Hey all, this introduction is a little more somber, because - well, remember how we said that "Recycled" was where we felt free to get a little darker? Yeah, this one's about not so nice things. If you don't want to read about violence against women, consider this a big damn trigger warning. That said, we've been writing and rewriting and rethinking this one for literal years by now, so we hope that you'll agree that we didn't do this for cheap thrills. We just felt it was part of the story that needed to be told so you can understand where Sara Corvus is coming from. You should finish "Big Sister" before reading this.
William Anthros sat in his office and thought.
In the space of a few hours, what was to be Will's crowning achievement had turned into a failure. Oh, he could lie to himself, the usual "learning experience" claptrap, but in his heart, he knew that he had failed, that his insufficient planning had allowed the situation to turn on him again. His usual mistake; he had not accounted for other people. He had not spoken out loudly enough against making Corvus a candidate - her problems with authority were visible from Mars. He had not checked Kim's work - left such an important part of the project as programming the kinetic feedback loop and its movement sequencing to that Chinese turncoat. And what, in God's name, was Smythe thinking about not having the sedative at the ready? The wasted seconds had allowed Corvus to attack him, but of course the responsibility fell back on Will's shoulders.
He should have restrained her. After the fact, Bledsoe made that pragmatic call and deservedly rubbed it in Will's face, as Will had expected. It wasn't the first time the idea had come up, and Will felt the anger burn much stronger because he had shot it down himself, intending to make Corvus wake up more comfortably. But she had just thrown his kindness back in his face; wasn't that, in fact, the whole story of what had happened here? Will's teeth gnashed at the thought. Goddamn her, he thought, for making me look like a fool. For taking advantage of me.
A soft chime rang from the door. Will had made it clear that people were to use that instead of knocking on the door; the chime could be turned off, after all, for when he was too deep in the zone to be disturbed. Maybe he should have turned it off for this occasion, too, but on the other hand, Will - at least - acknowledged that he would likely be needed in these hours.
"Come in!" he called. The door opened, and Jae Kim stepped in, closing the door behind him. Will shared Major Pope's mistrust of the Chinese man, but unlike certain other people, Mr. Kim always made a point out of being respectful; that earned him some points.
"Doctor Anthros," Kim said. "Corporal Corvus wishes to see you."
"Is she still combative, then?" Will asked.
"Agitated," Kim replied. "She is recovering much swifter than I thought she would. Impressive."
Will glared at Kim, but said nothing.
"I did not mean to make light of Corporal Smythe's injuries," Kim added.
"You don't have to tell me that," Will said. "Not that there is anyone you have to tell, except maybe for Smythe, if he ever comes back. You see, Mr. Kim, Colonel Bledsoe doesn't care that she came close to killing one of his men, took someone hostage and God knows what she would have done to continue her escape. These things are immaterial to him; he can always get more Special Forces leftovers to fill his private little army with. No, he's looking for the next thing and he's willing to have other people pay whatever price for it. Corvus is the best thing that could have happened to him. He wanted a bionic attack dog and from the looks of it he's damn well getting one. We've all done a great job with that."
"I am here to restore a soldier, Doctor Anthros, not to build a weapon," Kim replied. "It was my impression that this is a shared goal."
"Restore her ability to kill and follow orders, maybe - I'm more interested in saving lives," Will said. "All of this running around in secrecy, destroying anyone on the cusp of technological breakthroughs" - his eyes focused on Kim again - "all of this is just the last gasp of Cold Warriors desperately seeking to hold on to their pathetic illusion of power. They want to keep playing the only game that they know the rules of, and if the world tries to change, they strike it down and smash it, all to force it to stay broken in a way they can understand. But they have to keep using more and more force to do so, and in their struggle against change there will be innumerable casualties. There will be many more men like Corporal Smythe who follow orders and pay the price while men like Colonel Bledsoe play their games. No, I do not share that goal. I am not a follower and I am not a backroom chessmaster. I have created something great, Mr. Kim, and it pains me to see it abused. One day soon, bionic technology will be used responsibly to better mankind. That is my goal. Not this - this figurative compact with the devil that funded the development."
"I understand," Kim said. "So, you do not want to speak to Corporal Corvus, then?"
"Oh, no, do not mistake my opposition to the military as a refusal of my responsibilities as a physician - I am going to see my patient," Will said, rising from his chair. "But she is a grunt, and a violent one even in that. For everyone's safety, I have to arrange for the force she will understand."
Sara Corvus laid in her bed and tried not to drive herself crazy. Her body – and she would have to determine exactly how much of it was still her – reacted in a comfortingly familiar way to this situation: a persistent low-intensity stress that played tricks on her sense of time, the permanent warning signs of too much adrenaline. In a word, combat. That seemed a lot more fitting when the airlock-like door to her room opened and four security guards with M4 carbines (and the matching floating labels) entered the room. They looked, for lack of a better word, a bit rougher than the guards Sara had encountered so far, no doubt a new security measure. Only when they were in position did Dr. William Anthros enter the room. Sara very much regretted having thrown the drinking cup at him earlier; now she was thirsty and out of ammunition.
