Chapter Two – Dr. Feelgood
If you're worried about healthcare in the SCIRE, don't! Centrally located clinics on each residential floor are well equipped to handle any minor injuries, with sophisticated diagnostic equipment and well-stocked pharmacies. More serious medical conditions are referred to one of the arcology's fifteen fully-staffed hospitals; one is located within each group of residential floors to ensure swift access to their services. And if a little cybernetic modification or cosmetic surgery is more your fancy, each hospital is also equipped with a cybernetic operating suite and surgeons who can provide you with whatever life enhancement product your heart desires. The SCIRE architects really did think of everything!
-Renraku Arcology New Employee Welcome Manual
It was a three meter drop. It felt like thirty. I meant to roll as I landed, but I misjudged and hit the floor in a heap. Then Shepherd's hands were on me, guiding me, lifting me up. Bull yanked a grenade from his combat harness and slung it into the hole in the ceiling. It went off with a floor-shaking bang a few seconds later. I took used the moment's reprieve to look around, getting my bearings.
What I had thought was a large room wasn't just large. It was massive. It spread out in at least a football field in each direction, people laid out on the floor everywhere we looked. It was a sea of them, attended to like cattle by a fleet of tiny drones. Off in the distance, a handful of crab-like machines the size of a Nissan Jackrabbit were at work, tearing down what few walls remained on this floor. Saws and plasma torches and pneumatic hammers played background music to the din of moans that filled the chamber.
"Where are we?" I barked at Sugar.
"I… I don't know," she wheezed. "We're on the fourteenth floor… but it's supposed to be another residential floor, not… not this!"
"It's a fragging feed lot," Bull growled.
"Which way to the evac point?"
"I don't know! Didn't you hear what I said? Everything is wrong, turned around. It doesn't make sense. Nothing is like it is on the map."
"Do not look now," Shepherd rumbled, "but it appears someone else has taken an interest in us."
He pointed over my shoulder with one finger. I looked back to see that the crab machines had ceased their construction work and had begun scuttling toward us. I looked around frantically, searching for a way out. The nearest exit I could see was an escalator, nearly fifty yards away. It was framed by a quartet of thick plasticrete pillars at each corner, black stairs rotating silently downward. I jerked my head toward it.
"The escalator. Go."
"But we don't know where it leads," Sugar protested. "It could take us anywhere."
There were voices above, shouts of alarm. They had figured out where we went. It was time to go.
"It takes us down, and down is the way out. We'll figure out the rest as we go. Now move!"
I shoved her toward the escalator. Then we were running, dodging, vaulting over the catatonic bodies in a headlong dash. Behind us there were voices, gunfire, but we kept going. The little tending drones strayed toward us, needle arms extended, but we kicked them aside or jumped over them or just ran by. I chanced a look behind us to see that the crab-things were gaining on us. Clanking along the floor, they trod over anything and anyone in their path.
Sugar saw it too. "They're trampling them!" she cried.
"Just keep moving!"
Loping ahead on his long legs, Shepherd reached the escalator first. He ducked beneath the low doorway and charged down. Sugar and I were right behind him. I went down ahead of her, taking the steps three at a time. Bull lagged behind. He was holding his injured side, limping along as fast as he could. He made it just in time and dodged down the escalator barely a meter ahead of the drone behind him. Too big to fit through, it plowed into the pillars behind him in an explosion of plasticrete shards. Bull staggered through the cloud of dust and down the escalator after us.
Shepherd reached the bottom first. Ahead of him stood a red samurai guard in full security armor. His brilliant blue cybereyes turned toward Shepherd, submachine gun snapping up in the same motion. Shepherd hit the floor at a dead sprint and slammed into the guard before he had a chance to fire. Using his body weight, he bore the guard to the floor in a mass of thrashing limbs as each man fought for his life.
We were halfway down the escalator when the revolving steps suddenly clanked to a stop. I stumbled, clutching the rail to keep from swan diving right onto my face. Sugar blundered into my back.
She broke off as the steps lurched into motion again, this time in the opposite direction—up. Slowly the escalator began to crank backwards, lifting us toward the waiting arms of the crab constructs above.
"Son of a bitch!" Bull wheezed. "This whole fragging building is trying to kill us!"
"Shut up and run!"
And that's what I did—I ran. Like no time else in my life, I ran, arms pumping, legs churning, running down the stairs with every ounce of effort I could muster. My rifle was forgotten, slapping my back with every stride. As I neared the bottom the stairs began to move faster. I clawed my way forward, legs burning, chest aching. Every inch gained was agony. But then I was there. I grabbed the rail, hauling myself off the escalator and onto the deck.
