Copyright © 2011 Rachel Haimowitz and Aleksandr Voinov
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Bear had been in bed a whole ten seconds when the familiar, two-tone alarm bleated from the speakers in the bunkroom. He sat up, groped for the light switch above his cot, snagged the radio and hit the talk button.
“This is two-twelve,” he said, squinting at the clock on the opposite wall. Third damn call on shift, and it was only 1:46 a.m. Some nights it just didn’t pay to take your boots off. “What’s up?”
The next bunk over, Noah was waiting, boots already tied and call tablet in hand. Bear shoved the radio at him and reached down to tie his own shoes.
“Thirty-something male found unconscious at the bus stop on 5th and Main,” said dispatch. “Caller reports no obvious injury. Guy’s breathing, but that’s all they could tell us.”
“On our way,” Noah said, already heading toward the door. Bear grabbed his gear belt and followed him out to the bay.
Two-twelve was warm already, kicking out diesel fumes. Roy was waiting in the driver’s seat, tapping his thumbs against the wheel. Noah climbed into the passenger seat, Bear into the back. He’d barely touched his ass to a bench seat before Roy pulled out the bay and rocketed down Clinton Street, bathing the passing townhomes in flashing red lights. The siren stayed mostly silent in deference to the late hour, blasting only briefly at stop signs and traffic lights.
They beat the cops to the scene. No surprise there, short-staffed as the police were these days. Like they’d bother speeding out for a drunk, anyway.
As the rig pulled up to the bus shelter, a bum backed away from a body slumped across the metal bench. Stealing his wallet, Bear assumed. Jackass.
He jumped out of the rig, paying no mind to the fleeing bum. He’d have liked to smack the little pickpocket down, but the patient had to come first.
The guy was breathing—always a good sign. No visible trauma, though most of him was hidden behind black chinos, sturdy outdoor boots, a too-tight concrete gray T-shirt and a dark gray windbreaker.
The outfit and his short-shorn blond hair made him look like a club bouncer. Harsh fluorescent overhead lights gave his lean face a brutal cast. Not, mind you, that anyone looked particularly brutal while slumped over unconscious.
Noah jogged up with the jump bag and the O2. Roy grabbed the stretcher. Familiar roles, all of it. Bear should probably stop staring and do his own job.
He inched closer, reached out carefully. Even unconscious, something about this man screamed danger, and it seemed unwise to startle him. He was still breathing steady, chest rising and falling beneath layers of clothes. Bear spotted some bloodstains on said clothes, but no serious leaks. After a quick C-spine check, he deemed it safe to roll the guy. “Sir?” he called, just as wary of startling him as before. “Sir?”
No answer. Bear took him by the shoulders—and just what the f**k was that he felt beneath the man’s coat sleeves?—and sat him up.
Bear wasn’t easily surprised these days, but life still had its moments, and this was definitely one of them. “Noah,” he said, slow and careful as Noah dropped the jump bag at his feet. He couldn’t pull his eyes from the man’s hands, which were bleeding sluggishly around a good two mil’s worth of carbon steel and neurotech. “Get the tech bag.”
Bear peeled off a glove and put his hand to the man’s face, sensor implants to bare skin. The man wasn’t drunk, that was for damn sure. Pulse fast but strong, BP low, respirations shallow. O2 sats 91%, blood sugar tanked. He put the oxygen on ten liters and slapped a non-rebreather mask over the guy’s mouth, fished a bag of dextrose from his gear and went in search of a vein.
After palpating for broken bones, Bear stripped the man’s coat off, then unbuttoned his shirt and pushed that off too. And sure, the first thing Bear noticed was the patient bleeding between the gaps in exoskeleton all the way up his right arm, but the second thing was the guy’s sleekly muscled torso. He was only human, after all.
It seemed the damn bum had been trying to steal the gloves, not a wallet. Too drunk or too impatient to find the release switch first, and whether that made the patient lucky or unlucky, well, Bear supposed that depended on who owned the gloves. Worth the pain to keep them if he’d paid for them. Less so if they belonged to the military. And really, who else would have a reason—or the means—to buy something like that?
