The augmentation lab modules were built with some very specific mandates in mind: autonomous supply of power and closed-circuit air recycling, high resistance to fires inside and outside, as well as a considerable resistance against physical impacts. All of that added up to an unwieldy package just small enough to still be liftable by crane, but more relevantly, it meant that the actual interior space was only as big as it had to be to house an augment for treatment and observation - not a lot of space, then, and even that had now dwindled thanks to a rolling clothesrack parked beside the bed, with Ruth Truewell quite busy sifting through the mass in search of clothes in Jaime’s size. That left Will to fade into the background, sitting at the table with his laptop in front of him typing furiously, while Jaime stood with her legs leaned against the end of the bed, arms folded and eyes staring a little downward.
“I think this shirt is good,” Truewell said, pulling out a hanger - the shirt on it looked wispy, a faded blue color with similarly faded white printed lettering in the front and a wide neck, as if to further lighten the already almost insubstantial item. “It’s cut a bit wider in the chest.” She slipped the shirt off the hanger and put the hanger back on the rack, then turned around to face the bed, holding out the shirt for Jaime to take. “Could you look at it and tell me if that’s okay for you?”
Jaime didn’t look up. “Does it really matter what I think?” she asked, and the other noises stopped in an instant. “Is anybody going to tell me what just happened up there?” Truewell and Will’s attention snapped to Jaime, but neither one made a move. “Your boss dumped a mountain of crazy on me, told me you all did something to me, and then said I...I’m going to be a killer for him - and I just nodded to everything. I didn’t go to med school, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what a concussion does - and car crashes don’t give you superpowers. Now can somebody explain that, or are we just not going to talk?”
Truewell looked over to Will, who tried very hard to turn his attention back to the laptop screen. “I think Dr. Anthros can explain the medical aspects best,” she said.
Will looked up, first at Truewell, then at Jaime - lingered on the way the anger in her eyes changed to sadness and back again - then down at the desk. “Yes, it’s…” he began. “Bionics. My life’s work. Artificial body parts that aren’t just replacements, but improvements. You know how I always talk about improving things for everyone, well…” He flourished with his right hand at her, as if the words ‘That’s it’ were too difficult.
Jaime just stared at Will. “And? I swear, Will...” She balled her hands up into fists for a moment, causing Truewell to take a cautious step back. “Just explain any of this to me. Any part of it at all, a straight answer from somebody is all I want.”
Will pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s talk about your right arm, just to start somewhere. It has artificial, well, everything. The bones are made from a custom carbon allotrope with some titanium alloy reinforcements in the hand. The muscles are bundles of electroactive polymers - they contract just like biological muscles when you apply some voltage. The power system is an array of ultracapacitators, recharged via high-efficiency fuel cells from your blood sugar. It has all the dexterity and mobility of a baseline human arm, but it’s much more resilient and can generate a tremendous amount of force.” He looked at her, and this time actually kept eye contact. “I promise, Jaime, it won’t inconvenience you in any way. You can do everything with it you could do before...just even better.”
“Like kill people,” Jaime spat. “That…” She shook her head. “What about that? Who the hell is that guy, and...what...what the hell happened in there to me? And don’t you fucking dare say it was the drugs, because we both know that isn’t true.”
“Jaime,” Will said, “the bionics are still experimental, and there are certain safeguards -”
“Safeguards?” Jaime echoed. “Are you telling me that there’s some kind of computer you stuck in my...my head that was trying to make me calm down? That you made me agree to be some kind of government killer?” She clenched her hands and turned away for a moment. “What kind of fucked up people do you work for - who the fuck do you think you are that that is even acceptable?”
Will looked down at his lap and let his shoulders sink. “I’m sorry, Jaime,” he said. “It wasn’t...it wasn’t supposed to be like this, it was...I never wanted to do this to you...I was trying to save your life, and if it had come down to it I wanted to give you a choice, a real choice, but -”
Jaime clenched her hands even tighter, her arms shaking with rage as they brought her fists to her forehead. “But instead you thought it was okay to put something inside me that - that makes me accept whatever bullshit you or your boss tell me?”
“No!” Will replied. “But - err - I...Jaime, just...please, calm down, we can talk about this -”
“Aargh!” Jaime screamed, and kicked at the leg of the bed at her feet - snapping the steel tube clean off and sending it screaming across the floor as the bed collapsed with a bang. Jaime either didn’t care or didn’t notice as she rounded back on Will and Truewell, stomping in their direction. “What on Earth is there to fucking talk about?”
