Installation and Inspection

Cylee returned to the office. Dr. Patel was sitting in the lobby, reading something on a small tablet which she slid into a pocket as Cylee entered.

“Welcome back. Are you ready?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Very well. You know the drill. There's a robe on the table, I'll give you a couple of minutes to get changed, and we'll be set.”

Cylee walked into the lab again. The table was split down the middle, allowing access to her Spine without making her lay on her face. She got the robe on and sat back, letting her old Spine settle into the groove between the padded sides. It was hard to keep her heart steady, hard to settle down. She pulled her hair forward, braided it quickly and deftly while waiting for the doctor to enter.

After just a few minutes Dr. Patel knocked and asked if Cylee was ready, then walked in. “Okay, it's just about time to go to sleep. Do you have any last minute questions, concerns?”

Cylee shook her head, then paused. “Will anyone else be in here while I'm out?”

“No, it's just me. This is fairly straightforward, and I won't need help. I should mention, however, that Cassandra pretty much does what she wants and I can't guarantee she won't come in, but since this has to be a sterile environment while I'm working I'll do everything I can to keep her out until you're ready for company again. Okay?”

“Thank you doctor.”

“It's what I do. Now, put this mask on, and breathe deeply. It'll smell funny, but things will be much better once you come back up…”

“And you're back! How do you feel?”

Cylee looked around. As far as she could tell no time at all had passed. She had no overlays, which was disorienting. Her eyes darted from side to side, taking in her surroundings.

“It'll be hard to talk for a few minutes, that's okay. When you've come back up a little more I'll turn on your new Spine and we can start to get a sense of how the new connections work. I have to say, though, the connection was surprisingly easy. Half the time I would go to configure a subsystem and find that it had already been auto configured, the connections made, and there weren't any settings left for me to tweak.”

Cylee looked up. “That's…good?”

“And you can speak again! You are fast. Okay. I'm going to turn your Spine back on…or would you like to? The physical switch is a little hard to find the first time, it's down at the bottom end, on the left side,” Dr. Patel guided Cylee's hand, “And there it is. You feel the little cover? Lift that and press your finger on the pad below. That'll start up the boot routine. Only your finger or mine will do it, and you can remove mine from the approved list if you want, once you're up and running. Are you getting anything?”

Suddenly Cylee was. A small, nearly transparent clock appeared in her upper left field of vision, and down the right side of her sight appeared a long list of diagnostic checks. The checks ended and the list disappeared, and a few menus appeared.

“This new Spine understands all the same gestures as your old one, and has a new feature I think you'll really like. It can translate subvocalized words into text. Give it a shot. Send me a message. Just make the word shapes without actually speaking, without even whispering.”

“Testing this, Dr. Patel” Cylee mouthed, silently, while the doctor looked away. “I got your test. Very nice. You'll want to spend some time getting used to it, especially the way it feels as you move. Can you sit forward yet?”

Cylee leaned forward, and almost bent in half. The old Spine had required a little bit of effort, but this one reacted instantly and fluidly. She leaned back and tried to hold still, sitting straight up. Subtly the Spine stiffened just a bit, supporting her gently, but moving quickly again when she changed positions.

“When you're up to it I'd recommend using the exercise room upstairs to get used to how the Spine moves, how it interacts with your Augments. Not right now, of course, and I wouldn't use Adrenalex until at least tomorrow, because it interacts oddly with the anesthetic we used to put you under. But for the most part you should be fine in just a few minutes.”

Cylee was only half listening, exploring the menus available to her. Noticing this, her Spine started recording and transcribing Dr. Patel's words so she could review them as she had the attention. Everything seemed just a little slicker. She could access her old memories, as she was used to, but now as soon as she started considering the stored memories the Spine would start sorting them, trying to find ones that matched the mood she was looking for, the time frame, winnowing out poor matches into a small cluster down almost below the edge of her vision, leaving the most likely matches front and center.

Everything else worked in much the same way: it was similar to what she was used to, only better. At length she looked back “outside” and saw Dr. Patel standing there with an oddly worried smile on her face.

“Thank you doctor, this is amazing. I appreciate your attention to detail, I really didn't experience any pain at all.”

“You're quite welcome of course. As I said, it's what I do,” She stopped and kept looking slightly worried at Cylee.

“Cylee, I have to tell you, no, ask you…” she stopped and started again.

“There is something you should know, but here is probably not the best place to talk about it. When this job is over we'll be back in Seattle, and there's some…thing in my apartment there I'd like you to see. Would you like to come over then?”

Cylee's immediate desire was to run, fast and far. Getting personal on any level was just asking for pain. But that's not what this sounded like. This sounded…this wasn't asking for a personal connection. Cylee nodded. Dr. Patel looked slightly relieved, then even more worried, and beamed her address over to Cylee via IR.

