It ought to come as no surprise that the facility at Wolf Creek housing Berkut's operations had been constructed at extraordinary expense, and for the most part, all that money was plain to see in its architecture; of course the deep vertical shaft, massive air filtration system and purpose-built containment modules did not come cheap. But even within that black hole in the black budget, there was a surprisingly expensive line item: the surgical suite. Cutting-edge medical equipment, the fiscal equivalent of a decently-sized housing development, made the expansive room feel quite cramped, but that was just the sideshow to the second-most expensive feature at its center: the main surgical bench, surrounded by a perimeter of heavy translucent plastic curtains and containing a positive air pressure bubble. Which, when filled with a half-dozen nurses and two surgeons all working on the splayed-out form of the most expensive feature of Wolf Creek - a sedated Jaime Sommers - made for a pretty tight fit overall.
Jaime was attached to about a dozen tubes and wire bundles that fed air, replacement Ichor and system commands into her battered frame. The smartskin over most of her chest had been detached and set aside, exposing the replacement parts, reinforced bones and shockproofed internal organs to the harsh light of the overhead illumination. At the head of the surgical bench was a multifunctional array of flatscreens, displaying a simplified but informative version of the internal sensor feeds. Wrist-deep in Jaime Sommers' rib cage, William Anthros watched these monitors as he pulled the last Aramid tendon off of its posterior anchors inside his girlfriend's chest cavity.
"If only all my patients had quick-release snaps," the assistant surgeon Dr. Patal mused. "At least we're not digging out any bone shards this time."
Will winced, but tried to tune out the story as he adjusted Jaime's right arm - and shoulder, and rib cage, as the entire subassembly lied hinged open. Her shoulder rested comfortably on her ear, ninety degrees from its normal orientation, as one whole half of her chest swung to the side on an overstrength titanium hinge mounted underneath the artificial collarbone in her right shoulder. With the last artificial tendon released, Will swung Jaime's artificial ribs, shoulder and arm up above her head, giving him and his team unfettered access to her chest cavity.
"Can we get some light on this, nurse?" Patal asked, while one of the nurses wordlessly took Will's place in holding Jaime's swung-out side in place.
"Yes, doctor," was the answer, and one of the overhead lights was moved to get a better angle on the opening.
"What a goddamned mess," Patal said, craning his neck to look at the damage from another angle. "I tell you, if the software was half as good as our parts, they'd still be peeling Corvus off the wall."
Will reached into Jaime's rib cage again and pulled out a small box about the size of a couple packs of cigarettes.
"Uh, that's the central node retrieved," Patal said. "Make a note of that."
"Noting central node as retrieved," one of the nurses echoed.
"Notes continue," Patal said, reaching his clean left glove up to the lighting to adjust it himself. "No visible organ damage or inflammation 11 hours post-implantation. Your girlfriend's a real trooper, Anthros." He chuckled to himself. "Or it's all the anti-inflammatories we've pumped her Ichor full of. God, I never want to work on another patient again. Would you believe she was in a car accident half a day ago, then went through all this and is still going strong? These augments are something else, Anthros. Their tolerance is just freakish."
Will instantly fixed the other surgeon with a hard glare. "Jaime is normal."
"Uh, no, she's better," Patal said. "That's what we're doing all this for, isn't it?"
Will didn't move, hand frozen holding the black box, wires leading into Jaime's chest and towards her skull, his eyes still burning holes in the man on the other side of the operating table.
"You...you know what I mean, Anthros," Patal responded, quickly averting his eyes. "It's a good thing. It's the future. Hell, I'll be first in line when we've got the kinks worked out."
Will turned away, retrieved a USB cable from the table, and plugged it into the box. A few taps on the plastic-sealed keyboard, and the screen it up with indicators. "Notes continue," he said. "Segments 7 to 19 are redlined, total write-off. 20 to 24...and 25 are pinged. I want RT on them before we reuse. The other subassemblies look to be in order. Follow-up diagnostic next week."
"Noting 7 to 19 as redlined, 20 to 25 as pinged," the nurse repeated. "Radiographical study on pinged elements and follow-up on remaining segments in seven days. Anything else, Dr. Anthros?"
"Yes," Will said. "We should do some more bone reinforcement on 9 posterior and 10 posterior, the strain is bigger than expected. Do you concur, Dr. Patal?"
"Oh!" Patal said. "Oh, sure. Your call, Anthros."
"Our call," Will said. "I don't need you to rubberstamp my decisions."
Dr. Patal nodded, then made a show of looking at the strained ribs clad in brilliant black sheathing. He even turned to the monitors and tapped through the material stress sensor readouts and hm-ed for a bit before finally nodding again. "Yes, I concur," he said. "What...what Dr. Anthros said."