Will’s every instinct screamed at him to flinch away, and the corner of his eyes caught Truewell doing just that, but he still had enough focus to keep his feet where they were and just duck down to get his hands back on the laptop’s keyboard. With a few swift keystrokes, he started the upload of his new settings to Jaime’s system, and when he looked over his screen at her, it was just in time for him to see Jaime’s eyes dull. He took a few deep breaths - noticing for the first time in a while just how hard he was breathing, then looked over to Truewell, who fixed him with her wide-open eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. His stuttering breath almost betrayed him, but he couldn’t stop his shoulders from slumping in time with Jaime’s. “I’m...I’m so sorry.”
“What did you do?” Truewell asked.
“She...she was about to do something!” Will said to Truewell. “You saw her move! You saw it, just like me! No, we aren’t safe, not like this, not like...no. That’s it. Back to basics until I’m done with the configuration.” He turned his head back to look at Jaime. “Everything’s just fine, Jaime, right? Let Miss Truewell help you pick some clothes. You’re going home and you want to look good for that, don’t you?”
Jaime nodded, her eyes fixed on a point halfway between her and the wall. “Yes.”
Truewell’s brow furrowed, and she stepped in front of Jaime. “Jaime, I’m going to see if you’re all right. Can I touch you?”
Jaime nodded in the same slow fashion. “Yes.”
Truewell waved her hand in front of Jaime’s eyes, but failed to elicit a response beyond a simple blink. She picked up Jaime’s hands; both arms hung limply as Truewell moved them back and forth. Truewell took a deep breath, then simply poked Jaime in her bionic right eye - and she didn’t so much as blink. “Jaime...how do you feel?” Truewell asked.
Jaime gave the slightest shrug. “Don’t know.”
Truewell turned back to Will, horrified. “What did you do to her?”
“I stopped her from hurting,” Will said, not meeting Truewell’s look - instead, he went back to his screen and started typing again. “And now I’m busy fixing it, so please get on with the clothes - this is already taking too long.”
“You - how -” Truewell sputtered.
Will’s left hand shot away from the keyboard and toward the table’s surface, banging it with the flat of his hand hard enough to tip over the empty plastic cup on the other side of it. “I killed her!” he spat. “Is that enough of a reasonable scientific explanation for you, Doctor Truewell?” He didn’t feel the pain in his hand, just brought it to his face, buried his head for a moment before he ran his hands through his hair. “I just turned her off, like a lightswitch, because that’s what I made her into! And right now I’m really busy trying to get her back, trying to...trying to make her into who she really is, without killing her for good - or everyone in this room.” His hands crept back towards the keyboard, but didn’t move further than that, and finally he took a deep breath, but when he turned to look at her, all he had for her was an angry glare. “Now would you...would you be so kind as to leave me to my work instead of demanding I justify myself? Could you do that? That would be super.”
Truewell stared at Will for a moment after his tirade, then nodded. “I can do that.” She reached around behind Jaime’s back to undo the knot in her hospital gown, sliding it off of Jaime’s shoulders before she looked back to Will. “Be careful. For her sake.”
Will’s eyes glistened with a wet sheen, but two words escaped his clenched teeth. “Of course.”
Truewell took Jaime’s hand and gently pulled up on it, leading Jaime to stand up with her, and Truewell continued her attempts to get Jaime dressed from there. There was no bra in Jaime’s exact size, but Truewell selected one she thought would be bearable for a few hours, at least. The shirt, thank God, was a decent enough fit, though the neck opening almost rode down to Jaime’s shoulders and the bottom almost but not quite reached her waist. The real problem were the pants, all of them both too baggy and too short for Jaime’s more slender build. Truewell allowed herself a short, frustrated sigh, then went back to the rack, trying to conjure another pair she might have missed in her first browse. As she stepped away, Will looked up from his screen, took in the sight of Jaime staring blankly forward, and finally rose up himself. Slowly, he walked up to her, looked at her, as if trying to find the woman he loved somewhere inside the machine he had put together. Carefully, he reached for her right hand and grasped it in his own.
“I’m sorry, Jaime,” Will whispered to her. “I’m...I will fix this. You’ll be all right. I promise.” He leaned in and planted a kiss on her cheek, but flinched back when she turned her head to face him. She said nothing, just looked at him, and it wasn’t long before Will had to turn away from her and take another deep breath. “I can do this,” he muttered to himself. “I can fix this.”
Will looked to Truewell, who was pointedly not trying to interfere, and with a sigh he walked back to the table, sat down and got back to work. Truewell stepped back in, carefully guiding Jaime through the process of dressing herself. Three minutes later, he hadn’t fixed it, but his tired eyes were staring at something he told himself would have to do for now; a shadow of Jaime, nicely trimmed to the size of the box Bledsoe wanted to put her in, and hopefully good enough to fool the people around her for the moment. It would buy him enough time to create something better, something perfect-
Will’s finger hovered over the “Enter” key for the next few seconds. Finally, he built up the motivation to do it, or just lost the strength to fight the compromise any longer, and so he went ahead and pressed down on it. A moment later, Jaime took a sharp breath and turned to face Will, while Truewell backed away, out of her way.