"Um, hello, Sara," Will said, trying to smile. "I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot, so..."
"Ho-ho, wrong foot," Sara shot back. "I didn't know you were a comedian."
Will exhaled without saying anything; Sara could see two of the guards exchanging a 'Here we go again' glance. "Sara, please," Will said. "I know this is very difficult and that you did not ask for this. I did what I did to save your life."
"Oh, and I'm not sucking your dick for it, is that it?" Sara said. "You're damn right I didn't ask for this. Because if you had asked, I would have said no!"
Will's shoulders slumped at that, and oddly enough, that gave Sara a moment of pause. He wasn't fighting with her – she was just attacking him.
"I want to get out of here," Sara said, dialing the aggression back a bit. "I want to take a shower and I want some clothes. And when I'm done with that, I want to make a damn phone call."
"I'm sorry, Sara, but we cannot let you have any contact with outsiders -"
"We?" Sara asked. "We? Are you in charge here or what?"
"That's not my decision to make."
"Then I'm wasting my fucking time talking to you, huh?" Sara said. "I'm not your pal Sara, I'm not even your fucking patient because you did this to me. I'm your prisoner. I'm not going to do anything you or your bosses want if you don't do something for me in return. These are my first demands. You want something from me, you get me what I want first. I think they call that quid pro quo, Doctor."
Will's face developed red spots that reminded Sara just a little of an apple. She might have noticed his heavier breathing if she hadn't been on a roll.
"Yeah, that's Latin," she continued. "They teach you that in med school, right? Or were you too busy learning how to mutilate women?"
The red on Will's face had turned from dull to bright in seconds, and the sharp breaths he had taken were unceremoniously kicked back out of his mouth. "SHUT UP!" he screamed, loud enough for Sara to feel herself flinch back a little. He quickly turned away from her, ran his hand through his hair, tried to calm down – and when he turned back, he had not succeeded.
"My apologies, Corporal, that was not appropriate," he said, forcing some steel into his breathless voice. "Get up and we will escort you to the showers. Captain Ginsburg, see that you find some clothes for the Corporal."
"Sir," one of the guards answered, lowered his rifle and left the lab. Sara noticed the remaining three raising their carbines a bit to compensate.
"After you, Corporal," Will said.
The second time Sara Corvus left the bionics lab, it was on her own two feet with nobody's shoulder to rest on. It wasn't so much that she felt fine as it was that she no longer felt much of anything - physically. Her emotions, however, were still cooking with gas, and Escape Plan Bravo was already under construction. Sara made careful mental note of every detail she could glean from the guards, from the architecture to how this "Berkut" outfit seemed to operate. She briefly considered the possibility that what she was seeing was what they wanted her to see, that this was theater or worse, some sort of illusion, but she quickly dismissed the thought: not because she thought it was impossible (she knew better than to assume that) but because if it was true, that meant she was fucked, and she wasn't going to accept that. First assumption, Sara thought. This is not some Matrix bullshit. After a moment, she revised that to: I am not insane.
The way across the concrete floor of the large vertical shaft gave Sara a few opportunities to look around and take in the design. In the middle of the shaft ran a column of what she concluded to be reinforced concrete. She found that it was fairly wide at the base – no doubt to better distribute its ground pressure on the concrete ground, though she didn't speculate how it was anchored. The shaft then tapered as it went higher to lighten the compressive load on its lower part. The very top was anchored to yet more concrete on top. With all the modules and walkways hanging off this central column, the entire structure resembled a metal wasp nest built around some Soviet-tastic concrete monument. From Sara's combat engineer point of view, that was several different kinds of stupid and unnecessary, except for one advantage: it made getting up the shaft without access to an elevator very difficult, and conveniently enough, the laboratory units were at the bottom. Good fields of fire, too, Sara thought, recalling the soldiers on the walkways overlooking her first escape attempt. They can just shoot down until I'm dead.
When their little escort reached the elevator, she heard one of the soldiers radio for the cab to be sent down. There were no controls down here or, as she soon saw, in the cab itself. The cab was roomy and plain in a cargo elevator style, big enough to send down two dozen soldiers or two tons of equipment; that still didn't account for the heavy isolated laboratory units, but those had probably been lowered down the shaft by crane, ditto for the hanging modules above. Logistics must be a total fucking bitch, Sara thought. She found herself against the back wall of the cab, surrounded by the three soldiers, though they kept a respectful distance. Will stood in a corner with his back to her, almost hiding behind the largest of the soldiers. Sara scanned him: he had a look about him that she couldn't quite decide whether it was Filipino or more Samoan, was built like a powerlifter and had a small purple shock of hair peeking out under his helmet. The closest analogy she could think of for his expression was that of a grazing cow: a look of weary indifference to the universe at large. The floaty text told her that his name was Adolpho Sagabaen. Okay, Filipino then, she thought. The guy in the middle was a more Hispanic type, wiry with a gaunt face and eyes that seemed to be glued to her. Sara met his look, but he never flinched. She looked on to Guy Number Three, a tall African-American with an apologetic half-smile.