"Yes, Doctor," the nurse replied.
Will stared at Patal for a bit longer. "We need four carbon sheets and bonding agent," he said.
"Right away, Doctor," the nurse said.
"I can -" Patal tried to say, but that's about as far as he got before Will snapped at him.
"I'll handle it," Will said. "Why don't you take a break?"
"Yes," Dr. Patal said. "Yes...Doctor Anthros."
Any and all murmurs in the Wolf Creek conference room stopped when Jonas Bledsoe walked in. Nathan Ambrose, closest to the head of the table, suddenly had to stare very intently at his laptop to make sure he had the connection to the room's projector set up right, while Ruth Truewell straightened her files one more time. Antonio Pope, sitting at the far end of the table, gave Bledsoe a nod, while Jae Kim did not move at all.
"Are we ready?" Bledsoe asked, rounding the room to take his seat at the table.
"Uh," Nathan began, "Dr. Anthros -"
"Won't be joining us," Bledsoe said. "He's got enough to deal with right now."
"What about Ms. Sommers?" Truewell asked.
"I'm told she's fine, physically," Bledsoe said. "We'll see, but we have bigger fish to fry right now. Ambrose?"
"Yeah, so," Nathan began. With a few taps, he brought up a series of pictures - still images from Jaime's perspective, the clearest shots of the chaos in Will's apartment and the subsequent fighting. "It's Corvus," he said. "I don't see a way it couldn't be."
"It looks that way," Bledsoe said. "Facial recognition is certain?"
"High confidence," Nathan said. "Bone structure, geometry, spectra of the smartskin, it's all a very close match to our files. Voiceprint matches, too. If it's someone pretending to be her, they've done a hell of a job. Uh, Jae, can you take movement patterns?"
"Close match," Kim said. Then he said nothing else, and Nathan took a moment to process that.
"So, yeah," Nathan said. "And just logically. The only thing that can look and move like that is an augment."
"She's not a thing," Truewell threw in. "Or was, whatever the case may be. Your theory does not account for the fact that Sara Corvus is dead."
"It's the best fit for the data we have right now," Bledsoe said. "We'll work off the assumption that it is her, for the time being. Two-pronged approach: one, I want our intelligence resources working this on the premise that hiding Sara Corvus from us for two years must have left a track somewhere. Prioritize distinctive signs of manufacture and transport of consumables. Two, I want in-depth analysis of our data. Any and all discrepancies between our files and the data Tin Man gathered. If it's not her...then we have a really big problem. Questions?"
"How about what happens to Jaime?" Truewell asked. "I think that's an obvious one."
"Dr. Anthros is overseeing her restoration," Bledsoe said.
"That is not what I mean, and you know it," Truewell interrupted. "What will...she have to do, now?"
"I think at this point, we need to take every possible precaution for another encounter with Corvus," Bledsoe said. "And Ms. Sommers is the only one who can handle that. On the other hand, we've seen the practical limits of the Tin Man system. The combat algorithms can't handle peer hardware. If we're going to win this fight, it needs to be with a thinking operative. That just adds to the urgency of getting Ms. Sommers up to speed on her training."
"That implies that we can get her on board," Truewell pointed out. "She's been...opposed to any training so far, to put it lightly."
"Then maybe having a bionic killing machine after her and her boyfriend will motivate her," Bledsoe shot back. "This is your department, Truewell. Figure it out."
Truewell glared at Bledsoe, but said nothing in reply but a quick, "Yes, sir."
A silence fell over the table. Nathan was finding so, so many interesting and absorbing things on his laptop to look at, Pope wore that infuriating smug little smile of his, and Kim seemed to have nothing to say about anything. Truewell continued burning holes in Bledsoe's implacable expression, but still was the first one to speak up again.
"What are we going to tell her about what happened?" she asked.
"Only as much as we have to," Bledsoe said. "Somebody tried to kill her and Anthros, she saved them both, then passed out from the stress. She won't remember anything past Tin Man activation."
"You can't know that for sure," Truewell said.
"No, I can't," Bledsoe said. "We're dealing with a lot of firsts here, including selective inhibition of memory formation. Dr. Anthros is certain it'll work, but of course he is. You'd rather tell her the truth, I take it?"
"She is being threatened by a rogue augment - one that we created," Truewell replied. "Not telling her the truth puts her and her sister in even greater danger than they already are in - and she's going to figure it out eventually anyway. Jaime Sommers is not stupid, and when she does figure it out, you'll have two pissed-off augments that know about Berkut."