“Jaime?” Will said, his voice quivering a little. “Are you okay?”
“Better than you, it seems like,” Jaime said, smiling a little. “You look really tired, Will. Have you gotten any sleep?”
“No,” Will said. “No, I haven’t, I’ve been...busy.”
"I'd say so," Jaime said, "what with all the surgeries you had to do to implant my bionics. And dealing with Mr. Bledsoe certainly seems like a handful - he's such a grouch." Her smile stayed precisely where it was as she spoke. "But you really should get some rest, Will. We both know how you can get when you haven't slept."
“Yes, um,” Will said. “I just needed to make sure everything is all right first.” He looked at the laptop. “Everything seems to check out. Are you ready to go home?”
"Ready!" Jaime chirped. "Arm, legs, eye and ear seem to work all right, and you seem to think the rest of my bionics work all right. I got briefed - if you can call it that - by Mr. Bledsoe on what I'm going to be doing now working for him, and I should probably go home and sleep so I can start training tomorrow." The corners of Jaime's smile wiggled slightly. "You know, so I can learn to kill people."
Will tried to turn his cough into a laugh, and turning the corners of his mouth into a smile wasn’t that much of a success either. “Oh!” he said. “Oh, you know, Jaime, Jonas is a little intense about this...this military stuff. I mean, there’s so much more to...uh, I mean, it’s not all killing. Or even fighting! Some of this stuff is really, you know, like...first aid?” He looked to Truewell, who looked back at him with worry bleeding onto her face.
“What did you do to her now?” Truewell asked.
“It’s a stopgap,” Will admitted. “I mean, it’s...it’s her, just...stable.” He turned to Jaime. “Right? I mean, you still feel all right, Jaime, yes? I mean, we didn’t mean to upset you or...or…” He trailed off, waiting for her to jump in, but it was only after a second of silence that she spoke, having clearly waited her turn.
"I was upset, sure, but, well, now I feel fine," Jaime said. "I wasn't thatupset, really, and what Mr. Bledsoe said makes a lot of sense. You've put so much money into me - literally - and it would be wrong to let the hardware go to waste, after all, so I guess I work for him now on all this spy and soldier stuff." Jaime shrugged, her smile still on. "It'll be an adjustment, sure, but if Mr. Bledsoe thinks it's the right thing to do, then it's the right thing to do."
“Right,” Will said, trying to come up with something smarter to say next. “So...I guess you know now why I brought up Frankenstein at the dinner. But, uh, I definitely listened to what you had to say. I won’t make his mistake. I’ll be there for you, Jaime. That is what you were talking about, yes?”
"Yes, and I'm glad you're here," Jaime said, her smile growing a bit. "And I'm going to need your help if I'm going to train as hard as I need to so I can get these missions done, right? I mean, I'm the one doing the fighting, but you'll need to keep me in fighting shape and show me how all this works if I'm gonna be the best soldier I can be." Having smiled enough at Will, she turned to look at Truewell and thank her for all the help, when her eyes picked out something on the clothes rack behind her. “Ooh, that’s a nice leather jacket,” she said. “Can I see that?”
Truewell turned around to look at where Jaime was pointing, and did a double-take when she saw which jacket she was pointing at. “Of...course,” she said, turning to fetch the jacket from its hanger. Her hands lingered on it for a moment before she handed it off to Jaime, who quickly fed her right hand into the matching sleeve and easily shrugged the jacket onto her shoulders.
“It’s kinda big in the shoulders,” she said, shaking the sleeves. “And in the arms.” Jaime zipped it up, and turned that one-thousand watt smile back on Will. “But I like it! Guess I’ll be working out a lot! What do you think, Will? Badass, right?”
Will looked at her. “It...looks good,” he said.
Jaime’s smile faded a bit. “What’s wrong, Will?” She pulled on the jacket to get a better look at it. “Does it have a tear or a stain on it?”
“No,” Will said. “It’s just...it’s a bit of a new look for you.”
Jaime put her hands on her hips and thrust her shoulders back, trying to look as big as possible. “Well, if I’m going to be a secret bionic assassin, I should look the part, right?”
“I think,” Will said, almost managing a smile, “I think the ‘secret’ implies not looking the part.” He looked to Truewell for confirmation.
“Yes, I’d agree with that,” Ruth added. She gave Jaime a smile, but the unconscious rubbing of her arms said otherwise.
Will quickly added “But it does look good and if you want it, by all means.”
“Badass jacket it is!” Jaime said. “So, are we all done now?”
“It looks like we are,” Truewell said.
Will took one more look at Jaime smiling at him and glanced down at the laptop, the machine he had used to make Jaime...not Jaime. He allowed himself a final sigh, then folded the laptop shut and picked it off table.
