CONTENT: Anxiety, trauma, invasive medical examination, minor injury/blood, vomit
There's one person that might be able to help Aubrey answer some of her burning questions. Placing her trust in him might mean risking everything, and the alternative is unthinkable, but in doing so, she gets much, much more than she bargained for. It's time to say hello to an old friend.
(Part six of Lost In Transit. Thanks to Vinny for beta reading!)
“Zodiac central medical unit?”
“Hi. Um.” Okay. Okay, so we’re doing this. “This is Aubrey. Aubrey Still?”
“Oh–hi, Aubrey. Can you confirm your ID number for me please?”
“Great. How can I help you this evening?”
“Is there a cyberdoc on call tonight?”
“Yes, Dr Peterssen is here.” Cyril. Fucking Cyril. At least you might have some leverage against him. “Do you have an urgent problem?”
“...No, no, I just–can I speak to him?”
“I don’t think he’s busy. I’ll put you through.” There’s a click, a pause for a few seconds, and then a different voice answers.
“Hi, Cyril. It’s Aubrey.”
“Aubrey! What can I do for you?” This guy’s too fucking chipper for this time of night. “Cyberware giving you trouble?”
“...No. Kind of. Look, I need a favour. I haven’t had… any maintenance done in a long time. I just need you to give all my ‘ware a once over, check that it’s all working correctly.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“...I’ve had a weird day.”
“The clinic is only supposed to be open overnight for emergencies.”
“Cyril. Please.” You don’t have the energy left to disguise your desperation. “Didn’t you really want to get the full spec on all of my cybernetics? I’ll let you take a record of everything.”
You know he’s been itching to get a detailed look at your cyberware. The closest you’ve ever let him get was fitting your wrist blades and force shield, and you spent most of the process ready to stab him with your new toys if he did any more than the bare minimum of meddling with your arms to get everything hooked up and functioning. He wouldn’t shut up about how high-spec your prostheses looked, and how interesting it was that he couldn’t identify the manufacturer, and you couldn’t wait to get out of the goddamn chair.
This is risky, but you don’t have a lot of options. You can trust Cyril as much as any of the other medical staff at HQ, which isn’t very much, but you would sooner die than waltz into a public hospital and let a bunch of strangers start dismantling you.
Cyril hums quietly as he considers your offer, then sighs.
“Okay. Come on in, but I might have to send you out if anybody comes in with their implants chewed up.”
“Okay. I’ll be there soon. Thanks.”
You straighten up away from the railing as the call cuts. This is it, then. If he finds something, there’s no going back. Everything changes. Your worst nightmare, come true.
How the fuck did you end up here?
The waiting room is deserted and eerily quiet as you walk towards the front desk. You’re used to visiting the medical unit by now, as much as you can be, but given what’s on your mind, it’s difficult to fend off the creeping sense of being caged in that still sometimes bubbles up to the surface. Half-conscious memories flit through your mind of a hospital bed you can’t move from, a door that seems further away every time you reach out, and nurses with saccharine voices insisting you lie down as they pull you back from it.
It’s a series of events that threatens to drag you further back in time, back to when you had even less agency and there was nobody to swoop in and rescue you no matter how loud you screamed.
It was a long time ago and things have changed drastically. Still, you have to steel yourself as you reach the receptionist, who clearly saw you coming and has just been waiting for you to come within earshot.
“You decided to pay a visit after all?” they say, in an all-too-upbeat voice that makes it hard not to glare. “If you’re here to see Dr. Peterssen, he’s in the clinic room just down there.” They gesture to the hallway off to your right. “Third door down.”
“Thanks.” You can barely stand to look at them as you veer off down the corridor. There’s a lump in your throat, one you’re not sure you’re going to be able to talk around.
It’s not too late to turn back. You could do a 180, walk out of here, go home, knock yourself out with an Anapax like you said you would and deal with all of this–everything that’s happening to you, everything that’s happening in California–tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be your problem right now.
But it has to be your problem at some point.
