Chapter 1: Savior
Most of the laboratory and battle room below had survived the destruction of the house.
Igarashi promised the 00 cyborgs that their involvement with the Blessed incidents would be stricken from the records if they so wished and they were free to return home. He even offered to send help and supplies to repair the destroyed house, which they denied, adamant they could fix it themselves, as they always had.
They knew he was trying to make up for the events best he could, but with a third of their number lost, the cyborgs couldn't be gracious. Wouldn't be.
They returned home, sinking the Dolphin 3 back into the dark waters and oppressive silence where they could no longer avoid their mourning.
Francoise wept. Great Britain made overdramatic, improvised eulogies to make the others laugh while still honoring his comrades, but the jokes fell flat. Chang made too much food that nobody ate, locked away in the Dolphin 3's galley. Geronimo would go above to sit in contemplation in the shadow of their former home. Pyunma alternated between doing repairs on the Dolphin and clearing the wreckage of the house, mostly by angrily kicking things over. Ivan slept on. Gilmore sat alone in his lab, staring at the pathetic remains of Jet Link they'd managed to recover.
When the UN Guardians recovery teams swept through the streets of New York, collecting all tech to protect their assets, Igarashi granted the cyborgs access to the restricted areas and the remains that they could search for their friend. They still had hope Jet was merely damaged and offline, but even that was denied them as they collected broken, charred pieces among the remains of the Savior Tanks.
Jet had been built with a reinforced head, neck, and back to withstand the stresses of flight, but among the wreckage Gilmore salvaged his mid and lower spine in pieces, useless slag that could not be saved even on its own. This and both Francoise and Ivan's inability to contact Jet in any way finally made them all accept that he too was lost.
They made no graves, did no funeral. They mourned and rebuilt their house.
The house that was now too big, but they couldn't bear to remove the extra rooms.
The closest neighbors were fifteen miles away but came to check on them and lend them their truck. They didn't ask the cyborgs what happened, but they did ask if Joe would be around in three months to housesit when they went on vacation. Joe always went over to care for their dogs when they were gone while Jet tagged along sometimes and drank any beer that wasn't hidden away. Geronimo said Joe might be busy.
After a day of work they would retire to the battle room and sit and eat in silence as long as they could before the question no one wanted to ask came up, but it always did.
"What do we do now?" Pyunma asked, his voice tired, but more so from the weight of the question than from exhaustion.
No one said anything, as was custom, until GB finally sighed in annoyance and set down his cutlery.
"Maybe it's best we go our separate ways again for now. Regardless anyone's intentions, people know where we are, and we're in no shape to handle anymore world-saving bollocks."
And none of them could stand to sit here with such obvious empty spaces at their table.
"We should finish the house first," Francoise said quietly.
"Why? What difference does it make?"
"Because it's our house. And in case Joe…" she trailed off, her voice shaking.
The question was left unanswered and the next morning they went back to work on the house.
The team ran out to meet them, enveloped their returned friends in a mass of hugs and tears and cries of "How? How?" before Joe and Albert were rushed to the laboratory for repair.
Joe couldn't answer very well. He didn't even know himself. He'd been going so fast, the world and time so far behind him, and he had nothing but regret for the loss of Albert and had suddenly seen him so clearly in his mind, that moment they said goodbye for good, that space opened up before him and there was the station, heading towards its doom. That too melted away until there was only Heinrich, and when Joe reached out for him he gripped solid armor, Albert's eyes widening in bewilderment as Joe appeared. They stayed until the last minute, accomplishing the mission while Joe buzzed in acceleration still and tied Albert's limbs to himself, then time and space opened up again and he took Albert with him. It was hazy after that, but Joe thought of home and cut the accelerator and they crashed into the desert, normal time slamming into them harder than the ground.
Joe knew he'd been lucky, not only in rescuing Albert but making it home at all. His newfound power was still alien to him, uncontrollable, and that yawning, silent void awaited him, and that terrified him more than death, more than anything Black Ghost or Emperor or anyone could have ever done to him. He couldn't tempt that.
Francoise wrapped her arms around him, her face buried in the crook of his neck, and whispered, "You won't have to. You're home, we're safe."
She kissed him then, long and deep, before moving to Albert and embracing him as well, unable to stop the tears. The rest of the team congratulate them and pat them or took their hands, unable to stop touching them and affirming their existence.
"I'm alright, I'm alright," Albert chuckled, not minding when Francoise sniffed and wiped her nose on his scarf.
"You're in pieces," Chang muttered.
"Could be worse, just ask our resident explosive…" he trailed off, brow furrowed as he scanned his team.
Joe also noticed the absence, sitting up and looking around the expanse of the lab, frowning.
The collective silence said enough and Joe knew, but still he refused to accept the implication and pressed, asking again, "Where is he?"
"Joe…" Francoise began, her voice weak. They knew Albert wouldn't have known, but Joe… No one told him. They were in the midst of fighting for their lives, for the world, and Jet's life or death became secondary; they would deal with it later, tell Joe later. But then Joe disappeared too.
Pyunma took over. "We were in Battle with the Guardians. Jet and Igarashi took down Director Maximoff together, but Jet was caught in a missile blast." A clinical, simple explanation of what had happened, but Pyunma knew at this point his two friends had stopped really listening.
Albert looked away, face twisted in pain. "Reckless idiot…" he whispered.
"No," Joe said, "Just a missile? That wouldn't…Gilmore could repair him! Why didn't you…!"
"I tried!" Francoise cried, tears running down her face, "I tried to get to him but he wasn't there and you were in trouble and I…" She reached for him, but Joe gently moved aside her hands and stood from the cot.
"No," he said again, "I'll save him. I'll go get him right now."
"Joe, don't." Albert's voice was rough and he wouldn't look at them. "We were gone for weeks and barely made it back. Don't risk yourself. He wouldn't want that."
Joe gazed at his friends, his family, saw their worry and acknowledged it and then pushed it aside. "I'm going to save Jet, and he can tell you all what he'd want himself."
Francoise gave one last plea as he ran out of the room, heard the whine of his accelerator as he made it topside, then he was gone.
"You think he can do it?" Chang asked, voice loud in the silence.
"I hope so," Francoise said. She took a breath, collecting herself, and turned to Albert. "Let's get you back on your feet while we wait for them to come back."
When he didn't respond, she reached out and gently turned his face to her, "I'm sorry, Albert, but let's put our faith in Joe. He pulled off this miracle, and we all know how stubborn Jet can be. They'll be back here and driving us all up the wall in no time."
"There can only be so many miracles," he muttered as Gilmore pushed him back to prep him for repair.
Francoise ran to him, caught him as he sagged. She'd spent those two days waiting on the porch, going inside only when Gilmore needed her help or for meals.
"I can't find him," Joe gasped, "I don't understand."
"Joe, you're exhausted, come inside."
"No, I have to get him. When did it happen? When did he die?"
"After you left, we flew to New York to help you. We were in battle there's no way I can…Joe, please."
He shook his head and pushed to his feet. With a grunt he activated the accelerator and vanished from Francoise's sight. She sat down to wait again.
It was five days when he reappeared, on his hands and knees half a mile from the house, shaking and coughing as bile leaked from his mouth. Francoise called for Geronimo to help her bring him back but again Joe refused, forcing himself to his feet.
Francoise grabbed him and held him fast. "Joe, stop! Please!"
"I have to get him back."
"It was a miracle what you were able to do, to save Albert and to come back! Don't kill yourself for nothing! Jet wouldn't want you to die!"
"He didn't give up on me!" Joe yelled, pushing her away, "Not with Black Ghost, not with His Voice! I'm not giving up on him!"
"Joe," Geronimo's deep voice was calm, "you can't save everyone."
Glaring, Joe staggered away from them. He doubled over, groaning as sparks crawled over him, then lurched forward and accelerated away.
Geronimo made sure Francoise came inside this time.
Two weeks later Joe dropped onto the ground near the road, his accelerator shot and his power reserves nearly depleted. He was alone.
Watch your feet.
Joe sat up, startled, to find Ivan sitting on the bed, regarding him. He sniffled and rubbed at his eyes. "Sorry. How long have I been out?"
About a week. You nearly killed yourself, Gilmore was actually worried. You're fine now, and your accelerator is repaired.
Ivan's image became watery as tears rolled down Joe's face. He couldn't help the hitch in his voice as he said, "I couldn't do it. I tried, over and over again…"
You can't save everyone, Joe, I told you.
It's possible since Jet's death occurred outside your timeline you'll never be able to find him. Moreover, if you attempted to get him when you did last see him you would alter events that have already occurred, and we don't know if you are even capable of that.
"I saved Francoise and Albert."
What happened to Francoise occurred in that moment and was still changeable. Albert was on the space station, removed from events and had he stayed his being would have been erased with no influence or presence. When you took Emperor you removed him from our time, but you changed nothing that had already occurred.
Ivan sighed. He hid it better than his comrades, but his sorrow was no less than theirs, possibly even greater as he felt his teammates on levels they couldn't comprehend and their absences formed holes deep within himself, twisting and insatiable.
To save Jet would not only alter events but would demand removal of physical evidence. Albert would have vanished as though he never was. Emperor was simply removed. We have Jet's remains, Joe. Physical proof of what has occurred.
Joe looked away, his fingers twisting in his bedsheets. "I can't save him."
I'm sorry, I wish you could. But as long as we've lived, with all the battles we've fought, it's amazing we haven't suffered a loss before this.
"Too many miracles."
"Can I see him?"
Ivan hesitated. Go eat something first, you were malnourished when we found you, like you'd been gone for months. I'll get Gilmore. Joe…there's not much left of him.
The tears came back, dropping onto Joe's hands. "At least we'll have something to bury this time."
Chapter 2: One Year
"I don't think we should bury him."
The team glanced up from their quiet meals to Chang, poking at his own food like it was uninteresting. They didn't have to ask who he meant. It had been days since Joe's recovery and Jet's remains were still in the lab, untouched.
"What if we have to leave again? It'd be…" he ducked his head, aware how silly he sounded, "It'd be like leaving him behind."
"It's not really him," Gilmore sighed, "just some remaining cybernetics." What had been left of Jet himself had been incinerated in the blast, burned in the ensuing fires, or was nothing more than dripping paste still clinging to the damaged machinery.
Geronimo sat back, arms crossed in a dichotomy of strength and softness carried in his voice. "We should melt them down. Put his remains on the Dolphin somewhere, then he can come with us. He can still fly. It would be cruel to leave him in the ground."
So instead of a funeral and a grave, Gilmore melted the remaining cybernetics down into a flat, tapering point akin to a feather. This Francoise hung in the Dolphin's cockpit where she had once, long ago, hung a silly little dolphin trinket in their first transport.
"Nobody get themselves killed trying to get to that if we're shot down," Albert said, mostly looking at Joe, "If someone got hurt doing something so stupid Jet would come back from the dead just to kick all our asses."
"I'd be okay with that," Joe said, the slightest twitch in the corner of his mouth.
Albert chuckled, and with that they left, one by one, giving one last goodbye, before returning to the house. And that was that.
For all his own bouts of moping, Jet hated it when others languished, so the team granted him one last favor and did not do so. They went back to work on the house. With their number back to eight, plus Gilmore, the speed at which they worked increased and the house was once again livable within a month. Jet's presence or lack-there-of did not vanish as quickly, and Albert caught himself several times absently asking for him to do some random task or to go the hell to bed when the television was left on late by accident.
Joe had his own room. He'd been sharing with Jet for years and in any other case he would have cheered at having his own space because Jet had apparently made it his mission in life to be the worst roommate ever. Joe attempted to strangle him at one point. It didn't quite work when one was a cyborg so Joe didn't feel that bad about it. Jet smothered him with a pillow and then sat on him later for vengeance.
Joe wondered why he'd ever wanted to go back to being a high schooler when he lived with a twelve-year-old.
The 00 cyborgs were enjoying their weekly movie night when Joe brought up the room issue.
"You're all still sharing; I shouldn't get my own room."
"Consider it leader's perks," GB said, tossing up a piece of popcorn and catching it perfectly in his mouth.
Francoise came to his room more often at night, but did not relocate there. For all that the two knew they were together, and everyone else knew it, their cybernetic immortality relieved them of any pressure to act on that intimacy and both enjoyed their own space long term, so Joe remained alone.
That constant reminder of Jet's loss was too much to bear, so Joe denied it.
The team had split for years at a time before, their longest during those thirty years, but the knowledge that the others were out there was enough, so Joe fell back on that.
Jet was pissed off at them again and went back to New York, because Joe would rather Jet hate them than be gone. He told himself that every night until a part of him believed it. Jet was fine, he just wasn't here.
It wasn't a healthy mentality and Joe knew it, but he clung to it nonetheless. His room was empty because Jet would come back someday.
Maybe someday, when Joe was ready, he would accept reality. Until then, he wrote Jet letters. He wrote about what they'd done with the house, about the neighbors' dogs' new puppies, and how great it was to have a room to himself. He wrote Jet to say that he missed him, and how sorry he was that he couldn't save him. These letters were sent with no return address to be lost in the system and finally disappear.
But even these bouts of denial became few and far between and then eventually stopped.
The question had been put aside for half a year as the team reinstated themselves back into their home, but now quiet domesticity had replaced rebuilding, both literal and mental, and they fell back to their old routines.
Geronimo glanced up from his work only briefly. The eastern part of the shore of their lake had been crumbling after a nasty rainstorm and the fifth cyborg was planting trees to help reinforce the ground.
"What's wrong with what we're doing?"
"Peace never lasts long for us."
"I suppose not."
"I guess it never lasts for anybody. It's like an ideal to be chased but never attained so long as someone out there doesn't know it. Peace for all or none."
"If you're going to get philosophical on me I need to go grab a coffee first."
"Way ahead of you," Pyunma said and held out a thermos.
"Oh damn," Geronimo muttered, accepting the drink. He wasn't much of a coffee drinker, generally avoiding caffeine, but it was a cold morning and Geronimo preferred to get up before dawn to do work. By the time he collected his materials and meandered out to the lake the sun was rising. If anything it got him away from the rest of the team who were not morning people, save Chang who was so much a morning person it even disturbed Geronimo.
Pyunma had met him in the kitchen. Years of working on archaeological digs had conditioned him to be up with the sun but lately he had little to do so he kept his friend company and occasionally helped. That was fine by Geronimo who enjoyed doing things his own way sometimes, and the rest of the team didn't know anything about planting trees the best way, especially in this environment. So Pyunma set up a chair and talked or just enjoyed the sunrise while Geronimo worked.
Taking a long sip of coffee and letting the heat spread through him, Geronimo set the thermos aside and went back to patting the earth around a sapling. "So, peace, you were saying."
"Just considering what we are, and that that there are people out there who know what we can do, does it really matter if we try to stay out of things? Eventually something's going to happen in the world and people are going to come crashing in our door whether we like it or not. We thought we could avoid it and look what happened. We weren't prepared."
They'd set up defenses, made an escape plan, and had their gear and the Dolphin 3 always ready for launch just in case, that they could handle, but they hadn't been ready to get back into the fight. Joe was right in trying to find out more about the Blessed and whether or not they should get involved, but he'd hesitated too long otherwise with the Guardians and the active Blessed. When war comes to you, you can't contemplate the peace you had, you have to fight. But Pyunma had grown up with that and hoped often that those who didn't could prove to him otherwise.
"We can't prepare for everything." Geronimo stood, dusting off his hands and walking to the truck to get the next sapling.
"No, but we can't sit around and wait for things to come to us and hope for the best either. So, what do we do now?"
"Are you asking my opinion or just talking through your thoughts?"
Pyunma shrugged. "Both."
Leaning against the truck, Geronimo stared out over the lake, watching the rising sun ripple on its surface. He was quiet for many minutes and Pyunma relaxed and wait, enjoying the view. Geronimo didn't talk much, never had, but not for lack of opinion. He spoke when he had something to say and was ready to say it; wasting words stuttering over an idea not fully formed just sullied the air and led to confusion, and the truth was some of the others on the team talked enough for all of them.
"I think," he began, "that there are very few people in the world who have our experience and still have the ability to act on it. I think there are even fewer who can match our combined abilities, our various cultural understandings backed by near-universal translators, and the ability to get almost anywhere in the world relatively quickly without any red tape to hinder us."
He paused, gesturing at his thermos of coffee. Pyunma reached down and passed it to him. He took a long drink before continuing.
"I think there are many people in the world who need help. We used to help them, long ago."
"You think we should go back to the way we were? Before the UN forced us to disband?"
That wasn't entirely true and they both knew it. The UN refused to continue funding and supporting Gilmore's enterprise, but the fact was they could have managed on their own. After years of fighting, of running back and forth for a world powers' pissing contest, some of them had simply chosen to take advantage of an offered out and find their own peace.
Pyunma still had nightmares about that damn angel fossil he'd dug up.
