himself instead. "It was almost as bad as -- Ashlee talked her way out of it," Pete tells them, "so Mikey and Spencer got to Alex in time. thank christ he wasn't recognized. Mikey pulled a fucking miracle out of his ass and patched everyone up, so we sent them home in the tunnels. No head shots." Pete grimaces, adds, "I dunno if it was intentional, though, or if they just fucking missed."
Spencer can't breathe for a minute; for a second, he's back in the clinic staring at Mikey across a girl's open chest, waiting for her to degrade and letting his own body shut his feelings down so he can't panic and make it worse.
Pete says, "we got pretty lucky, with Ashlee being there, but -- now they've come in once," and Pete's biting every word out, "we all know it's only a matter of time before it happens again."
"Did they fucking see you?"
Pete swivels, then purses his lips. "I don't think so. I mean, they didn't take the head shots, and so we didn't -- so they couldn't have seen me, they wouldn't have left even with Ashlee being there, if they knew me or Alex were in the building, who we actually were. But I mean, next time they come in, maybe they'll cut the fucking power first, whatever, I don't know. So yeah."
The sixteen year old -- a pretty girl who looks vaguely familiar (sister of someone? Spencer thinks maybe, or maybe he's just carrying enough around in his head to have difficulty sorting out vague resemblance from other people's memories) -- anyway, the sixteen year old swallows, and says quietly, "um. I have some bad news. I didn't know how to say, but. That's why I made sure to be able to. Because I don't normally ever leave the clinic, but. Uh. They hit us, too, yesterday. The same way."
Spencer can't hear, suddenly, over the blood rushing in his ears; distantly he knows that there's a terse argument going on around him in half-mutters and people biting their tongues to stop from screaming at each other -- because it's no one's fault here (even if it would be oh so easy to blame Gabe's recklessness for the clinic raid) these cys are just fed to fucking up, or maybe that's just Spencer, because now he knows where he remembers her from. She's in Gabe's inventory of the resistance, as resident doctor at the largest rescue clinic they've got (in operation since before Gabe's time), the only true reanimation lab, slowly and painfully built from the ground up from spare parts, just like the cys animated there.
The argument pierces through his panic attack: would he like the bioloop to suppress his nausea, reorient his mental stability with elevated serotonin and suppressed aural input (his systems can even do that?), as she's saying, "yeah, everything, the -- it seemed too easy, we all got out without any head shots, but then afterward we realized that it was the equipment they wanted all along. They got my cellular-genetic restructuring equipment, and most of the spare cryo bays too," which means.
"Okay," Gabe says; lets out a slow breath. "So we have no primary lab anymore," is what it fucking means.
The implication of this -- and Spencer doesn't have any idea how they gathered up the equipment to equal even one mobile reanimation lab, never mind two of them -- is that the rescue net is all-but useless. He tries to process the meaning of it, but finds it near-impossible. At best they can store the bodies. At worst, they don't have any power to keep the bays running, and.
Gabe repeats, "Okay."
The tall dude (Bill, Spencer reminds himself) says quietly, "and you didn't consider the risks of going after her ID last week just might have included head shots?"
There's a moment where Gabe stands up, runs his metal hand through his hair; paces two steps one direction, three steps back -- then looks over at Bill and narrows his eyes. "We were watching the traffic, we were watching everything. Nothing came up, no transmissions at all. And they had a legit warrant too."
"So then they're getting smarter," Bill tells him, voice low.
Gabe snaps right back, "fuck them. So are we." He stares off into space at a point just over the sixteen year old's head, pupils writhing in mis-aligned circles; it makes Spencer dizzy to watch. Finally Gabe cracks his knuckles, and says, "Okay, well. First thing's first, Bill, I need you to try and fucking get me a new reanimation lab. The mobile one Ashlee borrowed as our backup is twenty fucking years old, and it's a single."
The lab in the basement of the factory doesn't run on its own power, and can't sustain more than one bay at a time, as a single; it can't keep a cy in stasis long enough to complete complex procedures like the new reanimation theatres, and it wouldn't be able to process multiple systems, which means one reanimation at a time, from recovery to full cy independent operation. A single lab can only keep up with the inputs from one cy's processors, so until those processors are one hundred percent independent of the lab, no one else can use it. And proper animations can take weeks. Even a half-cocked reanimation (Spencer gets the feeling that a lot of the reanimations Gabe does probably aren't done properly) takes days.
Bill nods; glances to the guy sitting beside him who's already busy on a tablet. Bill clears his throat, and says quietly, "What about the rest of it?"
Spencer doesn't need the nanotech active to know Bill means the raid, the attempted warrant served, Ashlee's political career, the trains, the clinic, Tom and Victoria, Pete's face, the god-fucking-damned vital generators--
Gabe narrows his eyes. "What about it?"
Turns out, the best defense is a strong offence, and Spencer's now on the front lines.
"Aren't you glad you asked, all those days ago?" Frank says.
Days? Was it only days? Spencer slaps his shoulder, none too lightly. It's probably the least helpful thing anyone's said to him since Spencer found out just what the end of the world meant.
Most of the rest of them have disappeared; Pete took the scan inhibitor with him, so the rest of them really should disappear pretty fucking quick, too, even if Brendon's given the all-clear for trains. "Hey," Bill says, coming over to where Spencer and Frank are packing up Pete's lamp and counting down safe exit timing, "did you really find Victoria's new storage ID? Her physical location?"
Frank answers for Spencer, because -- because. "We're going in tomorrow night," Frank tells him.
"Fuck," Bill says, succinctly. "Really?"
He says it to Frank, but Frank lets Spencer answer. "Yeah," Spencer tells Bill, because, well. Because. And even if Gabe hadn't warned him, Frank's mission brief (jesus, they even called it a mission, Spencer was so fucked) oh-so-helpfully downloaded to Spencer's input just now confirmed that, yes, Spencer's on the infiltration team.
Bill tilts his head. "You think it'll work?" Frank shrugs; Bill stares.
Spencer can feel Bill in front of him. Even if Bill's frequency or whatever is pretty far off Spencer's receivers, Bill's actual presence is loud and clear, stronger even than Frank's. Spencer wonders for a second how (or more importantly why), since when he focuses on Frank he can almost hear Frank's internal monologue, and he can't even get a taste of Bill's sensory input; just his presence.
"You think it'll work," Bill says again, and this time it's not a question. He narrows his eyes. "Listen, this is a big fucking risk our lovely leader is taking, amping things up instead of dialing them down, and with this--" he stops, clicks his teeth together. Bill asks, "how far is he taking it?"
Bill's asking about the infiltrations, about the storage facilities, and they all know it. About the missing. He reaches into the revolution database, looking for Bill's face. His is one of the very few entries without proper face shots -- nothing but a blurry streak from the rally, a teen covered in blood. But the qualitative on him is, Bill's -- oh.
Oh. The nanotech's registering his presence louder because he's had the network longer than almost everyone, from the very beginning.
Frank stands up, case in hand. "As far as we fucking can, man," he says. Spencer gets a flash of -- of hope, before Frank sticks his wrist out and says to Bill, "download Tom's details and we'll try."
Gabe comes back into the dank office, saying, "okay, we have to clear out of here. Frank, get started on tomorrow."
The three of them leave Bill to jog down the tunnels, taking a more circular route and thus one Spencer's pretty sure isn't going to take them back to the library. As they're counting breaths, an express train whizzing on the mag track in the tunnel above them, Gabe says, "Spencer. You've got a pretty full dance card the next few days, huh?" Spencer nods, because, well, yeah; Gabe gave him the assignment, plus Mikey's clinic hours, plus two days a week at work -- "so I'm thinking," Gabe's saying, "maybe you should quit your job, now."
Spencer stumbles, nearly trips. "Yeah?" he manages to choke out. Gabe's really going to tell him to quit? Well, of course he is.
Gabe stops moving, all of a sudden, and Spencer nearly runs into his back. He puts one hand on the handle of another security door; turns to face Spencer. "You can go back to doing nothing but clinic hours, if you don't want to quit," he tells Spencer, and Spencer can't decide whether Gabe's saying it as a threat or to offer him an out -- but it doesn't matter, because then they're in the basement of a historic community centre and disappearing into a crowd of people, Frank guiding Spencer's elbow, so Spencer can't answer.
The next morning before work Spencer goes to make usual rounds at the club (three torn muscles, two broken bones, one serious control process fuck-up that has him shaking with adrenaline and fright as the processor nearly shits out on him in the middle of reprogramming it). It's the morning of his first real mission, the first one he goes out on that could get him in deep fucking shit, and he has to figure out if he's going to go through with it. Victoria Asher is just a face in someone else's memory.
Around ten am, Pete hands him coffee and a plate of pancakes. Pete's got a cup of coffee for himself but no food; the tattoos spiraling down his arms are dormant. Spencer braces himself for whatever encouragement, whatever platitude, is sure to come.
Instead of anything about the mission, Pete mumbles, "just think, Spencer Smith, I'm the only one here that's a real boy."
Spencer gulps his coffee; it burns his mouth, numbs it, makes him wonder who else in the building can taste the bitterness on his tongue, the patch of no sensation where the heat fucked up the tissue.
Pete lays his arm on Spencer's shoulders and steals most of his pancakes; Spencer lets him.
part ten: these people talk about impossible things
Spencer gets a call at work from Ashlee, just as he's staring at the tablet holding his resignation letter. He hasn't sent it yet, but it's there just waiting for the send button. "Are you busy?" she asks, which -- it's the only time anyone has ever bothered to ask before getting him to do shit. Even the very first legit maint call, when Ashlee gave him the club address, no one had asked.
"Uh." He is busy in fact, he's so behind on paperwork for the few accounts left to him at the office that finance'll have his neck if he doesn't finish them today. The resignation letter blinks at him; his skin tingles, anticipation, as he presses the hand-set to his face, the shell of his ear getting slick with sweat. Yeah, "no, I'm free," Spencer tells her.
"Would you be available to meet me at my office downtown?" Ashlee says with far, far too much formality. His heart jumps. She's always quiet, sure. She's often unapproachable in her own way. But she's friendly and nice even when she's a hardass. She's never *distant* like this.
Spencer hasn't been living in the world of clandestine operations long, but he knows what you say to that kind of thing (even if he doesn't know exactly where her downtown office is). "Yes?" he says.
"Good. I'll e you the final directions, security needs the notification anyway."
Security and, downtown, oh, he thinks, before the code beeps through to his personal message account. Right, yeah. The Consul building. "Okay," he replies faintly to the phone in his hand, and she hangs up.
Spencer briefly wonders why she'd call on the office line at all, rather than his personal number -- but then he wouldn't have a record of the call as a reason to leave work. Right.
He glances at the tablet with his unfinished paperwork on it, but what the fuck ever, it's all notated. Accounting can figure out what's going on. He turns that tablet off. His resignation letter looks at him; Spencer shakes his head. He swallows, a chill of fear scrabbling down his spine and into his gut, but he presses 'send'. Like there was any real question he would. Then he gets his things (after a minute, grabs his plant, too), puts his office keys on his desk, and leaves.
On the train, he wonders if any of the other guys that quit from that office had gone into work for themselves on illegals; if he's just another in a long line of maints to grow more and more disillusioned before giving up on certified work altogether. It was his first job as a maint, his first job After, and now he can't go back to it, won't ever be able to go back.
As the train shussshes open at the Consul station, Spencer grabs his bag and plant, and snorts. Of course, he did have a pretty fucking big push.
Security at the station is understandably pretty tight.
Spencer knows there are two Consuls responsible for the administration of the region; the day-to-day affairs of managing a huge metropolitan area like theirs requiring positions not mired in the politics of elections. In theory, he knows how the local government structures interact to form a cohesive unit, how even though he doesn't vote, those of the region's population with an ID -- cy registration or certificate of live birth -- that are more civically minded have a say in deciding who's on the council, which committees are place, whatever.
He doesn't know how a quiet twenty-four year old blonde got into an appointed seat that basically gives her the keys to the region, but then until he met Pete he hadn't considered what happened to the bodies of people who couldn't afford mods, either.
Security does a bunch of shit, including ask his name a million times, but Ashlee's given them instructions and they don't even scan his systems or anything. The guy finally hands him a card announcing his visitor status, he can only imagine. Maybe he should try to be more -- covert, or something, but really, if Ashlee set this up then Ashlee knows what she's doing, and Spencer doesn't.
Playing it as normal as possible seems to make sense, and besides it's not like Spencer has any other options.
No one told him where to go, either, so the little visitor locator card is his only hint. It's a typical visitor card with the teeny GPS chip and a blinking LED to point the direction. It takes him through the foyer and up a bank of stairs, through reception (and another automated security arch) to the elevators.
Spencer glances behind him. Nothing seems out of place, no one's watching him. There's only one button; these are the express elevators. His visitor's card fits in the slot with a scraping noise, and opens the doors. After a second's hesitation, Spencer gets in. Someone or something is going to be waiting for him at the top, so he might as well find out who or what.
The doors close, and he starts moving up.
Stepping off the elevator, there's another security guard. This one has a blood match monitor, though, and with only a little apprehension Spencer sticks his finger in. Too late to back out, anyway, though for a horrible second he wonders what the fuck the nanotech's going to show up like to a blood match monitor that isn't programmed to recognize it. The monitor beeps, the door slides open, and--
"what the fuck?" he says, before clamping his jaw shut. The guard doesn't react, and Spencer doesn't look back at him, and then the door closes and Spencer can't.
Gabe replies, "manners, Smith, there are ladies present."
Ashlee is, in fact, sitting on the couch with Gabe, but she's got her ear implant on and is frowning in a way that suggests whatever it is she's doing isn't going well. She doesn't look up when Spencer comes in, which means Spencer just stares at Gabe. Because like, Gabe's got his own planning and preparations this morning for Ryan's next hardline hack. Spencer knows this fact because Spencer wrote the shopping list Gabe's currently supposed to be filling, fiber cables, another transit bypass processor if possible. What the flying fuck is he doing standing in Ashlee's -- huge, immaculately furnished, complete with fucking surgery theatre -- work floor?
The floor's interesting in and of itself, a combination of office space, high-powered meeting area, and technical lab. There aren't any bio-growth lab benches, but Spencer suspects that any of the technical components you'd want for a minor-to-mid range mod could be fabricated over in the one corner of Ashlee's office. Clearly the floor's meant to house her staff at any given time of day; a typical work-day's detritus is spread over several of the work benches. The meeting space taking up the other corner of the floor has a huge boardroom table and several chairs, a few luxury couches. It looks incongruous next to the messy, lived-in feel of the working areas.
Where the rest of her staff is, Spencer doesn't even know. Ashlee's not watching him or Gabe -- it's clear whatever she's hearing through implant, seeing through her glasses, she can't stop to talk to them. And, there's just no one else here. No one in the room, and no one felt through the shivers of his nanotech, either. They're utterly alone.
Spencer shudders a bit, realizing what it is that's put him so on-edge: he hasn't felt his nanotech so quiet without help in a long time. He can feel Gabe, but Gabe's muted, not as energetic as he typically feels, and--
"yeah, we're the only two here," Gabe says to him. He doesn't get off the couch, and Spencer doesn't move to sit down. Gabe explains, "it takes huge amounts to get in here at all without the nanos showing up on the blood scanners, so." He shrugs. "We talked about it though, and it was pointed out that you might feel better about this if someone you trusted was here."
Which -- "what?"
Ashlee turns her head slightly, gives Spencer a small smile, but she doesn't remove the glasses. It's the first time she's moved since Spencer got there.
"Yeah, so here's the thing. Accredited maints have extra processes," Gabe's saying as he shifts around (Gabe's giving off unease, but Spencer can feel under it muscle strain, possibly a bone bruise? He's in pain, Spencer knows that much). Gabe raises an eyebrow, quits fidgeting, so Spencer leaves it alone.
"Yeah, my maint subroutines." Spencer nods at Gabe, because he uses his extra processes and he knows how they work. Oh, sure, he doesn't use them as much as he was maybe taught would be useful, but one thing Spencer's always been good at is controlling himself anyway. He doesn't need the extra process to keep his hands steady--
"Some of them," Gabe says, and glances at Ashlee. Spencer feels an itch start at the back of his neck, "some of them -- it's not like, they don't have hidden directives or some bullshit, they don't embed themselves into your control code or whatever. But they aren't meant to do shit you're not trained for, or that's dangerous, or whatever."
The itch intensifies, and Spencer feels a chill start behind his ear, down the nape of his neck. It's Gabe's input, though, not his bioloop (it's suggesting he eat something). Spencer absently dismisses the process, which.
Spencer says, "but I can control them."
"Yeah, you can. They're not meant to override you; they're a part of the extra processes that give you the maint skills, but you also get the failsafe suggestions that come with them."
Spencer narrows his eyes. This makes it sound like something's in him, deep in the processes linking his neural pathways to the biological programming running his secondary maint system. The shiver ripples down his neck again. He tells Gabe, "I override the fucking thing all the time."
Gabe rubs his own neck. "Yeah, you totally do Spence, but you're breaking into a secure holding facility tonight, with conscious knowledge of what you're doing. It's not like with Ryan where all you had to do was watch him, where you didn't know what was going on. You want to find out what kind of annoyance that tricky system might be if it starts trying to disagree with you then? I'm not saying you can't override it, but."
Ashlee stands, flicks an imaginary piece of fluff off her hip. She still hasn't said anything, moving more like an autonomous non-emotive than a person. She doesn't move toward either of them; Spencer watches as she goes to the desk and picks up a tablet; takes her glasses off to read it. The implant stays in.
They might as well be invisible for all the attention she's paying them.
"Should you be saying that here?" he asks Gabe, because, well, yeah. They're in the Consul building and Gabe's spouting off about--
Gabe shrugs, watching Ashlee too; Spencer can feel it in his own shoulder-blade. "Dude, if anyone were listening we wouldn't be here. Ashlee's office is the most secure place we have to work."
"Because. Those hundreds of extra maint processes aren't going to take kindly to being overruled or deleted, right? And Ashlee's maint theatre is the only place with the authority to override your control process without it registering you've been kidnapped. Registered maints, and doctors for that matter, are a tempting target for people like me," and Gabe flashes him a nasty smile, "so if anyone tries to tamper with your control unit it'll scream out you've been kidnapped."
And people will come looking for him, is the implication. Okay, yeah, they really, really can't have that. "Ashlee has the code to get around that?" Spencer asks. "Why don't I?"
The door opens, and another maint comes in. Gabe's facing away from the door he came through, and Spencer watches him put his sunglasses on before he answers, "that, my young friend, is a mystery."
The maint's older, looks a bit absent-minded. Spencer hopes to fuck the dude is capable of doing this, because screwing around with one of his control units (even if it's just the one responsible for his override processes, even if they're in the Consul building) is kind of a shady idea. Gabe doesn't say anything to the maint, and the maint doesn't introduce himself. Either the guy's been briefed or Gabe'll tell him what to do; Spencer keeps his mouth shut, because even if the guy has been briefed, the nanotech ignores him other than a mystery, a potential danger.
The guy's setting up at the theatre; when he's done, he says, "we don't see that many people who want a career change from maintenance." He's not facing Spencer, so Spencer has no idea of the look on the guy's face, and his tone gives shit-all away -- neutral commentary. But Gabe's not registering any concern and the nanotech is silent, so until that changes, Spencer decides to try and relax. The guy adds, "still, I guess working for Consul Simpson is a good reason. And you sure can't have more than one security routine."
Spencer's stomach flares at the words 'security routine', and his fists clench automatically. Gabe all but shouts in his head to relax, and deliberately Spencer uncurls his hands. The guy says, "I need to put you under, but it should only takes about fifteen minutes."
Spencer takes a breath, just says, "okay."
Spencer closes his eyes.
Spencer opens his eyes.
"Ready?" Gabe asks.
The other maint is gone, and Ashlee too. Spencer tests his systems; nothing seems different. His stupid bioloop is still calculating how deficient he is in each essential vitamin and mineral as a petty way to point out how he needs lunch. The nanotech still registers Gabe's impatience, his tapping foot and jittery twitching skin. For some reason, he thought the change would improve his bioloop, or something, make it less in-your-face or whatever. The control processor's supposedly dormant now, after all.
It shouldn't be a disappointment, that he feels the same, but it kind of is. Spencer realizes he's grinding his teeth while he thinks, and licks his lips.
There are a lot of maints that volunteer for Gabe; way, way too many to have gone through this treatment. To be fair, a lot of them were never accredited in the first place, knowledge cobbled together without the maint protocols installed in the first place, but if even a fraction -- "how many other. I mean. I can't ever have a day-job now, so," Spencer says.
It's not at all a full sentence, but Gabe quirks his lips anyway. Spencer's envisioning Ashlee at the club, wrapped in linens and unapproachable, tucking away her Consul badge so it won't ever show; he's picturing in his head the clinic hours he's put in with at least a few other maints who clearly know what they're doing (are clearly accredited), and so Gabe totally gets it. It's a big risk, both for the maint and for Ashlee; how many others were worth the effort, and were willing?
"Mostly we don't have to. People can work illicitly, help out in the clinics, without ever touching the core programming," Gabe tells him. He leans down beside him, and picks up his bag. "Mikey was the last one," adds Gabe, "but his brother was taken, so."
So Mikey would be willing. Spencer knew that about him before Gabe says it, could tell Mikey has both the processes and the conviction. To hear it isn't really a surprise. It's maybe the first thing that isn't in a good long while.
Gabe slips his sunglasses down to stare (more or less) patiently, raises an eyebrow. Spencer can feel Gabe shifting gears as the minutes count down (that shopping list, prep, meeting Frank, briefing the kids, Gabe's never-ending to-do list ticking away in their heads). Spencer swallows in tandem with the rapid bobbing of Gabe's throat.
Spencer nods, slowly, because it's weeks too late to back out now. They get on the elevator; Gabe stands beside him, his reflection in the glass a ghosted grin.
Getting in to find Victoria is almost abysmally easy.
Gabe's apprehension through the break-in sets Spencer on edge. He clamps his teeth down to try and get a grip, and is instead rewarded by the distinctly uncomfortable sensation of biting down on tinfoil; his back teeth sharp and ringing.
Gabe glances back at him, sunglasses on, and Spencer relaxes his jaw.
The warehouse driveway is deserted, dark, and they get into the building with ease. When they successfully backend the system and find Victoria's location, of course, that's the point where all the nonexistent guards should show up, when -- but it goes off without a hitch, the two of them crowded into the security office and hacked into the supply database, Alex waiting with another bay outside, Frank's low buzz in the nanotech outside with the truck.
Spencer's part is relatively small; he prepped the name-based search, and guides Gabe through it. He doesn't touch the inputs himself, so it's only Gabe's DNA registering.
When the local system finally coughs up Victoria's bay location, all Spencer has to do is follow as Alex and Gabe make their way through rows and rows of pitch-black storage containers, the only visible light coming from Alex's torch and the blinking of Gabe's tablet, guiding the way.