"Oh, we're going to tell her about Corvus," Bledsoe said. "I want that threat front and center in her mind. We can even come clean on her affiliation with us. But if there's a good way to explain what happened after the override to her, I can't think of it. Can you?"
"Not yet," Truewell said.
"Then we're agreed," Bledsoe said. "We're putting enough pressure on her as is. If Tin Man works as intended, then that's a way we can spare Ms. Sommers a lot of complications. Anything else?"
Truewell fell silent. Bledsoe's look swept the room again, until it stopped on Jae Kim.
"Why did the killswitch fail?" Kim asked.
All eyes turned to Nathan, who managed to get a few more taps in before he had to answer. "Uh," he said, and looked up. "I'm...I'm going to look into that."
"See that you do," Bledsoe said. "Until we figure it out, we're through taking chances. If Corvus turns up, we shoot on sight." He looked to Truewell. "One more thing, Truewell. I want an analysis of Corvus's interaction with Ms. Sommers. Get into her head and figure out what her endgame is. I doubt it ends with Dr. Anthros."
"Yes, sir," Truewell replied.
"Good," Bledsoe said. "Kim, I need more countermeasures. You trained Corvus, you're going to train Ms. Sommers to take her on. Start figuring out how."
"I will," Kim said.
"Pope, I need your buddies at the DIA," Bledsoe continued. "We need to figure out where custody of Corvus's body was lost, but keep it under the radar."
"Yes, Sir," Pope answered.
"All right," Bledsoe concluded. "You all know what to do. Get on it."
Jaime woke up again. Weird hospital room, again. Staring up at the ceiling, again. Everything seemed a million miles away, as if she was simply floating in the middle of the ocean, far away from the nightmare. She felt herself take deep, slow breaths. Everything was calm and quiet. Everything was under control.
"Jaime?" she heard Will call to her, and turned her head to see him sitting beside the bed, smiling down at her and grasping her left hand.
Jaime turned away from him and looked over to her right arm. There it was, lying on top of the blanket, and when she raised it up to turn it and look at her hand, it obeyed her will flawlessly. There was nothing wrong with it.
"Jaime?" Will repeated. "Jaime, how do you feel?"
"Tired," Jaime mumbled. "What happened?"
Will grimaced. He had prepared for this, but he wasn't ready. "Jaime," he said, "somebody tried to kill us. She...she tried to kill both of us." He forced a smile. "You saved me. I don't know how you did it, it was...it was over in seconds. But you pushed me to safety. Both of us, I mean." He squeezed her hand. "You saved us."
Jaime managed a smile. "That's good." She raised her head and looked around. "Where are we?"
"Yes, right, well...you know," Will said. "Okay. So what happened was...some safeties kicked in when you passed out." He nodded to a laptop set up on a tray table next to the bed. "You'll be back to normal in a moment, so we can talk. Okay?" He turned away briefly to watch the display and tap a few keys. "Okay. Now. How do you feel now? Better?"
"How would I know?" Jaime asked. "I was out cold, remember? Better. I guess." She sat up in bed. "The last thing I remember was...being in your apartment, and the doorbell ringing."
"Easy there," Will said. He took another glance at the laptop. "Yes, that's...that's when it happened. I still don't know exactly what happened, but…" He sighed. "We were shot at," he said. "Through the windows. I...I watched the security camera feeds while you were out, and...I don't know what to say. I mean, it seems so...so distant. I could see myself, and...and I didn't move, but you did - you carried us both to cover, and the next thing I know you passed out after that." He shook his head. "What matters is that she didn't manage to hurt either of us. I just wouldn't...could never forgive myself." He squeezed her hand again. "I'm so sorry, Jaime. You were in danger there, all because of me, and you saved me, and I...I just don't know what I did, what I ever did, to deserve you."
"...you know who did this?" Jaime asked. She shook Will's hand off her shoulder. "Where are we, Will?"
Will nodded solemnly. Then he did it again. "We're back at Wolf Creek," he said. "And there are some things we need to talk about. And it's...it's probably for the better if that conversation includes Colonel Bledsoe."
Jaime looked at Will for a moment, then started to scoot off the bed. "Nope," she said. "I am not talking to him, I am getting out of here."
"Okay, that's, well!" Will said, stepping back to give Jaime space. "Uh, Jaime, maybe...I mean, he can answer your questions much better…"
"Don't care," Jaime said, and stepped quickly across the floor to her overnight bag. "I don't care, Will. I want to get out of here, I am not talking to him, and I am leaving."