I didn't have time to savor the victory. I twisted around, my cyber hand outstretched for Sugar. She lunged, stumbled, but flesh met chrome. I latched onto her wrist, pulling her toward me. She grunted, staggering off the escalator to collapse in a heap at my feet. That left only Bull. He ran, still holding his side, fighting with every breath against the inexorable march of the escalator. He was just a few meters distant when I reached out to him. He lunged, hand outstretched. His fingertips brushed mine, and then he fell, slamming face first into the escalator stairs. He tried to get to his feet, but the escalator was moving too fast.
"Shepherd," I cried. "Do something!"
The shaman was still locked in his struggle with the guard. He pounded the heel of his fist into the man's chin, shattering it and cracking his head against the floor. He twisted away, trying to stand as he readied a spell that would pluck Bull from the jaws of death. But the guard wasn't down. He clawed after Shepherd, latching onto one of the troll's tree-trunk legs. There was a flash of steel as a hidden spur shot out from the heel of the guard's palm, and he slammed it into Shepherd's calf. The troll roared in pain, his spell lost. He twisted and planted a kick into the samurai's head, snapping it backward at an unnatural angle. But the damage was done.
Bull's eyes were saucers, wide with unadulterated fear. He made it to his feet again, started to run, but it was no use. The escalator hauled him inexorably upward. Moments later it carried him out of sight. Then there was a scream.
"Bull!" Sugar shouted impotently.
Another man lost. My head swam, anger and despair pulsing through my temples. But sorrow and regret were a luxuries I didn't have.
"It's no use," I heard myself saying. "He's done. We've got to keep moving."
She nodded numbly. Together we hurried over to Shepherd where he was nursing the wound in his calf.
"Are you OK?" I asked.
"Damaged, but it will heal. Bull is…?"
"Gone. We've got to keep moving. Can you go?"
He nodded, pulling himself up to his full height. "I can."
"Good. Let's get to it. Maybe we can find an elevator. Our intel said one of the garage blast doors on the first basement level came down on a car and got stuck open. That's our new exfil point."
I paused, looking around the hall in which we'd found ourselves. It looked to be a hospital. It was stark white, antiseptic. The floor was linoleum, lined with gurneys, IV stands, and other medical gear I couldn't identify. The hallway was dark, rooms shuttered and dim.
"This floor doesn't seem to have changed," Sugar said, mentally consulting the information in her headware. "Not the layout, at least. There should be an elevator not too far from here."
"Then let's get there, and fast."
I lead the way down the hallway at a half jog, finger on the trigger and assault rifle leading the way. Sugar played navigator as Shepherd hobbled along behind. The first couple hallways we darted down were totally deserted and dark. It was as if the entire hospital had been shut down. But then we rounded a corner, and there was light coming from down the hall. At the base of the T-junction in the hallway a pair of double doors were open, sterilized light spilling out. The sign above the door stated in English and Japanese, "Cybernetic Operating Room #2."
In front of the door a queue had started, a line of twenty or so people standing with their arms at their sides and heads bowed. More than half were children. A woman in a nurse's uniform with green cyber eyes made her way down the line, taking temperatures and checking pupil dilation. Another red samurai in full security armor stood by the door, submachine gun strapped across his chest. Blue eyes gleamed from under the rim of his helmet, shining in the darkness.
"Drek," I breathed, retreating around the corner to where Sugar and Shepherd were waiting. "There's a guard stationed up ahead, a couple dozen civilians, too."
"What are they doing?" Sugar asked.
"Frag if I know. Is there a way around?"
She shook her head. "No. The hall to the right leads directly to a dead end with a bank of elevators. The next closest elevators are at least a block away."
"And we don't have time to backtrack in the other direction. We'll just have to blitzkrieg them."
"Are you sure that's the smart?"
"No," I said, pulling a flash-bang grenade from my combat harness, "but we don't have time to think up anything smarter."
I popped the pin and baked the grenade for a three count, then chucked it around the corner. A miniature star was born and died in a split-second of sound and fury, and then I was around the corner, sprinting at full tilt.
The line of people had been thrown into disarray. They were strewn along the hall, curled in the fetal position, holding their ears or covering their eyes in a slack-jawed stupor. The samurai was still standing, though, and his weapon was already in hand. He tried to bring his submachine gun to bear on me, but I was quicker. My three round burst caught him square on the breastplate. He staggered backward and sat down hard. I didn't give him the chance to recover. I charged forward, vaulting over one of the kids sprawled across the floor and planted a kick square in the guard's face. His head rebounded off the wall behind him with a crack. The helmet prevented the worst of the damage, but he still saw stars. I reversed my rifle and slammed the butt into his nose. Three more blows turned his face into something roughly the consistency of cube steak and finally convinced him to give up his hold on consciousness.