"You should know," Will said, "that I did all of this to save your life. I'm not saying 'Don't be angry', because, well, we can't choose how we feel about things. But you can choose how you think about this. I think that, maybe, if you think of this as a second chance –" Sara snorted in response – "I think that that would be a good way to think about it. Ah, I'm sure Dr. Truewell will talk to you about that. I hear you two get along well."
Sara didn't reply; Will seemed to get the hint.
The elevator cab stopped after what Sara judged to be about fifty meters, having estimated the height of the wall tiles lining the elevator track and counted how many of them they'd passed by on the way up - next level engineering ninja shit. Sara wasn't sure how useful that information would be, but then again, this was the first time she'd had to bust out of a secret underground supervillain lair; taking in as many details as possible and sorting them out later seemed like a good idea. More importantly, it made her feel like she was in control, that she wasn't being led like a lamb to the slaughter, but instead conducting a little recon on her own terms. The door opened; Will stepped out first and to the side, then the soldiers backed out and formed up on the sides of the walkway ahead. The Hispanic guy – Calavera, according to the floaty text – motioned with his gun for Sara to step past him and walk in front of them again. Sara complied, and then briefly reconsidered the logistics of having to haul everything destined for the labs below from – presumably – another elevator all the way over here. There was a certain paranoid, ass-backward logic to it. Anyone who managed to take control of the cargo elevator despite the utter lack of controls would only make it up to the lowest sublevel of the walkways and have another twenty yards or so of fully exposed running before she could reach the central spire, then she would have to go that same distance again to the next elevator, being a prime target for fire from above the entire time. With a secret organization this paranoid, Sara expected the elevator to the surface to be protected by machinegun robots, or maybe a moat filled with boiling alien acid blood.
Thankfully, it was just another dull corridor, with two Berkut henchmen flanking the elevator while pointedly staring straight ahead. Sara wondered if all this theater would play out every time she had to make a trip to the head...not that she had felt the urge so far. They were were really going to a lot of trouble to keep her in check, but even so she'd caught them flatfooted in her first attempt, and all of this felt like a belated attempt to make up for it with a show of strength. Now that she was steady on her feet and a little more used to operating these...things...they had put on her in place of her arms and legs, she felt the urge to know what they were so afraid of, to cut loose for real and see how far it would take her - but that was a bad idea, and she knew it. These people had put her back together, and they had made plans to stop her, so no matter how much pain she could bring with an alpha strike, what really mattered was getting past everything they could throw at her, and that...that was not going to be easy. So, tempting as it was to find out how much damage she could do if she set her mind to it, the outcome was likely to be death...or worse, if what they had already done to her was any indication. And however much she hated her current situation, she wasn't ready to gamble it on some very long odds just yet.
The second elevator must have been built to transport regular people and not bionic abominations of nature like her, because the cab had buttons and a display panel and no napalm spray nozzles in the ceiling. They took her a few levels up, but still about a half dozen floors from the top, and to judge from the labelling, it didn't go straight to the surface, either. So that made a total of three elevators from where she was to an exit from this underground facility, and God knows what they had on the surface. All to keep her from being free. Sara wondered bitterly how many Marines would still be alive today if the money that had been pumped into this James Bond jailgasm had been spent on body armor inserts and Humvee armor packages. My tax dollars at work, she thought, almost out loud.
After some more hallway that made Sara conclude that Berkut's most effective weapon was boredom, she found herself walking past individual doors, leading to those apartments Ruth had told her about. A half dozen of those later, there was a bend, with three more doors and Ruth standing in front of them. The labels on the doors were, left to right, a pictogram of a man, a shower head and a woman. Sara guessed that the female restrooms had originally been built mostly for the hell of it, but the single communal shower room made it clear that this place hadn't been designed to accommodate the fairer sex. There was nobody else here using these facilities, and come to think of it, nobody else on the whole level - of course. They'd cleared it out for her. Couldn't take the risk that she'd hurt somebody. God, what were they expecting her to do?
Ruth gave her a strained smile as she handed over a neatly folded set of gray sweatpants, t-shirt and jacket, as well as plain white underwear and a pair of sneakers. Sara pulled the package apart slightly, confirming that the t-shirt bore a large "ARMY" stencil in front - it would have been a little funny, if she had been in a better mood.
"The showers are all yours," Ruth said. "Take as much time as you need. We'll be right outside -"
"Right," Sara said.
"- in case you need help with anything," Ruth finished.
"I think I remember how to work a shower," Sara said.
"We're more concerned about the health effects," Will threw in. "I mean, you seem to be recovering well...very well...but you did have a weak spell earlier today. Showering can put additional strain on your circulatory system, causing dizziness, loss of balance or fainting." Noting Sara's look, he concluded with "We don't want you to get hurt, that's all."
"Gee, thanks, Doc," Sara replied. "I'll call you when I need my ass wiped."
"We'll be here," Ruth repeated.
Sara replied by rolling her eyes.
Sara heard the door to the showers close behind her with astonishing clarity. The entire room was covered in white tiles, with only some subtle blue striping breaking up the walls at a little below eye level. In the middle stood wooden benches and steel racks, while the walls were lined with little cabins; tiled walls on two sides, a door made of milky glass. The door left about six inches of air underneath it, and the entire cabin opened to the top after seven feet, with the shower head above it. One corner housed a row of sinks with mirrors and power sockets, presumably for shaving and other grooming. If heaven has prison showers, Sara thought, they probably look like this.
