Fingers, clad in the sterile stink of latex tug at my right eyelid. Light blisters my brain. Pain lances into my vision, hot, then cold. A memory, sharp, visceral, slams into me. My last moments, uploading the co-ordinates of my location into the strike drone almost two kilometres away. All my men fallen, surrounded by the United Freedom Fighters. My final thoughts lingering on her as the drone's missiles disengage, their safety protocols overridden by my command—of the one I had promised to come back for. Just one more job and I'll have enough credits to get us out of here, I'd told her. We could finally be together. And now, I was dead. I had to be. Nothing could survive the hell I had rained down. Nothing.
'Visual acuity sixty-seven percent and scaling,' an electronic voice says behind me, female, sultry—the AI programmers' idea of sexy, except it isn't, it is a droid, a machine, unthinking, unfeeling, cold. I hate droids, how they look just like us until they speak. How many times had I been fooled by a beautiful woman at the bar? A dozen, at least. I shudder, willing it not to touch me.
My eyelid still forced open, a blur moves in front of me, blocking out the icy glare of the lamp's white light. I exhale, relieved. A faint whir whispers by my ear, persistent, like a mosquito. I lift my hand to swat it away. My wrist jerks to a halt, held in a rubber restraint. What the—I tug harder, but it holds, the restraint's edges cutting into my flesh. I am strapped to the table like a lab animal. I'm a JSOC Delta Captain, four times decorated for valour—
'Look at the screen,' a voice says, the one which commanded me to wake up. Male, disdainful, with a hint of arrogance—but human, definitely human. He lets go of my eyelid. A tablet slides in between me and the glare of the light. I look at its screen, obedient, despite my indignation, years of training suppressing my anger into a thin point of focus. I open my other eye. The tablet powers up and a burst of light bleeds into my raw, aching eye. I bite back a hiss of pain as its brilliance slices into my optic nerve hot as a burning knife, followed by a shard of icy cold.
'Near perfect response,' murmurs the droid. 'Acuity seventy-nine percent.'
A blur of blue on black coalesces on the screen, assembling into letters and numbers.
'Ninety-five percent,' the droid breathes, anticipation gilding its sibilant, hateful voice. My hands curl into fists. I long to punch it. To shut it up, a sick manifestation of humanity—a thing, an aberration.
'Read it,' the man orders me, 'then I can get laid, assuming there's still any real women left alive after all the time it's taken to put you together.' The sound of wheels glide across the floor as he slides out of my line of vision. 'Although, no fucking for you, eh? Command was generous with their budget, but not that generous.' He scoffs, and it sounds mean, spiteful.
I assume he's addressing the droid. I bite back a smirk, liking him, feeling solidarity, knowing he hates them as much as me. Only pleasure droids are built with the ability to fuck and be fucked—the rest: despite looking just like us are left as smooth and sexless as the plastic dolls children play with. A droid cried about it, once, as I nursed my fourteenth Jack and Coke in an illegal bar in Kandahar, I tolerated her tears until I sobered up enough to realise what she was saying. I told her she would never be a woman, and for some reason, it made her cry harder. I slammed my glass in her face. She bled real blood and wailed with real pain. But underneath the facade, the glint of titanium. A machine. I kicked it until it shut down.
'Read it,' my captor repeats from behind me, his voice harder. He shakes the tablet to focus my attention, or maybe just for emphasis. 'Out loud. I need to run final diagnostics.'
I blink, the pain in the back of my eyes is gone, and the shear of cold in my brain has eased. The letters and numbers on the tablet's screen stare back at me. I glance over them. I blink again, disbelieving. No. I refuse to read this. I try to turn my head, to look at him, the one with the disdainful voice, to see if this is some kind of sick joke, but my head is strapped to the table, just like the rest of me.
'Read.' He shouts. Spittle spatters against my cheek, stinking of stale cigarettes, coffee, and cheap whiskey. The table judders from an impatient kick, followed by another, harder.
