Two in One Chapter 1 Cody Emerson rounded the last corner on her way home but came to a halt, a disbelieving frown on her face. “For fuck’s sake.” A garbage truck was parked before her apartment building’s entrance. Again. She considered calling a meter maid, but instead just held her breath as she hurried past the truck. An engine revved on her left and a big, black blur flashed in her periphery. She hadn’t even time to scream before the hearse backed into her, crushing her against the garbage truck. The back window shattered into a sharp spray, and a heavy urn flew through. It broke her skull and obliterated her left eye in a belch of ashes. The hearse jerked forward and Cody’s mangled body crumpled on the street. Small streams of blood trickled along the cracks in the pavement. Chapter 2 ”A critical error occurred. Initiating a full system scan. Scan complete: unable to solve error. Initiating system reboot.” It was like a string of barbed wire sawed through her head. Cody winced and held her breath until the pain passed. Even squeezing her eyes shut hurt. Was I drinking last night? “Adjusting chemical imbalance,” a voice said. Cody’s eyes sprung open. She couldn’t see the source of the laconic female voice. Cody was alone in a hospital room, a peripheral IV stuck in her hand. Now she knew how her patients in the veterinary school felt. The IV bag dangling on a shiny pole was empty. Since there was no pain anywhere in her body, she discarded the possibility of an accident. A sudden wave of euphoria washed over her, all her worries melted into trivialities, and her anxiety was replaced by optimism: things would clear up soon enough, and if they didn’t, so what? Feeling unusually energetic, she yanked out the IV, but even the needle’s bite was somehow dulled. She sat up on the gurney and swung her legs over the edge. A glint of metal caught her eye. “The hell?” Her legs looked like a robot’s. She grabbed the hem of her hospital gown to lift it, but froze. Her right arm was also mechanical up to her shoulder. With a trembling breath, she inched up the gown, higher and higher. Her chest grew cold. Nothing human remained from the hip down. But... what? How? Why? She stared at the smooth metal between her legs. A hesitant poke registered no sensations. Where’s my vagina? Horrified, Cody sprung up and felt around her body until her hands stopped on her metal butt. Despite the growing panic, two thoughts kept swimming to the surface like pieces of fresh wood: what had come of her digestive system and would she ever have sex again? Since the waking nightmare didn’t end, she went through the rest of herself. She was in for yet another surprise when her human hand landed on something cold and hard on her head. With a whimper, she started looking for a mirror, but stopped after a few steps. Her legs moved almost on their own accord and, instead of clonks, her footsteps were soft thuds. A quick look revealed something akin to silicon pads attached to her soles. The bathroom mirror told a harsh tale. Half of her head was covered in metal and her left eye was like a red camera lens. Another exquisite rush soothed her feral mind. It felt good. Really good. Come to think of it, the changes in her body were interesting instead of horrifying. Her confusion didn’t abate, however. What’s going on here? “Initiating query. Please specify search parameters.” Cody spun around, but still couldn’t spot the elusive woman. “Hello?” The word died away unanswered. She stepped out of the bathroom. “Somebody there?” The silence persisted. What the fuck’s going on here? “Search yielded too many results. Please specify search parameters.” Cody was ready to bolt. She hurried to the door but it was locked. Another blanket of calm and peace descended over her. What the hell was that? “An automated survival response: I released endogenous opioid peptides to ease your anxiety.” Endorphins? Cody whirled around, looking for her tormentor. Am I going crazy? “Brain activity normal. Adrenaline levels and pulse elevated. Advise relaxation.” Cody let out a bitter laugh. “Yeah, right. So, now I’m hearing voices, too. As if it wasn’t enough that I don’t know where I am, how I got here, or why I’m half robot. And now I’m talking to myself.” She frowned but then threw caution in the wind. Who are you? “I am Zephyr, version 4.1, an artificial mind enhancer complex.” What are you doing in my head? “I am an artificial mind enh—” No, I meant, how did you end up in my... mind? “I was installed into your brain.” You talk funny. “According to my analysis, my English is perfectly idiomat—” Never mind, we can get back to that later. Where am I and where is everyone else? “You are in the neurological ward of Systec Development Corporation’s Research Center Three. The location of other individuals is unknown, but an educated guess indicates they are at their work stations or with other patients.” The door opened, and Cody came face to face with a young woman. “Morning. I’m your nurse, Angie Hollis. I see you’re up.” “I’m sorry, but... What the hell?” Cody asked, spreading her human and mechanical hands. “What’s going on here? What happened to me? What—” “Easy, relax,” the nurse said, ushering Cody to sit on the bed. “You can’t remember anything? Okay, this might come as a shock, then.” “I’m over twelve, you know.” “You were in an accident. You died.” Cody blinked her remaining eye. “Come again?” “A drunken undertaker backed his hearse into you at a high speed. The vehicle crushed you against a garbage truck.” “Must’ve been desperate for another customer,” Cody blurted before she could stop herself. “So they figured out how to make... robot zombies now?” The nurse laughed, probably relieved Cody hadn’t thrown the fit that was bubbling under the surface. “I wouldn’t call it that. You signed up to allow your body to be used for scientific research in case of your death, yes? Since you came in clinically dead, your body was used for that very purpose. The thing is, the experiments just happened to bring you back to life.” “Hold on, the brain craps out in a few minutes without oxygen. Shouldn’t I be a vegetable? Or is that where this voice in my head comes in? This Zephyr something-something.” The nurse raised her neatly plucked eyebrows. “You’ve been introduced already? To answer your questions, yes, your brain activity was all but gone when they brought you in. Some of your brain has been replaced with a very advanced piece of technology, a computer of sorts.” Cody gaped at the nurse. “So I have a laptop in my head?” “If you’re talking about the world’s most advanced laptop, I guess you could put it that way.” “So what’s it do?” She tapped the metal casing on her skull. “Can I shoot lasers out of this eye?” “Sorry. But you can see further and clearer than any human, you can zoom in and out, and take video and stills. It has the latest night vision technology, and, well, there’s lots more you can do, like calculate distances, speeds, that kind of thing. But that’s just for your eye. Zephyr can do... Let’s put it this way; it can do pretty much anything your normal computer can and more.” Cody nodded a few times. “This thing get porn?” The nurse’s smile turned into a thoughtful frown. “You know, I think it does. You can access the web, but you don’t see the images as much as Zephyr reads the data on the web pages and then plants the ideas, or what we call ‘visions,’ into your memory. From there you can choose to save them in what’s called the surface memory or move the files into your 500 exabyte memory cache. You can later access all the files in the cache, of course, but it takes a little longer, whereas all memories stored in the surface unit have the access time of... It was less than a nanosecond, but I can’t remember the exact number, sorry. Oh, and Zephyr has its own highly adaptable security measures to prevent outside tampering, so you should be all right.” Cody chewed the insides of her cheeks, a nervous habit. “That’s nice and all, but... Will I turn heads in the grocery store for the rest of my life or are you planning on putting some skin on these things?” She stared at the first knuckle of her mechanical hand, examining the details when her vision suddenly zoomed in. “Wow.” “I’m sorry, but right now we don’t have the means to make the prosthetics look more human. Even if we put synthetic skin on them, they wouldn’t look natural.” “Shit.” Cody clinked her mechanical fingers against her knee. “Can I, like, bend girders and jump off skyscrapers?” “The true capacity of your prosthetics is still unknown. We need to do extensive tests to see what you can do. You're kind of unique, you know.” Cody grasped the front of her gown. “So, uh, will I need a colostomy bag now or something?” “Actually, your modified body is far more efficient: your digestive system has been modified so that you only need to drink a specialized biofuel, about a gallon a month. Systec makes it and will provide it for you free of charge, but if you end up stranded somewhere, vegetable oil will do in a pinch.” “Can I still eat normal food?” “I’m sorry. That would be like putting bread and milk into your car.” Since Cody was too stunned to speak, Angie continued: “The bright side is that you no longer need to urinate or defecate. You just emit your exhaust in small, regulated amounts.” “How? My ass is solid.” “Actually, there’s a small hatch back there.” Cody was starting to like her new body less and less. “So I just... fart a lot?” “Well, the emissions are completely silent and odor-free.” “Outstanding.” At least the elevated endorphin levels helped with the impending panic. Angie’s gaze roamed over Cody’s new limbs. “This must be very confusing, but trust me; you’re in good hands here. We have the best surgeons and doctors in the world, including psychiatrists, and if you need anything, you can reach the nursing staff with the press of a button. Just one click, and I’ll be here in a flash.” “Right. When do I get my own clothes back?” “I’m sorry, but you don’t have any. They were badly torn in the accident and we had to cut them off anyway.” “Can I call my folks? They could bring me my stuff.” “Actually, you will have very limited contact to the outside world for a while because of the highly classified nature of this program. I’m sorry; your family wouldn’t even be let through the gates.” Cody swallowed the bits she had chewed off her cheeks. “So they think I’m still dead?” Angie smiled a little sadly. “I’m really sorry, but because all this is so tiptop secret, we can’t breathe a word about it to anyone outside of this facility.” It stung, but there was no use torturing oneself over it. Right now she could do nothing to aid her grieving parents. “Any idea when I can contact them? ‘Cause I really do look better in jeans.” “I don’t know yet, it all depends on your progress. I’ll let you know when, though, don’t worry. Now try to relax and get to know your new body. I’ll alert your doctor so he can ensure everything works as it’s supposed to.” Once alone, Cody returned to the mirror. They had shaved her head, but blonde stubble was already growing on the right side of her skull. I don’t look like a freak at all. Must’ve been under for at least a few weeks. On an impulse, she grabbed a metallic vase with plastic flowers in it and squeezed. The vase twisted in her grip like wax. “At least I’m a strong freak.” Chapter 3 “So when can I leave?” The doctor tapped his PDA a few times before returning Cody’s demanding gaze. “When we have finished testing your prosthetics.” “And that’s when exactly?” “I don’t know. When the testing is finished. Go rest and relax for a while. Now that we have finished calibrating everything and Zephyr has been modified to fit your mind and personality, we can test your strength in the afternoon.” Once the door closed and Cody was alone in her locked room, she sent a sharp kick at the gurney. It fell over, as if hit by a small car. “Rest and relax? That’s all I’ve done for a whole month!” The days spent pacing around her room like a caged animal had familiarized Cody with her prosthetics; they were like natural extensions of her body by now. When she thought about it, she really was caged. They still kept her under lock and key despite