"Uh, Jaime," Will said, fighting for more words as Jaime began dressing herself, shucking the hospital gown and facing away while she dug her undergarments out of the bag. He was considering an appeal to her gratitude for having her life saved when she pulled on her pants, and when she buttoned her blouse he contemplated whether he'd just walk along with her and let the soldiers be the bad guys by not letting them leave, but when Jaime was dressed and turned towards the door, he knew that there was only one argument he could make. "Jaime, stop. You're right. I know who did this. That's...that's because she used to be one of ours." He waited for her to turn, then met her eyes. "Sara Corvus," he said. "She's...she's augmented, too."
Jaime's face flickered through many expressions - shock, confusion, anger, finally settling on fear. "What?" she whispered.
"She was first," Will said. "And I swear - I swear to you, Jaime, until an hour ago, I thought she was dead."
"And now?" Jaime asked. Before Will could respond, her eyes went wide. "That...that wasn't an accident, was it. The crash. Tell me you didn't know that, Will. You didn't lie to me about why…why I have these things inside me now."
"No!" Will said. "No! I had...I had no idea, Jaime. I…" He took a deep breath. "We've got a team on the collision, they were trying to get some answers, but...I never thought...I never expected that to be Corvus. She was dead, Jaime. I saw it. She was dead." His eyes swept from left to right as he ran his fingers through his hair. "You don't...you don't know what she's capable of."
"And you do?" Jaime asked. "And how do you know she was dead, Will?" Her eyes narrowed and she took a step towards Will. "What did you do?"
Will was saved from having to answer that when the seal on the airlock door hissed open; Jaime only had to look over her shoulder to see Jonas Bledsoe walking in, with the closest approximation of anger on his face that she had seen so far.
"That's enough, both of you," he said. "My office, now. It's time we had a grown-up conversation."
"I don't care what you want -" Jaime started to say.
"Start caring!" Bledsoe barked. "You and your boyfriend almost got yourselves killed out there by the only woman on this planet who's more dangerous than you. It's way past time that you get over yourself and take this seriously. You, Anthros, your little sister, you are now all officially in the line of fire. The only one who can protect all of you is you, Miss Sommers. I don't expect you to like it, you can hate it all you want, but I'm not going to let you walk out there without at least knowing who the hell you're up against. Do I make myself clear?"
Jaime glared at Bledsoe, but nodded. "At least it sounds like you give a shit about us this time."
Bledsoe snorted. "Follow me," he said.
The silence between the three of them chilled the air on their circuitous path through the Wolf Creek facility; every turn seemed to remind Jaime of the less than wholesome nature of the place, and finally arriving in Bledsoe's office did not brighten the impression. Sure, there was some wood decoration to be found in there, making it seem more like a real office than a concrete cube, but there were no pictures hung from the wall, no bookshelves, not even a superfluous old-school globe - in short, no attempt to signpost that this was the workplace of a human being. Bledsoe also made no attempt to take a seat behind his desk; instead, he walked over to the wall safe, opened it and withdrew a file, which he handed off to Jaime. The paper had only cooled to room temperature half an hour ago, but the smell of fresh toner on it still lingered; obviously a fresh hardcopy run off specifically to show her. The front page simply read "SARA CORVUS".
"You can read that at your leisure, as long as it doesn't leave the facility," Bledsoe said. "But in the interest of time, I can sum it up for you."
Jaime didn't respond, she was already halfway through the first page. Summary of military accomplishments - promoted, demoted, promoted, counseled for alcoholism, posthumous Bronze Star - followed by a scouting report, signed by one William Anthros.
"She wasn't at the top of our list, I think that's fair to say," Bledsoe said. "Insurgents took it out of our hands. It was either let her die and keep waiting for another candidate to get life-threatening injuries, or choose her. Anthros chose her."
"It was the right decision," Will said.
"Well, Corvus didn't agree with that," Bledsoe said. "She'd been in a bad place before all that, but waking up here, with half her body replaced...she didn't take it well, to say the least. We learned a lot about how not to handle that."
Jaime kept reading. Overview of the procedures - "half" was underselling how much of her had been changed, and there was plenty to read between the terse lines describing her first days at the facility.
"Eventually, we came to an arrangement," Bledsoe said. "The DoD was breathing down our necks to get some use of their new bionic supersoldier. Dr. Truewell did her best to advocate for giving Corvus more time, but in the end Anthros - Anthony Anthros, my...predecessor - had to play the politics game. He ordered Corvus into training. And she knocked it out of the park. Whatever her problems were, Corvus was a good Marine, and the bionics performed better than expected. Two months in, we felt confident enough for a field test. And when that went well, we gave the green light for her first real mission."
Jaime kept reading. Covert operations in…"China?" she muttered.
"That was the wrong call," Bledsoe admitted. "We'd spent months building her back up, but this pushed her right back over the edge - and we didn't even notice at first."