Speaking of the switch…where the f**k was it? Noah handed him the tech bag and shone his Maglite on the pincers so Bear could see what he was doing. These things were supposed to come off easy in case a soldier needed medical care. Bear called up the specs on his cheat chip, images playing across the contact lens on his left eye, while his right eye remained focused on his patient. Four models in the database, none quite matching the arrangement of carbon plating on the man’s wrist and arm, the steel bands running up his hand and fingers in a near-perfect mimic of the underlying connective tissue. The switch had to be here somewhere. But nothing.
Bear turned to Noah and growled with frustration. “This is gonna take a while. Arm’s a mess anyway. Get his pants off. Start a line in his ankle.”
He bent back over the glove, examined the arm farther up. The glove went all the way to the patient’s shoulder and connected to the other glove via straps across his back and chest. There were no switches there, either. The bum must have used a knife to dig between the armor plates shielding the elbow. Lots of potential soft tissue damage. Strange, he’d expected more blood. No rhythmic spurting. No big pool of it, either. Maybe the armor plates were sealing the worst. Maybe he should leave them on.
He touched a gloved finger to the joint, feeling for injury. It came back wet with blood, but the patient hadn’t stirred. “Not responding to pain,” he said.
“Line’s in,” Noah replied. “We should probably scoop and run.”
“Gimme a sec.” Bear took the call tablet from Noah, flicked it on and tapped his code in. The tablet immediately scanned for machines in the area, bringing up five cars, two order interfaces for fast-food outlets, his crew’s cheat chips, Noah’s cell, his own sensor implants, and one “closed” system with a long string of ID numbers and letters. That must have been the patient’s. And while most ’ware recognized medical systems and opened up for them, especially when a cross-check of the owner’s vitals brought up problems, this system remained stubbornly locked. If anything, it seemed to slam down further shutters, because the ID number suddenly began to change, rolling through dozens of permutations a second.
Right, this was getting too weird for his taste.
“Come on, Bear. You can play with your toys on the way to the hospital.”
Bear nodded, folded his patient’s arms across his chest and slid his hands under and through them to grab the guy’s wrists. Noah took his feet, and they hauled him onto the stretcher. The oxygen bag went between his legs, and Roy stowed the rest of the gear away while Noah and Bear stowed their patient.
Once in the back, Bear checked the guy’s vitals again. Pulse settled a little, pressure and blood sugar up. Seemed to be stabilizing. Noah fished in the guy’s pockets as Bear rubbed knuckles across his chest. The patient groaned, swatted Bear’s hand away.
“No ID,” Noah said. “No wallet at all.” Not so surprising, that. The bum had probably taken it. “And,” Noah added, waving a scanner over the patient, then waving it again, “no ident chip.”
Bear studied the scanner, not quite believing what he was seeing. Not quite believing any of this. He looked up at Noah and voiced the question they were both surely thinking: “Who is this guy?”
And from between them came an unexpected answer: “Cyke.”
“Cyke,” Cyke said before he was fully awake.
He blinked the world back to clarity, felt movement, the cramped conditions of a…a medical transport. A warning flashed across his brain that explained the burning in his arm. Soft tissue injury. He glanced at it, noted the blood—flow not critical, nothing the clot-bots couldn’t deal with. Also noted the strap pinning it down—maybe critical, threat level undetermined.
“Cyke.” A voice from above him, commanding attention. “You’re in an ambulance. Can you tell us what happened?”
Cyke glanced up at the medic. Solidly built, reddish-brown hair, clear green eyes in a kind face. Freckles on nightshift-pale skin. Uniform and badge. A quick cross-check of the badge’s RF transmission against county records showed photo and occupation matches. The medic was legit.
“I must have passed out.” Cyke noted the pincers were still active. The likelihood of needing them was extremely low, but it made him feel better just the same.
The medic peppered him with questions, so familiar Cyke barely had to think before answering: name, age, day, place, president. Have you passed out before? What were you doing before it happened? On any drugs? Have any medical conditions? And oh, also, where did you get those gloves?