She wasn't there for the decor, though; she was there to finally have enough privacy to check herself. Ever since waking up, her whole body had felt strange in a way she found difficult to summarize in one word: the too-smooth skin, the dulled sensation of everything, the prickling all over that she imagined to be lost signals from nerve endings that were no longer there, how nothing seemed really cold or really warm anymore, but most of all the feeling that this was just something she was wearing over the remains of her real body. She had seen her arms and her legs and her face, but what about the rest of her? She put the small bundle of leisure clothes onto a bench and made for the row of sinks.
If Will had anticipated the next few minutes, he would have paid more attention to having the shower room stripped of the mirrors. Sara sought them out; a quick glance around the room to make sure nobody could see her, then she reached behind her neck and undid the twirled strings that held on her medical gown. She slipped her right arm out of its sleeve, then held on to the gown to cover herself while the other arm followed. She looked at herself in the mirror, naked and clutching the gown to her chest like a piece of armor. Come on, she thought to herself, anger already rising. Get it over with, you pussy.
She lowered the gown slowly, scanning every inch of her exposed bosom for abnormalities. The ones she expected to find - a few spots here and there, marks that were a part of her body, part of who she was - gone. There weren't even any scars from her injuries. These were not her breasts; they were rosy-pink globs of smartskin-covered meat and silicone, disgustingly perfect shapes straight off the next batch of Barbie dolls. Sara's hands clenched the gown, tearing holes in it without her realizing it. The thought of William Anthros sewing these - these things to her chest and clapping himself on the back for a job well done set her teeth on edge.
That bastard. That smarmy, all-knowing charlatan butcher motherfucker.
She didn't want to go on. She really didn't, because she was looking at what this man expected her to believe were her breasts and her body couldn't decide whether it wanted to explode or collapse. She didn't know if her ragged breaths were raw anger or what little sobbing she was still capable of - almost certainly both. But being that she was already gnashing her teeth to keep from screaming, gritting them a little further and going on seemed like it could scarcely make things worse.
She calmed down just a little when she saw her belly; it was the same rosy baby-smooth bullshit as everything he had sewed onto her, but at least it looked mostly right. It was this part that he hadn't fucked up quite as badly that made her drop her guard just a little and her gown completely. Then her throat locked down, just clamped close, and she stumbled back. She couldn't cry and her body conspired to keep her from screaming just for the few seconds it look her to regain her balance. She stomped up back to the sink and slammed both hands down on it, almost smashing it out of its wall mount. She recoiled again when the faucet started leaking onto the floor from a tear in its line, but she was beyond registering that she had caused that. Her fingernails - now versatile and tough tools - found easy purchase behind the mirror, and with a deliberate move this time, she ripped it free, taking a few of the tiles it was glued onto with it. Her throat was no longer clenched, but her thoughts were so laser-like in their focus that she didn't have the brainpower to spare to make herself scream. She walked to the nearest bench, sat down with the mirror held before her, and spread her legs.
There was nothing there. Nothing but a smooth eternity of that goddamned rosy smartskin. Sara's anger didn't let her dwell on that image or the futile task of locating anything resembling real human anatomy in the doll body he had imprisoned her in. Her right leg snapped forward almost instinctively, delivering a kick that shattered the mirror into a hundred pieces. She shot up from the bench, tossing the remains of the frame in her hands across the room. Her body drew in one deep breath, and what muscles she had left tensed as her eyes narrowed. It didn't matter that her bionic eyes were still working perfectly well; her brain had lost the ability to see the scene around her as anything but a medium for her fury. She turned around and grasped the bench, wood already splintering under her vice-like grip. With the scream she'd been holding in for a minute now, she hauled the bench up and spun, tossing it across the room. It broke when it impacted the floor a few feet away, but the momentum was enough to carry into a shower cabin and smash the glass door open.
The screaming continued as she grabbed for the next thing in reach, which happened to be one of the metal clothes racks. She grasped the top bar with her right hand and one of its side bars with her left, then pulled it down and threw it to the floor, splitting a few more tiles. Slamming her fists down on a second bench broke its back, splitting it into two vaguely-connected pieces of potential firewood. She was well into completely tearing the bench to pieces when the fury faded just enough to let her hear things again. Someone was rapidly knocking at the room's door and shouting her name.
"Sara!" Ruth shouted from outside. "Sara! Talk to me! Are you alright?"
Sara tossed the few pieces of wood in her hands aside and got up. Her anger wanted to walk all the way up to the door, rip it open and give Ruth a real piece of her mind; but something in that primal part of her brain knew that, furious as she was, there was an excellent chance that she would do to the first person who crossed her path exactly the same as she had done to the room. It was that part that stopped her in her tracks and saved Ruth's life.
