A shadow flitted across the dim-light of a weakened streetlamp. The alley just past it buzzed from a lone, industrial-grade light that flickered with a damaged filament. Heavy steel gleamed beneath it; the door to an otherwise nondescript hole in the wall. Most places like this saw little more than junkies or homeless squatters looking for shelter from the elements or “buzz-killers.”
This place was different though. From the outside it had all the makings of a normal, dive, hole in the wall. The piss-smell from stray cats and dogs and the occasional drunkard, mingled with the over-powering trash from a dumpster always a week-past full. It had all the charm of a stale ashtray filled with pork fat and soggy butts.
At least, that was the vague image Rotter had as he was escorted toward the door. He was flanked by a man at his left and a woman at his right. Both were decked out in the latest synth-skin cybernetic augments. He couldn’t see them, but he could tell.
Not many people knew what to look for when checking for augs. They looked at the broader parts of the arms, where the skin was most easily molded to the curved augments. Rotter, on the other hand, always checked the smaller areas– crooks of the elbow, webbing on the fingers, inside palm near the knuckles. They all told the real story. The skin there stretched an unnatural white, no blood to flood it with color there and subtle, misshapen angles that were glaring to a trained eye.
Sometimes he didn’t understand why people paid good money for bad work. Then again, that was the story of his life. Get rich quick had always come with “walk in the park” or “piece of cake.” It all meant the same thing; some dumb asshole was posturing when he should’ve been planning, boasting instead of thinking. He’d been screwed more times than he could count, and mostly on jobs where the lead was the aforementioned. Rotter had never run a bad crew, and it was time that he stop playing games and get serious.
There was just one problem. One stupid problem. Of course he had to have that one defect to keep him from greatness, make him look more crazy than respectable. That one thing also had only one solution, something he’d wrestled with for years now. He needed an augment. A neural one.
He’d never much liked the idea of augments. It was less prejudice than the feeling of cheating. If a creature couldn’t get by on its natural adaptations then it wasn’t supposed to survive. Rule of nature. Irrefutable law. Universal Constant. That’s what survival of the fittest was. Darwin may not have had augs to tie into that equation all those centuries ago, but Rotter had it now, and he had trouble reconciling the two.
The fact was, he needed the neural augment. So he walked, in-step with his escort, along the piss-stinking alley, wondering what kind of numb-nuts built a clinic there. For that matter, how nasty was the place? Moldy walls and bloody gurneys? Pre-augment limbs piled along a wall attracting flies? Or did they at least have the decency to bleach the place?
They entered the metal door to a small room. It was more a storage closet than anything– and a stinking one at that. The walls were soot-covered, blackened from some unholy growth along them. Rotter suppressed a dry-heave. The man perpetually at his left chuckled to himself. The woman placed a hand on his shoulder for comfort. The movement was intentionally light, he sensed. It had to be with the weight of the aug. It churned his stomach all the same.
He was about to speak when air rushed from the ceiling. It sucked at the trio’s long coats and attempted to pull Rotter’s skin off his bones. He was grateful when it stopped and the wall ahead slid sideways in all its unholy glory. Rotter was momentarily blinded by a super-bright, white-light.
He waited for it to abate, but paneled walls of an elevator sharpened whiteness. His escort ushered him in, then took their places beside him. The woman spoke a command and a synthetic voice confirmed her identity. A moment later the doors parted to a hallway matching the bright-white, paneled elevator. The whole place screamed minimalism as if it were going out of fashion and it lamented the idea.
Sleek chrome and brushed stainless-steel formed the furniture and fixtures along the walls and floors. A few people came and went with the same, sterile bustle as a high-tech corp hospital. Rotter was staggered. He took a moment to recollect his wits. Given what he’d expected, this was a dream. He suddenly found his faith in his companions and their doctor-boss renewed.
The whole rest of the procedure was a blur. Rotter met with face after face of smiling, friendly people. They were almost perfect looking, save the obvious rigors of life that could defeat even the most expertly applied make-up. At that, all the women were still beautiful and the men refined to look their level-best. When Rotter met with the doctor, he was still staggered, barely able to speak.