Time may not be something you can afford to waste anymore.
It still takes a good ten seconds of staring at the door before you can bring yourself to press the buzzer. When you do, the little light beside it turns green with a bleep, and it slides open to allow you entry into the room.
You haven’t been in here often. Only twice: once to discuss your upgrades, and once more to have them installed. Other than that, you’ve avoided the cybernetics clinic like the plague. The physiology and psychology clinics you’re obliged to attend are necessary evils that you’ve begrudgingly become accustomed to, to some degree. You know that the most surgical that those get are nitrile gloves and syringes for blood draws.
It’s jarring, then, to walk into the cybernetic clinic and see the huge robotic-assisted surgery arms suspended from the ceiling, the bundles of pre-packaged artificial muscle fibres hung on wall racks, the array of tools all laid out nice and neatly on a trolley, ready to be set to work probing in your head. Especially right now. You’re trying to search through aged, hazy memories for anything useful that might give you a clue as to what Legacy did to you, but seeing all of this only brings up the worst parts.
The thing that stops you from freaking out about it is the middle-aged, blonde human man sitting at a desk just across from the door. He raises his head and pushes glasses that you know he doesn’t need to wear up the bridge of his nose, and smiles in a way no nurse or doctor or lab technician with Legacy ever did.
“Aubrey,” Cyril greets, nudging aside the screen he’d been busy focusing on before you entered. “Come on in. Sit down. What’s going on?”
You don’t sit, as tempting as the offer is. It feels somehow ill-fitting of the… urgency? Of the situation? To act like this is a routine visit.
“I just need you to look over my cyberware.” You sling your bag off your back and dump that on the chair, instead, followed by your jacket. “Hardware, firmware, software, everything.”
“...In the five years you’ve worked here, I’ve never seen you come in for any kind of maintenance.”
“Yeah. Well. It’s about time, then, right?”
“Did something happen?”
“No.” You’re not looking at him. You can’t look at him. You have your gaze fixed on the chair instead, the way the light glints off the metal legs. “I just wanna know that everything’s… working properly. And you wanted to get a better look at all of my implants, so this works out.”
You can feel him staring at you, as if letting the weight of his gaze bear down on you for long enough might eventually force a confession out of you. In the corner of your eye you can see him lean back in his chair and steeple his fingers.
“I’d be lying if I denied that. I want to help you, Aubrey.”
“So help me.” You risk a glance at his face and, despite the fact that it makes your skin crawl, lock eyes with him. “You can do a full survey of everything. My eye, my arms, my headware, anything else that’s in there. Just as–as long as you promise you’ll tell me everything you find.”
He's quiet again for a few moments. You can't blame him. There's really no way to frame this that isn’t suspicious. But, finally, after what feels like forever, he sighs and rises from his seat.
“Okay. If you could take your shirt off, then go and make yourself comfortable while I get some things ready.” He gestures over at the adjustable padded chair in the centre of the room, surrounded by a set of surgical arms that are currently retracted into the ceiling.
So this is real. It’s happening. You almost didn’t expect to get this far.
Just sitting down makes your pulse quicken. They sedated you pretty hard, back in Saskatchewan, but they needed you conscious enough to be able to test that your extremities were working as intended whenever they made any adjustments. In your mind now, it’s all looming shadows and booming voices and the feeling like you were sinking into the chair they had you strapped into, one that you were obviously too small for. The only thing you recall with any clarity–a clarity that almost makes you flinch–is the jolt in your shoulder whenever an artificial nerve misfired, and your sluggish, dazed attempts to squirm out of the seat, only to find yourself trapped there.
None of this is fucking helpful. If you’re going to get stuck in a trauma spiral, can it at least be a useful one?
It’s not faceless, cold-voiced doctors pulling you apart tonight, though. It’s Cyril. You try to hold onto that as he slides a trolley over, and a stool, and guides your right arm into place against the arm of the chair.
He’s here to help.
Here to help you find something that might be eating away at your lifespan.