"WHAT DOES IT FUCKING SOUND LIKE?" Sara screamed, loud enough that she thought she felt her lungs pop. It was, in fact, so loud, that no other sound could follow, and so everything fell silent directly afterwards. Sara realized that she was only breathing hard because she expected to. If she wanted to - or rather, if she ever didn't hold back enough - then this mockery of a body would deliver destruction as long as her anger held out. Long enough to kill Ruth and Bledsoe's security team and Will Anthros and every last living being on this sublevel. Maybe even long enough to escape Wolf Creek.
The fury was well on its way to passing down into rage, and Sara's eyes locked to the right as her head slowly turned to the cabins. They had taken her here to take a shower. Alright. Then she would take a goddamn shower. After this little stunt, they were going to lock her in the darkest, thickest cell they could find, melt down the key, use the slag to fill in the lock, then round up and shoot everybody from the keymaker to the rebar contractor on up, just to make sure that she would never, ever be left free to rampage like this again.
So, fine. One fucking shower. She had asked for it and she was going to take it.
When she opened the shower cabin's door, she did so with enough force that it went almost all the way around before slamming hard against the limits of its hinges, returning to hang crooked from their damaged mounts. She didn't push the button that made the shower go, she punched it into the wall until it surrendered. And only then, with the hot water falling down on her and leaving something that could be mistaken for tears running down her cheeks - only then did the fury break, and her shoulder's fell as if the trusses keeping them up had snapped. Her left hand unclenched and touched the wall to help her keep balance, and she bowed down her head, water still running over her.
She couldn't cry. Dear God, she couldn't cry. She squeezed her eyes shut so hard that it almost felt like were going to pop, but nothing came, just the drops of water from above raining down. There was so much inside her that she had held back for hours, kept inside, postponed, just to deal. Just to survive this place, to keep going, to not roll over and show them a soft belly to sink their teeth into. But the disbelief, the defiance, the raw willpower that had gotten her this far just weren't enough. Not nearly enough. She had to cry. She just had to. And she couldn't.
"God damn them," she choked out. Somehow she was still on her feet, just like she was somehow still alive. Both were wrong.
Outside the shower room, the color slowly - very slowly - returned to Ruth's face. A thousand different explanations brawled inside her head, but they all boiled down to a simple truth: leaving Sara alone with her new body was a bad idea. Ruth didn't delude herself into thinking she could have kept this from Sara forever, and maybe there simply was no way to fully explain the loss of her limbs and eyes that would have not driven Sara into a towering rage - but Ruth hadn't tried. She had left her patient alone. She had to fix that.
And yet, a look across to Will Anthros showed that a different solution was already in play. The soldiers around him were busy checking the strobe mode on their gun-mounted flashlights.
"You are not going in," Ruth said, surprising herself by how uncommitted she sounded. The muffled sound of a bionic fist slamming through tilework provided the emphasis her words lacked.
"It's the best option," Will replied. "She could hurt herself - or others. Our first concern must be safety."
"No, I can talk her down -"
"Pah!" Will scoffed. It was the most forceful reaction Ruth had seen out of him yet, and it took her aback long enough for him to continue. "It is time to set boundaries, Dr. Truewell. If she behaves violently, then we will subdue her. None of us can work with her if we must fear that she will use tantrums to scare and manipulate us."
"What?" Ruth said. "Do you want her to feel like a prisoner? She'll shut down on us and then your bosses are never going to get her to cooperate. She'll hate you for doing this."
"She already hates me," Will said. "I tried to get her acceptance, but I know won't get it. I tried to get her cooperation and she's thrown it all back in my face. I can live with that, and I've lowered my expectations accordingly, but I need her compliance. Oderint dum metuant, Dr. Truewell. Now let these gentlemen do their job."
"No!" Ruth snapped. "She's my patient now. I'm going in."
"You're emotionally compromised," Will said.
"And you don't know the first thing about how she feels or what she will do," Ruth said. "I do. And I've talked her down before."
"When she was weak and confused," Will countered. "Listen, Doctor, I respect that you're the psychologist here, and what you see in there looks like a scared and confused woman. But you saw what she did to Corporal Smythe, and that was three minutes after she woke up, when all she could move was her arm. If you go in there and you can't talk her down, and she lays a hand on you...she will kill you, and I don't mean to be lurid about it, but suffice it to say your funeral will be closed casket. Even if she doesn't want to, she's not in control of her augmentations, so right now, the only safe thing we can do is shut the system down and figure out where the rogue activation pattern came from. Start over and talk to her when we've made sure that the...accident...that started this whole sorry affair will not repeat itself."
Ruth scowled. "I'm not scared of her," she said.
"Then you're not thinking clearly," Will said. "But if you won't be stopped...then all I can say is that I hope you know what you're doing."