I grit my teeth and read. 'Captain Ryan Maddox.' I pause. It's not my voice I hear coming out of my mouth. Not even close. Another kick thuds against the table, and I feel it in my spine. He's a strong fucker, I'll give him that. I continue, my voice harsh, gravelly, unfamiliar, a hint of Slavic in it. 'JSOC Delta Force, died of massive internal injuries while engaged in heavy combat against United Freedom Fighters on May 29, 2086 near Lubochnia, Poland, co-ordinates 51.602464, 20.009097. Per the agreement signed June 15, 2081 by all senior Delta Force personnel, the Department of Defense retains the rights to Captain Maddox's remains. He was immediately collected via drone shuttle and frozen en route to this facility for reclamation. If successful, he will be repurposed for action in Project Cynosure. Q Clearance. Debriefing to follow at Headquarters. End message.' The screen went dark.
'How can I be alive again?' I ask as the table kicker pulls the tablet back and reappears in front of me. This time he's not a blur, but a hardened, shaven-headed vet. Scars criss-cross his face, his nose sits slightly to the right, kinked at the bridge, his eyes are steely and cold, and his jaw is grizzled with grey stubble.
'Because you are the only one who knows for sure where the target is,' he answers as he drags a trolley over to him. 'Or at least where they were six months ago, before you decided to play the hero and check out. They must want you bad; top brass had to get an executive order signed to fund a separate off-the-record R&D division to develop the tech to rebuild you, so you better show some gratitude to Command when you get called in, since there's no one else here like you. No one. Lucky fucker. Although—' The glint of a steel tray catches the corner of my eye. He reaches down and collects a syringe, needle, and bottle of clear liquid. His deft movements as he attaches the needle, pulls its stopper off with his teeth and fills the syringe belie his muscular bulk; his khaki shirt sleeves rolled back to reveal a faded tattoo of a mermaid, her tail coiled around his forearm, her breasts grotesquely large. It's always the details which give a person away.
Maybe that was what it was about her that made her stand out from the rest, from the masses of miserable humanity. The details, the way she looked at me like she knew me the first time I saw her, her eyes keen, sharp, not dulled by the opiates everyone else ate like candy. The steadiness of her hand as she poured my drink, wearing a blue wig and a black latex one-piece swimsuit, none of it looking right on her. The way she tilted her head when I asked what a girl like her was doing in a place like that; how she smiled the time I smuggled proper cat food past the barrier for her cat, Miro, tears glinting in her blue-green eyes.
'—never mind,' my captor continues as he rams the needle, rough, into the vein in my arm. He flashes me a toothy grin as I grit my teeth and coldness slides into me. 'More fun for you to figure out the rest on your own. By the way, you passed diagnostics with flying colours. Congratulations. Welcome to the Bunker, or as we who are stuck here like to call it—Hell.'
He pulls out the needle. I feel my blood trickling out, warm and sticky. He rolls away and tells the droid to fuck off. A clack of keyboard presses, quick, angry, impatient, his eagerness to be rid of me, palpable. A door slides open with a soft whoosh, and the droid leaves, its high heels clicking against a metallic floor. In the distance, the growl of heavy metal, faint, echoes along the empty corridor. It's an old one, but still good. Korn's Twisted Transistor. I close my eyes, remembering the last time I'd heard it, playing through the club's walls while I made love to her before I left for my last mission, both of us half-drunk in the club's grotty, black-tiled shower. Darkness beckons. I follow, thinking of her, naked and wet in my arms, clinging to me as I take her, hard, my name, breathless, on her lips, and me, swearing to come back for her, no matter what it would take.
I wake spread-eagled on a king-size bed in a spacious bedroom, the furnishings elegant and expensive looking. The headboard is one massive padded slab of brown suede. Freed of my restraints, I haul myself up against the headboard, and cast my eye around the space, wary, wondering if I am under the influence of a psychotropic enhancer and I am actually in a concrete cell, sitting on a metal bunk imagining all this luxury. I run my hand over the duvet cover, its white cotton as smooth as silk. To my right a floor to ceiling window, its silken drapes pulled back, their deep chocolate coloured lengths pooling on the hardwood floor. The pristine glass gives out to a view of snowy mountains bathed pink in the sunrise. I go to it, astonished. Ten years ago we were told there was no snow left anywhere. I press my hands against the window's glass, its surface a little cold. A sudden longing rushes through me, to find her, and bring her here, to let her see this, too. She would love it.
'Breathtaking, isn't it?'