The warehouse, totally automated, has no use for lights, so the racks are barely visible. Spencer cranes his neck to try and see the ceiling, where the rows of bays end, but it's lost up in the shadows of the warehouse. Alex's torch isn't strong enough to reach the top, bays stacked ten, twenty, maybe fifty high, on black metal scaffolding.
Spencer doesn't think about how many racks of bays they've passed already, or how many of them had no status lights.
When Gabe stops, pointing to the third bay up on a rack that looks like all the others, Alex nods and starts unplugging it. So far none of them have said a word.
Alex loads the dummy bay -- smooth, serene metal coffin with no passenger, jacked to make it look otherwise -- into the slot where Victoria's sat, and Spencer holds his breath; but nothing happens. They watch Gabe's tablet, the security schematic of the holding warehouse for signs they've been noticed, but the automated system accepts the dummy bay readily enough, and no warning blips sound. Alex is already pushing the storage bay back through the warren of racks, heading straight for the exit. Spencer glances back at Gabe, still staring at the tablet, as Alex and the light gets further away.
What Gabe's doing, Spencer realizes suddenly, is searching to see if any other IDs come up changed in this facility. Spencer leans over his shoulder, but the query comes up with nothing -- then Gabe downloads a snapshot of the entire database, incoming and outgoing, to his tablet. Spencer can hear Alex curse in his head at the recklessness -- because the automated system might have let Gabe download the goddamned thing but come tomorrow someone's going to notice the blip in the log -- but he doesn't stop his steady pace back to Frank and their truck.
Spencer follows Gabe back through the racks and after Alex, nearly jogging to keep up. Spencer stumbles, and stops himself from tripping completely by watching Gabe's feet. They catch up to Alex just as he reaches the truck; Gabe opens the back and they heave Victoria's bay up and in, secure it tight. Frank glances behind him from the front seat as they climb in, and starts maneuvering the truck through the industrial streets and back out to the main road.
Only when they're on the long, lonely highway back to the city, no sign of the holding warehouse district through the windows, does Gabe speak, reply to Alex's unspoken question, the unease. It was reckless and then some to download the data without covering his tracks, and Gabe knows it.
"I'm pretty sure," Gabe announces, "we're running out of time."
He chews his lip, and Spencer can feel the phantom teeth against his own mouth. Gabe claps Alex's knee. "You think I'm paranoid, right?" Gabe says to Alex, which, Spencer doesn't need to be able to read their minds to know that. He just has to see Alex's doubtful expression. Spencer watches the two of them from across the truck, oh so the outsider in their conversation. Gabe adds, "You might be right, but I just -- it feels as bad out there as it did before I got shot, okay? We're -- I'm missing something." He runs a hand through his hair wearily, and Spencer focuses on that, on the strands of hair and Gabe's metal fingers, because he wants something, anything, to focus on that isn't his stomach tied in knots.
Gabe says again, "but I know we're running out of time."
Alex shrugs. He's just as apprehensive, but--
and there's a beeping behind Spencer, once, twice, a high-pitched noise that none of their equipment makes. It's coming from Victoria's bay, Spencer realizes just as the bay hisses, venting stored gasses into the truck as the seamless metal suddenly cracks and the lid slowly swivels open.
Victoria sits up out of the bay.
First of all, that bay should have been fully-charged, and they should have had no issues transporting her to a safe location, rounding up Mikey, getting a team together to wake her to cushion the blow to her systems. The bay had registered all-green; it should have been fine. There's no reason for it to activate her on its own, unless it's somehow a security failsafe the warehouse built into their high-secure bays so that if anyone manages to get them out there's little chance the cys are able to survive the reactiv--
And then Spencer stops worrying about what the fuck may be going on with the bay (she's sitting up, which means whatever security didn't trigger a massive system failure, and so she'll probably be okay there), because as she leans forward Spencer can see her in the dim illumination from the glow of lights -- and he starts worrying about Victoria instead.
Because, Spencer knows Victoria's face, he has Gabe's memory of it imprinted in his memory. He's staring at Victoria, because he knows her face, and this isn't quite it.
Spencer's seen proper facial reconstruction mod-work, though it's incredibly tightly regulated (he thinks at least Alex had some work done to alter his bone structure), but this is something else. Even with the condensation on her skin and the pale, pale pallor from the bay, and even with the metal around her jaw -- something is slightly off about her face, and through the nanotech he knows Alex and Gabe see the same thing, that same millimeter's difference. Maybe it's the slight bruising around her eye, maybe it's a slightly crooked nose. Spencer can't put a finger on it, but it makes a chill run down -- down Alex's spine, scrabbles at Spencer's lower back, makes them all nauseous.
She blinks, opens her mouth to speak, and only a faint croak comes out. A deep, confused frown, her metal hand comes up to clutch her throat -- then Spencer hears in his head, through the nanotech clear as day, <<I'm going to cut a bitch for this. Goddamnit.>>
Gabe breaks out into a wide smile, grabs her into a hug; he says, "there's my girl."
Mikey offers to try and replace the vocal chords they think someone cut. Victoria's been out two days, and just shrugs. <<I can talk okay with you guys, leave it,>> she -- well, okay, she doesn't quite say it because Spencer hears it in his head, not his ears, but what the fuck ever. <<I've got better things to do than be out for a month with that surgery.>>
Because yeah, the vocal chords might only take a few days, but the work done in her frontal lobe to fuck with the speech patterns, that'll take a lot more time that none of them have. She adds unnecessarily, <<and so will you.>>
Which, yeah. If the Authorities are fucking with the frontal lobes of missing cys? Understatement of the fucking year.
Pete's face crumples. Gabe's hardens.
So. Now there's that.
part eleven: beginning to feel like the long winded blues of the never
"What am I really fucking being briefed to do this time, man?" Spencer asks Alex, because, okay. Technically he knows that he's going in as Ryan's support, but what's out there in the wild blue yonder and the network from an Authority lab, if he's really going to do the job right he--
"No," Spencer says. "You tell me right the hell now, man. If I'm guarding Ryan's neural network I need to know what from. I'm already fucking in, Alex, I don't know what else you want from me."
Alex glances at the kids in the corner going through a routine hospital trace. The basement's almost empty, they're just meeting to pass on some equipment. In a way, the fact that no one's bothered to increase the hospital network security means no one cares they regularly break in and steal the dead; not, at least, the dead that can't afford insurance, anyway.
Breaking in to steal those slated for termination is something else.
Alex finally offers Spencer his hand, wrist up. Spencer takes it, but instead of a memory or data or a fucking answer, he just gets Alex's voice in his head, and all he says is outside, fifteen minutes. Then Alex gets up and disappears without a word.
It takes Spencer every ounce of control to stop himself from following Alex up the stairs immediately, every ounce of control to keep his curiousity and frustration out of the nanotech and away from the kids in the corner. But he manages, and thirteen and a half minutes later he stumbles up the steps and onto the street, blinking in the sudden sunlight.
Alex isn't hard to follow, the nanotech blazing the way, a near-visible trail for Spencer like breadcrumbs from that fairy tale. He finds Alex sitting at a café down the street, sunglasses on and leaning back watching the crowded patio.
As Spencer sits across from him, Alex asks, "so how much do you know about what they do with illegal cys?" Spencer blinks at him, because that wasn't what he was expecting to hear. Alex smiles faintly. "There's the one facility, dude, and that's where most of our people in this region end up if they get taken."
"Wait, so there's the one main storage centre for illegals? Why aren't people caught when we go in? Wait, why don't we just get everyone at once?"
Alex is staring off into the crowd, not looking at Spencer at all. "Partly," he starts, "because it isn't the only one; it's the biggest, but there are a couple of other facilities. But mostly because, until Victoria, no one's managed to get in and out without being seen. People have tried," Alex tells Spencer, "but most just don't come back."
"So," but there's nothing after 'so', because Spencer walked in and out of that facility -- spent upward of an hour there -- without anything at all happening; no one even knew they were there. No wonder they were so quiet until the highway. No wonder.
Alex shrugs, says, "so. Besides, even if we can get in unseen -- and thanks to you and Ryan, apparently we can, now -- if we take one bay, we get out again. We can swap a full bay for an empty one, and even if there's evidence of a break-in, no one knows which bay was replaced. We drive a truck in large enough to transport eight, nine bays, assuming we can grab that many ids at once, the Authorities'll find it. It took Pete a week to steal that truck we used to get Victoria, dude, and the official bay inside. I don't know what he and Brendon did to get it, but they got it."
Spencer rubs his eyes. "But if we can--"
"Dude," Alex interrupts, "don't think there aren't people thinking it. Our people are in there, okay, but until Victoria we've had absolutely no luck in getting them out. And now things are worse." Spencer can't think about how things could get worse than knowing at any minute while trying to help, you could watch one or all of the people you knew carted off in stasis bays. Alex finally turns to face Spencer, and says, "we think some of the cys in that facility don't stay in the bays. They're, moved, or whatever. Something. You know where they go?"
Spencer swallows. He forces the shiver down, and shakes his head. "No."
"Neither do we," Alex answers. His sunglasses stay on. "Exactly. But Victoria isn't a good sign, man." He runs a frustrated hand through his hair -- the hand with his input. Spencer feels his own wrist tickle. "I mean, okay, a few of us, we know the stakes. They've tried to terminate Brendon, there's a standing termination order out on me and Nate--"
"You?" Spencer interrupts to ask, because like, okay. Alex is frighteningly capable, but he hasn't shown any signs of. Whatever.
Alex's amusement flickers in Spencer's head. "Yeah, I'll tell you the story some time."
Spencer waits for whatever else it is that Alex wants to say, because Alex wouldn't have started telling him this if he didn't have a point.
"Anyway, Gabe's got some contacts," Alex continues, "and Ashlee heard some stuff. And so you're following up on it. Maybe we'll figure out what they're doing with everyone that's lost." Alex shrugs, stares out at the walkway instead of at Spencer; his voice is flat when he says, "there were a lot of bays in that warehouse."
Spencer grimaces. Beside him, he can feel Alex wound tight, a perfect clockwork cy, needing only one little trickle to have the gears slip. So far, he's never seen Alex slip. Spencer asks him suddenly, "what do you do, anyway, that got you standing termination?" Victoria's apparently Gabe's code breaker, Bill runs the train, Brendon stole a Transit chip and had it embedded in his spine, and Alex -- he's one of only three people Spencer's ever see disagree with Gabe and have Gabe even hear it, but for all that, Spencer doesn't see his name on any network hacks or supply runs. Alex doesn't even go out on rescues, Spencer realizes suddenly, not before Victoria.
Alex quirks his lips to one side and Spencer can feel him deliberating with himself on how to answer. "Client relations," he tells Spencer. The nanotech buzzes under Spencer's skin; goose bumps. He's almost gotten used to it. Spencer waits, and Alex admits, "I used to be a network admin."
If maints are well protected, network admins are gold. It suddenly makes so much more sense that Spencer can't read that much from Alex a lot of the time. And no wonder he doesn't do hacks, a network admin couldn't let their input anywhere near a connected terminal. Alex's brain on the live network would flare up across systems so fast-- "public or private?" Spencer can't help but ask.
"Private," he says, "and public." Which. Spencer resists the urge to whistle. Network admins don't just hack the datastream. Their processors have the authority to rearrange it. Consuls don't even have that kind of access. No wonder there's a termination order out on him. Given enough time (and it wouldn't probably take as long as it would take the Authorities to find him), Alex could likely crash the regional communications infrastructure. Working public and private means he probably worked both banks and elections.
"Holy shit," Spencer says. The facial reconstruction (and lack of record in the resistance database regarding his former looks) falls into place.
"Yeah," Alex replies. He grins a bit, adds, "I run messages, mostly. Because, well." Yeah, there's not really an explanation needed, there. Spencer has good security protocols, and thanks to Ashlee his fail-safes are under his own control; he's secure. But not bulletproof. If there's any cy that the Authorities won't be able to crack guaranteed, it'll be an ex-network admin.
"Plus," Alex adds, "Gabe's not always as much of a people person as he wants to believe."
Spencer asks, "so why did you start up with him in the first place?" Because if Alex was a network admin, there's no way they could have built him from spare parts; he had to have elected to leave. What makes an admin, trained for a year, suddenly turn his back on--
Alex stands up, and grips his case -- equipment for Nate. "See you tonight," he says, "maybe." Through the nanotech, Spencer gets a flash of, of something, and Alex's smile directed at him. But that's all.
Brendon's on the factory floor when Spencer emerges from the basement (Alex off on unknown errands of his own). He's sitting at the bar, glasses firmly in place, and sipping what looks like water but is clearly interfacing with the DJ sparks arcing across the stage and the bar and the other dancers. He looks relaxed, at ease, but still Spencer glances to the bartender (some kid he doesn't know), looks around for a familiar face, and finds no one else.
"Where is everybody?" he asks.
Brendon shrugs. "Things to do, places to be, I guess," he tells Spencer. "Ryan and Frank are in the bays, they should be up any minute," he offers up, which, oh, okay. There are active bays downstairs, Spencer noticed them without consciously taking them in or wondering who was comatose inside. "I'm here," Brendon says. "I don't leave again until tomorrow." Brendon pauses, keeps his gaze on his glass as he adds, "Jon's slated to come back, but I don't think he's going to, so."
Brendon's been gone for four days, long days that Spencer spent breaking into warehouses and feeling nauseous. He hadn't even realized how much Brendon's absence had contributed to the unease until Spencer saw him at the bar.
Brendon's been back two hours; two hours of Spencer feeling relaxed and calm, no longer waiting for news of Brendon's whereabouts, his safety, his-- "Why wouldn't he?"
"He's," and Brendon sighs, plays with his glass. "He was planning a rescue for tonight, I think," which shouldn't be cause for concern but clearly is, because Brendon doesn't offer up any more. "They'll probably tag him for it, which is fucking stupid to be worried about I guess, because he's already died twice, what's one more, but."
Brendon runs out of steam, and shoves the glass away. Spencer catches it, takes a sip for lack of something else to do, something to occupy his hands. The nanotech is buzzing in a thousand directions at once, because there are a bunch of kids in tonight, newly-recruited clinic help, and they're all starry-eyed, hoping to see Gabe or Pete. Spencer runs through the nano-network carefully, looking for familiar signatures, but finds only Brendon, and the flat absences of Frank and Ryan in stasis shifting slowly into waking. He feels a jolt, as one of the sparks hits him as he's drinking, and then he runs through what Brendon just said. "Died twice?"
"Yeah," and Brendon twists his lips. "Jon was -- he knew Pete before, so. And then he was electrocuted one time. Half the time Mikey's fixing us, not the others," Brendon finally says. "I think he's had to revive Alex four or five times already. He's pretty high on their list."
"So then how many times have you died?" Spencer asks, startled.
Brendon shrugs. "Three times?" Off Spencer's look, he says, "once, then again when Pete saved me when we got the Transit chip, and then when they installed the chip. You have to fool it into thinking it was a clean install, so I had to be dead to do it."
"Yeah, he was already an admin," Brendon says, "so like, we had to kill him to overwrite the chip. You and Mikey too," Spencer's told, and his head reels as Brendon explains how the admin chips don't accept input while the operator still shows life, so they have to -- but Spencer can't hear any of it, because those fifteen, twenty minutes in Ashlee's office, he was dead. They'd killed him.
When Spencer says this out loud, Brendon bites his lip. "I hate to be the one to tell you, Spence," he starts, all earnest and shit, "but you're already dead."
Which. Okay, yeah. Mostly he can ignore it, though; that's what the counselling at the beginning of the whole--
Brendon's saying, "they can tell you whatever they want to, they can help you forget it, they can cushion the trauma, but dude, we all died. We're still dead." Brendon shrugs. "Better to own it. I mean, in theory, Spencer Smith," and Brendon's eyes are dark. "In theory," and Brendon's just picking at his nails, voice as calm as anything, "even if we're technically dead we could also live forever. I mean we could be at this bar forever. Allowed good enough maintenance, we might never age, never change."
The nanotech flowing through Spencer's bloodstream and buried in Spencer's brainstem, his medulla, his central nervous system, it all tenses up. It makes his skin feel like a sunburn on a hot day, like he's a little too tight, just a bit too big for the body he's been given and something inside of him is pushing against each cellular wall to get out.
It's the first time he's had any trouble with the integration of the nannites with his original systems, and it's jarring, painful. They're all reacting to whatever mood has taken hold of Brendon, whatever blackness is in his face, whatever is echoed in -- in the feedback loop of Ryan waiting backstage, too, Spencer finally realizes, and Frank emerging behind the bar.
"What'll happen, with Jon?" Spencer finally says, when it's apparent that Brendon isn't going to say anything else.
Brendon slouches on the barstool. He watches Ryan move, eyes closed. Ryan rarely looks at anyone else when he dances, which is honestly what a lot of people like; that he's dancing for himself. Brendon's mouth is turned down, there are huge circles under his eyes.
Over the thumping bass, Spencer asks instead, "who'd Jon go after?"
Brendon shakes his head, once -- doesn't look at Spencer, but pulls his gaze from Ryan, too. Instead, he looks at his feet, his legs snaked around the legs of the bar stool, toes pointed in. Spencer watches him, feels the muscle-ache in Brendon's legs, arms. Spencer's been trying not to figure out which faces were missing, but now without his permission his mind supplies Jon, Alex--
Spencer halts his thoughts by shoving anything else to the forefront of his mind, watches Ryan onstage with his eyes closed and Spencer can feel the permanent knot in his stomach, can still feel that pressure under his skin, the sunburn getting worse.
Alex comes in later with a dirty, haggard face and a box of chips for muscle reconstruction.
Spencer watches Brendon, watches him stare, as Alex shakes his head once: no. Brendon slips off the bar stool and disappears outside, a ghost in black skinny jeans and no expression.
It's Ryan who finally tells him, after he comes off-stage. Spencer's on his third stim drink, basically mainlining caffeine because he's got a tube to crack tomorrow morning and Gabe has him back-ending a supply database before that.
"They didn't find Tom," Ryan says, as if it explains the grim death hanging over all of them right now, the pain in Spencer's skin. When Ryan says it, of course, it makes his skin go from sunburn to sunburn in a scalding hot shower, itchy and hot and.
Ryan reaches over the bar, and his thin tee shirt rides up so Spencer can see his hips, his belt cinched tight. Ryan sits back down on the stool with a beer, some watery local brew. The lights above the bar flash in disgusting patterns on the beer's brown bottle, turning the neon blue into just about puke green. It makes Spencer wince.
Ryan says, "they'd moved him," but it's basically unnecessary. After all that time spent in Ryan's head, Spencer can all-but see the egress equations currently dancing through Ryan's processors, on and on and on in 'what if', 'could I have', sequences.
The facility was too well-guarded, and Jon was too stubborn, that's what Spencer can see through Ryan's eyes. The nanotech gives him everything of -- no, Ryan gives him everything in Ryan's head. Spencer raises his eyebrow, brushes one finger over Ryan's input; were you there, did you have to see?
Ryan shakes his head, eyes closed. Spencer isn't sure what he's denying: that he was there or that it happened, that Jon's now lost.
Later, Spencer'll check with Alex to see what Jon's status is, if there's a reason to start querying IDs on him, if there's a chance at all. Right now, he wraps a hand around Ryan's wrist tight enough to grind the bones, if they were bones, tight enough to make Ryan's input terminal hot. He has to do something, anything, to stop the bitter certainty coursing through Ryan to him (coursing through them both), because Ryan thinks it was inevitable, that there'll be no luck getting Jon or any of them back no matter what. Spencer clenches his teeth, letting himself get caught in Ryan's 'what if' with some variances of his own: was the hack not good enough, was his ID information wrong.
Ryan shakes his head again, and Spencer isn't honestly sure whether Ryan's despair or anger is stronger. Guilt and anger swim about them both; they sit at the bar, an island, even as Spencer can feel hopelessness echo through them and bounce off the others in the bar. They're feeding off each other, the nanotech sinking into hopelessness, all of it colliding in an endless circle.
So, but okay. This shit isn't okay.
Spencer lets a breath out, consciously exhaling and relaxing his arm. He doesn't let Ryan go. "Don't, please," he says to Ryan, and he isn't even sure what he's asking Ryan not to do.
It seems to work, though, because Spencer feels the unique internal shiver that means Ryan's fucking with his bio-system. Spencer feels a rush of -- and his skin gets goose bumps, and then they're gone, and so is the tight, awful sunburn. The tension in his back and quivering along his muscles drains out, slowly, with whatever it is that Ryan's doing.
The lights flicker. Frank slides a beer across the bar to both of them. Spencer can feel the anger, the anticipation, the -- but Frank just yells out over the music, "on the house."
It doesn't mean they have any better way to get Jon or Tom or, or anyone, and that fact lurks just under the surface of everything, like a landmine.
Ryan flips their hands, takes Spencer's and threads his silicone fingers between Spencer's flesh and blood and bone. Instead of everything that's hovering over them about the missing, Ryan says to Spencer, " they knew each other from way back, I guess he had to try," and squeezes his hand.
A week goes by, Spencer getting used to cracking hardlines, soldering Ryan or Victoria's connections into the fiber-optics and watching their back.
It almost becomes routine: mornings are for data analysis, trending patterns and coded scientific reports, financials with line-items no one can understand. Twice they get a familiar id; twice, Gabe sends someone to plan the retrieval. Afternoons are for the clinic, rushing to get through as many fixes as he can. Mikey downloads cheats into Spencer's systems, processes and knowledge so far beyond Spencer's certification that -- but his control chip is silent, so he takes the information gladly because it speeds up the process.
Evenings are for sleep. Nights are for trudging for miles in the tunnels to key communication network nodes, cracking lab hardlines and bank hardlines, and hoping to christ they don't get caught.
"What up, Spence?" Pete says, on the eighth morning. "You okay?"
Even Pete's concern -- genuine, overwhelming, a rush of gratitude flooding Spencer for anyone even asking -- is becoming routine. He chokes on an answer.
On the ninth day, Gabe storms into the club with a tablet, someone else's data, and only has to say one thing to Pete; Spencer doesn't have to do more than feel Gabe to agree to go. He's not sure what they're doing that trumps everything else, but he can see Pete, Pete's face, and he nods at the two of them before they even come over to ask.
and, so far so good.
Spencer glances at the security feed. All of a sudden there's a brief spike, and something in his gut rolls. The nanotech starts skittering around under his skin; they're telling him something's wrong, even though nothing says it's wrong. Faint frown. "Ryan, are you sure we didn't trip anything? I mean, why there'd be backup security on this damned line, I don't--"
and then the monitor starts wailing at them, the silent alarm they tripped somehow singing out in their skin through the nanotech because Ryan's plugged in. The same alarm that's going off somewhere in the central security office.
"Fuck," Ryan mutters. He flexes his fingers. Spencer's heart is pounding, his biofeedback system is chattering away nonsense formulae; Spencer grits his teeth and ignores the input, dials down the sensory feedback the nanos are sending him. "Fuck," Ryan repeats, opening his eyes. "Okay, hand me the fucking download criteria." Spencer does, and Ryan plugs it into the feed. "Time?" Ryan asks tersely.
About three minutes. "Enough time," Spencer answers. "Can you do the secondary upload at the same time?"