Lies, lies and g**damned lies. Cyke calmed his mind as he spoke, but only because he couldn’t get the gloves off otherwise. The medics would be much less likely to call the cops if he weren’t armed. He breathed evenly, concentrated on his internal responses, the small tensions, the way his brain was clenched around the pincers. He pried it open, bleeding right arm first, and with a series of small clicks and a pneumatic hiss, the glove disengaged.
He tried to reach over to pull it off, and was rather unpleasantly reminded that he was secured to a stretcher. Chest, hips, shins and arms. Thorough. He’d been stripped first, too, it seemed. “Unstrap me.”
“No can do,” the medic said, then pressed a hand to Cyke’s forehead. Cyke tried to wriggle out from beneath it until he felt the activation of the sensors in the man’s hand and realized the medic was just taking vitals, not holding him down. “ETA ten minutes. You can get up at the hospital.”
“No.” Last place on earth he wanted to end up. Well, second-to-last. “Look, I’m fine. Help me with this.” He nodded toward his right arm, the pincer glove no longer locked but still curled snug around him. “It’s halfway off already.” Give them the small wound to play with and be done with it.
The medic leaned over his arm, peered at the glove, touched it with his teched-up hand. Cyke knew that look, that hungry mix of fascination and longing. Just his luck, to be picked up by a medigeek. Maybe unlocking the gloves wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Too late, though. The medic was already prying the right one free, needles slipping from his skin and trailing fire in their wake. Some had broken off somehow. They were sticking up like quills from his skin.
He couldn’t help the grunt as the glove came off. The disconnect was always unpleasant. Like losing a tooth—a little blood, a little pain. But even worse, from one moment to the next a part of him ceased to be, became cold and inert and other.
He already wanted it back. Certainly didn’t want to be stuck in this damn transport anymore. And where the f**k were his clothes?
“Stop the ambulance,” he said as the medic examined the wounds in his arm. “Take me back where you found me.” Wherever that was. Did he remember stumbling off the bus? Changing lines? Something like that. He’d watched a lot of night-lit city and his fellow passengers in the reflection of the bus window.
The medic ignored him, studying the mess someone had made of his right arm. Cyke tried to pretend it didn’t hurt. “I said I’m good. Just a cut on my arm.”
The medic threw him the stink eye. “Unless you have the constitution of a six-year-old girl, just a cut on your arm did not send you halfway into a coma. You were down so deep we couldn’t wake you. You need to be looked at.”
The radio in the medic’s pocket squawked. “S**t.” He turned to his partner. “I forgot to cancel the cops.”
Cops. He better come up with something fast.
“What’s your twenty?” the radio asked.
Presumably, the man naming a street Cyke didn’t recognize was the driver. Cyke closed his eyes, searched the public database. A map popped into his head. He scanned radio frequencies as he studied it, searching for the cop channel. There. S**t, they knew they were looking for an individual with fried ’ware. First place they’d search would be hospitals, and then every body shop and techie in the city who was capable of soldering more than an old TV set back together.
“I’m diabetic.” It was the best explanation for sudden blackouts, right? “Took my insulin, forgot to eat.”
Another stink eye. The medic clearly didn’t believe him, but at least he wasn’t calling him on it. He stood instead, stooped slightly in the confines of the ambulance, reached over Cyke to pull something from a supply cabinet and pressed it to Cyke’s lips. “Eat this.”
Glucose paste, cloyingly sweet. F**k it, he was starving. Might as well.
The medic popped his head through the narrow space between the front and back of the ambulance. “Yo, Roy,” he said, presumably to the driver. “Turn it around. Back to the bus. Our patient’s RMA. Wants to go home.”
Cyke thought about thanking him, but he was still strapped down.
The medic sat beside him again, took his right arm in gentle hands and washed the blood away, plucked all the broken little needles out—s**t, he’d need to get that fixed and fast—smeared his arm with cream and wrapped it in gauze. Then he pried the left glove off—no broken needles on this one, thank f**k—and laid it carefully across Cyke’s stomach.
“Can we take you somewhere?” the medic asked. “I mean, other than the bus stop? I’d feel better if I knew you were home.”
