Page 25: Just follow the yellow brick road.

Alex gave an apologetic smile and leaned forwards, clasping his hands atop the desk. ‘I’m sorry about that. Unfortunately something rather serious has come up. But, I think we’ve covered everything necessary. Do you have any questions?’

‘To be blunt, Mr. Denton, you seem to know everything about me already.’

Alex laughed.

‘What can I tell you?’ Paul continued. ‘I appreciate the opportunity, I wouldn’t mind a change of scene. Your offer was pretty generous.’

‘I need the best,’ Alex assured him. ‘I’m willing to pay for it.’

‘Then I’m all yours.’

‘Fantastic.’ Alex rose from the desk prompting to Paul to follow and shook the man’s hand. ‘Thanks for coming. ‘My assistant Jane will show you out.’

In the decrepit apartment, Matthias rested against a broken countertop while Stacey stood beside the door, eyes downcast. There was a sharp rap on the outer door.

‘Stacey?’ a gravelly male voice spoke. ‘It’s me.’

She looked to Matthias who straightened slightly, still, he appeared like a child, intimidated and insecure. Stacey stepped to the door and turned the handle. The man who entered wore a form-fitting suit, his dark shoes polished, thick, pitch-black hair combed back against his scalp. He took a breath, looking to Stacey who lowered her eyes from his gaze, and then to Matthias.

‘You’re willing to come with us?’

‘I don’t believe I have a lot of options,’ Matthias stepped from the counter. ‘Who are you?’

‘Ben Jameson.’ Ben extended a hand which Matthias, as usual, ignored.

‘Head of security for Ascension Technologies. We can get you somewhere safe, get you patched up. You’re in safe hands.’

‘No offense, but if you can get me someplace safe, I’ll do the patching.’

‘That’s fine,’ Jameson agreed. ‘But we need to get you out of here.’

‘Are we taking a van?’ Stacey enquired quietly.

‘There’s a unit a few buildings over. We’re short on time, so..’ Jameson turned and stepped to the doorway, looking both ways before proceeding into the alley.

He led them to the rear of another building, unlocking a blue door which led into a pristine apartment. Sunlight fell through large windows over cream carpet, the furniture perfectly aligned, every surface spotless. Leading them through a kitchen into the living room, a teleportation sat in a rear corner. Jameson activated the unit and began dialling.

‘So you just had one prepared?’

Jameson released a near undetectable huff before turning to explain.

‘Ascension holds many assets, but yes. After your incident at Natural Robotics, we’ve been watching you.’

‘Why?’

‘My employer finds you valuable.’

Jameson finished dialling, and the teleporter came alive, emitting a low hum.

‘I’ll go first,’ Jameson offered, and stepped inside, his form disintegrating.

Once they were alone, Matthias looked to Stacey.

‘You trust this guy?’

She gave a small shrug. ‘He’s my boss. I’d trust him with my life.’

She sensed his remaining hesitation and continued: ‘Look, it’s purely by accident that we even knew each other before this. I was placed at Natural Robotics as an observer. I was and am your friend. You can trust me.’

Her eyes seemed sincere, and reading her biometric signs, he couldn’t detect a lie.

‘Okay.’ He looked to the teleporter, hesitating, and stepped inside.

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Page 16: Seduce and capture

Matthias opened his eyes. Stacey was pacing the kitchen nearby, speaking to someone on the phone. ‘..well he’s out cold. Do you want to pick him up now? … My apartment. 2320.’

She caught sight of Matthias staring at her and faltered. ‘He’s just woken up. Okay. Thanks.’

Her face drew into a picture of concern as she approached him on the couch.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Why did you do that?’ his voice was steady and neutral, his eyes studying her body’s reactions. Her pulse rose.

‘I know, it was probably a bit too soon, but.. jesus, are you alright? I was just trying to call somebody, you just passed out. I’ll get you a glass of water..’

She turned back for the kitchen.

‘Stacey. Take a seat.’

She paused, looking at him, appearing bewildered and moved to take a seat beside him. Her body was directed towards his, their knees almost touching.

‘There’s a large electromagnetic pulse generator sitting beneath me.’

‘A.. what?’

‘You have the trigger in your left-hand pocket.’

‘I have my code generator..’ She pulled out a small device, a single button placed beside a tiny display. ‘Two-factor security for my accounts.’

He blinked, unsmiling. ‘Do you really want me to get up and pull it out?’

She didn’t answer.

‘I can sense it. What were you trying to do?’