Jaime kept reading. Incident report of the breakout attempt, casualty lists, a new, real death certificate - and a post-mortem on the security failures of that night.
"We lost fourteen men in half that many minutes, including Anthony Anthros," Bledsoe said. "Corvus knew exactly how to do it. But at the end of the day, we just got lucky, if you can call it that. Caught up to her before she could make good her escape, out in the woods, and that was her last stand. She had sabotaged our safeguards, so finally, I gave the order to go lethal. My men lit her up. What we brought back - we thought she was dead. We handed the remains over to the DoD and shut everything down to try to figure out where we had gone wrong. And we would still be on standby if you hadn't come along." He took a breath. "So you see, I have two problems right now, Miss Sommers. You're one of them. She's the other. And we've got to figure out a solution together. I understand that you'd rather have nothing to do with any of this, but...you do. And if I let you just run away, I wouldn't be doing anyone a favor, least of all you. Are we clear so far?"
"I don't see keeping me hostage and forcing me to become an killer for you as doing me a favor," Jaime said as she scanned the last of the pages.
"I'm getting that loud and clear," Bledsoe said. "But the fact of the matter is that Sara Corvus is out there now, and she's going to try to kill you again - and if not you, your boyfriend. So the question is, what are you going to do about it?"
Jaime fingered her way back through the file for a minute before responding. "Have you tried talking to her?"
"Talk?" Will burst out. "Jaime, this...this ice-cold b-"
"What Dr. Anthros is trying to say," Bledsoe cut in, "is that we talked to her plenty during the time she was with us. Daily talks with Dr. Truewell. Hours of therapy and discussion and negotiations. What we didn't figure out until it was too late was her talent for showing us what we wanted to see. I've been in this covert operations business for a while, Miss Sommers, so you can imagine how much I'm kicking myself that we didn't dig deeper." Another breath. "And she didn't exactly reach out to us after we shot her down. Even if she did, I would not trust a single word out of her mouth. At the end of the day, all she wants is Dr. Anthros here dead for what she believes he did to her, and if that ends up putting her out of her misery, all the better in her eyes. That's not exactly what I'd call an ideal negotiating position."
"It's not a negotiating position at all," Will growled. "She's a...she's literally a government-trained assassin who won't rest until she's taken everything from me. She shot at us, Jaime, and she didn't care one iota about you being in the line of fire. Hell, the whole reason you're here now is that she rammed our car off the road! With a garbage truck! If things had gone even slightly different, you would be dead now, Jaime. I would be dead. And God knows who she'd fixate on next, who else she would try to murder to get her satisfaction. That woman won't stop until she is stopped. And you want to talk to her?"
"I - I just think that...that maybe we should try!" Jaime said. "I don't know why, but I just think that going straight to killing her is...wrong!"
"It's not what I want, and I'm pretty sure it's not what Dr. Anthros wanted when he risked his career to save her life," Bledsoe said. "As of right now, the only thing that I know can stop her is a half dozen men with assault rifles putting lead into her until she falls down." He paused for a moment. "Insofar as there are options, they all come down to you, Miss Sommers. You're the only one who could potentially go up against Corvus and match her. But that's going to take more than fond wishes. You're going to have to find her, catch up to her, and then - then we can try to talk her down, or subdue her, or...neutralize her. But right now, without you? I've only got men with guns."
Jaime crossed her arms. "I won't 'neutralize' her."
"In my experience," Bledsoe said, "people end up doing a whole lot of things they said they won't do when they have to. What if Corvus comes after your sister Rebecca? Dangles her in front of you, gun to her head? I don't know what you'd do then. Do you?"
Jaime went silent, and looked away from Bledsoe for a moment.
"It's all up to you now, Miss Sommers," Bledsoe said. "All I can do is offer you our help. Make no mistake, this is my mess and I'm going to do everything I can to make it right. This won't work without you. With you...we just might have a chance. What do you say?"
Jaime stared at the wall a second longer, then looked back at Sara Corvus' file. She fingered through it one more time. "Fine," she whispered.
"I'm so sorry," Will said. "I...I never meant for this -"
"I think we all get that," Bledsoe cut in. "Just so we're clear, Miss Sommers, this arrangement means that, starting tomorrow, you'll be here during work hours and receiving intensive training; we'll provide an appropriate cover job and compensation. I assume your...current employer does not stand on two weeks notice."
"Only until the end of the week," Jaime said. It was hard to speak up with her mouth suddenly so dry. "I have one more shift."
"How much?" Bledsoe asked. Getting no response, Bledsoe spoke up again. "I assume it's a question of money, but I need your head in this, 100%. Whatever you owe on your credit card or rent, just tell me and we can cover it. But you're just going to have to miss that one last shift. How you do you it, that's your call."