“Then let’s go,” he said. “If we hurry, we can make it in time to pick up Rebecca from school.”
As it turned out, Will was wrong about that; even with the black Berkut-issue SUV brazenly ignoring speed limits all the way into San Francisco and beyond, there was no Rebecca Louise Sommers waiting for Jaime at her high school. To hear a classmate of hers tell it, she had “bummed a ride with Kate”, and so the SUV was off again to their apartment. Sure enough, the dull grey Chevy Malibu parked in front of their complex confirmed the story; Will pulled the large SUV into a spot behind the sedan and turned off the engine.
“So,” he said. “I imagine you want to wait outside, Dr. Truewell?”
“I’d prefer to stay with her,” Truewell said, and turned her eyes to Jaime. The light smile on her face seemed to be permanently fixed, and she wasn’t looking around to take in anything, just staring ahead until she noticed Truewell looking at her - then her head turned, as if on a swivel, and her smile brightened on cue.
“That’s rude,” Jaime said to Will before meeting Truewell’s eyes. “You shouldn’t have to wait in the car, Agent - excuse me, Doctor Truewell.” She gave her a big wink at that. “Of course you can come in.”
“We don’t have a good story for her,” Will said, Jaime’s attention tracking back his way. “She has to stay in the car.”
Jaime turned back to Truewell. “Sorry, you can’t come in. You have to stay in the car and wait. Okay?”
Truewell forced a smile. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’ll go ahead and move the truck out of sight, too. If you need me, just call me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Will said. “Come on, Jaime. Let’s go inside.”
“Sure thing!” Jaime chirped as she hopped out of the SUV. “I can’t wait to see Becca - it’s my big test of this whole secret agent thing!”
“Yes,” Will said. “Just...tone it down a little. Be yourself.”
“Don’t know any other way!” Jaime replied with that unflinching smile.
Will stepped up to the front door, and Jaime followed him; he thought nothing of using his own key to open the door and walk into the apartment first. He found three people inside: Rebecca, a Japanese girl her age and a woman who - judging from the clear look at their faces Will got when they turned to look at him - was her mother. The three were sitting on Jaime’s old couch, taking up the whole width of it in fact, while the TV opposite them showed some series. The closed-captioning on the screen moved too fast for Will to discern the dialogue, and he certainly wasn’t hearing the spoken parts over the woman’s voice.
“Oh, Jaime!” she said. “We just got here, I hope you don’t mind that we made ourselves at home a bit - Becca was so nice to ask us in.”
“Not a problem, Mrs. Himura,” Jaime said. “Thank you for looking after Becca, that was very nice of you.”
“Not that you would have had to if you had shown up,” Becca said, not getting up from her position on the couch as she crossed her arms and stared at her elder sister.
“Oh, it was no bother at all,” Mrs. Himura said, then tapped her daughter on the shoulder. “Say goodbye to your friend, Kathryn.”
Kate had just finished turning to look at her mother, but quickly turned back towards Becca and caught her in a quick embrace. With the hug done, she waited for Becca to look at her before she spoke. “Bye, Becster,” she said. “See you tomorrow?”
Becca smiled for Kate. “Yeah, see you tomorrow, Kate. We’ll talk later.”
“‘k,” Kate said. “Love you!” That said, Kate gave Jaime and Will a quick “Bye!” before her mother grabbed her by the hand and the two of them evacuated the premises, leaving only Jaime, Will and Becca’s mood.
“Whew!” Will said. “What a day. Who’s hungry?”
Becca refused to move her eyes off of Jaime, and so didn’t “hear” Will at all. “What the hell, Jaime? Where were you?”
Jaime’s smile continued its bulletproof status. “We went to dinner - which was lovely - and then we went back to Will’s to spend the night together. After that, we realized I was missing my purse, and we drove back to the restaurant. My purse was there, but my phone was gone! And then we had to drive all the way back here! So, we were busy, Becca.”
Becca’s eyes went wide. “You were...busy?” She scoffed, but then wiped her eyes. “...too busy to text?”
“We would have called,” Will said. “But we didn’t have your number, it was only in Jaime’s phone and Jaime’s phone was...stolen, or something, so we...Rebecca?” It was only then that he noticed Jaime’s little sister wasn’t looking at him, but at Jaime, and Jaime was just smiling at her.
“What the hell are you smiling about, Jaime?” Becca shouted as she jumped to her feet. “You abandoned me at school, no warning, no nothing! So you and your boyfriend could fuck! What the hell, Jaime?” Becca collapsed back onto the sofa and wiped her eyes again, this time needing her whole sleeve to dry her cheeks. “What the hell.”