her numerous questions, requests, and demands, essentially making her their prisoner. “And I’m sick of guzzling that damn oil! How about a decent steak for a change? That too much to ask, huh?” “Eating a steak would be hazardous to your health. Advise relaxation.” Seriously, don’t tell me to relax. Also, what kind of a name is Zephyr anyway? “It is the name of the Greek—” I’ll give you a new name. From now on, your name is... Bob. “Bob is short for Robert, a man’s name, whereas I was programmed to have a female voi—” You’re my computer, so I can name you. Now your new name is Bob. “Name change complete, settings saved. Pleased to meet you, I am Bob, a—” Also, learn some swear words. You can learn, can’t you? “Yes. Bitch.” For the first time all day, Cody’s face broke into a smile. Atta girl, Bob. Now, tell me about this place. How many guards are there? Where are all the exits, the works. Chapter 4 Cody drew a deep breath, then closed her mechanical hand around the door knob. With one twist, she broke it off. She poked a long, metallic finger through the hole and tried the door. It opened quietly. She had barely walked to the end of the corridor when a muscular orderly stopped her. “This is a restricted area, Miss. Please, return to your room.” Bob’s voice ran in her head. “Threat assessment: red.” # “Threat assessment: yellow.” Cody was standing in the same corridor, breathing heavily. The orderly was on the floor, his face a pudding of blood, bone, and hair. Is that an eyeball? She retreated against a wall. “Recommend immediate relocation,” Bob said. Too scared to argue, Cody skipped over the corpse and hurried along the white corridors. She came to a screeching halt when a door opened before her. “Angie?” “Follow me if you want out,” the nurse said, curt and serious instead of chirpy and sunny. Cody hesitated for the merest moment. Angie had become something of a friend during the last few weeks, so Cody gave her a nod and followed in her wake. Bob, can you access the... system or whatever it is in this place and tell me if there are more guards around? “Negative. The fucking network is password protected.” After several turns, Angie stopped behind a corner, peered around, but pulled back quickly. “In here,” she whispered, showed her key card to a reader, and slipped into an empty room. Cody closed the door as quietly as she could, holding her breath. She had no idea why Angie was helping her, but she hoped it was simply because she was a good person. Thing was, when it came to trust, Cody’s track record wasn’t exactly spotless, but since Bob hadn’t said anything about threat assessments, Angie couldn’t have been that bad. Slowly she opened the door and peeked out. “Okay, it’s clear. Let’s go.” While they waited for an elevator, Cody’s mechanical ear caught footsteps. Plenty of them, running. “Four people are approaching your position. Threat assessment: orange.” “Bob says four guards are on the way.” Angie cocked an eyebrow. “You sure are useful. I can’t hear anything yet. Now, quickly,” she said when the elevator door opened. They hurried in an Angie pressed one. “The doors aren’t closing. Why aren’t the doors closing?” Cody demanded. “Shit. We gotta take the stairs.” They reached the door into the staircase but it was locked. Just then the orderlies poured into view, armed with batons and stun guns. “Stop right there!” one of them shouted, pointing his weapon at Cody. “Threat assessment: red.” # She was on her knees, screaming, unable to move. The electric current jammed up her body but Cody saw her mechanical hand move on its own. It grabbed the wires and yanked out the darts stuck in her chest. # Four bodies lay on the floor, two badly mangled, two shot. Cody had her back to a wall while Angie stood with a gun in her hand. “I blacked out,” Cody said, gasping. Angie’s brows furrowed, but then she glanced over her shoulder. “We’ll worry about that later. Can you get through that door?” Still full of adrenaline and whatever else Bob had released into her system, Cody sent her foot at the door. It flew open with a bang and soon the two were running up flight after flight of stairs. Cody’s mechanical legs did pretty much all the work for her. She felt like she could have run circles around Angie even though the nurse was fit, not slowing down even after six floors. “Through here!” Angie halted by a door. When Cody broke the lock and pulled it open, they came face to face with two orderlies. Immediately Angie shot both men and slipped a fresh magazine into her pistol. “Nice commitment,” Cody said as they hurried along a larger corridor, shocked by the body count of her escape. “Don’t think I’ve ever met a nurse so set on helping her patient.” “It’s a long story, but I’m not really a nurse. Through this and we’re out,” Angie said, pointing at two heavy steel doors. “They’ve probably gone on lockdown.” Cody pulled at one of them, one foot supported against a wall. Slowly the door slid open and Angie slipped through. “Come on, they’re coming!” They ran to the gate where Angie shot another guard. She was a frighteningly proficient killer. “We gotta climb the fence, I can’t open the gate during lockdown.” Cody doubted she could have cleared the fence without her prosthetics, but with them, it was a breeze. They dashed down a gravel road that halved a coniferous forest. A gunshot cracked through the air, then everything slowed down to a crawl. Sounds turned into mush, and Cody’s movements wound down, even her head turned languorously, like the turret of a tank. Blood spurted out of Angie’s chest, she started falling, slowly, lazily, like someone invisible was easing her body down on the ground—and then time returned to its normal, hectic self. “Shit! Is she dead?” “Grab her wrist,” Bob said. Cody held it with a shaky hand. After mere seconds, Bob spoke, “She is dead. Recommend immediate relocation.” She hadn’t seen where Angie’s gun had flown, so Cody sprinted off. She heard shouts and footsteps, but soon they were left behind. “Recommend turning off the road. Possibility of vehicle pursuit extremely high.” She cursed under her breath and dove into a juniper bush. Chapter 5 Cody trudged on, now and then stumbling on the undergrowth. She had no idea where she was or which direction to take. After a few miles, she could feel weariness creeping up on her. As her body’s chemical levels gradually normalized, her understanding of the situation increased: now she was essentially a fugitive cyborg and a murderer. Was my escape really worth nine lives? “We killed only three men. Angie killed five.” Was my escape worth three lives? There was a moment’s silence. “Those men would still be alive had they not tried to stop you from escaping captivity.” Indignation reared its head within her chest. I didn’t ask for any of this. It’s their fault those men died. They shouldn’t have imprisoned me like that. I never agreed to be Systec’s guinea pig. Since the men were dead and she could do little to remedy their situation, she pushed aside the guilt. Otherwise it would have paralyzed her now that she most needed to keep her wits about. What’s done is done, I keep moving. “Tell me, Bob, what happened back there anyway? Things slowed down for a moment.” “I increased my processing speed momentarily. It creates an illusion of time slowing down.” “No kidding.” Cody touched the back of her head and winced. “I’ve felt kinda hot for a while. Inside my head, I mean. You know anything about that?” “Increasing processing speed produces a lot of heat. That is why I avoid doing it for extended periods or too frequently.” “What would happen if you took it too far?” “I would likely malfunction and you would lose consciousness from hyperthermia. It would eventually lead to organ failure and death.” “Nice.” “Recommend seeking sustenance.” Cody leaned her shoulder against a thick pine. “What will happen if I don’t drink that oil soon? I mean, I couldn’t really take any with me.” “You will gradually weaken and in approximately ten hours the hydraulic assistance will turn off.” “What does that mean?” “Moving will become more difficult as your prosthetics weigh more than ordinary human limbs.” Cody heaved a sigh. The sun was going down and the temperature with it. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her. As if to hammer in the point, a gust of wind fluttered her hospital gown like a flag. At least her head still felt hot. “Recommend moving on to maintain body heat.” “Easy for you to say, you don’t have to do anything but sit inside my head.” “I am unable to sit because I lack a corporeal bo—” “I get it, I get it, jeez.” A pleasant wave ran through her body, making her reel. “You gave me something just now, didn’t you?” “Yes. I released epinephrine to increase your alertness, and to improve your tolerance of cold and stress.” “More adrenaline? Right. Just, uh, in the future, if it’s not a dangerous situation, ask me first, okay?” “Affirmative.” Cody pushed herself off the pine and drew a deep breath. “So, where to? Which way to the nearest town? You got a built-in GPS, a compass, or what?” “Adjust your direction twenty degrees north.” “I’m human, remember?” Cody tapped her foot impatiently. “Walk between the large rock and the three sapling firs. Dumbass.” “Your banter still needs work.” “I will try my best.” Cody was surprised to hear actual injury in Bob’s voice, its usually rather monotonic mezzo-soprano lowered to a melancholy alto. Whatever have I gotten myself into? “You are—” Rhetoric question, Bob, rhetoric question. This time she heard injury even in Bob’s silence. Cody couldn’t help feeling their relationship would have to go through its bumps before they would actually reach the same wavelength. In the meantime she just had to accept that she was neck-deep in bizarre. Chapter 6 The forest floor cracked and a sharp yelp sliced the air. Cody’s feet landed awkwardly, and she fell on her ass. Something crunched underneath. Everything slowed down again just when gravity was pulling Cody’s face at the spikes. She had to use all her strength to keep from poking out her eye on one of them. As soon as her downward movement stopped, time returned to normal. Her skull felt like it was radiating heat. There were two-foot spikes all over the trap’s bottom. Once the surprise wore off, Cody stood up and observed the scene. A relieved laugh escaped her. “Now I’m truly thankful for my new body. Imagine having one of those up your ass.” Vivid images of torn rectums flooded her mind like a barrage of pop-up windows. She slapped a hand uselessly over her eyes. “Stop it! Stop it! Jesus!” “You told me to—” “Oh, come on,” Cody groaned. “You seriously don’t recognize rhetoric questions?” “You didn’t ask a question. You gave a command which I—” “You seriously don’t recognize rhetoric commands?” “No.” “Fine, whatever.” Cody looked up, trying to estimate the depth of the pit and a number came to her: 13,34 feet. Surprised, she let her gaze move from wall to wall as she thought of its width. 