Doctor Patil put his hand over the emergency stop button. He had yet to press it when he spoke. “Brace yourself, the first time is a little disconcerting.”
“First, I have to know.” Patil didn’t strike me as a brave or tough man, and he didn’t show any sign of fear, so I disregarded the warning. “Do the owners of this mall know you have secret technology hooked up in their employee elevator?”
“Actually, we don’t.” Patil tapped the back of his hand. Blue light started coming from the walls, spreading like spiderwebs over the walls before expanding inward around us. “We just need a metal shell. Anything from a semi trailer to an elevator to a metal shed.”
I didn’t pay much attention to the doctor; my apparently superhuman memory would recall his words at any time. Instead, I watched the light in fascination until the lattice was too dense to see through.
Then everything was pain.
My muscles seized up as if from cold shock response, dropped me to my knees, forced the air from my lungs, and left me paralyzed. Years of training kept me from hyperventilating, but there was little else I could do beyond waiting it out. The sensation of burning, both external and internal, came moments later. By the time the temporary paralysis wore off an eternity later, the pain had subsided to dull ache and mild nausea.
“I told you, it is disconcerting.” Patil offered his hand out to me, but I was in no mood to accept. “If it makes you feel any better, I can already tell you did better than anyone has before. I’m sure our physicians will be thrilled.”
I bit down a long list of creative and unprofessional profanities and climbed to my feet without the doctor’s help. “Good to know.” I doubt Patil believed me. “So how are you unaffected? There some kind of acclimation process?”
He tapped the back of his hand. “Small cybernetic implant that removes all pain above a certain threshold. You’re the only person up here that doesn’t have one.”
“Lemme guess, you can install them here.” While talking, I observed my new surroundings. While we were in what appeared to be an elevator, it was an undecorated solid steel box with a touch screen panel. It even smelled different, some mix of lemon scented cleaners and the vague stink of re-filtered atmosphere and human body odor.
“Normally, you would have gotten an implant somewhere else before coming up here. But, to use one of my favorite Americanisms, you drive a hard bargain, and I want to get this done fast.” He put his hand on the panel, and a wall slid open to reveal a corridor that might have been mistaken for that of a submarine, if there were any submarines that extended the length of a football field. A few personnel moved through the passage, but none seemed to pay us much mind.
“Thanks, I think.” I suspected this was a form of revenge for holding out on them. I hadn’t agreed to anything, but the doctor invited me to come with him, nonetheless.
Patil led us through a handful of turns, then stopped in front of another door. It slid open, revealing a spacious mess hall. “Welcome to the Artemis Research Facility.”
Dozens of people in civies, with a handful in uniform or lab coats moved about the room or sat eating their meals. It was large enough to seat fifty, and completely at odds with the cramped passaged we just came out of. What really caught my attention was the view; the back wall was glass, broken only by support structures between the floor and ceiling. On the other side of the glass was the lifeless gray pockmarks of the lunar surface.
In the darkness of the crater this base appeared to be inside, a steady blinking that I recognized as Morse Code went on. An older looking man sat at a table near the glass, sent blinks back using a generic high power flashlight, then moved a piece on a chess board. I gestured toward the scene. “What’s the story there?”
“Doctor Solomon’s playing chess with Sergei.” Patil didn’t sound happy about that fact.
“You guys have someone playing chess out there?”
“Oh, sorry, ‘Sergei’ is the code name we use for the Russian base on the other side of the crater. They have some kind of stealth tech that makes it invisible, for the most part.” I was about to say something, but Patil continued. “We pretend they don’t exist, and they do the same for us. Really, the scientific community owes them a debt of gratitude for being here.”
The Russians. Have a cloaked base. On the moon. What the fuck? “That sounds to me like the start of a long history lesson. Mind giving me the extra short version? Don’t worry, I understand that these are all hypotheticals. Blah blah, neither confirm nor deny, blah blah blah.”
“It goes back to World War Two,” Doctor Patil said as he led us through the mess hall toward the glass wall. “The Nazis built the first base in the crater, for reasons we’re uncertain of, aside that they believed it would win the war for them. The Soviets found out and blew up the base, then built a new one during the Cold War. Seems whatever method they used to get here still works.”
“Naturally, America found out and had to do the same,” I added, hoping to speed the story. “Standard Cold War protocol.” By now, we’d made it all the way to the back wall.
“Initially, they probably had thoughts about missiles fired toward the planet or some place to hide politicians during a nuclear war. Now? There’s no military reason to hold this place. It’s just an otherwise lifeless crater on the moon. We have a base only because they have one, and they have one only because we do. If one side left tomorrow, then the other side would have two bases in an otherwise lifeless crater.”
“It’s not the worst use of taxpayer dollars I’ve heard of.” I pressed my hand against the glass. To my surprise, it was warm to the touch. I was inches away from the lunar surface.