Nothing was going the way it was supposed to for Sara Corvus. She was still on her feet, forehead rested against the cold wall tiles - and she wondered, if she banged her head hard enough against the wall, maybe...maybe this would end. She felt sick to her stomach, not just upset but genuinely about to lose her lunch. She could have tried to fight it, swallow it back down, maybe delay it for a bit, but Sara was not going to do that. Her body knew it had been pumped full of shit and it wanted to get rid of what it could - Sara sympathized, so instead, she just let her stomach do its thing - but then something [i]else[/i] happened. Sara had puked up enough hung-over breakfasts into the desert sands, but instead of the sensation of her diaphragm and stomach clenching up followed by the disgusting rush of vomit, she felt her stomach...[i]squeeze[/i], like her body was rolling it up with a rolling pin. Her eyes went wide as her jaw locked open and the rolling sensations continued mechanically up her throat. Without gagging, without any effort at all, she felt a gentle flow of something metallic cascade from the back of her throat and pour gently out of her mouth. What landed on the floor were a few tablespoons worth of a dull silvery paste, hissing and steaming as it fought both ceramic and water. Her eyes widened at that, and she stumbled back against the wall of the shower, putting her arm over her face and trying not to breathe the vapors. The rolling in her throat had already stopped a few seconds earlier, and now her mouth was thick with saliva; she spat and hacked as she stumbled back, trying to get that taste of gently poached rebar out of her mouth.
Her arm. Her face. Her mouth. No, that was wrong. That was all wrong. This wasn't her. None of this was. She could only stare at that little heap on the floor and wonder what they had put into her that could have possibly created that. How much of her was left, really? Just a face and a voice and a brain?
"Sara?" she heard Ruth call out. "Sara? I'm coming in now, okay?"
The paste had all but washed away under the relentless assault of the shower; Sara backed herself into a corner of the cabin and crouched down, slowly sliding to the ground as she pulled her legs in front of her body. She watched and listened, through the curtain of water, past the shattered cabin door, out into the bathroom. A single pair of footsteps - 1.69 meters tall, 126 pounds, the hallucinations told her - walked across the floor. After a few moments, she saw Ruth walk into her field of view, trying very hard to keep the shock off her face and not quite succeeding.
Sara stared up at Ruth.
"Sara, are you okay?" Ruth said.
Sara said nothing, but shook her head.
"Can you come out and talk to me?" Ruth asked.
Sara pressed her eyes closed and shook her head, more vigorously now.
"Okay," Ruth said. "That's okay. You can stay where you are. Do you want me to stay where I am?"
Sara nodded her head slowly.
"Okay, I'll stay where I am," Ruth said. She crouched down and tried to meet Sara's eyes. "Sara, can you tell me what happened?"
"I saw," Sara whispered. "I saw what they did."
"And what happened then?" Ruth asked.
Sara scowled. "I got angry," she said. "And then I...I tried to cry, but I couldn't." Sara moaned, and bashed her head against the hard tile behind her - cracking a couple. "And then I tried to puke, and I...I [i]couldn't[/i]."
"Okay," Ruth said. "Thank you for telling me that, Sara. Can you tell me more about what made you angry?"
Sara shook her head.
"What did they do to you, Sara?" Ruth asked.
There were no words.
Slowly, Sara lowered her arms and slid her legs down, covering herself with a hand in front of her groin while letting Ruth see her breasts. At this distance, Ruth couldn't really see what was wrong, but she made no move to interrupt Sara - there was more, and it was going to be worse.
"They're not mine," Sara whispered. "He sewed these fake tits on me."
"And that's what made you angry?" Ruth asked.
Sara choked up and sobbed for a few seconds before she shook her head. "...not all of it..." she whispered.
"Sara, I want to understand what happened here," Ruth said softly. "Can you tell me more?"
Sara shook her head again, and tried to look away.
"That's okay, Sara," Ruth said. "It's difficult to talk sometimes. I can help you better if I know what made you angry, and Sara, I want to help you." Ruth sighed. "Sara, can you look at me?"
Sara slowly turned her head so she could look sideways at Ruth.
"I am here to help you," Ruth said. "You matter to me. Not the program." Ruth paused. "Do you believe me?"
Sara looked at Ruth for a few more seconds, then slowly nodded.
"Okay," Ruth said. "Now, please, let me help you. Can you...show me?"
Sara scrunched up her face, a tearless pantomime of crying. Slowly, she raised her right leg back up, moved it aside, then lifted her hand away. Ruth felt her hands clasp over her mouth almost instantly, and she let out a hard breath, feeling her own eyes mist up quickly.
Oh my God. To her professional credit, Ruth Truewell didn't cry, not immediately. Sara immediately slammed her legs shut again and started sobbing, the only moisture on her face from the shower she'd been trying to hide in. Ruth froze up, at a loss for the next step. What could she say to reassure Sara? What could she do? She felt her heart beat fast, her head swimming, that goddamn rush of panic...and took a breath. This was getting to her, but she had to get it under control. She had gotten it under control before, she was going to do it again. She allowed herself the tears - she was just human, after all, even Ruth Truewell was allowed to cry once or twice - and focused on keeping her voice as calm as she could make it.
"I'm so sorry, Sara," Ruth said, reaching for a handkerchief from her jacket. "I'm so sorry. And I want to help you, Sara. Do you want to get out of there now?"
"...is there anyone else out there?" Sara whispered.
"The soldiers," Ruth said. After a moment, truth won over discretion. "And Dr. Anthros."
Sara's face instantly went from despair to rage. "Get him away from me," she growled, her voice escalating to a bellow. "Get him the fuck away from me!"