"I need you to watch my systems, but yeah," Ryan replies. Spencer breathes in, sharp, but is already plugging his own input into Ryan's feed. He winces at the overflow of information coming in all of a sudden, but then Ryan pulls him out of the stream and Spencer's left with only Ryan's systems. "Okay," Ryan says out loud. "I'm gonna start looking."
"Yeah," Spencer answers, but Ryan's already gone. Spencer's world slows down, strangely, as he watches Ryan's artificial heartbeat and neural networks. Twice he has to block nibbles on Ryan's own mind: intruders from the network sniffing around their illegal hack.
Spencer watches, impatient, as the information download continues onto Ryan's tablet, and feels Ryan himself digging through the data stream for the more sensitive material. All Spencer knows is that there are two data sets Gabe wants from this hack, and Ryan is rapidly losing time for the id retrieval. Most of their time was eaten up by the paranoid safety protocols they'd had to set in place; layer upon layer of masking, almost an hour of careful work that Spencer had to get together on the fly, improvising from what's available in the stream. It hadn't been hard work, but somewhere in the mass, one of them set something off anyway.
"Come on, Ryan, hurry up," Spencer mumbles. The first download's almost complete, the lab data; Spencer readies the tablet to be cleared, unplugged. A few more moments.
"I'm trying," Ryan hisses. Spencer knows he is. He can feel Ryan digging frantically through database queries and strings, looking for whatever ID he's looking for. His fingertips tingle as Ryan's twitch. Ryan's having to follow hash after hash, the sheer volume of users on this network slowing him down. None of the information is even close to what they're looking for, at least that's how it looks to Spencer, and then--
"Yeah, I've got it, they didn't change it yet," Ryan mumbles. He pulls out a single id, with the search string attached. His eyes are still closed; Spencer watches as his fist tightens, then he pulls out. Spencer, still jacked in, immediately masks Ryan's retreat as two more network attacks follow him. "Got it, let's fucking get out of here," Ryan adds.
Spencer doesn't answer; he packs up the tablets, dials the nanotech sensory information back up some so he can tell if any other users are in the vicinity. Frank's almost directly above them, but faint -- he must be at street level, waiting to take the information.
No one mentioned that.
"Consider it mentioned," Ryan says. He clips the final cables, and Spencer rubs his input terminal, the faint ache in his wrist that signals too much input, too fast, too unfiltered. They have a two-storey ladder to climb out of the tunnel; reluctantly Spencer lets his bio-system block the pain. Ryan's got the tablet, the mass data dump. The id they still might get caught over, Ryan has in his head.
Spencer follows him down the tunnel, counting in his head to avoid the trains. Twice, they hear security before security sees them. None of the teams have sophisticated scanners, and Spencer's pretty sure that's the only reason they aren't caught. When they make it back to the ladder, Spencer's bio-system goes haywire with relief and endorphins.
The nanotech is strangely silent, and it's only when Spencer reaches out to feel Ryan that he realizes why; Ryan is still terrified, still desperate to get away and safe. Spencer shudders, licks his lips, dials the nanos back down again. Ryan's fear is bleeding into his own, making his hands slippery, sweaty, and the metal of each rung is already hazardous enough, so Spencer blocks Ryan out. They climb the ladder in silence.
At street level, Frank raises both his eyebrows, but says nothing. He does brush Spencer's wrist as they bump into each other, and Spencer gets a sense of grudging respect. Ryan makes the handoff of the bag first; then Spencer feels behind him as they brush inputs too. He suddenly gets a jolt from Frank so sharp -- surprise and shock, fear, even hope -- and so strong that Spencer gasps. The nanotech sings out in amazement, and suddenly Spencer knows what they risked their necks to get: it's a storage id, but not just any storage id. Even though Spencer hasn't technically heard the name, in Frank's surprise and Ryan's terror, he knows what it means.
He and Ryan keep trudging down the street, but Spencer can feel Frank mulling over the information in his mind long after he can't see Frank anymore; rolling the id and the name all together, a mass of confusion -- confusion, fear, and long-lost hope -- named P. Vaughan Stump.
So. Now there's that.
part twelve: cause i just heard some real bad news
"We have a problem," Alex starts without preamble.
There are so many problems, Spencer only glances up briefly. It's the next morning, and he's trying to build three knees at once on a replicator older than he is, and keep an eye on the lab hack Ryan's performing in the corner at the same time. There are kids watching Ryan, too, so he's trying to monitor *them*, and really, Alex, unless something's on fire--
Spencer feels a ghost shiver, and he's so used to it he doesn't react, not where anyone can -- but Alex is actually trembling, seriously shaking so hard his teeth would be chattering if his jaw wasn't clamped down. It's not pain.
Spencer stands, sets the replicator tool so one of the kids can watch it, and follows Alex upstairs. He doesn't miss how Alex stumbles on every second step, uses his body to try and shield it from everyone else's view. Spencer listens, surreptitiously, and knows Ryan got a faint taste but that the kids aren't as observant, so they're fine.
He can tell Alex is making straight for the front door again, but they don't make it that far because Alex has to lean over the kitchen sink to throw up. As Alex sags, Spencer hauls him upright, both arms around Alex's torso so he can't help but glance into the sink and, and it's yellow, bile and acid, mixed with dirty black--
"are those your autonomic nervous system processors?" Spencer asks without thinking, then turns to stare at Alex in horror.
Alex looks up from the sink. His fingers are gripping the side of the counter weakly, and Spencer can feel him trembling through his arms. Alex's eyes are bleak.
"They tried for a head shot first," Alex tells Mikey -- Mikey, who made it to the house seventeen minutes after Spencer called, who's sitting with a blank stare listening to Alex relate the sniper shot he barely avoided. "I felt it, managed to pull up a shield, christ only knows how. Solid state ammunition," he's saying, "head shots again. "
Mikey tells him, "good thing they couldn't read your face," because. Oh.
Yeah, and Spencer's stomach quivers; because if they'd seen Alex -- really seen him, if they knew it was him -- they wouldn't have been so careless as to let him shield, wouldn't have stopped until they were sure to get the head shot, instead of just doing--
The gravity of the situation is sinking into Spencer's bones, somewhere in the background. But mostly he's watching Gabe pace, two steps away from total breakdown. He can feel Mikey want to reach out to stop him but not know how; he can feel Alex's systems at cross-purposes, trying to shut his organs down one by one. Ryan's in the doorway listening to the kids downstairs, but all it'll take is one of them hearing Gabe, seeing Mikey, to have the entire fucking network know that--
Spencer slowly, consciously, steps in front of Gabe. "Calm down," he says in a measured tone.
It's a gamble. Spencer hopes Gabe'll listen, but if he won't, at the very least--
Gabe hits him, swings wildly at Spencer's jaw. Spencer feels it coming, in Gabe's stance and in the nape of his neck, the ache in his shoulder. Could duck if he wants, but lets the punch connect. For a minute everyone's quiet, Gabe frozen, staring at Spencer in surprise as if he really expected Spencer to move out of the way. Then Gabe deflates, sits on Alex's bed, his head in his hands. The nanos stop yelling, Gabe's input quieter, so it worked.
"Jesus," Ryan snaps, and goes over to Spencer, examining his jaw.
Spencer shrugs him off; he's fine, Gabe didn't even swing half as hard as he's able to, and that's how Spencer knows the danger zone passed, Gabe's back from the brink. "Feel better?" he asks.
Gabe shrugs without lifting his head. "Not really."
At least the kids are still oblivious downstairs, Gabe got a handle on his broadcasting, none the wiser of Alex literally puking his guts out. And that seems to have stopped, too; now Alex is just laying on the bed, pale, and Mikey's two steps away from ventilating him. "You seem to be stable now," Mikey says to Alex.
After a brief argument, they let Spencer plug into Alex's output to see if whatever the Authorities did to him was contagious via output ("Spencer, no--" "Ryan, it's me or Mikey and it's sure as shit not Mikey, because if I can get it then someone else'll have to--" which isn't really a fair argument, but it's the only one that makes sense); but it seems to have burned through his systems already.
"If you hadn't shut down as much as you did--" Mikey says. The unspoken if you didn't have the power to isolate your systems hangs in the air, if you couldn't shield the full dose, if it had been anyone but you who couldn't do all those things that saved your life. Mikey coughs, adds, "I'm going to wait until tomorrow to start replacing the specialized processors and clusters we think you lost."
"I want to make sure nothing else happens," Mikey answers placidly. Mikey's nanos are quietly, insistently, broadcasting how intently he's shut himself down, forced everything that isn't his hospital code into 'standby'. It can't quite block out the all-too-obvious.
Gabe's anger flares hot as a supernova, burns out just as quickly as he stares at Alex, and despair takes over. 'Nothing else' echoes in Spencer's head, in everyone's head, passed around through the buzzing nanotech. Nothing else.
Alex seems to recover after two days in bed and Mikey's constant care. The downside is the news filters through the network; Alex is, after all, Gabe's messenger and pretty fucking conspicuous in his absence. No messages filter in, of course, because they don't have a network admin to carry them.
"I'm fucking fine, Mikey, and we can't waste any more resources trying to make sure I am."
It should sound angry, but instead it just sounds tired. Spencer's in the basement with Mikey, watching Alex try desperately not to tremble. In Alex's stead a tall suspicious dude with bright blue eyes and a holstered sidearm is passing coded messages. Spencer's met him, but never got his name.
"Alex, my man. I have your dispatches from Bill, if you're up to taking them yet."
Mikey's unhappy but he doesn't argue when Alex sticks out his wrist. "And just think," Alex says, head craned back to look at Mikey, "because they tagged me, I survived and you can come up with an antidote."
Spencer shifts uneasily; he knows Mikey's working on a counter, some tech to render the inhibitors inert. It's only been partially successful so far, and he knows if it had been anyone but Alex with all his enhanced security he wouldn't have survived long enough to get help (they all know if it hadn't been for his admin shield, there would have been no hope--), never mind long enough to recover.
"Kay," and Alex sticks his arm out to Spencer, "mostly decoded and shit, too, Smith. You and Brendon are going on a lab retrieval."
Spencer feels the rush of input, can feel the migraine lurking behind Alex's eyes -- result of the infection, Spencer assumes. He doesn't recognize the ID, but that doesn't mean anything except someone's id's been rewritten. Maybe Gabe doesn't know who it is, either. Ashlee's fed them enough information, maybe this is her doing.
But-- "me and Brendon?"
Alex and the tall guy have their inputs connected. Alex is in pain, muscles around his eyes tight, but that masks anything else he may be feeling quite well.
"You and Brendon. He's prepped it." The tall dude leaves; Alex takes the stim from Mikey, and brushes a hand over his face. "No rest for the wicked," Alex says to Spencer seriously, and disappears upstairs.
No one tells them they're going after Jon, but sending him and Brendon instead of him and Ryan suddenly makes a lot more sense.
Jon's bay gets deposited next to the sleeping bays in the basement of the club after a mentally harrowing but actually quiet four-hour circular drive through the city. "Just be grateful," Pete says to Spencer, "it was a boring drive."
Spencer would shiver in fright but he's been up for more than a day and Pete's tone is off, brittle. "What happened?"
Turns out they got the dude with the fro and all the malleable tattoos. Spencer didn't even know his name. Even better, the two kids with him were tagged with the nano-inhibitors; Mikey apparently doesn't think it looks promising, which is Mikey language for no goddamned way. They'd taken the guy out with solid-state ammunition, a perfect hole shot right between his eyes.
Pete's curled up in the corner, and won't look at him. Spencer squeezes Pete's shoulder once, hard, before dumping himself into a bay for his four hours of sleep. He tries not to envision the dude, face up on the sidewalk, discarded once shot like the Authorities' trash. He totally fails.
Gabe calls a general meeting, and e's Spencer the information in a mass message with time and place. So far Spencer hasn't noticed most of the staff or kids be too wary, too concerned. There was an Authority in yesterday, too (Ashlee told him and Pete downstairs; "He didn't stay," she said, "I think he was looking for someone," which is never good news).
Who the Authority was looking for doesn't even matter anymore, and Spencer just makes sure to wear his stupid sunglasses inside when he's upstairs.
Spencer hasn't been to another rescue network meeting since the one where Gabe handed off the rescues to someone else. He gets the feeling that, for all his isolation on the clinic front (he doesn't even know where Mikey's clinic is), the lion's share of Gabe's people have no idea what's going on anywhere else. You don't have to know that there's a bigger game plan to smile at faulty cys as they wait in a crummy warehouse to have their technology fixed, Spencer figures; and most of what the wide net does is under the radar, low-risk shit. Abandoned people, people of no interest to anyone else. Most of Gabe's kids probably don't even have a clue there's more.
Spencer thinks that might be about to change.
They're in the same basement as before, and Spencer stares at the ever-present network diagram in the centre of the room. He knows of these people now, knows their roles thanks to Brendon's database. Half the kids here are hackers, the other half volunteer at the clinics. Most of them are cys Gabe helped build, all of them have nanotech, though it's faint. Spencer's surprised, when he tests it, to find out he can block them out completely. He checks up on a few of the hackers, their current thought processes -- and gets a myriad of data strings, but not the whole. Clearly even the kids filtering the network don't know what they're doing, because they think they're just looting for clinic supplies. They have no idea of what they don't know, have no idea they're hacking Authority labs, cy experimentation budgets and requisition orders for equipment to alter cys, not fix them.
Spencer pulls himself back in. He realizes he's one of the oldest in the room, and that's not saying much; most of these kids are a year if anything older than the rebuild minimum. Frank's missing, Ryan too. Alex is off to one side and closest the door; slouched against the wall with his eyes closed. Spencer can all-but see waves of exhaustion off him.
Silently, he goes to stand beside Alex, offers him the rest of his stim drink. Alex takes it without a word.
The meeting starts when Pete shows up. Of course. Spencer doesn't need to be able to manipulate the kids' nanotech to be able to feel every face turn towards Pete. If exhaustion is an aura around Alex, it's a fucking fog around Pete, choking him, a fucking haze. It's the first time Spencer can actually read anything through the nanotech from Pete, and it's so far from reassuring that he stares for a long moment at Pete, trying to see the dude he knows used to be in there. Since finding Patrick's name in a secure lab, Pete's been fading, and now Spencer doesn't recognize him at all.
Alex doesn't open his eyes to tell Spencer, "it's been a long week."
Brendon follows Pete in, and gives Spencer a small smile before sitting down. Everyone waits, and Pete says without preamble, "we're fucked, you guys."
Gabe glances at him, glasses on. Spencer waits, like everyone else; he can feel Gabe's concern and anger, can feel him just barely restrain himself from gripping Pete's arm. Gabe starts, "What he means--"
"What I mean," Pete interrupts, "is exactly that."
Spencer swallows. He stares at Brendon, who looks up; Spencer thinks at him as hard as he can, 'do you know what's going on?' He knows Brendon can't actually hear him, but obviously the question is clear enough on his face: Brendon glances to Pete, and then back to Spencer, and nods. Spencer chews his lip. There are so many things he could ask, so many things he *should* ask, because Pete has basically disappeared, become a chalk outline of who he used to be.
Spencer stares at Brendon and just thinks 'so have *you* ever met Patrick?'
Brendon rubs his eyes, and shakes his head.
Spencer's apparently at the meeting to meet Gabe's hackers and receive the latest network surveillance information. As Gabe sticks his hands into the diagram and rotates it, Spencer can see his old apartment block, knows now that the lines connecting his transit station to the waste tunnels are an Authority experimental transfer line.
So, sure, Gabe tells the kids what's going on, though not in so many words. But he tells them about the clinic raid, and the nano-virus that tagged those kids. Tells them Mikey's working on an antidote. Tells them to be careful. Underneath the words, Spencer can tell Gabe's watching him, making sure Spencer's paying attention to the kids and to everything, and after all of that, Gabe still leaves most of the important stuff out. Spencer gets a buzzing in the back of his skull.
"So," Gabe finishes, "I need you guys to be careful, okay?" Gabe takes his glasses off, and he nods to himself, and looks at Pete.
Pete says, "the clinics are going autonomous -- we're disbanding our network."
Spencer suddenly wants to punch both Gabe and Pete in the fucking face, the buzzing in his skull coalescing into Pete and Gabe, in tandem like never before. White noise floods his brain as he can hear them way too clearly.
What they're doing is saying goodbye and none of these kids get it.
Alex puts a hand on his wrist, holding him back, and Spencer clutches at it.
He doesn't punch either of them, of course. He listens as Gabe plans out the kids' next hack, pays attention because Gabe wants him to know what's coming next, and Spencer is so angry he's nearly vibrating with it, nearly spitting, because Gabe wants Spencer to know in case Gabe and Pete don't fucking come back.
But he keeps it inside.
On the outside, he tilts his head as Gabe pulls up the network run and gives them their marching orders, clinic assignments, partitioning people off into autonomous units that don't have any means to communicate amongst one another once Gabe and Pete are gone.
Finally, Gabe glances at Alex, who's still gripping Spencer's wrist. Spencer leans against the wall, closes his eyes against the data-dump. After a second, it orients itself into his memories properly, and Spencer realizes it's all the various hacks, their IDs, their objectives. Spencer now has a road map to read the network Gabe's been painstakingly diagramming; he has the tools to unlock the shortcuts all these kids don't have a clue about. He knows each and every one of the surveillance hacks on Authority information; that's what Alex just gave him.
Alex releases Spencer's wrist and slinks out the door, and that's when Spencer realizes he inadvertently got more than a little taste of Alex's anger, too. Spencer replays the meeting in his head, and -- Alex didn't met Gabe's eyes the entire time.
As they're leaving together, Brendon slings an arm around Spencer's shoulders. "It's a precaution, dude," he says slowly. "Everything could go fine."
Spencer replays Alex, the force of his grip, the bile at the back of his throat. He shrugs Brendon's arm off; the nanotech registers Brendon's disappointment but Spencer ignores it because Brendon knew. Says, "sure," says, "okay. Whatever."
Spencer's second full meeting of cell leaders, rather than kids, is the first time he really goes out alone. Pete doesn't like it, but Pete, Spencer's realizing, is the heart and soul, not always the brains, of the outfit.
Alex gives him nothing but a train time when he brushes his wrist against Spencer's at the bar, but it's a train time for a line that's shut down over thirty minutes before the line Alex is telling him to grab. He opens his mouth, but when Alex suddenly freezes Spencer snaps his mouth shut again. They're not facing each other, and Alex is turned toward the stage while Spencer is sitting sideways, watching the DJ booth. They both only have a peripheral vision of the entrance, but Alex has the better view, and from the sudden panic flooding the nanotech Spencer's pretty sure an Authority just walked through the door.
He can't hear Alex's low "fuck," but he can feel him frame the words with his lips, mouth suddenly dry.
Spencer's not panicking himself, but sure as fuck he can taste Alex's desperation. With a flash of -- something, either brilliance or stupidity, he launches himself off the bar stool and shoves the dude in front of Alex nearly to the ground. It's a shit move, and he nearly mis-judges, but when the guy turns around and everyone starts edging away from the two of them in case they start throwing punches, the Authority turns to watch them, too.
The dude, currently wearing half his beer, says angrily, "what the fuck, man!"
Spencer sways a little, rubs a hand over his face, and smiles at the guy, says, "Sorry? lemme get you another one," and the dude calms down. It's a pretty lame altercation as far as they go, but -- yeah, Spencer can feel Alex ghosting through the corridors beneath them. It did the trick and Alex slipped away. In his wake, Spencer can feel the remnants of his gratitude.
Spencer buys the guy another two drinks to cover, but then abandons his beer on the bar to more-or-less run for the stairs to the basement. No one looks up as he tries to casually bang through the backstage, and he can't breathe easy until he's through the security door at the foot of the stairs. The Authority hadn't done anything, for sure, and it's way more important that Alex get below, but -- Spencer saw what could have been a facial recognition tablet in his hand, and that was enough to make him willing to fucking hightail it out of there. Thank fuck Frank's not working tonight.
All Spencer knows is, Alex risked nearly everything to pass him the meet-time, so Spencer better not fucking blow it.
He gets to the station like ten minutes early. It's a dark tunnel station near the middle of the line, the walls a dark, textured concrete that looks more like rock. Spencer glances down the platform, but not a soul is around. He finally sits on one of the awkward metal benches just for something to do.
At precisely eleven oh three, he feels the distant hum that signals a train, even though the last one supposedly came twenty minutes ago. The train approaching says 'not in service', but then it slows anyway, the doors swishing open on the second car.
Frank leans out as the train crawls past Spencer, saying, "hurry up, dumbass."
Spencer can feel the breeze stinging Frank's eyes even as he can feel the faint twitch in his stomach at the thought of jumping onto a moving train -- but he watches the doors approaching, and only a little nervously, hops in. The doors ding closed behind him, the train picks up speed, and Bill greets him with, "welcome to my office."
Most train cars are outfitted with hard seats, racks for storage, even bays if they're typical long-range regional trains, six bays stacked one on top of the other. This one looks like a cross between someone's bedroom and Ashlee's office, a couple of seats pushed together around a table bolted in place. There's an array set up on it a lot like the networking interface Gabe uses, and a pile of tablets thrown haphazardly on top. A simple-style communications interface is bolted to the other framework where the seats should be. It looks like someone jacked a public terminal and hooked it up with a bunch of prepaid network cards. In the dead centre of the car sits another scan inhibitor, lights dim, power off.
The train lurches around a corner, taking the turn pretty fast -- maybe faster than it should. Spencer nearly falls over. "Hi," he says to Bill, and then, "um."
"Um," Bill agrees. The dude's lounging in a row of seats, bent into a shape where his long legs are hooked around the pole in front of him. Bill looks completely at ease. Spencer feels where Bill's chewing his lip; the nanotech rushes to his jaw, makes it ache with someone else's clenching. So, Bill looks at ease, but he sure as shit isn't.
Bill says, "you want the good news or the bad news first?"
Spencer glances at Frank, who's the only other one on the train, but he's busy tapping away at a tablet and -- the nanotech confirms -- completely ignoring them, not pretending to ignore them like he sometimes did. "Bad news?" Spencer asks.
"I didn't know you were this stop," Bill tells him, "I didn't even know you were gonna be here. Which means Mr. Saporta is fucking around with shit again, and that -- listen, I've known Gabe a while, man, and that doesn't really spell good news for you."
One of the things that Spencer doesn't miss, that he probably should miss, is the ability to lie to people, or their ability to lie to him. The nanotech takes all the guesswork out of people's faces, their intentions overlaid with their racing hearts or their goose bumps or the minute twitches that mean they're grinding their teeth without knowing it. Bill's hard to read, but he's being honest, and while there's more going on than that, clearly, Spencer's fingers don't tingle with a lie or misdirection.
The train lurches again, Spencer sways, but manages to keep his footing. "Yeah, okay," Spencer replies. "So. What's the good news?"
"Since we're doing more than a hundred miles tonight, you can have a bay," Bill tells him, and shrugs toward the back of the car, yeah, there are eight bays strapped to either side of the far end of the car, curtains open. "Longest ride calls the bays first, if they want'em."