Setting down his coffee, Geronimo picked up the shovel and began to dig another hole for the next sapling. "I'm just saying that the new Director of the UN Guardians is aware of what we can do, and we still have friends out in the world who see troubles more accurately than any government."
"We can't fight the world's problems. We can't bring world peace."
"No, but we can make our own. Why wait for the next disaster to come barging in the door when we can meet it head on?"
Pyunma sighed and sat up, stretching. "Those were good days, huh? Helping people, no UN breathing down our necks, and all the gods were just cyborgs like us."
Geronimo smiled. "I could do without the vampires and aliens though."
"Yeah…well Joe can handle that."
That earned him a deep chuckle. "Just make him do all the stupid missions."
"Hey, leader's perks."
Joe glanced up at the metal feather, swaying as the Dolphin 3 lifted up out of the lake. One year since Francoise hung up Jet's remains. One year since they'd returned to their isolated home to once again escape from the world.
No more escaping. No more hiding. They'd all argued about it for weeks, on and off, whether they should return to fighting for humanity again. They'd been built for war but longed for peace, but it seemed that it wasn't for them.
"Better to fight the injustices of the world on our own terms, right?" Chang had mused one night as they discussed it, and in the end they couldn't disagree with that. Every attempt they'd made to retreat from the world had failed, and strangely, after the Blessed, they began to find themselves increasingly restless.
The 00 cyborgs couldn't save the world, but they could still help it.
They'd stay under the radar for now, minor missions brought to them from old friends to get them back into the game, then maybe someday they could work with Igarashi in tandem with ailing countries as they once had. They didn't know. For now, Doctor Kozumi's granddaughter had contacted them with suspicious signals and sounds coming from the coast off the old property. Whether it was a threat or not was unknown but Gilmore certainly seemed interested in possible scientific discoveries.
"There's something to be said for improvisation," GB said as they turned they great ship east towards the Pacific, "too much planning and you box yourself in, and who can plan for eternity?"
"Are you saying we should just see where the wind takes us?" Joe asked.
"Well I think a certain someone would appreciate that sentiment," he said, glancing briefly at the metallic feather.
Joe smiled at that, then looked eastward towards Japan.
Chapter 3: Ivestigation
The 00 cyborgs didn't know if it was a sign of respect or paranoia even two years after the Blessed incident that Director Igarashi managed to take time from his schedule to meet with them personally. Joe accepted it as a little bit of both.
He couldn't say their relationship was strained, but it wasn't as lax as he'd like it to be, and yet he understood it. There had to remain a line between them. They were not bound by any government or organization and that meant Igarashi could not expect them to follow his or the UN's wants, but neither could he allow them to run amok unchecked.
When dealing with smaller issues or even when invited by governments to solve a problem, Igarashi left them alone. On larger issues or international problems they did their best to work together; it was a way for them to both achieve their ends but also allowed the UN to keep tabs on them. So far there hadn't been problems with this arrangement, mostly due to Igarashi and the respect for them he held and what he'd earned from them in turn. Joe hoped this continued to last a while yet.
Technology was gaining on them, faster and faster and would soon surpass them and undermine their power and position. Joe tried for a peaceful life only to fail at every turn, but someday they would become obsolete and could stand down, if anything because they would lose their advantage as cyborgs.
Until then, they'd all agreed to continue fighting for justice best they were able, both large and small. The smaller things allowed them to pick and choose who could or even wanted to go on missions, giving the team scattered chances for a break and to go off and make their own lives if they wished, though always 'on call' as small things had a tendency to get large on them.
And then sometimes Igarashi himself would summon them. They met up with his carrier on the eastern coast of South America and allowed him entry to the Dolphin 3.
"You're aware of the civil war that's been going on for ages. The UN Guardians have been dealing with it so far but now I need your help."
"We don't interfere in civil issues like that," Joe said, "we'll help overthrow obvious tyrannical regimes at the behest of the people if we must, but the issues here are too grey and no offense but we can't trust UN bias on this."
"I understand, but that's not what I meant," Igarashi assured, accepting the mug of coffee offered him by Francoise. He took a sip and smiled, "It's not at all fair that the coffee you have on a flying warship is better than the stuff they serve at my office. Anyway, as the war progressed, the usual profiteering occurred. We tried to keep it under control but there is an organization taking advantage of the gap left by Black Ghost and is selling arms and technology to both sides and possibly infiltrating among the government and populace to stoke the proverbial fire when necessary."
"Is it really a new organization or another branch off of Black Ghost, I wonder," Great mused, "they have all the qualities of cockroaches in that it doesn't matter how often you spray or stomp on them they come right back."
"I honestly don't know; they've managed to elude us so far. I'm not asking you to deal with them, just look into the matter and share what you find. You have access to avenues I do not."
"No red tape to block the way, you mean," Pyunma said.
Igarashi shrugged and took another sip of coffee.
Joe sighed. "And if we do look into the matter and decide not to share anything with you? Or to move in and do something about them of our own volition?"
"There's not much I can do about it, unless you start breaking international laws and so far you've been pretty good at that. Or at least not getting caught. This isn't an official meeting, I'm asking as a favor. The Guardians finally succeeded in getting the rebels and the current government administration to agree to sit down and talk."
Albert smirked, "And why would either side bother to go through with that when someone's offering them an outcome where they have all the power and don't need negotiations?"
"Exactly. I want the bloodshed to end, but if this meeting falls through without even a chance that won't be any time soon."
Joe glanced around to his teammates, gauging their reactions. One by one they met his eyes and nodded. They didn't need to discuss it.
But then, with another possible Black Ghost on the rise, would they need to?
"We'll look into it, but I can't promise anything."
This early in their investigation, and still unsure of who they were dealing with, the team pulled GB back from doing anything riskier. He had, however, managed to take the form of a local pulling guard duty over their armory and grabbed a small targeting system.
"I don't think they're Black Ghost," GB said as Gilmore snatched the item from his hands and looked it over, "They don't have that cultish mentality their minions were known for."
Joe nodded, "So even if they are a Black Ghost branch off they're making a new name for themselves."
"There were many among Black Ghost's ranks, including scientists, who had no issue with their goals or profiteering, just how things were done. It makes sense that with Black Ghost's fall any remaining would seize their chance," Gilmore agreed.
After examining the targeting system, cleverly disguised as a pair of high-tech binoculars that had to be reassembled correctly for use, their theory of a branch-off organization became more plausible as Gilmore uncovered Black Ghost coding within the computer chip. It was almost the same type of coding used for robotics and cybernetics, close enough that the cyborgs could read it easily and from there were able to track down a manufacturing location.
The targeting system could be attached to any weapon, but was useless without the specially made ammunition. Great had been unable to grab any and the rifles stored in the armory were standard AKs. This was their only lead.
"It's a start," Joe said, "Let's track this place down and take a look."
They were bounced off several fronts in North America before they found the weapons manufacturing plant in Europe. The targeting system was indeed officially patented as advanced binoculars for bird watching, though none of them were surprised that they were unable to find the exact same item on the public market.
They waited until nightfall to infiltrate the building. There were no guards though the security systems were still intact. These were not as advanced as the cyborgs were expecting and Francoise was easily able to override them. The company that owned the plant was a front selling high-tech items for various hobbies, from bird watching to video games, and the first floor and offices reflected this, or should have.
This place looks abandoned, Albert transmitted, They packed up and left a while ago.
GB shrugged at him from across the large assembly room. Who knows when that targeting system I grabbed was sold. The war's been going for years.
Or maybe we're wrong again and this is just another dead end, Joe added, already getting frustrated. 003, do you see anything?
Francoise's eye glowed eerily in the dark as she scanned the building beyond the other cyborgs' sight. Yes, there are several floors underground. I don't see anyone, it looks abandoned as well, but the security is still running and the storage rooms are not empty.
It might be something useful, or can at least give us some new information.
And if there are weapons down there? Albert asked.
Grab anything useful and then blow the place. If they're still storing weapons here they might come back. 005, 008, you two keep looking around up here. If there are any computers left, check them out. Give a heads up if anyone shows up.
Pyunma acknowledged him and moved towards the upstairs offices while Geronimo vanished into the back rooms. The rest of the cyborgs were guided by Francoise to a storage closet that hid the entrance to the basement levels. The security proved more impressive and Chang and Great took turns inputting passwords that were just insults towards each other until Francoise snapped at them.
"Do you want to set off an alarm?" she hissed.
Finally she opened the door and the group descended. Joe split them into two groups, the sorting of which no one was surprised, sending Chang and GB to investigate the first floor while he, Francoise, and Albert took the next.
The second basement floor consisted of labs, smaller development and assembly rooms, and storage units. The assembly rooms were mostly bare, some belts and gutted computers left, as well as some trash no one bothered to pick up when they left. The computers in the labs looked intact and Francoise leapt on them only to report they'd been completely wiped.
"You said the storage rooms weren't empty, shall we look?" Albert suggested.
"Our luck hasn't been good so far," Joe said.
The first storage was unlocked and held nothing but furniture, presumably shoved into the unit when the plant was abandoned. The second was a bathroom that held more toilet paper than Joe had ever seen in one spot in his life.
"Remember to grab some of that on the way out," Albert whispered to him.
The third storage room had been converted into an office, the electronic lock online but like the last eventually gave to Francoise's ministrations. There were several computers and the three cyborgs tried to get them online.
007, you find anything? Joe asked.
Bits and pieces but nothing one could call a weapon on its own. Any computers left were wiped. We should be finishing up here soon.
Come join us on the third floor when you do.
"No luck here," Francoise sighed.
Joe sighed. "This trip's turning out to be a bust too."
The remaining two storage rooms yielded nothing of interest. Like the first floor, there were parts on shelves but nothing immediately noticeable. The three headed down to the last floor, the space split into two large storage units.
Francoise frowned as she worked on the lock to the first door.
"What's wrong?" Joe asked.
"I don't know. Something's wrong with the unit, it's unresponsive."
Albert strode up to the electronic lock interface and punched in 'iamawesome'.
Joe glared at him. "Really?"
"I figured it was my turn to fool around."
The three turned at the clunk of the electronic lock opening.
Albert gaped, "What the…"
"I guess you lucked out," Francoise grumbled.
"No, look it says the password's incorrect."
Joe pushed open the door. "It's probably malfunctioning. Come on."
The beams from their uniforms split into the dark and illuminated many rows of shelving and lockers against the walls. Upon the shelves glinted the dark, metallic outlines of laser pistols, high-tech rifles, and what appeared to be parts for larger turret guns and missile launchers.
"Is it wrong that I'm glad to see this stuff? It means at least we were right this time," Albert said, walking into the room and picking up a pistol. "No power cartridge, ammo, or missiles. I'm betting they're in the next storage room."
"Or manufactured elsewhere," Joe said, "That would be safer, both in traceability and, well, stuff blowing up."
"Well we got our weapons, we'll take a few back to Gilmore. Is it possible there are any computers stored down here that are actually useful?"
Francoise's eyes moved in that far off way that meant she was scanning. "There are some still online in the back of the room, but those control security and…" she trailed off, her eyes widening. She gasped, her hands clasped over her mouth in horror, and then took off towards the back of the room, disappearing from the other two's light beams.
"003!" Joe called then ran after her. He could hear Albert's heavier frame behind him.
They caught up to her as she hurried along the lockers, her hand trailing against them as she sought the right one. She stopped at the only one that had a simple padlock.
"Open it!" she cried.
Albert didn't question the franticness in her voice or waste time pointing out she could probably rip that padlock off by hand. His laser knife glowed in the dark and with a single swipe the lock fell in two pieces to the floor.
Francoise threw open the door and three sets of lights lit the interior as they peered in.
Wires curled around a mess of matted, once-blond hair, wound their way into an empty eye socket and came back out a wide, broken mouth, the lips long cracked and split in places, dulled to a waxy white. A blackened hole gaped in the right cheek as necrosis spread. Torn flesh hung off what was once a neck, partially burned, more wires connected into and coiling around a few dangling, naked vertebrae. The long, familiar nose was bent from being broken multiple times.
A single, sunken blue eye cracked open and stared at them.
"Oh shit," Albert breathed, his disbelief carrying verbally and over the brain waves.
What's going on? Chang called, his presence getting closer as he and Great descended the stairway.
"It's Jet," Joe whispered.
Chapter 4: In the Dark
It's Jet, Joe repeated over the brain waves, his transmission weak as though his own disbelief and horror affected it.
What? came Geronimo's reply, somehow thunderous even when there was technically no voice.
It's…It's Jet's head, Albert added when Joe ignored the flood of questions by his team and pushed forward, almost thrusting his own head into the locker.
"Jet!" he cried, reaching forward but finding nowhere to place his hand that did not look damaged. "Hang on, we'll get you out of there!"
Jet just shut his eye.
"Come on, help me!" Joe snapped and reached for the wires coiling around the vertebrae, his hand trailing down until he found a plug. He was about to pull when Albert grabbed his arm and dragged him back.
"He has no body, Joe! He can't breathe or pump blood! Unplug that and he'll only last a few minutes!"
"If even that," Francoise sighed, examining the wiring and machines attached to Jet. Her hands were shaking though her voice remained steady. "These oxygen and fluid tanks are dangerously low. He's probably already only surviving on the bare minimum."
"We have to get him to Gilmore!"
009, Great interrupted, what do we do? There was no way to expect this.
Joe was breathing heavily; he couldn't take his eyes off his friend's disembodied head. Have you been here the whole time? he thought, I tried so hard to save you when you were here all along. Oh god, Jet, I'm so sorry…
Pyunma's transmission cut in, sharp and almost painful. Did you guys find anything down there?
Yeah, Albert replied, turning away as though he couldn't look at Jet and think at the same time. His hand crept up over his eyes. A regular arsenal down here. Everything looks in good condition too; I'm betting someone's coming back for these. 008, 002 is hooked into the system, if we pull him he won't live long.
Alright, we stick to the plan then. 005, 004, grab anything that looks useful down there. 007, 006, grab what computers you can, even if they were wiped. Gilmore may still be able to get something out of them. Then we'll destroy the plant. We're far enough out of the way that it'll be no risk to civilians.
But Jet…! Joe began.
009, after I set the explosives I'll give you detonator. Once we're all clear of the building, you blow the place. Accelerate with Jet and do not stop until you're within the Dolphin. 003, contact Ivan and tell him Jet's condition. He and Gilmore can get the lab ready while we clear out of here.
Everyone went to work. Albert took one last look at Jet and then vanished among the shelves of weapons. After her communication with Ivan, Francoise moved to Jet, removing the wires that were unrelated to keeping him alive.
Joe stood there, unable to look away and feeling shame that he couldn't. He froze. They were on a mission and he froze up when the others were just as thrown as he.
Jet, please look at me.
Joe opened a private channel to Pyunma. 008, thank you. I couldn't…I couldn't think.
There was a long pause, and then, We've thought Jet dead for the past two years. And honestly I'm not seeing what you are.
Understanding, maybe forgiveness, but Pyunma didn't tell him it was alright. Joe wouldn't accept that even if he did. Despite his cybernetic enhancements, Joe was human and as prone to mistakes as anyone else, but he was also the leader and couldn't afford to be. The reason for that was the tattered head of his supposed dead friend in a locker right in front of him. When he did it was understandable, it could be forgivable, but it was not alright.
Pyunma understood that.
Joe, Pyunma said, you can let us catch you sometimes, you know. You tend to forget that and put everything on yourself. We're a team.
Don't be sorry just stop doing it!
Pyunma's berating was not without a slight twinge of humor and Joe smiled a little, but it was a fleeting one. He turned his attention back to Francoise and Jet. Many of the wires hung loose in the locker now and with a grunt of frustration Francoise yanked them out completely.
"He was hooked into security. That was him opening the door."
"He knew it was us."
"No, I doubt it. There's no video feed, no audio connection…he was only connected to the door and the interface. That's why I couldn't get a response I was trying to hack into a computer."
"Then why did he open it?"
"I don't know. Why is he hooked up to a security system at all? Much less here."
Joe looked at Jet's too pale skin, his hair darkened by filth and patchy in places, the way his jaw hung completely wrong… "How long do you think he's been here?"
Francoise pulled free another set of cords and sighed. "I don't know, Joe. There's no way to know until Jet can tell us. He must have been picked up off the streets before the Guardians managed to cordon off the area in New York. That's why we never found him. Here, these wires in his eye are what are suspending him in here, once I disconnect them you'll have to hold him."
Joe winced at the thought of being held up by his eye socket and stepped close, hands open. Francois slid one hand behind Jet's skull, cradling his head as with deft fingers she released the last of the cords. His full weight dropped into her hand and she gasped, her free hand quickly taking hold of the back of his neck, her thumb holding his jaw still.
"Here, the umbilical cords don't reach far. Carefully, he's not very…solid."
Joe didn't get a chance to ask what she meant before Jet was passed to him and Joe understood. What should have been solid skull instead shifted in parts under Joe's fingers, as though the only thing really holding Jet together was his skin.
