It was getting very late in the evening at the Social Welfare Agency's administrative center. Overhead, the sky was clear and sparkled gently with the light of thousands of stars. A breeze stirred the grass and leaves of the surrounding countryside, but the wind was so gentle that it failed to noticeably effect the pleasantly cool temperature of the evening.
The calm of the night contrasted sharply with the state of the Republic of Italy. With the onset of the Eurozone Crisis, and the associated inflation of the Euro, philosophical differences between the north and south, divided sharply across the peninsula from Rome to Pescara, had caused unrest that ranged from simple demonstrations and pamphlets to massive riots and terrorism.
In the wake of such civil unrest, the Italian Government, led by the leftist Coalizione per Beneficio della Comunità, enacted a number of sweeping reforms "for the public good", spending billions of euros on public security and medical research. With the first, the Coalizione hoped to prevent future violence by identifying and removing "perpetrators of violence" before they could take action. With the latter, the Coalizione hoped to win public confidence by providing for the people.
This was met with decidedly mixed results.
In the north, where fiscal and political conservatism were strongest, the public rebelled against such expenditures. Spending on public security and the expansion of the Gruppo di Intervento Speciale was marginally acceptable, but the investment of billions of dollars in medical innovation for prosthetics and tissue reconstruction, among other things, was look upon with horror. Much better to leave such things to the private sector. The government's duty was to the property of the citizen, after all. Running up such debts and leaving the people to pay it off was anathema to the north, and the sheer scale of the expenditure drove many to violence.
Leading the fight was the Lega Nord per l'Indipendenza della Padania. Commonly shortened to just "Lega Nord", the group had risen to prominence for its vigorous promotion of such principals in parliament. Less well known were its more violent activities. Posturing in parliament could only get you so far, and the Lega Nord was determined to, in its view, save Italy from fiscal disaster. Their paramilitary arm, hidden from public view and financed very, very secretly with government funds, was known simply as "The Padania" and operated on a scale similar to the IRA.
Compounding the issue was the Italian Mafia. With the depreciation of the Euro, trading on the black market had jumped notably, allowing the Mafia to grow exponentially. Clashes with businesses and the Carabinieri climbed correspondingly, and the unscrupulousness of mafia business caused a general increase in crime nationwide.
The Social Welfare Agency was the response to this. Located on the outskirts of Rome, away from the lights and noise of the city, the Social Welfare Agency was ostensibly a government operation designed for the health and safety of Italy's citizens. Indeed, the SWA was largely responsible for the majority of the innovations in cybernetic prosthetics, artificial tissue development, reconstructive surgery, and numerous other fields of medicine. Alone, the SWA had elevated Italy to a medical and technological leader and created many millions of euros in revenue from its products.
Underneath this legitimacy, however, was Section Two. Section Two was responsible for the vast majority of high level anti-terrorist and anti-crime work, ranging from deep infiltration to seamless assassination. To accomplish this, Section Two "recruited" young girls, generally no more than eleven or twelve, who were on the brink of death or were doomed to a meaningless existence. After arranging for them to conveniently and tragically die, the Agency gave them new bodies in the form of cyborgs before putting them to work fighting for the government against the Padania.
This was, of course, absurdly expensive.
"It's getting pretty bad," said Abramo, the Social Welfare Agency's head accountant. He was a thin, reedy sort of man with an ill-fitting suit that belied his excellence at managing, and manipulating, account books. "The Coalizione isn't going to be able to justify our continued expenses in Parliament. We need to cut back expenses."
"I understand that, Abramo, but cyborgs aren't cheap," replied Lorenzo Pieri, the Section Director. A veteran of many years in the intelligence agency, Lorenzo was well known for being pragmatic and efficient, yet simultaneously passionate and capable of caring deeply for his staff. An ideal man to run part of an agency dedicated to using young girls as weapons.
"The easiest way to cut costs is to cut salaries, of course, but that could change the delicate dynamic of each fratello," continued Lorenzo with a sigh. "I can't risk that, or we could lose the entire corps. What are the areas of greatest expense? Perhaps we can cut some corners."
Abramo flipped through his ledger. The two of them were talking in Lorenzo's office. The room was neatly furnished with a multitude of bookshelves, an impressive but not overly large desk, and a table with a decanter of burgundy. It was rather late at night, so all the lights were off except for a single desk lamp.