"I understand, Sara," Ruth said, keeping her voice level. "I will send him away. Then you can get dressed and we'll go back to your room, okay?"
Sara kept up her rage-filled glare, but after a few seconds, nodded.
"Okay," Ruth said. "Do you want me to help you get dressed?"
Sara shook her head.
"Okay," Ruth said. "I will go outside and wait. You can get dressed. Take all the time you need. If you need help with anything, just call for me. Alright?"
Sara nodded, then turned away from Ruth and continued trying to disappear into the corner of the shower stall.
Ruth got back onto her feet. Leaving Sara alone wasn't a very comfortable thought, but she wanted her space - and Ruth was starting to understand just how much damage she had suffered. It was enough to make Ruth queasy, but she kept it together. Kept it together for all the eighteen steps towards the door, for the door itself - the leader of the soldiers even held it for her - and then she looked at Will Anthros and still kept it together.
"Dr. Anthros," she said, "I need you to leave. Sara won't come out of there if she sees you."
"That's not your call," Will replied. "From the sounds of it, she smashed up half the room in there! I need to inspect her immediately. Do you have any idea what kind of damage she may have done to her body?"
Ruth took a deep breath, and slowly let it back out. "I saw her, she looked fine to me, and we need to think of her psychological state. She is reacting...poorly to some of the things that were done to her. She needs space. If it was not such a safety hazard, I would ask all of you to leave, but you, Dr. Anthros, need to leave, now. That is my opinion as the staff psychologist, and it would be best if you respected it."
"Things that were done to her?" Will fumed. "I saved her damn life!"
"And you failed to inform her that her injuries required the removal of her entire genitalia," Ruth shot back, her voice forced to a dangerously even tone.
"Well, I was getting around to it," Will replied hesitantly. "And...it didn't seem immediately necessary. After all, it wasn't a required procedure."
Ruth's hands clenched on their own. "...what."
"There were more important issues at the time!" Will said. "It was a nineteen hour procedure, and I already had to remove her digestive and urinary tracts, and…well, the uterus was obstructing my work!" he protested. "Removing the uterus and closing up the vagina, it cut hours off the surgery and prevented a lot of problems. Plus, it simplified the smartskin application between her legs considerably. It was the only rational option, you see that, right?"
"No," Ruth spat. "No, I do not. You sterilized her and mutilated her body. That is how she sees it, and it is how I see it."
Will crossed his arms as his eyes hardened at Ruth. "Well then. I'm sorry that you see it that way, but I had to do it, it is done and I can't exactly fish it out of the biohazard trash and put it back in now, can I?" he replied, and rolled his eyes. "She's lucky that I was there to save her life, but sacrifices had to be made. You're the psychologist, make her understand that." He poked a finger in her direction. "That's your job."
That was the final straw for Ruth Truewell. Words failed her, and in their stead, her hands took action, her right grabbing his extended right wrist while her left shoved him around and against the wall. Before Will Anthros knew what was going on, Ruth had pinned up against the wall in a arm lock that felt like it was about to tear his shoulder out of its socket.
"It's easy to talk about sacrifice when it's someone else, isn't it?" Ruth hissed into Will's ear. "Don't you dare speak about her - or anyone else - like that again."
Will couldn't answer that; he had some very important painful squealing to do. Just as Ruth started thinking about what she was doing, she felt hands on her shoulder, all but pulling her off Will. Calavera stepped in front of Will, while Ruth looked over her shoulder to find herself in the grip of Sage.
"Okay, fine, that's enough, pack it in," Ginsburg said, taking charge of the situation. "Jordan, get the doc out of here."
"She attacked me!" Will shouted as he regained his wits. "Captain, she attacked me!"
"Indeed, Sir," Ginsburg said, "that's why we're getting you to safety." As Jordan escorted the baffled Will away from the scene, Ginsburg turned to Ruth. "Well, he's gone. Tell her she can come out now."
Ruth gave a quick nod and turned back into the showers.
"Sara?" Ruth called out from the doorway. "Dr. Anthros is gone now. Are you ready to go back to your room?"
There was no reply; a few seconds later, Sara walked out of her shattered shower stall. She had put on the fresh clothes provided, but her hair was still damp and her head was bowed down, leaving her eyes to look at the tiled floor.
"Do you want me to help you out, or..." Ruth asked, letting her voice trail off.
Sara quietly shook her head.
"Okay, then...do you want me to go out first, or follow you?"
Again, there was no reply; Sara just walked past Ruth out into the hallway, leaving the psychologist to follow her. Outside, the remaining soldiers cleared some space for Sara to surround her, and that's the way they walked her back towards the central pillar and from there to the elevator. Sara said nothing on the way back down and let herself be led back to the isolated laboratory module. Ruth could hear the sigh of relief from the soldiers around her as soon as the door clicked into place and their "subject" was secure again.
"Come with me, Ma'am," Ginsburg said, catching her attention. "The boss wants to see you now."
Ruth sighed. "Of course. I suppose you can't nearly dislocate the boss' son's shoulder without some repercussions, no matter how much he deserved it."
"Deserved or not," Ginsburg said, "the rules are the rules. After you, Ma'am."