How could this place exist? Let alone beneath ground and with an entrance so vile and forbidding? He wasn’t sure, but he liked the cunning of the architect. It was so unappealing it hid in plain-sight.
The doctor went over the procedure and Rotter’s uneasiness ebbed in enough to displace his fascination. His one, glaring flaw was heavy in his mind again.
“We’ll fix that,” the doctor said cheerfully. He had a sort of urgent professionalism that oozed a notion of “too little time, too much to do.”
“So you’re telling me they’ll stop, and my eye will work right again?” Rotter asked carefully, not wanting too much false hope to gather.
However pressed for time, the doctor remained cordial. He smiled wide at Rotter. “Your eye will work better than before. Both of them, in fact. And as for the neural rewire and bios upgrade, you’ll never hear the voices again.”
“Never?” Rotter asked, with a fearsome thirst.
The doctor stepped around his desk then sat in a lean against it, just in front of Rotter. “I can give you a solemn vow. You’ll never hear the voices again, and your eyes will work better than they ever could naturally. You’ll have to adjust to the HUD, but I assure you it won’t take any time at all. If there’s ever a problem, no matter how big or small, I will fix it personally. No charge.”
Rotter was once more amazed. “Th-thank you, doctor.”
With that, the pair that had escorted Rotter in, escorted him out and through the facility to a lone “guest room.” It was more like a palatial suite at a high-roller casino. He felt like aristocracy. Indeed, even for a quarter-mil in credits, it was a steal– a glimpse into luxury he might otherwise never see. The pair stayed with in the room until the time came. The woman promised to observe his procedure, then later return to ensure he recovered properly.
This was the point of the room. All patients needed to be closely monitored for augment-based rejection. In some cases, the nervous system would not take to the augments, causing misfires in the cybernetics ranging from random muscle twitches to full-on hallucinations. Thankfully, most of those causes had been weeded out or accounted for enough to be avoided.
Before Rotter knew it, he was being prepped for surgery. He hadn’t eaten in almost two-full days, but it would be worth it. To their credit, his two companions never left his side, though they also seemed never to interact. He guessed it was a professional thing. Bodyguards couldn’t allow themselves to get attached, especially to one another. He knew that from guys he’d worked with. Apparently it affected their work too much.
The woman gave him an injection as he lie back on his bed. She soothed him with an explanation while the man stood a little to the side. He gave an amused and speechless wave goodnight. Rotter’s eyes fluttered and shut.
When they opened again, Rotter was once more in the bed. His head throbbed, and he felt IVs feeding his arms. Something beeped. Then, endorphins and painkillers flooded him. He gave a euphoric sigh and the woman sat beside him. She pulled one leg onto the bed in a cross, the other hanging off it, and fed him water from a straw.
He sipped cold relief, “Thank you.” He glanced around the room. “Where’s the other one?”
She eyed him carefully, “Other one?”
He took another, long sip, “Your friend. The guy that came with us.”
She shook her head sternly, “We’ve been alone since we me, Rotter. I don’t–”
Realization dawned on both of their faces. Rotter reddened in embarrassment, but it was quickly replaced by relief.
Tears filled his eyes, “Th-that means…”
“The voices are gone,” she finished.
His mouth quivered with emotion. He thanked her. Truth was, he probably had more than a few flaws, but none were so glaring as his mental one. A defect in his genetics had caused a type of atypical schizophrenia. It hadn’t presented until later in life, and by now was so far progressed he’d wounded himself in the midst of one of its hallucinations. His eye had been blind a decade, and anyone that worked with him knew how it had gotten there.
She handed over a mirror and he looked himself over. Where once that glaring flaw had been evident in his blinded, right eye, now only the smallest hint of a scar remained near the eyebrow. His eye was its natural blue, faint, electric blue around its rim from the recently-installed HUD.
He couldn’t think, couldn’t believe it; his one, glaring flaw, gone. He fell into her lap and wept with gratitude.