Spencer shrugs. "Okay," he says. He thinks about asking how many other people they've got to pick up. The last meeting was an even dozen, but after the shit with Victoria and Alex--
"We've got another stop in a few minutes," Bill says, "and then about a half an hour before we go out to the west suburbs and grab two more. And then Gabe and Peter are way the fuck up north, so that'll take for fucking ever."
Frank swears, jumps up. "Yeah," he says in disgust, "this isn't going to work, not here, not today. I hate to say it but I need Ross. He's the systems engineer."
Bill shrugs, glancing at Frank. Frank's just -- pissed off, and tired. No, once Spencer really listens to Frank's input, he realizes Frank's way past exhausted. Once he focuses on it, though, Spencer finds he can't tune it out. Frank's twitching limbs and jumping eye becomes Spencer's, Frank's blurry eyesight makes Spencer lose focus.
Bill cocks his head, and then leans down to flip on the scan inhibitor, tuned low enough to barely cover the train car. Spencer doesn't say thank you, but he does pick up one of the tablets, which turns out to be another database string, and starts to work. He can feel Bill's eyes on him, which is a stupid thing to think, really, because the whole point of the scan inhibitor is that he can't feel Bill's eyes on him, but whatever.
When Spencer gives him no response, Bill gets up and disappears into the tiny driver's booth.
Turns out they actually stop three more times to pick up people before starting the trek north to grab Pete. Most of them hop on silently, at most offering a murmured greeting before diving into work. Spencer feels uneasy, because he's not sure what he should be occupied with. He grabbed the database coding but only because it was on top; no one offers up a comment, he can't sense any of them, he can't read anyone's face and -- once Frank gets in a bay -- he doesn't even know their names.
Pete and Gabe are the last stop; Spencer doesn't want to know what they're doing this far out of town together, doesn't want to know what Gabe's hiding behind his glasses, this time. The scan inhibitor stays on, and for once, he's grateful.
Gabe slams a palm down on the table, which means, yeah. Everyone shuts up, turns to him. "Okay," he says, calmly. His pupils are back, black as night and stark against pure-white irises. A pause. "So everyone's heard about Alex by now."
Spencer glances at Pete, but he's quiet, staring at the floor.
Gabe says, "I am not going to let the fuckers take us down. We are going to stop this shit, all in," he tells them, "and I am going to shoot the fucking hell out of any of you who disagree."
Spencer's sitting beside Frank on one side and the really tall guy on the other, and watching Pete out of the corner of his eye; he knows Gabe's one hundred percent serious, that the increased disappearances, Victoria's frontal lobe, and now the headshots and Alex, it's enough. Spencer watches Pete, and Pete is just silent, has been since he got on the train, and it seems like he's shrunk in the last week -- since they found and couldn't get. Yeah.
Spencer tries to catch Pete's eye and fails. A hard pit starts to form in Spencer's stomach, a kind of desperation, wondering if he's going to have to watch Pete say goodbye twice.
No wonder Alex didn't come.
The really tall guy that's not Bill (Spencer still doesn't know his name) says, "we're -- how are we gonna be ready by then?"
The sixteen year old clinic doctor adds angrily, "and what'll be the cost, this time?"
What follows is a tense discussion between Gabe and the cell leaders Spencer doesn't know (the tall dude with blue eyes, Alex's stand-in, a few others) on what their priorities should be. The argument basically jumps between the themes of this is suicide and are you out of your fucking mind, Gabe? Spencer stays quiet because Pete stays quiet, and because he kind of can't decide whether he thinks it's insane to amp things up, or the only option. The others have a pretty good point: the timing couldn't be worse, and running head-first into this particular windmill could get all their kids terminated, not to mention themselves. But not tilting at this particular windmill could also mean that things get worse. Spencer doesn't know enough, can only speak on what he does know, and joint calibrations aren't responsibility for clinics and cy's well-being.
The first and only time Brendon speaks up in the meeting, he looks at Gabe for a long moment before asking, "so what in the hell are we gonna do about it?"
No one has an answer.
The train has to keep running for them to stay inconspicuous, and they break for ten minutes, turn the scan inhibitor off so they can all pass along various messages. Spencer finds himself sitting at the table while everyone else moves to go use the encrypted public terminal, since he has no messages to send, no one to communicate with that isn't sitting in the car.
Bill stares across the table at him. Says, "do you know what they're going to do? With his id?"
He shouldn't immediately know which id Bill's referring to, but of course he does. Pete's still a ghost, and will be until they try to retrieve him. Spencer says, "no," and then, "well, yeah. I guess."
Bill frowns, rubs his eyes. He looks at Gabe, looks at his hands. Bill replies, "it's not that -- I just don't think," and stops talking.
Frank says it when they come back to the table. His face is full of rage. Spencer's glad the scan inhibitor's still functional, because he wants to shrink away from Frank even without tasting his anger. "Those two kids, shot with that fucking virus tech. Mikey says they're not getting worse."
Gabe asks, "but?"
Frank replies, "they're not getting any fucking better, either."
Yeah. Of course.
"Let's talk about what's really at stake, shall we?" Bill asks. It's quiet, oh so quiet, even pleasant sounding.
Gabe's mouth tightens. "What?"
Bill doesn't back down, and Spencer sits, frozen, waiting. Beside him, the tall dude is watching carefully, eyes moving between Bill and Gabe. "You and Pete. What are you going to do?"
Pete interrupts, "I told him not to come."
"Of course you--"
"No," Pete says. It sounds like he's aged a hundred years; voice scratchy, low, exhausted. He coughs, says, "I really did. It's. I mean, I'm not that. But Gabe's."
Spencer fiercely wants to tug Pete in, put a hand over his mouth so he'll stop talking. Instead, out of the corner of his eye he watches the tall guy sink into his chair.
"If you go after him, Pete, now, you'll put everything in jeopardy, man. You know that. You just, we can't--" Bill turns to Gabe, "and you know we can't stop -- I know you're angry but we need to think, regroup, go fucking underground or something, not start going all-out. Disbanding the network won't protect them all, and -- going after him, that's fucking suicide, and you're racing right fucking into it. Even if we fucking blow up every single goddamned lab we find, even if we could."
It's said so rationally, so calmly, even if Spencer can feel the fear racing underneath, even if it's a barely-maintained façade Bill's got going on, the anger fueled by terror they're going to lose Gabe, lose everybody--
and Gabe fires back, "I know, okay? I fucking know, but I don't know what else to do." He stands up, throws his hands up in frustration. Gabe says, "we're here because we can't -- I mean, I don't know what else to do, okay?"
Gabe's eyes are nothing but pupil now, all black and full and endless; Spencer can't sense anything from the nanotech, but Gabe's never seemed more human or approachable than right now. Something in his face is open, it's like reading an open book. Spencer thinks maybe he's just never really seen Gabe desperate before, his hands and face and fucking alien all black eyes, all of it saying this is it, this is so fucking it, and I need you to believe me.
Gabe's alien eyes scan the table, and Spencer gets a flash of Victoria's throat, Alex's eyes closed. The painful burn in his chest is Gabe's recollection of death, and Spencer absently pushes a hand to his breastbone to try and make it stop before he consciously registers it's not coming from his own body, that he's not dying, it's someone else's memory of being gunned down.
Gabe's eyes dart from cy to cy, and Spencer can't meet them.
After a minute, Gabe exhales silently; his shoulders hitch a fraction (he's giving up, Spencer realizes in shock, that move means he knows they won't do it, and so he's--) when Bill holds a hand up.
Bill chuckles, shakes his head wildly, looks around the train car as people slowly start laughing too. It's a dark sound, and most people's faces look more in pain than Spencer's ever seen people look before. Pete doesn't move, his face a frozen mask, carefully blank. Spencer can see Pete's biting his lip so hard it's turning white.
Bill coughs, finally getting himself under control, and says to Gabe, "well, we didn't say no."
It's the first time they plan another cell meet time the same day they actually meet. "By then we'll know either way whether you two psychos succeeded, right?" Bill says, and laughs, glancing at Pete. Spencer doesn't laugh, but he can't help but agree in his head; by then, whatever stupid fucking bullshit Gabe and Pete are up to, well, they'll already have done it.
There are four of them staying at the club, but Pete gets off the train with Gabe in an industrial park in midtown. Spencer and Brendon get out at the station nearest the club, and Spencer holds Brendon's hand as they duck into the basement.
It's not romantic or anything; mostly, Spencer needs something to grip so he doesn't start punching things, so he doesn't punch Pete in the face out of hopeless love, out of anger, out of.
Spencer drops Brendon's hand when they get to the basement to lock himself in a bay. He does punch the wall, and the sharp crack of pain in his fist is a welcome relief, all the -- everything focusing down into the intense throbbing of his knuckles, letting his limbs relax as the hurt in his joints overwhelms everything else, the nanotech, his bioloop, his own organic processes, everything just thrumming in his fingers so the rest of it's just. Quiet.
Brendon leans against the doorframe. "You probably broke your hand, you stupid fucker," he tells Spencer.
Which, yep, Spencer knows; he replies, "everything is broken, man," and shrugs, because saying it out loud doesn't make anything better even if the words themselves sound stupid; it makes it all worse, all immediate, all real. Spencer's so angry, so fucking angry, but he's already broken his hand and there's nothing else he can break, nothing else to do -- and so he climbs into the bay.
Brendon stares at him a minute, hurt. His arms come up to wrap around himself, and Spencer closes the lid.
He wakes up in the middle of the night to voices in his head; why they penetrate while he's sleeping, he doesn't even want to begin guessing. Maybe somehow Gabe meant to wake him up. Maybe his bioloop was watching the nanotech and alerted him, whatever. Spencer doesn't mean to hear, but something in his subconscious forces him out of the bay and into the hall right to catch Pete and Gabe, backstage, dressed for a rescue.
"I got your word," Pete says, low. His hands are wrapped around Gabe's, strangely intimate for his fierce expression. "Your word, dude."
"It's," and Spencer can see the conflict in Gabe's eyes, even with the freaky pupils. He's torn, for sure, torn and worried and he says, "I, you're asking me to, I, Pete, I just--"
and Pete repeats, "your word. I can't fucking. Gabe. I can't. You have to promise me."
It's Gabe who pulls away, laughs sharply. "Fuck you. I promise," and all but runs from the room.
Pete stays where he is, sitting on Ryan's bench and leaning his head back on the wall in a strange re-creation of the first night Spencer really found out what was going on. Pete looks as tired now as he did then, that haze of exhaustion still so thick around him. Spencer decides it's safe to come in, and makes sure to make enough noise that Pete hears him. Pete doesn't open his eyes.
Spencer says carefully, "hey. What's going on?"
Pete doesn't stir. "Don't worry about it," he tells Spencer, as if there's any possible fucking way that Spencer won't, isn't already worried sick. There are huge circles under Pete's eyes, and it looks like he hasn't slept in weeks. There's no trace of the dude Spencer first met in his face. The nanos register the constant buzz of static in front of him, sing out Pete's presence the only way they know how.
He's sharply reminded that Pete, of everyone, is the only person Spencer's nanotech can't read.
Finally, Pete stands up. "I didn't expect anyone to be awake, but maybe this is a good -- me and Gabe are heading out in ten," he tells Spencer, and then, "so watch the kiddies while we're gone."
"Spence Wentz," Pete says, eyes crinkling. Spencer waits, and the smile drops off Pete's face. "Yeah, okay," he says, sighing. "Okay. But still, you've gotta."
Pete inhales, holds his breath.
He says, "be careful, dude," and then moves to go.
Spencer watches his back as Pete heads out front where Spencer can feel Gabe's foot tapping, can feel the impatience in his stride, can taste the fear in the back of his throat. No one still has the details of what the two of them are going to attempt, only the sense that it's a bad fucking idea and they're going to do it anyway.
Spencer can just see the front doors to the factory from where he's standing; the club eerily deserted, lights off. He can see Ashlee move to join Pete, bulge of a semi-automatic ruining the line of her dress as she strides toward him, which -- Ashlee never goes on rescues, for a fucking good reason. Ashlee never goes anywhere. He can see Pete shake his head at her, he can see Ashlee cross her arms. He watches Ashlee's stubborn streak force her to hold her ground, and he can actually see Pete finally give in as he nods, once.
The nanos start buzzing, crashing together like cymbals all at once as Pete moves toward the door again, the network of sensors and his biofeedback systems all jangling together -- for once in accord, a deafening scream of fear and do something now. Spencer gets goose bumps all over, his spine tingles, he starts rushing to the front doors without even realizing it. He's halfway across the room before he feels them get into a transport and slide away, the chills and tremors edging off a little bit.
As he gets to the front doors, he can tell they're already blocks away. There's no way he'll catch them.
With the input volume turned down, he tries to analyze it, consciously replaying the sensation. His stomach swoops, and he feels nauseous, his hands keep shaking. The nanos are reporting Pete's buzz as disappearing fast, fading, going, gone. His biofeedback system -- bizarrely and with no explanation, no possible way it could know, but so certain he has to lean against the wall to keep from throwing up -- his biofeedback system tells him he won't see Pete again.
part thirteen: something big is gonna happen over my dead body
Because neither Brendon nor Ryan have their own place and the club is too hot, Spencer's supposed to head to Frank's one-room apartment and fucking stay there. The club is too dangerous, of course, because the owners are right now--
Spencer cuts that line of thinking off right fucking there, because even his bioloop can't fully shut out the sick, worried feeling in his stomach. He bangs on the door, finds Frank curled up in an armchair staring out at the city through the only window in the place. "Hey," Spencer says. "What's up?"
"They're gonna be in deep shit," Frank says by way of welcome. "I dunno, Smith. It might be too deep."
There's abso-fucking-lutely nothing to say to that that Spencer really wants to contemplate, because refutation is impossible and agreement makes his heart clench up. He can still remember the flash of terror through his entire system and body as he watched Pete walk out the bar, still feels the echo along his nerves and heart and muscles. He wonders if maybe he wasn't the only one that got it. He doesn't think about Brendon, barely in the club long enough to change and tell them what to do before running again, out into the wild with no goodbye.
"Ryan'll be here in a while," Frank says, when Spencer stays quiet too long.
Frank keeps just staring out the window, doesn't move at all. There's nowhere to sit in the apartment, and nowhere to look other than Frank's bare walls and Frank's bare, blank, bleak face. Spencer slides down one wall, curls into a ball on the floor, elbows to his knees, and waits.
He doesn't think for one moment about what they're waiting for.
His biofeedback system calls him a coward like it always does by rooting his enzymatic response through the part of his brain typically used to create nightmares. Spencer keeps his eyes open -- he knows he's not sleeping -- but it doesn't help. There's an energy weapon stuffed in the waistband of his pants; he can see Frank's peeking out from his coat pocket. Spencer has no idea how long they're going to sit silent, and wait. He doesn't let himself wonder. He doesn't let himself wonder what's going to happen when they get to stop waiting, either.
it turns out that Spencer's not that patient.
Eleven hours pass, and Spencer spends most of them conked out on drugs because Frank all-but forces him to take them. "I can't shut you out, Smith," Frank says gruffly, "and normally I hate this shit, but, you can't -- we're in a twelve-by-twelve square room," he says, "and I can't shut you out."
His bioloop is feeding him every one of Frank's twitches, magnified by his own anxiety ten-fold, and so Spencer takes the sleeping pill.
Gabe opens the door.
Spencer doesn't lower the weapon, but Gabe just leans against the doorjamb. It's him and Ryan and Frank and Alex, and apparently only Alex has the slightest clue what's going on, because he's the first one to turn away, first one to slouch in defeat.
Spencer tries desperately to push Alex out of his mind, forces the nanotech down and out so he doesn't have to know whatever it is that Alex knows for a few more seconds. Instead of asking what everyone should be asking, Spencer says, "Where's Ashlee?"
"Ashlee? What the fuck was Ashlee doing--"
and Gabe interrupts Frank with, "Consul Simpson can be very persuasive when she wants to be." A beat, then, "she wanted to help, and her codes got us in." Gabe laughs, a short bark, adds, "burned that Hail Mary play, of course, cause she won't get another shot at it; she'll never get unlimited access again. But at least she's fine. Her authority is in tact, technically speaking. They can't remove her from office, not yet. She's at home."
Spencer doesn't want to ask, but he has to, so he says, "and, Pete?"
"So I've got bad news, and good news," Gabe replies, and crosses his arms.
Ryan takes a breath, closes his eyes, lowers his head. Spencer can't read anything off Gabe, which means Gabe's closed himself off tighter'n Spencer's ever felt him. Because he knows no one else will say anything, "Bad news," Spencer finally asks.
"Well," and Gabe rubs a hand over his face. "Pete's dead."
"He's--" and Ryan chokes, sits down heavily.
Spencer's hands tighten, he lowers the weapon carefully, puts it on the ground. His fists ball up. He can feel his fingernails digging into his palms; he can feel Alex and Frank, in shock, he can feel Ryan slowly shutting down system after system, emotions looping back around to be cut off slowly, blank affect taking place of the harsh sound that just came out of his mouth.
Pete. He's. just. pete.
That bastard process of his, dedicated to time-management, notes that they only have a few days until they have to report to Bill again; and then Gabe's self-appointed deadline of arma-fucking-geddon. Spencer says, tightly, "and the good news?"
"Well," Gabe answers, "Pete's dead."
Spencer blinks, because, really, Gabe and Pete were, he doesn't-- "okay, what?"
"So if we can get him back," and he can feel Alex slowly go from shock and pain to blissful hope -- "then," Gabe continues, "then? We can rebuild him."
So now there's that (pretty big motherfucking) if, too.
Spencer's been told he's lucky not to remember his death; not to remember the beginning of the process to rebuild him. He's heard the story from his parents, sure, but until Gabe opened his eyes to how it felt, he really didn't have any fucking clue.
Pete is pretty sure to remember it all, especially since this is what he's wanted for basically ever, at least as far as Spencer can tell. That doesn't mean that he's going to take to it, that the mods will be successful or that Pete will be able to transition from death to rebuild. Even without the injustice of the rebuild program, even with the best of intentions in maints and doctors, some cyborgs can't make it. It's physical trauma, even if the mental and emotional is avoided.
That, of course, doesn't begin to cover how they're going to get Pete back to do the mods in the first place. "But, his family, won't they try to--" Spencer says, then cuts himself off at Ryan's bleak look. Gabe isn't bothering to wear his glasses, and his pupils move independent of his voice.
It's Alex that tells him. "They'll have to cremate him. Pete's name is on the list."
Of people that aren't to be rebuilt. The Authorities advertise criminal activities as being the cause of people getting on that list; you break the law seriously enough, you don't get the chance.
Gabe starts telling them where he thinks Pete's body has been taken, as if any of them are in any shape to listen.
Spencer pretends to listen to Gabe, and stays sitting on the floor at Ryan's feet. Technically, Frank should so be sitting on the floor; he's smallest, and has the most mods, so therefore would be the most comfortable. He's curled in the armchair, looking even smaller than he typically does.
Ryan does that thing where he gets into Spencer's biofeedback system, and sends him a ping of loss, sharp and painful in his chest, like he can't breathe. How Ryan figured out how to fuck with Spencer's biofeedback when Spencer can't even really control it -- totally not fair, but whatever. Ryan puts a hand in Spencer's hair; Spencer brushes his wrist.
In his head, Spencer hears Frank's harsh screaming as they pull someone away in the back of his brain, muffled and indistinct but definitely Frank's agony and rage. Ryan pulls his hand away, and the echo fades, but it leaves his chest tight and Spencer finds it hard to breathe.
Okay. So Frank can have the chair.
"So," Gabe starts with, "we've got maybe 12 hours before they move him to a crematory."
Six hours to get in and get him, with hardly no time to prep the rescue; days before hell breaks loose. Spencer gets a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. It's not quite utter hopelessness, more just an overwhelming wave of -- what? The receptors under his skin buzz with the other three dudes in the room; with Brendon, miles away and going crazy with impatience and worry. He can't tell if the churning in his stomach, if the knee-quaking, bone-shaking fear is his; if the ache in his chest, that tight feeling of holding back weeping, is his; if the anger, blood-boiling and so strong he can taste copper on his tongue--
Gabe is biting his lip, Frank has a hand over his face. Alex's hands are tight around the arm of the chair.
Spencer leans back into Ryan, and doesn't wonder where Ryan's input is. They don't have the time.
"Can you do it?"
"There's. I don't think so," Spencer finally answers.
He can feel Frank's frustration, a little anger seeping in as the ghost of Frank's teeth biting his lip mod. Spencer almost raises a hand to his own lips to touch the place he can feel it. He can sense Alex's calm, his lack of surprise that Spencer's admitting this is beyond him. And really, Spencer would be mad but this is beyond him, this is so far fucking beyond him.
In front of him, Gabe's frustrated, angry, sad, and so fucking helpless that Spencer can feel in his own head Gabe's whole gamut of emotional responses, as well as the physiological ones. He can feel Gabe's clenched jaw in his the responding tightness in his own teeth, the way they're grinding together even though he's not mad. He can feel Gabe's fingernails as they dig into his palms, even though Spencer has his hands flat against his thighs. His hands are trembling, but Gabe's are wrapped around each other, practically wringing.
Here's the thing: Spencer's done a lot of serious repair work since he got his cert not that long ago. He's always careful and meticulous, and confident, when splicing new nerves or bones; everyone he works on stays calm and trusts him. He replaced Alex's whole knee, and with the nanos he's able to check once and a while, and the knee is good now, better than good. Spencer knows his stuff in a very limited range of categories, mostly joint work, emotional sub-processes (thanks to Ryan) and some reconstructive network analysis.
What he's not particularly good with is security or network traces. What he's really not good with is being the one responsible for people's welfare when the skills he learned to protect them are only like, a month old. He's never been the primary on something like this.
It's the helplessness that does it, wave after wave crashing against Spencer's anxiety straight from Gabe to him. The nanos tell him something that Spencer's surprised about, too: that Gabe's totally not controlling the reaction, he's just firing off in every direction, wanting to throw himself out the door, wanting to curl up, wanting to wanting to wanting to, the nanos tell him, a litany over and over again of what do i do with no answer except scream. That Spencer -- and probably Alex, Frank and Ryan too -- can feel it is accidental, is totally not Gabe's fault or doing, just an uncontrollable desperate plea into the dark.
What do I do? Spencer thinks, and gulps. It's *Pete*.
He says, "I guess I could try."
Gabe stops moving, stares at Spencer with his snake eyes. Spencer's only known him for seven weeks, but he knows that look: hope. "You found Victoria," Gabe finally says. "You can do this."
All he needed was Spencer's admission that he'd try, and it's enough.
The nanos tell the whole story, as Spencer sits down on the floor. Gabe glances at Spencer while he outlines Frank's role; Spencer can sense the apprehension still, knows that Gabe's not actually taking his success on blind faith. He can tell Alex is calm mostly because he's still fifty-fifty on survival and has accepted that fact; that Frank's still hoping for a miracle to find his lost souls and cares for nothing and no one else.
Ryan's silent -- has been basically silent since Gabe got to the bolt-hole -- but reaches over to squeeze Spencer's knee.