“Okay, swing by, after we finish…this little job. I'll make dinner. My treat. And no…I'm not coming on to you, but when you see what I'm talking about well, maybe you'll wish this was that innocent.” Dr. Patel squeezed Cylee's hand and walked out quickly, stiffly.

Cylee nodded, breathing fast and hoping she wasn’t blushing. When it was clear the doctor wasn’t returning she dressed and walked back out of the surgery. As she left she got a message from Cassandra

Cassandra: Congratulations on your new Spine. We’ll have our first mission briefing tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM.

Which seemed like a good sign that it was time for her to go.

“Hey, Cylee,” a voice called from behind her. Looking up she saw Julian standing on the mezzanine.

“Yes?”

“How do you feel? Everything okay?” Cylee nodded. Julian wasn’t dressed as outrageously today as he had been, but was still wearing a black collared shirt and, Cylee noticed as he came down the stairs, silver pants.

“Everything seems fine. The menus are all different. There are some settings in here that I don’t understand yet, but I’m sure there are videos buried in here somewhere that will explain them to me.

Agent: There are. We are reading those video files right now.

Cylee almost sobbed with relief; the Agent wasn’t gone. Cylee thought she had kept her reactions entirely internal, but apparently not.

“Whoa, are you okay? Is…is everything okay?” Julian said, reaching out for her arm. Cylee stepped out of his reach.

“Yes, sorry. Yeah, I’m good. Maybe just a reaction to coming out of the anesthesia. Well. See you.”

“Hey, Cylee, wait.”

“Yes?”

“Well, you’ve had a long day. Why don’t you let me buy you dinner tonight?”

“No, thank you. I think I’ll just order something in at my hotel room.” Cylee said.

“You sure?” Julian was standing just a little too close, his face radiating concern, but faces lie.

“Yes, I’ll be fine tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow at the mission briefing.” Cylee said.

“Okay then. Good night, Cylee.”

“Good night.” Cylee said, even though the clock in her HUD said it was only 3:30 PM


After Cylee left the building, Doctor Patel was in the surgery, cleaning up and getting everything put away again, when Cassandra entered.

“You got the backup?” Cassandra asked.

“I did.”

“And the decryption key?”

Dr. Patel sighed. “Yes, and the key. She was using the personal encryption algorithm you forced on them all when these old Spines were installed, the one with the skeleton key.”

“Let's see the video.”

“Major Vance, you'll have to be more specific. I know more or less what you are looking for, but I'm not a mind reader.” Doctor Patel said, a touch of annoyance in her voice to fit the the very annoyed words she was speaking.

“The recording from the night Pacifica lost the war. The warehouse in Seattle. I doubt I need to tell you the day that happened. We were both there.”

“We were both in Anchorage, you mean. Neither of our necks were ever on the line, Major.” Doctor Patel sorted through Cylee’s stored memories. “

Okay, here's what she stored from that night. It looks like she encapsulated it; she’s even got an .mcap file called “Warehouse_Fire.mcap” Why are you interested in this, anyway?”

“Three of the Ghosts are still active, but none of them should have survived. It wasn't part of the deal. We know they're still alive, but the Fed doesn't. We might be able to use that. But most of all, I want to know how they escaped.”

A large section of wall lit up with a freeze frame. “I assume you just want audiovisual, instead of full immersion? I could hook you into this.”

“Audiovisual will be fine. I don't want to feel like a dirty scared soldier, I just want to know how one escapes from a rigged cease-fire.”

Dr. Patel's eyes hardened, but she nodded and tapped a button on a tablet laying on the table. The screen came to life.

Cylee and her cohorts were walking in front of an entire platoon of younger clones. The clones behind them looked like fourteen year olds, but were in fact only about two years old. None of this was in the video, of course, but it was going through the minds of both women as they watched. All of this was common knowledge.

In Cylee's field of view was a platoon of United States Army troops, their weapons at the ready. Cylee glanced down at her own rifle, safety off, batteries warm and targeting data flowing into her Spine via the relay in her trigger finger. Reticules appeared over each target in sight, prioritized based on armaments and stance, aiming for the more likely threats first. But nobody opened fire.

In the middle of the room was a large portable table. The table itself was cheap and flimsy plastic, but covered with an expensive-looking table cloth emblazoned with the seal of the United States of America. Seated behind the table was seated a man in his middle fifties. The insignia on his dress uniform identified him as a general, and Cylee's Augmented sight identified him as two star General Markus LaRue, although the identification was starred, indicating that the Spine wasn't able to positively confirm he identification.

“It's not LaRue, of course,” Cassandra said almost to herself. “It was a ringer, someone the Fed wasn't afraid of losing if this thing went bad.”