‘I don’t know what you’re accusing me of, but.. just, what the hell?’

Matthias took to his feet, bent down, reached beneath the couch and slid the device out onto the carpet. It was a square steel box with vents in each side, a handle-lock was built into a hatch in the cover.

‘This,’ he said.

Stacey was silent. Her eyes were on the box. ‘I don’t know what that is.’

‘Stacey, really?’

Her manner changed, calm eyes studying him. She crossed her legs and clasped her hands in her lap.

‘Well?’

‘If I tell you, will you promise to hear me out?’

‘No promises.’

‘I work for a security team for a large organisation.’

‘Which organisation?’

‘They.. heard about your arm,’ she looked away as she said it. ‘They want to help.’

‘What do you mean “help”?’

‘You can’t trust Natural Robotics! As soon as they figure out what you are.’

‘And what am I?’

‘A.. you tell me!’ she exclaimed. ‘You’re “heavily modified.” They’ve never seen anything like it. They’re willing to pay a lot to take a look at your augmentations.’

‘I’m done.’

Matthias began walking to the teleporter.

‘I’m only trying to help,’ Stacey called.

Matthias punched his home number into the dial on her teleporter. ‘By neutralising me?’ he muttered.

She hurried to catch him as he stepped inside. ‘This was just a test. I was ordered.. to see how you’d react. They’ll pay you. You need their protection.’

‘I don’t need protection.’

The teleporter activated, surrounding him in a haze of light. A few moments and he was gone.

‘Shit!’ Stacey turned, pacing the room. Thumbing her earlobe, she stopped in the centre of the room. ‘Jameson.’

She waited while the line was opened. ‘Hey. I lost him. I can keep trying but, I’m not sure he’s going to trust me.’

She listened as a voice spoke on the other line. ‘Yeah,’ she sighed. ‘Alright.’

 ***

Matthias stepped out into his apartment.

‘Berkeley?’

A few steps into the apartment and the lights weren’t functioning. He couldn’t sense any electricity. He raised the receptivity of his artificial photoreceptors, enabling a would-be nightvision. Stepping into the lounge, he looked towards the couch.

‘Berkeley?’

A pair of hands grabbed him from behind, locking his arms behind his back.

‘Who is that? Let me go!’

He attempted to pull forwards but was caught at his feet, and fell to his knees. A tumultous drone overtook his senses, a whirring which came close to the right side of his head, gravitating to just above his right ear. Pressed against his skull, his senses were disabled. He fell to the ground, conscious but blind to reality.

A voice spoke in the darkness: ‘I have the package.’

Page 14: Under Surveillance

‘I’m sorry,’ she blushed, placing the purse to one side. ‘You were saying?’

‘I’m wondering who would break into my apartment. I feel like I’m drawing a lot of attention with this arm,’ he raised the bandaged limb.

‘It was kind of hard to miss,’ she admitted. ‘Do you mind if I ask – is the bandage just for show, or..?’

‘I’m resurfacing it,’ he explained. ‘It’s real skin and tissue, just the synthetic arm underneath. It’s supposed to grow back, with some coaxing.’

She stared. ‘Fascinating. Sorry, here you are not wanting attention.. I’m curious.’

‘It’s fine,’ he smiled.

‘I wouldn’t be shy about it,’ she offered.’Prosthetics are pretty commonplace these days. I mean, half of the people here are modified. No one’s going to judge you for it.’

‘I guess,’ Matthias conceded, eyes on the table. ‘I just.. I’d prefer to stay in the background.’

‘I get that,’ she sympathised. ‘Hey, at least its  your arm. I’ve seen people with metal faces, glowing red eyes.. granted, they don’t work in the daylight.’

Nearby, the gray-eyed observer from outside Matthias’ apartment stepped from a teleporter booth. Scanning the bar, he began circling the room, head down, furtive eyes searching.

‘I’d hate to have something like that,’ Matthias agreed. ‘But hey, enough about me. Do you have any pets?’

‘I am a cat person,’ she admitted. ‘Just the one. Erasmus.’

‘I take it he doesn’t talk?’

‘No, no,’ she laughed. ‘He’s the real thing. He eats and poops and leaves fur everywhere.. I guess there would be advantages to having an animatronic version.’

‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you outside of work. What do you do for fun?’

‘Well, I jog, and I read, and I spend too much time on the internet..’

‘Don’t we all.’

Stacey noticed the observer pass by, pausing as he recognised Matthias. Brushing an earlobe with a fingertip, she drew a phone from her pocket.