Jaime simply stood there, smile not moving - but the rest of her went stock still as well. “It - this outburst doesn’t make -” Her face twitched for a moment, the smile struggling to reassert itself. “Becca, you were all right. You’re a big girl, you don’t need me. In fact -”
“What?” Becca shouted, panic rising in her eyes.
“Um!” Will said, rushing over to grab Jaime by the shoulders from behind. “I think we’re both just glad you’re okay,” he said quickly, “and to be honest it was all my fault anyway, I rushed Jaime at the restaurant and I didn’t think to put your number into my phone, so…”
“Yes, it was…” Will felt Jaime shiver in his hands. “I mean, no, this was…” Jaime’s hand went to her forehead, trying to soothe a sudden stabbing pain in her skull. “We…” Her legs chose that moment to lose power and go slack, dropping her to the floor.
Will was the one with his hands on Jaime, but it was Becca that jumped to her feet and rushed to catch her. “Jaime!” she shouted. “Jaime, are you all right?”
“The sofa!” Will said. He took a knee next to Jaime and put her arm on his shoulders to help her to her feet. The way he carried her to the couch wasn’t so much with as alongside Becca’s help, but after a few tense seconds they had Jaime sitting on the couch with the two of them standing to each side of her.
Becca desperately shook Jaime’s shoulders as her sister’s eyes fluttered. “Jaime! Jaime, wake up!” She looked back to Will, the anger from moments ago replaced with sheer panic. “Do something, you’re a doctor!”
Will stood frozen. Sitting before him was his girlfriend of three years, rebuilt with technology he had pioneered, and he had no idea what was happening with her. The phone in his pocket was already vibrating, no doubt a call from Berkut Operations about whatever the remote telemetry was showing. Will instantly knew two things - one, that whatever they were seeing back at Wolf Creek would be just as confusing and impossible as what he was seeing right in front of him, and two, that he had to pretend - for Becca’s sake - that there was something he could do. First Aid Theater, then: he reached for Jaime’s left arm and straightened it to take a crude pulse reading at her wrist. Weak, but steady; Will breathed a sigh of relief that at least she wasn’t dying.
As Will counted Jaime’s pulse one more time, her eyes finally stabilized and locked onto Becca, who was still leaning over her sister, her own eyes wide with panic. “Becca…” Jaime whispered.
“Oh my god, Jaime!” Becca cried out, and swept Jaime up in a big hug. She squeezed her sister as hard as she could before moving back so she could see Jaime’s lips. “What happened? Are you all right?”
“I...I’m not all right…” Jaime stuttered, resisting the urge to bury her face in Becca’s shoulder. “Something’s wrong…”
“Yes!” Will chimed in, desperate to redirect the conversation. “It must have been that car accident!”
Jaime turned towards Will, and stared up at him for a moment. Will stared back, giving her a nod and mouthing It’s a secret to her - despite Becca not looking his way. Jaime refocused on Becca, and when she opened her mouth, she could even hear the truth spilling out of her lips - Sure, I was in a car accident, but then Will replaced half my body with robot parts and now I have to be a super-secret killer for the government - but as she looked at her little sister, Jaime knew she couldn’t put Becca at risk like that. Who knew what Will’s boss would do if she spilled everything now. “Yes…” She nodded slowly. “There was...we were in a car accident, Becca.”
“What?” Becca turned to Will. “Why didn’t you say anything? What happened, is Jaime all right?”
“It was...it was minor, Rebecca,” Will replied, letting out the breath he’d been holding.
“Apparently fucking not!” Becca shouted back.
“I - we thought it was nothing!” Will protested, and looked to Jaime.
Becca’s eyes followed Will’s back to her sister, who continued the story. “Yes, Becca, it was...I just bumped my head on the door, and we thought it was nothing, but…” Jaime tried and failed to smile for her sister. “Maybe we were wrong.”
“But you’re going to the hospital now, right?” Becca said, the worry and panic reentering her voice.
Will quickly shook his head out of Becca’s field of vision. “No, Becca,” Jaime said. “Will just need to keep an eye on me. He’s a doctor, after all, he knows what to look for.”
Becca looked back to Will, her eyes narrowing. “Some help he’s been so far.”
Will took a second to compose himself as the whole day seemed to be rushing in on him once again. “Actually,” he fibbed, “I can do you one better than a hospital.” Leaving Becca behind was a good opportunity to let his feelings bubble to the surface for a moment with a heavy, rasping sigh, but when that was done he was already at his briefcase, browsing it for the small first-aid kit he kept inside. He returned to the sofa with an unlabelled paper sachet that opened to reveal a silvery-looking adhesive patch. “It may not look like it,” Will said, “but this little sensor can replace a whole medical monitoring suite. You just put it on like this” - Will brushed a few locks of hair from Jaime’s temple and then applied the patch - “and it gives you all kinds of information.” Will reached into his pocket to retrieve his phone; with a few taps on the touchscreen, he brought up a live readout of Jaime’s telemetry, quickly adjusting the view to just the biological values before granting Becca a glimpse. “See? We don’t need to put her in a hospital just to find out how she’s doing.”
