Interlude 3.c

Henry Padden had never been a pleasant individual. At his best he could be described as blunt and unflinching, but those less charitable referred to him as scornful, unforgiving, and just plain rude. The loss of his right arm and leg, two ribs on that side, and several feet each of small and large intestine had done nothing to improve his attitude. The first year after his discharge from the Parahuman Response Team he'd been inundated with well-wishers: coworkers, family and acquaintances had all shelved their opinions of him and done their best to ease his pain. He only struck out against them all the more, wanting someone else to hurt like he had. And even now, four years later, One Lee was still free and blowing up more people like he had Henry. While Henry rotted in a wheelchair on a barely-sufficient government stipend, watching wrestling reruns on SpikeTV.

As family had drifted away from his acidic treatment, he found less and less assistance with keeping his home clean. In the name of pragmatism he had been forced to sell or dispose of most of his furniture and knickknacks simply because he couldn't keep them clean by himself. He sat in his living room, a wooden folding table beside him holding a simple microwaved dinner of chicken fried steak while the television provided the only illumination. Much like every single night for the last three years. Henry couldn't remember the last time he'd gone outside for more than a drive to the grocery store. Nothing gave him happiness any longer. He didn't bother choosing his food for its flavor anymore, only that he didn't hate it: it barely held taste for him regardless. On the upside, the all-consuming numb ennui also muted the phantom pain of his missing limbs. Had he watched this match before? He couldn't remember. Every day bled together into one half-awake bad dream. If only all of this was a bad dream and he could wake up. Or perhaps this was his mind's pathetic attempt at giving him a life and he was, in the real world, seconds away from slipping away into oblivion from the shrapnel of Oni Lee's grenade.

The shrill wail of his phone nearly caused him to shoot out of his wheelchair, barely catching himself by the armrest and barking several vicious curses. When was the last time that thing had rung? It certainly wasn't with him – still resting on his nightstand. "Fuckity-fuck goddamn…" he snarled to himself as he rolled back into his bedroom.

Henry snatched up his phone, giving it a violent yank to pop the charging cable out of it. "What is it?" he snapped. How dare this disruption intrude on his tradition of nerveless existence?

"So sorry to interrupt your nightly ritual of Hungry Man in front of wrestling on the television, Mister Padden," the man on the other end of the line said. His voice was almost the perfect 'everyman,' bland and listless. But the content of his words, that caught his attention. While not exactly accurate – it was Stouffer's tonight – it still made a statement, and possibly a threat. "I call to offer you a position at the ground floor of a new endeavor – the opportunity to make a difference again."

Henry scoffed. "Sorry, pal, I gave at the office."

"Gave an arm and a leg, two ribs from one side, and a total of fifteen feet of intestine – nine small, six large," the voice replied with startling swiftness. "And all because the PRT would rather capture dangerous parahumans than put them down. We're looking for people who fought the good fight only to be let down by the system. If you have a grudge that needs settling, all the better. I don't expect you to choose now. The proposition of going back and changing the world when you've settled into helplessness is a daunting one. Call us when you decide." The line went dead. Then, seconds later, the high-pitched beep of a text message pierced Henry's skull. He blurted some more curses, biting his tongue. He'd been texted a phone number, and not the one that had just called him.

Angrily, he rolled back to his cooling dinner. Who did that guy think he was, expecting Henry to get off his ass and put his life on the line all over again? Henry Padden was perfectly fine to just congeal in front of the television.

How many times had he wanted to die but been too afraid to do it?

How many times had he wanted to kill himself but remembered that his soul would be damned if he did? How many times had he insisted that God didn't exist but couldn't bring himself to take that gamble?

How many times had he fantasized about what he would have done differently? Those captured capes – murderers, brutes, who would only go on to kill more because of the fucking comic book-level revolving doors on their prisons, how much better would the world have been if he'd just reached into the containment foam and twisted their necks?

None of that made him move, just more regrets that had torn at his psyche for years.

What would make him pick up the phone the next day was a much simpler question: what did he really have to lose?

Two days later, a nondescript gray SUV pulled into a parking space in the apartment complex. Henry Padden rolled out of the elevator, offering his typical sneer to any of his neighbors who saw him, and climbed out of his chair to awkwardly hobble into the backseat. An equally nondescript man in a brown polo shirt stepped out to load the chair into the back.

And that was the last time anyone would see Henry Padden.

(BREAK)

"So, with all the secrecy, are you gonna put a bag over my head?" Henry quipped as the SUV began to move. It was a simple affair, the vehicle apparently stock without any additional trappings. From the weird smell, it might have been bought that very day.

"No point," the driver replied. He didn't elaborate.