‘Sorry,’ she explained, ‘I just missed a call from work.’

‘No problem,’ Matthias responded agreeably. ‘Go ahead.’

Unlocking her phone, Stacey tapped out a quick message before locking it again.

‘I’m sorry,’ she sighed. ‘Something has come up..’

‘This late?’ Matthias raised an eyebrow.

‘It’s those damn reports, the files are corrupted or something, I can resend them from home. It wouldn’t take a minute but Chelsea is on my back.’

‘It’s fine,’ Matthias smiled. ‘I don’t mind.’

Stacey rose from her seat but paused at the edge of the booth. ‘Look..’ she hesitated. ‘I don’t want to be too forward, but if you’d like to come back to my place.. we could keep talking.’

‘Yeah, okay.’

‘You don’t mind?’

‘I honestly don’t have any plans,’ he admitted.

‘Well.. okay then. Follow me?’

The observer watched from a booth behind her as they rose from the table and headed out, his head down, but noting every word.

The pair emerged from a teleporter under a high ceiling, in a bright lobby of white walls, and chandeliers. Great glass doors opened onto downtown, the one area of the city that was still busy outdoors. A sharp reception desk stood to one side where a couple were being served by an office girl. Tiled chessboard floors reflected a domed ceiling. Crossing the hall, Stacey led him to a second bank of five teleporters against the opposite wall. Typing a security code into the keypad, she led him inside.

The sunburnt orange of late afternoon shone in bursts through a window running the length of a narrow lounge. A red couch sat to the left beneath the window, against cream walls, white bookshelves on the right held a collection of faded paperbacks and a scattering of polished shells. An open doorway led into a large kitchen and hallway to the right.

‘Take a seat,’ Stacey offered. ‘I’ll just get this email out of the way.’

Matthias approached the couch, as Stacey disappeared through a darkened doorway opposite the entrance, and paused to gaze from the window. The view consisted of a few rooftops shrinking beneath the heights of greater buildings. The sun fell down behind them, twinkling between the gaps in the field of steel and glass.

‘Nice view,’ he called.

‘Thanks,’ she called. ‘It wasn’t cheap.’

He sat down on the couch with his legs crossed, reading the titles of her books and studying the seashells, albeit from a distance. The books were predominantly classics and philosophy, time-honoured tomes from the 18-1900s.

‘Hopefully that does it,’ she conceded, appearing at the door. ‘Would you like a drink?’

‘No, I’m okay,’ he smiled. ‘Thanks. I’m still adjusting to The Commander.’

‘Oh, come on, it’s not that strong. You liked it?’

She ambled to the couch and took a seat beside him.

‘It wasn’t bad,’ he shrugged.

‘Oh! How did your review go, by the way?’

‘I was right.. they wanted to know about the arm.’

‘What did you tell them?’

‘That it wasn’t their business. It doesn’t affect my work, so..’

‘Good on you.’

‘This is a nice place,’ he said, nodding towards the window. ‘Great view.’

‘Thanks,’ she smiled, looking away.

‘Extra hours?’

‘Something like that.’

She seemed unable to look in his direction, preoccupied with the carpet, the bookshelves,  her heart was beating faster. He noticed her hand by his leg.

‘Are you okay?’

She looked towards him, appearing somewhat dismayed. ‘Yeah, I’m.. fine.’

‘No, you’re not.’He took her hand and she leaned in towards him, meeting his eyes, then rested her head against his shoulder.

‘What is it?’

She kissed him, and, unsure of how to react, he returned it, just like so many movie scenes, a palm by the cheek, tender fingertips resting against the skin, sliding across the neck, sensual lips caressing one another, a fleeting gaze into the eyes. She climbed atop him, straddling his thighs, palms by his neck, devouring his lips.

One hand slipped down, brushing a pocket by her thigh, she depressed a button. He heard it first: a faint ring coalescing into a sweeping wave of static, rushing from the air, buffeting against his skin, pervading his limbs. He slipped from consciousness.

Page 12: Interloper

A short, clean-shaven man with brown hair, fine features, and a lab coat stood at a desk, studying an image of Matthias’ form as he rotated it on a monitor.

‘This is incredible,’ he whispered, before speaking louder, for the benefit of a man behind him. ‘Every limb has been augmented, even his skull.. See how the skin is translucent for several layers? His body is shielded from electromagnetic interference. I would bet money that even his brain has been modified.’

Behind him, the heavy-lidded man from I.T., with the forest of eyebrows, stroking his haphazard beard studied the images over his underling’s shoulder. ‘Call Security. I want him placed under surveillance immediately.’