Jet's eye flickered open slightly at the handling but then shut again.
"Oh god, Francoise, do you think he's…"
"Let's just get him to Gilmore."
The approach of lights alerted them to Pyunma's arrival, detonator in hand. He glanced at Jet's severed head and was unable to mask his shock and horror, but he regained himself quickly and pointedly looked away.
"We're ready to leave. 003, is Gilmore ready?" Pyunma asked.
"Yes, the lab's ready and the Professor is waiting."
"Alright. Come on up and we'll get back to the Dolphin. 009, we'll let you know when we're clear."
"Understood," Joe said, accepting the detonator.
He looked to Francoise who nodded. She took hold of the umbilical cords at their base in the locker and showed Joe the connections.
"The power you can just unplug. The oxygen and fluid lines need to be twisted and detached. This is the oxygen line, should something go wrong and you get held up you can connect this to your own oxygen reserves and buy Jet some time. Not much though."
"Thanks. We'll be right behind you. Both of us."
She smiled at him and followed Pyunma out.
With only his own lights now, the basement became very dark and very silent. Joe shifted closer to the locker and held Jet gently against himself.
"Is this what it's been like for you? Just dark and…" he sighed, "Jet, we thought you were dead. I swear we thought you were dead, I would never …I'm so sorry. Can you even hear me?"
Aside from a thready pulse barely felt under Joe's thumb, Jet remained motionless. There was no response when Joe tried to use the brain waves to contact his long lost friend either.
"I don't care if you're mad at me, I don't care if you never speak to me or want to see me again, just please be alright."
009, we're clear. Good luck.
"Hang on, Jet. You're going home."
He detached the fluid and oxygen lines, ripped out the umbilical, and slammed the detonator in the same instant he went into acceleration mode. Joe clutched Jet to himself and ran.
Up the stairs, through the assembly rooms, and out into open air. The concussive force of the explosion caressed him, harmless, as fire slowly and silently blossomed behind him and then disappeared as forest enclosed about them and forever stretched before him and time and the nothing bit at his ankles.
You used to see what I do, Jet, but then you didn't use the accelerator anymore. Was this why? What did you see? I should have told you, back then, about my time reversal.
Maybe you saw it too.
The Dolphin III came into view but Joe didn't slow. He ran up the boarding ramp into the open hangar and into the ship. He didn't de-accelerate until he was almost to the lab and still ran in at his full natural speed. He nearly bowled Gilmore over, would have if Ivan's telekinesis didn't press against him into a gentle stop.
"Save him, please!" Joe gasped and held Jet's head out to the Professor.
Gilmore took him and then, to Joe's horror, hesitated. Gilmore stared at the wreck that had once been one of his cyborgs, his brow furrowed in a way Joe had learned to fear. When the former Black Ghost cyberneticist worried he wouldn't be able to.
Professor, Ivan said, telepathic voice calm but with a slight edge.
It was enough. Gilmore came back to himself and turned from Joe, carrying Jet to the workstation already prepared for him. Gilmore immediately attached the umbilical lines into waiting life support then gently set Jet's head onto a padded stand.
"Can you save him?" Joe pressed, unable to help but step into the doctor's space.
Gilmore sighed and glanced at Joe, his mouth twisted slightly as he determined what to say. He was not one to sugar-coat problems or lie to his cyborgs, but sometimes it was best to dismiss them with an "of course" or "science can cure everything for you," just to get them out of his way. They had a tendency to hover if there was no world-ending disaster to distract them and in a situation such as this that was not helpful.
"I need to get a better assessment of the damage before I can determine that," Gilmore said. "The cybernetics can always be repaired, but Jet himself is another story."
"What can I do?"
"At the moment? Go greet the others, let them know 002 is in my care."
Joe hesitated, and Ivan regarded him. Still an infant despite his age and burdened with incredible power even his teammates couldn't always understand, Ivan had a tendency to appear emotionless if not completely indifferent to events around him, but Joe knew better and had known him long enough to recognize a softness in Ivan's eyes.
Go to the others. Let everyone know Jet's alright for the moment. I'll want to look over whatever you all managed to procure from the facility. I'll contact you if anything changes.
Joe surrendered and nodded. "Alright. Thanks, Ivan."
Joe moved to leave but still dawdled. He glanced back at Gilmore at the door to catch the doctor gently running a thumb across Jet's undamaged cheek.
"Don't worry, I'll get you all fixed up," Gilmore whispered, "and then I'll build you a brand new body. You'll see, you'll be up and driving me mad again within the week…"
Joe left to go meet the others and see what they'd collected.
Chapter 5: Going Home
"He looks a bit better," Albert said softly, staring into the sealed unit at his friend's unconscious head.
Gilmore glanced up from his work. "Amazing what decent oxygen and water, a wash, and removing necrotic tissue can do."
Not to mention Jet's nose was straight and his jaw back in place again.
Tiny robotic arms worked across the hole in Jet's cheek, back and forth and up and down, laying microscopic fibers in layers at high speed with tiny click click clicks that would in time form new artificial flesh.
Chang stood on his toes and peered into the container beside Albert. "How did that wound even happen? I thought his skin was artificial?"
"Interestingly enough, most of 002's face and some of his body still had his original skin," Gilmore explained, "His armor did a good job maintaining him over the years, considering."
"Didn't protect him from whatever hit him."
"A taser, judging from what remained of the burn."
Albert winced at that. Someone had hit Jet with a taser in the face when he was defenseless. He clenched his fist, the leather of his glove groaning.
Someone was going to die.
Gilmore continued, unaware of Albert's struggle. "002's armor only activates in flight mode. The armor-class skin the rest of you use was too heavy for a flight model so we devised a unique armor coating that could be applied over the skin that bonds and forms a shell in flight mode, otherwise it disengages. However it was only designed to protect the wearer from g-forces and other stresses of high-speed flight, not for combat. Actually it looks like most of the coating has flaked off anyway; the taser probably broke down the bonding at the molecular level."
"You can tell when it's active," Albert murmured, "his complexion would change."
"It's only that noticeable in high-speed mode. And when he's actively flying we didn't worry too much about trying to make him look normal. If his skin color is what tipped someone off that he was a cyborg then they had other things to worry about…" Gilmore muttered with an eye roll.
He flipped over the bundle of wires and metal he was working on and Albert realized he had no idea what it even was. Jet's new body? Designing a new tool or robot to do the work for him? Just a few decades ago Gilmore could have built a new cybernetic body in about a week if he kept at it and had access to his own lab and materials. Nowadays, Albert was thinking at least two weeks, and that was if Gilmore pushed himself and the cyborgs generally tried to keep him from doing that. He was getting up there in age.
Not to say the old man wasn't spry, considering. Gilmore made use of his own designs and now had an artificial heart, as well as a few other organs that had started to wear out. At the moment, the professor had no intention of going completely cyborg but neither was he intending to kick the proverbial bucket anytime soon. Albert suspected that, despite their allies and the cyborgs' own abilities to do basic maintenance on themselves, Gilmore just didn't trust anyone as of yet to take care of his family should he pass on.
On the other hand, Gilmore had always been the type to give Mother Nature the finger when he thought no one was looking.
Chang leaned forward and rested his arms on the tabletop, watching the little robot arms work. He raised his hand as though he was going to tap on the glass and then thought better of it.
"I really thought he was gone," he said softly.
Albert pat him on the shoulder. "I think I'm willing to make another adjustment for this one."
Chang chuckled then casually rolled Albert's hand off his shoulder as he stood up straight. "Anyway, I'm going to go whip up something for breakfast. Don't expect anything fancy; we all have a lot to do. Joe wants to have a meeting later."
"I'll be there."
Chang nodded a farewell and left, Albert sliding into his place and watching Jet. He looked better, yes, but that just highlighted the fact that, decapitation aside, Jet just wasn't well. His remaining eye and cheek were both sunken, his jawline too sharp as the unused muscles had long ago atrophied. His mouth was thankfully closed now; Gilmore removed his blackened, shriveled tongue last night. The wiring had crushed it and cut off circulation, though Albert guessed it too had probably remained unused for the last two years. Gilmore would replace it, would give Jet micro-stimulants to regain some of the muscle lost, would give Jet a brand new cybernetic body but…
Albert finally asked the question haunting him all last night. "Is he going to be alright?"
He heard Gilmore sigh but didn't turn around.
"I've repaired most of the damage to the skull casing. Considering the number of times his head was opened and the different methods used to do so, it's likely that he was handled by multiple people. It's also likely the plant was not the only place he's been. The diagnostics I ran on his secondary cybernetic brain came back within acceptable parameters, so I'm going to leave that alone for now."
Albert nodded at that. After the incident with Pyunma, Gilmore became more cautious on what he was allowed to do to them. Tampering with the cybernetic brain in a new cyborg caused little damage but as old as the 00 Number cyborgs were, their human minds had long ago adapted to the cybernetic one. What affected the cybernetic brain affected the human one and could even cause them pain.
As such, Gilmore rarely performed anything beyond non-intrusive diagnostics and basic program adjustments unless necessary.
"What do you think happened?"
"I designed your skull casings to protect your brains, that is the key component to a cyborg, after all. That's probably why his head survived the explosion. The neck and lower back skull showed old burns. He was most likely picked up off the street and sold. Good Black Ghost cybernetics are very expensive."
"Then why," Albert ground out, his anger rising, "why would they treat him like this?"
"I don't know the extent of the damage from the explosion alone, so there's that. Also he's been stripped of all non-essential cybernetics, his scanners, the translator…If he was bought and sold multiple times, each loss of tech, each bit of damage would depreciate his value. Notwithstanding neglect to Jet himself…"
Albert buried his face in his hands. He'd been rescued. He'd been saved. Joe came for him. Albert was willing to die for them, over and over if need be, and yet this happened. He was saved and Jet was pulled apart bit by bit and sold like an object.
"004," Gilmore said gently, "go get something to eat. It'll be several hours before I remove him from containment."
Swallowing, Albert stood and took a breath. "Would you like me to bring you anything, Professor?"
"Some fruit maybe, any finger food. I'd like to keep working. Like you, I can't focus on much else right now either."
The cyborgs had settled into the cockpit, sprawled in their seats while Joe sat on the back of Gilmore's chair. He fidgeted a little, picking at where a hangnail would be if he was capable of having one.
"We're in the middle of an investigation of another potential Black Ghost. We've just destroyed one of their manufacturing facilities and have taken some of their tech. We also have Jet, who's obviously going to need some care. Gilmore would prefer to rebuild his body and give him that care back home. What do you all think? Continue the mission or go home?"
There was a long silence as the cyborgs considered. Joe was certain he knew the answer, but to abandon a mission wasn't their way. They could always pick up the investigation again later, but who knew when. Joe just got his friend back and had no intention of being anywhere else than with him for a while, but if the team felt they should continue the mission then he would bend to their will.
Geronimo broke the silence, his voice matter-of-fact. "Jet's family. There will always be war profiteering."
"We were doing this as a favor to Igarashi," Great added, "He asked for information. I say we give him what we've got so far, maybe a few of the weapons so his own people can look at them, and then head home. We can always pick up the chase later."
Joe nodded, then looked to the true brains behind the team. Ivan was more their leader directing from above while Joe led missions on the ground and they shared the responsibility well enough. "Do you have anything to add, Ivan?"
The infant glanced at him, then seemed to look far away. He'd been quiet since they'd brought Jet back, absorbed in something. Joe wondered what he was hiding. I agree. Give whatever we are willing to part with to the Director and be done with it. This organization is worrisome in its efficiency thus far but is not yet a true Black Ghost. We can afford to disregard it for now.
"That's how we get into trouble though," Albert said, "we wait until the snake gets too big and decides to come bite us."
Under normal circumstances I would agree, but as Geronimo said, there will always be such organizations. There are only nine of us. Taking care of our own has priority.
The door slid open and Gilmore entered, a mug of coffee in hand and yawning. "I presume I missed the meeting and you've all decided what to do without me." He glared at Joe until the cyborg got off his seat and then settled in it himself. He'd grown tired of the old uncomfortable chairs of the previous Dolphins and made sure this one fit his form perfectly. And then cyborgs had to go and climb on it.
"We're going home," Francoise told him, "We're giving what information we can to Igarashi and then going back to the house so you can rebuild Jet."
"Good. Unlike previous times with 002 I'm going to have to construct a completely cybernetic body for him. He may have to adjust."
Joe smirked, "He's trying to oust you as most cybernetic of us, Heinrich."
"Not going to happen," Albert said with a shrug, "because Great's got us all beat. Cybernetic down to the molecule."
GB bowed from the waist. "I try."
"Try what, I did all the work," Gilmore grumbled.
"But I perfected its use into an art form. Has there been another shapeshifting cyborg after me? Of course not, for I am paramount." He struck a ridiculous pose, arm out and legs spread in a show of strength but with just enough waifish vulnerability to accomplish a look of humility in his boast.
"Look what you did," Joe said to Albert, "you gave him a big head."
"No, this is a big head!"
"Not in the cockpit!" Gilmore snapped.
Two years. He'd almost gotten used to Jet not being around.
The light was still on but it wasn't Gilmore in the lab but Francoise. Jet's new skin was complete and he'd been removed from containment and now rested on supports on the work table, Francoise bending over him.
"What are you doing?"
Francoise didn't jump. She never did; she heard him coming from the moment he left his quarters. She did turn her head briefly to acknowledge his presence.
"Jet's hair is so matted that Gilmore wanted to just shave it off, but I thought maybe Jet wouldn't like that so I'm going to try to get these knots combed out. I'm giving it another wash first, with good shampoo this time. Gilmore's stuff is better for sterilization and not for good hair at all," she explained.
"Right. Did Gilmore go to bed?"
"I just sent him. He's been working nonstop."
Joe approached and watched Francoise knead her fingers through Jet's hair, slick with shampoo. She'd slid a bowl under the supports and used a pitcher to gently rinse it out the suds, her spare hand pressing along his scalp to protect his face. The fair coloring of his hair was starting to show again. Joe remembered his shock the first time he noticed Jet's blond roots; he genuinely thought his friend a natural redhead for all those years.
"No, I dyed it," Jet had said with a shrug.
"But now you're not."
"The reasons don't matter anymore."
The UN cut their funding and they all split soon after. Joe didn't see Jet with completely blond hair until they met on the B-2.
The scent of the shampoo was a tad strong and not at all feminine. Joe frowned. "I recognize this smell. This is Jet's shampoo, he was always insistent on this one brand and had to order it online because no one sold it. Where'd you get it?"
Francoise's face flushed. "I ran out of my shampoo once and Jet let me borrow some of his. It was the best shampoo I had ever used, my hair was fantastic afterwards. What sense does that make? He doesn't even do anything with his hair but has the best shampoo ever? So I…started using it myself."
Joe was about to respond but caught himself, wondering which would cause a more negative reaction: the fact he had been wondering why she'd been smelling so masculine lately, or the fact that he found that she did something of a turn on.
He decided on neither and kept his mouth shut. Sometimes he wondered if that was why women seemed to like him.
Jet's hair rinsed, Francoise dabbed at him with a towel, rotated him, and went to work plucking through the mess of knots with a wire comb using short, delicate strokes.
"I don't think you're going to be able to comb some of those out," Joe said.
She lifted a pair of scissors for him to see, "That's why I have these. I thought a trim would be better than a shear. Jet's hair is still real; it'll grow back."
"Amazing he hasn't started to go grey after all these years. Or any of us, really."
Francoise arched a brow and pointed to a few scattered strands of white in Jet's hair. "The blond hides them pretty well."
She went back to combing. "I'd ask why you're down here but I think I already know."
"The same reason as you."
Her hands paused and then continued, alternating between plucking at the knots and carding through Jet's hair in gentle, affectionate strokes. "Two years, Joe."
"I tried to find him. He flew off and then there was an explosion. We lost communication with him and I went to find him but you were in trouble and I thought…I thought 'I'll come back for you', but we couldn't find anything but slag and you were gone and we'd already lost Heinrich…" her voice hitched. She raised one hand to her mouth and took a few shaky breaths, calming herself.
"I know it's selfish," she continued, "but one of the reasons I never wanted to fight was the fact I couldn't stand the thought of losing you, Joe. Any of you. But every time we go out… How many near misses? How many times have you truly died but somehow came back? After the Blessed incident…Here we all are, together again, and yet I think back to when you three were dead to us and I can't…"
Joe placed his hand on her back, a gentle reminder that he was there.
She sniffled and it came back out a softly hysterical snicker. "Who'd have guessed Jet's head would pop off like a cork?"
At least she almost hoped it did as her mind was suddenly assaulted with the mental image of someone tearing Jet's head off his damaged body. Tugging and yanking until skin, bone, and muscle gave and ripped free with a sickening sound, the milky blood splattering on the pavement and the severed cybernetic vertebrae still wriggling…
A small lock of hair came loose in her hand as she tugged the comb too hard.