My salute is crisp, instantaneous. 'Major Akron,' I say, my voice heavy with its Slavic accent. Ukrainian. I'm sure of it.
'It's good to see you again Maddox,' he smiles, close-lipped. I notice his pleasure at seeing me doesn't reach his grey eyes. He nods at me. 'At ease.'
I clasp my hands behind my back and wait. Akron moves around the room, eyeing my accommodation. He's dressed in fatigues, the sleeves rolled back, his boots polished to a high shine, his weapons clipped to his belt. He wears no mark of his station, he says its for security purposes, but he was never one for ceremony, a 'boots on the ground' leader, as dirty as the rest of us. He only had a couple of years more military experience than me, but his ruthlessness was deeper than mine, and Command liked that in their men, so he progressed until there was nowhere left for him to go. Well, that, and we kept losing men faster than we could train them. He only stepped into the boots a UFF sniper had vacated. If I hadn't died, I would have been next for promotion. I always hoped never to last that long.
'Sorry about this,' Akron gestures at me, vague, 'it was the best we could do in a pinch.'
I lift an eyebrow and glance behind me at the view, the mountains' slopes turning golden in the warmth of the rising sun. 'If this is what you can do in a pinch, sir, I'd like to see what you can muster with some time.'
He scoffs and tilts his head at a side table bearing an assortment of single malts. 'Keep up Maddox.'
I eye the amber-filled bottles, most of them still unopened. How had I not seen those first?
I move past him to look over the selection. I pick one up. 'Oban, aged thirty-two years,' I read. I turn to find him watching me, expressionless. 'How the hell? Never mind.' I hold the bottle up, a ripple of pleasure shimmying through me in anticipation. 'One finger or two?'
'I'll take one, but I imagine you are going to need two, at least.' Akron says, dry.
I turn back to the tray and busy myself with lining up the glasses and pulling off the seal around the bottle's stopper. From the corner of my eye I see a man, tall, heavily muscled, but rough-looking wearing fatigues just down the corridor. I set the bottle aside, slow. I can only see half of him, but he moves, too, wary.
'You didn't come alone sir?' I say, keeping my eyes on the other man who stands completely still, like me.
'I did,' Akron says.
'Sir, we aren't alone,' I answer.
'We are, Maddox. Trust me.'
I nod my head towards the one down the corridor, he mimics me. A dark foreboding pools in my gut, dread, touched by horror. I lift my hand, slow, willing him not to. He does the same. I glance at Akron who is watching me, like Miro would before she pounced on an unsuspecting mouse.
'What the fuck, sir,' I say, turning towards the corridor. The other man turns towards me. I stop, and look back at Akron. 'Tell me that's not my reflection.'
Akron doesn't answer. Instead he joins me and picks up the bottle of Oban. I see his reflection as he stands beside the other man—me—watch as he pours our drinks: one finger for him, a full glass for me. I take it and walk down the corridor, anger slicing through me, reflected on the face of the man I have become. I'm an ugly fucker. Rough as a thug, mean looking, scarred and broken-toothed, a tattoo covers one side of my face and down my neck, some kind of tribal art. It's the only thing that looks good.
I drink until the glass is empty, watching my ugly reflection do the same. I wasn't a woman's wet dream before, but I wasn't bad either. Fit, tall, commanding, even featured, good teeth, a nice smile. I got women easy enough, but this brute glowering back at me would be lucky to score a goat. My heart clenches, and a shard of anguish pierces the heated haze of the whisky spreading through me. How could I ever see her again, looking like this? She would run a mile. I'm uglier than the doormen standing outside the exclusion zones' filthiest whorehouses.
Akron comes up behind me, bottle in hand. I hold out my glass for him to pour, uncaring of my breach of protocol. He fills my glass. I drink it all. Akron sips his and waits, giving me time.
'We needed a body, and fast. Drones captured him just outside the restriction zone.' He lifts his half-finished drink to my reflection. 'You might want to show some gratitude. He died so you could live. Before we put him under, his final words were: Look after my mother. Not what we expected.'
'And did you?' I ask in my gravelly, Ukrainian-tainted voice, already knowing the answer.
'Of course not,' Akron answers. He finishes his drink and continues, 'Exclusion zoners are all scum. Death is a kindness.' He eyes me, cold. 'You broke the rules, Maddox.'
