If you are going to walk on thin ice, you might as well dance
– Inuit proverb
Drew stared, blank-eyed, at the doctor. He was watching her intently, probably thinking his expression meant something to her, but to him he was just the same as all the rest. A man, not old enough to be distinguishable by the patterns of his flab and baldness, not young enough to be noticeable for his physique or style. Just a man. The same as the one she refused to speak to yesterday? She wasn’t sure. The white coat didn’t help. In any case, she had decided to speak to this one, so she needed to appear affable.
Drew put on her affable face. He spoke.
“Let’s start with your name. It isn’t actually DRU, is it?” He pronounced her name separately by each letter. Cute.
“No. That isn’t how you say it. It’s Drew.”
“But that isn’t your actual name is it? You can’t call yourself after your unit designation.”
“How do you know my unit designation?” She arched up, suspicious. How much did these people know about her?
“It was on your lapels when we found you. ‘Dedicated Retribution Unit 471.’ But that’s not your name, just your designation.”
She sniffed. “Same thing. Anyway, everyone calls me Drew.” Threw a huffy kind of shrug at him.
“Very well Drew. But that’s not your actual name. I would like an identity by which I can refer to you, something that speaks about your place in the world. So can you tell me your name?”
Clearly, Drew thought, they must be going around in circles here. Why are people so stupid? “That is my name, and I think it tells you everything you need to know about me. I’m Drew. Nice to meet you. Who are you?” She arched an eyebrow in what she hoped was a pointed manner.
“Hmm. Let’s make a deal, okay?” She recognized daddy-talk, or big-brother-talk, like he thought he was going to con her with some false authority. Did he not know what she was? She was used to authority, she carried 35 rounds of it in a bullpup-configured light assault carbine, or 10 rounds of it in a high-powered FinnArms Stalker. Not-yet-middle-aged corporate doctors did not carry authority, they carried a badge. “You tell me your name, and I’ll tell you mine.” Smug face, like he’d just pulled the biggest con of the century.
“Drew. Pleased to meet you.” Humour! Zing! She wanted to hold out her hand for effect, but the plastic zip-ties kind of threw that out the window. Also, she was getting a little sharp here, she needed to dull it down. So probably just as well. She made sure to slur her next words. “‘N who’re you?”
As usual, her sass drew a sigh. What is it with Men Of A Certain Age not being able to handle a girl who talks back? Pindicks or something. “Drew … that’s not your name. I want to know your real name, so we have something solid here, you know?”
She sighed too. “Okay Doc. I had a real name, but it died, alright? When my friend ‘Lenie died and all I had left of her was her bracelet, I took it down to the ice. You haven’t been to the ice, right? It’s there on the shore in late spring, still there but all slushy and mashing against itself, makes this kind of grating sound. I threw ‘Lenie’s bracelet into the ice and when I said goodbye, and when I did I threw my name away too. Since then I just used whatever name was useful, but when I joined the squad they all called me Drew, so Drew it is.” She turned plaintive little girls eyes on him, just for a moment. “Can you please just call me Drew?” She asked in a small voice.
“Okay … Drew.” He sat down again. “Nice to meet you.” Brotherly wink. Sure you mean it doc, sure. “So, I want to ask you some questions, first, about what happened at Tunguska.”
“I don’t know!” She blurted, almost too quickly. “I got shot. Or something.” Slumped back, huffy. What had happened?
For the first time, the doctor turned on the screen on the wall. Grainy footage appeared. He shuffled it. Angles changed, vision cleared. There was the tower she’d been sent to. She’d been inside, level 3, but the tower she could see was a mess, level 3 up was a smoking wreck. A body hanging out of the window must have been … was that Armoured Angel, their heavy weapons guy? Were her whole team dead? Maybe not, because she could see a gaggle of corporate troops at the base of the tower, in that classic huddle of squaddies getting ready to storm a room. She didn’t remember any of this…
The doctor hit play. This was drone footage so there was no sound, but she saw the guys geeing themselves up to go in, then a charge went off and the door came open. The first guy moved to enter the door, but blew back, shot maybe. Then the screen went kind of blurry and the men started falling down. The screen paused.
“How did you do that?” the doctor asked her, sounding kind of impressed. Do what?
“I’m not there,” she pointed out reasonably. “What are you talking about?”