Yeah, that feels much better.
“Could you open up your arms for me?” he asks, as he taps away at a holo screen projected from a tablet on the trolley. “I’d like to be able to see what’s going on inside when you move.”
Heart still racing, you release the internal locks on your arms’ casings so he can strip them down. You can’t watch him do it. It’s gross, hearing him work a tool into the seams and being able to feel the little click radiate up into your shoulder as each section detaches. It’s even grosser as he lifts the metal plating away to reveal what’s beneath: reams of black synthetic muscle, the raw innards of your gun mechanism, a skeletal structure made of an alloy you can no longer recall the name of.
“Do you mind if I plug in while we do this?” You nod, and he draws a cable from the tablet to your arm and hooks it up into one of the little ports at the top of your arm, just below where it attaches to the socket grafted into your shoulder. He’s pulling things up onto the screen, a window primed with blank graphs and meters. “Alright. Let’s go through some basic exercises first.”
This part’s not so bad, aside from having to watch all the servos and artificial tendons in your bare limb shift and stretch as you demonstrate your reflexes and range of motion. Cyril watches closely the whole time, occasionally stopping you to manipulate the limb himself or take a closer look at some fine detail that even you’ve never had a chance to examine. You sit, tense, as he fiddles around, expecting the electric jolt of manual nerve stimulation to zap you at any moment.
“Wow. For five years with no maintenance, I’m impressed,” he murmurs, as he’s busy examining your fingers. “I know I’ve told you this before, but this is some impressive ‘ware you’re sporting. It looks–”
He stops there, like he’s thought better of whatever he was about to say. But you look at him, and he looks at you, and you make eye contact, and it’s awful, and he knows you’d rather he just say it out loud.
“If I didn’t know better,” he finishes, carefully, “I’d say this looks milspec.”
You don’t answer him.
“Well, I can't see any major hardware faults in this arm,” he says after a minute, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “It looks like you've worked it hard, but there shouldn't be any serious mechanical problems. Have you noticed anything you think is odd?”
“No. Well, actually, um–my tremor correction has been on the fritz. That’s about it.”
“Mhm. Mhm. Okay. No bad biofeedback?”
“Your weapons are fine? They’re not jamming?”
Almost reflexively, you extend your wrist blade and unsheathe–not that it has a sheath at the moment–your gun. “But I haven’t had a chance to try actually firing it recently.”
“Good! That’s a good thing. I don’t think we need to test it right now. That’s fine. Let me generate a system report and download the firmware, and then we’ll take a look at the other one.”
The process is much the same: casing off, cable in, weapons out, a lot of twisting and turning and flexing while Cyril watches carefully for any faults. You try not to let your eyes linger too long on the unsettling sight of your bared internals, and instead let them fall on the tablet screen, watching all the little lines and numbers dance around with every move you make.
“Everything looks good on the hardware front,” he tells you, his attention now fixed on the readings and files on the tablet. “Normal reflexes, normal range of motion, normal sensation, no overheating or excessive wear on any of the joints… You said your tremor correction was off?”
“Yeah. Sometimes, if I’m really stressed, or… whatever.”
“Hm. I don’t see a tremor correction feature anywhere in the arm itself. Maybe it’s a neural component. You know your firmware looks like it's out-of-date, though?”
“...Yeah. I. Um. Just not something I’ve gotten around to doing.”
“I can look for the most recent version and we can update it now, if you like–”
“No.” You wince at the obvious fear in your voice, but the word is out of your mouth before you can stop it. He’ll probably struggle to even find anything on C&C Logistics, if he looks. Legacy of Adam and their subsidiaries aren’t the kind of corporations you just pull up on the first page of NeoGoogle. But it’s not a risk you want to take. You need to retain as much control of this situation as possible. “It’s fine. I’ll do it on my own time.” He’s giving you another weird look now, but he doesn’t push the matter.
“If you’re sure, but you try to get it done soon. Five or six years is a long time to go without an update. I want to take a closer look at all this data, but it’s going to take me a while to completely dissect it. The system reports look normal on the surface. What next? Eye or head?"
