'Maddox,' Akron says, his voice hard. 'Lubochnia was a Q Clearance level mission, your team should have been in and out, the target retrieved in less than an hour. But the UFF were waiting for you, when they should have been forty miles away.'
I continue to gaze at her, stubborn, though his words trickle through me, sickening me, poisoning my memories. He moves back to the panel. She fades to black. I turn.
'Did you tell her you were going to Lubochnia?'
I smile, flashing him my ugly, broken teeth. 'Check my memories.'
A look of unease slips over Akron's face. He hides it, but not fast enough. My senses tingle, intrigued. Typical Akron, doling out information little by little, leaving pieces out—important ones. I can play this game, too.
'Large sections were missing. Nothing but black.'
'I was asleep,' I shrug.
'No,' Akron says turning back to the tablet's screen. I watch as he pulls up another file, marked Q Clearance. He punches in a long string of characters, then presses his thumb to the screen. Files pour onto the wall where just a minute before I watched Blue, no, Cassandra pour me two fingers of Absinthe into a grubby glass.
'You were conscious. We think she drugged you,' Akron says, his attention on the files.
'I doubt it. The blood tests would have flagged any narcotics up.'
Akron lifts a scarred eyebrow at me. He fishes out a file from the directory and opens it. Several images spread across the wall: more drone shots, one looks to be what is left of central Berlin, another of a heavily barricaded compound, patrolled by armed UFF soldiers, several images scroll past of a medical lab filled with machines preparing compounds, the final image shows an old man zip-tied by his ankles and wrists to a metal chair in a bland white room, his face badly beaten. Akron nods at him. 'We got him to talk. Eventually.'
He looks like he expects me to say something. I cross my arms over my chest and wait.
Akron opens a sub-file. A bio rolls out along the left side of the wall. Henrik Åkersen, Danish, born 2013, PhD in biomedical engineering, Lead Engineer of R&D at Novo Nordisk, its facilities and sites subsumed into Military High Command in the global pharma reclamations of 2050. Granted citizenship to Alpha VII, 2058. Disappeared 2071. Assumed captured by UFF forces.
I already know all this, but I have decided to make things difficult for Akron. If he wants to accuse Blue—Cassandra—of being the one behind the ambush against me and my men, he's going to have to work for it.
'Henrik wasn't captured. He joined the UFF, and has been working for them since 2071. Between then and now, he's been busy. He built up three facilities in Berlin, Madrid, and Athens.'
'He left Alpha VII?' I ask, stunned. Fuck, Akron's got my attention now. Everyone wants to get into Alpha VII. Perched at the top of a green Greenland, basking in a temperate climate on the shale shores of the Arctic Ocean, it sits in its self-contained bubble housing Command's most elite and prized citizens. Only the best for them. I heard they even get real beef. Not meat grown in labs for the rest of us housed in the other Alpha and Omega cities of southern Greenland and across the Canadian tundra, but actual living, breathing cattle, raised and slaughtered just for them.
'It turns out he was a man of certain principles.' Akron glances at the image of the bloodied, white-haired old man. 'He might have been one of our brightest scientists, but he was a secret philanthropist. He felt guilty living in luxury while the rest of humanity grovelled in the gutter.'
'So he's been making medicine all this time,' I say, a sliver of admiration tainting my eastern accent.
Akron laughs, scornful. 'Of course not. The UFF were not as indulgent as Command. They lured him out with promises, feeding his ego, but when they got him, they threatened to kill his kids, demanding cheap opiates manufactured by the truckload, and something else, too.' Akron looks at me now, square in the eyes. 'A drug which makes people susceptible to suggestion and erases the memories of what they have done as though it never happened. Virtually untraceable in blood tests. Hypnotism, but without the hypnotist.'
I get it now. Where he is going with this.
'You talked, Maddox,' he states. 'We know.'
'How?' I ask, my gravelly voice lowers, suspicious. 'You can only see images.' I tilt my head at the wall, where she had just been. 'There is no sound.'
'We have lip readers,' Akron mutters, flat. 'When you were fucking her, Cassandra called you her Delta Force Captain.'