Becca peered at the screen for a moment. “...okay. I guess.” She looked back to Will. “How does it work?”
“Oh, you know,” Will said, “it’s basically a medical lab on a chip, just different...sensors. It works by near-field communication, so you can get a live readout with a portable scanner, or, well, a suitably modified phone like this.”
“Hmm.” Becca says. “Figure I’m not allowed to see this?”
“It’s got a ways to go before I submit it for FDA approval,” Will admitted. “The important part is that I can’t see anything wrong with Jaime right now.” He turned to Jaime. “While I do have about half of an ICU in my apartment, we’ll have to take it easy for the rest of the evening, okay? If you get another attack, we are going to the hospital, no excuses.”
Jaime nodded, then looked back to Becca. “Everything’s going to work out, Becca,” she said. She tried another smile, but still couldn’t keep it going. “I’m fine. I promise.”
“And I promise I’ll have your sister back here tomorrow to pick you up for school at the latest, Rebecca,” Will said. “Oh! While you have my new phone, would you give me your number, just in case we do end up having to go to the hospital? I don’t want to keep you out of the loop again.”
“Sure thing,” Becca said, and started tapping at the screen.
“Oh! I meant you -” Will paused as he saw it was too late to stop Becca fiddling with his phone. “I meant you just tell me it.”
Jaime smiled - for real this time. “You should have known better, Will.”
“Yes, I...um,” Will said. “I feel really terrible about leaving you alone here, Rebecca. Do you have something to eat for dinner? I could cook something really quick, or -”
“No!” both Sommers sisters exclaimed simultaneously.
“That’s...cool of you, but I’ll just go get a burrito or something,” Becca replied.
“Okay, I’ll…” Will mumbled. “I’ll grab some of your things for the night, Jaime.”
“Thanks,” Jaime said, and sat up as Will walked off. She watched him go for a second, then turned back to Becca. “I’m so sorry for missing you at school today, Becca.”
“You should be,” Becca replied. “Letting some stupid car crash stop you.” She smirked, but only for a moment before hugging Jaime again. “Don’t scare me like that ever again, okay?” She didn’t let go, depriving Jaime of the chance to respond right away.
Jaime drew her close, whispering “I’m so sorry...” to her little sister.
With an overnight bag slung over Will’s shoulder, he and Jaime made their way back outside. They were barely three steps into their walk to where Jaime’s dark-green Honda CR-V was when Jaime noticed Will making a point of increasing the distance between them. He looked around to make sure there was nobody besides them on the street, then briefly turned back as if to look for Becca following them, before he finally turned back to Jaime.
“...how do you feel?” he asked.
“Weird,” Jaime replied. She tapped the patch plastered to her forehead. “That’s not actually doing anything, is it?”
“Oh, that’s...that’s just a garden-variety antimicrobial silver patch, just...theater,” Will said, looking at her some more.
“The...whatever you want to call the stuff you put in me, it feels...well, I don’t feel them at all,” Jaime continued as she peeled the patch off and crumpled it up. “It feels like my legs, my arm. But I’ve been trying to remember how I got home, and...I can’t.” She looked to Will with concern. “That’s bad, right?”
“Yeah, that’s...not good,” Will said. “Nothing immediately threatening, I think, but...we moved too fast.” He shook his head. “You recovered so quickly, I just...I wasn’t thinking about the long-term effects. We’ll have to get you checked out as soon as possible.”
“I remember the drugs,” Jaime said. “Something made me not act like myself. Or maybe it wasn’t the drugs.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Will said quietly. “You must be imagining things, Jaime.”
“Uh, excuse me, I’m pretty sure I know when I can’t remember things,” Jaime replied with a harsh glare.
Will’s face went pale and his next breath was a labored one. “Jaime,” he began, “I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation. The important thing right now is that we stay calm. Okay? Just stay calm.”
Jaime’s glare intensified. “You know what is doing this, don’t you? You know what made me act like someone else, what is erasing my memory. It’s something you put in my head.”
“It’s not supposed to do that!” Will said. “Jaime, all I wanted to do was help you.”
“What did you do?” Jaime hissed.
“It’s...it’s part of the bionic interface,” Will said. “It can stimulate parts of your brain, and regulate your neurotransmitters and levels of hormones, to...protect you. But it’s not working right, and it might be making you not think straight right now, so the really important thing is that you try to stay calm and -”
“I’m pretty sure I’m thinking straight now!” Jaime shouted, and started to round her car towards Will. “We are going back to your lab and you are taking your fucking mind control out of my Goddamn head -”
Miss Sommers, Jonas Bledsoe said, his voice coming in on her right ear like he was standing right beside her. I think it’s time I joined this conversation. For starters, I would like to recommend that you don’t have a shouting match about classified technology on the street. Perhaps we can continue inside your car?