An image of her in sleeping in my arms flashes through my mind. I narrow my eyes and lean over him, my hands curl into fists. He steps back. A little thrill of power shimmers through me. I could get used to being a thug. A thug with Delta Force training.
'Meaning?' I ask, low.
'Meaning we know about you going into the exclusion zone,' Akron says. He returns the Oban to the table, and gestures for me to follow him to the window.
I've got nothing else to do. I follow him. 'I won't fuck droids,' I mutter. 'Exclusion zones are the only places left with real women not already sequestered by High Command.'
Akron glances at me, oblique. I know I'm wasting my time with him on this. He makes no secret of the fact he loves fucking droids, both male and female. He even has a few of his own, chained to the wall in some fucked-up S&M dungeon.
'You know there's no difference, droids are just like humans.'
'Until they speak,' I snap, the whisky making me brazen.
Akron stiffens, defensive of his precious dolls. 'Once the upgrades go through, there will be no way to know. At least not without cutting them open.'
I say nothing. The mountains gleam back at us, innocent, white, cold.
Akron pushes aside one of the drapes. Fixed to the wall behind it is a tablet. His fingers move through several menus and the pristine view dissolves, replaced by a blank wall.
'There's no snow anymore, Maddox,' Akron says as he continues to navigate the screen, 'that video was taken by a weather station in the Alps almost seventy years ago. I thought it might be nice for you to see something pleasant before having to face what we did to you.'
Another view comes up on the wall, data streams along the left side, and a grid of drone views over various exclusion zones pan over them, drinking in the chaos, devastation and filth of Earth's dying, overcrowded cities. Buenos Ares. Copenhagen. Tokyo. London. I can't stop myself. I search for her in the streets of what's left of central London.
'She's gone underground,' Akron states, pulling the London view forward. 'The drones have been searching for her ever since we retrieved your memories.'
'So that's how you know.' I run a hand over my shaved head, feeling violated. They would have all my memories, would have watched her come in my arms, her shuddering breaths as she returned to me. Now her orgasms are government property. I slide a look at Akron. He holds my look.
'She's in the United Freedom Fighters,' he says, low. 'Command has been looking for her for the last four years, and you were fucking her, right under our noses for six months before you died. You even told her you were a Delta Force Captain for fuck's sake.'
'She's a bartender,' I say, bridling at his tone, 'who barely manages to feed herself and her cat.'
'Yeah?' Akron challenges, jerking his chin at the view of London's grimy west end, its streets soot-blackened and choked with trash. 'What's her name?'
I look away. She wouldn't tell me. She promised she would when I got her out of there. Said it was a secret. I went along with it and called her Blue, for the wig. I should have suspected something, maybe I did and ignored it. I didn't want to lose her.
'You already read my memories,' I say, tight. 'I'm not in the mood for games.'
He turns his attention back to the tablet, his fingers deft, opening files. A video still pops up on the screen. I stare at it, stunned. It's her, wearing her blue wig, smiling, halfway through pouring out a lurid green shot atop a ring-stained, sticky, black-topped bar.
'From your memories,' Akron says. He taps the tablet's screen. The video plays. He steps back, and joins me, his arms folded over his chest. There is no sound. The thump of the club's music is gone. She leans over the bar to yell something into my ear, her blue wig brushing against me. I touch my face, remembering the feel of it, plastic and stiff. She is asking me if I am looking for something stronger. Opiates. I say no and point at my empty shot glass. She smiles and pours me another. I watch, transfixed, aching for her. She's right there, as large as life. I promised I would go back. I have to go back. I have to get her out of there. Her and that scrawny cat of hers, Miro. She made me promise to take her, too.
'Her name is Cassandra Vallis.' Akron says, crisp, sliding into debriefing mode. I suppress the urge to punch him. How dare he take what little good I had in my life and turn it into this: a peep show. I wonder if he jerked off to it. He probably watched it while he fucked his droids.
'If you say so,' I reply, belligerent, moving closer to the screen. I want to touch her face, but pride holds me back. I won't let him have everything. Some things will be mine. And this, looking at her, right now. This is mine.