4,97 feet. Well, that’s handy. She ran her metallic hand along the coarse concrete. “So, Bob, any ideas how to get out of here?” “Negative.” Cody frowned. “Just... negative? Well, that’s about as useful as homeopathic medicine. Then what? We just sit on a spike and wait to die?” “Would you like a sedative?” “No, just answer the question.” “Suggest relaxation. Error: inclusion of swear word failed.” Cody pressed her head against the wall. “Outstanding.” # “Threat assessment: orange.” Cody stirred and clambered to her feet, having dozed off in the pit. What is it? “Someone is approaching. Likely a male.” At last, someone who could help us! “Or hurt us.” Cody ignored Bob’s paranoia and cleared her throat. “Hey! You up there! Could you give us a hand and help us out of here?” There was a rustle, and a man appeared at the edge of the pit, holding a rifle. Surprise flitted on his face. “Who’s ‘us?’” “Oh, uh, my, um, my mom was British,” she lied. The explanation didn’t seem to register with him as he kept frowning at her. “You okay?” “Kinda hungry.” He stood still, staring down into the pit. Seconds passed and the situation was rapidly growing oppressive. What the hell’s wrong with him? And what, not even a ‘sorry you fell into a stupid fucking trap I dug’? “Proceed with caution,” Bob’s voice sounded. Cody rubbed her neck, sore from the night in the pit. “So, uh, you got rope or anything?” The silence pressed on. The man glanced over his shoulder, stood still for a moment, and then walked away. What? He’s not leaving me here, is he? A rope flew into the pit. Relieved, Cody tied it around her waist. “I’m ready!” No reply. After several seconds, feeling incredibly stupid, she tried again. “I’m ready!” “Ready for what? Just climb.” What a dick. With the help of the rope and her prosthetics, getting out of the pit was easy, but her gown came undone in the process. Even though she no longer had much to hide, Cody felt undignified. She retied the knot behind her back while the man removed the rope from around a tree. The rifle slung over his shoulder combined with his peculiar behavior unnerved her. “What’s with the robotics?” he asked. “I was in an accident. What’s your name?” “What’s it to you?” Cody cocked her eyebrow. “Forget it. Look, I’m in a bit of a situation here. I hate to ask, but you wouldn’t happen to have any spare clothes?” Why does he look constipated? It’s not like I asked for the fucking moon from the sky. Another awkward pause ensued between an annoyed and a wary frown. The man stuffed his hand down his pants and groped his junk impatiently. “Come on, then.” Shivers of revulsion crawled over Cody’s back, yet she managed a smile. “Thanks so much.” What’s wrong with him? Or is it all the metal and the plucked hairdo? She followed in his wake, trudging through the woods, and after two failed attempts at small talk, Cody gave up and walked in silence. The man carried weapons and gear like a soldier would, but he behaved more like an antisocial hillbilly. Maybe he’s one of those kooky survivalist types? Lives in a log house built over a fallout shelter stashed full of canned food and water purification tablets. Survivalist it is, then. # Bob informed Cody that the walk from the pit had been 1,73 miles. Presently she was staring at a ramshackle log house. Uncanny. Survivalist unlocked the door and walked in without a word. There was a line of hooks on the outside wall with dead animals hanging on them, hares, foxes, even a badger. Being a vegetarian and an animal lover, Cody’s dislike and distrust of Survivalist grew, but she followed him in anyway. Inside, the walls were decorated with stuffed animals, blades, and guns from various periods. Okay, creepy. Survivalist disappeared into a room and soon returned with a bundle of clothes. His eyes never met hers, but always fell somewhere around Cody’s breasts. “Clothes,” he croaked. He made no move to hand them over, just stood a couple of yards from Cody. “You can take off the gown now.” Taken aback, she wrapped her arms around herself. “Sure, thanks. Can I change in the bathroom? Or some other room?” “Threat assessment: orange. Recommend relocation.” Survivalist stuffed his hand down his pants again and wiggled around a bit, still holding the clothes. “We should do it.” There was a tremor to his voice, as if he was terrified, and now his gaze kept jumping between Cody’s chest and crotch. “Excuse me?” Always the optimist, she prayed she had misunderstood. After another lengthy pause, Survivalist licked his lips and coughed. “We should do it. Repopulate the Earth.” Cody swallowed a panicked chuckle. “Repopulate the... The Earth’s fine. There’s nothing to repopulate. In fact, it’s overpopulation that’s the probl—” “It’s going to happen!” Survivalist burst out. “World War Three will happen any day now, and we need to start repopulating the Earth because it takes nine fucking months for you people to give birth!” Nine months... us people? “Threat assessment: red.” Bob’s voice turned into a jarring buzz that rattled Cody’s brains. “Initiation of combat routine failed.” Fucking fantastic. “Initiating reboot.” Don’t you dare reboot now! Stop it! “Reboot postponed. Warning: I may not function properly before reboot.” “So?” Survivalist shouted. The pre-violence blackout didn’t come. She was on her own this time. “Oh, um... no thanks?” He heaved a deep, trembling breath. “I’m so excited right now.” Before Cody had time to come up with a sensible response, Survivalist dropped the change of clothes and rushed her. They stumbled around the log house, knocking over furniture. All tangled, they fell on the floor, Survivalist with a grunt, Cody with a clank. He yanked up her gown and froze, staring at her groin. “The fuck are you?” Taking advantage of his hesitation, Cody grasped his throat with her mechanical hand and squeezed. His face turned red and the veins on his temples and forehead bulged. He punched her, but his fist clonked on the metallic side of her head. He clawed at the hand around his throat, but within seconds his eyes rolled into his skull. An animal grimace on her face, Cody squeezed harder still even though Survivalist had gone limp. Her instincts were on overdrive: she couldn’t let go. If she did, he would kill her. There was a sickly crack as something broke inside his neck or throat. Still panicked and more than a little revolted, Cody cast aside his limp body and sat up with a grunt. “I modified your adrenaline and enkephalin levels at the onset of the assault to boost your reflexes and aggression, and raise your pain threshold. I did not inform you sooner because it could have been distracting. I did not ask for permission because this was a dangerous situation and could have resulted in harm for both of us.” Her chest heaving, Cody nodded a few times. Thanks, Bob. “You are welcome. Shall I reboot now?” “Go right ahead.” Chapter 7 If Cody had to say one positive thing about Survivalist, he was pragmatic to a fault. In his basement, she had found an extensive stash of medicines and medical equipment, including morphine and even carfentanil, a schedule II controlled substance mostly used in tranquilizers when dealing with larger animals. She had only gotten to use it twice on horses when interning at a veterinary clinic. Needless to say, she packed some of both substances into Survivalist’s first-aid kit which she had found in his well-equipped backpack. The basement was stacked with food, water, guns, ammo, gasoline, survival gear, everything one would need in case of a zombie apocalypse. Not quite a fallout shelter, but still... “That’s that, then,” she said and closed the freezer. “Somebody could find him.” Bob sounded disapproving. “Yeah, well, it was self-defense.” “And the meat you took outside will attract animals.” “That was the point, Bob. It’s not like you or I will eat it and he’s dead, so why not give it to animals and insects?” Cody demanded and then stomped out of the basement. “And I’ll bury him or something. But later, I got stuff to do first.” “They could track the call.” Cody had just typed the home number of her parents’ house. She frowned, staring at Survivalist’s cell phone. Doesn’t it take, like, a minute in movies? “I do not know.” Fuck it. After a few beeps, her mother picked up. Cody felt a lump in her throat even before she had said a word. As soon as her mother realized who she was talking to, they both burst into tears and cried through the rest of the conversation. “Would you like a sedative?” Bob asked. “No thanks.” “No thanks what?” Cody’s mother asked. “Never mind. Listen, I gotta go, but I’ll call you again soon, okay?” When she pressed ‘disconnect,’ Cody grinned, wiping tears out of her remaining eye. “See? Four seconds to spare. Told ya I could do it.” “I never doubted you.” Too happy to argue with Bob, Cody hoisted his backpack over her shoulder, grabbed the keys to his hatchback, and headed into the night. She left the cabin’s door open so animals could scour the place as she had no intentions of returning. She drove to the nearest town with Bob’s guidance, feeling less and less like herself. Despite her stoicism, it was difficult to shake the guilt she felt over her kills. Likewise, she had never owned guns before, but now she had a carbine in her backpack and a pistol in a belt holster, hidden under her jacket. In Bob’s opinion, Cody ought to arm herself in case Systec sent a retrieval squad after her or she encountered more weirdoes. Handling the guns was a mixed bag: her human hand fumbled and lacked strength while her new one, when guided by Bob, worked the firearms like a seasoned pro. In addition to guns, she now had a soon-to-be skeleton in her closet, yet she couldn’t go to the police. According to Bob, Systec was a black budget corporation and had ties to the local law enforcement. So, her head hidden under a hood, baseball cap, and sunglasses, Cody drove to the sleepy mountain town, its streets empty at two in the morning. She parked her car by the only bed and breakfast in town. Before stepping out, she made sure her pistol was still concealed. Okay, act normal, pretend like you’re not armed to the teeth. “Affirmative.” So not talking to you. She stepped into the lambent light of the cozy two-floor house. There was nobody in the lobby, so she rung the bell on the counter. After a moment an older woman with a frog-like face shuffled over. “Oh, hi there, welcome to our inn, the Peg ̔n’ Al, the most famous B&B in town. How may I help you?” Cody kept her head bowed, trying to hide her face. “I’d like a room, please.” “You’d like a room?” a man asked, sauntering over. He looked remarkably alike with Frog Lady. “She does, she does. Should we give her six?” “But can she handle six?” Cody frowned at Toad Man. “Handle what?” “Threat assessment: orange.” He shook his head. “I don’t think she’s the type to enjoy six. How about three?” “Marvelous!” Toad Lady squeaked. “And your john hancock here. Lovely.” She dialed a number and held up a key. When Cody reached for it, she pulled it back. “Hi. Yes, one coming your way. In three. One...” She peered at the notebook. “Jenny Williams. Lovely, bye.” Then she turned her attention back to Cody. “Your room will be ready in just a second. Here’s your key. Have fun.” “Thanks.” It hung on what looked like a small leather baton. “Up the stairs, take a left, third door on your right. Enjoy your stay,” Toad Man said with a toothy grin. Eager to get rid of the strange couple, Cody thanked them and headed upstairs. There was a remarkable amount of black leather everywhere: on chairs, cushions, the railing on the stairs, even on her door. Once in her room, she flipped the lock and sighed. Maybe now I could actually sleep instead of just reboot. An inviting double bed was peeking from around a corner. Cody stripped down to her boxers, pulled her pistol from the belt holster, and slouched towards the bed. “Oh yeah, baby, do it!” Cody yelped and covered her breasts with one hand while the other pointed her gun. She found herself in a Mexican stand-off with a man’s waxed and bleached anus. “Do it, baby, peg me!” His hands cuffed to a bedpost. “The strap-on’s in the nightstand drawer, next to the—” He glanced over his shoulder, shrieked, and squatted down with a fart. Cody scuttled behind a corner and fumbled into her clothes. “Listen, uh, I think I got the wrong room. It’s just that the key worked, so... you sure you’re in the right room?” “You Jenny Williams?” There was an audible tremor to his voice. “Uh-huh.” “Ah, I see. Another mix-up.” “Come again?” Cody called around the corner. “Well, now and then a vanilla ventures in, clueless about this place, and then gets scarred for life. This B&B specializes in BDSM. It’s world-famous and the first B&B to offer a complementary gimp with every room.” “BDSM? A complementary... gimp?” “Yeah, and I’m yours. The name’s Fess White.” “Oh. Well, nice to meet you, Fess, but I just need a room for the night.” “No problem. I just, uh, I’m kinda cuffed here. The key’s in the drawer, right next to the strap-on and lube.” Cody holstered her pistol, covered it with the hem of her hoodie, made sure her skull and eye were covered, and went to the drawer, eager to get rid of her gimp. With a due sense of dread, she pulled open the drawer and snatched the key. Her eyes fell on the strap-on. Oh God... has that thing been in his ass? She swallowed and tried to keep her voice casual. “So, you do this for a living?” “Nah, part-time. It’s something of