Jaime whirled around to her right mid-step. “Wha - what’s going on?”
What’s going on is that we can see what you see and hear what you hear, Bledsoe said. You’re on a direct line to Berkut Operations. The Duty Officer called me as soon as your conversation became more serious. And speaking of this conversation, would you mind telling your boyfriend to pick up the call on his phone? I imagine he doesn’t want to be left out.
“Wi-Will?” Jaime stuttered, staring into empty space down her street. “Your boss wants you to pick up your phone.”
“...okay,” Will said, unlocking the car from his side and climbing in. As Jaime made her way into the passenger seat, Will pulled his door closed and dug out his buzzing phone. Jaime pulled her door close with a very positive snap, and then Will took the call and put the phone on speaker.
“Fantastic,” Jonas Bledsoe said. “You were saying, Miss Sommers?”
“Uh…” Jaime looked at Will.
“The controls are unstable, Bledsoe,” Will said. “I’ve done what I can to stabilize them, but, ah, we’re running into some...issues.” He coughed. “Like the terms of this arrangement.”
“I don’t recall asking for your version, Anthros,” Bledsoe said. “Miss Sommers, we’re monitoring you from here. There was a brief problem with the system, and we’ve taken it offline while we try to make some improvements - both for us and for you.”
The fire returned to Jaime’s voice. “I doubt that.”
“Miss Sommers, believe me, having you act the way you have been over the last six hours is not what anyone wants,” Bledsoe replied. “Dropping in and out of consciousness or simply agreeing to everything anyone tells you aren’t very good attributes for a bartender or an operative - and I understand that having something influencing your behavior isn’t exactly the greatest feeling in the world. Believe it or not, Miss Sommers, I want you to be happy - happy soldiers actually get things done.”
“I am not -” Jaime started to shout.
“I apologize, Miss Sommers,” Bledsoe said. “But I meant what I said. For now, the system is turned off - which is incredibly dangerous, both to you and to others. That system is what regulates your strength, too. It’s what will keep you from breaking your sister’s back if you hug her a little too tight.” Jaime turned a little pale at that. “It has to be brought back online, for your safety and for the safety of those around you. So, we can keep troubleshooting as we bring the system back up one part at a time - including your input so you feel like yourself - or you can come in to get checked out by our secondary team, but that’ll be an in-depth diagnosis from the ground up that’ll take a few weeks of constant testing here at Wolf Creek, which is a headache I really don’t need right now and I don’t think you’ll want, either.”
Jaime opened her mouth to reply, but Bledsoe kept talking. “But, if I let you run around out there with the system turned off, I need to know you’re reliable. You just rewarded my trust by upholding your cover, and I’m willing to extend you the courtesy of making that call yourself. So you tell me how you want to play this.”
Jaime glared at the phone in silence, but eventually relented with a huff. “I guess we’ll do it your way.”
“Good to hear you’re on board, then,” Bledsoe said. “We’ll talk details tomorrow. For now I recommend you both get some rest. We’re here in case anything comes up. I trust that’s everything settled, then?”
Jaime’s silence said that nothing was settled.
“Good Night, Miss Sommers, Anthros,” Bledsoe said. Then the line disconnected.
Will sucked in a breath quickly and let it out very, very slowly; Jaime could hear him mumble a countdown in Latin to himself. “...do you want to get something to eat on the way?” Will asked.
“No,” Jaime said, crossing her arms.
“I really wish all this hadn’t happened,” Will said as he started the car. “I’m sorry, Jaime. For...everything.”
Jaime turned back towards the windshield. For what seemed like forever to Will, she just stared straight ahead saying nothing. “I understand you were trying to help,” she said. “And I’m grateful. But...I don’t know what’s going on, Will, and I’m angry, and scared, and confused. And you meant well, but...you did this to me.”
“I know,” Will said, and then it seemed like forever again that he struggled to come up with more words. “I’ll...I’ll make this right, Jaime. I promise.”
Jaime sighed, and her eyes dropped to look at her hands. She reached across the car, and took Will’s right hand off the steering wheel. “I know.” She smiled at him. “Maybe start by telling me about...all of this,” she said, waving her bionic right arm at her bionic legs.
Will brightened up and answered her smile with one of his own. “Oh, that is definitely my topic,” he said, starting the car. “So, ah, where to start...ah! Tell me, Jaime, how much do you know about nanotechnology?”