“I’d call them all fools, but their foolishness is what gives me a job,” Patil sounded cheerful. That made sense; as he said, it was his job. “We lease the facility and use it to support our research. We recently patented a new form of anti-radar paint using a chemical found in the lunar regolith. Even though Gadgets can’t be mass-produced or relied upon, we can still use them to advance the boundaries of human knowledge.”
“And you play chess with invisible Russians on the moon.” All the classified information and bizarre use of powers I’d seen in my life paled in comparison to what I’d learned in a few short minutes here.
“And we play chess with invisible Russians on the moon.”
“Capitalism at its finest.” I was about follow the quip by asking if he knew of any other crazy conspiracy theories that happened to be true, but was distracted by the redhead running toward us. She was tall, and more attractive than most. Her lab-coat looked standard, but she had a few strategic buttons undone that indicated she wasn’t wearing much underneath.
She didn’t stop until she ran right into me, wrapped her arms around me, and looked up. Her eyes were a faded green behind her fake glasses. “I can’t wait to play doctor with you.” She leaned back just enough to confirm that other than the pink undergarments, she wore nothing under the coat.
I glanced with my eyes at the bystanders, and noted that several people watched with varying degrees of interest and concern. None of them seemed surprised. “I admit I haven’t gotten around to the part of the employee handbook that covers sexual harassment, but something tells me neither have you.”
“I think Doctor Reed means that literally,” Patil tried to play it off. “She’s one of the critical Gadgeteers in this project.”
“Nope.” Doctor Reed didn’t let go. “Well, that too. I saw your medical records, and you are a flawless canvas that I am going to turn into a work of art. Then we’ll totally get together and live happily ever after.”
“First, you’re half my age. Second, if you’ve gotten into my records” a detail I may have to sue someone over “then you know I prefer being single.” I kept my voice stern, a poor attempt at imitating my father’s disapproving tone.
“That doesn’t matter,” Reed’s smile made me downgrade her age a bit. If not for her height and figure, she could be mistaken for fifteen. “You’re the main character, and I’m obviously the adorable quirky love interest. And I was the one who found you in the first place. It just wouldn’t be a good story if we don’t get to kiss at the end.”
What. “I think you’ve been watching too many movies.”
“But that’s how it works!” A bit of whine entered the girl’s voice, and now I was certain she was fifteen. “We’re all part of a drama, that’s why we have powers. The source of our powers wants us to have adventures so they can watch. You’re the smart, strong, handsome action hero. So of course we’ll get together, after a suitable amount of sexual tension and will-they-won’t-they moments.”
And I thought my girlfriend from high school was insane. I went through the mental list of ways to back out of the situation. My first pick, ‘sorry, I don’t stick it in the crazy’, didn’t seem appropriate, so I went with the desperation pass. “And what if I’m gay?”
“You’re not.” Her eyes scrunched up in amusement. “What color shoes am I wearing? What color bra?”
“Blue heels.” I tactfully ignored second question, and the fact that I didn’t notice her shoe color the first time. It was only my apparently superhuman memory that let me recall their color now. The same semiconscious awareness that allowed me to recognize her glasses as fake because they didn’t distort her face the way real ones would.
“Phoebe,” Patil said. He put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. His voice was soft, even patronizing. “Mister Cross has yet to accept our offer. I’m giving him the tour, first. Maybe you should go back to the lab while I show him the special view.”
Phoebe’s eyes watered, but she let go. “Okay. Goodbye.” Her voice was like that of a disappointed child, but she turned and left.
“Goodbye.” Years of military training, and I still feel bad watching a pretty girl cry. I looked back at Patil. “Another of those long stories?”
“You could say that.” The doctor led me just a bit further, to another airlock-type door. It popped open, leaving only a small “But let me show you the special view, first. If we wait much longer, it will be days before there’s another chance.”
I followed him into the airlock, which closed automatically behind us. Then the outer lock cracked open, revealing the lunar surface. It was an act of sheer willpower that kept me from panicking; I knew Patil wouldn’t be killing us both, but it was still a door opening the moon.
He handed me a simple breathing mask. “You’ll want it. And don’t play ‘superman from Earth’ out there. We lost a woman that way a couple years ago.” He took a moment to put on his own mask before continuing. “There’s a soft shell forcefield. It can hold roughly two atmospheres of pressure, but dense material like a human body will pass through.”
“Understood.” I followed Patil out onto the lunar surface, in nothing but civilian clothes and a mask. I could tell why that precaution was necessary; even through the mask the stench of burnt dust made it hard to breathe and the air itself was almost painfully hot. After stepping out, I felt the change of gravity, as my weight was cut to a sixth of the Earth-normal gravity inside the base. I bounced on my feet, testing the near-weightlessness, but kept Patil’s warning in mind and ignored my desire to jump as hard as I could.