"Eye." You're avoiding the head. If he finds anything, it's going to be there. You know it is. You're prolonging the inevitable, really. But if they did hide something somewhere else, you don't want to miss it. You pop your drone out without even being prompted and catch it in one hand, pointing at the now-empty socket. "Check in here, too. Not just the drone."
"Don't worry. I was going to." You hate having him up in your face. You hate him being so close you can feel his breath on your skin, and you can't stop staring into the halo of light up above you, just to let it blind you to what's going on. A gentle thudding reverberates your skull as he lightly taps the metallic interior of your eye socket and he must be able to see you shaking–
"Sorry." Yes. Yes, he can. "Does it connect to this port back here?"
“And you have entirely normal vision in it? Colours haven’t changed, no visual field restriction or defects, no lag or glitching?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Good, good. Do you mind if I test the connection to the optic nerve?”
“...Sure.” This sounds like it’s going to be unpleasant.
“Great. One moment, I need to find a cable with the right connector…” He leans away from you and you can hear him rummaging around in the drawers in the trolley. You continue to stare up at the ceiling. The sight of all those surgical arms encircling you isn’t much of a comfort. “This might be uncomfortable, but it won’t take more than a few seconds. Can you switch the eye off while I do this?”
It takes a few tries before he finds a cable with an adapter that can plug into your drone dock. The feeling of it slotting into place–a dull, muted sensation that nevertheless thuds through your skull–turns your stomach. You try very, very hard not to think about what it must look like with the wire extending from your eye socket.
“You might feel a little jolt,” Cyril is saying, though his voice is distant and overpowered by the sound of your own rushing pulse. “If everything is working properly, you’ll probably see some patterns, some flashing lights, things like that. It’s nothing to worry about. Alright?”
“Okay. Just relax. This’ll only take a moment.”
It doesn’t hurt, per se. There’s a weird, fuzzy feeling that shoots back through your skull, but more jarring is the array of sharp, blinking lights that explodes across the blank space where your left eye’s visual field should be, and your muscles twitch, reflexively trying to clench shut non-existent eyelids. One of your hands flies to your face only to freeze midway there, remembering the cable sticking out where your eye should be.
“Sorry, sorry,” Cyril murmurs. “Do you see anything?”
“Light,” you answer shakily. “A lot of it.”
“Good. It’s all done. The nerve connection and sensory feedback looks normal, and there’s nothing unusual about the dock itself.” You can feel his hands against your face again, gently tugging the cable out. “The lights should go within a minute or so. Can I see your eye?”
"My–yeah." You pop the casing open and somewhat sluggishly raise your hand to drop your ocular drone into his palm.
"This is so slick, you know," he says, as he pulls another little trolley up to set the drone on and carefully removes the exterior. “I’ll admit, when I first met you, I thought it was an outdated eye piece. When you realise it runs as a standalone drone, it’s the complete opposite."
"Just be careful." You sink down further into the chair. "If you fuck that thing up, I can't get another one."
You watch intently as he repeats much the same process as he did with your arms; he plugs in a tablet, checks the firmware (also out of date, he tells you). He takes some small, delicate tools and you bristle at the sight of him unfastening and lifting away various components to examine them more closely, but you have no basis to tell him to stop. He ultimately informs you that, aside from it seeming incredibly advanced and durable, he can’t find anything out of the ordinary.
You hate having your eye out. It's a relief when he finally reassembles it and hands it back to you.
"Well, I don't have a perfect baseline for these models, or even this manufacturer, but as far as I can tell, you're clean so far. Everything's working as intended; no mechanical obstruction, no hardware degradation, no biological deterioration–the firmware’s holding up, even if it is old..."
"There’s nothing… off about any of it?"
"In what sense?"
"Like. Um. Is there anything…" How do you phrase this? “There’s nothing that shouldn’t be there?”