Joe reached out and covered her hand with his own, his other slipping around her and holding her until her shaking eased.
"Listen, Francoise," he whispered, "listen to my voice, I'm here. Look in front of you, look at Jet. He's incomplete, but he's here. We found him and we're all here. We're all alive."
She dropped the comb and scissors and spun in Joe's arms, throwing her own around him and clutching him to her.
Joe wanted nothing more than to stop fighting, for their suffering to end, but at this moment in time they simply did not have that luxury. Someday, he hoped. But until then the best they could do was hope and hold each other together when they wanted to fall apart.
He absently stroked at Francoise hair but found himself looking at Jet. His best friend who'd been decapitated and passed around like a novelty item.
Gilmore would repair him, but Joe sensed it was going to take all of them to hold Jet together.
Chapter 6: A Visitor and Shopping
Joe was early enough to give up waiting in the car out in the heat and went into the airport for the air conditioning. Super cyborgs indeed but defeated by Texan sun. The worst part was that the season was changing and while the day was insufferably hot the nights were getting very cold. There'd been frost on his car before the sun rose and now heat waves rose off the roof of it.
Gilmore wanted Jet back online as soon as possible, so he reached out to their friends and allies to assist in building his new body. Unfortunately it was Dr. Phineas Grant who answered.
Dr. Grant was a Canadian cyberneticist who'd proven to the 00 cyborgs in the last couple of years that he was more than capable of dealing with any of their mechanical issues. The problem was he had little interest in the cyborgs themselves. His fascinations lay in cybernetics and their functions, not in the people actually using them. He wasn't a bad man, nor was he untrustworthy; he just wasn't a people person and preferred to work with cyborgs without having to deal with the human elements.
Joe couldn't figure out why the man just hadn't gone into robotics.
It was a regional airport with Dr. Grant's flight coming out of Dallas. Once the plane landed it wouldn't take long to get the baggage and then they had a couple of hours driving ahead of them. Not so long a drive as far as Texas was concerned but more than long enough for Joe.
Soon enough Dr. Grant came walking out of the terminal, glancing around. He spotted Joe and hurried over. He was neither an imposing or unimposing man, friendly or unfriendly looking, there was just nothing about him of note physically. So much nothing that Joe couldn't remember what he looked like until he saw him, and he was certain he would forget again as soon as he looked away.
"Hello, 009! Long time no see."
"Dr. Grant," Joe accepted the handshake in welcome, "I hope you had a good flight."
"Of course not, nobody likes flying in a noisy tin can."
"Right. How much luggage do you have?"
"Oh just these," he said, lifting his satchel and gesturing to the backpack he wore, "I travel light and Gilmore said he'd have all we need."
"Alright then, let's go. I'm hoping to be home before dark."
Stepping out of the terminal felt like he'd walked into of wall of heated blankets that dropped down and smothered him. His car was a convertible but it didn't help any when the air itself was hot, but it was better than a sticky interior. So long as the air was moving Joe could tolerate the heat for the most part. He was happy to be back on the road.
The already scarce low hills started to disappear as they headed northwest, the shrubby trees disappearing with them. When they'd first moved out here the open space had intimidated Joe, but it grew on him over the years. If anything the isolation was grand when you lived with nine other people and needed to escape.
"How long 'til we get there?" Grant said loudly over the wind.
"A couple of hours. Abilene is the closest airport but we're still well out of the way."
"I'm just so excited! To be able to help Gilmore build a fully cybernetic body from scratch! I mean not from scratch really, we'll be working from the old plan of…who are we building, again?"
Joe's hand tightened on the steering wheel. "002."
"Which one's that?"
"The flying one."
For the first time a glimmer of something appeared on Grant's face and he made a delighted noise. "The flying one! Oh, he's my favorite!"
"You've never met him."
"No, but I've seen the plans. I mean a flying cyborg is predictable but he's genius in the sheer ridiculousness of the design. It shouldn't work but it does! And I get to assist in reconstructing that ridiculous genius! I can't wait."
Joe had no response to that and just stared ahead. After regarding Joe for a few moments, Grant realized he'd erred and said:
"I mean, I'm glad you found your friend. I'm sorry about what happened to him."
Joe nodded. Grant's obliviousness towards them was grating. He somehow managed to separate the cyborg and the man completely in his mind, either speaking of only one or the other. Again Joe couldn't help but wonder at the man's life choices. Still, he had to admit that at least Grant acknowledged them as people at all. Gilmore would say that you just had to learn how to talk to Grant.
The doctor tried again, "I won't dawdle or draw this out. I want to get him back online quickly too. I'm excited but I understand the urgency or else Gilmore wouldn't have called me."
Joe released a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Thank you."
"So what's 002 like? I want to who's going to be piloting this crazy body."
"Jet is…he's a good man. Instinctual, kinda reckless, loyal, the worst roommate in the world…"
"Yeah, that's his name."
"His real name?"
"Told me once it's on his birth certificate and everything."
"Yeah. His parents were crazy beatniks. Or were they hipsters? One of those."
"Beatniks. I always forget you all are older than you look."
"Honestly? I think we do too."
Gilmore was there to greet them when they arrived that evening. His welcome of his colleague was warmer than Joe's, but then Gilmore and Grant had been sharing correspondences long before the cyborgs ever met the doctor.
"I figured we'd let you settle in for the night and then get started fresh in the morning," Gilmore explained, ushering Grant and Joe indoors. The rest of the cyborgs were in the front room and a round of introductions took place, though they had all met Grant before once or twice over the last couple of years, but he could never seem to keep them all straight.
"I was hoping to look over the lab before retiring, if I may? Maybe take a copy of the plans for the 002 unit for some bedtime reading," Grant suggested.
"I'll show you the lab and introduce you to Jet, though he's still unconscious. I'm sorry but I do not leave hard copies of my cyborgs' designs lying around. They would be too easily copied or stolen. I hope you understand."
"Of course. You can give me a rundown of the plan of attack while we're down there, then."
Joe took Grant's bags up to his room while the others dispersed, Chang to prepare dinner and the others to find something to busy them until then. Joe would stay the night with Francoise during the duration of Dr. Grant's stay. She'd earlier taken one look at Joe's room before he left for the airport and pulled at her hair.
"How does this place look worse and worse every time I see it? How are you so messy?"
"Honestly? Jet was the one who always cleaned up, not me. I kinda got used to it."
"Jet's been gone for two years!"
"It's been a messy two years."
She'd all but tossed Joe out of his own room to clean up and prepare it for Dr. Grant herself. Joe hurried out the front door but still heard her scream when she got to his sink. He might have forgotten to rinse it out for the last couple of weeks. Two years of not having an angry six-foot-plus American after you when you didn't clean up tended to make one careless.
That was one of the reasons Joe never realized Jet's hair was dyed. When he was done with the sink it was immaculate. Clean sink, clean shower, swept floor, but otherwise Jet's bed was unmade and he had a habit of tossing his pants wherever.
The house hadn't been the same without Jet's clothes showing up in random places.
Joe placed Grant's bags on the bed and hurried back downstairs, catching up with the two professors as they descended into the underground laboratories. Gilmore glanced back at him and Joe just shrugged. What else was he going to do for a while?
Dr. Grant looked like a child in a candy store as Gilmore showed him the labs and equipment. He oohed and ahhed and wanted to admire and touch everything. Gilmore couldn't help but beam in pride a little.
They moved into the battle room so Gilmore could show Grant 002's specs on the large 3D projector.
"What I'll mostly need help with will be the construction of the body itself and the primary artificial organs," Gilmore explained, scrolling through the broken down sections of the cybernetic specs, "Even now I could attach 002's limbs in my sleep."
"Are you planning on making any alterations to the design?"
"Not this time. I'd rather not add extra stress to Jet by making changes he's not expecting. I can always upgrade him later; he's used to it. However, I'd like to keep the thrusters offline until I know he's ready, so we may have to temporarily disable the neuro-connectors. He knows how to override and refuel the jets himself otherwise."
Grant gestured to the bright neon lines streaking through the framework, dulled only by the mechanics related to the thrusters. "Is that an accelerator? Like 009?"
"An older model, but yes. 002 rarely uses it, though that's probably for the best. He wasn't designed for heavy power output of that kind and the accelerator is draining; that power is better used for his high-speed mode. The accelerator also has a tendency to disrupt the bonding of his armor. I leave it active though, you never know. One split second could mean life or death, right, 009?"
"Yeah," Joe muttered. There had been many split seconds, Joe thought, and Jet still never used it. He could have saved himself using it when the two of them went after the nuclear warheads in space. He could have brought down Maximoff without destroying himself with it. Had the accelerator been damaged and Jet just never said anything? Had he been that low on power?
Gilmore led them to a smaller side-lab that also functioned as his office where he could escape his sometimes very noisy cyborgs to work on his own projects.
"Before we head up for dinner there's one last thing to show you," he said to Dr. Grant, and went to the containment unit in the back of the room. "This is Jet Link. It's his body you'll be helping me construct."
Once moved from the Dolphin III's lab, Gilmore had placed Jet's head in containment and ran a gamut of scans and performed full diagnostics. He'd happily reported no physical damage to Jet's brain and that the cybernetic one was still registering as acceptable. Since then Gilmore installed a new pair of eyes and replaced the tongue and some missing teeth, as well as all the scanners, the chronometer, the translator, and the near-burnt out emergency power and oxygen supplier. He also installed a new transmitter and receiver but planned to keep them offline until Jet had been conscious for a few days.
Aside from the fact Jet's cheeks were still too hollow, he looked much more like how Joe remembered him. His hair was a bit shorter, but blond and unmatted. Francoise did a good job combing it in such a way that the patches where his hair had fallen out or been shaved were covered. The dangling vertebrae were still there and made a macabre addition but Gilmore pointed out that there were some surviving nerves he would try to preserve so the damaged vertebrae would stay intact until they fused Jet's head with his new body.
Despite these improvements, Grant took a look at Jet and stepped back in shock.
"I, uh…" he stammered.
"It's okay," Joe assured him, "I know it's a bit unnerving, but trust me he looks much better than he did."
"Yes, of course. Excuse me, I just didn't expect that, I guess."
Gilmore's brows rose slightly in surprise at Grant's discomfort but then shrugged. "You're brilliant at cybernetics, Phineas, but you always forget cyborgs involve people."
"Yes, yes, you're right. Sorry." Grant still hurried out of the room once he was able.
Joe smirked. "You make the weirdest friends, Doctor."
"Let's just hope he's still able to eat dinner," Gilmore sighed then followed his colleague back up into the house.
The cyborgs were banned from the labs unless Gilmore specifically called for one of them. This may or may not have been due to uncomfortable hovering.
As such, they went about their chores, played the same board games again and again, or sat around pretending they were reading, or working, or doing anything but thinking about what was going on in the labs below them.
Two years they thought Jet dead, but now the fact that he wouldn't be back and walking among them for at least another week was too long for Joe to stand. He'd given up trying to play video games when he couldn't focus and kept dying and now was just sitting in front of the fireplace waiting for Gilmore to call him, even though the professor was far more likely to call Francoise if he needed one of them.
Still, among the impatience was an underlying feeling of happiness. Jet was alive and would soon indeed be back among them. Chang already announced he was going to make the American's favorite meal for him once he recovered.
"What would that be?" Albert asked over his newspaper.
"Chicken curry tetrazzini."
"I was not expecting that."
"Well it was either that or grilled cheese sandwiches but that seemed a bit underwhelming, considering."
"Wait," Pyunma said, "you said his favorite meal. Don't tell me you're also serving…"
"Yes. With the tetrazzini we'll be having alcoholic root beer floats. And some crappy chicken nuggets leftover from that fast food place in town he liked. I would never serve such a thing normally but he loved them so…"
"The longer in the fridge and the more congealed the grease the better, yeah."
Chang visibly shuddered. "And for dessert…"
"No!" Pyunma and Albert yelled simultaneously.
"Yes! Banana slices in milk with sugar!"
"Oh thank god I thought it was going to be something deep fried again," Pyunma sighed, "I'm not gonna eat it anyway but still."
"I'm pretty sure Jet will be the only one eating it," Chang agreed, "But I'm going to have to get the ingredients soon, I don't have everything here."
Albert folded his newspaper and put it on the coffee table. "We could do that now, it's not like we're doing anything. And this early in rebuilding Jet's body I doubt the professor will need our help.
Joe leapt on the idea. "I've been thinking. Jet doesn't have any clothes. We're going to have to get him some."
"Oh damn, you're right. Anything of his burned down with the house two years ago," Pyunma said.
"Well," Albert fidgeted, "Not everything. He had a box in storage, but the only thing wearable in it was a pair of slippers and his old AC/DC shirt."
"Then we'll get that for him."
"Uh, thing is, that was the shirt he got at that concert he dragged me to. We stood around forever to get a shirt and by the time he got up to the table they didn't have his size, so he bought something a bit bigger."
"…You've been wearing his shirt, haven't you."
"I waited with him for that damn shirt and it fits. I mean it's kind of snug in the chest but…"
"Is that why you always wear it when Lucy's around?" Chang snickered.
In the end, just about every cyborg piled into two cars and drove into town. They'd barely finished asking Ivan if he wanted to go when he turned around and glared at them. He hated his car seat and drove nowhere unless absolutely required.
It was apparently too much to ask just to buy a couple of pairs of jeans and a few shirts for Jet. For one thing, no one could remember what sizes he used. The other problem was Joe himself, who insisted on getting more than just the bare essentials.
"We have to show we care, you guys! Get him some stuff he'd actually want, not just what will do."
"He likes to do his own shopping, Joe," Albert sighed, "and he prefers to do it by himself. I don't even know where he usually bought his clothes."
"You could just give him back his shirt, Heinrich."
"You don't even like AC/DC."
Pyunma walked up carrying a few jackets and vests. "Did Jet like plaid? I can't remember."
"Only if you're okay with him singing the 'Lumberjack Song' nonstop."
"That's a no, then," he said and hurried away before he got sucked into whatever Joe and Albert were bitching about.
GB was next to pop up, leaning unhappily on a shirt rack. "Unfortunate question, my lads, but was Jet a briefs or boxers man?"
Joe sighed and rubbed at his temples. "Recently, when he had to, boxers."
"When he had to? Don't tell me."
"Commando. Jet had no shame. I think I saw his dick more than my own."
"Sorry I asked. Why didn't you tell us rooming with him was so horrible, Joe?"
"Because then you'd make sure I was stuck with him so you wouldn't have to be."
"Look what I found!" Francoise cried, holding up a shirt as though it was the Holy Grail. It was a hideous collared shirt with tiny American flags printed on it.
"Put that in the cart right now. I'm going to go find an ugly tie to go with it," Albert said and ducked away into the racks.
"What about shoes? Anyone know Jet's size?"
"Gilmore makes Jet's shoes so he can fly with them. Don't worry about it."
"I'm getting Jet this cute pink toothbrush and no one can stop me!"
"Those jeans are too loose, Jet likes to show off his ass."
"…Why do you know these things."
"I got him a brush too!"
"I'm pretty sure this is Jet's cologne. It smells like 'I'm trying too hard'."
"Jet doesn't like big sweaters, Franny. He wears jackets."
"Too bad, he's getting a giant woolen sweater. He's going to be adorable."
"Look at this shirt. It's got a little angry eagle on it. I'm getting it for him."
Geronimo tossed a cowboy hat into the cart without a word.
"We're not buying him a whole wardrobe, guys!" Pyunma shouted as he looked at the overflowing cart.
Grocery shopping went a little more smoothly, mostly because Chang barked out orders at them and sent them off in small groups for ingredients. However, he wasn't too surprised when extra food, mostly junk, ended up in their carts as well under the explanation of "I think Jet will like it." The beer was also not unexpected, though Albert took one look at it and went to fetch his own supply.
"Weak-ass American shit," he was heard muttering.
The cyborgs broke up the carts, sending only one to each cashier who already knew of the crazy group of mostly men who showed up about twice a month to buy a truckload of groceries. Once paid for, Geronimo grabbed most of their bags in one go.
After a long drive home, they killed time sorting through the food. The clothes they dumped on Joe to go put in his closet, which was still plenty roomy even two years after Jet's supposed death. Joe just wasn't one to collect stuff.
"Hang up the shirts!" Francoise called after him.
Joe opened the closet and dumped the whole load on the floor. He put the cowboy hat on the shelf and the underwear and socks in the drawer, then stared at the remaining pile. It was going to have to be washed before Jet wore it anyway, why hang it up? He imagined Francoise ire and with a groan started hanging up the shirts. He grabbed the monstrosity of a sweater first and shoved aside his own shirts to make room on the rack, and then froze.
Shoved to the far back out of sight was Jet's old CIA jacket.