I turned just in time to see the nurse coming at me with a hypodermic needle. I pivoted, parrying the outstretched needle with my rifle and then back-handed her across the face. The syringe flew from her fingers, and she hit the floor. She tried to scramble to her feet again, but Shepherd was there, grabbing her by the neck with one meaty paw. He placed his other hand against her forehead, chanting words of power. She went cross-eyed, veins bulging. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out. The capillaries burst in her eyes, corneas filling with blood. And then all of a sudden she went limp, and Shepherd dropped her to the floor like so much lifeless meat.
"Look out!" Sugar shouted.
Another green-eyed figure was framed in the door to the operating room, this one in a white lab coat. Sugar fired first. Her submachine gun stitched a line of lead through the doorway, but the doctor was no longer there. He was scrambling back the other way, shouting at the top of his lungs.
I charged after him, wading through the bodies on the floor. I was in the operating room a second later. My assault rifle stitched crimson beads across the good doctor's back, and he hit the floor just feet away from the vidphone he'd been running toward.
There was a scream. I pivoted, brining my weapon to bear on another green-eyed nurse. She stood beside what looked like a chipped-out dentist's chair with stainless steel restraints. A boy no more than seven years old was strapped into the chair. He lay unmoving, eyes staring sightlessly upward. The nurse screamed again and slapped at the chair's control panel. She bolted for the secondary exit as something activated in the chair. A hydraulic lift began to move in the base of the chair, raising it up toward the ceiling. A hatch in the ceiling slid aside, and a mechanical nightmare emerged. It was all gears and blades and whirling appendages, a stainless steel monstrosity that descended toward the boy's face like a meat grinder. A bottomless pit opened up in my gut.
"Drek!" I shouted. "Sugar, turn this fragging thing off!"
She was at the control panel, rapidly tapping out commands that seemed to do nothing. "I don't know how!" she screamed.
Shepherd lumbered by me, a heavy steel office chair clutched in one massive hand. By that time the machine was on top of the boy, whirling, grinding, eviscerating the cavity where his eyes used to be. Blood and gore spattered his face as the shaman lifted the chair over his head and slammed it into the mechanical butcher. He kept at it until the machine sparked and sizzled and finally ceased to move.
"Got it!" Sugar shouted.
There was a hydraulic hiss, and the dentist chair descended—though the metallic contraption still hung from the ceiling, motionless. I moved closer and chanced a look at the boy. His eye sockets were nothing but bloody, raw cavities. His chest still rose and fell, though I didn't know how.
"What were they doing to him?" I heard Sugar gasp.
"No doubt installing the same cybernetic eyes we saw on the girl earlier. And the medical staff as well," said Shepherd. "Perhaps it exercises some sort of control over them?"
"Control from who? And for God's sake, why?"
"That I do not know."
"We can ponder all the philosophical questions once we're out of this mad house," I said. "The other guards can't be far behind. We need to get to the elevator, and pronto."
"Agreed," Shepherd rumbled. He stooped and began to unfasten the restraints that held the boy to the surgery table.
"What are you doing? We've got to move."
"I am taking him with us."
"Damn it, we can't save all of them."
He hefted the boy into his arms and looked at me with strangely distant gaze of his. "Dog says we can save this one."
Dog. His fucking totem. I was about to tell him what the mutt could do with his moral advice, but before I got a chance I heard the shouts coming from down the hall. I swore.
"Fine, just get your big ass in gear and move!"
I sprinted to the door of the operating room and looked out into the hall. The doctor's would-be patients were still strewn over on the floor. In their drug-addled state, they hadn't the presence of mind to do anything but lay there like a bunch of drooling invalids. In the darkness of the hall back the way we came, I could see red-armored shapes moving in our direction.
"More company!" I yelled. "Move, I'll cover you!"
I opened up on the advancing guards with a long automatic burst. The point man staggered and fell, but there were more behind him. I moved into the hallway as Sugar sprinted in the other direction where the elevator shaft was supposed to be. Shepherd lumbered after her, the boy cradled in the crook of one arm like a child's baby doll. I unleashed the last two grenades from my under-barrel launcher, bathing the hallway in smoke and fire, and took off after them.
Our flight was short, and just like Sugar said, the hallway soon dead-ended at bank of three elevators. The she-ork mashed the down-button on the control panel, but nothing happened.
"What the hell?" she screamed.
"Whoever is controlling the facility controls the elevators as well," Shepherd offered.