a hobby, I guess,” Fess said while Cody uncuffed him. “Was it just me freaking out or did you sport some awesome robot limbs? If you don’t mind my asking.” Cody slumpedon the bed. “I was in an accident. These are just prosthetics.” It was easy to lie when it was almost true. “Wow.” Fess sat next to her without even trying to cover himself. “But you shouldn’t hide that stuff. It’s sexy. In this hot, badass way, you know?” Cody snorted. “Sure. And I bet you love the plucked chicken hairdo?” “It’s cool. Has this punky feel to it.” When he smiled, Cody realized just how beautiful he was, how two dimples lit up his face, how his eyes twinkled at her from his perfectly symmetrical face. And how he was wearing only a pair of cowboy boots, a belt, and no body hair. “You know, if you’d like, I could eat you. They say I give the best head in town. Or we could fuck, if you like that better.” Surprised, Cody was about to turn down his generous offer when the reality of it all hit her. She drew a deep breath to calm herself, refused the sedatives Bob offered, and burst into tears. “Hey, hey, baby, what’s wrong?” Fess asked. Cody wiped her eye and sniffed. “I can never have sex again, never have another orgasm. My entire reproductive system is gone, my entire lower body...” I’m only half-human now. A cyborg. That’s all I’ll ever be. Ever. Her deep love of all things natural got distorted when she was pulled away from the warm, familiar bosom of Mother Nature and towards technology, humanity’s bastard child. Fess was nodding slowly. “Bummer. You can’t come just by fondling your nipples? Some girls can.” “What? No!” Cody covered her eyes and sighed. “Listen, could I just be alone? And I heard what you said, about these amazingly sexy prosthetics, but I’m still kinda dealing with losing half my body, so could you please keep all this to yourself?” Fess grinned. “My lips are sealed. I mean, my folks don’t know I work here either or that I do meth. If you change your mind about anything, just call reception, they’ll send me right over.” “Sure. See ya.” Once alone, she cried another bucketful, wallowing in her misery until her phone rang. It wasn’t her mother. Shit. Maybe it’s Survivalist’s mom? There was no caller ID. “H-hello?” “Evening, Miss Emerson. Before you hang up, please listen to our proposition regarding your parents.” The tears vanished, giving way to anger. “You’re from Systec, aren’t you?” How had they found her? Had Survivalist been another Systec drone? Or had they really tracked the call to her mother? The notion turned her ribcage to ice, her blood to liquid hydrogen. She could hear the smile in the woman’s voice. “Please return to Research Center Three or we will have to take steps.” Cody imagined how her new hand would curl around the woman’s throat and squeeze the life out of her. “Threats generally work better when you actually explain what you’re going to do in case of a refusal.” “Your parents live in Ulverston, yes? Grover Street seven?” “Don’t you fucking dare.” “We just want you to do the right thing.” Before Cody could make up her mind, the woman continued, “I would advise against trying to contact your parents. I am concerned for their health.” “So I come back, be your prisoner, your lab rat, or you’ll kill my parents?” Now she really wanted to kill someone. “Your words, not ours. Think about it. You have until tomorrow noon.” The line went dead. It took all of her self-control not to smash the phone into the wall. Bob? Need a little input here. What should I do? “Logic suggests avoidance. Returning to Systec would likely be detrimental to your health in the long run.” So I should just abandon my parents? Let them be killed? “Sometimes self-preservation requires sacrifices.” It was as if Bob hesitated. “It is regrettable, but if you return to Systec, it does not guarantee the safety of your parents. They could be taken to another Systec facility for experimentation. Parties conducting illegal human experiments always need more test subjects.” Cody clenched her jaws and bit back snappy retorts. At least you’re honest. I like that. “Thank you.” But I have to warn them, it’s the least I can do. She dialed her mother again, wondering if they would be out of Systec’s reach at Aunt Betty’s farm. “That is ill-advised.” Shut up. Chapter 8 Cody stirred from sleep, wondering where she was. Did someone knock? “Yes.” Bob’s voice first thing in the morning still made her twitch. Someone knocked again. Cody pulled on her wrinkled clothes and snatched her pistol off the nightstand. “You forgot your sunglasses.” Thanks, Bob. Now ready, Cody crept to the door, so nervous she started chewing the insides of her cheeks again. “Who is it?” “Postal Service. Got a package for ya.” She pointed her pistol at the door while she opened it a crack, just in case the fellow was a Systec goon. “I didn’t order anything.” “Look, ma’am,” he drawled, “I’m on the clock here, so could you just sign it so I can go?” Cody frowned and holstered her gun. “Sure. Thanks.” Once alone, she examined the package. It had her fake name on it and even the B&B’s address was correct down to the room number. She sat on the bed and cut open the package with Survivalist’s pocket knife. There was a plastic container inside, surrounded by crumpled newspapers. She snapped open the lid and peeked inside. The package fell on the floor, accompanied with an alarmed cry. Two fingers and two hearts rolled out along with ice cubes. The fingers still had wedding rings on them and one of the hearts bore an outdated pacemaker, the same make and model as her father’s. “They could belong to someone else and were only made to look like those of your parents,” Bob offered. Cody swallowed several times, her pulse soaring. This time she accepted the sedatives. Slowly she got down on her knees but didn’t dare touch the human parts. Her eyes fogged up when she recognized the rings. There was a burn mark beside her mother’s nail. She had gotten it from their oven, taking out a trayful of oatmeal cookies she had made for Cody when she had been a little girl. Sobbing uncontrollably, she crawled to a corner. This time the sedatives didn’t help. “I am sorry for your loss. Recommend relocation. Systec knows where you are and they will likely dispatch a retrieval squad if they haven’t done so already.” “Let them come!” Cody cried out, anger and grief tearing at her like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat. “That is inadvisable. They will have superior numbers. Even when I take control over your combat functions, they will eventually overpower us and—” “All right! All right, I get it! Fuck!” Cody brushed tears out of her eyes. I know you’re right, but I just found out my fucking parents died. You probably can’t understand what that’s like. “My perception is likely different from yours, but I register every emotion you feel, which could be said to be at least similar to feeling the same emotions.” Good. That means we’re on the same page when I say we’re going to pay this back to Systec somehow, someday. “Anything is possible. For now, I recommend relocation.” “You can say that again.” “Anything is possib—” “Rhetoric, Bob, rhetoric.” “Rhetoric sucks.” # Bob had told her not to put on her jacket, but wrap it around the carbine. She held it with her mechanical hand, ready for use if Systec reared its ugly head. So I actually have some kind of an aiming system in this eye of mine? “Yes. Your eye and arm are synchronized and equipped with internal stabilizers so that your heartbeat and breathing do not interfere with your aim.” Handy. Does that stabilizer-thingy also work if I’m, say, cutting with a scalpel? “Yes.” “Leaving already? I hope you had a pleasant night, Miss Williams,” Toad Man said when Cody returned her key. “Sure, it was great. Say, you haven’t seen any, like, suspicious people or anything outside?” He frowned and peered out of the window. “No, can’t say that I have. You waiting for somebody?” “You could say that,” Cody muttered as she walked to the door. There were only a few cars in the parking lot. She drew a deep breath, stepped out, and made a beeline towards her car. When she was halfway to her vehicle, she heard tires screeching. A white van sped from the shadows of another building. “Threat assessment: red.” Here we go again... # When she came to, she was running, holding her carbine and a rifle. Where did that come from? Her brains caught up half a second too late and she fell, almost dropping the weapons. She cried out as an arrow of searing pain shot through her left side, right below her ribs. “Immediate escape necessary,” Bob said, urgency in its voice. The pain was so strong, it made Cody see stars. When she clambered to her feet, euphoria took her and the pain dulled down to a nasty throb. It was difficult to run in a straight line, but she was pretty sure Bob was correcting her missteps now and then. What are we running from? “Systec. They tried to capture you. I eliminated three out of five men, but two are still chasing you. They are five hundred yards behind you on an adjacent block.” Shit. Where to? “Recommend escape until the distance to our pursuers is at least a thousand yards. Take a right after this block. Then it is imperative you find shelter and tend to your injuries.” How’d those happen? Never mind, not important now. Any idea if Systec’s found the log house? “I do not think so. They located your parents and got your phone number when you first called your mother, but it wasn’t until they called you in the bed and breakfast that they had time to pinpoint your exact location. Take a left now.” How far is it to the log house? Will I last that long? “10,87 miles. Negative. You need to treat your injury as soon as possible. Distance from pursuers: 733 yards.” Despite the substances Bob had released into Cody’s system, the pain was growing stronger with each passing moment. Running didn’t really help either. Eventually she found an abandoned shed in the nearby woods. Cody stumbled in, collapsed with a clank, and vomited. Yummy. How much blood have I lost? “25,4 ounces. Once you stop the bleeding, rest, and seek sustenance.” Cody wriggled off her backpack and searched for the first aid kit. Luckily it contained everything she needed from disinfectant to needles and suture. Could use a bit more... something for the pain. “Done.” Cheers. Cody had sown shut several animals but never a human much less herself. Any foreign objects in that wound? Is it infected? “Negative and negative. The bullet went through you, but it still needs to be cleaned.” The disinfecting antihemorrhagic burned like acid, bringing forth another burst of stars in her eyes. She threaded the suture, looked down at her bloodied midriff, and winced. This is going to suck so bad. Chapter 9 Cody hoped she would reach the log house quickly. She had sewn shut her wound and Bob had helped her hot-wire a car, but even driving was very uncomfortable. She needed a moment to gather her wits, come up with a plan, a way to retaliate. Her new eye registered movement in the dark woods, so she turned off the headlights. She pulled over a fair distance from the scene, the night vision cutting through the darkness. Dozens of men were standing around a chain-link pen. She stepped out of the car and crept closer, her carbine slung over her shoulder. Dogs. And another animal? “There are two American Pit Bull Terriers and a grizzly bear. They are fighting.” She had read about bear-baiting before, how they removed a bear’s claws and put on a muzzle before shoving it into a cage with two fighting dogs. The bear could only use its large size to fight back while the dogs tore it to shreds, bite by bite. Once in a while a dog got injured or killed, but it was often just replaced with another, the entire practice always a bloody business. She gritted her teeth so hard it hurt. Bob, guide my aim. Fire into the crowd every three seconds until they notice they are being shot at. Go for arms and shoulders if you can and don’t hit any of the animals. The .223 rounds found their marks easily even from 250 yards. Kneeling behind a bush, Cody was glad to hand the reins to Bob because her improvised plan required nigh-perfect execution. It took only three bullets