'Maddox,' Akron says, his voice hard. 'Lubochnia was a Q Clearance level mission, your team should have been in and out, the target retrieved in less than an hour. But the UFF were waiting for you, when they should have been forty miles away.'
I continue to gaze at her, stubborn, though his words trickle through me, sickening me, poisoning my memories. He moves back to the panel. She fades to black. I turn.
'Did you tell her you were going to Lubochnia?'
I smile, flashing him my ugly, broken teeth. 'Check my memories.'
A look of unease slips over Akron's face. He hides it, but not fast enough. My senses tingle, intrigued. Typical Akron, doling out information little by little, leaving pieces out—important ones. I can play this game, too.
'Large sections were missing. Nothing but black.'
'I was asleep,' I shrug.
'No,' Akron says turning back to the tablet's screen. I watch as he pulls up another file, marked Q Clearance. He punches in a long string of characters, then presses his thumb to the screen. Files pour onto the wall where just a minute before I watched Blue, no, Cassandra pour me two fingers of Absinthe into a grubby glass.
'You were conscious. We think she drugged you,' Akron says, his attention on the files.
'I doubt it. The blood tests would have flagged any narcotics up.'
Akron lifts a scarred eyebrow at me. He fishes out a file from the directory and opens it. Several images spread across the wall: more drone shots, one looks to be what is left of central Berlin, another of a heavily barricaded compound, patrolled by armed UFF soldiers, several images scroll past of a medical lab filled with machines preparing compounds, the final image shows an old man zip-tied by his ankles and wrists to a metal chair in a bland white room, his face badly beaten. Akron nods at him. 'We got him to talk. Eventually.'
He looks like he expects me to say something. I cross my arms over my chest and wait.
Akron opens a sub-file. A bio rolls out along the left side of the wall. Henrik Åkersen, Danish, born 2013, PhD in biomedical engineering, Lead Engineer of R&D at Novo Nordisk, its facilities and sites subsumed into Military High Command in the global pharma reclamations of 2050. Granted citizenship to Alpha VII, 2058. Disappeared 2071. Assumed captured by UFF forces.
I already know all this, but I have decided to make things difficult for Akron. If he wants to accuse Blue—Cassandra—of being the one behind the ambush against me and my men, he's going to have to work for it.
'Henrik wasn't captured. He joined the UFF, and has been working for them since 2071. Between then and now, he's been busy. He built up three facilities in Berlin, Madrid, and Athens.'
'He left Alpha VII?' I ask, stunned. Fuck, Akron's got my attention now. Everyone wants to get into Alpha VII. Perched at the top of a green Greenland, basking in a temperate climate on the shale shores of the Arctic Ocean, it sits in its self-contained bubble housing Command's most elite and prized citizens. Only the best for them. I heard they even get real beef. Not meat grown in labs for the rest of us housed in the other Alpha and Omega cities of southern Greenland and across the Canadian tundra, but actual living, breathing cattle, raised and slaughtered just for them.
'It turns out he was a man of certain principles.' Akron glances at the image of the bloodied, white-haired old man. 'He might have been one of our brightest scientists, but he was a secret philanthropist. He felt guilty living in luxury while the rest of humanity grovelled in the gutter.'
'So he's been making medicine all this time,' I say, a sliver of admiration tainting my eastern accent.
Akron laughs, scornful. 'Of course not. The UFF were not as indulgent as Command. They lured him out with promises, feeding his ego, but when they got him, they threatened to kill his kids, demanding cheap opiates manufactured by the truckload, and something else, too.' Akron looks at me now, square in the eyes. 'A drug which makes people susceptible to suggestion and erases the memories of what they have done as though it never happened. Virtually untraceable in blood tests. Hypnotism, but without the hypnotist.'
I get it now. Where he is going with this.
'You talked, Maddox,' he states. 'We know.'
'How?' I ask, my gravelly voice lowers, suspicious. 'You can only see images.' I tilt my head at the wall, where she had just been. 'There is no sound.'
'We have lip readers,' Akron mutters, flat. 'When you were fucking her, Cassandra called you her Delta Force Captain.'