The man in the back, beside Henry, wore no mask or makeup or anything to disguise himself. "What my companion means, in so many words, is that we don't expect you'll sell us out and thus we have no concern over you somehow memorizing every single turn we take over the course of a single trip and extrapolating our facility's location from that."

"Well, since you're the talkative one, what exactly did I sign up for? Making a difference has a lot of meanings to a lot of people, but I'm not exactly in fighting shape. Am I going to be running logistics or something?"

The back-seat man chuckled. "Goddamn, you didn't even ask about that before agreeing? He's good at picking them…" Before Henry could ask who 'he' was, his companion was talking again. "We're offering you a chance to get back out into the field. Properly armed and equipped to handle the threat of parahuman violence – no discount SWAT armor and glorified fire extinguisher. I can't list off the exact details but from what I understand you should be equipped to handle low-rated Brutes."

Henry tried asking more questions but soon gave up when the answers were always vague and punctuated with statements like "I don't have all the details."

The drive lasted several hours, moving deep into the country. The vehicle eventually rolled to a stop in front of a derelict gas station. Henry looked at the burnt-out sign and the broken windows, then turned to raise a questioning eyebrow.

"That's the other reason we didn't need to bag your head," his companion said as the smell became more intense, the air vents blasting on high now.

Henry panicked, tried to swing his arm and at least exact some retribution, but his limb would not obey.

"It's alright," the back-seat man stated, unaffected by the gas. "Nobody's gonna hurt you. But this is going to be a bit more of a trip."

(BREAK)

Henry Padden awoke in his wheelchair. Strapped into his wheelchair. His leg and arm were secured to the frame by zip-ties, and a simple bungee cord was wrapped around his chest like a bandolier, hooking onto itself in the back.

"Y'know, that's always impressive," a female voice noted. A youngish woman, perhaps in her mid-20s, approached him. She wore a black ensemble somewhere between that of a nurse and secretary, all sleek lines and pencil skirt. But the way the light hit it said to Henry that it was made of some sort of protective polymer. Her hair was done up in a severe bun and the only other notable feature was some kind of triangular red iconography on her shoulders, almost reminding him of military rankings. She moved behind him too quickly for him to get a proper look. "You're basically in hibernation, then one quick spritz and you come back to life in about a minute." She started to push his chair and the door hissed open.

"Where am I?" he asked, mouth cottony.

"Your new home for the next three or so months, if all goes well," she replied in an upbeat tone. "If you don't take to the procedures then you might be here longer, but I think you're a fighter. Oh, where are my manners? I'm Mariska and I'll be your nurse and attendant for while you're here."

"My nurse?" Hospitals hadn't had individualized nurses since, what, the 1920s? Moreover, what would he need a nurse for, and why couldn't he vocalize all of this? It was so hard to slur more than a few syllables, even if he could feel his body slowly waking up more and more.

"How else are we going to get you back into fighting shape?" Mariska wheeled him into an auditorium, and he saw other nurses doing the same with other people. There must have been at least two dozen, all in wheelchairs. Some were just torsos without any limbs at all, while others looked completely intact except for the vacant look in their eyes. Other nurses showing up to wheel in their charges and then retreat to the back wall to stand at attention like military officers gave him the chance to take note of the icons on their shoulders. It was a triangle, but the corners turned into rounded tips from which multiple points extended – like a child's drawing of a buzzsaw, too few teeth and what were there, were far too long. At the center was a scorpion's tail, curled and poised to strike. That same symbol was on the podium before him, and now Henry felt foolish for straining his eyes to take in the details on the nurses' shoulders when he could have just looked straight ahead.

A man stepped onto the dais and the difference between him and the nurses was startlingly pronounced. Already Henry had been impressed by the physiques of both the male and female nurses and the natural manner in which they adopted military posture. The man on stage, however, was built like a truck and wearing a uniform that while strange – almost like some manner of wraparound tunic fastening on the side – screamed 'officer.' While the room was small, the officer tapped the microphone on the podium.

"Former members of American law enforcement," the big man rasped, and the mic made sense. He had a voice as if a circus fire eater had misunderstood his role and actually tried to eat the fire. "I welcome you to our project. Each of you was brutalized by a symbol of national collapse and disunity – gangs, parahuman criminals, attempted rebellions. And each and every one of you was simply given discharge papers and a joke of a stipend to compensate for your suffering and loss."

Henry spared a glance at the woman beside him, who appeared to be a drooling vegetable. What was the point of delivering a speech to someone like her?

"You were thrown away, just another statistic in an ongoing war, where ordinary humans are considered acceptable losses to keep the villains happy so they'll fight the Endbringers. Because humans are weak. Humans are expendable. Humans are worthless."