“That's close enough,” the man who wasn't LaRue said, and Cylee halted. Behind her was a column of girls who looked like a younger her, each carrying enough computer guided death to level the entire platoon in front of them. Cylee laid her weapon on the floor, and the sound of two hundred other people doing the same was obvious.

“It's like watching a train crash in slow motion,” Dr. Patel said, her eyes wet.

“How else will we keep it from crashing next time?”

Dr. Patel didn't reply, she just crossed her arms across her chest and watched the video play out.

LaRue stated that the forces were almost ready to sign the official paperwork, and would the PEF troops please stand down in the temporary barracks set up in the warehouse section of the building. Cylee and Wes ordered their troops to set up camp, and watched them shepherd the clones into the warehouse. The room was eerily silent as they worked, each very tired, very young-looking clone moving quickly and competently through the motions of setting up the camp.

“Where are Zeta and Sagittarius?” Doctor Patel asked as they watched the clones work in that unnatural silence.

“They were ordered to come into the warehouse via a side door…you can see them entering and getting their clones set up in the farthest two corners.” Cassandra said, not taking her eyes off the screen.

Wes and Cylee stood at the doorway, discussing the terms of the surrender and what they thought was going to happen to their troops.

“I don't know, Watt, they seem sincere,” said Cylee, using code names as per orders.

“It's a trap, Zero. I know it is. I can feel it,” Wes-slash-Watt answered.

“Why would the PEF send us into a trap? We're the most valuable assets they have.”

“Yes, during a war. The entire purpose of this mission is to end the war. Once that treaty is signed we're essentially useless. And we're an embarrassment. America fears us.”

“Not us…I mean, not you and me. Them.” Cylee said.

“Nobody's going to be that picky, Zero. As far as the world is concerned we are them. There's no genetic difference, just a difference in physical age—”

The door flew open, and gunshots were heard on the recording. Doctor Patel gasped as she had been shot. “That quickly? The clones aren’t even settled yet!”

“But they were all inside the warehouse, and that’s all the Fed cared about.”

Cylee ducked and rolled behind a crate, and heard Wes grunt in pain. Apparently he didn't move quite as quickly. Glass shattered above, and there was the sound of screams and yelled orders from the main floor of the warehouse. All the voices sounded far too immature to be involved. Crazed scenes flashed past Cylee's eyes. She looked down, saw blooms of incendiary grenades exploding, lighting people on fire. She saw, half visually, half with her Augments, the outline of Wes behind some boxes, with just his foot sticking out. His pulse was still strong and insanely elevated. She saw the outlines of two US soldiers standing in the doorway, guns leveled, firing indiscriminately into the crowded room, then tossing in two more incendiaries and locking the door, laughing.

Cylee ran out from her hiding place and grabbed Wes. He had only been hit in the arm, but he was down and angry. She grabbed him under the arms and looked around.

The overlay on her vision showed a faint green arrow, pointing to a wall of the warehouse.

“What is that?” Dr. Patel asked.

“I don't know… which is weird, because I wrote most of the code for those Spines…Did Cylee hack it somehow?“ Cassandra said, but didn’t stop the playback.

Cylee followed the arrow. It led her to a small side door, which led into a machine shed. The arrow then pointed down into the maintenance bay, and down into the pit below the truck service area. She got down into the pit, and lowered Wes gently to the floor. She then tight-beamed Sagittarius and Zeta and told them where the door to the shed was.

“How is she doing that? Why wasn't that broadcast received by anyone else?” Cassandra wondered quietly.

“She'd have to have an exact directional knowledge of where the others were, but if she did it's possible she could tight-beam like that. But how would she have that kind of knowledge?” Dr. Patel asked. Cassandra just shook her head.

“Wes, you'll be fine here for a moment. I need to go get some of the others,” Cylee said, laying him down gently on the floor. Wes just nodded, breathing hard and sweating.

Cylee ran to the door and opened it a little. The heat from the fire was shown in bright red numbers above the center of her field of vision, and she saw her two companions. She hurried them through the door and down into the pit. The four of them huddled, silently. Because they were in visual range they sent IR messages back and forth from their Third Eyes.

Watt: I told you it was a trap.

Zeta: What about the clones?

Sagittarius: Most of them are already dead. The feds have been firing into the main room as well as lobbing more bombs at us.

Zero: Were you able to get any of them to safety?

Zeta: We tried, but the few that followed me were gunned down.

Bishop: Watt, how are you?

Watt: It's just an arm shot. I'm okay. I've wrapped it tight, tourniquet applied, it's fine for now.

Zeta: So what do we do? Is there a way out of here?

Zero: I don't think so. But I think we'll be safe here. We're away from the main blaze, and there's no reason to think we escaped.