'I told her,' I lie. I can't help myself, something visceral inside me is determined to protect her from whatever Akron's got up his rolled-up sleeve. She did call me that sometimes because she said it was her fantasy to fuck one. I went along with it because it made her happy, pretending along with her, even though that's exactly what I was. Six months of my life she was all I thought about, craved for and wanted by my side. Six months. She told me she loved me. I believed it. I fucking smuggled pouches of cat food taped to my groin out of Omega V for her. If that's not love I don't know what is. What we had is not going to go away just because Akron wants it to. Not by a long shot. She didn't send me to my death. It would have killed her.
I'm betting there was no drug, and the images I'm looking at are staged. I get the feeling Akron's playing me, trying to get me to talk, to say where she is—sensing there's a big, fat bonus in it for him if I give her up, maybe even a golden ticket into Alpha VII. I'm no sadist like him, but I also know enough to know I'm not one of the good guys either—not after some of the missions I have executed. In this new skewed world of haves and have-nots, there's a lot of shades of grey. It's dog eat dog. And in the middle of this stinking, festering hell-hole, I found her.
I turn my back to Akron.
He exhales, slow. A pissed off sound, hinting things will go south if I don't give him what he wants.
'Did you tell her about the mission in Lubochnia?' he asks, quiet, dangerous.
'Of fucking course not,' I snap. I close my eyes, shutting out the image of Henrik's brutalised face. 'You know me better than that, sir.'
'I don't get you Maddox,' Akron says, cold as ice. 'Delta Force have a wing full of pleasure droids, yet you choose to risk everything to fuck some woman you know nothing about.' He scoffs before continuing, derisive. 'It wouldn't have been so bad if you'd just fucked her the once, but you went back, over and over. You even smuggled cat food across the barrier for her, you sad fuck.'
'Premium cat food,' I taunt. 'That shit's not cheap.'
'You committed treason,' Akron continues, relentless. 'Good men are dead because of your recklessness.' He pulls his pistol free. I brace myself. Cold metal presses against the back of my head. 'I want to kill you,' he whispers. 'You made me look bad.'
'Except you need me,' I say, calmer than I feel, since I want to smash his head into Henrik's image, until his face is as bloody as the old man's. 'The DoD spent all that money rebuilding me and got an executive order signed because my memories weren't enough were they? They would never have brought me back if you knew where to find her.'
Akron chuckles, mean. He pulls the pistol away, sharp. A whisper as he slides it back into its holster. He moves up beside me his knife freed from the holder strapped to his thigh. Quick as a viper he slices into my triceps, deep. I recoil, but there is no pain. I look down. No blood. Instead, a clear viscous liquid, and within the opening, thousands of tiny metallic movements, like a sea of silver ball bearings smaller than pin heads, swarming together, knitting into place, rebuilding me. Horrified, I watch as the opening closes within the space of several seconds, a layer of new flesh sliding into place. Only the rent in my shirt remains.
Akron eyes me, impassive.
'What have you done to me?' I breathe, my flesh crawling, revulsion slamming into me. Those things are inside me.
'Brought you back from the dead,' Akron says. 'Did you think you would still be human? You're more machine than man, now.' His gaze drops to my crotch, the faintest of a malicious smile ghosts his lips. I can't help myself, I feel between my legs. Nothing. Smooth as a doll. I stagger backwards, and stumble against the edge of the bed.
'I drank whisky,' I say, desperation clawing into me, denial riding me hard. 'I'll have to piss it out.'
'Under that shell of skin,' Akron says, watching me with morbid fascination, like a scientist watching a lab rat die, 'you're packed with nanotech. Anything you eat or drink will be broken down to its molecular basis. Any excess that can't be stored or used will evaporate through the pores of your skin as inert gases.'
'What the fuck—' I breathe. I'm dead but alive. A thing, the very thing I hate. A fucking droid. Loathing slithers through me. I touch the place where Akron slashed me, the flesh clean and unmarked. 'Why would you—?' I ask, unable to finish the question. My thoughts tumble, jagged and hot with terror. I can't be a machine. I feel real. The heft of my chest rises and falls, my breathing ragged; the air slides past my nostrils and into my lungs, sharp and slightly acrid, carrying the faint tang of ozone from the air conditioning.