"I...I can call someone, maybe…" Jaime's eyes stayed in her lap. "Maybe pay them a bit to take it."
"I've got fifty ready to go on site," Bledsoe said. "Will that be enough to cover your expenses or do we need to stop at a bank?"
Jaime shrugged. "Fifty bucks should cover it."
Bledsoe smirked. "Fifty thousand, Miss Sommers," he said. "And you can keep the briefcase."
Jaime shook her head. "No, I don't want your money." She hauled herself to her feet. "I'm doing this to protect Will and Becca - but you don't own me. Just because you stuck me with robot limbs doesn't mean you own me - and I won't let you buy me, either." She turned towards the door. "I'm going home. Will, you can come if you want, but I'm not staying here another second I don't have to."
"Suit yourself," Bledsoe said. "Training starts tomorrow 0900."
Jaime spun on her heel and walked out the door.
"She'll...she'll come around," Will said, watching her afterimage long after she'd left.
"She'd better," Bledsoe said.
"She took it much better than I thought she would," Will said.
"Truewell's very good at finding pressure points," Bledsoe said. "There's a room at the Hyatt for you."
"I'm...no," Will said. "No, I'm going with her."
"You do that, then," Bledsoe said. "But there's a room at the Hyatt for you."
"...right," Will said. "Well, if that is all, then."
"One more thing," Bledsoe said. "Where's your field kit? Where's your sidearm?"
"In the bedroom," Will said. "I mean, it was, I'm sure Ginsburg's men took it when they cleaned up...right?" After a pause he added. "I don't know."
"Exactly my problem," Bledsoe said. "You don't know. You got stupid out there because of her. And you need to make up your mind where you stand on this. Either you figure out how to protect yourself...or you build me a stable Tin Man."
"I will not-"
"For God's sake, Anthros," Bledsoe cut him off again. "It's hard enough keeping a straight face when your girlfriend is moralizing at me. This is a question of survival. Your survival. So are you going to fight your own battles, or are you going to make her do it?"
Will said nothing.
"Get out of my office," Bledsoe said.
Will did get out of that office, and even if the sightlines through Wolf Creek hadn't been so open, finding Jaime would have been no great task; he saw her standing at the end of the walkway up against the central column, standing just besides the closed elevator doors. Will swallowed his apprehension and walked toward her.
"Let's get out of here, huh?" he said to her, trying to smile.
Jaime turned on a heel and faced the elevator doors.
Will sighed as he step closer and reached past her to press the call button, which lit up green after a brief scan of his thumbprint. "If I could take it all back -" he began.
"Which part?" Jaime snapped. "Lying to me about what you do? Cutting me apart and filling me with computers and robot parts? Forcing me to be a government assassin? Or putting me and Becca in the crosshairs of a rogue bionic killer?"
"...I know you're angry, Jaime," Will said, "but can you please try to see this my way for a second? It's...it's not like I wanted any of this. You understand that, don't you? All I ever wanted was to help people. It's...it's not my fault one of those people went crazy. Okay? You...you want to be angry at someone, be angry at Corvus. Believe me, she deserves it."
Jaime didn't respond, at least verbally. She bent over, grabbed the small wastebin by the elevator - and with a scream of frustration and rage, threw it against the corridor corner with enough force to crimp and bend it in half like she stomped on an empty can. "She didn't do that to me, Will," she shouted, and turned on him. "You did." She stepped right up to him, and Will shrunk back from her against the elevator doors, eyes darting left to right in a desperate search for someone, anyone who might rush to back him up. "Tell me you couldn't have just kept me alive. You couldn't have used...parts that wouldn't make me into the military's latest assassin."
"You would have died!" Will said, a bit louder than he had planned to. "Jaime, it was the only right choice I could make, as a doctor. There's always…" He sighed. "There are always choices. But you were dying, Jaime. You were dying and I had to make a choice, put all the pros and cons on a scale and figure out what to do. I don't know what would have happened if I had kept you on life support and waited for different parts. I don't know. I just...I did what I did to save your life. You don't know Colonel Bledsoe...he would have let you die if I had given him the chance." He tried to meet her eyes. "And I couldn't let you die."
Jaime tried to maintain her glare, but she couldn't hold it for long. "...okay," she whispered, and looked away herself. "I understand." She wrapped her arms around Will, and didn't let go until the elevator doors opened behind them. When she did, he stood frozen in place, taking a few seconds to start talking again.
"I'm...I'm…" he said, then shook his head and swung out his arm to indicate the empty elevator cab. "Let's just go home," he added.