“The shield lets the sunlight in, but won’t let heat escape except through the stone,” Patil said. “Keeps the temperature somewhat stable, but it can still drop to negative one hundred Celsius, or go up well over two hundred. There are only a few hours a week where you can walk out here.”
I struggled to find the words; this wasn’t quite the dream of my childhood, but it might have been even better. I was standing on the moon. I felt a little guilty that I had no intentions of joining this project, regardless of their moon base. “So, what’s the story with Doctor Reed? I’m going to guess she’s not a real doctor.”
“No,” Patil sighed. “Phoebe’s one of three known Gadgeteers on the planet who can do biomechanical interface, and she Manifested young. There’s a certain pattern, that the younger or more powerful an Imbued, the more damaged they are. Especially in cases like Phoebe who Manifested both young and powerful. There are exceptions to the rule, but she’s not one of them.”
“So, she got powers young, and everything fell apart around her.” I wasn’t ignorant of Imbued; my former profession involved removing high value targets, and that often meant Imbued guards. You didn’t kill them, for fear that their power would reincarnate even stronger in their friends, you didn’t back them into a corner in case their powers mutated to fight back, and the more powerful they were, the less rational they were likely to be.
Those details were why I didn’t plan to accept the job; I knew it was a suicide mission from the start. All reassurances that the cyborg parts were unobtrusive and could be removed and replaced with living parts when I retired meant little when I knew I would never survive that long. I knew that only the suicidal hunted Imbued for a living.
“When she was thirteen, she augmented her little brother with parts she stole from a radio shack and organs taken from neighborhood pets. Our best estimate is he was roughly a Tank, Brawler, and Tracker of two to four by the time she was done, and only half human by body mass.”
“Jesus Christ.” I’d known Gifters before, even used one or two of them for a mission, and Reed’s results were better than anything I’d ever heard of in my life. “So she went Frankenstein on her brother and got caught?”
“Worse. His immune system started rejecting the foreign materials. He didn’t survive. That was nine years ago. She’s spent the last five working with us, hunting for the ideal candidate while our therapists try to help her with her other issues.”
“I’m not a therapist, but I think I have some idea. Not sure I know what to make of the ‘main character’ thing.”
“Part of that is a common theory about powers,” Doctor Patil said. “Some people believe powers come from beings that observe humanity for amusement. The rest is Phoebe’s own trauma. She’s latched onto this idea of the world as a story, to cope with her own guilt.”
My stomach clenched; I’d seen some messed up shit in my life, and heard of far worse, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. “And your plan is to let a mentally ill girl operate on someone?”
“She’s had almost a decade with us to help her recover, and she’s made significant progress. Besides, we have a team of ten other Imbued working on this project even before including you. As well as a team of dozens of non-Imbued medical and mechanical experts. We can mitigate any risks, but her story is one I think you needed to hear, to understand what we’re doing.”
The passion in Doctor Patil’s voice surprised me. “What are you doing, besides creating a cyborg super-soldier program?”
“Saving people. Not just the victims of some of the less pleasant Imbued, but those that are victims of their own power. Phoebe could have been left to rot in a cell for the rest of her life, but we can save her from that. Her life will never be normal, and she may never recover from her trauma, but she deserves happiness.”
“So you’re in it for the ideology, not making money?” I admit, Patil didn’t strike me as the type.
“I believe in doing both.” Doctor Patil calmed some. “You Americans have some weird ideas about money being evil that I admit I just don’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with being rewarded for good work. As long as you do good work, and for a good cause, you are good.”
I saw the prompt for the lead that it was, but I was curious enough to ask anyway. “And what good cause are you working for?”
“That one.” He pointed toward the edge of the crater.
I turned my gaze to where he pointed, and any comment I may have had was lost despite my perfect memory. A blue hemisphere rose into the sky, faster and larger than any sunrise. Even from this distance, I could see the glow of cities on the dark side of the planet. In a single moment, it replaced all possible competition as the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.
“That’s my cause.” Patil’s voice broke the silence. “I’ll let you in on a secret that only a few people know: I named it Blue Steel so I would always remember this view. The mission is to save the world, or at least a small part of it. But we can only do so much. Phoebe was right about one thing; there may be no one else in the world who can do what you’ll be doing.”
God damn it. I knew I’d been played, but it wouldn’t have worked if Patil wasn’t sincere in his beliefs. “You do good work as a recruiter, at least. Count me in.”
“Welcome aboard Project: Blue Steel.” Patil sounded more relieved than pleased with himself, which was good. I’d hate to think this was an ego trip for him. “Now let’s get inside. You don’t want to be out here when the sun rises.”