'Bring you back?' Akron finishes, going to the whisky bottles. He pours himself another finger of Oban, and sips, his eyes on me, cold. He doesn't offer me a drink. He walks back to the screen, and faces me, obscuring the image of Henrik, his actions saying far more than words. For the first time in my life I understand what it means to be secondary—to be unworthy of common courtesy, like a droid. A sliver of rage ignites. I don't suppress it, but I don't do anything with it, either. I want to hear his answer first.
'I'm going to assume you haven't heard of Genesis II,' he says, tilting the amber liquid in his tumbler, the garish white light from the screen catching on it, making the Oban's surface gleam like a sunrise, 'considering I was only debriefed about it this morning.'
I shake my head, terse.
He takes another sip, and looks into the glass as he answers, 'The essence of it is this: Earth is fucked and Vallis is a critical for the success of Genesis II.' He glances up at me. 'You've heard of The Oracle?'
I shrug. 'Who hasn't. What's it to do with me?'
His eyes narrow, the skin around them tightening. 'That bartender you were fucking is the Oracle.'
I blink. My mouth opens, then closes again. I go to the whisky, my hands pour without thinking, automatic, practiced. I drink, and pleasant, hot fire drenches my throat, cutting through the blistering heat of betrayal. The Oracle. The most dangerous weapon the UFF possessed. I pause, the glass at my lips. If she were the Oracle, she would not have thought twice about drugging me to find out classified information, would have, in a heartbeat, sent me and my men to our deaths. And yet—I can't shake the feeling the DoD's intelligence is wrong. She's just Blue, the girl from the bar who loved me, and her half-starved, mangy cat. It's a fucking mistake.
'You are going to find her and bring her in,' Akron says, breaking into my thoughts.
'And if I refuse?' I ask, low, my accent thickening.
'We take away the protocol which allows you to exercise free will,' Akron answers. 'You will be reduced to nothing more than a military weapon, although—' he falls silent until I turn to face him. He taps his forefinger against his temple. 'You will still be aware of your free will, of what you want—but will be unable to disobey Command.' He looks back down at his half-empty tumbler and sniffs. 'We could order you to break her legs and you would do it.'
I let out a slow breath. So this is it. Where it all ends. I become Blue's enemy.
'She's not the Oracle,' I say, desperate to fend off what Command intends for me. 'Blue lives in a shitty apartment infested with cockroaches.' I lift my glass and take another sip, the whisky's heat bolstering me. 'You think the UFF would let the Oracle live like that, in such a vulnerable situation? She didn't even have a decent lock on her door.' I scoff. 'No. She would have the best of everything—wouldn't have to eat garbage from the club's dumpster.'
'Did you ever see her eat garbage?' Akron asks, soft.
My thoughts judder to a halt. Had I? I search my memories. She had told me the first time we met how she ate, but from then on, I bought food for her. I refuse to answer, but I can tell from Akron's smug look he knows he's made his point.
'She played you,' Akron mutters. He finishes his whisky and sets the empty glass onto the side table; it hits the wood with a dull thud. 'Although she wouldn't have been able to do so if you had never gone looking for a woman in the first place.' He glares at me, disgust oozing from him. His gaze bores into me, hard, angry. 'Command has had no choice but to assume everything you knew is now in the possession of UFF intelligence.'
I say nothing. Denial flows through me. She's just Blue; she's no one. She's not the Oracle. She didn't betray me. It's a mistake.
'You're wrong.' I set my glass down beside his, my hand steady despite the torrent of emotions coursing through me: rage, fear, disbelief, horror. 'I'm a Delta Force Captain. If she is the person Command believes she is, I'm far more valuable to the UFF alive and talking, than dead. She would never have killed me.'
'Yeah?' Akron challenges, tight. 'Never wondered why you were the only one still alive at the end of the ambush?'
Something hard and cold coils deep within my torso. He's right. My men were sniped off one by one until only I was left. If I hadn't called down the airstrike, it's not impossible I would still be alive. No one was shooting when I radioed the co-ordinates. I assumed they were reloading.
I sink onto the edge of the bed and stare at my military-issue boots laced tight, my trousers tucked into them. 'Christ,' I breathe. I look up, hollow. 'Fucking hell.'
Akron waits, his arms crossed over his chest. I watch my hands roll into fists, the muscles of my forearms standing proud. I look up.
'Tell me about Genesis II.'