Jaime nodded and wiped her eyes. "Yeah, please, let's go home."
Inside the cab, Will pressed the button for the top floor. The doors closed and the cab started moving, smooth and silent. "I have a hotel room," he said. "It's...we can go there. It'll be difficult to explain to Rebecca why we came back after we made that big show about leaving for my place."
"No," Jaime said, shaking her head. "You can go there if you want. I need to go home."
"You're going to have to lie to her," Will said.
Jaime scowled at Will. "I'm going to be doing that a lot, apparently. I'd better start now." She stepped back against the other wall and folded her arms. "I'll see you tomorrow, Will."
"...tomorrow," Will echoed. He watched the elevator panel; not much farther to go to the top level now. "We can talk more tomorrow," he said.
Jaime said nothing, and before Will could say something else, the elevator doors opened to the security checkpoint leading to the exterior elevator, where Antoine Ginsburg was waiting for them. He looked decently awake, having switched his black tactical gear for a black suit, white shirt, no tie. Without missing a beat, he fell in with the two.
"Captain," Will said.
"We have a car ready," Ginsburg said, giving Jaime a quick once-over. "Just tell me where we're going, Doctor."
"Hyatt for me, then take her home," Will said.
"Can do," Ginsburg said. As the exterior elevator arrived and they stepped in, Ginsburg caught Jaime's glance and gave her a brief smile. "Don't worry," he said. "Your sister's safe. We've had a security team watching your place ever since you left."
Jaime's brow hardened again at that. She focused on the door in front of them, willing it to open so she could get out of Wolf Creek that much sooner.
"If you could just drive us, Captain," Will said. "We're pretty beat."
"...copy that, Doctor," Ginsburg said, and then wisely shut up.
All the lights are out in the apartment when Jaime closed and locked the front door behind her. She looked out the window and down the block - a few houses down, she could make out the outlines of two men in a black late-model sedan, the only black car on the block. She glared at them as hard as she could, then dropped the blinds behind her. She walked down the hall to her room, but stopped at Becca's door. Blue light streamed underneath, and she could hear the ticking of keys from inside.
Jaime pushed the blinker button for Becca's lights, and waited.
The ticking of keys stopped after a few seconds, then a laptop was shut and put aside, feet touched the ground, steps closed in on the door. Jaime could almost swear she heard Becca's heartbeat. Then, the door opened, and a bleary-eyed Becca looked up at her big sister. "Jaime?" she asked, watching the tears on her sister's face glisten in the light shining from her room. "What..." she tried to say, her own eyes already misting up. "What's going on?" she whispered.
"I…" Jaime managed a laugh, then sniffled and wiped her eyes. "I've had a pretty hard night." She wrapped her arms around Becca. "I love you, Becca."
Becca returned the hug, and then neither of them counted how long they embraced, until Becca finally tightened her hug one last time before letting go and looking up at Jaime again. "Wanna tell me about it?" she asked.
Jaime opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again and shook her head. "I...I can't -" she stammered, then broke down into proper sobs and collapsed back into Becca's arms.
"Okay, okay," Becca cooed, and eased both her and Jaime down onto her bed. Jaime loosened her grip just long enough for Becca to clear her laptop off and pull the covers up, but then she pulled Becca back into herself. "It'll be okay, Jaime," Becca said, returning the embrace herself. "It'll be okay." She carried on comforting her big sister until they both fell asleep.
Commentary: "Dark & Gritty"
Writing a self-billed dark & gritty story is a heck of a lot more difficult than I expected when I originally set out to write Rebuilt. I think we're all familiar with reimaginings that promise to be "edgy" or "realistic", but they tend to fall into a few common traps: either they only put on a dark coat of paint but pull all the punches, sprinkle on twisty soap opera personal tragedies to keep the characters in a perpetual emotional rollercoaster, or everyone's turned into such a jerk that you stop caring whether anyone actually succeeds.
The key to making this work, I think, is not for each character to have some sort of scoreboard of their good and bad traits so everyone precisely balances out into some flavor of antihero or antivillain, but simply to keep in mind what the characters want to achieve, figure out how it puts them into conflict with each other (or themselves!) and then go for it. And above all, resist the temptation to "fix" things. I know this may sound hypocritical coming from somebody who's writing what could fairly be called fixfic, but bear with me for a moment. What do I mean by "fixing" things? I mean change without follow-through. Every time we write a scene where, for example, Jaime protests her treatment at the hands of the Berkut crew, I have to fight the instinct to "fix" her. Wouldn't it be so much easier if she would just shut up and color inside the lines? I mean, it's only "realistic" that someone in her position would be intimidated by all those military people with guns and go along with things, right? Things would go so much faster and then we could get to the parts where she bionic-punches bad guys in the face. But we'd still be able to call our story "dark & gritty" because OH LOOK AT ALL THAT ANGST OVER HER TRANSFORMATION YOU GUYS.