The doorway of a hospital reception area was nearby, and I used it for cover as I slapped a new clip into my rifle and unleashed a burst at the pursuing guards. Over the sound of return gunfire I shouted, "I've still got the repelling gear we used for our infil in my pack. Open the fragging doors and we'll go down that way!"
I let loose with another burst as Shepherd handed the boy over to Sugar, angled his fingers between the elevator doors, and wrenched them apart with an ear-splitting shriek. I shrugged out of my backpack and slung it toward where Sugar and Shepherd crouched by the open elevator doors. Then I turned and ran after it.
That was when a supernova of pain blossomed in my hip. It tore through my insides like a high speed train, shredding through flesh and tendon and bone. I didn't even remember hitting the ground. I just remember suddenly looking up at the ceiling, seeing a blur of searing heat flash overhead, and the space down the hallway erupting into an inferno as Shepherd's spell went off. The next thing I knew, the troll had a hold of my combat harness and was dragging me back toward the elevator. It took me a moment to get my bearings, to register the sticky warmth spreading across my groin and legs from the hole in my hip.
"I've got the rappelling line!" I heard Sugar gasp as Shepherd dumped me like a sack of potatoes against the wall.
"No time," the troll rumbled. "My fireball will not deter them for long. You hold the child and I will levitate you down the shaft."
"Won't that be too much for your system? You've already used so much of your power."
I glanced up at Shepherd. For the first time I saw just how bad a shape the shaman was in. The parts of his face that weren't a mask of tattered flesh were ghostly pale, and the boot of one leg was completely soaked through with blood. He looked like he would collapse at any moment, but somehow he managed to stand tall.
"I know a spirit or two that owe me a boon." He grimaced in what was supposed to be a smile. "Plus, there is no other option."
"He's right," I said thickly, speaking past the pain welling in my throat. "You go first. I'll cover Shep while he talks to his critter."
She looked as if she was about to argue with me, but turned and scooped up the unconscious boy from where he lay on the floor. The troll began took what looked like a dog-shaped ragdoll from one of the pouches on his combat harness and, with it cradled in both hands, began to chant. I levered myself into a sitting position against one of the other elevator doors, palmed one of my last two grenades, and hurled it down the corridor. The explosion gutted the hallway. I heard a man scream, then nothing. For a moment I thought I might have actually succeeded in driving them off, but then I heard the elevator hum to life behind me. I craned my neck to see the number on the display over the door slowly start to tick downward.
"Fragging hell!" I shouted. "They're bringing in reinforcements from the upper floors. Hurry!"
With a nod from Shepherd, Sugar hugged the child to her chest stepped out into the open doorway. The air around her shimmered and coalesced into the ghostly form of a matronly woman clad in clothing that looked as if it had come straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. With a knowing smile she wrapped her arms around Sugar pulled her back into the elevator shaft. For a moment they hovered over the blackness, and then began to float downward and out of sight.
"Nice trick," I grunted to Shepherd.
"Dog is ever faithful," he agreed cryptically.
Using the wall for leverage, I somehow got myself standing again. God, did it hurt. It felt like my hip bone was ripping out of its socket when I put weight on it, but I managed to stay vertical. I slung my rifle over my shoulder, dug a stimulant patch from out of my combat harness, and slapped it onto my neck. Adrenalin and pain killers surged into my blood stream, blunting the pain and snapping my mind back into focus. My leg still hurt, but it wasn't debilitating.
"How much longer?" I barked to Shepherd.
"Halfway," he grunted, eyes focused on the rag doll in his hands.
I glanced at the numbers over the elevator. Ten floors up, and falling fast. I got my rifle into the crook of my arm again and pulled the pin on my last grenade.
"Might want to cover your ears," I told him.
He made no reply, face twisted in grim concentration.
The elevator dinged, the doors slid open, and I tossed the grenade inside. I pressed myself against the wall just as fire and smoke belched out of the open doors. I stepped to the side and emptied the rest of my magazine into what was left of the elevator car. It was only when the firing pin clicked on empty and the smoke began to clear that I realized there was no one there.
"Frag!" I whirled back toward the charred hallway where a phalanx of red-armored guards were already approaching. "It was a feint. Shep, we gotta go!"
His eyes were pegged to his ragdoll fetish, breath coming in shallow pants. I punched him in the arm.
"Hey! Wake the frag up! Is Sugar down safe?"
His eyes snapped up and he grabbed me in a bear hug, starting back toward the open elevator doors. I knew immediately what he had in mind, and I didn't like it.
"We can't go until Sugar is all the way down!" I protested.
Gunfire erupted from down the hall. I felt a triple-thud slam into the armor plating on my back and shoulder, robbing the breath and any other complaints from my lungs. Without a word the troll stooped through the elevator door and hurled us into the abyss.