When the Blessed attacked them they'd gone below to get into their gear. Jet had tossed the jacket aside there, and it remained safe underground when the house was destroyed. Joe found it later and saved it, finally hanging it on the chair in their room and then hiding it away in the closet when Francoise saw it and started to cry.
He pulled it out and ran his thumb over the military patches. He didn't know what they meant, didn't know what Jet had done. The American had been pretty tight-lipped about it after their miraculous return from the dead because, regardless how he acted afterwards, Jet had been hurting at the loss of everything he'd worked for. At being betrayed.
GB said the intelligence community was relatively small and one couldn't get by without making connections. You saw the same people or at least their work if not face to face. In fact, GB and Jet had worked together a few times while Jet was at the NSA.
Jet had had such connections, probably friends and teammates, but Joe didn't know them. All he knew was that after they split Jet went back to school and got his GED then moved on to college. He had a degree in something, but for the life of him Joe couldn't remember what.
Now he would have a chance to ask.
Joe hung the jacket on the chair and went back downstairs.
Chapter 7: The Long Wait
The next few days were less eventful. Gilmore and Grant reached a critical point in Jet's reconstruction and so the cyborgs refrained from running off in case they were needed.
The skeletal framework, inactive power core, jet systems, and key organs had been constructed and were ready for the artificial muscles, vascular system, and fiber nervous system. Jet's head would be attached at this stage, the remaining flesh of his neck removed to be replaced and to open up space for the robotic arms to weave in and conjoin the tightly bound cords of artificial muscle to whatever remained. A saline wash would guide the remaining nerves to the new ones and encourage their connection to the neuro-fiber, though Gilmore would still need to manually take control of the robotic arms and painstakingly suture the nerves together.
Jet would remain in containment from here on until his new skin was applied. A sterile environment was critical, not only in protecting the remaining living components of Jet, but for the cybernetics as well. For every measurement, every weight, the accuracy was imperative. A single grain of dirt getting into the system during construction could cause an imbalance or alter the measurements at a microscopic level, causing possible harm in the long run if not throwing the automated construction into disarray. Gilmore and Grant had worked through the night just imputing every component's measurements into the computer from Jet's old plans.
The process could take well over a day just to weave the muscle.
After this was done, the system would go into stasis mode for twelve hours, preserving Jet while multiple scans triple-checked every system, every muscle and nerve, the artificial heart and regulator, and, most important, Gilmore would keep an eye out for early signs of cybernetic rejection. It was unlikely, as Jet had been a cyborg for so long, but could not be entirely discounted.
Gilmore was mostly worried about mental rejection. That Jet's mind suffered such trauma from its long-term decapitation that he would subconsciously reject the cybernetic body as his own. He would be capable of functioning, but the disassociation he would feel between himself and his body would cause mental distress.
If no issues were found after twelve hours, the whole thing started over with the skin, the robotic arms spinning the fibers furiously and grafting it to each individual panel that formed Jet's unique frame with a three-hour cool down and diagnostic period for the chamber itself at the halfway mark. Fluid insertion would occur after, and so would the preliminary remote system startup for Jet's power core. More scans to detect any breaks or gaps in the skin, and then the armor coating spray.
And once more the system would go into stasis mode, this time for a full twenty-four hours, full scans and diagnostics. Only after the twenty-four hours with no errors would the chamber open, or from an emergency override from Gilmore.
Jet would be moved to surgery after that, where Gilmore would open him right back up and manually activate the power core and thruster systems in standby mode and add the remaining sensors and organs. These main systems would be hooked up to the cybernetic brain ports and their connectibility tested.
Then Jet would go back to the chamber, but the robotics were removed and all Jet's systems connected to the computers. One last diagnostic check and then 002's power core would be brought online. It was not a quick process, but once fully powered Jet's cybernetic brain would be sent the activation code and everything would come online in minutes. The artificial heart would beat and the milky blood would flow, the sensors would feed information back to the brain to be processed for Jet, and the thrusters would open and perform a dry test run.
One last round of checks and Jet would finally be moved to a cot to be woken up.
They had days left to wait, but to Joe it felt like forever.
"Don't you want to stay until Jet wakes up? I'm sure he'd want to thank you," Francoise said, helping Dr. Grant put on his coat. He had a late flight and the sun would be long gone by the time he and Joe reached Abilene. "Besides, you'll just end up stuck in Dallas all night."
"My flight out of Dallas is at the crack of dawn, it'll be easier to just nap at the gate. Besides, the major work on 002 is done; if there are any problems Gilmore is more than capable of handling them. And as you said, Jet doesn't know me. I don't think he'd want a stranger around."
Francoise couldn't deny that. Even after all their years together and fighting side by side, Jet was still not generally open with his vulnerabilities to them. He would not appreciate a stranger being there as he recovered.
"Besides," Grant continued, "my leaving to come here was short notice. I really should get back to the university."
Gilmore stepped forward and shook his colleague's hand. "Thank you, Phineas. It would have taken me weeks to get 002 back online on my own."
"I should be thanking you. What an opportunity! I got to help build an actual cyborg! Let me know how everything's running when he's up and about again."
One last round of goodbyes and Joe and Dr. Grant left for the airport. To say that the cyborgs were sorry to see Grant go would be an overstatement, for while they had indeed gotten used to his brusque manner he sometimes still continued to grate with his enthusiasm. Even Geronimo's patience finally snapped when he'd casually referred to 002 as an 'it'.
"I meant the unit itself, not the man," Grant plaintively defended himself as Geronimo left the room.
Gilmore sighed. He understood but still sided with his cyborgs on the matter. "It's easy to make such distinctions, to separate the man from the machine as you get lost in the purpose of your work. But, believe me, that leads to the ability to all too easily separate the human factor from the cyborg entirely, and in that cause harm even to those you are trying to help."
The incident with 008 stuck with him more than anyone realized, not just for the fact he had indeed disregarded Pyunma's identity and agency, but that in doing so he had torn open a still-weeping wound he and his cyborgs had been ignoring.
He had helped them escape from Black Ghost, yes, he stayed with them and continued to repair and upgrade them as needed, of course. He had come to love them as family. But he was still the one who had done this to them in the first place. Still the one who, even had he believed the lie that they were volunteers, performed horrific experiments on fellow human beings who screamed and begged under his knife. He'd done that to them and yet they trusted him when he offered escape. Allowed themselves to lie back down on his operating table, believing he would do no more such harm.
And then he did. The incident stuck with him because of the sheer look of horror in their eyes. The shock in Pyunma's reminiscent of being back in Black Ghost. The reminder that he'd been the one to do this to them in the first place under the guise of science and denial of the human element. When Gilmore forgot the man and only the efficiency of the machine.
Never again. Not Gilmore, and not anyone else who he would allow to lay a hand upon one if his family.
Chapter 8: Waking Up
Gilmore was very tempted to boot every one of his cyborgs out of the lab and bring Jet back online himself. Their excitement was palpable but their ability to get in his way even more so.
Jet had, technically, been ready to be woken up yesterday. The last of the checks came up within acceptable parameters and his systems were online and ready. Gilmore had Geronimo move Jet to one of the lab cots where he looked to be merely sleeping, save the wires still hooked into him. It was then Gilmore informed the team that he was going to wait one more day to wake Jet up. Even unconscious, fusing Jet's head back with the body and dealing with the sudden increased input to both the human and cybernetic brains would tax his mind and Gilmore wanted to give him one last bit of rest before rejoining the world. The Professor himself could also use the rest, but he didn't mention that. He didn't need to, the cyborgs could see his tiredness and made no complaint, though Joe couldn't help but make a sad face which Gilmore was all too skilled at ignoring.
In the end, how could he deny them greeting their long-supposed dead teammate back into their world? So here they were, crowding around and being nuisances as Gilmore hooked up his portable interface. Ivan was awake and with them, cradled in Geronimo's large hands.
"Are you sure he's alright?" Great asked, reaching out a hand to poke Jet that Gilmore slapped away, "He still looks…off."
"He's not breathing on his own yet, so he appears too still," Gilmore explained, "He's been without a body so long that his mind's unaccustomed to doing it automatically. Once he's awake and does it himself a few times it should rekindle his instinct to breathe."
"And if he doesn't?"
Gilmore glared at Albert. Sometimes the man's pessimism wasn't helpful. "Then he goes back on the line. He's using emergency reserves right now. If he really can't get it on his own I may have to override him entirely and program the body to breathe for itself and that can cause problems so let us hope it doesn't come to that."
"That threat should get him gasping," GB agreed, "but how long does he have to stay bedridden?"
"That body is completely ready; he should be getting up as soon as he feels like it. Granted, like breathing, he hasn't walked in a while so please be patient and let him get up in his own time. He'll most likely still be very tired and just want to go back to sleep."
Finally, Gilmore punched in the activation code. "Wake up, Jet."
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the slightest twitch of Jet's brow heralded his left eye opening. The right followed, albeit slowly and stayed at half-lidded too long before opening completely. He blinked and stared ahead, face expressionless.
"Jet?" Joe said, leaning forward.
Jet said nothing, made no movement, just continued to stare at nothing.
Gilmore frowned. "002, answer me."
Jet's eyes shifted, the right always trailing behind the left, as he looked about the room. He didn't move his head or any other part of his body. His eyes vaguely looked in their direction as the others called his name, and then returned to straight ahead where he shut his eyes again.
"No you don't," Gilmore grumbled and tapped at the interface. Jet's eyes snapped open and he blinked a few times but made no other reaction.
Ivan's brows furrowed as he watched and again Joe got the cold feeling he knew something they didn't.
Joe placed his hand on Jet's shoulder. "Jet? What's wrong with him, Professor?"
"I'll contact him directly," Gilmore said and attached the interface to the larger computer. He pulled forward the keyboard and typed:
They waited a long moment, and then, on the screen:
Gilmore released a held breath then smiled, shaking his head in relief. "There he is."
002, do you know who I am?
Can you hear me?
Gilmore turned from the computer and said to Jet, "Alright then, 002, please look at me."
Jet didn't move and nothing more appeared on the screen. Gilmore cleared his throat and tried again. Once more nothing happened and he returned to the keyboard.
Can you hear me?
Can you see me?
Turn your head towards me
Gilmore's hands froze on the keyboard. "What..."
002, is your name Isaac Gilmore?
The room went very quiet. Francoise stepped close and said, softly, "Professor, we communicate through the computer with binary."
"Well of course you do how else would…"
"He opened the door for us. We got the password wrong but he still opened the door."
In binary zeroes and ones represented yes and no, or more precisely, open and close. Gilmore's hands dropped to his lap.
"It's an automatic response. He's not actually answering me."
Joe could no longer restrain himself. He pushed forward and grabbed Jet's shoulders and gave him a shake. "Jet! It's me! Can't you see me? Don't you know me?"
Jet didn't even look at him.
Joe, Ivan's telepathy was gentle but 'large' in that way that meant he was communicating with everyone, Jet was locked away. No light, no communication, no contact with anyone. No stimulus but a door. Tests performed on people in which they were denied stimulus started to show breakdown occurring in just a few days. We don't know how long he was in there. The human mind is like a muscle, if it isn't used, it atrophies.
"What are you saying," Joe whispered, "That Jet's…"
"He's a vegetable," Albert ground out, pained. He'd turned away from all of them and was leaning against the doorway, as though it was the only thing keeping him from bolting.
Joe's head snapped to Ivan, waiting, silently begging for him to refute what Albert said, but the infant only looked down.
There is…something. It's automatic but he still is responding to what he perceives the same requests he's been getting for who knows how long. His mind isn't blank, it's just…weak. I can't get a grip on his thoughts they are so scattered and few, and make no sense when I can grab them.
"So he's there, he's just…muddled."
It's more than that, Joe. He's not processing anything. He can't see you. All he sees are baseless shapes that mean nothing, all he hears is noise. Even your touch right now is incomprehensible and uncomfortable. His mind is defining nothing.
And that was the final blow. That excitement they felt that was still clinging to a shred of life withered and drifted away.
"Ivan," Pyunma said, "Did you know this? Did you see into his mind and know he was like this before Gilmore even started rebuilding his body?"
I had a suspicion, due to the circumstance, but Jet did respond to certain stimulus so I had hoped…I didn't know for sure. I hoped.
"So there's nothing we can do?" Joe said, his voice unsteady. He reached out and gently turned Jet's head toward him. The American's eyes shifted around again, settled to the front, and then closed.
Ivan hesitated. As I said, there is something there. It's weak and scattered, but it feels like Jet. Perhaps…Maybe in time, now that he's out of that locker and among us, he could regain some of himself. There's a chance we might be able to help him remember.
"How much of a chance," Albert growled, turning back towards his teammates but looking more primed to fight than anything.
Very slim. But… Despite the fact Jet could have been anywhere in the world, he was in the one place you happened to be. By chance. It was a miracle you found him. Ivan regarded Jet, his own eyes guarded, Perhaps we have a few miracles left.
"This is pretty good," Great said, taking another bite of the chicken curry tetrazzini.
"I wouldn't feed you anything less," Chang grumbled, setting out two more plates as Geronimo and Pyunma came in from their chores. He looked glum, his meal for Jet now just another dinner, minus the greasy nuggets and alcoholic root beer floats, but the ingredients had been there and ready even if Jet was not.
"I'll take a plate down to him later," Joe suggested.
Albert's fork scraped against the plate loudly as he stabbed at his food. "He can't even breathe on his own. What makes you think he can eat?"
"We have to try, Heinrich."
Pyunma let Chang serve him before entering the conversation. "So no improvement, huh?"
"No. Gilmore's going to give him tonight and if he doesn't start breathing on his own he's getting moved back to the med bay and hooked up to an oxygen line, though Gilmore's also considering the ventilator."
"Maybe that'll do the trick," GB said through a mouthful of food, "show him how to do it and kickstart his instinct, like Gilmore said."
"Or maybe it'll just be one more thing done to him that he can't do anything to stop," Albert muttered, still stabbing at his food, "He doesn't know what's going on, who we are, where he is…"
With a heavy sigh Albert set his fork back on the plate. "I'm sorry, guys, I'm not going to be very good company for a while." He stood, picked up his plate, and walked out of the room. Joe made to follow him but both Chang and Great gave him short shakes of their heads.
"Let him handle this his way," Chang said, finally sitting and taking a bite of his own food, "You know how he can get."
"Yeah, I do, that's the point."
Geronimo glanced at where Albert had left and then returned to his meal. "It was always Jet who would help him. He'd kick in Heinrich's door if he had to. You can't be wrapped up in sorrow if you were being annoyed, he'd say."
"Ivan said there might be a chance…"
"A chance, lad," Great sighed, "and I consider myself as optimistic as the next fellow but we do have to consider the possibility that…well. That Jet's not Jet anymore."
Joe frowned at that but didn't argue. He felt tired. He tried to eat but found his appetite lost.
"Is Francoise coming up?"
"She wanted to stay with Jet a little longer. She thinks maybe talking to him will help. Gilmore and Ivan are trying a few things but nothing changed when I came up."
"I'll save her a plate."
"Make one for Jet too, just in case. Worst that'll happen is he won't eat it."
Francoise had run out of words by the time Albert came down to the lab. She'd pulled up a chair to the cot and was humming, her hand straying through Jet's hair in affectionate strokes. Jet's eyes were once again shut in sleep.
Her hand dropped. "No. I don't even think he knows I'm here."
"What's Gilmore have to say?"
"He's going to move Jet back onto oxygen and nutrient lines in the morning. Jet's own oxygen reserves will run until then. He's hoping something will happen but if not…we're going to have to figure something out."
Francoise shook her head. "He honestly doesn't like being in Jet's head right now. Says it's too chaotic and…void. He's only skimmed and says nothing's changed as far as he can tell."
"Chang's made a nice dinner, you best get some while it's hot."
"Go on, I'll stay with him."
She eyed him dubiously and Albert shrugged. "How about…I need to let this sink in so I can deal with it but I'd rather do it in private?"
"Alright," she sighed and stood, pulling the chair forward invitingly for Albert. "Maybe you'll make him mad and he'll wake up just to punch you."
"And for once I'd let him." He dropped into the chair and swiveled, facing his former teammate. Once Francoise's steps faded away he let his nonchalant demeanor drop and stared at Jet.
"So now what?" he muttered, "I get it, you're pissed off. I'd be too. But…"
The words stopped up in his throat, unformed. For two years Albert had gone over and over in his mind what he would have said to Jet if he had had the chance, one last goodbye, one last short lecture on how stupid Jet was, one last plead not to throw his life away…
They bunched in his throat all at once and then trickled back down where they came from. The words didn't matter because Jet still wouldn't hear them. This was no different than before except that his friend's body had been placed before him like a sick reminder of his sins, alive but empty.
Albert reached out and took his hand, his thumb gently kneading circles on the knuckle of Jet's own, like he used to years ago whenever Jet was unconscious and couldn't yell at him about it. His hand was warm. Albert's hands couldn't feel much but they could recognize temperature; it was imperative considering that his own fingers could blow off if the barrels got too hot.