Wrapping up Chapter Three, this part of the story serves as the proper introduction of “the controls” after alluding to them over the course of the last chapter. We realized we had never really given these their due before, so today we’re diving into a little explanation of the how and why.
One problem we felt the TV show had was that Berkut was essentially two for two on their bionic subjects going rogue on them; sure, Jaime eventually fell in line, but surely a military program of this size would eventually get to this point and ask themselves how they can make their new “weapon system” function more reliably. Even if we assume that the subject would be a well-adjusted volunteer with both absolute loyalty and a full understanding of what would happen to her (or him), we have to assume that a change of this enormity would produce psychological issues in just about everyone. Taken together with the experimental nature of the technology, there’s really no good excuse not to try to monitor and regulate the whole “system” - which necessarily includes the brain of the augmentee.
To influence Jaime’s brain function to the degree shown would obviously require a very thorough and invasive interface between the bionics and her brain.Tens of thousands of extremely fine, extremely sensitive electrodes have been seeded throughout her brain where they not only monitor her brain activity, but can also be used to deliver highly-targeted, miniscule electric currents. Now this isn’t like the (highly inaccurate) portrayal of electroconvulsive therapy in, say, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest - these currents are not strong enough to trigger even localized seizures, nevermind pain, but instead serve to activate parts of Jaime’s brain in a deliberate way. Together with being able to essentially continually dose Jaime with artificial neurotransmitters and adjust hormone levels, the controls can in theory achieve a fairly sophisticated adjustment of her brain activity - and as her brain activity patterns are mapped via continuous recording and analysis of the electrode measurements, this will only improve. But the system isn’t just intended to influence Jaime, it also forms part of her link to the bionic systems under her control. For now, these links are rather crude, so most uses of her bionics will have to be very deliberate and include very obvious “unnatural” activation patterns, but with continuing development, who knows how soon Jaime will be able to really control her bionics as true extensions of her body?
But that’s the line from Berkut’s lab boys. You’ve seen the damage that badly-configured controls are causing to Jaime’s well-being, how they can be used to pacify her or (maybe worse) influence her more subtly. For the time being, we’ve chosen to portray this as a relatively crude process, as Jaime is literally the prototype for this, but also because we don’t want to warp her and leave it to the reader to figure out what’s actually her and what’s the controls - when Berkut subverts her free will, we want you to notice.
Is it dark and messed up? You betcha. And we hope that as we tell the story and take this further, you’ll see exactly how dark and messed up it is. Really, you’ve got to wonder what Berkut is so afraid of...
On to more chapter-specific things: Will gives a very short overview of how Jaime’s bionic arm is actually built. To the best of our knowledge, a construction method along these lines would be needed to create bionic limbs powerful enough to do what our bionic women do. One question that Will does somewhat gloss over is the power system actually consists of three layers: ultracapacitors provide quick energy bursts on demand, being able to charge and discharge much quicker than any battery could while keeping a comparable energy density. Ultracaps are still years away from practical applications at this time, but they’re plausible enough for our “just ahead of the current tech” Berkut. These ultracapacitors are in turn charged by fuel cells that convert blood sugar into power. Okay, so far so good, but as you might imagine, the human body has evolved a fairly sophisticated system for regulating blood sugar, but it wouldn’t be able to deal with fuel cells sucking up enough sugar to power superhuman feats of strength - even if sugar levels never get low enough to starve the body’s cells, wildly swinging blood sugar levels are essentially what diabetes is all about. You really, really don’t want to confuse or even overtax the body’s own regulation system. (If you crave a good scare, search for “diabetic ketoacidosis”. It’s not a pretty way to go.) Nevermind actually dissolving enough sugar for serious power in the first place... the only good solution here is to essentially built more transport capacity for sugar into nanomachines and introduce those into the bloodstream. These machines can react to quick fluctuations in local blood sugar concentration and trickle-release as well as hoover up glucose, buffering both intake and consumption and greatly relieving the stress on Jaime’s body.
Also, say hello to Rebecca Louise “Becca” Sommers! We’ve decided to stress early that Becca is a big part of Jaime’s life; they’ve been through some rough times together, and it’ll be the strength of their bond that keeps Jaime on an even keel going forward. We’re sticking with Becca being deaf. Oh, and you’ll be seeing more of Kate, too. We felt it was important that Becca, difficult as she can be sometimes, have at least one true peer and friend. (Plus, we’re totes psyched to get to write like this! All that military and spy talk is sooo lame.)
Dialogue in italics without quotation marks are direct transmissions to Jaime’s bionic ear. Not sure if we ever stated that before, but there is is. It can get a bit difficult to develop good shorthand for different ways of communication as they crop up, but we’ll try to keep it consistent and hopefully easy to follow from context.
When you talk to Jonas Bledsoe, you’re never quite sure why you disagree with him, but you are pretty sure you don’t like him.