Gabe pulls him aside when Frank and Alex go for supplies, and Ryan's working on something else. They're going in at midnight, and Spencer's starving and nauseous and his head is hurting. Bill's supposed to pick them up at the other end of the city in less than a week.
Gabe's had his sunglasses off since he first showed up. Spencer looks at him, really looks, instead of relying on the nanos. Gabe sizes him up, asks, "You know this isn't just a lab heist, right? For this to work I need you in their network, and that means you'll be marked? Your face, your ID, your DNA. Like, for a while. Forever."
Spencer nods. He knows that, has accepted the possibility of termination. He knows Gabe wants to know why he's doing it when Spencer's never been the most vocal about oppression and victim rights and equal treatment for cyborgs and rebuilds. Spencer can't quite explain it himself, truth be told, or perhaps he just doesn't want to say it out loud.
He thinks hard about Pete's open smile, the way he'd handed Spencer a drink after Spencer first knew. The way Pete had taken his call in the middle of the night every night that week, even though he was exhausted and tight and small and painful himself -- "full of nightmares," Pete had admitted one evening, and still always able to listen to Spencer. He thinks about Pete's stupid dickweed grin when he's doing something he knows is going to frustrate you, thinks about slamming his shoulder into Pete when he'd made some asinine comment. He thinks about Ryan telling him Jon just had to try, and he gets it, knows that it's just, sometimes you have to try. He tells Gabe, "I'm all in," easily.
Spencer knows Gabe gets it, because he grins. "Yeah, he does that," Gabe says.
Gabe claps a hand on Spencer's shoulder, squeezes. Spencer can feel a faint trace of memory in Gabe's skin, years and years of the same, memories and dumb shit and affection-- "Gets to you," Gabe tells him. "Reels you in," Gabe says, and it doesn't even begin to cover what's in Gabe's skin and Spencer's memories and the nanos, buzzing between the two of them.
"I'm all in," Spencer says, and means it.
Frank's cutting the wires, frantically trying to get the bay out so they can cart Pete the fuck out of the crematory lab, but Gabe's still-- "What the fuck," Spencer hisses, "can -- dude, we've got to go--"
and Gabe interrupts, "*no*. He, I promised, dude. Smith, I promised. He made me promise."
Gabe has about thirty eight seconds to finish what he's doing, but he stops in his desperate interface with the computer console to hold one hand up to Spencer. Spencer grabs it, wraps his fingers through Gabe's, and all of a sudden he can hear a faint echo of Pete, Pete's ragged voice, Gabe's memory of Pete's ragged, choked, voice.
Spencer knows suddenly it's the prelude to the conversation he heard. It sounds like Pete was breathing ragged, harsh; Spencer lets go of Gabe's hand. Don't you let me fail him again, if, Gabe, Pete had begged, make sure if you -- just get him. I can't lose him. make sure you fucking get him.
"Have you found the record?" Spencer asks quietly. He's got half an eye on his internal timer, and it's nearly at the point where it's going to start wailing at him, his biofeedback loop begging him to get the fuck out even as he can feel the sparks along his skin that're Ryan and Frank working to maneuver Pete's bay onto a hauler to get it to the truck.
Ryan's feeling nothing, Spencer realizes suddenly. Ryan's shut his whole emotional matrix off to get this done, even if it means he may not ever get it back up again. Spencer cringes, feels a lump in his throat.
"Yeah, they changed the ID from when we were here before, but I got him." Gabe stands, snaps his sunglasses back on and barks out, "the two of you have to get Pete onto to the truck. Wait for us for five minutes then get the fuck outta here. We can always get Patrick out some other way."
Ryan nods, mouth thin. Frank's already wheeling Pete out. Spencer doesn't allow himself the luxury of wondering who's going to actually save Pete if he and Gabe get caught. Instead Spencer says, "Okay, yeah," and takes a shaky breath. "I've always wanted to meet the famous Patrick, so, yeah."
Gabe smiles, a shark's grin. "Follow me, mi compadre. You're gonna have to slice the feeds into the bay again, so let's go."
Spencer finds a slight snag in the next room.
"I don't goddamned fucking believe the fucking thing," Gabe says. He takes his glasses off, peers at the monitor beside the bay as if that'll change the reading. "I fucking don't fucking believe it."
Yeah, well. Neither does Spencer, because Patrick's still alive.
part fourteen: i wanna be in a band when i get to heaven
Spencer jumps every time he hears someone come down the stairs to the club basement; he can still feel the bass through the ceiling. Each noise makes him wonder if *this* is the point the Authorities stop waiting to take the club out, if their time is running out. He splices nerve fibers, hands steady and vision blurring from stim drinks. Mikey met them in the basement; sits across the bench from Spencer, squinting at the delicate organ programming, the genetic modifications unique. Every four hours Alex comes from the tunnels with another piece of equipment, fills another request, and in the down-time codes Pete's new programming.
They build Pete up from salvaged parts.
They meet Bill in four days, and Pete is laying in a cryo-bay below the club. Spencer hasn't slept in thirty-nine hours; Alex hasn't slept in forty-two. Gabe -- Spencer doesn't even want to ask.
They're more than twenty hours into prep before it's glaringly obvious the three of them aren't going to be enough, before they finally admit it.
"We have to get someone else," Mikey finally says. Gabe tugs on his hair in frustration; Mikey, looking down at the storage capsule, sighs. "There's no -- Gabe, I'm sorry, we need someone specialized in this shit, and even if we *could* manage--" which, Spencer is sure that they can't, so it's a moot point, "--there's too much to do for two maints, and Alex's done all he can. Gabe, they severed his spine post-mortem, after they shot out his heart, okay? We'll never get him finished in time."
It's not like Spencer knows as much about anatomy as he does about circuitry, but he knows enough that what Mikey's saying is true; the damage is mostly easily repairable, except to Pete's spine and his heart. One of those two things would be doable. Both at once are impossible, even with all of Mikey's systems installed in Spencer's back-up processor. He stares steadily at Gabe, instead of down into the capsule at Pete, at Pete's face or--
"Okay," Gabe answers. "Who do you need and I'll get him."
"But--" Mikey replies, "if you, Gabe, you can't seriously be suggesting. I care as much as you do, but it won't be his fault, he'll just be some guy."
Spencer doesn't know what Mikey's history is with Pete, still doesn't know where Mikey goes when he slips in and out of their basement like a ghost, doesn't know how he does it when he's already marked 'terminated'. Spencer doesn't know how he organizes the other doctors to volunteer at Gabe's underground clinic. Spencer can sense barely anything from him at all. He knows what he sees on Mikey's face when he looks down at the capsule, though.
"What about the kidnap processor?" Spencer asks quietly.
He can feel Mikey cringe, but Gabe just shrugs. "Can you do it without showing Pete's face to whoever's specializing?" Gabe asks. "I mean, can you handle the cellular restart without them?"
Spencer knows that anyone who sees Gabe, or himself, or Alex, or anyone else who'd play point on this rebuild can never set foot outside again. Even if most of the revolution's still able to play outside in theory, go to the factory and run clandestine ops at night, there are a few of them that are tagged now and forever, and unfortunately, they're the best available. Spencer and Alex, Mikey, they're marked, now. If the specialist sees them, he'll have to--
"If he doesn't see Pete's face. And if he doesn't see yours. If he doesn't hear us. He won't have anything to give them," Gabe's saying. Spencer gets it, slowly; feels Gabe's heart, his surety. Gabe's going to kidnap a specialist so that they can rebuild Pete, but he's going to let him go.
"And what about the process?" Mikey echoes.
Gabe shrugs again, doesn't say it, but the nanotech means he doesn't have to say a fucking word for both of them to know the answer. Gabe's gonna find a full-organic. It bypasses the kidnapping processor, for sure, but opens up a whole other crate of risks.
Spencer feels for the guy, he really does. He's just so annoying.
"I don't know what you think you're going to accomplish, taking me, but as soon as anyone gets wind of it you'll never--"
He feels Gabe roll his eyes, snorts as he can feel Gabe trying not to sigh, or alternately drug the dude until tomorrow morning when the rebuild's gonna start. Truth be told, Spencer's more than a little tempted to just drug the guy himself. Keeping the dude at the factory is risky fucking business (ignoring that since they got Pete back it's only a matter of time before the Authorities think to look for him here), but it's the only place with a scan inhibitor, and Pete's bay is already in the basement. They had to bring the guy here, because the rebuild's gonna be here, but that doesn't mean anyone likes it.
Gabe leans into the microphone. The speaker in the private room is tinny and indistinct, and there's a bunch of layered distortion over top. Spencer can still hear the frustration and pissed-off tone through all of it. "Why d'you think you're still alive?" he asks the guy.
The two of them are sitting in the room behind the DJ booth, which is really just the sound engineering closet. There's a monitor balanced precariously on the side of the board, and it has a feed of the doctor's private room going. The doctor glances up at the camera, frowning. Into the speaker he replies, "the ransom?"
"Oh yeah, he deserves his doctorate's," Brendon murmurs over Spencer's shoulder.
Gabe leans in again. "Wrong answer," he tells the dude, and then, "we need your expertise, actually. Given any thought as to why you haven't seen anyone yet?"
"You're assholes?" the doctor suggests. Brendon's giggling a little behind them, and Spencer can't blame him really, because this guy has some balls. He's basically been kidnapped, and he's calling them names.
"We are," Gabe answers smoothly. The vocal distortion picks up his calm. "But we're gonna have to kill you if you see our faces."
"Oh," the guy says. In the monitor, he's starting to look a little concerned, like maybe until right now he hadn't quite realized what shit he'd landed in, but was rapidly figuring it out.
"Yeah," Gabe replies, amused. "So maybe listening to instructions will be good for your health. There's a blindfold in there, so put it on and we'll bring you the file we need you to work on tonight."
"Tonight?" the guy asks, already back into pissed off, only this time tinged with professional worry. "That isn't nearly, I'll need at least a week to plan the heart animation, never mind--"
"Most of it's been done," Gabe interrupts. "It's all there. We need you to finish up the pulmonary system, basically, and the spine."
The guy's looking right at the monitor, as if he can actually see them. Spencer tenses, a little bit; Brendon puts one finger on the back of Spencer's neck. The guy says, "that's still, it won't be enough time."
"Listen," the guy says seriously, "I'm not fucking with you. I just want to get out of here, stands to reason I wouldn't be pushing for more time right? But I'm a doctor, I'm not gonna lie and do a rebuild of anyone that's not got the best shot of working out."
Gabe rubs his forehead. Says into the microphone, "tomorrow?"
The guy mimic's Gabe's action, massaging his temples. "Maybe. It depends on the extent of the damage to the spine. There's -- there could be a lot of nerve work, and the filaments have to be done before they're implanted, which'll take time as well, *if* you've got any maints who are up for the job."
Gabe glances as Spencer. Spencer nods. The guy is telling the truth -- worryingly so, actually, to Spencer's mind. If he'd been kidnapped, Spencer thinks he might keep something back, but this guy is just giving them his opinion, completely professional. He's concerned, but not particularly timid, and that's what sets Spencer's warning bells off.
Spencer leans into the microphone, asks curiously, "have you done this kind of thing before?"
The voice coming out of the speakers is strange, because it sounds exactly how Gabe sounded, except a little bit not. Not enough that the guy probably can tell -- he doesn't even pretend not to know what Spencer's talking about. "Sometimes," he admits. "I get called in on government rebuilds once and a while. It's a less pleasant experience."
Gabe says, "If you think we're not willing--"
"Oh, I believe that," the guy says, and gives them a sarcastic smile. "But you're also far more interested in my well-being. It's a nice change of pace." He puts the blindfold on, adjusting it a little bit, then shrugs. "Bring me the file, let's see the damage. If someone has prepped the nerve filaments, we've got a chance to do this within about twenty hours. If not, probably almost a week?" The guy shrugs, and Spencer thanks fucking god he prepped all the nerves already, because another week of waiting for Pete to wake up is just not--
Gabe sends Spencer to bring the guy the file, because the fewer of them exposed to the risk, the better, and Spencer's already in hot shit since he's in on the rebuild itself. As he hands it to the doctor, the doctor says, "I'm going to have to talk to the whole team, assuming you've got one, figure out what's what, and plan the operation, okay? And I need to know what everyone's really qualified to do."
Spencer nods, realizes that the guy can't see him, glances up at the camera helplessly. Someone in the booth echoes back, "read the file and we'll get the team in later."
After about forty-five minutes of the guy perusing the scans, minus identifying facial or DNA markers, Spencer and Mikey spend an uncomfortable time conversing with the dude about what's already been done. After the third time of saying, "are you sure the preparation is sufficiently," Spencer snaps into the mic,
"this is our buddy, here, not yours -- why do you think we'd be more willing to risk shit than you would be on doing a half-assed job? Christ."
It's possible exhaustion has caught up with him; the guy blinks, goes back to studying the scan. "Okay," he finally says. "I'll take your word for it that everything's been done. I'm going to need access to the animation theatre, now, and see the spine for myself."
Mikey leans into the mic. "No can do."
"But--" and the guy looks frustrated, irritated. "You want me to help, I need to get at the spinal cord. The pulmonary system, I think you've done all you can, I don't think it's as bad as it looks and you have enough artificial matter to graft the ventricle into his heart without a problem. I think. But the spine -- that was severed professionally, and don't think I can't tell, so if you want me to put it back together again I need to--"
"We don't have an animation theatre," Spencer interrupts him. "He's, he's just in a fucking bay right now, in stasis, and we've got a metal fucking bench and mobile cellular lab to work with. Okay?"
Mikey blinks, and the guy blinks. "You did all this," he asks quietly, "with nothing but a mobile lab?"
"Yeah," Mikey tells him. "We had a full animation cart, with a proper animation bay, and a separate fabrication unit until a few weeks ago. That's where the artificial ventricle came from. But we can't take him out of stasis until we're ready to reanimate."
"What about the nerve filaments?"
Spencer shrugs helplessly, because he hadn't even thought about the impossibility of reprogramming the mobile cellular lab to work on synthetic fibers, the safety protocols he'd bypassed in the system programming to get it to chew out silicon instead of just work with organics. Mikey tells him, "we used the cellular lab. It's an old enough one that getting into the core programming and altering it to accept synthetics wasn't as hard as on a newer model."
"Jesus," the guy says, but it's impressed. "You did a whole week of preparation, plus organ fabrication, in less than a day and with nothing but a mobile chem lab that's supposed to be good for nothing but monitoring. You two are better than my entire fucking team."
"We couldn't fix his spine," Spencer mutters, which -- it still stings, that he and Mikey and Alex couldn't seem to weave the cracks in those nerves back together, that they weren't good enough to handle that.
He doesn't realize that the mic picks it up until the guy answers, "but christ, you built his nerves back up again out of nothing." It's the first time, Spencer realizes, that the guy refers to Pete with a pronoun, like he's seeing Pete as a person instead of a body. Something in Spencer's chest loosens, a little.
Mikey's speaking again, they're going over the last few questions the guy has about the pulmonary system -- and yeah, that's not going to be as hard as they'd first thought, Mikey should be able to handle it as long as nothing goes wrong elsewhere. Finally, the guy says, "okay. If we can't open the bay until we're ready, and we can't be ready until we see the spine, let's open the goddamned bay already. Waiting won't help, and unless you can get me any better equipment, I can't do anything else here."
Spencer waits; Mikey glances at his tablet, then replies into the mic, "they're trying to get a second reanimation controller, so we can separate his pulmonary system from the nerve mess. It should be here by morning, if we can get our hands on it."
"That'll help," the guy replies, "though if you can find a few basic processors, and then reprogram them to handle other systems like lungs and marrow, it'll leave the real cellular reanimation lab to handle nothing but brainstem and nerves. Especially if you're using an outdated model, it could be too much strain on the mobile lab." The guy laughs, shakes his head. "Normally I wouldn't suggest anything so stupid, since no one I know could possibly reprogram a processor to handle the respiratory system in a few hours, but you guys seem to be able to do anything else, so. Bring me one and I'll do digestive while we wait to see if your equipment is coming. Seen a lot of gut wounds in my day."
Mikey tilts his head, already tapping out a quick message. Spencer knows that spare processors shouldn't be a problem and they should have three or four within the hour; he's already planning the rewrite of one to handle bone marrow, so only half listens as Mikey asks, "military?"
The guy rubs his face, answers, "sometimes. Yeah."
Spencer spends the night rewriting his typical maint processes for marrow and joints into a control process for re-fabrication, the all-so-important spongy tissue programming. Mikey works in silence beside him, altering the code they used on that girl to handle Pete's lungs.
Bill comes in around five am, pulling a cart behind him. "I brought you all a present," he starts with, "so don't fucking lose this one." Spencer's flooded with relief, his head dizzy and swimming, seeing the official seal on the cover -- Bill actually brought them another reanimation cart, they actually have a factory-sealed cellular restart--
Mikey nods, mumbles, "thanks," and Bill leaves without another word. Spencer glances down at his tablet, desperate to open the lab and see what needs to -- but he's not a reanimation doctor, he's just a maint, and so he keeps stabbing away at the screen, trying to tell a control processor that used to run something mechanical (a traffic light, maybe?) that it's now in control of making sure Pete's bone marrow continues to refresh his red blood cells. Green light: keep refreshing blood cells. Yellow light: pause in harvesting old cells. Red light--
Spencer hears Mikey tell the guy, "we got the lab, we're ready." He closes the tablet. Either the code is good enough, and Pete's new processors will keep his endocrine system and blood moving, or it won't.
The doctor does most of the work once they open the bay; Mikey assists as the guy carefully repairs a thousand cuts in Pete's spinal column. Spencer's relegated to monitoring all secondary systems for problems; he repairs a few minor programming flaws, but by the time they're ready for the heart surgery everything is going eerily well with Pete's mods, no extra damage to fix, no DNA flaws to repair. Spencer's glad they have to keep Pete's face covered during the surgery, because seeing his face might be too much.
They can't start the animation with the dude there, of course, because he can't know who it is he's working on. Which is a problem. But -- but.
Gabe nods, when the doctor says, "so, that's it then." He turns to where Spencer's behind the partition, watching Pete's programming, going through it one last time. Because yeah. That's it then.
Ryan's going to take the specialist back to the street, to the main transit terminal. The doctor's wearing a mask he can't see out of, but a costume too, so it doesn't look weird. Spencer's watching the reanimation lab, but can hear Ryan and the doctor down the hall, muffled as they pause before Ryan leads the guy up the factory stairs.
He can hear Ryan saying, "okay, once we're in the station you can count to like, a thousand, then take off the suit and you're good to go."
He can also hear, through Ryan's surprise, the doctor saying before they leave the club, "not that I really want to do this again, but. If you need. You can. I will." Quieter, he adds, "I -- good luck. Just, yeah. I hope it works."
Pete doesn't take to the mods.
"Motherfucker," Mikey says, and scrubs his metal hand through his hair in frustration.
Spencer's only heard Mikey swear twice even though by Frank's report, Mikey swears like a son of a bitch most of the time. Spencer's only spoken to Mikey at clinic hours though, when he's a doctor; where he's lucky to get more than four words at all.
The nanotech leaves Spencer's skin clammy, cold and uncomfortable; it's been a long morning, and the mobile cellular lab is churning out data, sluggishly putzing away and keeping his organs stable out of the stasis bay. It's twenty years old, and Mikey's done his best with it, but. But.
The new mobile lab, the one Bill dragged in like the answer to every prayer, is silent, Pete's brainstem primed for input, ready and waiting, but still inert.
Between the two of them is Pete, laying almost serene even with his death-mask in a grimace. Spencer hasn't been in on this part of a reanimation before, the cy's eyes open but organs in stasis, not a person or cyborg but a bunch of organic and synthetic parts on the table, waiting to wake up. He tamps down on his apprehension fiercely. They have bigger things to worry about: Pete's heart isn't beating yet, and from what Spencer can tell, it maybe won't.
"Okay," Spencer replies to Mikey's curse, and exhales slow and easy; inhales slow and easy; exhales again. The monitor taking care of Pete's tissue, preventing cell decay, blips morosely. It's secondhand tech, barely serviceable. Maybe it's the lab itself that's faulty.
Mikey's head is bowed, face in both hands, eyes covered.
"Okay," Spencer says again, because fuck if he's going to look at Pete's open eyes and not fucking make them fucking see again. "There's nothing wrong, right? The reanimation lab and cellular restart lab are both working, and he's not in decay," he says. Mikey stays still, a statue of despair, not bothering to give Spencer anything. "Nothing's wrong," Spencer repeats. "So," and Spencer's mind works through it, slowly -- his maint sub-control processor racing as Spencer lets it work without him.
When Gabe first told him his maint subprocess was independent and could take over the logical progression of his daily thoughts, Spencer wasn't afraid or paranoid or creeped out or whatever; he was mad. One system was already shot to hell (his biofeedback system offers to up his serotonin levels, an apology he ignores) now apparently another could take over. Rewriting that processor was somewhat frightening but mostly a relief.
He hadn't ever thought that the independent submatrix, missing the control code, could ever be active. As it shifts through query strings and possibilities for Pete, to wake Pete, Spencer's never been so grateful for his stupid rebellious systems, for the faint ghost of the true maint process that's taken it upon itself to try and solve this problem even when it was supposed to be deleted.
"Mikey," Spencer says as one possibility flashes stronger and louder than the others, "Pete's rejecting it. He's -- no, hear me out," as Mikey raises an eyebrow, clearly not buying any of it. Spencer stands, barely keeping up with the suggestions brewing in the main system. With the control code out of the system it's bypassing the safe suggestions and going for broke, too, Spencer realizes with a jolt.
Well, of course.
He looks at Mikey, says, "We. His brain is capable of input, right? The reanimation lab says his brainstem is ready. His organs just aren't active yet -- we--" and Spencer looks down, suddenly afraid of what will happen if this batshit crazy idea doesn't work, even more afraid of what happens if Pete stays in stasis-- "we have to stimulate his fucking brain, okay? Because otherwise the rest of the nervous system won't come online."
Mikey knows as well as Spencer does that once they get Pete's nervous system online the rest of his systems -- voluntary motor control, digestion, endo-synthetic, all of them -- will follow. Mikey slowly raises his head, staring at Spencer like he's crazy. He wouldn't, necessarily, be wrong. Spencer tells him anyway, "so we stimulate his fucking brain."
Then Mikey looks down at Pete, and the quirk of Mikey's lips is evidence that he's already decided. "He did say he wasn't coming back this time without him," Mikey mutters. "And goddamned if Pete Wentz isn't the most stubborn motherfucker on the planet."
Spencer never in a million years imagined that knowing the ins and outs of Ryan Ross's emotional matrices could possibly help a reanimation, but apparently his maint process put two and two together, and came up with a tap-dance or some shit, because they're going to try and restart Pete's nervous system like jump-starting a car, using their own memories like an emotional car battery.
His time-management code (such a simple piece of code but so fundamental to his phone software he can't delete it) tells him he's running out of time. Fifty-six hours until all hell breaks loose. Spencer looks at Pete's chiseled face, his -- at Pete's dead face.