He let go when the first sounds of Joe's footsteps reached his ears. He'd come bearing the promised plate of food.
"He's really not going to eat that," Albert said, softly.
"I had to do something."
"I know. Want to split it?"
"What? Make Jet mad we're eating his food?"
"I honestly wouldn't be that surprised if that worked. Jet, you hear that? We're eating your precious chicken curry tetrazzini!"
Jet didn't move. Joe pulled up another chair and offered the plate to Albert who picked at some chicken.
They ate in silence a few moments when Albert asked, "What do we do if he doesn't…"
"He will," Joe stated, so firmly that Albert almost believed him.
It was like a solemn ceremony that the whole team attended. The morning came and there were no changes in Jet. He lay exactly as he'd been left, his chest still and his eyes half-lidded, staring at nothing. Gilmore was preparing the med bay to put Jet back on life support.
It felt like giving up. Jet was returned to them and yet was not, his body physically there but all that had made their teammate who he was was as dead as he'd been for two years, and Gilmore hooking him up was going to solidify that fact.
"We aren't doing enough," Francoise said, sitting in the chair she'd brought over the night before.
Gilmore sighed and began folding back the blanket on the cot, exposing Jet. "This is just temporary. We'll figure something out. I'm putting him on the ventilator rather than the oxygen line, that might get him breathing again. Geronimo, if you'd please carry him over?"
But Francoise didn't let it go. "What if Albert's right though? What if he perceives it as just another thing he's hooked up to? He was connected to so many things and they meant nothing…" she trailed off as Albert gently tapped the leg of her chair with his foot. They were all accustomed to living with Francoise's power but preferred it if she at least pretended she didn't listen in to their conversations at times. She stood and moved to the cot.
"It's not enough. We have to do something he'd recognize as not just more connections."
She then gently pushed Gilmore aside and swung up onto the cot, straddling Jet. She heard her companions various confused cries but ignored them, grabbing Jet's face and tilting it to her. His eyes shifted at the movement but couldn't find anything to settle on.
"You have to breathe, Jet, like this," she said, firmly, then pressed her mouth to his.
Jet's chest swelled as Francoise forced air into his lungs and his eyes widened at the sensation. The room fell silent as everyone stood, gaping.
Francoise pulled away. "In," she said, then pressed her hands to his abdomen and pushed. A slight rush of air escaped his lips and his blinking increased. "And out."
Jet did nothing, so again Francoise breathed into him and then pushed the air back out, repeating her simple instructions. "In, and out. In, and out, Jet. Come on." She did it again, and again.
"How long are you going to do that?" Chang asked.
"As long as it takes!" she snapped in between breaths.
Chang shifted behind Joe at the look in her eyes. "Your girlfriend is scary."
"I've been telling you all that for years!" Joe hissed.
Albert's hands tightened into fists and he looked away as Francoise continued her attempts. "Francoise, stop. Please."
Gilmore sighed in sorrow and gestured to Geronimo to remove her.
Wait, Ivan said.
Francoise breathed into Jet then leaned back, her hands on his abdomen, and then froze. She felt him move, heard the slightest breath of air escape between his teeth.
"Was that you?" she whispered. He only stared at her, and again she breathed into him, but once more when she merely touched him he breathed out on his own. She smiled. "Yes, just like that. In, and out."
She leaned forward and before their mouths met she heard the weakest of inhalations, but unmistakable. She wait, there was a long pause, and then Jet exhaled.
He did it again on his own, then hesitated. Francoise touched his face and he inhaled alone, exhaled when she touched his side. She did this several more times then leaned back and he breathed on his own, his breaths stronger, though still short. Slowly, watching him to make sure he kept breathing, Francoise slid off the cot.
His eyes followed her movement.
"Now just keep doing that, Jet."
"You did it," Joe said.
Francoise looked to the floor, "I'm sorry, that was a bit impulsive, but when has Jet ever done anything unless we made him do it?" She yelped in surprise as Joe wrapped his arms around her and spun her in the air.
"You did it!" he laughed, setting her back on her feet, "See? He'll get better, we just have to show him!"
"Yes, well maybe someone should sit with him a while, make sure he keeps doing it."
"I'll do it. Make up for doubting you," Albert said, the slightest of smiles at the corner of his mouth.
"You might have get close and kissy with him," Great smirked, "if he stops breathing on his own again."
Albert shrugged. "I've kissed worse."
Gilmore rolled his eyes at his suddenly excited cyborgs' antics and began to replace the blanket over Jet. "Calm down, all of you. This was a big step but Jet has a long way to recovery and if we can't get him to eat or drink on his own he's still going to have to be hooked up to a nutrient line."
"But when we do," Joe said, "then he can be moved upstairs?"
"It's rather soon for that, isn't it?" Gilmore asked, brow raised.
"It would be better for him, right? To be up there with us, not down here, alone."
Gilmore sighed. "Perhaps, but I need to monitor him, Joe. You get him sitting up and eating and I'll consider it."
Joe beamed and knelt beside the cot. "You hear that, Jet?"
Jet stared ahead and took a shaky breath.
Albert's tentative hope tried to stay rekindled as he sat at Jet's bedside through the night. Pyunma came down around two in the morning, offering to swap, but Albert waved him away. He could take a night.
Twice Jet stopped breathing. The first time Albert tapped his cheek and he gasped into wakefulness, eyes darting around and seeing nothing and almost coughing on the exhale. The second time, hours later, a soft tap woke him but he didn't start breathing.
"The things I do for you," Albert muttered, performing mouth-to-mouth until Jet raggedly breathed on his own again. He kept it up after that, though sometimes the space between breaths stretched out uncomfortably long.
It was when Jet was awake that Albert felt that fragile hope begin to wane. Jet saw nothing. Even when he was actually looking at Albert, there was no recognition in his eyes. There was nothing. Just flat blue sheets of glass holding back a void that had slipped into Jet at some point during those two years and eaten him alive.
Albert shuddered. Maybe he should have taken Pyunma's offer.
Jet couldn't comprehend was he was looking at, but he tracked movement. Sometimes, and albeit inaccurately. Albert waved his hand and watched Jet's eyes move around, often looking everywhere but his hand. He made no reaction to sound.
The most dramatic reaction Albert got out of him was when he picked up Jet's hand and began manipulating the fingers. Jet's eyes widened briefly at the sensation, but then returned to their half-lidded, emotionless state.
Be careful not to over stimulate him.
Albert jumped at the sudden intrusion in his mind. "Damnit, Ivan."
I'm sorry, but Jet was without any stimulation for a long time. Just breathing is taking a lot out of him right now, and he's still exhausted from all the surgeries. With everything that's happened today I think he's overwhelmed.
"So stop poking him. Got it."
He needs time to readjust. I feel more confident that he might recover at least some of himself, now.
"Anything changed in his head?"
No, not that I can tell, just…
There was a long pause, and then, Are you alright, Albert?
He chuckled and shook his head. "I want to say now that Jet's back I am but…But I'm just worried. What if…"
He hated himself for saying it, but Ivan knew he was thinking it anyway. "What if this is it? What if his brain's just mush and he can't get better? Wouldn't it…" he almost choked, "Wouldn't it have been better if we never found him? Just blew the damn place up and him with it? Freed him from this."
I can't answer that.
"No one can, that's the point." He scrubbed at his face and forced a smile. Even a fake smile could do wonders for his mood, or just make it easier to pretend. "Don't tell anyone I said that though, okay?"
Of course. But give him a chance?
Albert nodded, though no one could see it, and placed his hand on Jet's shoulder, thumb running slow circles through the fabric. Jet's eyes slid shut.
"What else can I do?"
Chapter 9: Progress
Geronimo's big hand nearly encompassed the whole side of Jet's head as he gently turned it left and then right. Cupped his chin and slowly tilted his head back, and then pushed down on his crown to have him look straight again.
"What are you doing?" Gilmore asked, emerging from the med bay with the portable interface in hand.
Geronimo sat in the now straining chair and leaned over Jet while Ivan sat nestled between Jet's knees. The infant regarded the professor and explained:
Jet learned to breathe again when Francoise did it for him, so Geronimo and I are attempting to get Jet to move by having him experience the sensation. Hopefully that will help him to remember.
Geronimo continued to tilt Jet's head for him. "He moves his eyes but can't move his head. He can't look around. That must be very frustrating to him, maybe frightening. He's trapped."
Gilmore sighed and set down the interface, leaning against the cot. "That's well and good but he can't comprehend what he sees. You said so yourself, Ivan."
This is true, but he can see movement and maybe even know something is there. But yes, I can see how that would not encourage him to bother moving. After two years it must be difficult, even if the body is healthy.
"So we make it worth his while to look," Geronimo intoned, sitting back. He thought a moment, then said, "He can see movement, so I assume he can he see contrasts? Like light and dark? Does he understand that?"
Ivan glanced at Jet, as though searching, and then shook his head. He doesn't understand, but he does recognize the opposite of that which made his entire world for a time. When he's not trying to follow movement he stares at that light over there.
"All right, then. Professor, turn off the corridor light. Also get a penlight."
The loss of the corridor light dimmed the room but did not darken it, so Gilmore, understanding Geronimo's intent, flipped off the room light as well. Jet, with nothing to focus on, shut his eyes. Geronimo tapped at his cheek with a thumb and his eyes fluttered open, though remained half-lidded. Accepting the penlight from Gilmore, Geronimo turned it on and shined it near Jet's face. Sure enough, Jet's eyes slid to the light source and followed it as Geronimo slowly moved it across his vision. He held it at the edge of Jet's perception a moment, and then dipped it out of Jet's line of sight.
Jet blinked and his brow twitched slightly but he didn't move his head. It was impossible to tell if he even tried to before he shut his eyes again.
"Focus, Jet," Geronimo said, tapping him into wakefulness again. He tilted Jet's head through the motions, trying to show him he could turn and look, and then flipped on the light. Jet's eyes followed it but continued to make no movement.
"Is he getting any of this? Is he frustrated?" Gilmore asked Ivan.
He isn't feeling anything. He doesn't comprehend or…there's just nothing now. Geronimo, I think he's burying himself deeper, we should stop.
"One more time," Geronimo said, and shined the light near Jet's eyes again.
He didn't track the light this time, just stared ahead. Geronimo lowered it to the edge of Jet's perception then flipped it on and off, flickering it directly into his teammate's eyes. Jet's attention snapped to the light and Geronimo once more lowered it out of sight.
It was slight and sudden, but Jet's head shifted, lifting his chin up more than turning towards the flickering light, but barely returning it to his line of sight.
Gilmore turned the main lights back on and returned the penlight to its place. "I'm glad you are all making progress but please don't frustrate him. He was fighting you in the end."
Fighting would be a good thing, Professor, but he just shut down. He was retreating. That's worrisome.
"Is he alright now?" Geronimo asked.
Same as he was. There is nothing. I don't like being in there it's like…drowning.
"Should we stop?"
I don't know.
"Well give me a moment to run some checks if you're going to start that all over again," Gilmore said, retrieving his portable interface and shooing Geronimo aside to access Jet's connection ports.
The large man scoot down to Jet's middle. He considered his bedridden friend and lifted Jet's hand, curling the forearm and rotating the wrist slowly. Jet should use his hands again before he started walking, he thought.
Ivan's eyes snapped to Jet and his brows furrowed slightly in his version of a frown.
Geronimo, he doesn't like that.
"What? This motion? Am I hurting him?" Geronimo stopped his ministrations and placed Jet's arm down before Ivan had a chance to answer. His physical strength was not a joke, even to other cyborgs and he had accidentally hurt them before, though it had been a long time since he'd done so.
No…touch does. Any touching is unpleasant and I can catch glimpses of discomfort from him when we do it. I couldn't confirm it before, it gets lost in all the nothingness.
Geronimo regarded his teammate with sorrow. "Humans need touch, to feel that connection with each other. And Jet was very tactile."
It's probably just too much stimulation right now; he's not used to the sensation. As he gets better it will go away.
"We're going to have to touch and move him anyway."
Yes, but we can take more breaks in between sessions now that we know there's an issue.
"I agree with Ivan's assessment," Gilmore said, detaching the interface, "Everything's still coming up good on this end. As far as the cybernetics are concerned he's nearly mission ready." The professor paused and pat Geronimo on the arm, "Give him time, all of you. If I have to hook him up to a nutrient line then so be it. Small steps will still take you somewhere eventually."
Despite Joe's sighs and Francoise varying excuses, Gilmore had Jet returned to the med bay and hooked up to a nutrient feed.
"He's doing very well, considering," he said, performing a last check on the lines and wires, "Last night he started moving his mouth on his own, he looked pretty surprised at that, and this morning he turned his head towards me when I came in."
"I was just hoping he'd be back upstairs with us by now," Joe sighed.
"Ivan says that would be too overstimulating for him right now. He shuts down when you all pass through to visit as it is. I know it's hard to hear, Joe, but he doesn't know who we are. He's possibly very frightened and frustrated and if being left down here where it's quiet and there are fewer people is what he needs then that's what I'm going to do. Give him time."
"At this rate he might be able to sit up with support soon. If he's moving his mouth he could try to eat solid food and if so I'll move him back out of here and consider sending him upstairs. Even then, just to your room and with limited visits."
Joe froze. "Oh no."
"With Jet coming back and all we bought him clothes, toiletries, got him that damn expensive shampoo, snacks…"
"You forgot about a bed, didn't you."
"We forgot the bed."
"Well how fortunate you have time to get one then, isn't it?"
Joe turned red and hurried out of the lab.
Gilmore shook his head and readjusted Jet's blankets. "Sometimes I wonder about that boy. What do you think, Jet?"
Jet's jaw cracked open in a yawn and he looked very surprised about it.
"It's just soup, Jet. It's not going to hurt you."
"He doesn't look afraid of the soup he looks bored."
Chang glared over his shoulder at Great. "He hasn't eaten in two years and I am trying to be assuring. Let me do this, you said you'd help."
"I got him propped up, didn't I? …Blimey he's creepy when he stares like that. Did he always do that?"
"Sometimes when we played poker, yes."
Great set up the folding tray and Chang prepared the soup. It was mostly broth with a few chunks of meat and vegetables, warmed but not hot. Simple, easy to eat, and no big loss should more of it end up on Jet than in him, though Chang was hoping against anything like that.
Jet's eyes shifted around as they moved, his head tilting forward some before plopping back against the pile of pillows.
Great's annoyed yet amiable expression sobered. "That's not very encouraging, Chang. You sure he's ready for this?"
"No, I'm not sure. But I'll keep trying until he is. Right, Jet?"
Jet coughed on him.
"Should he be coughing? Cybernetic lungs and all."
"Gilmore says he's fine. Are you going to let me try or just run useless commentary?"
"Sorry, sorry. He just doesn't look that good…"
"It's the lab lighting. You don't look so great right now either!"
GB glowered as Chang sniggered and whispered to Jet, "I wouldn't blame you if you chose to expire right this second."
"Anyway, monsieur, after two long years we present to you, freshly heated from a can–"
"It's not from a can!"
With a flourish, GB bowed out of the way and let Chang take over, sitting to the side in case he was needed. His theatrics were lost on his audience at the moment anyway. Still, it felt wrong not to do something.
"Alright, Jet," Chang said, lifting up half a spoonful of broth, "this is easy, just open your mouth and swallow."
Jet was compliant as Chang gently opened his mouth and fed him the broth. Too compliant, for as soon as the spoon was withdrawn Jet tilted his head forward and the broth began dribbling out from between his lips.
"No no no no!" Chang cried, shutting his mouth and wiping at it with a paper towel, "Swallow! You remember that, don't you? Like this." He started taking exaggerated swallows of air with loud gulping noises.
"He can't see you doing that, remember?"
Chang frowned but made no comment, trying to think. Slowly he tilted Jet's head back and with his free hand ran his thumb down Jet's throat. "Swallow," he whispered.
Jet coughed, choked, and then swallowed, following it with a low moan.
"Hey, he made a noise," GB said, "A clearly unhappy noise but a noise."
Chang ignored him. "Can you do that again, Jet?" He fed him another spoonful and tilted his head back. Jet swallowed without Chang massaging his throat and with less choking. After a few more tries, Jet started swallowing his food without needing to lean back.
"There we go, good job!" Chang praised, "See, eating isn't hard. You ready to try chewing?"
Jet just stared.
Chang selected a carrot, small and already mashed enough that chewing wasn't even a necessity, and fed it to him, gently moving his jaw. Jet picked up what he was supposed to do quicker this time and chewed and swallowed on his own.
"This is wonderful," Chang said, "He's learning much faster now. Let's see if there's a small enough piece of meat…" he started sifting through the bowl.
"What? He's eating."
Great's face was solemn and he gestured to Jet. The younger man continued to slowly chew on nothing as tears rolled down his face from dead, staring eyes.