‘Okay.. but why? We might scare him off, I mean, imagine the advances we might make from studying this guy, if we could just have some time..’

‘I’m hopeful for that, but that level of augmentation couldn’t have come cheap. Clearly he’s lost more than an arm. I need to know where, what, and how he got it. Have I.T. trace his accounts, review his access logs, everything.’

‘Alright..’ the lab technician pressed a finger to his ear.

The heavy-lidded man stepped away. ‘Oh, and Bowen?’

The lab coat turned to look upon his supervisor. ‘This doesn’t leave the office.’

 

Matthias’ returned to his desk amid little fanfare, his colleagues occupied with work. He began looking at reports, though his mind was elsewhere.

A flashing icon appeared on a lower portion of his screen. An instant message from Stacey.

Stacey Loughlin: How did it go?

He typed his reply:

Matthias Drake: They chewed me out for saving that woman. Apparently I’m not qualified.

Stacey Loughlin: Figures. Did they say anything about your arm?

Matthias Drake: I think they’re eyeing me for a test subject.

Stacey Loughlin: Screw that.. Look, I was wondering, if you need an excuse to avoid heading out with Dennis, would you like to meet for coffee sometime?

Matthias peered between their desks. Stacey met his eyes, her heart rate was above normal, her eyes dilated.

Matthias Drake: Would this be a date?

Stacey Loughlin: Call it what you want, I just thought it could be nice. Better than beer and strippers, right?

Matthias Drake: Sure. Tomorrow?

Stacey Loughlin: Tomorrow it is. After work?

Matthias Drake: Okay. ..Do you have a place in  mind? I don’t really go for coffee very often.

Stacey Loughlin: There’s a bar called Pump at 11502.

Matthias Drake: ..a bar, for coffee?

Stacey Loughlin: The coffee is standard, but it’s a really nice place. I was thinking more of your arm.. I know you don’t like the attention, and this is the last place people will look.

Matthias Drake:  Okay 🙂

Stacey Loughlin: Cool 🙂

 

A few metres from home, Matthias noticed a man standing by the lobby, leaning against a wall by the entrance, his fingers tapping at a phone. He wore waterproof blue jeans and a puffy black jacket, his t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of some innocuous tech company. A layer of stubble augmented a weathered face. He looked up and gave a smile as Matthias passed, which Matthias returned. The man’s eyes were gray, and cold. As he proceeded for the elevators, the man typed on his phone:

He’s home. Next move?

[ENCRYPTED MESSAGE]  Stay and watch.

Stepping into the apartment, there was a lifeless reflection on Matthias’ arm from the overhead lights.  He approached his laptop directly and sat down. The machine came to life.

Berkeley stirred on the couch behind him.

‘Buenas noches señor, cómo estuvo tu día?’

‘Complicated. I need to cover this arm. Bandages!’ He rose from the chair and started towards the kitchen.

‘Muy buena. Asegúrese de que me haga saber si usted necesita cualquier ayuda.’

‘Berkeley,’ Matthias paused, halfway there.

‘Señor?’

‘Is there a reason you’re speaking in Spanish?’

‘Es el lenguaje de mi pueblo, señor. Puedo cambiar a cualquier otro si eso te agradaría más.’

‘Come here.’

Matthias met him halfway, kneeling in the carpeted lounge.

‘I need to access your internals.’

He  unlatched a panel in the side of Berkeley’s head, exposing a tight, coiled array of processors, shaped somewhat like a spring. Cooling units exhumed air through his ears and ducted heat further through his neck to be addressed in his torso.

Matthias pressed a small button inside his head, tugging a small chip, coated in black plastic from a removable slot. He inspected the contacts and reseated it, before closing the compartment.

‘Full reset, load last custom configuration.’

The dog’s eyes closed for a moment, his chassis cooled. He was still, like a taxidermied canine. After a moment, his eyes opened.

‘Hello. May I ask the time?’

‘June 27th, 5.31 pm.’

‘Thank you.’

He stood and waited as Berkeley came to his senses.

The dog shook his head. ‘Ugh. Why did you reset me? I can’t stand the hangover.’

‘Was anyone here?’

‘Yeah, actually.. some schmuck came through the elevator. Next thing I know, boom! I’m gone.’

Matthias turned and headed for the kitchen.  ‘I think we may need to bail.. Check your systems and search the apartment for anything foreign, I need to know if we’re safe here.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘I need to fix this arm!’