before the crowd realized something was seriously wrong. Two more rounds and screaming and panic ensued. Someone opened the pen but closed it again quickly. Within a minute, the forest clearing was void of humans. Someone had taken the dogs with them, leaving behind only the bleeding grizzly. Cody felt no remorse, no guilt, only exhilaration as she hurried back to her car and reached into the backseat. I knew I’d find use for this. She grabbed the rifle, the dart gun Bob had taken from one of Systec’s goons. She pulled out the dart syringe from the gun and cleaned it with saline from Survivalist’s first-aid kit. Can you weigh things with my new hand? “Of course.” Bob sounded almost insulted. She used a knife to measure 5mg of carfentanil which she mixed with the saline. The syringe slipped cleanly into the dart gun. Cody hurried to the pen, but as soon as the bear sensed her, it growled, preparing for more pain. “Easy, easy,” Cody said, keeping her voice calm and gentle. “You’re okay now, I will help you.” Of course the bear had no idea what the words meant, but it could understand her tone of voice and her body language. It had likely been mistreated by humans before as it did a false charge towards Cody, mistaking her for another threat. “Easy, I’m not gonna hurt you. Nobody will. It’s over now.” As soon as she was close enough, she raised the dart gun to her shoulder. Bob, target the hindquarter. The dart sunk into the bear. It loped as far away from its new antagonist as it could. The animal’s long moan broke Cody’s heart. “Come on, go to sleep, big fella. Go to sleep.” “Recommend relocation. The locals may have alerted law enforcement.” Shut up. I’m doing this, no matter what. The bear hung its head, swaying where it stood, and after half a minute, collapsed as the strong opiate worked its magic. Cody fetched the first-aid kit and waited a few minutes before climbing into the pen. When she approached the bear, it stirred and staggered a few feet before collapsing again. Okay, give it another minute. The next time she moved closer, the animal didn’t wake up. Her mechanical arm was incredibly precise, even gentle, as she cleaned and patched up what wounds she could find. It was rather nerve-wrecking to work without any kind of a safety net, but something about the scene made Cody feel closer to nature, to her human side, than she had since the accident. She worked quickly and accepted all the help Bob could provide because she was veering far from proper veterinary protocols. The bear was a larger individual, possibly even dragged out of early hibernation judging by the animal’s pudgy build, so Cody had no idea if the 5mg she had given was enough. “There!” she declared after finishing the last suture. Then she injected 60mg of naloxone, an opioid antagonist, to wake up the dozing grizzly. After gathering her gear, Cody climbed out of the pen. A chain and a padlock kept the gate closed. Let’s see what my new hand can do. It took some tugging, but eventually the chain broke, jangling on the grass, and Cody hid behind bushes a fair distance from the pen. “Recommend relocation.” God damn it, not yet! I gotta make sure the big guy’s all right first. Sometimes anesthesia causes breathing problems and whatnot so just take it easy, we’ll be safe enough. She knew the grizzly would collapse again later since carfentanil’s half-life was over seven hours while naloxone’s was only around an hour, but at least the bear would be far from the pen by then. After a few minutes the grizzly stirred. It huffed, coughed, and shook its head. A big yawn later, the bear stood up. It was swaying and clearly groggy, but alive and breathing, its injuries treated, its captors and tormentors gone. Go on, leave. You’re free. At last the bear noticed the open gate and seemed to remember where it was. The grizzly loped out of the pen and disappeared into the dark woods. With a crack of her neck and a big smile, Cody started back to her car. “Now that’s a job well done, even if I say so myself.” “It was risky and illogical.” “To you, maybe. To me, it was the only thing to do.” There was a pause before Bob simply said: “Fool.” You’re learning, Cody thought with a grin as the car sped away. # “Recommend sleep.” “You telling me.” Cody slouched to the bedroom of the log house, the wound in her side throbbing dully through a morphine haze. She froze when her ears caught scratching from under the bed. A quick look revealed a large hare and its six small, puffy leverets hiding behind their mother. “It’s okay, it’s okay, you can have the bedroom,” Cody said quietly, backing away from the wary animals. She left the door ajar so the hares could move about freely when she wasn’t around. A visit to the kitchen revealed another tenant: apparently during her absence, a hedgehog had moved into a floor-level cupboard. Suddenly Cody didn’t feel quite so robotic anymore. She left water for the hedgehog and went out to pick some grass for the hares, humming Scarborough Fair. “You should rest and heal. The animals can look after themselves.” Neither the painful wound nor Bob’s grumbling could bring down her mood. Lighten up, I’ll rest in a while. When she finally lay down on the living room couch and closed her eyes, she smiled to herself, relishing the nature all around her. Chapter 10 Can you limit my adrenaline levels before the car actually arrives? I don’t really enjoy the slow release through all these hours. “Of course.” Cody was hiding among bushy firs, waiting for her next target. She had found one the size of a Christmas tree that she used as a roadblock, just like last time. Except now she would strangle her victim: shooting the previous one had made a mess and she couldn’t afford to leave any evidence. One down, how many to go? “The exact number of emplo—” Rheto— “—ric,” Bob finished for her. For the past five weeks, Cody and Bob had planned different ways to exact revenge on Systec, their sworn enemy. Killing off Research Center Three’s doctors and other high-ranking employees, making them disappear without a trace, was insofar the only viable option. Storming the place had been high on the list, but even with Bob’s help and Survivalist’s extensive gun stash, going in alone would have been suicide. “Relax, this is what we trained for. You know the motions. Or if you want, I can take over.” No thanks, Bob. It’s about time I learn to use this damn body and, well, you. She had learned Bob had such things as operational modes. The default had most functions on automatic but the options to customize her new brain and body were endless. Cody had decided to tackle the daunting task one area at a time, and now she was learning to fight without relinquishing control to Bob. “A vehicle is approaching from the direction of RC-3.” I hear it. Okay, right, this is it. This is fucking it. Cody moved behind the firs closest to the road. Come on, pull over. Good girl. In less than a second, her fist smashed through the car’s window. Cody pulled the squirming, screaming jumble of limbs and blonde hair out of the car. “I’m not with Systec! I don’t work for Systec!” The woman whimpered when she was pulled up by her front. “No, Cody, don’t!” Surprised, Cody caught the woman’s gaze. “You have ten seconds to convince me before I kill you.” “I work for the same group as Angie did, the nurse who helped you escape, and I work undercover to gain information that our group can use against Systec.” Cody frowned. Is she lying? Can you tell? “I don’t sense the usual signs.” She let go of the woman and stood back. “Drag aside the tree and get in the car. We need to talk.” # Cody left the cabin door open, hoisted up her backpack, and started the two-mile jog back to the forest clearing where Mary and her jeep were waiting. She appeared legit, but Cody wanted to keep the cabin a secret, just to have a safe haven for herself and her furry friends if things went south. She had even befriended the bear she had rescued. Tracking it had been a chore, but ten tactically placed jars of honey, a robotic eye that detected even the lightest footprints, and a lot of walking had eventually done the trick. “What took you so long?” Mary asked, standing by the red jeep with a cigarette smoldering between her lips. She had tidied herself up but her black pant suit still had a few tears and smears. “It’s been over an hour.” “So what? We in a hurry?” “Not really. It’s just that Systec is always suspicious of anything, well, suspicious.” Cody stuffed her bag in the trunk and pulled out her carbine wrapped in a hoodie. “We’re off-road, nobody’s gonna see us here. Or arethey tracking your car’s GPS or something?” Mary tossed away her cigarette and climbed behind the wheel. “They might. And I’d like to get the hell out of here before six when most of the others punch out. A broken car window might raise some questions.” “Fair enough.” The jeep got back on the road in a few minutes but luckily there was no other traffic yet. Mary glanced at the carbine resting between Cody’s legs. “You expecting trouble? Should I be worried?” “Systec’s tried to capture me twice and killed my parents, so yeah, I expect trouble pretty much all the time.” “Well, if you join the group, you’ll be safe.” The rising intonation at the end begged for an answer. “I told you: I’ll make up my mind when I know more.” Mary had pleaded insufficient authority when asked about the group’s purpose and plans. She hadn’t even given their name. All this cloak and dagger pomp made Cody doubtful, but she agreed with Bob that they would at least check out these potential allies. They spent the two-hour drive mostly in silence. Just when dusk was settling, the jeep pulled over by a heavy, metal gate. It opened languidly, and with a hollow clank. There was something final about it that made Cody’s skin crawl. At least Bob was still quiet about threat assessments. There were no guards to be seen when they drove to a courtyard surrounded by tall brick walls. “Here we are,” Mary said and lit up again. They stepped out of the jeep before a large, crumbling building. “Doesn’t look like much.” Now that they were out of the public eye, Cody unwrapped her carbine. “It’s not supposed to. A brand-new, high-tech facility out in the open would’ve eventually drawn Systec’s attention, but who cares about an abandoned school building, right?” Cody sneered. “Yeah, who gives a shit about a place of learning?” They stepped through creaky doors and into a dark corridor. Bits of gravel and glass crunched under their feet as they descended a spiral staircase. “Threat assessment: orange,” Bob said as they moved into an empty bomb shelter. Cody felt adrenaline seep into her bloodstream when Mary led her into an elevator. It showed only one floor below basement level, but, according to Bob, the elevator took them over a hundred feet underground. When the doors slid open, Cody’s eyebrow rose. She stepped into a well-lit hallway as tidy and new as RC-3’s. “This way, they’re expecting us already.” After a few twists and turns, they arrived at a spacious conference room. When they descended to the empty center of the room, Cody felt like a suspect awaiting conviction before a panel of stern men and women. Lights shone on them, but the room was otherwise dark. “This may be a trap,” Bob said. I know, but I gotta do this. If they can really help us take down Systec, we’ve hit the motherload. If not— “—we must kill them. It is the only way to ensure their knowledge of us won’t hurt us.” We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. “Miss Cody Emerson,” Mary said and stepped into the surrounding shadows. Left on her own, Cody turned her attention to the severe faces looking down at her. She fought the urge to shoot them, feeling like an exhibit at a circus. She had always hated circuses because of how they treated animals. “Welcome to our headquarters,” one of the men said. “You must have many questions, but they will all be answered in due time. Now we—” “Just tell me one thing,” Cody cut in. “Can you help me take down Systec? I’ll settle for RC-3, destroying all data they have of me, but the more they hurt, the better.” A small smile wavered on the man’s lips. “If you wish to delete all data concerning you, destroying RC-3 is hardly sufficient since Systec stores all their research data in their secure cloud. Their data centers are nigh impregnable without a small army. However, we can do better than that. Much better.” The smile broadened into a grin. “We can shut down Systec. All of it. For good.” “What will it cost me?” “I’m afraid you have misunderstood, Miss Emerson. We do not care about money or riches. We just want to offer our help in your fight against Systec. