Fingers, clad in the sterile stink of latex tug at my right eyelid. Light blisters my brain. I recoil, pain lancing into my vision, hot, then cold. A memory, sharp, visceral, slams into me. My last moments, screaming the co-ordinates into my radio, locking my location onto the strike drone waiting almost a mile up. All my men fallen, surrounded by the United Freedom Forces. My final thoughts lingering on her as the drone's missiles hurtled down from the sky straight at me—of the one I had promised to come back for. Just one more job and I'll have enough credits to get us out of here, I'd told her. We could finally be together. And now, I was dead. I had to be. Nothing could survive the hell I had rained down. Nothing.
'Visual acuity sixty-seven percent and scaling,' an electronic voice says behind me, female, sultry—the AI programmers' idea of sexy, except it isn't, it is a droid, a machine, unthinking, unfeeling, cold. I hate droids, how they look just like us until they speak. How many times had I been fooled by a beautiful woman at the bar? A dozen, at least. I shudder, willing it not to touch me.
My eyelid still forced open, a blur moves in front of me, blocking out the icy glare of the lamp's white light. I exhale, relieved. A faint whir whispers by my ear, persistent, like a mosquito. I lift my hand to swat it away. My wrist jerks to a halt, held in a rubber restraint. What the—I tug harder, but it holds, the restraint's edges cutting into my flesh. I am strapped to the table like a lab animal. I'm a JSOC Delta Captain, four times decorated for valour—
'Look at the screen,' a voice says, the one which commanded me to wake up. Male, disdainful, with a hint of arrogance—but human, definitely human. He lets go of my eyelid. A tablet slides in between me and the glare of the light. I look at its screen, obedient, despite my indignation, years of training suppressing my anger into a thin point of focus. I open my other eye. The tablet powers up and a burst of light bleeds into my raw, aching eye. I bite back a hiss of pain as its brilliance slices into my optic nerve hot as a burning knife, followed by a shard of icy cold.
'Near perfect response,' murmurs the droid. 'Acuity seventy-nine percent.'
A blur of blue on black coalesces on the screen, assembling into letters and numbers.
'Ninety-five percent,' the droid breathes, anticipation gilding its sibilant, hateful voice. My hands curl into fists. I long to punch it. To shut it up, a sick manifestation of humanity—a thing, an aberration.
'Read it,' the man orders me, 'then I can get laid, assuming there's any real women still alive after all the time it's taken to put you together.' The sound of wheels glide across the floor as he slides out of my line of vision. 'Although, no fucking for you, eh? Command was generous with their budget, but not that generous.' He scoffs, and it sounds mean, spiteful.
I assume he's addressing the droid. I bite back a smirk, liking him, feeling solidarity, knowing he hates them as much as me. Only pleasure droids are built with the ability to fuck and be fucked—the rest: despite looking just like us are left as smooth and sexless as the plastic dolls children play with. A droid cried about it, once, as I nursed my fourteenth Jack and Coke in an illegal bar in Kandahar. I tolerated her tears until I sobered up enough to realise what she was saying. I told her she would never be a woman, and for some reason, it made her cry harder. I slammed my glass in her face. She bled real blood and wailed with real pain. But underneath the facade, the glint of titanium. A machine. I kicked it until it shut down.
'Read it,' my captor repeats from behind me, his voice harder. He shakes the tablet to focus my attention, or maybe just for emphasis. 'Out loud. I need to run final diagnostics.'
I blink, the pain in the back of my eyes is gone, and the shear of cold in my brain has eased. The letters and numbers on the tablet's screen stare back at me. I glance over them. I blink again, disbelieving. No. I refuse to read this. I try to turn my head, to look at him, the one with the disdainful voice, to see if this is some kind of sick joke, but my head is strapped to the table, just like the rest of me.
'Read.' He shouts. Spittle spatters against my cheek, stinking of stale cigarettes, coffee, and cheap whiskey. The table judders from an impatient kick, followed by another, harder.
I grit my teeth and read. 'Captain Ryan Maddox.' I pause. It's not my voice I hear coming out of my mouth. Not even close. Another kick thuds against the table, and I feel it in my spine. He's a strong fucker, I'll give him that. I continue, my voice harsh, gravelly, unfamiliar, a hint of Slavic in it. 'JSOC Delta Force, died of massive internal injuries while engaged in heavy combat against United Freedom Forces on May 29, 2087 near Lubochnia, Poland, co-ordinates 51.602464, 20.009097. Per the agreement signed June 15, 2081 by all senior Delta Force personnel, the Department of Defense retains the rights to Captain Maddox's remains. The body was collected via drone shuttle and frozen en route to Omega V for reclamation. If resuscitation is successful, Captain Maddox will be repurposed for Project Cynosure. Q Clearance. Debriefing to follow. End message.' The screen went dark.
'How can I be alive again?' I ask as the table kicker pulls the tablet back and reappears in front of me. This time he's not a blur, but a hardened, shaven-headed vet. Scars criss-cross his face, his nose sits slightly to the right, kinked at the bridge, his eyes are steely and cold, and his jaw is grizzled with grey stubble.
'Because you are the only one who knows for sure where the target is,' he answers as he drags a trolley over to him. 'Or at least where they were six months ago, before you decided to play the hero and check out. They must want you bad. Top brass had to get an executive order signed to fund an off-the-record R&D division to get you back, so you better show some gratitude when you get called in, since there's no one else here like you. No one. Lucky fucker. Although—' The glint of a steel tray catches the corner of my eye. He reaches down and collects a syringe, needle, and bottle of clear liquid. His deft movements as he attaches the needle, pulls its stopper off with his teeth and fills the syringe belie his muscular bulk; his khaki shirt sleeves rolled back to reveal a faded tattoo of a mermaid, her tail coiled around his forearm, her breasts grotesquely large. It's always the details which give a person away.
Maybe that was what it was about her that made her stand out from the rest, from the masses of miserable humanity. The details, the way she looked at me like she knew me the first time I saw her, her eyes keen, sharp, not dulled by the opiates everyone else ate like candy. The steadiness of her hand as she poured my drink, wearing a blue wig and a black latex one-piece swimsuit, none of it looking right on her. The way she tilted her head when I asked what a girl like her was doing in a place like that; how she smiled the time I smuggled proper cat food past the barrier for her cat, Miro, tears glinting in her blue-green eyes.
'—never mind,' my captor continues as he rams the needle, rough, into the vein in my arm. He flashes me a toothy grin as I grit my teeth and coldness slides into me. 'More fun for you to figure out the rest on your own. By the way, you passed diagnostics with flying colours. Congratulations. Welcome to the Bunker, or as we who are stuck here like to call it—Hell.'
He pulls out the needle. I feel my blood trickling out, warm and sticky. He rolls away and tells the droid to fuck off. A clack of keyboard presses, quick, angry, impatient, his eagerness to be rid of me, palpable. A door slides open with a soft whoosh, and the droid leaves, its high heels clicking against a metallic floor. In the distance, the growl of heavy metal, faint, echoes along the empty corridor. It's an old one, but still good. Korn's Twisted Transistor. I close my eyes, remembering the last time I'd heard it, playing through the club's walls while I made love to her before I left for my last mission, both of us half-drunk in the club's grotty, black-tiled shower. Darkness beckons. I follow, thinking of her, naked and wet in my arms, clinging to me as I take her, hard, my name, breathless, on her lips, and me, swearing to come back for her, no matter what it would take.