The officer slammed his fist onto the podium. "We of the Brotherhood reject this assertion! Humanity is the most powerful force in existence! Our will is indomitable, our courage unbreakable, our strength limitless. And we have allowed ourselves to forget this, allowed ourselves to believe that us ordinary people are lesser to the parahumans that darken our skies. They say we need Tinker inventions just to keep up. They say we should be happy to contribute as faceless masses to foam down the opposition and pause the slaughter for a day or so. We say no to this baseless assertion!" He took a moment to breathe, recovering his voice. The officer schooled his features, but shouting (or rather, 'shouting') like that had caused him pain. "The Brotherhood of Nod welcomes you to the first iteration of the Augment Project. Your assigned nurse will walk you through what is to come. I hope to restore your faith in humanity's strength over these coming months."

As one, the nurses stepped from the wall and strode to their assigned patients.

"The Brotherhood of Nod," Henry asked as Mariska wheeled him out. "Never heard of them. Is this some kind of cult?"

The fact that she didn't immediately deny his accusation could be a good thing or a bad thing. "We're a pre-Scion organization. We used to be an international...I don't think I'd call the Brotherhood a paramilitary group, though we certainly did our share of private contracts, but we also had an extensive research division focused on things like clean energy, astronomy and space exploration. The whole capes and Endbringers stuff really put a damper on our work, but the various cells we split into have finally started to come back together."

"And what about the name?" If he was to have a talkative nurse, might as well get what information he could.

"It has religious connotations. I don't know how old the Brotherhood is, but we have our spiritual roots in Hebrew mythology – that is, before Christianity or Judaism. If you've ever read Genesis, the land of Nod was where the monsters came from, and where those scorned by God were sent. I'm no historian but from what I gather the Brotherhood was originally a group of outcasts and exiles who banded together and basically forged a pact to make up for their wrongdoings."

"And the big guy giving the speech?"

"That's Joshua. He's basically the facility manager and in charge of morale. He doesn't lead the North American branch or anything, if that's what you're thinking."

So this secret facility with custom uniforms wasn't the limit? Interesting, and worrisome. "Alright, so what exactly is this Augment Project?"

Mariska grinned behind him. He could hear it in her voice. "The long and short of it is, we're going to make you into cyborgs."

Henry couldn't help but stop and blink. "I'm sorry, what?"

"That was my first reaction, too. Then I saw the diagrams and medical plans. This is legitimate, Henry. And not some Tinkertech chop shop – these are techniques that anyone with the right tools could emulate. Though we would of course prefer our tech remain proprietary."

"...Let's say I believe you. 'Cyborg' could mean a lot of things. What are you going to do with me?"

The door to his room hissed open. "First off is the testing phase, where we give you a number of exams to test your mental state and capabilities. From there, well, we have two 'models' of cyborg. The first is more like a robot skeleton. It's meant to be modular and have attachments. That's sort of the specialist model, which can go where it's needed and handle a whole range of situations, but without preparation it's barely better than the human baseline – and worse in some respects. But based on your history, I think you're suited for the combat model. Big, chunky, heavy-duty armor and equipped with inbuilt weaponry. Only problem is you can't really throw a trenchcoat over yourself and pretend to be a normal person. There are a couple of even more specialized designs, but those are for the real prodigies or risk-takers. Low expected chance of survival due just to the sheer amount of work that goes into the body."

"Do you have pictures?"

"Just mockups." Mariska fished into a concealed pocket and extracted a thin smartphone, or what had appeared to be a phone. It came alive without needing an unlock code and didn't have a typical menu, instead only a few folders with medical information and images. She tapped over to Combat Cyborg. The resulting pictures were crude, bulky beasts of metal that barely resembled people any longer. Further pictures showed cross-sections of the armor plating and actual photos of the plating after being shot with various calibers of bullet. Anything lighter than anti-materiel rounds for dealing with APCs would likely be little more than an inconvenience. The internal weaponry looked awkward, but the chassis was apparently designed for internal storage of ammunition to avoid being disarmed or without ammo. The right arm included a heavy pauldron that could open to expose a colossal gun. It was hard to tell but it had to be at least 30 millimeters, possibly 40. A rifled-barrel semiautomatic 30mm pistol in his shoulder. That had potential.

(BREAK)

"Whoever you were before," Joshua rasped, "you are now all Augments. The people in this room are your new brothers and sisters, here to help you just as you help them. You will forge new bonds as you shed your old skin."

The tests confirmed Mariska's projection. Henry was an acerbic individual who was restless when not left in a numb state of defeat. He would be a poor fit as some manner of specialized utility cyborg.

The first physical tests were blood drawings, drilling for marrow, brain and deep-tissue scans. Everything to confirm just how much of his body could withstand the process and how much would need to be replaced. After that came the most agonizing test, inserting some sort of device into his spine which sent electrical signals down his nerves one at a time. This served two purposes: gauging his willpower and dedication while also seeing how his individual nerves fired.