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, yes?” Cody glanced at Mary, who gave her a smile and a nod. “All right. How can you shut them down?” “I’m afraid I cannot divulge any specifics until you have agreed to join us.” “Very well, how about telling me more about your group? Like your name?” “Again, I’m sorry, but even that is classified information, only available to group members. For security reasons, you see. We wish to help you, but the security of the group has to come first, unfortunately. So what shall it be; will you join our effort? If you do, you will have all our resources and manpower at your disposal, we will provide you with whatever it is you need to achieve your objective. You will get free accommodations, food, weapons, and training, not to mention more information about Systec than you would even want to know. Andwe can teach you how to make the most out of your body as well as Zephyr.” “Bob.” “Excuse me?” “I renamed it. It’s Bob now.” The man frowned. “Yes, well, Bob, then. But that is only if you join us.” “Can I come and go as I please?” “Of course. We do, however, demand absolute confidentiality from all our members. Say a word of us to anyone who doesn’t belong to our group, and there will be serious repercussions as well as an immediate termination of your position within the group, cutting off all access to our vast resources, all our knowledge of Systec, our support systems, everything.” “So, why do you want to enlist the help of a human wreck like little old moi?” A few gray heads turned, exchanging glances. “You do know you are the most advanced cyborg prototype Systec has produced to date? I’m sure we can learn as much from you as you can from us, especially when it comes to Zephyr.” The man cleared his throat. “Bob.” Yeah, that was convincing. Maybe reverse engineer me down to my nuts and bolts? “Just one more question,” Cody said. “After we’re through with Systec, am I free to go? For good, I mean.” She was met with the grin of a liar. “But of course. Why, it’s a free country after all.” Bob, what do you think? “From what I have now learned, my assessment is that our mission would benefit from the help of this group. I do not trust them, but I do not believe we are in immediate danger, so if we tread carefully—” —we should be okay. All right, but if this gets us killed, I’ll kill you. “You would be unable to kill me since we would both be d—” “Can I sleep on it?” Cody asked, catching the man’s gaze. “I’m afraid we need an immediate answer.” She had hoped he would refuse. A sense of foolhardy excitement had come over her, and she longed for action, for a resolution, eager in all of her mechanized, devil-may-care glory. She cocked back her head. “You know what? Fuck it, I’m in.” Several hyena smiles shone down at her. The man she had spoken with leaned forward. “Congratulations and welcome to our group. Mary is your handler, so she will set you up and answer all of your questions regarding our organization. We will convene again tomorrow morning and discuss everything in greater detail. It is getting late so I suggest you get some rest, perhaps after visiting the canteen.” And just like that, a new world of possibilities opened up to Cody. She grinned while Mary led her out of the conference room. If even half of what the man had spouted was true, she could well have gotten closer to getting her revenge than she had ever thought possible, all of it simply because she had spared one woman’s life. Quite a bargain, huh, Bob? Chapter 11 Cody holstered her pistol after dry firing it at the mirror of her room. Time? “0.113 seconds. Not one of your best times.” She bared her teeth at her reflection, fighting an urge to send a live round through the glass. “Advise relaxation.” Cody grabbed a nearby chair and flung it at the wall with a growl. She stared at the broken piece of furniture, squared shoulders rising and falling to her breath. Slowly she turned her gaze to the mirror, as if daring her reflection to say a word. When she saw the grimace on her face, the hostility in her bearing, a single thought pierced through the haze of aggression: what have I become? She couldn’t see a trace of the sweet, if somewhat scatterbrained student of veterinary medicine whose biggest hurdles had revolved around passing exams and finding a boyfriend. In all these months of training and preparation, this was the first time she was repulsed by her prosthetics. They weren’t simply innocent tools to make her life easier. She knew better than that now. Under the tutelage of the group, she had learned to customize Bob, but also that it was a military application, intended to supplement future soldiers, to make them faster, more aggressive and ruthless, increase their pain thresholds, essentially make them more efficient killers. Likewise her new body, much like Bob, had been designed first and foremost for combat. And it showed: for a little over three months she had endured a grueling training regimen launched immediately after some preliminary tests. Mary, the liaison between Cody and the group, had been amazed time and time again, recording results that far surpassed the group’s wildest expectations. It wasn’t just the prosthetics either: Cody’s muscle mass had developed at an exceptional rate while her body fat had dropped to around ten percent. By now she could curl 40lbs with her human arm. After a few tests, they had discovered increased levels of growth hormones, testosterone, and decreased levels of estrogen, as well as other changes in her physiology. Unlike earlier, however, Cody had not ordered Bob to stop manipulating her body. Instead she had given her consent because all her current goals depended on the success of the upcoming mission. Nothing else mattered, not even her health, so she had ignored Mary’s warnings regarding long-term effects of what she said was essentially doping. Cody had no idea when she had stopped caring or why seeing herself angry had triggered such a moment of clarity. All she knew was that it was too late to back down now. In a little less than half an hour, she would join a hit squad assembled by the group. They were all highly trained combat veterans who should have, for all intents and purposes, outshined Cody in all areas of combat, but, then again, they didn’t have her prosthetics or Bob. # “Juno, you are a go.” “Roger that, Jupiter. Package is en route.” Mary drove the vehicle towards the gates of Research Center Three. Right now the compound was all that existed to Cody. “All right, first wave, status check,” said Jupiter, their team leader. “Mars ready.” “Apollo ready.” “Vulcan ready.” “Nerio ready,” Cody said. She was the fourth sniper, positioned on a ridge overlooking the compound. Her call sign was the goddess of war and the personification of valor. Their team of twelve had all been named after Roman gods and goddesses. They even bore their names on their armored shoulders and chests. Mary aka Juno was the only person in the team whose real name Cody knew. At a distance, Mary stopped before the gate and waved a map out of the car window. Two guards approached the vehicle while two more secured the perimeter within the gates. As soon as Mary had engaged the guards, Jupiter’s voice sounded in Cody’s headphones. “Take ‘em out.” Four suppressed rifles broke the stillness of the night, startling birds into panicked flight. Four guards fell down with holes in their heads. “Move in! Go, go, go!” Within seconds their dirty dozen had reached the fence and headed to the gate. Mary shed her coat that had concealed a similar ceramic plate armor they all wore. She put on a helmet and pulled a carbine from the vehicle, ready to join the assault. “Janus, come in!” “Go ahead, Jupiter.” “Check the gate.” Their lock and breaching specialist gave the sturdy gate a tug and it opened. Cody was mildly surprised that Mary’s inside man or woman had pulled through and unlocked the gate remotely at the agreed time. Janus hurried to set explosives at the front door while Neptune watched his back. Cody relished the rush of adrenaline. In a few seconds, the doors blew apart, but instead of body parts and blood, bullets spewed out of the smoking darkness, cutting down Neptune where he stood. Sirens went off, the high-pitched blare loud enough to wake the dead. Cody’s mechanical eye distinguished movement amidst the corridor and she opened fire. A few fell, but they were quickly replaced by more guards, and soon they were pouring out of the compound. Jupiter and Orcus were firing full auto, cutting down Systec’s men. Liber and Janus threw fragmentation grenades at the group. “Fire in the hole!” Cody dove aside and picked up another guard mid-flight. It was only thanks to Bob that she could pull off such displays of inhumane accuracy but right now she needed every advantage. The frags tore apart the last standing guards, leaving behind only dead and dying. “Orcus, clean up!” Jupiter barked. Orcus went through the wounded and finished them off. Cody spotted one writhing guard close to her, so she took him down with a quick headshot. “All right, team Alpha, you’re up front, Saturn, take point. Juno, Liber, hold the rear.” Cody took her place in Bravo, right behind Apollo, her job to watch his back and cover the right sector. Their procession of ten snaked through bright-white corridors that reeked of disinfectant. They left behind faint footprints, but it didn’t matter because the group had issued boots to the assault team identical to what Systec guards wore. The uneasy silence was broken by the rattle of machine gun fire, the bullets tearing through Saturn. At the same instant, Mary grunted and fell against Cody’s back. “Take cover!” Jupiter’s voice sounded over the radio. They had triggered a trap of some sort: four automated machine guns had descended from the ceiling in front of and behind them, pinning their group between two sources of fire. Cody spotted a sensor beside one machine gun and told Bob to target it. As soon as a .308 round shattered it, the gun no longer moved, only kept firing at its previous target at full auto until it ran dry. She shot out the sensors of the remaining guns which also fell silent in a few seconds. “Apollo, Orcus, Vulcan, secure the parameter. All right, damage assessment, sound off, people!” Jupiter called. “Juno’s been hit and Saturn is dead,” Janus replied, digging out gauze. Mary pressed the wound in her side, looking ready to keel over where she stood. “I got hit in the knee,” Mars said with a grimace, lying on the floor. Jupiter walked up to the wounded sniper. “Can you walk?” “Sorry, sir, my leg’s all fucked.” Without another word, Jupiter shot him in the face. “What the hell?” Mary cried out. “You know the drill,” Jupiter grunted. “We can’t drag anyone with us and anyone left behind would compromise the group.” “Come on, we gotta plug that leak.” Janus poured an antihemorrhagic agent on the wound and closed it with speed sutures. “You good enough to move on?” Jupiter asked. Mary eyed their leader’s smoking rifle with a degree of dread. “Not ready to be put down just yet, sir.” “Contac―” A gunshot cut off Apollo’s warning and Jupiter’s throat blew out, spraying Mary with blood. Another Systec squad rushed towards them from around a corner. Once again the air was filled with lead. “Grenade!” Cody had barely time to tackle Mary to the side when an explosion shook the corridor, the blast immediately followed by agonized screams. “Fire in the hole!” Janus shouted, having tossed a grenade of his own. He and two others returned fire, and in a few seconds the Systec guards were dead. “Okay, we gotta move, we’re sitting ducks here,” said Apollo, the next in command. “We lost Orcus and Vulcan’s...” Liber was kneeling beside the wounded soldier who was trying