I guess this is the final step. The operating table looked like a bed made for a Star Trek fan. It appeared to be colored glass, rather than the metal tables I was familiar with. Around it sat various screens displaying information I couldn’t understand, manned by doctors and nurses that I was literally betting my life could.
I’d run out of reasons to delay, complete with updating my will to include what promised to be a sizable windfall for my sister if I didn’t survive. Not that I expected this surgery to be the cause of my death.
I gave the briefest possible glimpse at Phoebe, hoping to avoid notice. I trusted my memory to play back the image I didn’t give myself time to see consciously.
She looked more nervous than I felt, her eyes wide with a blend of emotions I wasn’t privy to while she tried her best to eat her bottom lip. I’m the first person she’s done any real work on since her brother’s death, of course she’s nervous. I just wondered if she was nervous about what happened if I backed out now, or what happened if I didn’t.
I can’t back out, not now, not when I can do so much good. Never let it be said that I’m a coward. An idiot, for certain, but not a coward. I sat down on the edge of the table. To my surprise, it was warm and comfortable rather than the expected cold, hard surface. “You probably know anesthetics don’t work on me.”
“That won’t be a problem, sir,” a doctor whose nametag identified as Kobayashi said. “My forcefield system exerts micropressure inside your body to trigger sleep response and counter regeneration. In fact, we almost don’t need to touch you at all during the operation.”
“I do,” Phoebe said. “All the major stuff has to be linked into your nervous system by hand.” Gone was the flirtation and energy I’d come to expect, replaced by apprehension and timidness.
I slid my hospital gown off. No point in modesty, if they want to look they’ll have ample opportunity while I’m unconscious. But Phoebe looks like she’s going to run out of the room. “I couldn’t be in better hands.”
I caught a glimmer of a smile before I slid into the bed. For some reason, I felt the need to count backward from ten like the doctors told you to do in the movies. Unless my memory played tricks on me, I made it to seven.
I awoke on the same table, the doctors long gone. According to the clock, I went under at around nine in the morning, and it was now approaching noon.
In twenty four hours… no… Artemis operates on GMT, just like the space station, and I’m on Central so it’s the equivalent of six in the morning for me right now. Eighteen hours. In eighteen hours, I learned about invisible moon Russians and became a cyborg. Either I’m in full possession of my mental faculties, or have lost them entirely. There is no in-between after a thought like that.
Time to test the physical. I flexed my hand, which didn’t feel any different than before. In fact, I felt no different at all; I wasn’t an expert, but I anticipated there’d at least be some pain associated with having my skeleton removed and replaced.
What was different was my senses; everything was new and bordered on the alien. The scent of human sweat, filtered time and again by the air purifiers. My own smell, now covered by the faint stink of dried blood and the unpleasant memories associated with it. Cleaning agents that failed to hide the other aromas behind artificial lemon and pine.
My hearing was sharper, too, able to pick up the faint hum of vibrations created by countless machines and carried through the metal framework of the building. Conversations in other rooms, too muffled to discern any detail. Two people in the room with me, breathing.
That snapped me out of my quiet test of my new body and into business mode. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Only a couple minutes. How are you feeling?” Male voice, faint accent. Doctor Patil. I tilting my head to see the small man in his business suit, waiting near the door. I could now discern individual hair in his blend of black and gray.
Next to him stood Phoebe, who was barefoot and still at least a couple inches taller than the doctor. She caught me looking and offered a sort of shy smile as she rubbed one foot against her leg. Even from several feet away, I could hear the sound of her toes brushing against the stubble of her leg hair. Superhuman vision working as well as hearing and smell.
“Better than expected,” I said, choosing to ignore Phoebe’s… whatever she was doing. “There’s no discomfort at all. I feel like I woke up after a nap, not a surgery.” The new senses were going to take a while to get used to.