Pete's fucking dead face.
Fifty-six hours until all hell breaks loose *again*.
After a long discussion (no one's counting it an argument despite overwhelming evidence) they get Brendon to go first.
There's a bunch of reasons. First and simplest, Brendon's full of love. Spencer knows it, Mikey knows it, everyone knows it. That's easy when you're looking down at Pete; looking at Pete nearly everyone is full of love, the fucker. But unlike many of those people, Brendon isn't also overwhelmed with desperation. For five seconds Spencer considered using Gabe -- Gabe volunteered immediately, striding through the underground halls sparking off his brain chemistry in every direction -- but those near-visible waves emanating from Gabe as he paces the hall, impatient, glasses forgotten and pupils moving independent of his thoughts, well. Fuck. Spencer can hear every single one of Gabe's thoughts without even straining. He and Mikey are pretty sure that much, that intensity, would be too much, and it could traumatize the reanimation.
Spencer considers Ryan for a minute or two, but Mikey vetoes that immediately. When Spencer asks why, Mikey says, "yeah, let's not let him know yet what went wrong with Ryan on his behalf." Which, okay, fuck. fair.
Spencer thought about using himself or Mikey. It's actually the first thought that came to mind, because he really, really doesn't want to have someone else do something that could fuck them over when he could do it himself. But Mikey needs to monitor in case it goes really wrong, and -- "Spencer, like," and Mikey hunches over a little bit, "you've only known him for a few months. You know. like," and Spencer does know. The clenching feeling in his chest every time he thinks about Pete not waking up doesn't say a few months, but they want to make sure they tug Pete back into his body, and *hard*.
They want years of memories.
Brendon lays a hand on Pete's wrist; glances at the two of them. "So, I just..." and he trails off.
The nanotech says that Brendon's nervous but not terrified, despite the fact that no one they know of -- maybe no one, ever -- has ever input to a cy prior to reanimation. That's the other reason they go with Brendon: that occasional glint of steely determination in his face suggests that he'll probably be able to get back out of it again.
Spencer swallows, afraid even if Brendon isn't. He wishes it could be him, so no one else is at risk for his crazy idea. "I can--" Spencer starts to say, licks his lips. "I mean, we're still not sure," and he can't help but stare at Brendon's chin, his left cheekbone, not quite into his eyes. Spencer doesn't want to think about how this could go so fucking monumentally wrong.
Brendon grins. "Don't deny me my heroic moment, Spence," and before he and Mikey are fully prepared, before Spencer can steel himself, Brendon starts the input.
It doesn't really work.
Brendon is deep-unconscious for almost an hour, not breathing but systems registering stable. No nanotech, no reaching him through his input terminal. No muscle twitches. Mikey sits with him for a bit, alternating with clinic hours like usual.
Spencer focuses on the tiny vibrations they recorded; Pete's brainwaves registering -- no, *accepting* the input, even if his nerve controllers are still offline. When he can't focus on those anymore, he looks at Brendon, wonders what a cy in deeper than a coma could be thinking about. Wonders where Brendon's thoughts could be. Even sleeping, even in stasis, he can feel Brendon, feel everyone, as a faint hum -- and now, nothing. His hands shake, just a little, but he can't tell whose nano input he's reading.
When Brendon wakes up, Spencer isn't in the room; he feels it, though, a flash and then faint whispers of the nanotech registering Brendon's slow rise to consciousness.
As Spencer jogs into the room where Brendon's laying, he can hear Brendon saying to Mikey, "and that wasn't my most favorite thing ever. Did it work?"
Mikey says, "kinda." Brendon tilts his head; he's sitting up on the bench, a little, but he doesn't ask any more questions. Maybe the nanotech is giving him everything he needs to understand, because Spencer watches as Brendon just nods when Mikey adds, "I'm gonna go next."
Spencer rises from his hour of coma with no recollection of what he thought about, if he thought, or if his mind was just. Blank. Or gone. His biofeedback system refuses to comment, one of the only times it's flat-out refused Spencer since the rebuild. Pete's beta waves are stronger with Mikey, and again with Spencer. But he stays stubbornly, irretrievably, in stasis.
"Told you," Gabe says to Mikey smugly. "I've got the magic touch."
Mikey doesn't answer, watching the pulmonary monitor flicker, crackle, then come to life.
Spencer tries to keep the wash of relief down to a minimum; damps down everyone out of his systems as much as he can. Watching the brainwave monitor register the beginnings of a nervous-system restart, Spencer's knees go weak. The crazy all-out determination that emanates from Gabe on a day-to-day basis means they really should have trusted him to get this done, but--
Spencer asks, "what--" and licks his lips, asks Gabe, "what did you give him?"
Gabe glances over. "I told him to wake the fuck up because Patrick was waiting -- what else would I say?" He shrugs. "For a bunch of geniuses, you guys are fucking stupid as shit."
part fifteen: the age of miracles, the age of sound
The first words out of Pete's new mouth are, "where is he?"
During the slow process of aligning Pete's systems to wake the fucker, they drew straws to be the one to talk to Pete first. Gabe lost (won? the jury's still out) but it's Ashlee that speaks, anyway. "He's. There was."
Her and Gabe exchange a look over the bay. Pete coughs, rough, and finally Gabe holds a hand out, input down. Spencer and Mikey are observing from a discrete distance, hoping against hope that Gabe's not about to do irreparable harm. Pete coughs again, and Spencer notches up the nano-input. Gabe's tuned himself down as much as he can, at least; that's about the best they can hope for, and the rest -- Pete takes Gabe's wrist, and Spencer holds his breath.
Because, yeah. There's a more complicated answer to 'where is he'. Technically, Patrick's body is in the next room. They don't know where his mind is, though. They don't know whether he's got one anymore, what the cocktail of stasis drugs and artificial coma has kept him alive and aging, but asleep, has actually done.
After about twenty seconds that feels like years, Pete lets go. Gabe steps back. Pete's eyes are closed. Spencer tries to tamp down his fear, puts a block on the tension he's feeling.
They all wait as Pete inhales, and finally says, "*fuck*."
"Well said," Gabe replies. "Well fucking said."
There has to be a way to wake Patrick up, Pete reasons. There has to be.
Spencer's glad his bioloop is behaving enough to listen when he tells it to keep suppressing his fear, his tension. His disbelief. But he still stays in the shadows by the door.
Out of the corner of his eye he sees Ashlee share a look with Mikey, but Mikey is flat, full doctor mode and emotionless, and Ashlee has no nannites to give her away. Plus, she's capable of not letting her face betray her -- which Spencer's isn't.
It's a moot point, though, because they have to get Pete ready to make the train.
The second time Bill picks up Spencer, it's the middle of rush hour; Spencer's following Frank through staircase after crowded staircase to get to the train platform, and Spencer's just following Frank's lead as Frank shoves his way onto a crowded train. Spencer follows him to the door leading between cars clearly marked 'do not open', and as Frank slams it backwards with the movement of the train, Spencer hops through.
The next subway car has tinted plastic stuck to the windows, that cheap film that's opaque. Ish. The doors had transit Authority tape slapped over them, a clear indication not to board, and the doors hadn't opened. In the car itself, though, it's anything but quiet. Spencer follows Frank over to where Bill's doing something to a network relay. This is the current centre of the revolution, protected from view by cheap-ass plastic film and some yellow tape.
"Don't people notice?" Spencer can't help asking, because like, he and Frank just opened the doors between cars, no security, no scanners. "I mean--" and he spreads his hands to encompass the activity around them. Nate's going through checking a crate of energy rifles over there, for chrissake. He's kneeling down below the level of the windows, sure, but still. Rush hour seems the worst time to do this.
Frank's already plopped himself down beside a crate of relay transmitters, the kind that boost signal hacks across a line, and he starts sorting them by frequency. At least Spencer thinks he's sorting them by frequency. Even after all this time Spencer's still not great with transmitters.
"Sometimes," Bill tells him, "but they never understand what they're seeing. And since all the trains on the downtown lines are automated -- even the security cameras are automated, dude, we just drive through a few really populated areas so people can jump on board, then go out of service at a transfer station, and head north again. Sure as fuck beats having to travel back and forth for hours just picking people up." Bill glances up from where he's frowning at his tablet, to add quietly, "besides, we're running out of time."
Really, it's a piss-poor security precaution, but then Bill's been running this train for over a year, so if he's never been caught then he's never been caught and it'll have to do for Spencer. Spencer rocks forward, then back, on his heels as they stop again, and Pete slides the door open from the far train car. He goes to pick up another crate, way too much weight for his brand new shoulders. Spencer goes over to him to say, "the tendons won't be able to take that, you know. You gotta give them some time to adjust."
"Then make yourself useful," Pete replies, and hands over the crate, "because we've got an hour before Mikey's on board and I need this done by then." Which, Mikey's coming with them this time? -- Pete wipes his face, answers the shock fizzing in Spencer's diaphragm with, "he's got as much at stake in that warehouse as anyone. Besides, other than Alex, you and he are the only ones they haven't grabbed that still have functioning enhanced processors."
Spencer takes the crate and starts sorting through the transmitters, ignores Bill's alarmed gaze at Pete's reanimated body, the mods all-too-obvious. After a second, in which Bill stares at Pete who ignores him, Bill grimaces, and goes back to work without comment. Spencer chews his lip, but stays quiet too, because he probably won't like whatever backup plan relies on him and Mikey's control processors.
Spencer's right, he really doesn't like the plan.
There are a hundred things that could go wrong, not least of which is the fact that they're relying on Pete to break them in and they just got him *back*. His synthetic nerves are still misfiring, for crying out loud, he should be in a bay for another week at least -- and he's the one that's getting past security.
"This is a bad idea," Bill tells Gabe. "Like seriously. You and Pete can't do this again. Ross and I will go in."
Gabe stares into the distance, through the front window of the train and down the tracks, his pupils making undulating patterns like snake scales. It's really creepy. "No," he finally says, "I need Ross somewhere else. And you're not going in."
"Your DNA isn't marked yet, dude," and Gabe turns back to the group. "Nate and Alex are going in first -- Smith, you're with them."
Spencer's only met Nate twice but he looks like a solid dude, so, "okay," Spencer says dubiously.
"Pete, you're still at the door. Ryan and I are going in the back because I need a codebreaker to get into the database before anyone else is risked on this. You three," and Gabe sweeps his hand over to Nate and Alex, "get the honour of making sure we aren't noticed."
"Fantastic," Alex replies.
Bill narrows his eyes, asks, "So okay. Pete breaks you and Ross in. After he goes in, they cut security with Nate's explosive personality and Alex's processes, and voila, Alex has full control of the warehouse network while Gabe, you and Ross break through their database?" Gabe nods, slow. Bill rolls his eyes, folds his arms over his chest, and says, "so we'll skip the part where now you're trapped in the warehouse. Just tell me: why now."
Pete's fist is clenched, and Spencer can feel the new knuckle joints in his cybernetic hand protesting the abuse. Pete says, "the experiments on cys? It looks like they're trying to find their souls. That's where our people are going."
"How do you--"
"Brendon followed the lab Authority responsible for the project," Pete says, "that's what he's been doing since Victoria. They tried to take her voice to see where her spirit would go, or something. Before me and Gabe went in, Brendon followed the dude home, found out what they were doing to cys. That's why I -- that's why. It's. We've run out of time."
No one asks how he found out, what he did, or whether the Authority is still alive. Spencer's vaguely horrified he doesn't really care, but then he gets a flash of the first moment he woke up after dumping his memories and emotions into Pete's dead body, hoping against hope he'd wake up. He gets another flash -- he doesn't know from who -- and a rapid-cycle through of all the resistance database pictures marked 'lost' or 'deceased'. They scroll behind his eyes too fast to count, but he doesn't need an exact number to know that it's way too fucking many for this to work.
Bill chews his lip. "That still doesn't -- once you're in, even if you can get all the IDs, and if Alex can keep control, there's no way the four of you can get all those bays out."
"Then we open them all in the warehouse."
And Spencer thought he didn't like the plan before.
Opening a stasis bay is traumatizing fucking stuff; even sleeping in one overnight feels like waking from the dead. Since almost every cy can literally remember waking from the dead, it's like reliving your death each morning. It's claustrophobic and uncomfortable and it hits a nerve, deep down in the instinctive part of a cy's memory that says i was dead i was dead; tugs on that animalistic memory of fear and forces you for a split second to relive it and remind you i am dead, even more. There's no way that many newly-wakened cys are going to get out under their own power. They'd be lucky not to lose them all to schizophrenia. Their people are mixed in with hundreds, maybe thousands, of others, and the stasis bays aren't linked to the main network; they'd have to open them by hand or open the entire lot. Victoria aside, no one coming out of stasis who's been in that long is going to wake up, whole, right away.
There's a mixture of reactions around the table to Gabe, and Spencer can appreciate the way people are trying to cover these oh-so-potent emotions. He can barely get a handle on his own memories, so he squashes them down as tight as he can and feels relieved when everyone else manages to do the same.
"Yeahhh," Bill drawls finally, "that's not gonna work. Even if you could get all the IDs there's no way you could open them all in time before security found you guys, dude."
"Wait," and it's Mikey, Mikey with his own processes speaking up for the first time. "Maybe. If we could just open them at the same time, have someone monitoring each bay. If the kids learned the basics, maybe."
Spencer has a sudden, completely irrational, completely fucking insane thought. It comes from the little piece of him that isn't -- quite -- him, his maint processes turning the problem over, uninhibited by fear or rationality and cheered on by his link to Mikey, considerably stronger since the reanimation. For a minute, it feels like his maint process and Mikey's hospital process conference without the two of them, a blast of discussion that suddenly allows an idea to pop into Spencer's head. "We could," he says slowly, "get everyone inside on the train. It'd be enough people to manage that many bays."
"What?" Nate says, sharp. "Are you fucking insane? There are like five of us who have their DNA marked, man. There's no way we're risking the kids--"
"Wait, the train." Pete runs his metal hand over his face. "We could drive it into the loading bay right under the warehouse itself, bypass the monitors."
"Are you out of your fucking *mind*? There's no way we'd be able to pull a train into that area after hours even if I'd be willing to risk it which I'm--"
"No, we load the car, and get Brendon to bypass the signal in the morning as rush hour starts, park the thing in between the rails." Pete smiles, hard. "It's not on the tunnel maps, but there's plenty of spare track down there; they need to keep a train on hand, beyond security. In case they have to get bays in or out."
Bill grimaces. "You want our kids to sit in a car in the pitch black waiting until full dark hoping you and Brendon can get us in? For that matter, you want me to be a sitting duck hoping you can break security fast enough to haul everyone in?"
Spencer nods, slowly. It's the beginning of a formulation of a plan, at least, and even though it involves putting the kids in harm's way-- "if Pete deals with the blood match monitors, they won't register, right?" he says, thinking out loud. He hesitates for a second, then swallows and continues with, "Bill, you and Brendon can keep the train from being noticed on the secure line until Pete can signal it's time to come in."
Bill tilts his head. "What about the database? We won't have the IDs in time."
Spencer scowls, frustrated. There's something tugging at the back of his mind, his processes working through each other and banging their heads against the problem. The train can get inside; they can get the database; they can open the bays. But which bays. The back of his skull itches, and he scratches his head absently until he realizes--
Alex's saying quietly, "I can do it," and then Spencer feels the nanotech burst in a weird colour, a metallic taste in the back of his mouth, and then he gets his own id flashed into his brain.
So, that's new.
Mikey glances up, the only one not surprised; but then, Alex as a network admin would be the only one able to rewrite the nanotech code to transmit data instead of physical sensation. "What the fuck?" Nate's asking, but apparently it's enough, because--
"Good," Pete says, standing up. "I'll open the doors, bypass the blood scanners. Then I have a date with a thought-transference lab," Pete tells them.
"Apparently Patrick's soul is hostage," he snaps, and shrugs. Face brittle, white, newly-reawakened. Spencer cringes to see him. Pete adds, "So yeah. I'm gonna do something about that."
So Spencer doesn't like the plan, not least of which because that's only the first part, and it involves risking everything Bill's worked so hard to build in the transit system, not to mention their network admin. Pete wants to go in alone after whatever research there is, Bill's going to have to leave them in the warehouse if they don't leave right after shit hits the fan, and Spencer's going in as part of the advance team which means he might end up shot in the head before anyone else even shows up. Fantastic.
The part he likes least -- if that's even possible -- is how Nate and Frank are muttering to each other after Bill goes to get the train moving again; how they're masking their voices and how Spencer can really only read Frank. Alex looks up, once, but then glances at Gabe and drops his eyes again. The worst part is Mikey and Alex connecting inputs, out of sight of anyone else.
Brendon's the first they drop off, because he's got a meeting to pick up some equipment. Alex grabs his wrist for a brief second as the train rounds a corner, and Spencer sees Brendon flinch. Spencer swallows, and Brendon turns to stare at him. There's anxiety and whatever shit, but Spencer is one hundred percent positive that they're keeping something from Gabe, some contingency. He should be surprised he can read that much from them, but the nanotech is working in harmony with his bioloop and maint processes, and they're reading Alex's processes more than anything. Anyone.
He hears in his head shhhhh, and then Brendon steps off the train.
When he gets to the club, there's a 'for sale' sign on the door. His code still works on the side door, but slipping inside he can see no furniture, no bar, no lights, no anything.
Ashlee comes down the stairs from her office, and it looks like she's been crying. "I'm selling," she tells him. Spencer nods, dumbly, and Ashlee adds, "I mean, after -- it doesn't make sense to. They'll just." She swallows, passes a hand over her face. "They're downstairs," she tells Spencer. "But I can't stay."
He's not sure whether she means that she has somewhere to be, that she can't be here when things go badly, or that she can't stay in the club when she knows she's going to lose it. He stumbles down the stairs, leaving her to lock up.
Downstairs he finds dancers, kids, a couple of the core cys drinking themselves through crate after crate of Ashlee's liquor, because if Ashlee's shutting down--
"You wishing you'd never come here, Spencer Smith?" Of course it's Brendon that asks.
Spencer looks around at the cys; they're trying to be festive, and Ryan called it a going-away party, but what they're really doing is waiting and they all know it. Waiting and waiting and nothing else, for Bill to be in place, for Nate to give the 'go'. Surprisingly, Gabe rolls in not long after Spencer, and immediately claims a bottle for himself. A few months ago he didn't even question who'd be rebuilt and now he's like twenty-eight hours away from near-guaranteed termination. The dizzy drunk he's got is magnified by every shot Gabe hammers back.
Ryan arches an eyebrow; the nanotech swims sluggish through his blood. Spencer knows Ryan wants to hear an answer, the guilt he and Pete harbour is near-suffocating at times.
Spencer stands, clumsily. Someone has to piss, and he can feel it. "Mostly," he says to Ryan, not Brendon, "I wish I didn't know how cheap life really is." He shrugs, amends, "no. I guess I wish life wasn't cheap," and makes for the toilet at the end of the hall.
The next morning way too many of them are hung over for it to be a good sign. Spencer locks himself in a stasis bay under the club for four hours; it's all he can afford. Then he drags himself to find a remedy, and meet Frank at the local train platform.
When Frank shows up, Spencer's watching the news screen in the station. There's a local lab, a minor staging area, on screen, and it's engulfed in flames. He feels Frank sidle up to him, cheerful, unapologetic vengeance in his head and through his nanotech. "Looks like someone got impatient," Spencer comments, because he can't fucking say anything else in public.
Frank shrugs, and Spencer feels it. They get on the train, and Spencer holds his wrist out; Frank flutters his eyelashes but grabs on, and gives Spencer the memory of setting the charge. It was just Frank, then, and a message from Nate, delivered by Alex after the meeting last night. While Spencer was drinking, he thinks. When Spencer *and* Gabe were drinking.
Does Gabe know? Spencer asks through the input.
Frank shakes his head. "Huh," Spencer says.
"So," Spencer says. They're currently outside another staging area; Spencer is filled with a sense of dread that the phrase 'Nate's explosive personality' isn't a metaphor or euphemism, and that right now he and Frank are rigging another physical explosion at the staging area to--
"Yep," Frank interrupts. "We -- because otherwise they'll be able to fight him off once Alex hooks into the wider net."
Yeah, so that's not part of the plan. "What?" Spencer asks, narrowing his eyes.
"Um." Frank squints at the front door of the innocuous looking building; it's a Lab, apparently, for experimental gene therapy, funded by the Senate oversight committee and not the Consuls. He holds his wrist out to Spencer, and Spencer grabs it.
"Oh," Spencer says. "Well, but -- oh, okay."
Apparently, getting their people is only Phase One.
"Yeah," Frank says. "We've gotta talk to Alex. You and Bill I think, Brendon's already -- so like. Last night Alex and Mikey figured out how to expand the--" and then Frank stops talking, grabs Spencer's wrist again so they're not talking out loud.
They hold hands like some couple, Frank tugging Spencer ever-so-slowly toward a side entrance. They're both wearing what could be work clothing, or at least it's enough to make their approach go unnoticed by everyone. Spencer's gaze flicks up to the recording device near the entrance, but Frank gives him a mental shrug through the nanotech; their DNA is already on record, so what the fuck ever with their faces, right? Spencer hopes the damned thing hasn't already been given their faces as automatic-termination-on-sight, or at least that someone recently corrupted the recognition software.
What? Spencer sends, impatient. The clock is fucking ticking on whatever it is they're doing here, because he, Alex and Nate are going into the tunnels in a few fucking hours, and he doesn't even know *that* plan yet.
Frank glances up at the recording device, capturing sound, sight, smell, probably DNA as well. He bends down, pulling Spencer with him through their linked hands. Well, he sends through their inputs, the nanotech. Alex got fucked up right? So Mikey had to do some pretty fancy footwork to get him together again. That virus was trying to fuck up his DNA as well as the nanotech code, but with our mods not being in any database, the goddamned thing didn't know what to do with it. He pulls out a mini-tablet and thumbtool, brushes some dirt off a small flat metal panel in the ground beside the door. So. Between that and what they did to Victoria, Alex and Mikey actually figured out that we could use it in conjunction with Alex's network admin protocol, since his protocols are adaptive.
Motherfuck. Frank's busy plugging the mini-tablet into the square panel, but Spencer's not paying any attention. His job is the programming and any on-the-fly adjustments. Explosions aren't in his repertoire. He got it to change? He asks.
More like expand, check it out, Frank says, and then--
Yeah, so that's a mental map of every cy with their nanotech in a five mile radius coming through Frank's input. He swears, out loud, then -- okay, so then Frank pulls the map back and suddenly he knows where fucking everyone is.
Then Frank sends -- that's Alex, a few blocks over and laying his own explosives, hacking already complete at whatever facility he's playing around with, and now Spencer knows he's there he can sense his physical exertion, his careful movements -- Frank sends at him, <<Smith is good to go, you want to meet him right after this?>>
And fucked if Spencer doesn't hear in Frank's head, through their inputs, <<No after-effects?>>
Frank turns an appraising eye on Spencer; he purses his lips, waits. <<Nah. Smith's strong, his protocols work well together. Seems to be translating the additional data through his auditory cortex okay, and the map thing, fuck man, I have to close my eyes every time I try and use it. It's all good.>>
Spencer feels an affirmative from Alex, a nod or something, kind of a weird echo from the nanotech registering Alex's physical reaction and Frank's -- thing. Connection. Whatever.