"As far as I can tell? No." He falls silent for a minute as he taps away at his tablet, then slowly shakes his head. "I'd have to completely disconnect and disassemble your cyberware and dig deeper into the firmware code to be a hundred percent certain, but nothing stands out that I wouldn't expect in high-grade prostheses like these."
That’s good. Right? You’re hesitant to let yourself be hopeful just yet. Your drone and arms are easily removed and replaced. If Legacy wanted to bury something dangerous in you, something they wanted to be sure would stay there, you know where they’d hide it.
“Shall we do your headware?” Cyril is setting the tablet aside, pushing the trolley out of the way and getting to his feet, but the withered look you give him must be very obvious. “We can take a break, if you’d like.”
“No, no. It’s fine.” The sooner this shit is over and done with, the better. You slide out of the chair, and after a brief discussion about how, exactly, the back of your skull opens up to expose your cybernetics, Cyril has the chair reconfigure to allow you to comfortably lie almost flat on your front, with an arm and head rest for you to brace against. Something about the unfamiliar shape of it is still intimidating, but it does, admittedly, look much better than the contraptions Legacy used to collar you into.
“Go ahead and sit down. I need to get a couple of things.” Gingerly, you lower yourself into your new, fucked-up looking seat, with your arms folded in front of you and your forehead against the headrest. “Have you had anyone take a look at any of your headware at all in the last few years?”
“...No.” He makes a little noise in his throat and you’re not sure if it’s concern or just an acknowledgement.
“Well, this is going to be more… involved than it was with the arms. Depending how integrated your cybernetics are, you might experience some discomfort.” As he talks, Cyril tucks a big paper shawl around your shoulders, pulling it up close around your neck. "Do you remember from the initial installation if you're liable to jerking at all? I can give you something for that, if–"
"No." The word bursts from you in a sharp bark. "You don't–I don't do that. Moving. I don't jerk or anything like that." Being drugged in the chair is one step too far.
“Okay, okay. If you do feel like you need to move, just say so. It might get uncomfortable, but you shouldn’t feel any pain. If you do, tell me straight away. If you want to stop at any point, tell me.”
Maybe he notices how hard you’re digging your fingers into the soft plastic of the shelf where your arms sit, or you didn’t realise how heavily you were breathing, because you feel him gently place a hand on your shoulder. His gloved palm sticks to the film of sweat on your skin.
“Aubrey. This is perfectly safe, and I’m not going to hurt you,” he says softly. “I’m obligated to warn you about these things as a matter of safety, but I promise, this is going to be okay. I do this kind of work for people all the time. Take some deep breaths. I need you to relax for me. Can you do that?”
You’re really, really not sure that you can, but you nod anyway and hope he can’t see the tears welling in your eye. You breathe in. You exhale. Rinse, repeat.
This is not like before.
“I’m okay,” you croak. You force your fingers to uncurl and your hunched shoulders to drop.
"That’s it.” Cyril peels his palm away from your back and runs a nitrile-enclosed finger across the back of your scalp. “This is the seam, here?"
"Yes." Well, shit, why waste more time? The back of your skull splits, then splits again, sections lifting away until your internal cyberware is exposed.
"Oookay." Cecil wheels his chair closer behind you, and you feel his fingertips rest gently on your neck as he inspects the gap in your skull. You are desperately, desperately trying to keep your breathing under control. You have to stay calm, unless you want brain damage. You do not want brain damage.
“The exterior looks good. Clean. Very extensive work you’ve had done here.” Your stomach coils. You don’t know what you’re supposed to say or think or feel about that. Truth be told, you’ve never actually looked at it in a mirror. You don’t know, physically, how much brain matter they dug out. It’s something you decided you were better off simply not knowing. “Standard set of access ports, and a lot of your deck components look like they’re here. I’m not seeing any storage drives, but I have to imagine you have extensive storage…?”