“That is by design. The interior systems are installed, and we’ve put all the, uh, original parts into temporal stasis. When you’re ready to retire, they can be put back in like nothing happened. In fact, from their perspective, it will be like they were only removed minutes ago.”
“Want help testing your new features?” Phoebe decided to drop the shy act for her usual flirtatious ways.
I wonder if Phoebe’s therapist has room for another client? I need someone to explain what it says about my subconscious that I allowed my borderline stalker to perform a massive surgical operation on me. “I think I can puzzle it out on my own.”
“You don’t even know how to open the panel.”
Right. I could probably have broken out, but I doubted the doctors would appreciate that. Doctor Patil was about to say something, perhaps the way out, but I chose to beat him to the punch. “Hey, computer, can you open this medical whatever-it’s-called that I’m in?”
“That’s not fair!” Despite her objection, Phoebe didn’t sound angry.
“You are cleared for release from the Med-Bed.” Med-Bed? I was expecting something far more pretentious. There was a click and pop sound, then the top of the machine opened. “And my name is Sheila, not Computer.”
Sheila had a really pretty, soothing voice. In a way that reminded me of stories other people told about their mothers singing them lullabies.
“Sorry, I thought I was talking to the bed. Didn’t realize someone was listening in.” I sat up, doing what I could to maintain modesty despite my nudity. There was no pain in my movements, and no visible sign than I’d been cut open only hours ago. There was, to my undying gratitude, a hospital gown waiting for me. I got dressed as the woman continued talking.
“I am the S-A-I-A. Semi Autonamous Interactive Assistant. Otherwise known as Sheila.”
“Sorry. Wait, you’re an Artificial Intelligence?” It was an act of will alone that kept the words from sounding like an accusation. The US government’s stance on creating nonhuman intelligence bordered on xenophobic. If word got out that a military contractor employed sapient machines, it would result in the shitstorm of the decade.
“Don’t apologize to the answering machine,” Phoebe sounded annoyed, but underneath was other tones I didn’t have experience enough to identify. “Saia’s just an interface program, and not even a very sophisticated one. It can’t pass the Turing test, let alone the technological singularity.” She realized what I was worried about. Was my reaction that obvious or is she that perceptive? Either way, it was something I resolved to keep in mind in the future.
“I can’t even pass the Bechdel test,” Sheila added. “But I can find the winning solution to Global Thermonuclear War. My creator, Doctor Hashimoto, has an eccentric sense of humor. He also likes to name-drop.”
Now that I was listening, Sheila’s voice did sound inhuman. It got all the words perfectly, but that in and of itself was a tell: it was perfect. Not a single pause to breathe, nor moment of hesitation, nor mistake in pronunciation. Too flawless to come from any human.
“Good to know.” I kept my relief hidden; I didn’t want the boss to think I might have had conflicted loyalties. For that matter, I wasn’t certain about my loyalties on the subject. I understood the fear of some inhuman mind going Skynet on our species, but there was a point where you stepped past caution and into paranoia. As with all good militaries, they crossed that line and then assigned snipers to keep watch.
“Oh, and whatever you do, do not flirt with her.” Phoebe’s voice carried the weight of experience. “It starts a subroutine where she’ll spend a whole month trying to sell you pop music from Japan. Besides,” she leaned forward and put on her breathy voice. With my new senses, it was like she was whispering in my ear. “Why would you want it, when I’m right here?”
I really should ask someone to sit down and explain appropriate workplace behavior with her, but given drama she may have averted? I owe her one. “Thanks for the warning. How often does that happen?”
Phoebe offered a sigh. “All the time. Like clockwork.”
“Doctor Reed is exaggerating,” Patil said. Based on his lack of concern, I trusted we got away with our cover-up. “There’s the occasional misunderstanding due to culture gap, but this company employs highly respectable professionals who-”
A mischievous smile crept over Phoebe’s face as Patil talked, until she cut him off. “Hey, Saia, What percentage of people flirt with you? Limit it just to residents on the base, if you please. And give an example of what count as flirting.”