Me too, buddy. Well, in case the medic put two and two together when he listened to the cop talk show, he figured he’d better cover his ass. He pulled up a city map, just to cross-check the location of his favorite safehouse. “520 South Dearborn.” Massive block of apartment buildings with their backs to a huge storage facility. Not exactly the best part of town, but at least he probably wouldn’t be mugged if he wandered around at night without Kevlar and riot gear. It made the medic feel better, it was less than a hundred yards to home, and if the cops followed him there, they’d have to search a hundred apartments and three hundred storage boxes. On the current police budget? Forget it.
He moved his fingers on the right hand, just to make sure he could. It hurt like a motherf**ker—the whole arm was throbbing—but the tendons hadn’t been severed. It eased some tension to know he’d be as good as new in a few days. He spotted his missing clothes in a pile on the bench seat and relaxed a little more, listening in to the chatter of the cops.
It was surprisingly hard to focus right now, but he caught enough of it to understand what the cops were looking for and how they were proceeding. Hospitals next. Surveillance cameras on-site. Find genetic traces. ID the ’ware. Hand out whatever they could find to every airport, train station and two-bit traffic cop. Their best bet was the ’ware, but his specific units couldn’t be traced back to some lab or manufacturer. Best they could do was to work out he had a unique set. Still, he should lay low for a week or two.
No protest there—he was a wreck. Fortunately, there’d been no permanent damage. Well, not to the meat, anyway. His fingers were itching to run diagnostics on the gloves. Not his first priority right now, but a close second. Now, the biggest challenge was to accept he was trapped, helpless, until the f**king ambulance stopped moving.
When at last it did stop moving, the medic released the straps, and Cyke sat up with a grunt. Okay, dancing lights in his eyes, and it wasn’t a screensaver. Great. The medic handed him his clothes, helped dress him like a f**king doll. He tolerated it only because he knew he couldn’t do it himself right now, but still it burned. When that particular humiliation ended, he pulled his boots closer with his left hand and slipped them on, not bothering with his socks. Too eager to get out of here to bother with s**t like that.
He snatched up his pincer gloves and stood. Made it one step before his knees buckled and he went down in a clatter of kit. F**k.
The medic gave him another of those glances, this time with a little I told you so thrown in for good measure.
F**k that. Cyke pulled himself up on whatever he could reach: the stretcher, the bench seat, the straphanger bars on both sides of the ceiling. If his legs wouldn’t work, he’d go with his arms. Arm. Whatever. Ten minutes and he’d be home, even if he had to drag himself by his fingernails.
The medic apparently got tired of watching said fingernail-dragging and stepped forward, scooped him up, levered him onto the back step of the ambulance and then down to the pavement. Aside from the hand sensor, Cyke didn’t detect any enhancements on the guy. He didn’t think it should have been that easy for the medic to lift him. But then, he supposed if all you did all day was carry fat people down four-story walk-ups, you probably packed on some muscle.
Somehow, the medic was beside him, close enough to share body heat. When had that happened?
“Sign this,” the medic said, holding out a tablet and stylus. The words Refused Medical Attention stood out in large print across the top of the screen. Cyke knew what it said. He signed it without reading—his alias was untraceable—but no way was he leaving a thumbprint.
“If you feel faint again—”
“Don’t hesitate to call 911, I know."
Sirens blaring in the distance, closing in fast. Cyke glanced around the old familiar space. Dark alley to the side of the apartments. The motion sensors that triggered the floodlights were broken. If he could make it there, the shadows would hide him until he reached the storage facility.
Something lit up in the medic’s eyes. Wary interest? Suspicion?
No time. He moved as fast as possible. No hope to look casual or even healthy, but he really only had to cross the street, then walk five yards and vanish in the dark. From there, he could take his time getting to the storage box.
The medic took two steps, closing half the distance between them. “At least let me help you inside.”
Cyke felt his heart hammer, blood in all places but where he needed it. Neurons misfiring, legs jerking. F**k it. “Thank you,” he called over his shoulder. “I’m okay.”
Lies, lies and g**damned lies.