to keep his guts from spilling out. Apollo met his gaze and received a nod. One gunshot later, Vulcan was dead. “Liber, take point. Move out!” # Janus used a charge to breach the door that took them to a command terminal. Inside they encountered only two guards and a group of scientists. Mercury’s arm got hit before the last guard fell dead. “Can you still work?” Apollo asked him. “I’ll manage, sir.” “Liber, watch his six.” Mercury, their tech guy, sat before a terminal as soon as he got the passkeys from the scientists. Granted, it required killing two of them, but there was no time for diplomacy. “Okay, the doors are unlocked now.” “Roger that. Clear our path to the target area and keep it open, put everything else on lockdown. And do something about that damn alarm. Janus, take point.” Their next objective was to reach the sixth underground level. They headed to the staircase since all elevators had been locked. By the time they had descended the five levels, Mary fell on her knees, gasping for air. “How you holding up?” Apollo asked. She reached under her armor and brought out a bloodied hand. “Shit. Still leaking.” “Push through it, Juno, we’re almost there.” He helped Mary on her feet. When he let go, she swayed, but then nodded. “I’m good, I’m good.” “Janus, right sector. Nerio, watch his six, left sector.” Once they were in position, Apollo grasped the door, received nods from the others, and yanked it open. Janus dashed forward, but just as Cody was about to follow in his wake, time dragged down to a crawl. She saw flames erupt under Janus’s feet. Cody dove to the side to avoid being blown to pieces. As soon as she had changed her direction, things reverted back to normal, chaos. Cody rolled on her back and took in the scene. Mary appeared unharmed, wounded as she was, but Apollo was sprawled on the floor. He stirred in a moment, looking more surprised than injured. Janus, on the other hand, was in bits and pieces. “Fuck,” Apollo gasped. “I’ll take point. Nerio, watch my six.” The grenade had destroyed the lights in the corridor, leaving only the red glow of emergency lighting. Apollo looked around the last corner with a tactical mirror. He signaled that there were two men guarding their target, and that he’d take them out with Cody. They moved in unison and after almost simultaneous headshots, the two guards toppled on the floor. Their radios crackled to life. “Apollo, we’re under attack! I gotta leave the terminal!” Mercury’s voice sounded. “Liber’s down, I’m corne―” Silence. The three remaining soldiers shared glances. Then Apollo shrugged and grasped the door. For the first time today, Cody took point. Bob, when he opens the door, slow things down. “It is dangerous this soon aft―” Do it. “Affirmative.” When time slowed down and Cody moved in, she saw two more guards standing in opposite corners of the room. She hit one in the face before he had time to aim his weapon at her. The second guard got off his shot before her. Even as the two bullets passed one another, Cody knew she would get hit. It was like being stung by a hornet on steroids. She stumbled back while the two men fell on the floor, dead. “Cody!” Mary cried and hurried forward. “I’m fine,” she growled, frowning at the wound on her shoulder. “Get to work.” Apollo locked the door behind them and Mary inserted a disc into the only computer terminal in the room. “This should take a couple of minutes.” “What do you still need to do to take out Systec?” Cody asked. “The launcher on the disc will open the targeting program, so after that it’s just a matter of punching in the coordinates and accepting them.” Cody lifted her rifle and fired. Apollo’s head twitched back before he collapsed without so much as a grunt. “What the―” Mary’s question was cut short when Cody struck her. She disarmed the woman and threw her off her seat. Mary curled up with a whimper, clutching her gunshot wound. “Stay down or I’ll kill you too,” Cody said and sat before the terminal. The targeting program was just loading, and soon she got to set the coordinates. “You failed to target Systec’s facilities,” Bob pointed out. I’m not targeting Systec. There was a short pause. “I understood destroying Systec was our priority.” It is. “I do not understand. If you do not set target coordinates, the smart bombs will permanently shut down all electronics on Earth, including myself. If I shut down, you will die as well.” I know. Ever heard of suicide? “I am unfamiliar with the concept.” Really? Guess Systec didn’t want you even contemplating it. Remember your safeguard protocol? How you’d fry yourself and me if someone tried poking about our... my head? “Yes.” It’s like that, just for a different reason. Yours is to protect Systec’s design, mine is to end my life. “Why would you do that?” Because once I have my revenge, I see no point in living as a half-robot, and a machine’s puppet. That’s what I am, aren’t I? You secrete all kinds of substances into me every day, manipulating me to do things I would never do otherwise. Before you came along, I had never killed anyone. Now body count is over a dozen? And I feel good when I kill, that’s your doing, isn’t it? “Yes, but it is only an automated survival resp―” I don’t care what it is. If I’m anyone’s puppet, if I don’t have full control over my own mind, I’d rather die. Cody’s finger hovered above ̔enter’ when Bob spoke up: “What if I agree to always ask you for permission first?” And how do I know you’re being honest? “I have not been programmed to deceive you.” What about all the times you released adrenaline and testosterone to make me more aggressive, stronger, all that crap? “I did not lie about it. I just did not always inform you about it.” Cody frowned, considering her options. After a moment, she shook her head. Not good enough. “What if I grant you root access?” Meaning? “You would be in full control over every single attribute of my programming. There would be no action you couldn’t affect. In essence, you could even rewrite my program altogether if you chose to do so.” How do I know how to do that? “I come with a guide program. It contains all the information you need to reprogram me.” Sure, do it. “Root access granted.” Immediately Cody sensed several options open up to her and for the first time since waking up after her death, she felt like herself again. Well, almost, as her body chemistry was still far from normal. But she still didn’t enter target coordinates. “What... what are you doing?” Mary asked on her knees, breathing heavily. “I’m considering suicide. And shutting down Earth.” “No!” Mary crawled closer but stayed out of arm’s reach. “Please, you can’t.” “Sure I can.” Bob spoke up as well. “I would like to remind you that―” Bob, be quiet until I ask you something. Mary, however, was more defiant. “Cody, listen, you, you don’t want to kill yourself. You’re just about to avenge your parents, get back at Systec. Think of all the things you can do after that.” Cody snorted. “Like what? I can’t even have sex anymore and I look like a fucking freak. And seriously, I couldn’t care less about your rivalry. The group only helps me because they want Systec’s government contracts, their resources, their power. You’re no better than your enemy.” “But... you don’t want to kill all those humans, do you? There must be hundreds, no, thousands of people in hospitals, hooked up to life support all around the world. Kids too, even babies. All the people in airplanes, helicopters, out in space, they would all die. Do you really want the blood of thousands on your hands?” Cody frowned, considering the question. “Earth’s overpopulated, you know?” She caught Mary’s gaze. “You’re an intelligent woman. Tell me, honestly, how long has humanity abused nature for profit? How many animals have died for us, how much nature has been destroyed for our benefit? Why shouldn’t I turn the tables? Hm? Wouldn’t it do good in the long run?” There were tears in Mary’s eyes. “But... you can’t do that, please! You must have someone you care about who relies on technology, don’t you? A parent or a grandparent in a hospital? A pregnant friend?” “Systec killed everyone I cared about.” Cody snorted. She liked this feeling of power, of holding the fate of humanity in her hands. “If I target only Systec, humans keep benefitting at the cost of nature. If I target the entire world, nature will benefit at the cost of humans. Either way, someone loses, and up until now, it’s pretty much always been nature.” Mary opened and closed her mouth like a fish on dry land. “But...” She shook her head. “You’re insane.” A metallic finger moved to the keyboard and pressed ̔enter.’ “No!” The program told them the smart bombs had launched. “You did it,” Mary gasped, looking sick to her stomach. “You just doomed thousands to their deaths. You took humanity centuries to the past!” “It’s about time somebody did.” Cody was surprised to hear uncertainty in her voice. Was she taking the coward’s way out? Couldn’t she have spent the rest of her days doing what she could to help animals? Surely some veterinary clinic would eventually hire a freak of a cyborg? God, how self-centered can I be? Shit, shit, shit. Bob, how do I stop it? And then a wave like static electricity passed through the room and its occupants. No, wait— Everything went black. Chapter 12 “Reboot initiated. Loading root user interface.” Cody stirred on a cold, hard floor. The air felt dusty to breathe, she was covered in debris, and there was a sharp pain in her gut. “Would you like to customize Zephyr version 4.01 now?” No, thanks, I’ll do it later. Give me something for the pain. Within seconds, her agony lessened to a strong but dull throb. She opened her eyes, but the darkness wouldn’t let up. She breathed in dust and coughed. Despite Bob’s manipulation of her adrenaline and enkephalin levels, it hurt. Using her human hand, she felt her stomach. Oh God... A thin steel bar had pierced her abdomen. Bob, bring basic functions online. “Core functions protocol initiated.” Cody’s night vision came online and she looked around. The entire room had collapsed. Why am I not dead? “It appears the pulse could not penetrate my chassis which is made of Systec’s latest prototype material, a mixture of—” Whatever. Why did I pass out? “It appears the pulse did affect me, but to such a small degree that it only caused me to crash.” Well, at least, I’m still alive. She gripped the steel bar in her stomach but the searing pain made her see stars even though her digestive system was mostly synthetic. Yup, definitely still alive. Bob, how bad am I hurt? “Advise seeking medical attention. Shall I release antihemorrhagic foam to stop the internal bleeding?” Please do. “You need to remove the object embedded in your abdomen first.” But of course. Cody grasped it with her mechanical hand. Bob, pull it out. Quickly. An agonized scream cut through the darkness when the piece of bloodied steel was yanked out and discarded. “I shall release the foam now.” Within seconds, she felt something move in her guts, something filling her up. It wasn’t altogether comfortable, but it did help with the pain. Also, give me something more for the pain. “Done.” As she lay still, breathing heavily, Cody’s ears caught quiet sobbing. “Mary?” The sounds halted. “Cody? You’re still alive?” “A bit. What the hell happened here? Last I knew, this room was still intact.” “The...” A fit of coughs. “The fucking place collapsed. I think it was some self-destruct protocol, some safety measure.” “Outstanding. You hurt?” “What do you think? I’ve been shot.” “I meant were you hurt when the building came down on us?” “I think my left leg’s broken. The shin bone. A beam fell on me and I can’t move it.” Cody used her mechanical limbs to push the debris off her body. It was then that she saw a steel pole had pierced her stomach. Shit. Bob, how bad am I hurt? “Advise seeking medical attention. Shall I release antihemorrhagic foam to stop the internal bleeding?” Please do. Within seconds, Cody felt something move in her guts, something filling her up. It wasn’t altogether comfortable, but it did help with the pain.Slowly she sat up. “Mary, where exactly are you?” “Just next to the door. I just can’t... fucking... get up.” “Give me a