He rewound a little. “You’re there. Can’t you see?”
“No, it’s just kind of misty.”
“That’s blood and smoke. Here, let me slow it down.” He switched to freeze frame. Moment by moment, she watched the men’s deaths unfold. First the guy who’d been barrelling for the door, blown back by a single shot in the face. Then the man on the left of the door, vision still obscured by smoke, fell back in confusion, fell over. On his other side, the demolitions guy died in a flagrant head shot. Whatever was shooting them was carrying something small but very powerful. But the third guy went down from the thigh, looked like a lot of blood from a deep cut. The fourth guy was just starting to react, maybe, and he didn’t die, went back as if he’d been tripped, and his gun ripped away. Three more of the team went down in an arc of auto fire from that guy, one of them their heavy weapons support, hit by maybe five or six bullets in the chest and head. Now that the smoke was clearing Drew could see a kind of figure moving through the dust and smoke, small and lithe, carrying that guy’s assault rifle in one hand and rippers extending from the other. It was hard to see in blurry drone footage through smoke, but there was definitely a ghost figure in there, moving through the cadre. They fell apart behind her, like a piece of ocean-caught maguro being sliced carefully open by an expert chef.
Was that … her?
Behind her, three men burst out of the empty doorway and headed away. She recognized Jesus’s slight limp, Ragged Jerry with his shotgun, and Magnum, huge and hulking but obviously badly hurt. Magnum maybe paused to look back at her but they obviously weren’t messing around, they were lighting out for the hills.
It was her. How had she done that?
“I … ” she watched in confusion.
“Let me play it again.” The doctor hit shuffle, it went back to the start, she watched herself butcher her way through the team again. This time she definitely saw herself in that small, lithe figure, but she was moving so fast.
The Russian Gear. She’d bought it in Vladivostok before the mission. Told no one. It … itched … in her for a few days, then settled down. Of course she hid the operating scars. None of her team knew about it. But they must know now, after they saw that.
“Are they alive!?” she demanded, tearing up. Magnum had dragged her out of that shelled tank back in the Indo zone, kissed her face and cried when they got on the AV in Calcutta and saw the size of their payment. Ragged Jerry always beat her at cards and sneered, but always volunteered for her team. And Jesus, always laughing and joking and looking sidelong at the future like it was just there, waiting for him to grab it and make it stand still …
“As far as we know they got away from the zone before the response was organized. You were the only captive.” The video played on behind her, a classic tableau of last-ditch defending. Taking cover, using up ammo, charging, getting knocked down … except it all happened at breathtaking speed, and finished when she fell, exhausted, to one knee, and just sat there shattered as they smashed her in the head with their rifle butts.
“I don’t know how I did that,” she said slowly. Looked at him. “Do you?” Don’t mention the Russians…
“No,” said the doctor, handing her a tissue and sitting down. “But here’s the thing, Drew … it’s not possible that you can hold the cyberware required to do that, and still be human. We’ve done the tests, and we have a clear diagnosis of cyberpsychosis.” He sat back, steepling his fingers like he thought this was something she might be scared of.
“Really?” She said in a small voice. She’d always cut it fine, but always thought she was staying the human side of … that. She wasn’t scared of cyberpsychosis, but she was definitely scared of what the corporations did about it. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, we are.” He sighed and did that Concerned Uncle voice that men did when they thought she couldn’t understand the gravity of simple words, and needed to be patronized. “So we don’t have many choices here, Drew. You know what happens to cyberpsychotics. But we have a treatment we are going to try on you. It’ll stop your psychosis, but we’ll have to remove all your cyberware.”
She didn’t react, looked at him calmly. Her affable face fell off, replaced with … nothing. Take her cyberware? Make her … meat? She wasn’t ever going to go back to … meat. ‘Lenie had been … meat. Back when Drew was … meat. She was not going back to that. Cattle, like she and ‘Lenie had been. She had gone from sheep to wolf. They weren’t sending her back to that.
She watched coldly as he stood up from behind the desk, so sure of his diagnosis and his corporate power. “We’ll talk again tomorrow Drew,” he said affably, “See what kind of agreement we can come to about removing your cyberware. You can’t go on with this much boosting and hope to stay human. We have to take it out.” He walked to the door, seemingly incapable of noticing the gravity of the cold stare Drew was giving him. “See you tomorrow.”