'I told her,' I lie. I can't help myself, something visceral inside me is determined to protect her from whatever Akron's got up his rolled-up sleeve. She did call me that sometimes because she said it was her fantasy to fuck one. I went along with it because it made her happy, pretending along with her, even though that's exactly what I was. Six months of my life she was all I thought about, craved for and wanted by my side. Six months. She told me she loved me. I believed it. I fucking smuggled pouches of cat food taped to my groin out of Omega V for her. If that's not love I don't know what is. What we had is not going to go away just because Akron wants it to. Not by a long shot. She didn't send me to my death. It would have killed her.
I'm betting there was no drug, and the images I'm looking at are staged. I get the feeling Akron's playing me, trying to get me to talk, to say where she is—sensing there's a big, fat bonus in it for him if I give her up, maybe even a golden ticket into Alpha VII. I'm no sadist like him, but I also know enough to know I'm not one of the good guys either—not after some of the missions I have executed. In this new skewed world of haves and have-nots, there's a lot of shades of grey. It's dog eat dog. And in the middle of this stinking, festering hell-hole, I found her.
I turn my back to Akron.
He exhales, slow. A pissed off sound, hinting things will go south if I don't give him what he wants.
'Did you tell her about the mission in Lubochnia?' he asks, quiet, dangerous.
'Of fucking course not,' I snap. I close my eyes, shutting out the image of Henrik's brutalised face. 'You know me better than that, sir.'
'I don't get you Maddox,' Akron says, cold as ice. 'Delta Force have a wing full of pleasure droids, yet you choose to risk everything to fuck some woman you know nothing about.' He scoffs before continuing, derisive. 'It wouldn't have been so bad if you'd just fucked her the once, but you went back, over and over. You even smuggled cat food across the barrier for her, you sad fuck.'
'Premium cat food,' I taunt. 'That shit's not cheap.'
'You committed treason,' Akron continues, relentless. 'Good men are dead because of your recklessness.' He pulls his pistol free. I brace myself. Cold metal presses against the back of my head. 'I want to kill you,' he whispers. 'You made me look bad.'
'Except you need me,' I say, calmer than I feel, since I want to smash his head into Henrik's image, until his face is as bloody as the old man's. 'The DoD spent all that money rebuilding me and got an executive order signed because my memories weren't enough were they? They would never have brought me back if you knew where to find her.'
Akron chuckles, mean. He pulls the pistol away, sharp. A whisper as he slides it back into its holster. He moves up beside me his knife freed from the holder strapped to his thigh. Quick as a viper he slices into my triceps, deep. I recoil, but there is no pain. I look down. No blood. Instead, a clear viscous liquid, and within the opening, thousands of tiny metallic movements, like a sea of silver ball bearings smaller than pin heads, swarming together, knitting into place, rebuilding me. Horrified, I watch as the opening closes within the space of several seconds, a layer of new flesh sliding into place. Only the rent in my shirt remains.
Akron eyes me, impassive.
'What have you done to me?' I breathe, my flesh crawling, revulsion slamming into me. Those things are inside me.
'Brought you back from the dead,' Akron says. 'Did you think you would still be human? You're more machine than man, now.' His gaze drops to my crotch, the faintest of a malicious smile ghosts his lips. I can't help myself, I feel between my legs. Nothing. Smooth as a doll. I stagger backwards, and stumble against the edge of the bed.
'I drank whisky,' I say, desperation clawing into me, denial riding me hard. 'I'll have to piss it out.'
'Under that shell of skin,' Akron says, watching me with morbid fascination, like a scientist watching a lab rat die, 'you're packed with nanotech. Anything you eat or drink will be broken down to its molecular basis. Any excess that can't be stored or used will evaporate through the pores of your skin as inert gases.'
'What the fuck—' I breathe. I'm dead but alive. A thing, the very thing I hate. A fucking droid. Loathing slithers through me. I touch the place where Akron slashed me, the flesh clean and unmarked. 'Why would you—?' I ask, unable to finish the question. My thoughts tumble, jagged and hot with terror. I can't be a machine. I feel real. The heft of my chest rises and falls, my breathing ragged; the air slides past my nostrils and into my lungs, sharp and slightly acrid, carrying the faint tang of ozone from the air conditioning.