Zeta: So, what do we do?

Zero: We wait. I've got minor rations, and some water. We should take shifts in hibernation until the area is clear. How much adrenalex does everyone have?

Zeta: Enough to get clear if there's an opening.

Watt: Same here.

Saggitarius: I should be good.

Zero: I'm…low, but I should be able to move out if we need to. Okay, Watt and Sagittarius, take first shift asleep. Zeta and I will stand guard.

Zeta: We have no guns.

Zero: We shouldn't need them.

Zeta: Not all of us are as good at close quarters as you, Zero.

Zero: This would be a good time to get better, really quickly. But don't worry, we'll probably be fine.

The video then skipped, time-lapse frames collapsing the memory. The clock in Cylee's vision showed ten hours pass, twenty. Red and orange light flickered above them, and the video slowed down to real time to show them pulling sheet metal into a kind of covering before the truck on the rack above them burst into flames. Then back into high speed motion. The light faded and darkness descended. The video started skipping, now one frame an hour instead of one every ten minutes. Two days passed.

Eventually the video returned to normal speed. Cylee whispered. “I'm going to check if it's clear. How's Watt?”

“I'm fine, Zero. Go see if we can get out.”

Cylee climbed the steps out of the pit. The maintenance shed was half-collapsed, with sunlight streaming in on the burned and twisted tools and vehicles. Cylee slid along the wall, looked out a door hanging abandoned and ajar. Snow was falling softly, and there was no sign of patrols. Her Spine was operating in a low-power mode at the moment, and she wasn't able to make out distant data, but it looked like she was in the clear. She sprinted across the clearing into the trees.

She wandered for a while and finally found a cave. It wasn't much of a cave, but it was bigger than the pit they'd been in for the past three days. She ran back into the shed and told the others. With great effort they got Wes to the cave and started setting up camp. Raven had a solar charger for their Spines and they took turns getting back to full power. Bishop went hunting. Within a day they had a good routine going and Zero decided it was time to try and establish contact.

She climbed to the top of a hill and oriented herself facing the nearest PEF repeater satellite.

“I think we've seen enough,” Cassandra said and stopped the playback. “So, all four of them. But…what happened to… hmmm. Thank you, Doctor.”

Cassandra left the room, and Doctor Patel stood in thought for a moment. Then she restarted the playback. She watched Cylee establish contact with the PEF network, and ask for assistance. She didn't broadcast her location, but the satellite she was in touch with would give them a decent idea. She didn't tell them who had escaped, but she did say “we” a few times. An hour later a response was sent back. Instead of opening full communication it was sent as an email; static, dead, and one-sided. Cylee included the email in her video memory, closing her eyes and letting the recorder burn the words into the record of events. She kept her eyes closed a long time, long enough that Dr. Patel didn't even need to freeze-frame the video to finish reading the letter.

Cylee, 

You're wondering why this happened. You're wondering why you're on your own, after the war. There are, sadly, a lot of reasons.

You weren't meant to be, at least not like this. You're not just powerful, you're inexplicable. It's hard to deal with someone who has the kind of power you have, especially when they were supposed to be, in many ways, powerless. You weren't meant to be the person who controls everyone else, you were meant to be the one who was controlled. And now look at you. 

You did a lot for Pacifica, and it's not that we are ungrateful. Your service in the service was a large part of why we were ever successful at all. But you kept going. It wasn't your fault, I guess. You are what we made you. 

And that's the thing; we made you. We invented you out of little more than some chemicals and a little girl. A little girl that, left to her own devices, wouldn't have amounted to anything. You might have been happy, we took that away. You might have found love, we destroyed that. But we can't apologize for those actions. We believed we were sacrificing you for something greater. History will decide if we were wrong; indeed it has done so. 

So we can't give you back your happiness, your childhood, or your previous identity. And we're not even going to apologize for taking those things away. Harsh, no? It gets worse. We could just kill you. Indeed we tried. You've probably guessed that this whole "cease fire" was a setup to get rid of you clones. But you are harder to kill than the others. And now, at the end of all things, I guess the setup is what a few of us feel sorry for. You served us well and we condemned you to a fiery betrayal and death. You deserved something better. 

So we're giving you your freedom, looking the other way as you disappear. And hoping that someday, somehow, you'll make something more of your life. Maybe you'll even forgive us. But don't ever contact us again. It would make things difficult. 

I realize this letter is far more honest than you're used to. We're actually admitting to a mistake? 

At this point, there's no reason not to be honest. You're going to die on the street and we're all going to die in Fed jails. The time for pretense is just about over, don't you think? 

Good luck Cylee, Ghost Zero. You're going to need it. 

-- Free Pacifica High Command.