Short Story: Break Out

Panther crouched at the edge of a rise overlooking a large military compound. The place was little more than a sea of tents and heavy vehicles with a lone modular building slapped together at its center. The tents encompassed it on all sides, as if some god-like shrine and they its prostrating disciples. It made her sick to look at; so many were force-fed corporate lies and thanked them for it.

Panther’s optical augments shifted the contrast of the images flowing through her eyes to highlight the compound’s details. Patrols of two trudged along the three, nearest perimeters that formed one half of an overall fence-line. Panther’s heads-up-display highlighted the patrolling guards in opaque red, analyzing each one with minute text-windows of everything from height and weight to their ever-changing trajectory.

Across the wet-gleam of the asphalt grounds, more patrols made perpendicular paths through the tents winding to form a shifting, full-coverage net across the compound. The HUD recorded the paths with faint, red lines overlaid on the terrain. Overhead, drones filled the gaps between patrols with optical sensors and a near-silent whir of electric props. Their dual 10mm cannons sat on standby, ready to spin up and litter soft targets with hell-fire.

The drones would be the easiest part. They were stupid, guided by subroutines and out of combat mode until operators or officers designated otherwise. People were more difficult. Apart from the patrols, Panther knew, a few hundred soldiers were hidden in the tents between her and the modular building. It didn’t change the fact that she had to make it to the building. Ion was waiting, probably under duress, and no doubt weak from torture. Getting out would be hardest, but if forced to stay, Ion would be dead before sun-up.

She and Nix had been caught in a fire-fight while trying to liberate some refugee supplies held hostage by the military. They wanted anyone not touting the corporate line turned in. For refugees coming from a corp war-zone, that was just about everyone; brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. It wasn’t going to happen. The military knew that, decided to starve the refugees out. Panther and the others had more humane ideas, and sent Nix and Ion to retrieve the supplies while they created a distraction.

Needless to say, things didn’t go as planned– actually, they went completely fucking sideways. The end result was Nix dead and Ion in the hands of the military, receiving the same treatment refugee-dissenters would. Now Panther had no choice but to go in, get her sister, and hope they both got out alive. The alternative was certain torture and a public execution to make an example out of any “resistance.”

With all of the information gathered to her HUD, Panther slipped down the hill-side for the compound’s barriers. Invisible laser-fences had posts every twenty or so feet and were spaced evenly enough that getting to one would be easy. Panther reached one, pried open a few of the sensor-control panels, and began fiddling with the wires. Beside her, the invisible lasers were green on her HUD, crisscrossed and formed like chain-link, but unscalable without the right augs.

She didn’t have the augs required for jumping the fence– nor the more upscale ones that allowed one to walk-straight through without setting them off. She did have razor-sharp, carbon-fiber nails though, and an augged hand willing to use them to strip and splice wires. She shorted the connection on a power distributor, knowing no-one would notice the breach before she was long gone. The fence itself wouldn’t read the failed parts, and only a visual inspection with the right eyes or visor-settings would reveal the sabotage. She slipped past for the shadows of a tent’s rear-sheet. Sounds of a couple of soldiers fuck-grunting emitted from within.

“Great,” Panther thought. “More meat for the grinder– might as well fuck and get it over with now, take advantage of that corp health-plan before it’s gone.”

She followed inactive, red-lines on her HUD toward the front of the compound. Voices of laughter or low conversations marked the sides of each tent as she dodged and weaved to stay hidden. By the time she reached the last set of tents, her heart was racing. Neuro-transmitters were flooding her body with adrenaline, making it hard to think. A mental activation of endorphins and serotonin slowed her heart to a crawl, her mind and body now completely at-ease with the task at hand.

She glanced along the line of tents, then hurried for the door of the modular building. There’d no doubt be surveillance inside– security, drones, all manner of things to contend with. She was ready. It was now or never. Feline agility sped her body into the building. Micro-speakers implanted in her augged arm emitted inaudible, digital noise, jamming audio and visual equipment. Two guards were startled to their feet at her entrance.

A subsonic pistol in Panther’s left-hand dropped one. A razor-sharp sword in her right, cut the other guard’s throat. Her body followed through. Alarms began to scream. Guards poured in from various corridors. The click of the subsonic pistol accented metallic slicing as she moved like a ballerina, painting abstracts of blood and brain matter across the room.

She pirouetted, grande jete, a bladed boot slicing flesh as her arm made plunging motions and the pistol kept time. She came to a stop at the far-side of the entryway, blade wet and pistol empty. Bodies fell this way and that, creating water-falls of blood through the grated floor.

She didn’t need to survey to carnage to know it was total. Her left hand worked to drop a mag, and slap in a new one. A moment later she speed-walked through a door, body stiff, determined. A few men and women turned, one-by-one. The click of the pistol laid each of them out.

The room was filled with invisible barrier-fences, like the perimeter’s, to contain the various prisoners. The room was empty, save a lone, huddled figure in a corner cell. The poor creature rocked back and forth on his haunches, completely unresponsive to Panther’s approach. She ignored it; Ion didn’t need to do anything more than continue breathing, she’d do the rest.

She punched her way into the barrier’s control panel, shredding faux-skin off her metallic hand, then gripped a handful of wire. Sparks rained from the panel with a whiff of smoke. Panther ignored it, hurried to lift her sister off the floor. Ion’s eyes were glazed over, her face bruised and bloody. She stared vacantly, too drugged and traumatized to comprehend the situation. She opened her mouth to speak, revealed a missing tooth and a few, chipped others.

“Don’t. I’m getting you out.”

She timed her exfil carefully; made it back out the building’s door before anyone knew what had happened inside. Her HUD warned of impending patrols, allowed her to duck back and narrowly avoid a pair of men crossing her path. Moments later, the two were at the downed fence-line. A pair of soldiers examined the pole there, evidently aware it’d been breached.

“Can you walk?” Panther whispered.

Ion gave a noncommittal shrug, found her feet. Two clicks splattered blood across helmet-visors and asphalt. The pair hurried through, Ion limp-sprinting on pure adrenaline. Neither of the sisters was sure how she made it up the hill. At its crest, she fell stumbled, fell, slid the rest of the way down.

A black van waited beside the hill’s terminus, its doors open on familiar faces that forced Ion to tear up. She fell into the arms of Nix’s brother, as Panther hopped in. The doors shut and the van’s electric engine gave a silent start, compelled it forward over the crunch of small twigs and gravel.

In the front seat, Panther’s ex-boyfriend and second in command, Delta, glanced over; “Everything alright?”

“Five-by-Five,” she said with a hint of scorn. “No-one’s going to take my sister from me.”

“Sibling love. Almost as powerful as sibling rivalry.” He glanced over again, “Just not as, you know, bloody.”

She thought of the bodies, “Depends on the siblings.”

Delta gave a laugh and drove on through the darkness.

Short Story: One Glaring Flaw

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.”

“My pleasure.”

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.