Frank drops his hand, and murmurs, "okay, so we have about five minutes. Want to go for a jog?"
Five minutes before what, Spencer thinks about asking, but decides no, he doesn't want to know. There's a café down the street, Frank pointed to it while they were walking in and said "we're having breakfast there later," so he knows that's the destination.
It's just, five minutes isn't that long to get clear of the explosion that'll clearly level the building. "What about--" Spencer starts to ask, but then a low hum starts and the light above the door goes from red to green.
"Alarm. Some -- I dunno. Nate figured it out, just enough time for everyone, not so much they can figure out what's going on. It's an evac alarm at least, Alex rigged his for an hour from now," and then Frank starts jogging straight across the park to the busy street in front of them. Spencer huffs, following Frank slipping through the crowd. They're just rounding the corner when he hears it. Spencer's kind of glad that they got far enough away that he can't see or feel the intense heat, too.
They meet up with Alex, and Spencer can't quite believe that no one's coming to grab them. But then he's wearing something totally different, and Frank's in shadow. Spencer's first question to Alex is, "So. What fun did you get up to last night?"
Alex grins. "Why ask questions you know people won't answer?"
Okay, fair. Spencer says, "so why, exactly, am I getting an upgrade? Have I been volunteered for something without my knowledge or consent again?"
This time, Frank grins. "Why ask questions when you know the answer already?"
Okay. Also fair. Spencer takes the glass of water and downs it, because yeah, that was predictable. Alex watches him chug the whole thing, and blink, because not much changes. He still feels Frank's fucking twitching leg, bouncing in place, he can still feel Alex's physical exhaustion, pushed back with neural stimulants but lurking all the same.
"Come on," Alex tells him, "we have eight hours to fucking switch off, and I'm dead. And, listen--" Alex frowns, staring at Spencer for a long moment. "Tonight, dude, it's gonna be it. So if there's anything you want to say to anyone before the train leaves or we go into those goddamned tunnels, you're running out of time."
"Where are we going?"
"Gabe's place," Frank tells him. "It's risky, walking there, but we need to sleep and nowhere else is safe."
It's funny, but Spencer doesn't realize he's never seen where Gabe lives until they get to a warehouse in the same part of the city as the factory used to sit. Gabe answers the door looking like he's been awake for a million years, mirrored sunglasses firmly in place. Spencer sees a tremble in his hands. "Welcome, Smith," he says, "to the end of the world."
Yeah, okay, so it's kind of funny, referencing the first time they met, but Spencer's more interested in the bays behind him. "Hi," he says, "wake me in six hours." Six hours should give him plenty of time before the train leaves.
"Get the fucking bay to wake you, dude," Gabe tells him, "you think I'm not passing out now you're here? I was waiting for you slackers so I could open the door."
Alex says, "Gabe's door won't open to anyone but him, it's keyed to his DNA only, inside and out."
Spencer's kind of interested what kind of paranoia would put someone in the situation where they'd safeguard their loft so that people couldn't open the door from the inside as well as the outside, but he can feel the tremble in Gabe's hands passing to his own, and Alex is already stumbling. "Okay," he says. There are about a dozen bays, all but four already occupied. Spencer falls into the closest one, spares one glance for Alex to make sure he's getting in and not staying up to work or whatever shit. Then he closes the lid, and sets it to reactivate in time to leave.
"Time to go," Alex says.
Spencer stretches. Most of the bays are still locked; he, Alex and Nate are going in with hours to spare, though, even before the train starts moving, so it makes sense that the rest of the cys are sleeping as long as they possibly can. He hasn't had any of the prep work for this suicide run, after all; that was left to Jon and Ryan, to Victoria, the thousands of hours spent reprogramming and blinding and whatever.
Brendon is just stepping out of the bay near him. "What are you doing up?" Spencer says, surprised. He hasn't seen Brendon since, since. Spencer isn't sure, but he's pretty sure that Brendon has another hour before the predawn run on that silent train.
Brendon looks at him, serious, then he grabs Spencer's arm, his bicep. The nanotech doesn't tell him anything, the enhancements showing Brendon's map location but not his mind. "Be careful," he tells Spencer.
Spencer swallows. "You too."
part 16: they got a skin and they put me in
There's sweat dripping into Spencer's eyes, and his bioloop is throwing a fucking fit about it; absently, he shuts it off. His heart is hammering, and honestly this is probably the dumbest, scariest thing he's done.
Down the tunnel he can feel Nate laugh quietly.
His internal clock process tells him it's past seven-thirty; nearly at the end of their window of opportunity. Spencer stretches a minute, and the motion alerts the laser cannon at the top of the tunnel's entrance. Spencer hadn't believed Nate when he'd sworn up and down that the position marked 'Spencer' on their little napkin planning diagram would be beyond the reach of that cannon, but turns out they were right. Each time Spencer moves, a volley of badly-placed laser fire fails to reach him. He didn't think that's how lasers work, but the cannons aren't actually lasers or something, whatever. Spencer doesn't know anything about them other than they're basically silent, they sizzle the air, and whoever wrote the targeting code clearly did so as the lowest bidder. Apparently disarming or destroying them made more noise in security or something, too, so he's on point.
Spencer hunkers back down, ignoring the ache in his knees, and tries to pay attention to the reason he's really here: visual confirmation the guard station shift-change is over. They have maybe five minutes if luck holds, which, let's face it, their luck pretty much never does.
Spencer looks down at his hands; he's holding a trank pistol in his right and an EM pulse emitter in his left. In the case sitting innocuously at his feet is an honest-to-god solid-state rifle.
There's a ping above his head, and a shower of dust and cement falls into his hair. Spencer almost ducks out from behind the cover Nate rigged, but then Nate's serious <<do not fucking move,>> floats into his head, and so he doesn't.
Another ping, another shower of dust. The shot doesn't even sound like gunfire; it must be silenced something fierce. He thinks as hard as he can in Nate's direction; feels Alex nod in response because Nate's fiddling with fuses and can't reply even in his head.
Spencer knows the plan, and this is just the first part, the prelude to the real thing. All he has to do is occasionally return fire and successfully not die; they're in tunnel sixteen out of like twenty, hours into the fucking mission and not even at the hard part yet. Spencer feels Alex chuckle.
There's still sweat dripping in his eyes, but both pistols have auto-sights on them; he doesn't even have to look to fire. Spencer sticks the trank pistol out and depresses the trigger -- a muffled ping from down the tunnel and a return ping. He glances down at the solid-state rifle, and his chest tightens. He'd almost refused to bring it, but Gabe and Nate had insisted, so, well, there it is. He doesn't even know if he's got the balls to open the case, never mind use it on a real person, cy or organic.
Another ping, louder this time as if they're using larger ammunition, and closer to the crate. Spencer carefully stretches one calf, then the other. Alex grins in sympathy, and Spencer feels it in his cheeks. Spencer hunkers back down to wait.
Finally Spencer feels the little shiver as Alex sticks his hand, his input, into the hardline itself -- security rerouted, network AI monitors masked. Another shiver, just a little ripple on Spencer's forearm, then--
Something sails over Spencer's head, and Nate's warning barely comes in time; he's shuffling backwards, hands over his ears as the sonic grenade goes off. His bioloop offers to temporarily suspend auditory nerve functioning, and Alex tells him, <<do it.>>
Spencer knows Nate and Alex have another few minutes of the hack before the get through to the experimental lab level, but the sonic grenade (probably tuned to Alex's frequency) means now they know who they're dealing with. Alex's mind is finally on the network, probably lighting up every Authority terminal in the city, the first evidence of their rogue network admin. The masking they did on the way in -- transmitters and blinds installed on the hardlines themselves -- means they shouldn't know where he is, but they sure as fuck know he's active. Spencer grimaces as his loop turns the sound off on the world, then picks up his pistol and fires back a few times. He knows Nate wants him to start taking head shots, even with the laser pistol, since by now there are a fucking lot of fucking Authorities bottlenecking down that tunnel; and they're slowly moving into position to rush them. The hundred feet or so that Spencer felt between that junction and where he's curled up has slowly compressed to more like sixty or seventy, and the gap continues to narrow.
<<Start crawling back here,>> Alex tells him. Spencer's little mental map flashes up for a minute, showing where they're planning to breach into the sub-basement of the facility itself (hopefully right under where Gabe and Ryan need to break in: two, three floors down, but close enough to sense).
Spencer's nervous; he knows that Pete will take care of the blood-match monitor, and he knows that Gabe and Ryan are probably pacing impatiently in the little bubble made by the scan inhibitor they're standing beside for cover. He knows nothing's going to go wrong in getting these idiots into the lab. From where he's sitting him and Nate and Alex have the hard part, since they have to meet Gabe and Ryan three floors above. Spencer could voice his anxiety, his basic terror, but he knows it won't help and will probably unsettle Alex -- who's got the harder of their roles to play -- even more, so instead he just asks, <<How the fuck are we going to get through there undetected?>>
Alex is crouching by the partition of wall they're going to blast through, hands finally out of the hardline and ready to leave. There's a slight grimace on his face, a faint sheen of sweat. He sends to Spencer, <<Nate's not coming.>>
Spencer wants to ask what the fuck, of course, but Nate's unpacking the tiny charges that'll get them into the facility, placing them along two cracks in the worn concrete. Nate glances at Spencer, sends, <<dude, you can keep firing at them, you know,>> and Spencer glances behind him to see that the Authorities have gained ten feet, and set up some kind of mobile shielding points, while he wasn't looking.
Fucking fuck. He fires back, presses against the wall more tightly because now there's three of them tucked into a piece of cover really not big enough for one. The Authorities halt their progress, and they're still far enough away that they probably can't see what Nate's doing, so that's the most important thing. Nate detonates, and a shower of silent dust falls. Spencer's bioloop still has his auditory sense offline, which makes the whole thing fucking weird.
As Nate pushes the bits of crumbling concrete away, enough for a skinny dude to crawl through but not much more, Spencer gets a dizzying moment of nausea, disorientation. He swallows, fires at the Authorities wildly, almost absently, swallows again -- feels like he's going to dry-heave, throat working.
Nate sends, <<Alex, dude.>>
When Alex replies, <<sorry,>> Spencer realizes it was Alex's nausea, Alex's throat working.
It comes back slowly, a shivering fever -- sweat on Spencer's face this time -- and then the nausea, and so Spencer has a little warning to brace himself. He continues sending shots to ping harmlessly against the mobile shielding the Authorities have set up (with a sinking sensation in his gut that's all him as they slowly continue to inch forward). Alex is wriggling into the hole already. Spencer looks behind him at Nate, unpacking the rifle that Spencer couldn't use; Nate glances up, as he hooks the scope onto the rifle.
<<Are, but what-->> Spencer can't help but send.
Nate tilts his chin to the hole in the cement. <<Go. I'll seal it behind you so they don't know where we breached.>>
Spencer does as he's told, and heaves his way through.
Alex is standing on the other side; they're in a room that's part of the power generator, that much Spencer knows, but generators and fusion cells and shit was never his strong suit. He shakes his head, glances at the hole in the concrete, and watches as some kind of foamy substance slowly expands to fill it.
Alex moves his lips, but Spencer can't hear him -- he tells his bioloop to turn his fucking hearing back on, and catches, "--and yeah. So that's it. We're up."
Spencer wants to ask what the fuck plan was it to leave Nate on the other side, in the venting tunnels under the power grid; he wants to fucking hit something, do something about it, but Alex is still looking pretty green and bracing himself against the wall. "You okay?" Spencer asks.
<<Yeah,>> Alex sends -- mouth pressed closed against new dry-heaves. Spencer's throat works in sympathy, but he can't feel it as bad as the first time. Maybe Alex is trying to keep it from him, maybe Spencer's bioloop figured out how to filter some of it out. He doesn't know and right now he doesn't really care. <<Maybe Mikey isn't as good as we think he is,>> Alex sends with a smile that's more like a grimace.
He's scared, Spencer realizes, and then thinks, oh, this is why this is a three-person job, and not two. And they couldn't send Mikey; Mikey's their best maint, the only true reanimation doctor they've got. Spencer's good, but he's replaceable.
"Yep," Alex tells him, nausea passing for the moment. He steps away from the wall, closes his eyes briefly to consult the information in his head, then starts walking slowly to the back wall. "You're here to make sure I don't spew my involuntary motor control processors all over their nice ceramic floor."
As Spencer follows Alex through the dark winding equipment, Nate's just a faint spark behind his eyes; whatever the walls are made of down here is fucking with the nanotech. He can tell Nate's moving, at least, which means that the plan probably wasn't for him to make some kind of fucked up ridiculous stand and go out in a blaze of glory; Nate's too practical for that, thank Christ. Spencer grips his pistol until his knuckles hurt, because they're inching along the back wall, Alex looking for the door; but they have no idea who's down here, what the layout is. Alex cut the security network, has control of all calls, but there's still a chance that those down in the tunnels from the secondary guard station that Nate's playing tag with could have called on short-wave, on portable units.
As he watches Alex make his way along the wall, form barely visible in the available light, Spencer sends, <<do I have to carry your ass?>>
<<Fuck you,>> Alex shoots back. He eyes Spencer and -- Spencer can feel him forcing another wave of dizziness and disorientation down. Aloud, Alex says, "Let's go find Gabe before he gets himself shot. Again."
Spencer wants to ask about Nate, kind of wants to be let in on the grand plan for phase two and three and seventeen or whatever, but he doesn't say anything. First of all, Alex's point is pretty good -- Gabe is a fucking target for anyone with a solid-state rifle, especially standing anywhere in the same building as Pete -- and second, he's not sure he wants to know what phase seventeen of this little engagement is. Nothing's gone according to the original plan so far, and while it hasn't gone all to hell yet, there's still plenty of time.
Alex finds the seam of the door, pushes on it experimentally, and then says, "you'll find out soon enough."
"Took you long enough," are Gabe's first words.
Alex replies, "Fuck you."
Gabe turns the scan inhibitor off, looks around. "Where's Nate?"
Spencer can feel the anxiety as Alex replies with, "ran into a few problems downstairs, he couldn't make it through the breach. He's going back out the tunnels."
Gabe shrugs, moves confidently into the facility with Ryan a step behind. <<Why not tell him what's going on?>> Spencer can't help but send to Alex. <<Why keep him in the dark?>>
Alex has his nausea and his emotions clamped down so tight that Spencer can't even sense he's there. As an afterthought, Spencer tightens himself up, too. <<Because then he'd want to help, be in the thick of it. And we can't risk it.>>
They're making their way down familiar corridors toward the unmanned security office where Spencer watched Gabe find Victoria's ID the last time; he sure as fuck hopes it's still unmanned, though he's not gonna hold his breath. <<Gabe's a fair hacker, he's not bad with networks and he's pretty good with a bunch of other stuff. If it were up to his skills the dude wouldn't be irreplaceable at all.>>
Alex watches as Gabe breaks in, and as Ryan slips into the room first, before anyone says it's clear or tells him no one's going to shoot him if he does. Fuck, and now Spencer's gonna have to take a look at Ryan too, to make sure nothing's fucked up there. Goddamned.
<<So why's he with us at all? Pete could have broken Ryan into the database. Fuck, at this point *I* could have.>>
Alex follows Gabe and Ryan into the room, closes the door behind them. They're secure, for the time being, because this is nothing more than a shielded closet and a room full of highly protected network hardline hubs. <<No way he'd stay behind, even if we begged him to,>> Alex sends to him. <<He's really good at getting people to listen to him, that's what he's best at. So we can't lose him or Pete, no way, no how. But they won't fucking stay home, so we don't tell them about the rest.>>
Spencer glances at Ryan, tries to spy on Ryan's thoughts without Ryan having the enhanced nanos; it doesn't work, but Ryan glances right back at him, eyebrow raised. Okay, so he's been caught. <<Dude, how many people does this phase seventeen include, anyway?>> Spencer sends, without thinking about it.
<<A few,>> Alex tells him. <<You and Brendon are more like, phase fourteen.>>
Spencer leaves it alone. The more he knows the less focused he'll be, and he doesn't one hundred percent trust his bioloop to filter out everything to get the job done. Ryan's still an emotional ghost, but at least he's ripping through the database strings, matching ID tags to intake dates efficiently. It's not yielding any names, yet, but hopefully soon.
"Time?" Gabe asks. Spencer startles; he keeps forgetting that the other dudes have to speak out loud, that he's the only one that can hear what Alex sends in his head, the only one that can see Pete's little dot on the map, around the south entrance.
Alex replies, "time enough. But if you'd like to pick up the pace a bit, Ross..."
"Fuck you," Ryan says, flatly.
Spencer shakes his head a bit, ears still feeling a little waterlogged, sound muffled. The sonic grenade didn't fuck him up as much as it could have, but it's still weird, like he's hearing everything muffled. Maybe that's just part of being used to speaking in his head. Okay, so they're only on phase two, and phase two still requires speaking aloud. Right. "What am I supposed to be doing right now?" he asks -- facing Gabe, but of course asking Alex, because Alex is the one with access into the lab security networks, Alex is the one planning to--
<<Don't even think it around these fuckers,>> Alex warns.
Gabe answers, "wait. Once Ryan's got the basic database shell, we send a message to Pete to break in, while Brendon works on the Transit hub linking this facility to the train system, and Pete goes, I don't fucking know, but he needs to go up two floors. Once Bill brings the train in, you get to the warehouse and take your direction from Alex on opening bays and fucking getting people from the floor to the train. When Alex says to, you get on that train and you *leave*." Gabe flicks his sunglasses up to his head. "Alex can't mask the train entry forever."
Spencer can't turn to Alex, Spencer can't turn to -- Ryan glances at him, eyes narrowed, but Spencer puts every iota of his focus on sending at Ryan 'leave it alone', and thankfully, Ryan does.
Alex sends to him, <<well, mostly accurate.>> Spencer waits for additional information, because Ryan's getting close to being finished, and this is as quiet a time as they're going to get. Spencer can feel his heart pounding, and Gabe's heart pounding, and Alex's lungs wheezing painfully -- but there isn't anyone pounding on the door to shoot them in the head, so it's as good as they're gonna get. Alex sends, <<Someone's gotta have Pete's back; Pete's enhanced, but he's still a fucking idiot when it comes to the heart and we can't lose him. You're not opening bays, you and Ryan are going to find Brendon because I need Ryan and Jon and Victoria on the wider network and I need you and Brendon to watch Pete to make sure he gets out.>>
<<And you?>> Spencer asks, pretty sure he doesn't want to know.
Ryan's got the database search done; Alex moves toward him, sticks his input out. As Ryan plugs into Alex's wrist, Alex shuts down his connection to Spencer, shuts out everyone else. Spencer can feel him slowly recreate the database from scratch, linking into the hardline access he already has and syncing it with the stand-alone data Ryan pulled, finally finally connecting storage cell IDs to the resistance database. Spencer can feel the brilliant flash across his mind as Alex sends them an ID, experimentally -- testing to make sure that it's not gonna make their kids throw up or something.
Gabe flinches, says, "man, I'm never gonna get used to that."
Alex nods. He's still looking a bit green, but-- "I got you guys, and I got Pete across at the front entrance, so I can reach the entire warehouse."
Spencer feels Pete, a distant flicker as he works, but is instantly distracted by Gabe as he says, "Fan-fucking-tastic," then as picks up a portable honest-to-god radio -- an antique from the looks of it -- and says into it, "come in."
part seventeen: shouting up through cracks in the pavement
Alex can't leave the security office, so Ryan and Spencer are nominated to go let everyone up the elevator.
Gabe wanted to do it, of course, but Alex overrode him completely because, seriously Gabe, if anyone's going to be in the line of fire, it's going to be waiting at that elevator, and I can't have you shot tonight because if anyone sees you shot they're going to panic, and -- so that's why Gabe wants to go, of course, because Alex if you think I'm going to put a single person in more trouble than I myself am in you are out of your goddamned mind--
Alex won, of course, because while they were hissing at each other Ryan grabbed Spencer's wrist and pulled him out the door. They darted between racks and racks and racks of bays, Spencer's mental map watching Alex's dot get smaller and smaller. Concentrating on Pete's dot puts him a floor above, sitting in some kind of duct? Spencer thinks so, anyway. He can feel the ache in Pete's knee, vaguely, because he twisted up into some kind of pretzel to get into the crawlspace and now there isn't room to stretch back out again.
He still can't feel Nate.
<<What, Smith?>> Alex asks.
Spencer glances behind him, at Ryan, distant expression staring into the dark, barely registering anxiety. Ryan hasn't turned himself all the way off, yet, but he's close again. Goddamned. <<The train's late, so forgive me if I'm a little bit nervous.>>
A little bit nervous is an understatement; they're waiting at the opposite end of the warehouse, near the service elevator that leads to the tracks. Spencer can feel Alex feel him chewing his lip, making it bleed, a never-ending circle of; and he can feel Alex feel the hair on the back of his neck standing up, his lower back twinging because there's nothing behind it, they're completely exposed here, they're basically waiting to get shot. Ryan holds a pistol in his hand, loose. Spencer has the same. It's cocked at his hip, his hands are steady, but only because he has a fucking computer in his brainstem that can regulate what he's thinking and feeling, not because he's feeling particularly steady or calm.
<<Bill had to make a stop, I knew they'd be six minutes late.>> Spencer doesn't need to glance at Ryan's old-fashioned watch to know that they're hitting nine minutes. He can feel Alex counting in his head like a ticking metronome, Alex's processes keeping perfect score of seconds and his processes are in sync with the countdown. Every second they don't hear Bill on the radio is another chance to find out something went wrong.
Two crackles on the radio, and it could be static but Spencer can feel, *finally*, Brendon darting off the train like a bright light, like a flashbulb on his mental map, even a different colour than the others. Spencer has one moment to wonder whether that's because of the enhancements to the nanotech, because of Brendon's transit chip, or just because of Brendon.
Ryan glances back at him again, and smiles brief, a quick smirk. "Ye of little faith," Ryan says, and then pulls out his radio. "Peter pan, hurry the fuck up."
Pete's supposed to have the DNA scanners down by now, and if they can't disable them, everyone getting on that elevator are going to be as fucked as Spencer is for the rest of their -- for good. They can't do that to the kids, they just. No. If Pete doesn't show up in the next three minutes Spencer will get Ryan to hack the elevator and, maybe if they just short out the entire circuitry they can shut the entire power to the--
<<Fucking relax, Smith,>> Alex shoots at him, no longer amused. <<I need to concentrate and you're too close to shut out. So fucking calm down.>>
<<Why'd he make a stop?>> Spencer asks Alex, because his bioloop suddenly floods his nervous system with, fuck. Because Alex is giving his processors suggestions, and now his hands are steady again and he's calm but pissed off, what the fuck, Alex.