"The Brotherhood offered you this chance because you are the downtrodden, the forgotten. You were exiled from society through no crime of your own, yet you suffer worse than the criminals who still flood the streets. You have the opportunity to even the scales and exact vengeance against those who wronged you."

At night, Henry slept with a white-noise machine that supposedly helped acclimate his mind to the computer that would interface with his brain. During the day he performed twitch-reflex exercises and utilized his eyes to target blips on a screen.

"All that we ask in return is for you to fight to protect your fellow humans, downtrodden and forgotten themselves; and that you uphold the Brotherhood's vision for a future of equal opportunity, where a human is not considered lesser for lack of some eldritch power."

The first round of surgeries came. Henry was required to remain conscious but his pain receptors were turned off. He had been preparing for this, Mariska showing him videos of particularly brutal surgery, but it was still horrifying to watch as the doctors essentially flayed him alive to insert circuitry that bonded to his nerves, then slid beneath his muscle to fuse metal to his bones. Pistons and flexors were inserted within his muscle groups to augment his strength and allow the mechanical parts to function seamlessly. Attached to his bones were the framework that rose out of his skin, onto which the armor would affix. It would rest atop his skin with the hope that eventually his skin would grow around it. If not, the Brotherhood's surgeons could remove it periodically for medical assistance.

That night Henry couldn't move anything beneath his neck. His body was heavy, muscles invaded by metal. He couldn't flex around them. He cried himself to sleep.

The next day was his first round of brain surgery. The computer that was to be his companion was attached to his vertebrae, the processors purposely placed inwardly so minor impacts wouldn't damage them. More were added than were needed, that in the case of damage he wouldn't suddenly find himself nonfunctional. He was given crude motorized prostheses. Nothing like what he would eventually have, but sturdy enough to support his weight. With the computer interfacing with his mechanized muscles, Henry staggered out into the auditorium under his own power, walking for the first time in four years.

The next day his proper arm and leg were attached. More of his intestines were removed to make room for his internal ammunition store. He would have to eat specialized ration bars designed for ease of absorption to compensate for his lack of intestine to properly absorb nutrients, but he was already giving up any chance at a 'normal' life, for all the good normalcy had done him.

"The Brotherhood of Nod will ever stand against tyranny. We offer freedom and absolution in equal measure, a church of converts atoning for our sins and punishing the unrepentant for theirs. Those who cry out in pain have always been heard, but we have long been unable to act. No more."

The Augments stepped confidently into the auditorium. They had lost seven of their number to the surgeries, but all of them could now move almost as well as they had before. The woman who had before drooled helplessly now bore a bright smile, her body finally able to order its nerves once again.

A new area of the facility was opened to them, a gymnasium where they could spar and train. Calisthenics were paramount, teaching them to utilize their new limbs and to move smoothly. Their cybernetic appendages lacked the depth of feeling and a degree of dexterity that real hands and feet provided, so they had to practice to compensate.

"Trust your new brothers and sisters, learn from them. You all have similar experiences but you are all different. Pool your knowledge and plan for the future."

Her name was Donna. A combat cyborg, like him. She had a very pretty smile. They trained together, new cybernetic limbs equally strong. She knew some tae kwon-do and did her best to teach him. He taught her grappling.

"For those of you running from your pasts, this is a chance to redefine yourselves, to be the person you aspire to be, rather than the person you let yourself become."

Henry pushed himself harder, working to excel in every field as a combat cyborg. He requested extra time in the simulations, teaching his eyes and targeting computer to work faster and more smoothly, learning how to draw a bead more easily and the best rhythm to fire the 40-mil. While technically it could fire as quickly as he could mentally pull the trigger, it could tax the reloading system. A slight stagger to the fire rate was best, and seemed to be ideal for maximizing the destabilization of any target that wasn't simply dropped by the first shot.

Donna's cannon was in her left shoulder. She was right-handed and didn't need a full limb replacement, so it had been decided that she should be left with as much dexterity as possible in her main hand and her left arm had been replaced.

Henry didn't like his memories of his previous life. He'd been a bastard and had chased everyone away. He'd been alone, hating himself, hating everyone else. He did his best to change that, consciously worked to listen to others – Donna especially.

"You are, now and forever, members of the Brotherhood. As we have given you new lives, we know that you will give those lives for us."

As the behavioral modifications were fully programmed into him and the kill-chip to detonate his remaining ammo stores while turning off his vital organs was installed, Henry decided it was a small price to pay for happiness.

A/N: Whew, I've been gone for a while. I don't know if I can make my updates regularly just yet but I've been working on my physical and mental health and I really wanted to post something. I hope this helps establish the groundwork for what's to come!