Ginsburg's team led Ruth back up the cargo elevator, past the central pillar and then into another elevator, stopping about two thirds of the way up to the surface. The walkway to the central pillar on this level was fully enclosed and led to a heavy security door, with a stencilled sign reading "Prof. Anthros - DIRECTOR". If the whole installation was Anthros Sr.'s fiefdom, this was his inner sanctum. Ruth took a breath when the door slid open, showing father and son standing in the office already waiting for her. Will favored her with a glare, while Anthros Sr.'s expression was more inscrutable.
"Dr. Truewell," Anthros Sr. said, beckoning her closer. "That will be all, Captain," he said to Ginsburg; Ruth didn't turn around, but she heard his footsteps and then the sound of the door closing behind him. "I believe you know why I've asked you here," Anthros Sr. said. "Explain yourself."
Ruth nodded. "I was not made aware that Dr. Anthros had sterilized Corporal Corvus and...altered her groin on top of the other procedures that had been performed. When I confronted Dr. Anthros about the necessity and wisdom of adding additional trauma to an already traumatic experience, he not only stated that such extreme measures were unnecessary, but such considerations were beneath him and that it was my job and my job alone to clean up the emotional disaster area that he created." She crossed her arms and glared at Will. "And I...lost my temper."
"You nearly broke my arm!" Will hissed.
"William!" Anthros Sr. barked; Will almost recoiled away from him before catching himself. "You have had your chance to tell me your side of the story. I think it is time for you to get some rest now. I will discuss our further actions with Dr. Truewell."
"...yes, Sir," Will said.
"One last thing, before you leave," Anthros Sr. said. "Dr. Truewell, I think you owe my son an apology for hurting him. Let me be perfectly clear here: I expect to two of you to keep working together in the future. I want this bad blood settled now."
Ruth quickly turned to Will and nodded to him. "I'm sorry for losing my temper - honestly. It's not a moment I'm particularly proud of, and I'm sorry for assaulting you."
"...apology accepted," Will said. "I was...also speaking in the heat of the moment, and I said some things that were not well-considered." With the honest part of the conversation over, he added the rehearsed line. "I look forward to working with you, Dr. Truewell."
"Good," Anthros Sr. said. "Good. Get some rest, William. We'll see you at the morning briefing."
"Yes," Will went. "Good night, father, Dr. Truewell."
"Sleep well, son," Anthros Sr. said.
Will slinked out of the office, past Ruth, without looking her in the face again. After the door slid close once again behind him, Anthros Sr. turned toward the wall and opened a wood cabinet, revealing what amounted to a small wet bar.
"I am inclined to dismiss this incident as a one-time occurrence," he said, pouring himself a glass of whiskey, neat. "Tensions are running high, hard choices were made, everyone is under a lot of stress. As long as nobody was seriously injured, I believe we can put today down as 'no harm, no foul'. A single event that does not represent the future. Am I correct, Dr. Truewell?"
"Yes, Sir," Truewell agreed.
"Good," Anthros Sr. said. "To be frank, I was expecting a bit of a culture clash, but I had no idea that it would become this intense. I suppose you really do feel for Corporal Corvus then, Dr. Truewell? Well, that is not a bad thing at all. She does need a sympathetic ear, and a woman at that, all the better. Just see to it that your hormones do not get the better of you again. I would hate to have you removed from the project over another moment of...hysteria."
Ruth's jaw tightened so much she worried she might crack a tooth. "Yes, Sir." She looked towards the door as an escape from this horrible moment. "Well, I should be getting back to Corporal Corvus."
"Indeed," Anthros Sr. said. "One more thing, before you leave, Dr. Truewell." He took a sip of whiskey, enjoying the taste for a few seconds. "Although my son had a rather unfortunate way of putting it to you, I do expect you to take responsibility for Corporal Corvus's behaviour and mental hygiene. I am aware that she has suffered tremendous loss and injury, and it is your job to help her get back on her feet in an effective and timely manner. You are not here to pity her, Dr. Truewell. What has happened to her has happened. This project requires that she become capable of moving forward again, as soon as feasible. Are we clear on that?"
"Yes, Sir," Ruth replied. "I understand what's going on here. I just ask that Corporal Corvus not be treated as a piece of lab equipment or some experimental animal. She's a human being - in fact, she's a Goddamn war hero. She deserves better than how she's been treated so far, and in my professional opinion, if you want her to cooperate with your program and be productive - and believe me, you can't force someone to do what you want her to do - then Colonel Bledsoe, Dr. Anthros, and yourself might all do well to consider treating her like a woman who's gone through a massive trauma, not a threat or just another experiment."
"Hm, I see your point," Anthros Sr. said. "We can certainly improve the human interface, as long as we do not compromise our security or our timetable. Get your ideas onto my desk by tomorrow and I'll see that we implement them as soon as possible."
Ruth nodded. "Can do. Anything else, Sir?"
"No, that would be all, then," Anthros Sr. said. "I look forward to your report, Dr. Truewell."
"I'll have a preliminary copy ready tomorrow," Ruth replied, then turned and walked out. Once she was a good distance down the hallway, she shook her head. "Hysteria? Really?"