Drew knew all about Men Of A Certain Age and their feelings about how much say women should have over their own bodies. She had seen it all before, and vowed never to see it again. She watched him walk out of the door, watched as it slid shut behind him, and as she waited for the guards to come, she started calculating.
How do you count the passage of time when you are in an empty space? Drew sat in a tiny white cell, with a bed and a separate toilet, and waited to be dragged down a pristine white tiled hallway to another pristine white, tiled room. She had a small cot with white sheets, a tiny window she couldn’t reach, no books or screens or vids. All she could do was wait. And think.
Drew was not good at thinking. She had never counted thinking to be a particularly useful talent. Running, fighting, hiding, knowing when to give in – they were useful talents. Thinking just made you angry, so Drew didn’t usually think – she acted. But in this white room she very quickly realized action was not where it was at.
They were drugging her. Something in the food, she realized when they came to get her on the second day and she could barely fight them at all.
But she also realized there were no cameras in her little toilet (or maybe she assumed it). So after she ate she rushed in there and puked it up. She drank toilet water instead of what they gave her, and acted sluggish when they came for her. They’d put something on her cyberware that made her eyes fuzzy and slowed her boosting, but something was wrong with some part of it, because her rippers still worked. Just a bit – they didn’t come out fast and it was a lot of concentration, but she could get them out maybe one inch, which was enough to touch her zip-ties. She had noticed that there was maybe a two minute gap between when the guards dropped her trussed and sluggish into the doctor’s room, and when he arrived. And yesterday she noted 12 seconds – count them, 12 – between when he arrived and the door automatically locked.
She could feel that Russian ghost stirring in her. It was beyond the control of whatever they had stuck on her or in her to stop her cyberware. That Russian ghost was uncoiling, seething through her, demanding action.
She wasn’t resisting. They wanted her cyberware. They were going to get it.
It was the same formula the next day. Now was her third day without food, but what girl doesn’t go without food? Drew figured she had a few hours of action before she wore out, provided her Russian ghost didn’t sputter and die too soon. The guards came for her, assumed she was too deadbeat to resist, slapped her in zip ties and dragged her down the pristine white corridor. They dumped her in the chair – the one on her right took the time to give her a good feel, as he had done yesterday, while the one on her left, no doubt a good family man, looked the other way – and then left. This gave her two minutes to draw out her rippers and saw through the zip ties. They gave in in time, but she didn’t have confidence that she could secretly slice through her ankle shackles, and anyway the effort of pushing the rippers out against the cyberlock was really starting to drain her. So she waited, breathing calmly to recover her strength and trying to make contact with the Russian ghost.
She found it just as the doctor walked in. Twelve seconds is a lot of time for her Russian ghost, but she had no time to waste so she leapt over the desk and gouged his eyes out, then ducked into the hall. One last effort to push out the rippers and sever the leg shackles, then down the hallway looking for her captors. She found them in a room in the opposite direction from her cell, running into the hallway carrying electric batons. From behind her she could hear the faint screams of her blinded doctor, which maybe had alerted her two guards (if they hadn’t seen the CCTV). She was flat against the wall when they came out, and Family Man didn’t know what hit him. The other guy spent a little bit of time acquainting himself with exactly what had hit him, but she didn’t have time for the details, not here and now. Having done the best she could, she moved on, keys in hand, cyberlock removed.
She got out. It was fun, mostly, though she was hungry and strung out. Her one regret was that cyberpsych. She had been forced to leave him alive, but blinded. No time to go back.
The rest of his profession would have to make up for it.
She never found out who was holding her, though she assumes now it was Arasaka. They were probably looking at turning a nice profit from all her cyberware, and now that she knows what Arasaka is up to she thinks maybe she would have been an experimental prototype for the Full Body Replacement (FBR) troops parading around New Horizon now. No matter, she’s free, and she’s not going back into “treatment.” Let them try and take her …
Footnote1: This is the story of Drew’s transition from corporate soldier to renegade solo, after she was captured in a suicidal defense of her troop at the Tunguska intervention.
Footnote2: I have no idea if the opening proverb is actually an Inuit proverb – it’s just a google search result – but it suits the story so I’m running with it.