“Then they’re probably embedded deeper into the brain, behind the deck components. I’m going to connect you to the main computer system,” Cyril says as his hands leave the sides of your head. “This is going to feel weird. You’re going to get a lot of access requests, and I need you to grant them. I’m not going to look into your personal files, or start deleting things at random, I promise. I just need access to a lot of system info and delicate things that tend to require admin privileges. You’ll be able to see everything I’m looking at and anything that I make copies of. Okay?”
“Alright. Here we go.”
Something in the back of your head clicks unpleasantly, and then there’s that rushing feeling, the kind you get when you jack in, but… different. Backwards. He’s right. It does feel weird. A handful of notifications drop into your AR feed–CLP_ClinicProxy is requesting access–and you approve each one in succession. Cyril is doing something out of your field of view; pulling down an interface suspended from the ceiling, you think, judging by the barely-audible creak of what you’d guess is a mechanical arm.
You could watch, actually. Could. But the thought that occurs to you immediately after that is that you don’t particularly want to see what the inside of your head looks like, so your drone stays firmly in place. You’ll just have to trust that Cyril isn’t going to try anything underhanded.
“Wow,” you hear him murmur. Please let that be a good wow. "Okay. Well. Right off the bat, your decks are modified from standard models you’d find on the market. Nothing drastic, but some of the components have been upgraded–all custom work by this C&C Logistics again, I think, like your arms and eye. Proprietary operating system, also out-of-date. The company didn’t go under, did it? We have a financial assistance program for replacing discontinued and unsupported cyb–”
“No,” you interrupt. “I told you, I’ll deal with it. What else is on there?”
“Let’s see… Comm system, again, modified. The storage drives are there. Six of them, is that correct?”
“How many should you have?”
“Five.” You’ve had five for almost as long as you can remember. Less, in the past, but never more. That number hasn’t changed since you fled Legacy, and nobody has touched your headware since.
“Are you sure?” Cyril raps his fingers against the side of his screen. “I’m definitely seeing another drive here.”
“No. I definitely have five.” Panic starts to rise in your chest again, gripping your heart and squeezing it tight.
“I can’t do anything with it.” You can hear Cyril tapping repeatedly at his screen. “It’s definitely there, but I can’t read it, can’t write to it, can’t even see its properties. I’m putting an admin privilege request through and just getting an error. You’re not receiving it?”
“No.” This is it, isn’t it? This is the big secret. This is what’s leeching away at your life with every passing second. You’re fighting a losing battle not to start hyperventilating again. You want Cyril to rip the fucking thing out of your head, because if there’s no way to tell what it’s doing and you couldn’t even tell it was there then it can’t be that important and you need it gone. You’ll commandeer one of those fucking surgical arms and yank it out yourself if you have to.
What actually happens is that you ask: “What do we do?”
“Don’t panic.” Big help. Thanks. “I don’t have a doctorate for nothing. I think I can get into it, but it’s going to take time, and…” He trails off, hovering over the end of the sentence with palpable reluctance. “You have to understand, Aubrey, there’s a risk here. We don’t know what’s on that drive. It could potentially be harmful to you if we decrypt it.”
“There’s–there’s no other way?”
“We could try to physically remove the drive, but…” He sounds like he doesn’t want to pull the curtain back on this one, either. “I can’t find any visual schematics or imaging for your headware in your system specs, so I’d need to scan you to be certain, but based on what I can physically see and the devices I know you have implanted, I think it’d constitute a surgical procedure. Not to mention, there’s the inverse risk that it’s doing something vital for you, and that removing it entirely would have equally unfavourable side effects.”
Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
“Aubrey.” Cyril’s voice is quiet, and the low hum of powered-on electronics is suffocating. “Be honest with me, here. Did something happen to you?”
The way he says it makes you want to curl up in shame.
How can you possibly explain any of this?
“If you–if you decrypt the drive, I’ll tell you.”
“Please.” You don’t know if it’s better or worse that you can’t see his face right now.