"Oh no," Chang fretted, dropping the spoon and dabbing at the tears, "What's wrong, Jet? Is it too hot? Did I hurt you? Why are you crying?" Despite his ministrations Jet's tears continued to fall and Chang began to panic.
GB put a hand on his arm, "I think he's just done for today," he said, voice soft and calming.
Chang looked away. "Sorry."
"Don't be, you got him to eat. It's probably just too much for him right now. We'll try again later."
Great gathered the soup and the tray while Chang tried to dry Jet's tears. The last thing he needed was burning, crusty eyelids. Then he pulled out some of the pillows and eased Jet back. As soon as he was prone Jet's eyes slid shut.
"See?" GB whispered, as though afraid to wake Jet up, "He's just tired. Come on, let's go brag. You got him figuring out how to eat faster than anything else he's done so far."
The room was smaller with two beds than Joe remembered it. It didn't seem this small in his memories when he and Jet shared and could only conclude that he was too accustomed to having his own space.
Either that or his room was built smaller than with the old house, which he wouldn't put past his team, really.
The new bed was assembled and made with the flannel sheets Jet liked. Normally they were too warm for the southern heat but with winter creeping up Joe grabbed them readily. Francoise finally snapped at him to calm down when he fluffed Jet's pillow for the fifth time.
Jet was sitting up with support and capable of holding his head up on his own. While still incapable of feeding himself he ate whatever was fed to him and was on a proper eating schedule. Gilmore removed him from the nutrient line two days ago and this morning grudgingly agreed to allow Jet upstairs under Joe's promise that he'd let him rest.
Their room was, Joe thought, in one of the better locations of the house. The windows faced east, allowing plenty of morning sun but none of the overly hot sun of the afternoon and evening. Their view faced out into open desert, rather than the driveway. Pyunma and Geronimo's room had the best view of the lake from their room, but Jet had always liked the open view. The old house had burn marks on the windowsill from when Jet would fly out the window and Joe had lamented their loss.
Their old house had burned away proof that Jet was ever there. Everything of his was gone and never replaced because there was no Jet in the new house. He'd been wiped from their lives completely save their memories and that wasn't enough for Joe.
A photograph on the mantel and a hidden jacket was all there was.
"Joe, what are you going to do if…if this is it, for Jet. If he doesn't get any better."
"I…" he hesitated, "He's not locked away, he's not being hurt anymore. He's here, with us, where he belongs." Joe sighed, "That's enough for me."
"But I'm not giving up on him that easily."
Heavy footsteps on the stairs heralded Geronimo carrying Jet up. He was followed by Gilmore, carrying Ivan, and the eyes of the rest of the team, anxiously watching the small procession. Jet was as limp and emotionless as ever, not even bothering to look around at the mess that was how his mind interpreted the world.
Francoise rolled back the sheets and Geronimo laid him down and helped tuck him under the blanket.
"Joe, is this blanket all you have? He might get cold at night."
"No, I got him this," Joe said, hauling a large wadded blanket out of the closet, "Jet! I got you one of those huge tacky white tiger blankets you love so much."
Francoise fought against her lip curling in disgust but failed. "He…likes those?"
"He likes that they're tacky. And huge. He's a tall guy."
"I use them," Geronimo said, and shrugged at his teammates' stares, "I get the patterns, not the tacky animals. They're huge."
"Alright, everyone," Gilmore announced as they tucked the large blanket around Jet, "remember I agreed that Jet could stay up here if you all let him relax and didn't try to push him. Ivan says moving him even these short distances puts him under a lot of stress so I'd like you to let him rest for the remainder of the day. That means you too, Joe. Come get me if anything changes or he looks troubled."
He gave them one last suspicious side-eye then nearly walked into a wall of cyborgs in the doorway who scattered as he shooed them off.
Francoise ran a hand gently through Jet's hair. "Will you two be okay? I figure the fewer of us around for a bit the better."
"Yeah, we'll be okay. Thanks, Francoise, G."
Geronimo escorted Francoise out of the room and quietly shut the door behind them. Joe preferred the door open during the day but agreed that right now Jet needed the quiet. Joe couldn't tell if it was indeed the short journey upstairs or just the natural lighting but Jet looked drawn, his eyes half-lidded and his breathing a little heavy.
Sitting on his own bed felt too far away so Joe pulled up the chair and sat beside Jet. He was aware how awkward he probably looked, staring at him as intently as he was, but it felt different. Jet was out of the lab, back in their house, back in the daylight, alive.
"Welcome home, Jet."
Chapter 10: Dread Normalcy
"You don't know how tempting it is to avenge myself and start 'stop hitting yourself' him," Great said, curling Jet's forearm.
Pyunma smirked. "It wouldn't really count as vengeance if he doesn't know you're doing it. Here, lift his arm more to get his shoulder moving."
"Yeah but I might get some satisfaction from it."
It will have to wait, Ivan said, once again sitting between Jet's knees, it's been five minutes. Give him a break and then we'll start on the other arm.
Unlike in humans, the artificial muscle required no exercise to stave off atrophy or blood clots. Jet could hop out of bed and run a marathon regardless of if he'd been in bed for a few days or a few weeks, but his mind continued to only progress when encouraged by his teammates.
"How's he doing, Ivan?" Pyunma asked.
Ivan glanced at him and Pyunma didn't miss the annoyance in his eyes. He was growing tired of his position as Jet interpreter. I don't know. I'm staying out of his mind, I've explained this. If anything significant changes I will sense it, otherwise expect him to be the same.
They sat through the five minutes in awkward silence, giving Jet a break from forced stimulation. The current rule was five minutes of movement followed by a five minute break. Jet remained still save the occasional clenching of his fists in his lap that he started doing the day before.
Finally Pyunma's internal chronometer pinged him and he lifted Jet's arm, curling the forearm, lifting the elbow, and rotating the shoulder.
The arm felt real. Gilmore always rebuilt them as close to their original forms as he could and that included the frame shaped to the skeleton when possible. The artificial skin yielded and stretched and the muscle beneath shifted under his fingers. Granted, the arms solidified under activation of the armor shell and would split into panels in high-speed flight mode, but for now they were as real as possible. There were flaws, or more correctly there weren't flaws revealing the true nature of the body: no discoloration found in real skin, no scars or freckles, and no marks where Jet once chewed his knuckles. There was no hair on the arm, or anywhere that wasn't Jet's head, and this was true of all of them, save GB when he wished it.
The construction of Jet's lower legs was an entirely different story. They looked normal enough when relaxed, but if one looked closely when he flexed it was obvious there were no tightening muscles under the skin; he looked like a doll with a set shape. There was no room with the jet system in there, and a touch would reveal the feel of metal and tubing under the skin.
Still, Pyunma thought, rotating Jet's wrist, it was amazingly accurate considering Jet had been just a head a few weeks ago. Gilmore and Grant produced a brand new yet customized body that passed as real in a week that was ready for use the moment it came online.
In this, their withdrawal from the world frustrated him. The Gilmore Foundation had been taking the knowledge gleaned from the weapons of Black Ghost and turning them into medical marvels. Prosthetics that could feel, connecting robotics to the human mind, artificial skin that felt real… All this Black Ghost had in the sixties, and yet were only now becoming breakthroughs in mainstream modern science.
Cyborgs were being made all over the world, had been for some time, and yet that technology still remained within the control of governments and hidden societies.
Which was why while they, the 00 cyborgs, went back to their missions, Gilmore began to try to work his way back into the science community. They'd been shunned by the UN, then declared fugitives who hid away in the desert, then pursued, and now…nothing. They were left alone and their records officially clean courtesy of Igarashi.
Officially, but records did not hold memories like people did, and Gilmore wasn't going to be able to waltz back into such a tight-knit group without an uncomfortable amount of schmoozing. Fortunately Gilmore was better at that than the cyborgs gave him credit. The last two years indeed found them at least once in scientific conferences where they looked their best and smiled for the elite.
Pyunma hated it, but it helped Gilmore. And it wasn't a new thing for them, they'd done it all the time back before the UN had disbanded them. It had always been more of a night of standing around Francoise and protecting her from creepy old men without looking like that's what they were doing, with the occasional need to protect Joe or Albert from aggressive older women. This was usually done by Jet who would barge over and proceed to play up his "uncouth street kid" act until they got disgusted and went away.
Except the time that got him into bed with a nuclear physicist who apparently found this "charming". The worst part was they stayed in contact and he continued to disappear with her whenever they were at the same event.
Five minutes pinged in his mind and Pyunma set down Jet's arm.
Reminiscences? Ivan asked.
"Just some horror stories from better times," Pyunma smiled.
We are expected to be at the next cybernetics conference, you know that, right?
GB beamed and Pyunma cursed.
Joe shuddered awake, his sleep disturbed by an unknown. Even in the safety of their home Joe was a light sleeper, the decades of fighting and horror creeping under his subconscious wouldn't allow him otherwise.
The room was dark, near black with the curtains drawn, and he switched to infrared to see Jet sitting up in bed on his own, staring at the corner of the room. Joe could see his wide-blown pupils, actually focused on something, and it sent a trickle of cold down his back. He glanced at the corner. There was nothing but the chair.
"Jet?" he whispered.
Jet shifted, his movement sudden and wrong, and slowly lifted an arm, holding out a clawed hand to the corner. He was breathing heavily.
"What are you doing? Did you have a nightmare?"
It was only when Joe sat up that Jet's arm lowered and he flopped back onto the bed.
Joe switched back to normal vision and turned on the lamp on the nightstand. Jet was asleep.
"Am I having a nightmare?" he wondered. He turned out the light and lie down, but didn't sleep for a while. Jet didn't move for the rest of the night.
The excitement of Jet's return into their lives simmered down to normalcy. Every day Joe got up and propped Jet up against his headboard before going to perform his own morning ablutions. Chang would come in and feed him a quick breakfast of soup or something mashed while Joe was fighting for the bathroom before preparing breakfast for everyone else. Joe would return, dress, and then brush Jet's teeth and hair for him before going down to eat.
Breakfast allowed everyone a break, including Jet who would get stressed after all the manhandling. Ivan always kept a peripheral eye on him when he was alone, but the truth was Jet didn't do anything if no one was there to encourage him. The most he'd done after realizing he could move his arms on his own was stare at his hands for a few hours. Geronimo tried giving him things to hold and look at, but while Jet would grab whatever was put in his hand he'd eventually drop it without even glancing at it.
Everyone swung through at least once throughout the day to say hi and check up on him. This habit would be increasingly important when Ivan fell into his half-month of sleep, which was any time now. Pyunma came in before lunch to run through Jet's exercises, focused on the legs now, and happily talked to him about what had gone on so far during the day and any plans they had for the evening. Jet would stare off and not pay attention.
Francoise read to him in the evening. Chang fed him. Joe changed his sheets and scrubs and was constantly talking or showing Jet things he couldn't see. Albert would sit with him in silence, staring into his eyes like he was searching for something or reaching out to take Jet's hand only to remember he shouldn't.
Jet would sometimes cry, tears falling from emotionless eyes while his mouth moved soundlessly.
Ivan went into his restorative sleep.
Normalcy worked Jet back into their lives, but it also meant those daily frustrations brought by his presence were no longer covered by the gloss of joy. Albert was endlessly frustrated, even about things that had nothing to do with Jet, and took it out on everybody. Chang snapped at them when breakfast was very late one morning, reminding everyone he had to prepare food for and feed Jet as well and they could damn well wait. Sometimes, on busy days, Jet was forgotten and left alone for hours. Fortunately he never seemed to notice.
These frustrations were smoothed over as they happened. A sense of guilt hung upon them, as though to acknowledge such frustrations meant that the cyborgs were ungrateful that Jet was home, that it lessened the value of his presence. It couldn't last and they knew it. Family just didn't work like that.
The last pretense ended when Joe came up from hauling in the monthly supplies to find Jet slumped against the headboard, vomit trailing down the front of his shirt and pooled in his lap.
"What did you feed him?" Joe snapped at Chang as Geronimo carried Jet to the bathroom.
"The same thing I always do! Soup! Soup and mashed vegetables. He can't actually chew, you know, he just moves his jaw up and down. I keep trying to show him but nothing gets through to him!"
Albert stormed up the stairs, ready for a fight. "Who the hell left him alone for so long? He could have been sitting there covered in vomit for hours!"
"Jet's been perfectly fine when alone so far," Great said, trying to remain the voice of reason but clearly angry with Albert's tone, "I don't recall you up here with him, so don't go yelling at us about it."
"Enough! All of you!" Francoise yelled. She continued more quietly when her teammates fell silent, "So far Jet has been alright on his own, so we couldn't predict this. But now that we know something like this can happen we should make sure to check up on him more often. Maybe we should set up a rotating schedule for Jet's care. We may have to accept…" she took a breath, steeled herself, then said, firmly, "We may have to accept that this is permanent. That Jet may not get better."
"He'll get better," Joe retorted, though it was soft.
"I hope so too, Joe, but we have to be prepared for otherwise."
The group of cyborgs clustered around the stairway fell silent for a moment, listening as Geronimo filled the bath.
"Let's focus on the problem at hand, right now," Pyunma said, "Why did Jet throw up? He's almost entirely cybernetic now he can't be sick."
"It's not my food," Chang snapped, still defensive.
Francoise sighed, tired of the building tension, tired and angry with herself for being almost annoyed at Jet for just not being magically better. "We don't know what goes on in his head. Something may have happened, anything, a noise, a bird at the window, that could have upset him and made him nervous. Sometimes if you get too worked up you just…"
"We should still get Gilmore up here, just to be sure," GB suggested, "he's been coughing lately too. Maybe he picked up a brand new cybernetic bug. Wouldn't be the first time," he couldn't help but chuckle.
Joe winced at that. "He's been sort of…wheezy, sometimes at night. He'll start gasping, or stop breathing for a long time. I thought I was dreaming the first time but he keeps doing it."
Great nodded, "I'll go get the good Doctor, then."
The group began to disperse, Albert heading into the bathroom after Geronimo while Pyunma recovered the dirtied scrubs for the laundry.
"Joe," Francoise said, gently touching his arm, "Come help me remove the sheets from Jet's bed."
"Yeah, coming. Chang, I'm sorry. I saw him like that and just…"
"You want someone to blame," Chang cut in before Joe could finish, "I understand. I want to find who did this to him and make them pay, too, but that's not going to happen. Even if we did know, it's not our vengeance to get, is it?"
Joe shuddered and followed after Francoise.
Jet was already in the tub when Albert entered, Geronimo cradling his head in his hand as he ran water from the handheld showerhead through his hair.
"Giving him a full bath, huh?" Albert said.
Geronimo shrugged. "Might as well, since he's in here."
"Need any help?"
"I think I got it. Wait, here, hold his head while I scrub him down."
Geronimo shifted and Albert wedged himself in between the large man and the wall, gently supporting Jet's head and shoulders. Geronimo lathered up a washcloth and began to clean Jet who didn't react save a low moan in his throat.
"I know you don't like it," Geronimo said, "I'll try to be quick."
"Getting sick on yourself doesn't help," Albert murmured to Jet, "Why'd you go and do that anyway? Are you sick? Sick of the same food, maybe? I wish you could talk to us."
"You aren't handling this well."
Geronimo's tone wasn't accusatory but Albert still felt his artificial blood stir. "Are any of us, really? Look at him, remember how he was and look at him!"
"I see him."
"We left him. We weren't even looking for him and we let this happen," his voice was rising and he didn't even want it to, "We just…forgot him."
Geronimo's sigh was so deep Albert felt it in his metal frame. "We didn't forget him, we thought he was dead."
"We should have tried harder! We should have known!"
"Blaming yourself doesn't help him, 004, and lower your voice you're probably upsetting him."
Albert wanted to yell, to keep yelling until his vocal unit needed to be reset, but instead he snapped his mouth shut and took a long breath, the air whistling between his teeth.
They gave up. They didn't even look and left Jet to suffer…
There was little left of Jet and it was trashed, how could they have known? No one sensed him, could communicate with him…
Jet had no way of contacting them. He was alone and helpless and they didn't even look…
But they did try. Joe nearly killed himself trying…
Jet was sawed open multiple times, his jaw broken and face rotting…
"Sorry," Albert whispered. He didn't know if he said it to Jet or Geronimo. He was looking at Jet, watching that blank face for any reaction, something that could communicate a want or need to him. Anything that wasn't this emotionless and yet still so miserable expression. There was no peace in Jet's face, just the nothing of surrender to a torment that would never end. Albert was damn sure it was the same face he made himself back at Black Ghost.
It made him so angry.
Geronimo passed him the showerhead. "Rinse him off, then I'll hold him while you dry."
Gilmore's checks came back the same as before: everything was fine. He had no answer for why Jet was coughing and having breathing problems, much less what could have caused him to be sick all over himself. It nearly resulted in a shouting match between him and his cyborgs as there clearly was a problem but no one could figure what it was and Jet was incapable of telling them.