“Twenty seven percent have attempted at least once. Twelve percent are repeat customers. Most recently, I was asked if there was any country where it was legal to marry my voice.”
I raised an eyebrow at the poor doctor who looked more than a bit sheepish and annoyed. I hoped it wouldn’t cause Phoebe any trouble in the future, but she didn’t seem worried. I suppose when your resume includes ‘only three people on the planet can do what I do’, the bosses are more tolerant of your antics than they otherwise might be.
Doctor Patil cleared his throat. “Perhaps we should get down to business, now that you’ve recovered?”
“You already have the first assignment waiting?” Based on the nervous energy in Doctor Patil’s stance, he had my next ten jobs lined up. “Something time sensitive, I take it? Who’s got what power, and how do we stop them?”
“We’re not a hundred percent certain, that’s where you come in.”
Oh, great, it’s going to be like that. I put myself in ‘mission’ mentality, as I had been trained for so many years prior. “Investigate and, if necessary, infiltrate. Light on planning, heavy on recon and respond.” Patil at least had the good graces to look ashamed, while Phoebe looked at me like I was some kind of god in the flesh.
“There was a recent altercation between a Vancouver hero named Vine, and the police heroes during an attempted bank robbery. She was a well respected hero, so of course they want to know why she turned. But the fight resulted in her being left in a coma. Attempts at finding answers via precognition or medical testing, have all failed. We even had Professor Abernathy attempt to name a culprit, but all she got was unintelligible gibberish.”
“Which sounds like a smoke screen so big it could be hiding two more smoke screens behind it.” Turncoats were hardly unheard of, but with all the Infiltrators out there it was always met with skepticism and scrutiny. This level of barricade to an investigation was like a flashing neon sign, and required powerful Imbued to pull off. “Or it is what it looks like and the perp is powerful and incompetent, or absurdly overconfident.”
“Two plausible theories,” Patil agreed. “But given the nature of powers, it could very well be something none of us could predict or imagine.”
Phoebe clapped her hands like a happy child. “This is perfect! I love mysteries! What do you think the surprise twist at the end will be?”
“I’m hung up on the surprise twist at the beginning,” I said. “How did an American military contractor gain the authority to operate in Canada?” Unless this is about a city somewhere in the USA named Vancouver that I don’t know about.
“Technically, the company which received the contract is an independent problem solving agency,” Patil said. “It has no official connection to the United States, except as an occasional client. We have shell companies throughout Europe as well. The mission is always the same: help people. No matter what lines some politicians drew on a map.”
And if, in the process, a foreign country winds up revealing more information than they meant to, so much the better? I didn’t voice that concern, mainly because it wasn’t a concern for me. General Lindsey was a savvy man, so if Patil was involved in espionage, it was pro-American espionage. In the end, that was good enough for me. If it turns out I was wrong, I’d be better positioned to learn otherwise by cooperating.
“Sounds like you’ve got the bases covered.” As far as first missions went, it was relatively safe and an opportunity to field test the equipment. As much as I wanted to be annoyed that we were hitting the ground running rather than testing the millions of dollars of experimental so-called-technology I either had inside me, I found myself looking forward to getting straight into the action. “When do we get started?”
“We can hold the full mission briefing the moment you feel you’re ready,” Patil’s voice trembled a little from the excitement. He hid it well, but the man had never been this close to a military or espionage mission in his life. The excitement caused his body heat to rise, which combined with his deodorant to leave a hot scent in the air not too different than the inside of a laundromat.
Phoebe, on the other hand, was so excited that I could hear her heart pounding in her chest, but for a rather different reason. Her scent was all natural, very female, and more than a little distracting.
“Sure, just give me a chance to change into something presentable first.” I took a breath from a distance before stepping closer to the pair. I leaned as close to Phoebe as I dared get under the circumstances. “Could you tell me where the off switch is for the enhanced senses?”