“We should really have a nurse or physician present for this, just in case–”
“No–Look, I don’t care, okay? I don’t fucking care. It’s already going to k–hurt me if you just leave it there.” Momentarily forgetting the wires jutting out of your skull along with your self-restraint, you whip your head around to look at the stunned expression on Cyril’s face. “Please. I’ll tell you everything. I just… really, really need to know what’s on that drive.”
The silence that follows is heavy and stifling, but finally he concedes:
“Okay. Okay. If you’re certain about this. You understand that you run the risk of exposing malicious or faulty software, traumatic personal memories, or other material that could be harmful or detrimental to your physical or emotional wellbeing?”
“And you understand that the responsibility for this decision lies with you alone, and neither I nor Zodiac as a company can be held legally responsible for damage or harm inflicted as a result of agreeing to this?”
“Yes.” The last thing you want is to kick up a fuss over this, no matter what happens. You’re desperately trying to math out how you can avoid having to tell Cyril the truth of… all of this. There’ll come a point in your story where he’s contractually obligated to tell someone what he finds out, and that’s where everything ends for you. The truth will cascade down through the company and your life will be over.
“Okay. This is going to take some time. Do you need anything before we start? A drink, something to eat?”
“No. M’fine.” You’re parched and haven’t kept food down since this morning, but you’d probably just throw it straight back up.
“If you’re sure. If you need anything, or you want to get out of the chair, just let me know. I’m going to have to take some… specialised tools to it in order to be able to even get a foothold. Your systems might register my presence as malicious, if they can register it at all in a drive you can’t see. Once I’ve scanned it for anything overtly dangerous, I’ll open up access to you, if I can. Alright?”
“Good. Tell me if you get any system errors or anything that you’re concerned about.”
Cyril is quiet while he works. You’re glad of that, you think. It gives you time to think through the situation you find yourself in.
It was a given that you would have things inside you that you were unaware of. The doctors and technicians in Saskatchewan went over your new implants, sometimes, when it was something they had to teach you how to use, but more than once you woke up with some mystery incisions–or no incisions at all–and were thrust unceremoniously back out into your dorms without ever having the nature of the surgery explained to you.
Sometimes you’d pick up the new hardware connected to your central neural implants. Sometimes you wouldn’t. That was just how it was.
It’s different, though, having it confirmed. Having someone look at you and tell you that the thing you’ve always feared is tangible and real.
You wish Zenith was here. You get it, now. You completely get it. You’re terrified of knowing what Legacy have hidden away from you on this drive in your head, but more terrifying is the idea that you might never have known. You could have lived out the rest of your short little life not realising that it was even there.
What did they want to keep from you so badly that they lodged this metaphorical brick in your brain?
You’re not like Zenith. You weren’t slated. You still belonged to them. But if they had wiped your mind clean and found a way to give you a false set of memories, would you even be able to tell?
What if it’s all a lie?
No. They wouldn’t have given you Nein and Aspen, if they could write your life story themselves. They wouldn’t have been that kind. That’s what you try to tell yourself, at least, in an effort to keep yourself from spiralling. If they’d had that much control over you, they wouldn’t have made you like this. So the things that you remember are probably real. Right? Yeah. Sure. Sometimes things get fuzzy, but that’s age or trauma, everyone says, and some things you’ve blocked out by choice. Zenith had nothing at all; just an empty void where hir memory should have been. You can still see yourself as a kid, and trace the timeline of your childhood, as much as you often wish that you couldn’t.
Maybe the drive’s empty. Maybe it’s just there for if they have to slate you. If that were the case you could probably spin up a little story for Cyril to get him off your back. It wouldn’t actually rule out you having a parasite leeching off your lifespan, but you could at least avoid breaking your cover until you figure out what to do next.
God, you wish you were passed out in bed. This was such a stupid idea. You should have gone home and come back with a set appointment and a better plan. You’d have had time to invent better cover stories, and prepare for your emergency exit, should you need to make it.
Something about hindsight, whatever the saying is.