'Bring you back?' Akron finishes, going to the whisky bottles. He pours himself another finger of Oban, and sips, his eyes on me, cold. He doesn't offer me a drink. He walks back to the screen, and faces me, obscuring the image of Henrik, his actions saying far more than words. For the first time in my life I understand what it means to be secondary—to be unworthy of common courtesy, like a droid. A sliver of rage ignites. I don't suppress it, but I don't do anything with it, either. I want to hear his answer first.
'I'm going to assume you haven't heard of Genesis II,' he says, tilting the amber liquid in his tumbler, the garish white light from the screen catching on it, making the Oban's surface gleam like a sunrise, 'considering I was only debriefed about it this morning.'
I shake my head, terse.
He takes another sip, and looks into the glass as he answers, 'The essence of it is this: Earth is fucked and Vallis is a critical for the success of Genesis II.' He glances up at me. 'You've heard of The Oracle?'
I shrug. 'Who hasn't. What's it to do with me?'
His eyes narrow, the skin around them tightening. 'That bartender you were fucking is the Oracle.'
I blink. My mouth opens, then closes again. I go to the whisky, my hands pour without thinking, automatic, practiced. I drink, and pleasant, hot fire drenches my throat, cutting through the blistering heat of betrayal. The Oracle. The most dangerous weapon the UFF possessed. I pause, the glass at my lips. If she were the Oracle, she would not have thought twice about drugging me to find out classified information, would have, in a heartbeat, sent me and my men to our deaths. And yet—I can't shake the feeling the DoD's intelligence is wrong. She's just Blue, the girl from the bar who loved me, and her half-starved, mangy cat. It's a fucking mistake.
'You are going to find her and bring her in,' Akron says, breaking into my thoughts.
'And if I refuse?' I ask, low, my accent thickening.
'We take away the protocol which allows you to exercise free will,' Akron answers. 'You will be reduced to nothing more than a military weapon, although—' he falls silent until I turn to face him. He taps his forefinger against his temple. 'You will still be aware of your free will, of what you want—but will be unable to disobey Command.' He looks back down at his half-empty tumbler and sniffs. 'We could order you to break her legs and you would do it.'
I let out a slow breath. So this is it. Where it all ends. I become Blue's enemy.
'She's not the Oracle,' I say, desperate to fend off what Command intends for me. 'Blue lives in a shitty apartment infested with cockroaches.' I lift my glass and take another sip, the whisky's heat bolstering me. 'You think the UFF would let the Oracle live like that, in such a vulnerable situation? She didn't even have a decent lock on her door.' I scoff. 'No. She would have the best of everything—wouldn't have to eat garbage from the club's dumpster.'
'Did you ever see her eat garbage?' Akron asks, soft.
My thoughts judder to a halt. Had I? I search my memories. She had told me the first time we met how she ate, but from then on, I bought food for her. I refuse to answer, but I can tell from Akron's smug look he knows he's made his point.
'She played you,' Akron mutters. He finishes his whisky and sets the empty glass onto the side table; it hits the wood with a dull thud. 'Although she wouldn't have been able to do so if you had never gone looking for a woman in the first place.' He glares at me, disgust oozing from him. His gaze bores into me, hard, angry. 'Command has had no choice but to assume everything you knew is now in the possession of UFF intelligence.'
I say nothing. Denial flows through me. She's just Blue; she's no one. She's not the Oracle. She didn't betray me. It's a mistake.
'You're wrong.' I set my glass down beside his, my hand steady despite the torrent of emotions coursing through me: rage, fear, disbelief, horror. 'I'm a Delta Force Captain. If she is the person Command believes she is, I'm far more valuable to the UFF alive and talking, than dead. She would never have killed me.'
'Yeah?' Akron challenges, tight. 'Never wondered why you were the only one still alive at the end of the ambush?'
Something hard and cold coils deep within my torso. He's right. My men were sniped off one by one until only I was left. If I hadn't called down the airstrike, it's not impossible I would still be alive. No one was shooting when I radioed the co-ordinates. I assumed they were reloading.
I sink onto the edge of the bed and stare at my military-issue boots laced tight, my trousers tucked into them. 'Christ,' I breathe. I look up, hollow. 'Fucking hell.'
Akron waits, his arms crossed over his chest. I watch my hands roll into fists, the muscles of my forearms standing proud. I look up.
'Tell me about Genesis II.'
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