Luckily I have Kasey to push back on it when this threatens to creep into the story, because that would miss the core of Jaime's character. Jaime is not okay with what is happening to her. Sure, she's devastated by the changes that happened to her, but more than that she's pissed at the people who did it and that they want to take over her life now. So she's gonna stand up for it, even when that makes things harder for her or for others. You can't have a quote-unquote "strong female character" in your story who just folds in the face of adversity and play it off like the lesson of the day, and (maybe even worse) have her come back in full rebellious swing the next time we see her. You're not "fixing" a story problem real quick, you're setting up a character betraying her principles and herself. And that might even be justifiable! Maybe the situation really was that bad or she had a different reason for playing along. But you have to follow through. She has to look inside herself and reflect on what just happened and why she did that and what's gonna happen the next time she's in that kind of situation. When that happens, you have to deal with the character's actions and their repercussions for herself and others as the story continues.
Thesis: what makes "dark & gritty" work is consequences. Nothing your characters do happens in a vacuum. Sure, not every bad move comes back to haunt them - that would quickly get ridiculous - but it builds a pattern of behaviour that, sooner or later, bites everyone in the ass. And then they have to make another choice, and face the consequences of that. To flip perspective a bit (and talk about a character whose whole deal could be summed as "consequences"), let's look at Will Anthros for a moment.
Our version of Will is both one of the easiest and hardest characters to write for me. It's easy to come up with his nervous excuses and science babble, but it's hard to keep him acting consistent with who he thinks he is without glossing over what he's actually doing. Will is well aware of his involvement in many of the events that led up to this point, and he sees the causal connection between what he did and what happened, but he cannot admit his moral responsibility. It's always somebody else's fault, because Will's black and white view of the world (admittedly a lot of black with only a few white splotches) does not allow for him to share the blame, because then he would be someone he doesn't want to be, and Will is desperate to be what he thinks a good guy is. To uphold that image of himself as a victim of circumstances beyond his control, he will do a lot, even bend the truth and twist things to make himself look better...but he also can't stand thinking of himself as a liar, and he really really wants to make his relationship with Jaime perfect, so he has to rationalize that, too. The result of all that is the tightly-wound guy you see on the page, arrogant and superior one second, dorkily trying to navigate his social interactions with Jaime the next, and seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown when things get a little too hot.
It's not the Will of the TV series. But that guy had the advantage of dying before he ever had to deal with the consequences of what he did. That lucky bastard.
And while I'm ranting, let me close this section with the announcement of a moratorium on the words "realism" and "realistic". I hate the idea of realism in fiction, because realism, at least the way it's commonly understood...doesn't matter. Again, bear with me, please. "Realism" is a rhetorical bludgeon. It's the cheapest possible shot you can take when you criticise a work of fiction. "Oh, that's not realistic, because (insert stupid preconception here)!" is such a tired refrain, and it can be used to beat down any idea you don't like, because who can argue that "more realism!" is bad, right? The thing is, if the cheeky parenthetical did not tip you off, what people think is "realistic" is often just a reflection of their own biases, anecdotes from their personal experience and - not least - regurgitating things from other media they've been led to accept as "realistic". Once the realism argument is deployed, the onus immediately falls to the other side to either come up with supporting documentation for why their take actually is realistic (example: women in military service - much more common throughout history than you'd think, look it up!), or argue at length for why they, in this particular case, should be given dispensation to deviate from reality for the sake of art. (Insert stock "I don't get what the big deal with all this artsy-fartsy stuff is" lowbrowing here.)
I submit not-so-humbly that no work has ever been improved by this kind of "realism". See, the kind of "realism" that actually makes good stories is verisimilitude, the "feeling real" of a work of fiction, and that doesn't come from conforming to how you think things work "in real life", but from building an internally consistent fictional world and playing by its rules. A sci-fi story is not improved by, say, a person of color facing random racist comments from other characters because "that happens in real life all the time", but it gains when the characters are stuck on a hostile planet and realize that no, there's no previously unmentioned "teleport" setting on their rayguns and that instead they're gonna have to figure out a way to signal for rescue with what they have on hand. When your fiction is Reality Unless Otherwise Noted, this can become a bit hair-split-y, I'll admit, but never forget that the master you must serve above all is the story, not whatever incredibly limited slice of "reality" you may have personally experienced.
Phew, I feel better with that off my chest. And on that note, we wish you a (belated) happy holidays and look forward to continuing in 2017!