I wake spread-eagled on a king-size bed in a spacious bedroom, the furnishings elegant and expensive looking. The headboard is one massive padded slab of brown suede. Freed of my restraints, I haul myself up against the headboard, and cast my eye around the space, wary, wondering if I am under the influence of a psychotropic enhancer and I am actually in a concrete cell, sitting on a metal bunk imagining all this luxury. I run my hand over the duvet cover, its white cotton as smooth as silk. To my right a floor to ceiling window, its silken drapes pulled back, their deep chocolate coloured lengths pooling on the hardwood floor. The pristine glass gives out to a view of snowy mountains bathed pink in the sunrise. I go to it, astonished. Ten years ago we were told there was no snow left anywhere. I press my hands against the window's glass, its surface a little cold. A sudden longing rushes through me, to find her, and bring her here, to let her see this, too. She would love it.
'Breathtaking, isn't it?'
My salute is crisp, instantaneous. 'Major Akron,' I say, my voice heavy with its Slavic accent. Ukrainian. I'm sure of it.
'It's good to see you again Maddox,' he smiles, close-lipped. I notice his pleasure at seeing me doesn't reach his grey eyes. He nods at me. 'At ease.'
I clasp my hands behind my back and wait. Akron moves around the room, eyeing my accommodation. He's dressed in fatigues, the sleeves rolled back, his boots polished to a high shine, his weapons clipped to his belt. He wears no mark of his station, he says its for security purposes, but he was never one for ceremony, a 'boots on the ground' leader, as dirty as the rest of us. He only had a couple of years more military experience than me, but his ruthlessness was deeper than mine, and Command liked that in their men, so he progressed until there was nowhere left for him to go. Well, that, and we kept losing men faster than we could train them. He only stepped into the boots a UFF sniper had vacated. If I hadn't died, I would have been next for promotion. I always hoped never to last that long.
'Sorry about this,' Akron gestures at me, vague, 'it was the best we could do in a pinch.'
I lift an eyebrow and glance behind me at the view, the mountains' slopes turning golden in the warmth of the rising sun. 'If this is what you can do in a pinch, sir, I'd like to see what you can muster with some time.'
He scoffs and tilts his head at a side table bearing an assortment of single malts. 'Keep up Maddox.'
I eye the amber-filled bottles, most of them still unopened. How had I not seen those first?
I move past him to look over the selection. I pick one up. 'Oban 32 years,' I read. I turn to find him watching me, expressionless. 'How the hell? Never mind.' I hold the bottle up, a ripple of pleasure shimmying through me in anticipation. 'One finger or two?'
'I'll take one, but I imagine you are going to need two. At least.' Akron says, dry.
I turn back to the tray and busy myself with lining up the glasses and pulling off the seal around the bottle's stopper. From the corner of my eye I see a man, tall, heavily muscled, but rough-looking wearing fatigues just down the corridor. I set the bottle aside, slow. I can only see half of him, but he moves, too, wary.
'You didn't come alone sir?' I say, keeping my eyes on the other man who stands completely still, like me.
'I did,' Akron says.
'Sir, we aren't alone,' I answer.
'We are, Maddox. Trust me.'
I nod my head toward the one down the corridor, he mimics me, a dark foreboding pools in my gut, dread, touched by horror. I lift my hand, slow, willing him not to. He does the same. I glance at Akron who is watching me, like Miro would before she pounced on an unsuspecting mouse.
'What the fuck, sir,' I say, turning toward the corridor. The other man turns toward me. I stop, and look back at Akron. 'Tell me that's not my reflection.'
Akron doesn't answer. Instead he joins me and picks up the bottle of Oban. I see his reflection as he stands beside the other man—me—watch as he pours our drinks: one finger for him, a full glass for me. I take it and walk down the corridor, anger slicing through me, reflected on the face of the man I have become. I'm an ugly fucker. Rough as a thug, mean looking, scarred and broken-toothed, a tattoo covers one side of my face and down my neck, some kind of tribal art. It's the only thing that looks good.
I drink until the glass is empty, watching my ugly reflection do the same. I wasn't a woman's wet dream before, but I wasn't bad either. Fit, tall, commanding, even featured, good teeth, a nice smile. I got women easy enough, but this brute glowering back at me would be lucky to score a goat. My heart clenches, and a shard of anguish pierces the heated haze of the whisky spreading through me. How could I ever see her again, looking like this? She would run a mile. I'm uglier than the doormen standing outside the exclusion zones' filthiest whorehouses.
Akron comes up behind me, bottle in hand. I hold out my glass for him to pour, uncaring of my breach of protocol. He fills my glass. I drink it all. Akron sips his and waits, giving me time.