You’ve slept in weirder places than a surgery chair, and Cyril hasn’t said a word in some time, so despite your racing thoughts, exhaustion eventually begins to set in and you find yourself growing drowsy. If he’s doing anything with the drive, you can’t tell. You only remember you’re still plugged into the computer when you occasionally shift your head or shoulders and feel the wire brush against your back. You ignore it and close your eyes. Some sleep would do you good, even if it is in a position that’ll kill your joints.
Yeah, you’d be so lucky.
Begrudgingly, you lift your head and turn to look at Cyril. He’s jacked into the system himself, a wire trailing out of the side of his head and plugged into a port beside yours. In the centre of the screen, a loading bar is slowly ticking upwards. Thirteen percent. Fourteen percent. Fifteen percent.
“Did you get it?”
“Yes.” That anxious rush washes over you again, the kind that makes your chest tight and your jaw clench and wipes away any lingering sleepiness. “I think so, anyway. The contents might have their own encryption, but hopefully breaking this first layer will give us some more insight. It’ll just be a few more minutes.”
He glances at you, turning his head just slightly to the side to do so. “Are you okay?”
“It’s alright if you’re not, you know.” You have to look away from him. You can’t stand it: the idea of opening up to someone else when you’re so dangerously close to falling off a precipice you can’t climb back up from. “It’s not often that I see people with mystery implants, but you’re not the first. We’ll get this figured out.”
You lay your head back down and hope to God that he’s right.
The wait is agonising. From the corner of your eye, you can see the little bar, crawling higher with each passing minute, but it’s taking forever. Cyril messes with a few things–maybe he’s trying to speed the process up, but if he is, it doesn’t seem to work. Thirty percent. Thirty-one percent. Thirty-two percent.
You wonder what Pox is doing. You wonder if they found the sigil guardian yet. You hope that lich wasn’t fucking with them, or else the next place you’re headed once Cyril lets you go is Arizona to blow up its phylactery. No messages, though, so you can only assume nothing happened, or they’re busy, and you’re too nervous to dedicate more than a passing thought to anything that’s happening outside of this room. The bar keeps climbing. Fifty-six percent. Fifty-seven percent. Fifty-eight percent.
“Aubrey.” There’s a sense of urgency in Cyril’s voice that you don’t like.
“I’m scanning the files in here as they decrypt.” He’s staring at the screen, unblinking and unmoving but no doubt busy within the Matrix behind his eyes. “Not all of them are complete yet, but there’s something–it looks like a compiler? And the rest–I couldn’t tell you for certain until the process is complete and I’ve been able to unpick and cross-reference some things, but this looks like it may have been written by a technomanc…”
The loading bar shoots up by ten percent.
It doesn’t stop there. The floodgates seem to have opened and the steady numerical drip becomes a torrent, racing towards completion. Seventy-one two three four five six seven–
“Something is in there.” Cyril’s tone rises from urgent to full-blown panic. “It’s decrypting itself– Aubrey, be ready. I’m going to try to abort the process but I don’t know if it’s going to work.”
You’re bolt upright at this point, heart hammering, eyes fixed on the loading bar. Eighty three four five six seven eight nine. He’s not going to be able to stop this. Your combat deck flares to life.
“I can jack out.” You grab at Cyril’s sleeve but he looks at you and shakes his head vigorously.
“No. It’s self-sustaining at this point and the dumpshock will hinder your ability to defend yourself if it’s malicious.”
“Then you jack out.”
“What if it hurts you?” He looks at you with uncertainty, like he was too caught up in his line of duty as a doctor to consider that as an option. “I’ll be fine. Jack out.”
“I can’t help you if I’m not–”
Your whole body trembles as you collapse back into the chair and watch Cyril furiously bash away at the screen. You’re hungry. You’re thirsty. You’re exhausted. You have one friend dead, one MIA, and your whole life is balancing on a knife edge.
You don’t know what waits for you at the end of that loading bar, but you know one thing:
There's too much at stake for you to go down without a fight.
The bar ticks up to ninety-nine percent, Cyril rips the cord from his datajack, and everything goes black.