A woman in black military fatigues approaches me, her black hair pulled into a sleek, tight bun, her beret folded and held in place on her shoulder with a thick strap, neat and tidy, just like the rest of her. She says nothing, just eyes me, her brown eyes cold, and turns and walks away, past the workstations of the technicians. She pauses by the kitchen and glances back at me, an aura of disapproval surrounding her. I realise I'm supposed to be following her. I catch up.
She pours herself a coffee, and nods at tray holding a stainless steel carafe and empty mugs. I pour one for myself, because I feel like she expects me to, not because I want any. She moves on, still silent, towards the bedrooms down the corridor, its walls stripped of its mirrors. I follow her, a mug of hot, chemical coffee cradled in my big hand, grateful for small mercies.
We go past the master bedroom into a smaller bedroom, though it's not smaller by much. It's been repurposed into a briefing room. Just like in the main rooms of the apartment, all the furnishings have been stripped out and replaced with military issue kit. Four row of steel chairs line up before the blank wall screen. A smartdesk sits at the front of the assembly. On a side table, a half dozen tablets, and a small safe, its door open, containing a sleeve bulging with data tabs.
'Capitaine Ryan Maddox,' she says in the unmistakeable electronic twang of a droid.
I back up, thinking it must be a joke. I'm to be debriefed by a machine on a Q Clearance matter, regarding intelligence even Akron can't be privy to?
She smiles at my reaction, and continues, 'Allow me to introduce myself. I am General de Pommier, this is my avatar, which allows me the ability to communicate with you 'in person' even though I am nowhere near you. Nice, no?'
I salute the droid, crisp, still holding the coffee mug in my other hand, feeling ridiculous and honoured all at once. No one, to my knowledge had ever actually met General de Pommier. I had heard she only gave rare briefings via satellite uplinks relayed at the same time over seven hubs to make triangulating her location impossible. No one knew where she was. Not even Akron. And no one I knew even knew what she looked like. After the rash of UFF abductions of high level military staff in the 2070s, this was how Command had reacted, by making its most powerful people invisible and untraceable. But a droid as an avatar—I hadn't expected that. I don't want to admit it, but I'm impressed. I wonder if I'm allowed to tell Akron about this.
She smiles again. She's so life-like, I could almost believe it's her. 'At ease, Capitaine Maddox.'
I obey, longing to get rid of the mug, but she is still holding hers, so I hang on to mine, floundering a bit. I was never trained in the protocol of coffee-mug-holding in the presence of Command's highest authority.
She steps closer to me and looks me over, examining me. I hold still.
'Impressive,' she says, her dark eyes moving over me, curious. 'And you have all your memories, intact, no?'
'Yes, ma'am. As far as I can tell, nothing is missing.'
'You are the first of your kind, Maddox. A great success.' She steps back and sips her coffee, the muscles of her throat moving. 'I understand you know you are no longer human, but a conscious machine with the memories of Delta Force Capitaine Ryan Maddox.'
I nod, my throat tight. I really don't want to talk about it, especially not the way she describes it. I feel real. It's enough. No need for inconvenient details.
She takes another sip, watching me, intent. 'We French tend to be quite romantic—even now, stuck in this ravaged, dying world of ours.' She nods at me. 'Yours was the first successful transfer of a complete neural network. After four years, and fourteen failures, this time we got everything right. Lucky you, no?' She arches a thick, curved eyebrow at me. 'Your body was badly burned when the drones found you, but you were still alive, barely. Per protocol, your body was cooled twenty degrees and shipped to base for memory retrieval.' She pauses to drink her coffee, nodding at me to try mine. I do, because I have to, not because I want to. The coffee is bitter, syrupy, familiar, reminding me life in the barracks. The memory is somehow comforting. Nostalgia assaults me.
'It seems the line between life and death is much wider than we have been led to believe,' she continues, breaking into my thoughts. She sighs and sets aside her coffee cup. It's still half full. 'It is fascinating to think on the brink of our annihilation we have finally been able to transcend death.' She glances up at me, a look of regret fleets through her eyes. 'It is . . . ironic, no?'
I blink. I thought I was a droid, and a really ugly one, my memories copied and programmed piece by painstaking piece onto a hard disk buried somewhere inside me. But this—the transfer of a complete neural network, this is something else. It is the holy grail. Eternal life.
'I once read a paper about a two-year-old boy who drowned in freezing waters in the United States,' she continues in her educated, French accented electronic voice. 'It happened just over seventy years ago, in 2015, when neuroscientists still quibbled over the so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness.' She graces me with a slight eye roll. 'The boy was dead for one hundred and one minutes. Think of that. One hundred and one minutes with no heartbeat. They managed to resuscitate him. The child came back, fully functioning.' She shakes her head, incredulous. 'His brain should have died from lack of oxygen, but it did not. It has taken decades of trial and error for science to ascertain precisely how to replicate the right temperatures to stop all physical processes, yet keep the brain intact, without carrying over the psychic trauma which sometimes comes with near death experiences.'
She falls silent and eyes me. I realise she's waiting for me to speak.
'Ma'am,' I hazard, uneasy, 'exactly what am I?'
She smiles, pleased. I must have asked the right question.
'Your outer cells are human, unlike the droids, taken from the body of the man you now inhabit, but underneath you are a machine—that is, apart from your neural wiring which is made of biological matter, sustained by nanotechnology and overwritten with a quantum protocol.'
She pauses to glance at a message flashing up on the smartdesk. I lift my fingers to my brow, wonder suffusing me. All this, yet I feel exactly the same.
'And,' she carries on, her eyes still on the screen, 'we have plans to continue to improve you. You are the world's first cybernetic organism, Maddox. With the nanotechnology inside you, you are virtually indestructible. I had to break bread with my nemesis, the Prime Minister to get the executive order signed to release the funds needed to build you into a military machine.' One of her perfect eyebrows lifts again and she looks up at me, contempt sliding over her smooth features. 'It was . . . one of my less enjoyable meetings.' She glances back down at the screen, nods, abrupt, and looks back at me. Approval darkens her eyes. 'But,' she lifts a slim forefinger, 'now you are here. It cost fourteen billion to make you. Let us hope my efforts will be worth it. One moment.'
She falls silent, the light in her eyes dims. I sense the connection has been cut. I wait as several long minutes pass. No one comes for me. The droid stands motionless, staring straight ahead, its eyes empty. I look away from it, unnerved. I realise I am still holding the coffee mug. I take a sip; the brew is still warm, just. My thoughts wander. I think of Blue, of her selling me and my men out to the UFF. Away from Akron and his persuasive arguments, the whole thing feels wrong again. Like I'm only getting half the story.