Alex pauses, and Spencer can see him do something to the network, like a flash of coloured lights at the corner of his eye. He actually turns to look, but as Ryan's eyes snap to him, Spencer shoves it all down with effort, because that bright light that he keeps wanting to chase with his eyes, that he can almost see to the right, means he isn't seeing what's in front of him. And so far no one's found them, but that won't last.
Alex finishes whatever rerouting he was doing, and replies, <<You're still alone in the warehouse. But you don't think Nate can keep security occupied on his own, do you?>>
Spencer swallows. <<That is so not reassuring,>> he tells Alex, but it doesn't make any difference because one, Alex didn't mean for it to be and two, Spencer can feel Pete hop down through a ceiling hatch onto the top bay of one of the racks closest the elevator.
"You're going to break your neck," Spencer calls up to Pete, and watches his steady fingers holding his pistol while Pete clambers to the floor.
"We're good," Pete tells them, and Ryan immediately sends the elevator down.
The kids are wide-eyed, scared, and their fear is like the buzzing of bees, or insects, in the back of Spencer's skull. He can tune it out, but he's already doing so many other things -- trying to keep one eye on Alex (still nauseous but holding it together), trying to watch Gabe (jumpy and angry but loud enough he's not listening to the mental whispers going over his head), and still trying to sense Nate in the basement (he comes and goes, once and a while a quick flicker like an old school monitor out of tune).
It takes them two elevators to get all the kids into the warehouse. Spencer stands to the left of the elevator in his ridiculous black clothes, Ryan and Pete silent beside him. Bill stays below, but another dude (holding a rifle) comes up, and once he slips away Gabe emerges from the security office -- oh, so now it's the other dude with Alex. Okay. Spencer lets out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Alex is protected.
<<For now, yeah,>> he tells Spencer. <<Hold it together, you and Brendon are almost free.>>
Gabe starts to address the crowd of kids. Spencer finds himself tuning it out. He listens to Gabe's emotions, to Alex's head, and the quiet in-and-out of Pete's barely-wheezing lungs and artificial heartbeat pumping, instead.
Right before Alex gets ready to transmit IDs, Brendon gives Pete a plain-looking plastic water bottle. Spencer winces (because reading Pete's gut is bad enough, reading his mind will just be--) as Brendon says, "Drink this."
Spencer can't decide whether the fact that Pete's already figured out how to mute his mental tone is reassuring (one, he is their go-to ghost in terms of security; two, Pete's mind loud and clear right now may not be the most helpful input to receive) or worrying (so, so many reasons Spencer can't focus on right now).
He glances down; the stairs they're climbing are built into one of the walls, the lab apparently in a loft overlooking the warehouse. The last time they'd been in here they hadn't come anywhere near this part of the maze of racks, so they didn't see the stairs.
Brendon and Pete are both enhanced, he can feel their little mental dots, he can taste adrenaline, he can even see and smell the strange input from Brendon's transit chip insisting that there's an unscheduled train below them. "Focus," Brendon murmurs.
Pete kneels in front of the door for a moment, then curses internally and kicks the door, right below the lock. The muffled 'thud' startles Spencer, and he's got his pistol up as someone yelps on the other side. It happens so quickly, the security guy opens the door, Brendon (standing to the right of the door as it opens) tags him.
"He'll live," Pete tells Spencer, and steps over the guy, drags him through the door. "Come on."
They let the door lock again behind them.
Spencer can hear distant sounds from the floor below, sporadic thuds, the hum of the elevator (as they drag people in and down), the constant beep of the security alarm (almost too quiet, too polite). He can't tell if it's because security still hasn't hit the warehouse, or because the lab is locked down, if the alarm would be louder in the warehouse, in the tunnels.
He can't sense Nate at all, can barely even feel Alex behind his eyelids. None of the kids register. Up in the experimental lab, it's eerily still, silent. Like the grave. A shudder goes up his spine, wholly his own, thinking about it. Most of the facility's steel, concrete -- meant to take the repeated abuse from heavy loaders and machinery. This room has the same kind of sterile ceramic tile as the generators. Their footsteps echoed, walking through the halls.
And then of course, this room had been occupied when they'd come in.
"You're sure you did it all yourself? No one else knows what's going on or how you did it? What about research assistants, lab help?"
Pete's voice is low, a growl. The guy is mumbling, swearing he can do the whole thing himself, there was only him and another technician in the project, and he quit remotely last week (Brendon's information, Spencer's maint process offers up helpfully), he can do it, of course he can do it, the pattern buffer is already online and queued up, see, there, only one pattern recorded and it's ready for transfer, it's all on this drive, he'll do anything you ask--
There's a soft blip as the drive registers a complete transfer of data. "See?" the tech's saying, "I did what you wanted--"
Only Brendon says, soft, "Spence," repeats it with, <<Spence, come on,>> and when Spencer still doesn't get it, Brendon's hand covers his eyes.
It does nothing to muffle the sharp crack of Pete's solid-state shot into the dude's skull, of course, or the fact that thanks to the nanotech, Spencer hears, feels, smells, tastes, and yes, sees, the shape of Pete's revenge against his closed eyelids in brilliant bursts of colour. But it's a nice thought.
Brendon's hand moves but Spencer keeps his eyes closed, for a moment, remembering Brendon reassuring him, promising that Pete doesn't just kill, not even--
Spencer takes another moment (his bioloop informs him he takes precisely two point four seconds) before two things happen: one, he lets what happened sink into his bones, not blood. Lets his trust in Pete push it down. Two, he starts to hear as a tickle in the back of his skull, but getting louder all the time, Alex cursing the server room he tries to wire himself into the hardline downstairs. Everything in the nanotech is screaming at Spencer that they're out of time. He opens his eyes.
Pete is staring at the both of them. He carefully puts the drive with Patrick's data under his shirt, next to his chest, and shrugs, eyes black, before saying, "they can't be allowed to resurrect what he did," and then, "now we can go."
Brendon and Spencer follow Pete back into the warehouse; they watch, hanging back, as another set of kids drags bays and sometimes staggering cys into the service elevator. The kids are all white-faced, shaking as badly as the released cys. Spencer can sense that Ryan's still in the warehouse, and Alex and the other dude are still in the security office, Alex sweating by now because he's still plugged into the hardline, nearly an hour of intense interfacing, and--
Alex sends, suddenly alarmed, <<Time's up, tell them to leave, Smith. Tell them all to leave now. And fuck, Pete, that means you too.>>
<<Did we get everyone?>>>
Instead of answering, Alex sends -- to everyone, Spencer thinks -- <<Now.>>
Brendon glances at Spencer, then calls out, "okay, we've got everyone. My last ID is -- Gabe, come on. Elevator's leaving, get your ass in gear."
A kid that looks all of twelve (Spencer knows he's more like eighteen, but goddamned) is dragging Tom behind him. Tom's coughing, looks terrible, and then Brendon's head snaps ups, says, "oh, wait, Tom, thank -- okay." Brendon grabs the kid's wrist, transfers Tom to Spencer's shoulder, and sticks his input into the kid's. The kid starts trembling. Brendon shakes his arm, presses his fingers into the kid's wrist so hard Spencer can feel it. "Give that to Bill, understand? You get it?"
The kid nods, white as anything, forgetting to breathe, and Brendon shoves him into the elevator. Pete's got his solid state pistol in his hand; he glances at Spencer and sends, <<I know there's still research upstairs, and if you think I'm going to leave, if you think I'm going to do this *again*, you are-->>
Alex is actually frightened, Spencer realizes, because he tastes the same as he did waiting for Pete and Gabe to come back the first time. He's got the same silence. Alex replies, <<Pete, christ, Nate just told me they've given up on the tunnels, they're headed upstairs. All of them.>>
Spencer knows what Pete's going to send before he sends it. Alex probably does too, and so it's a surprise to no one when Pete says, <<I don't care.>>
and Alex sends back, angry now, <<Jesus christ, then fucking take Brendon and Spencer and stay fucking quiet right now, because one of you or Gabe has got to fucking get out of here, one of you *has* to, and he's headed for the elevator.>>
Gabe rounds the corner next, and Spencer says, "hey," tries again for casual. "Hey, you took your time."
Brendon doesn't look at Spencer when he says, "we've got one more ID each, we're going to release'em. Everyone else is already on the train, so take these kids, they don't have anyone with them."
Gabe looks ready to protest; Spencer sends, <<Brendon, he's not going to leave,>> but Gabe, of course, doesn't get a chance because Brendon shoves Gabe onto the elevator and slams the door closed.
Tom hacks again, and Spencer puts a hand on his throat, feeling the pressure there. He connects to Tom's input, blocking Tom from everything in his processes, just testing Tom's nervous system. There's a blip in his lungs that, okay. But Mikey knew how to fix this wheezing, it's a workaround on the code for regulation, it has something to do with -- and Spencer has that download so he shoves it into Tom's chip, hoping that whatever hack the Authorities made to Tom's breathing Spencer doesn't fuck it up completely, that he doesn't stop his lungs altogether.
"Jesus," Tom says, and Spencer goes a little limp feeling the wheeze, feeling the virus in Tom's processor flush itself out and his lungs settle into an easy rhythm, "who the fuck are you?"
Brendon replies, "welcome back. Alex needs another codebreaker. Now."
"Alex, what the holy fuck are you doing still inside?"
Spencer actually can't believe it took Gabe this long. He keeps moving, following Brendon's back as they wind their way through the ducts Pete memorized so long ago.
His phone implant bypasses Alex's security easily; Alex, the other guy and Victoria are still in the security office, Tom a variable blip as he recovers from the stasis bay and tries to keep the hack together. Huh. Victoria must have slipped out of the train after her and Gabe were through. Spencer suddenly feels Nate in the periphery, which means Nate's out of the tunnels and making his way up to the warehouse.
Spencer can hear Alex's reply through the nanotech as well as the radio: "meet us where you first met Nate, dude, in about--" there's a pause where Spencer takes a breath, licks his lips, and then, "yeah, three hours."
Gabe took the train out, actually stayed on the train thank god, because on his mental map the little you-are-here that is overloaded with cys has Gabe's blinking dot moving fast away in the opposite direction, with most of the other little blinking dots. Spencer doesn't have to feel him through the nanotech to imagine Gabe's face when he says, "you fuckers better know what you're doing, because if something goes wrong and I'm not there to haul your sweet asses out..."
Alex laughs into the radio. Spencer can still sense Alex, through the nanotech, and he's actually scared (Spencer can sense the Authorities slowly filling the warehouse, and knows Alex has every reason to be) though his voice didn't show it. <<I hope you guys know what you're doing,>> he sends to Alex.
After a moment, <<Me too,>> comes through.
So it's at about step eleven or twelve that things start to go horribly wrong.
Spencer can hear Nate cursing in his head, sporadic fire where him and Alex are bunkered down in the security office two floors down. He can feel the train pulling away, inch by inch to try to avoid detection, Gabe cursing a lot louder than Nate.
<<Alex...>> Spencer sends, because he and Brendon and Pete missed the train as they checked the bays in the other labs, time-releasing any cys they find and corrupting research data, but that's not the biggest problem because he has faith the two of them can still get Pete out.
No, what's starting to worry him is the other vehicles starting to ping on the computer system, and down the line from Bill that bright blinking line that signals another train.
Alex shoots back, <<yeah. I'm out of ideas, kid, and, look. Take Pete and-->>
<<No fucking *way*,>> Spencer bites out. His hands are steady, removed from the sudden terror that's Alex telling them to leave him and Nate. And, christ, Tom and Victoria are still with them, too, and the other guy, Spencer hadn't even learned his name.
<<Listen, Mikey's on that train and if he doesn't-->>
<<The train, fuck, Alex, they've got another one coming.>>
Alex sounds tired, exhausted even. He feels it, too. <<That means someone got a signal out. Stop arguing. Get *out*. Nate and I aren't gonna -- we're gonna have to crack that tunnel the minute our train makes it.>>
Cracking the tunnel, Alex implies, with him and Nate in it, which is so not going to -- Spencer shudders, thinking desperately, then glances down at the train, still so slow. The public junction seems a long way off from where they are. <<What if they don't make it?>> Out loud Spencer says, "Brendon, is Bill gonna make it out ahead of the other train?"
Brendon's face screws up, his peculiar chips interfacing with the ever-present wireless transmitters the transit systems use. "No. Maybe." He opens his eyes. "Probably not."
<<*Fuck*>> Alex comes back with -- then he hears Alex say it out loud, echoed in his head, frightened half to death. Spencer knows better than to interrupt, Alex that afraid, so he clamps his lips closed as if that'll help prevent him yelling out in his head. <<They tagged Nate,>> Alex sends after a few seconds. <<I think he'll be resuscitable, but. And now Ry and I are sitting here with a bleeding body instead of a sniper, and Victoria and Tom aren't finished yet, and.>>
Spencer says, "we're gonna have to get moving in a second, guys. They tagged Nate, so they're stuck. We have to get them into the waste tunnels, they should be protected enough from the blast."
Brendon narrows his eyes, but Pete snaps, "blast from what?"
"Cracking the transit tube the minute Bill gets clear," Spencer says. "We just have to buy some time."
<<Smith, we can't. Tom and Victoria, if they don't finish what they're. Look. I can't leave yet, I just can't.>>
Spencer runs his metal hand through his hair in frustration, because nothing could be *simple*, could it. <<How long before you're done hacking whatever you're trying to hack? How much time do we have to buy?>>
"Ten minutes, maybe a few more, before Bill's clear," Brendon murmurs, as Alex adds, <<I need another fifteen or twenty, minimum.>>
<<Well, it's not that hard to break down,>> Pete interjects. <<No matter what, we have to crack the tube to stop that second train in ten to fifteen minutes.>>
Spencer says, "and how, then, are we going to leave?" at the same time as Alex shoots off,
<<and then what do *we* -- I include yourselves in that merry band of fucked-to-hell, by the way -- do? If we've cracked the tube, even if we do avoid getting tagged by the Authorities until after Tom and Victoria are finished, we can't go out through the tunnels.>>
Pete shrugs. He sends, <<I'm open to suggestions.>>
This wasn't even close to a good idea. "I'm just gonna say it again, this isn't even close to a good idea."
Spencer shrugs. It isn't, but one could argue the whole thing was a colossally bad idea, so.
The three of them are holed up in the administrator's office for now. It's got full system access, it has a portable Connect panel, and best of all it's reinforced.
"Are you sure--" Brendon begins, and Spencer shakes his head, impatient. He has to *focus*, all his enhanced signals and nanotech and processors concentrating on getting Ryan to hear him.
Finally, he can feel Ryan buzzing in the back of his head, curious, wary, and a big chunk of fear. It means Ryan's emotional matrices are back on, thank god, and--
"Yeah, I've got him. Him and Jon are in the last car, they're, yeah, they can slip off the train, there's an access hatch that'll get them into the building about -- yeah," Spencer says, "They're back inside. Sub-basement, the other side of the complex from us, shielded from the tunnels too. They've got hardline access and the Authorities are mostly focused on the warehouse, now." He adds, <<No one's even watching the tunnels anymore. Especially not those ones -- it's right by where we came in, and so where Nate collapsed the tunnel around himself.>> Alex doesn't say anything for a minute, and Spencer asks, <<how is he?>>
<<Stopped bleeding, means his heart's been stopped a while. We need to get him into a bay.>> A pause, in which Spencer can feel Alex's shot hit some guy square in the chest. <<I've got his rifle, we're slowing them down some. But if Ryan and Jon can-->>
Pete's frowning over the console he's examining. "Alex needs a distraction, right? And an empty bay, and enough chaos to slip them and a full bay out of the warehouse on the ground floor."
"If he can reach Ryan, I can give them access to the warehouse physical security protocols from here." Pete shakes his head. "I mean, seriously. With the administrator unlock, we have the access to reroute the entire grid in here."
<<I can reach him, now he's back in the building. Short message, anyway.>>
"For some reason, I can reroute from here, but not access the functioning. Ryan, on the other hand, if he and Jon can find an open security terminal that won't disturb Tom and Victoria, it should be enough to get into the bay protocols."
Spencer hears himself ask, "so what's Ryan gonna do with this newfound access?"
Pete grins his shark's grin. "Open the rest of the bays."
So yeah. It seems like an even better idea that they're holed up in the Administrator's office, now. Spencer closes his eyes, tries not to buzz and buzz and buzz with fear. The security office downstairs isn't reinforced, and Jon and Ryan are sitting out in the open. In the shadows, sure, but still. And they're not even enhanced. Spencer can only sense their concentration, their singular focus, and hopes like hell that at least one of them is still armed.
part eighteen: the breath that passed from you to me
Apparently, releasing confused, potentially violent cys onto even a small force of Authorities could cause panic among troops. Who would have known?
Spencer feels vaguely ill, because he can see muzzle flashes in the upper bays that are probably those cys too high to get out of the bays being gunned down. He keeps trying to tell himself that they're not taking head shots (they don't seem to be, not in the warehouse), but he only succeeds in telling himself that they're not taking head shots *yet*.
<<They've backed off,>> Alex sends. Even his mental voice sounds hoarse. Spencer doesn't answer, because he can tell that it's taking all of Alex's concentration not to lose the hardline altogether, and that they've stepped up their network attacks. <<Pete can go deal with the tube.>>
<<Are you sure that-->>
Pete swivels around, says out loud, "I am not going to go out in a blaze of glory, Spencer." His eyes are soft, and he smiles for a moment. "Though I'm all mushy over your concern."
Brendon winces, but just mutters, "about two minutes before Bill's through."
Pete claps them both on the shoulder, and slips out. "Ready to go?" Spencer asks Brendon. His voice only wavers a little. They're supposed to go find Ryan and Jon, and get ready to leave through the goddamned front door (where Pete came in over an hour ago).
They slip down the lab stairs, the upper portion of the facility still eerily silent. Spencer can't help but send to Alex, <<So do I get to hear about phase seventeen yet?>>
Spencer's mostly joking but kind of not. Alex chuckles. <<Just watch.>>
<<Dork-->>> but then he watches what Alex is doing, the corner of his eye suddenly taking over his visuals. He's walking down the silent hall at the same time as he's Alex. Alex, who's rerouting the ID database -- no. Alex who is rerouting *every* ID database. Ever.
Spencer puts one foot in front of the other, sees his own feet at the same time as he watches Alex's access to the whole network, and sees it: the ID database is, it's just, nonsense, strings of characters in all sizes, one entry a quote from ezra pound. He glances at Brendon, eyes wide, and-- <<How far does the junk go?>>
Through the nanotech he can feel Alex shrug. <<I think I got it all. I guess there could be local backups in a few private companies too poor to be connected twenty four seven. Frank'll take care of them as they come back online, he's ready.>>
Basically, they have no IDs any longer. No rebuild database. No must-cremate list. No DNA record of his face and his exploits and death and life. Spencer could stick his input into any monitor he wanted and have no issue. Gabe's forged ID code is now as legitimate as anyone else's.
Spencer lets his view of Alex fog out again, and the reality in front of him swims back into focus just a little too late. Brendon's behind him a bit, focusing on bypassing the set of security doors. The shot comes out of nowhere, and something in Spencer snaps, freezes, as he smells the ionization from some Authority's laser rifle down the hallway. Spencer can't move, all his systems in overload and his processes taking over. He pivots, whips out the laser pistol, and shoots the Authority manning it right between the eyes.
The world stops, for a moment, Brendon watching him carefully as he's still ripping through the DNA scanner at the door. Spencer's bioloop is screaming at him, drowning out everything. He drops his arm, after a second, is horrified to notice his breathing hasn't even changed. The shot was almost *easy*. The nanotech shudders, shivers, he breaks out into a sweat. Absently, he shoves at his bioloop, forcing it to calm him down.
"Spence?" Brendon asks, finally.
Spencer shakes his head, a sharp refutation. Brendon looks like he wants to say something else -- the nanotech yelling at him, Brendon literally biting his tongue -- but he doesn't say anything else.
After a second, Brendon's tablet beeps. Spencer says, "come on."
They leave Pete in the sub-basement to find Ryan and Jon standing, silent, at the last set of lab doors. Two Authority uniforms are at their feet, the ubiquitous metal helmets shielding Ryan and Jon's faces from view but the nanotech singing out friend, not foe.
Spencer dresses in his borrowed uniform quietly. He can still hear what's going on in the warehouse, but what he cares about (Alex's little dot, with three others, moving to the side entrance where the, oh, *oh*. Alex is headed for the scan inhibitor, oh thank god, okay, oh) he knows deeper, under his skin, into his muscles and nerves and joints and bones.
"Hey," Ryan says quietly when they show up, but he doesn't say anything else. Spencer snaps the helmet on -- it's a bit too big, and it makes his head feel like it's wobbling on his neck too much -- but with it on, no one can tell them from anyone else. At least, hopefully.
Jon gestures with the laser rifle in his hand. "There are trucks outside," and Brendon nods, adds,
"We can take the tracks out once we're around the second building, is what I thought."
Spencer keeps expecting something else to go wrong, but he senses Alex, finally *finally* dipping into relief so sharp it almost makes Spencer cry out, as he disengages from the network, and again he senses when they reach the scan inhibitor and go dark all at once. Because the truck only takes two in the cab, Spencer clambers into the back, feeling the joint in his lower back scream out at the way he hits it on the steel wheel-well.
The ride's bumpy the whole way, he and Brendon sitting on the metal truck bed and gripping the sides, Jon driving carefully in the pitch dark, first through winding drive ways and, eventually, down abandoned train tunnels and back into the city. Every once and a while he'll catch the inactive rail, and the high shriek of metal on metal drives into their ears.
Eventually they ditch the truck and the uniforms, and start to walk. Brendon directs the whole way, and when they finally reach the t-junction in the tunnel, Spencer's surprised to realize he recognizes this intersection of water and power tunnels. They're somewhere under Gabe's apartment, he thinks, or maybe across the street.
The basement's nothing special, though there are a lot of bays (most lit up, some blinking orange), and they're all stacked haphazardly against one another. Spencer almost reels, almost throws himself into one, abandons his curiousity and his fear and anger and hope and everything to put himself under for a few minutes.
Brendon grabs his elbow. "We were the last ones back, they're about to start."
Spencer inhales, exhales, and pulls his aching body up the stairs.
Spencer knows without a shadow of a doubt, beyond reason or practicality, beyond victims' rights and beyond anything he'd ever desired before, any yearning, anything he'd ever felt himself -- Spencer knows at this moment that whatever he ends up losing is worth it.
The nanos -- that were dormant in Pete's dead body; then, slowly woke up while they rebuilt him, tickling the back of Spencer's throat as he'd joined Pete's limbs back together -- the nanos. jesus.
Spencer can't help it; he knows everyone else has the same shaking hands, the same rush, the fucking roar of sensation. He knows everyone can feel Pete, everyone has that buzzing drowning out their own inputs along the network, humming and cracking through each receptor in each nerve ending in his body, in everyone's body, all of them reacting to Pete's smile, a rushing in his ears and head and.
For the first time since Spencer got the nanos -- maybe the first time since he found out about the stupid revolution, maybe since he was rebuilt -- he's feeling pure joy.
Pete stands on his new, wobbly legs, and wraps his still-malfunctioning arms around Patrick's shoulders tight.