Jet was stressed and trembling by the time he was returned to his bed, occasionally making low whimpers and his hands clenching air. Chang was hesitant to feed him like this but with the loss of his breakfast Jet had little nutrients all day. He ate and the food stayed down, to everyone's relief.
Two days later it happened again, and from then on it became a gamble. Sometimes Jet ate with no problems and other times he would convulse and vomit it all back up. Once he did it late in the night, startling Joe awake who had to quickly roll Jet to his side before he choked on his own sick.
Every test Gilmore ran came back with the same result. There was absolutely nothing wrong.
And Jet continued to cough and gasp at random.
Chapter 11: Pitfall
Joe found himself on Jet duty more than anyone else, the excuse being that if Jet was sick Joe could use the accelerator to grab the plastic bucket they'd placed by the bed and get it into position before the accident occurred. He saved many sheets and scrubs this way.
Not that Joe minded. For one thing, they shared a room; he spent the most time with Jet anyway. For the other, Joe wanted to learn Jet's mannerisms, minimal as they were, that he could deal with Jet's needs without relying on Ivan. So far he'd had no luck. Jet reacted to very little, his world incomprehensible, staring at nothing and not moving unless forced, and even then only barely.
Jet didn't need constant watching and Joe was free to roam the house, but he stayed close by, using this time to do chores he normally avoided. He did his laundry and cleaned the bathroom, something the rest of the team appreciated. However, most of the time Joe just found reasons to stay in their bedroom, eventually buying a larger screen for his computer so he and Jet could watch movies from their beds.
Or Joe would watch movies while Jet drooled on himself. That was a new habit no one was enjoying. Chang reported that Jet was having trouble swallowing again and Joe worried that Jet was forgetting things even as he relearned them. Yet like the vomiting it was a problem that came and went. Sometimes Jet sat up on his own and stared at his hands or the chair in the corner, apparently aware when someone was in the room but unable to comprehend anything beyond that. Other times he seemed to collapse in upon himself. He would slump against the headboard or flop sideways on the bed, wheeze or stop breathing entirely, and drool on himself. He saw nothing in this state, reacting to neither movement nor bright light.
It would pass, and after a few hours Jet would slowly sit up and turn his head when Joe or whoever was watching him moved. He might cry, or his eyes would lock on the chair in the corner again, his mouth moving soundlessly.
Joe glanced up from his comic book. Jet was staring at the chair again.
"What're you looking at? You're always looking right there. Can you see the chair?" He tossed his comic aside and slid off his bed, moving to the corner.
"Is this chair pissing you off?" he asked, unable to help the slight smile, "Is it looking at you funny? I know you hate that."
Jet didn't look at him, only the chair with a stare that was far too focused for Jet's current mental capabilities. He was seeing something. Joe suddenly got a cold feeling.
He picked up the chair and began to cross the room, intending to put it in the hall, but Jet didn't track him. Joe paused and glanced back at the now empty corner that still somehow held Jet's interest. He should have followed Joe's movement.
Joe set down the chair and stepped into the corner, facing Jet.
"You're seeing something, can you see me now, here?"
Jet broke contact, his eyes dropping to his hands in his lap.
Joe sighed. "I really wish I knew what was going on with you."
Slowly, Jet slid his arm to his side and tilted his shoulders, starting to slump. Joe almost lunged to catch him but stopped himself when Jet's other arm shifted to the same side, supporting him as he ever so carefully rotated himself, turning away from Joe and rolling onto his side.
"You rolled over," Joe said, the weirdness of the corner-stare vanishing under hope, "You rolled over all by yourself! Good job, Jet!"
His happiness bounced uselessly off Jet's indifferent back.
Francoise's plot of garden had been too-long ignored and the encroaching winter was causing damage for which she did not prepare. With everything going on it'd slipped her mind, but now with everyone busy and Albert on Jet duty for the day, it was time to catch up. The days were still overly warm and she took the opportunity to do an extra bout of watering with the hose. She couldn't help a tiny glare of jealousy at Chang's immaculate plot. Geronimo had had a plot of his own once but relocated his flora to the lakeside where he wouldn't be bound by plots or forced to share space. She assumed he was out there now.
A heavy thump and a grunt coming from upstairs had her dropping the hose and dashing into the house even before her vision located the source. Jet. Where the hell was Albert?
She ran up the stairs to Joe and Jet's room. Jet was crumpled on the floor, the blankets and sheets partially pulled down with him from when he slid off the bed.
"Oh, Jet," she sighed and stepped forward to help him.
A metal hand grabbed her arm.
"Wait," Albert hissed.
"What do you mean 'wait'? Were you just standing there while he…"
"I went to the bathroom it's not like I pushed him off the bed, he did that himself."
"Well now I'll help him myself since you're okay with leaving him on the floor!"
"Damnit, Francoise, look!"
Jet shifted, slowly pulling his arms under himself, an occasional 'mmph' or 'hnng' escaping his throat. He arched his shoulders, pushing himself up, readjusting his legs until he was on hands and knees, one arm reaching around him, seeking.
"Come on," Albert whispered, "get up."
His hand was uncomfortably tight on Francoise's arm, but she too could only watch Jet and didn't notice.
Jet's fingers brushed the messed blankets and he paused, then gripped them. He turned, awkwardly clawing at air with his other hand until he found the solidity of the mattress beneath his hand and leaned forward. He was moving so slowly the sudden lurch forward into the bed was startling and he let out a small grunt. Francoise instinctively moved but Albert continued to hold her fast.
Grasping the blankets, Jet clawed his way up until his arms and shoulders rested on top of the mattress and then he apparently decided that was good enough. He put his head down and went still. Only then did Albert's hand loosen its grip.
She angrily brushed his arm away and went into the room, kneeling next to Jet.
"Are you going to help me get him back in bed or just continue waiting for him to start struggling again?" she said, glaring.
Albert's mouth twisted in annoyance but he took hold of Jet's shoulders and helped heft him back onto the bed. "He was moving on his own, under his own initiative, that's hardly struggling, Francoise. This is what we've been waiting for."
"We can get him moving again without letting him hurt himself."
"Falling out of bed won't hurt him," Albert couldn't help the eye roll, "He's still a cyborg like the rest of us."
Francoise shot him another glare and angrily pulled the blankets over Jet. "He doesn't know what's going on. It might not physically hurt him but suddenly falling might scare him, he could be panicking and we wouldn't know it. And if just touching him causes discomfort don't you think hitting the floor might actually cause him pain? Are you okay with that?"
Albert stepped back and crossed his arms across his chest in his usual angry-defensive posture. "He doesn't mind a few bumps when trying to do something. Jet hates being coddled, you know that."
"This isn't–!" Francoise cut herself off. She looked away from Albert and began to tuck the blankets around Jet, her movements now gentle.
"What? This isn't Jet? Is that what you were going to say?"
The fight drained out of her. Francoise sat on the bed and began to run her hand through Jet's hair. He shut his eyes and turned his head away. The noise they were making was probably bothering him.
"He's not himself right now," she said, her voice soft and tired, "We can't expect him to react to things like he used to. He can't help himself, so we have to help him." She paused, refusing to meet Albert's eyes as she whispered, "I won't abandon him again."
She heard Albert sigh, though it was not an angry one. "I'm sorry, Francoise."
That wasn't what she was expecting and she glanced at him.
"When we were fighting the Blessed, I accepted being left behind on the satellite; sacrificing ourselves for the greater good isn't exactly new for us. But Jet and Joe were the ones who would have to carry my death with them. Then Joe managed to save me anyway and that guilt was alleviated. But Jet was still gone."
"I left him behind."
"You were in a combat situation and the others were still in danger. Jet understood that. He would have done the same. And you did go back for him, he just wasn't there anymore."
She felt hot tears roll down her cheeks, swatted at them. "I tell myself that every day, but it doesn't help. Had I just stayed and looked for him…" the tears fell in earnest now and she didn't bother to stop them, her perfect vision blurring into uselessness.
Unyielding metal arms wrapped around her and she let Albert pull her into an embrace.
"I'm sorry we left you to carry that all this time."
She wept into his shoulder. There had been no blame from any of them, not a look or a word, probably not even a thought. This was the life they led. And yet the blame was still there within herself, and every time she looked at the metal feather hanging in the Dolphin's cockpit she could hear the festering chant you left him you left him you left him to die. Now Jet was alive but the guilt had only grown fiercer, emboldened from a chant to a cackle.
You left him, and they broke him. They destroyed him. The Jet you loved is gone but here is the empty shell they left behind…
But she wasn't the only one now. The guilt was stronger and so had latched onto the others, leaping from her onto them like sinewy black virus. She wrapped her arms around Albert in kind and squeezed.
"It's not your fault either."
This would not assuage the guilt, only Jet could do that, but the tears helped the ache and their embrace reminded them that it was a thing to carry together. That the whole team could carry, as they always had.
Jet shifted, rolling onto his side with his back to them and coughed.
"Quiet, you," Albert said, "We're having a moment."
Francoise couldn't help but chuckle into his neck. "We're probably bothering him. Too much stimulation right now."
"All right," Albert let go and stood, "Let's give him some quiet. You want ice cream?"
Francoise arched an eyebrow. "Really? I get upset and you immediately go for ice cream?"
He crossed his arms and glared. "Well I was going to get some and was offering to share but now I don't think I want to." He even stuck out his tongue at her.
"Ice cream it is," she smiled, "But let's eat it up here in case he tries to make another escape."
"I really don't want to stop him if he tries."
Francoise sighed. No more fighting today. "How about I bring this up at dinner and we can make a plan for getting him on his feet that doesn't involve him falling out of bed. We all want him back on his feet as much as you do."
"Now, ice cream."
Ivan woke to the usual welcomes and updates he'd come to expect over the decades, followed by a warm bottle of milk. With the team grounded for now, there was little on which to update him, and yet he found himself bombarded with the news that Jet had stood on his own for a full two minutes from multiple teammates.
If one could call that awkward, hunched posture standing. Jet would not stand upright, but bent into himself, arms tucked into his chest and legs knock-kneed. But he was up, and would stay that way for a time when his teammates stopped supporting him. Jet, as always, didn't fight them when they extended his arms or pulled his shoulders back to straighten them, but as soon as they let go he bent back into his hunched position as though it was his natural one.
Despite this, the emotions Ivan was feeling from everyone were hopeful, and they were already discussing the best way to get Jet walking again.
But there was something else. Not just in their emotions, but the way they acted around Ivan. He caught them eyeing him sometimes, a question clearly burning on their tongues but not wanting to ask because they knew he didn't want to hear it. He didn't know why they bothered; he could hear the question projecting from their minds as clearly as if they asked it verbally, if not clearer.
While Jet may be improving physically, Ivan announced during dinner, his mind is the same as ever. I know it's not what you wanted to hear, but you all were dying to ask me so, there.
They all stared at him as though bewildered, then guilty.
"Oh, uh," Joe said, "We weren't going to ask but…thanks."
Ivan rolled his eyes, though not without fondness. He loved his teammates dearly but sometimes they were so weird.
And coming from a telepathic cybernetic baby that meant something.
A cry and the shattering of glass in the middle of the night had every cyborg out of bed and down in the kitchen in seconds, ready for a fight. All they found was Gilmore, standing by the sink and a broken glass on the floor in a puddle of water. He rounded on them not in terror but sudden fury, his finger pointed at Joe.
"009! Put 002 to bed at night! He damned nearly gave me a heart attack!"
Joe glanced at towards the entryway that led to the front room in time to see Jet shuffle-thump his way into the dark and winced. Jet was walking, somewhat, and now capable of moving around the house on his own, but his ungainly steps were painful to watch at times.
Jet still would not stand upright but bent at the waist, moving by tilting himself sideways and catching himself with the left leg, over and over. The right would almost drag behind him. It was slow and made a soft shuffle-thump as he walked. His arms remained tucked to his chest, save now and again when he would reach out one arm blindly, as though trying to feel his way, but he apparently could still not comprehend the feeling of an obstruction under his hand. Joe had watched him reach out and put his hand on the wall in front of him and then walk into it anyway.
Francoise did not appreciate Joe dubbing it Jet's Silent Hill Shuffle, but that's what it looked like and it caught on and now she was annoyed at everyone.
Gilmore wasn't done, "I woke up and decided to get myself a glass of water, and there's enough moonlight coming in through the window I thought turning on the light unnecessary. I turn around and there he is, shuffling towards me out of the dark!" He yelled the last part.
"I did put him to bed, Professor," Joe explained, feeling bad but also trying not to laugh, "but he's on his own schedule now and just gets up whenever he wants."
"Then shut your door at night! He hasn't figured out doorknobs yet has he!"
Gilmore vaguely gestured to the shattered glass with a "someone clean that up" before he stormed out of the kitchen and back to his room. Chang scooped up the mess while Geronimo retrieved Jet.
It was Albert who started laughing first.
Winter settled in and Francoise finally made use of the giant woolen sweater she bought Jet when he was first brought home. He was, indeed, adorable as Francoise had promised. Not that he noticed.
Despite Jet moving around on his own, the schedule they devised for his care changed little. He still had to be fed and dressed and would only get out of bed sometimes. Some days he remained slumped in bed, coughing, drooling, and registering nothing.
When he was up, he would wander the house in shuffling, meandering lines until he walked into something, in which he would turn slightly then try again. Jet could get stuck in a corner for hours, unable to remember which way he had been facing prior and attempting the same direction over and over. When he grew tired, he would flop down onto the floor wherever he was. The team learned to be careful where they stepped after several trips over him.
Shut doors remained impassable; Jet seemed to view them the same as the wall and didn't try to find a way through them. This proved advantageous as the cyborgs could control his wandering by simply shutting a door without having to watch him every moment.
The real problem was the stairs. After a few stumbles when he walked into the bottom step, Jet learned he could keep moving forward by crawling upward. Joe was delighted by this discovery, taking it as a sign of improving cognizance, at least until Jet tried to go down the stairs.
In this, Jet's teammates were glad he was a cyborg, for he did not walk down the stairs but fell down them. His foot would step into nothing and he'd tumble down after it. At the bottom he would get up and continue on like nothing happened, or just lay there awhile.
Cyborg or not though, they couldn't stand it. Every time they would hear him bang and tumble down the stairs and they'd all go running. They tried to deter him by carrying him downstairs to let him wander there, but he'd sometimes ascend the steps when no one was looking and then inevitably come back down. Great suggested buying a baby gate so Jet couldn't get back up the stairs.
It was Geronimo who, with endless patience, repeatedly showed Jet he could descend the steps safely by crawling down backwards. Eventually the trick seemed to penetrate Jet's brain and he would slowly back down the stairs on all fours. It did little good; Jet couldn't see when he approached the stairway and would continue to step into nothing and tumble down.
That was the last thing Jet was able to learn. He made no further improvements.
They'd grown accustomed to Jet's meandering and paid little attention as he shuffled into the dining room as they ate their dinner, save Pyunma who gently steered him away when he nearly walked into the table. He continued to watch as Jet trapped himself in the corner before giving up and dropping to the floor.
"We need to decide what to do with him," he said, well aware no one was going to like this conversation. Still, it was one they needed to have.
"What do you mean? He's getting better," Joe argued.
"No, he's not. He's plateaued. There's been no improvements in weeks."
Joe looked to Ivan, silently asking for backup.
He's right, Joe, the infant sent, a sense of sorrow underlining his telepathy, I have sensed no changes and even his physical improvements have stalled. We have to accept this may be the best Jet will ever be able to do.
"Fine, so what? We'll take care of him, as long as it takes."
Pyunma didn't let it drop. "So we're going to stay grounded forever? No more missions? What if some world emergency happens?"
"We have friends, they can look after him if necessary!"
"Sure, but what if something happens to us?"
Joe glowered, his mouth pursed like he wanted to say something, but he didn't, instead looking at Jet still on the floor.
"He's right, lad," Great said, "We have to make long-term plans. If something happens to us, who's going to look after him? Who has the training to keep up his maintenance that we trust? Who would even be willing to, possibly for the rest of his life?"
Joe shut his eyes, unwillingly imagining Jet, unable to care for himself, falling apart as his cybernetics failed. And, if he was maintenanced properly, he would most likely outlive his caretaker. Then what? Could they find someone to look after him? Would he be handed off, generation to generation, scientist to scientist who would care for him and treat him well?
"If we start going out again," Joe said, slowly, "he comes with us."
He expected the many voices as they argued, but most noted was Francoise's too calm "Joe, we can't." He held up a hand for silence and the team obliged, though the room practically hummed with their disbelief.
"He comes with us," he repeated, "There is no other option. He'll stay on the Dolphin, out of the way, and then…That way, if we all go down, he comes with us, like he's supposed to. It's what he'd want."
Joe stabbed at his food and didn't look at his teammates, unhappy with his decision, but knowing they would agree with him. Their silence said enough, and they continued eating.
Jet coughed and sat up, staring at the wall.