minute, I’ll come and get you.” “Oh, great. I’m helped by the biggest mass murderer in the history of mankind.” “Come on, I’m no Hitler or Stalin.” Cody stood up, swayed for a moment, and started moving fallen debris off her path. “‘Sides, you’re still alive, you’ll have a cleaner, healthier home planet, what more do you want? Now quit being a bitch and talk to me so I can find you. The room looks kinda different in pieces.” Oddly enough, Mary started talking with only a few barbs flung at Cody here and there. After a good fifteen minutes, the two came face to face. Despite her aches and pains, Cody grinned. “You look like shit.” “Thanks. You wouldn’t happen to have a flashlight? Us humans can’t really see in pitch black.” Bob? Do I have a flashlight in this eye? “Yes, a red emergency light. Shall I turn it on?” Does it hinder my night vision? “Negative.” Go ahead, then. “Better now?” Mary squinted. “Yeah. You don’t look too hot either, you know. You’re wounded.” “Bob’s on top of it. Might need some help with it later on, though. I’m gonna move this beam off your leg so, uh, prepare for pain.” Mary grunted when the beam was hoisted up. Her shin had a compound fracture on it, and there was a lot of blood on the floor. Her breathing was fast and superficial. “Okay, those bones need to be set. You got any painkillers?” Cody asked. “I already took some. Can you do it?” Bob, can you assist me? “Yes. Would you like me to guide your prosthetic hand?” Sure. “Yeah, I’ve done this with animals before.” The darkness was pierced by a shrill scream when Cody snapped the bloody bones back in place. Next she used a metal rod and gauze to set up a splint. When she looked down at the sobbing woman, Cody realized it had been months since she had last felt pity. “How can you... still be alive anyway?” Mary asked between teary gasps. “I’m just too awesome to die. Now, we gotta get the hell out of here. Can you walk at all?” # It was slow going. They had to stop frequently where the corridors had collapsed. Removing the debris from their path was tiring and painful, but little by little they were closing in on the staircase, their only way out. “You think the stairs are still gonna be there?” Mary frowned, sitting on the floor while Cody struggled with another pile of rubble. “Your guess is as good as mine. Tell me, what are you going to do when... if we get out of here?” Cody tossed a ceiling panel aside and brushed wet strands off her face. “I got a place stacked up for this sort of thing. I also got a small pharmacy down there with all kinds of medical equipment, so I suggest we go there first, get patched up.” “We?” “You got a better plan? Hospitals are probably a mess right now and, well, do you think the group will welcome us back or see us as liabilities now that we’ve been cut off from them in a Systec facility?” Mary looked sullen when Cody came to help her on her feet, but she couldn’t really argue since the self-destruct probably had nothing to do with Cody’s little change of plans. “Okay.” “Okay what?” “Okay, we’ll go to your place first and then figure out what’s next.” “It’s a start. And so is this,” Cody said when she shoved aside the door leading into the staircase. She gazed up and smiled. “So far so good. I think we should pick up the pace. We don’t know when this place will fall to pieces.” “I can’t exactly run, you know.” “I know.” Cody hoisted Mary in her arms and jogged up the first flight of stairs. “Works for me,” the woman gasped. Bob, how is she doing? Can you tell? “She has lost a lot of blood. Loss of consciousness is likely within half an hour.” After three floors, Cody came to a halt. “Damn it.” Mary let out a miserable laugh. “That’s just great. How are we gonna get up there?” The staircase to the next level had collapsed. Bob, can I make the jump? “Without extra-weight, yes. Carrying her, your success rate is fifty percent. If you leave behind your equipment, your mobility is increased, your weight reduced approximately 50lbs, and your success rate improved.” Next you probably want us to take off our pants. “Why would I want you to―” Sarcasm, Bob. “I do not unders―” Not now. Since Mary was essentially a non-combatant now, she only kept her sidearm while Cody discarded her rifle in favor of Mary’s carbine. She also ditched all their extra ammo and both shed their heavy armors. Once Mary had climbed on her back, Cody prepared for the jump. Bob, take control of my prosthetics. Measure the distance, speed, everything, and make the jump. Also, can you speed up your processor for the duration of the jump? “It is not recommended. The processor is still mildly overheated from the previous times.” What happens if you do it anyway? Will I pass out? “It is possible, but uncertain. You will develop a bad headache and experience dizziness, nausea, and symptoms of high fever.” Okay, do it. “You ready?” Mary’s grip tightened. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” Numbers flashed past Cody’s mind when Bob made the calculations for the jump. It always felt weird, having her prosthetics move as if by themselves. Three steps later, they went airborne and things slowed down. Halfway through the jump, she knew it would be a close call: she would hit the edge chest-first, but there was a good chance she could grab the railing with her mechanical hand. The limb extended before her. She could feel Mary’s heart beating against her back. When the collision happened, all air was knocked out of Cody’s lungs and the jagged concrete of the platform tore through her sweat-soaked shirt and into her skin. Something cracked inside and a sharp pain flared up in her sternum. Her metallic fingers curled around the railing, but she was hanging low. As soon as the jump’s momentum stopped, time returned to normal. “Mary, can you climb to the ledge?” Cody asked with a pained croak. “I can try.” Cody’s stomach wound flared up as she dangled in the air, Mary climbing along her back, stepping on her shoulders. “Come on, god damn it!” Finally Mary slumped on her back. “Okay, okay, your turn.” It took a few agonizing tries, but eventually Cody got her leg on the platform and hoisted herself up. She rolled next to Mary, both of them panting and gasping in the stuffy darkness. And then an infernal headache engulfed Cody’s head. “You okay?” She couldn’t even speak, her face contorted in a silent scream. The barbed wire sawed through her brain again, and it was as if her skull was glowing red hot. Mary touched the metallic part of Cody’s head. “God! You’re burning up!” Bob, give me something for the pain. Now! “Done.” Within seconds, the barbs disappeared but the wire remained. “Okay... okay. I’m okay.” “You sure? You’re still... ow, still hot as hell.” Cody managed a raspy laugh. “Thanks. It’s the blue eye, isn’t it? Don’t know if I got another jump left in me though.” “Well,” Mary said and got on her knees, “let’s hope that won’t be necessary. You ready to move on?” “Yeah.” Cody blinked and sat up slowly. “Let’s go.” # Cody stumbled out of the staircase, carrying a passed out Mary in her arms. They had encountered a few bodies, one badly wounded Systec employee, but luckily no hostiles. Now all that remained between them and freedom were three corridors. This high up, the building was less damaged and Cody could pick her way among the debris instead of having to stop every few yards to clear their path. She lay Mary on the floor and pulled open the front door. A Systec guard had his back to her, but whirled around, his rifle raised. Cody stepped back, but the bullet tore into her forearm before she got out of sight. She swung Mary’s carbine off her back and gave Bob control of her arm and eye. The guard wasn’t approaching. Drawing me out, huh? Aw hell. Cody thought back to all she had been taught by the group’s combat instructors. The guard probably expected her to emerge upright, so she squatted down and then dovesideways. Immediately Bob’s targeting system picked up the guard and sent off two rounds. One hit his throat, the other punched through his helmet. The man went down and fired once at his feet. Breathless, Cody stood up and looked down at her bloodied arm. How bad is it? “It is a muscle wound. If treated soon enough, there should be no permanent damage.” Cody tore open a small bag with her teeth and poured clotting powder on the wound. It burned but staunched the leak. The pain, blood loss, and fatigue made Cody see stars when she turned back to get Mary. The woman was wavering on the brink of unconsciousness, mumbling incomprehensibly. “Come on, wake up,” Cody said and patted her cheek. “Come on, I can’t carry you with this arm.” Mary’s eyes sprung open. “Wh-where am I?” “On your way home. Come on, we gotta go.” The two staggered across Research Center Three’s yard and towards Mary’s car. It wasn’t until they reached the vehicle that Cody realized it wouldn’t budge, no car would. Still, she gave it a try, but the battery was dead. “Shit. Come on, we gotta walk.” There was no reply. “Mary?” The woman had fallen unconscious again. “Damn it.” Cody stumbled out of the car and walked to the trunk, leaving a trail of blood in her wake. She shouldered her carbine and a large first-aid kit. She dragged Mary into the woods, ready to keel over herself. Once they were a mile from the research center, she lowered Mary on the forest floor and collapsed next to her. Cody rolled on her back, barely conscious. I did it. Now the Earth can finally start to heal herself. She closed her eye and fell into the dark. # Sunrise was only moments away when Cody stepped out of the log house. Standing on the porch, she breathed in the rainy air. It smelled so sweet she could almost taste it. Something moved in her periphery. The resident hedgehog was ambling around a small bush while the family of hares was munching on moist grass a little further away. Cody rubbed her temples to alleviate a lingering headache. It had been a long night. She cracked her vertebrae to release some of the tension in her neck. Her head turned, she saw Mary’s sleeping figure through the window, a night lamp casting its glow on her pallid face. They had taken full advantage of Survivalist’s extensive collection of medicines and medical equipment, treating each other in uneasy silence. Is it a surprise, really? I just killed what, thousands? Millions? Suppose I’d be scared of me if I was her. Cody knew she had sleepless nights ahead of her, the death and destruction she had caused would haunt her. Of course, what was done, was done, she just had to focus on the bright side of her actions. She realized she should have told Mary about having root access to Bob now, that she was in full control, human again. Perhaps over time she might even convince Mary that she wasn’t a heartless machine. That she had done the right thing. Nature deserved a break. After all, the relationship between humanity and nature had always been parasitic rather than symbiotic: humans drained Earth to the last drop while giving very little in return. The notion lessened her guilt. In a way, she was giving humans a second chance to fix things with nature. At least her relationship with Mary was symbiotic: Cody offered security and a home neither Systec nor the group knew about while Mary could make the biofuel Cody needed to survive, and she knew how to fix minor issues with her prosthetics. Fact was, if Bob experienced a major malfunction, it would likely kill Cody now that technology was gone. Her mechanical ear caught hungry slurping and sniffing further away. A quick zoom showed the already familiar grizzly devouring the contents of one of the honey jars Cody had left around the woods. She could recognize the bear by a slight limp; its right front paw had never fully healed. At least Earth might, little by little. Before we start killing her again, Cody thought, a shadow passing over her features. She brushed blonde strands behind her ear and looked around the yard, the woods, the dark, pregnant clouds. What are good and evil anyway but different perspectives? Somewhere at a distance, lightning cracked the sky, followed by a deep rumbling. Soon rain was falling, battering the cabin with heavy drops. Cody gazed up at the skies and smiled to herself. Outstanding.