'We needed a body, and fast. Drones captured him just outside Warsaw.' He lifts his half-finished drink to my reflection. 'You might want to show some gratitude. He died so you could live. Before we put him under, his final words were: Look after my mother. Not what we expected.'
'And did you?' I ask in my gravelly, Ukrainian-tainted voice, already knowing the answer.
'Of course not,' Akron answers. He finishes his drink and continues, 'Exclusion zoners are all scum. Death is a kindness.' He eyes me, cold. 'You broke the rules, Maddox.'
An image of her in sleeping in my arms flashes through my mind. I narrow my eyes and lean over him, my hands curl into fists. He steps back. A little thrill of power shimmers through me. I could get used to being a thug. A thug with Delta Force training.
'Meaning?' I ask, low.
'Meaning we know about you going into the exclusion zone,' Akron says. He returns the Oban to the table, and gestures for me to follow him to the window.
I've got nothing else to do. I follow him. 'I won't fuck droids,' I mutter. 'The exclusion zone is the only place left with real women not already sequestered by Global Command.'
Akron glances at me, oblique. I know I'm wasting my time with him on this. He makes no secret of the fact he loves fucking droids, both male and female. He even has a few of his own, chained to the wall in one of the city’s S&M dungeons.
'You know there's no difference, droids are just like humans.'
'Until they speak,' I snap, the whisky making me brazen.
Akron stiffens, defensive of his precious dolls. 'Once the upgrades go through, there will be no way to know. At least not without cutting them open.'
I say nothing. The mountains gleam back at us, innocent, white, cold.
Akron pushes aside one of the drapes. Fixed to the wall behind it is a tablet. His fingers move through several menus and the pristine view dissolves, replaced by a blank wall.
'There's no snow anymore, Maddox,' Akron says as he continues to navigate the screen, 'that video was taken by a weather station in the Alps almost seventy years ago. I thought it might be nice for you to see something pleasant before having to face what we did to you.'
Another view comes up on the wall, data streams along the left side, and a grid of drone views over various exclusion zones pan over them, drinking in the chaos, devastation and filth of Earth's dying, overcrowded cities. Buenos Ares. Copenhagen. Tokyo. London. I can't stop myself. I search for her in the streets of what's left of central London.
'She's gone underground,' Akron states, pulling the London view forward. 'The drones have been searching for her ever since we retrieved your memories.'
'So that's how you know.' I run a hand over my shaved head, feeling violated. They would have all my memories, would have watched her come in my arms, her shuddering breaths as she returned to me. Now her orgasms are government property. I slide a look at Akron. He holds my look.
'She's in the United Freedom Forces,' he says, low. 'Command has been looking for her for the last four years, and you were fucking her, right under our noses for six months before you died. You even told her you were a Delta Force Captain for fuck's sake.'
'She's a bartender,' I say, bridling at his tone, 'who barely manages to feed herself and her cat.'
'Yeah?' Akron challenges, jerking his chin at the view of London's grimy west end, its streets soot-blackened and choked with trash. 'What's her name?'
I look away. She wouldn't tell me. She promised she would when I got her out of there. Said it was a secret. I went along with it and called her Blue, for the wig. I should have suspected something, maybe I did and ignored it. I didn't want to lose her.
'You already read my memories,' I say, tight. 'I'm not in the mood for games.'
He turns his attention back to the tablet, his fingers deft, opening files. A video still pops up on the screen. I stare at it, stunned. It's her, wearing her blue wig, smiling, halfway through pouring out a lurid green shot atop a ring-stained, sticky, black-topped bar.
'From your memories,' Akron says. He taps the tablet's screen. The video plays. He steps back, and joins me, his arms folded over his chest. There is no sound. The thump of the club's music is gone. She leans over the bar to yell something into my ear, her blue wig brushing against me. I touch my face, remembering the feel of it, plastic and stiff. She is asking me if I am looking for something stronger. Opiates. I say no and point at my empty shot glass. She smiles and pours me another. I watch, transfixed, aching for her. She's right there, as large as life. I promised I would go back. I have to go back. I have to get her out of there. Her and that scrawny cat of hers, Miro.
'Her name is Cassandra Vallis.' Akron says, crisp, sliding into debriefing mode. I suppress the urge to punch him. How dare he take what little good I had in my life and turn it into this: a peep show. I wonder if he jerked off to it. He probably watched it while he fucked his droids.
'If you say so,' I reply, belligerent, moving closer to the screen. I want to touch her face, but pride holds me back. I won't let him have everything. Some things will be mine. And this, looking at her, right now. This is mine.