"Other than conditioning, which is a fixed expense," said Abramo. "There's a lot of money going into training. Each cyborg is being trained in a wide variety of combat skills. Hand-to-hand, assassination, trap-laying, assault, infiltration, sniping. The cost of training even a single unit runs into the tens of millions of euros each year. Development of the Generation Twos isn't cheap either, but so far the Technology Department is only worrying about the technical details, we won't need a girl yet."
"Hmm," mused Lorenzo, leaning back in his chair to think. "Where does most of the money in for training go to?"
"Armed Assault and Hostage Rescue," replied Abramo promptly.
"That works perfectly," said Lorenzo, leaning forward and lacing his fingers together. "If we dial back the full spectrum training for the Generation Ones and concentrate on Armed Assault and Hostage Rescue, we can reduce cost by increasing efficiency. As for the other aspects, push back Generation Two to Generation Three. Generation Two, and the associated personnel, will be reorganized into the Department of Work and Labour. We can apply the same logic of upped efficiency to gain decreased cost by splitting the jobs covered in the in full spectrum training and have each Fratello operate in their exclusive area of expertise, with some overlap to cover our bases."
Abramo did some rapid estimations. "...That should reduce our operational costs by 30%," he said with a nod. "I'll send the memo to R&D in the morning."
HUMINT: Intel gathered from human sources.
SIGINT: Intel gathered from signal interception.
In the area of battlefield intelligence, this is arguably one of the two most important sources of information for a commander. Fancy satellites and drones all have their place as eyes in the sky, but only a really great field agent can convey the subtle nuances of everything he sees.
First Lieutenant James Spettro, former United States Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance Operative, CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer, and veteran of multiple international anti-terrorist takedown operations, was generally considered to be one of the best at HUMINT and SIGINT operations.
He was also, to indeterminate levels of fortune, considered one of the most terrifying individuals to go up against within the profession. He was a creative operative, willing to go to great lengths to complete his objective, and seemingly a man without morals. He was infamous for supposedly having a massive and highly questionable list of contacts ranging from hookers to gunrunners to schoolchildren to old ladies. He was charming and affable, and could work his way into any social group to plant bugs and gather information. He was cold and ruthless, and could just as soon as eviscerate a man to make a point as he would buy the same man a beer. He was the kindest man you'd ever meet. He was the most terrifying man you'd ever meet.
He was fired.
The last mission James had been on had gone very, very badly. Not for lack of success, mind you, but for the way the lieutenant had pulled it off. It had involved a ten year old pretending to be a hooker who was actually an assassin and had gone down somewhere in East Asia. The plan had gone off without a hitch, seeing as the ten year old really had been a hooker and was learning martial arts to get out of the business. The target had been taken down and interrogated, then dumped into an alley to die of his wounds.
But by sheer luck, the target hadn't died. A good samaritan had found the rapidly expiring man and taken him to the hospital, where the target had subsequently told all and sundry about the treatment he'd "suffered for no reason at the hands of the Americans." The story broke within a week, with Spettro's general description and the Agency's activities plastered across the news. Within hours, all the marks in the region had gone to ground and Spettro had been cast out of the industry.
Well, not entirely. James Spettro was not incompetent and, to be fair, bad luck could strike any operative. One failed mission didn't horribly ruin James' reputation. Following his dismissal, James had found work as a sort of consultant, hopping from place to place to provide assistance for Interpol and other law enforcement agencies. But frankly, James found this work dull. He wanted to get back into intelligence work, where he could really dig into the things he was doing. Tapping phones, snagging cellphone calls, these were things that he could do in his sleep. There was no challenge to this work, and he was too restless, to keyed up on years and years of tense action, to retire without offing himself from sheer boredom.
Inevitably, someone answered his call.
Jean Croce heard about James Spettro for the first time when he was walking back to his office from Section One.
"Spettro's turned up again," said one of the analysts, scrolling through a Carabinieri report. "Rome's called him up and wants him to break into a network in Venice."
"Can't they do that themselves?" asked another analyst. "Most of the mafia networks aren't that well protected."
"Yeah, it's weird, you'd think that they'd ask him to go to Venice directly. Isn't he ex-Marines?"
"US Marines, yeah," said the second analyst, pulling up James' dossier. "Not much on him, except for his military record and that one thing in Southeast Asia."
"You know, he could be a cyborg handler," said the first analyst as Jean left. "He must not have many scruples if what they said about his op down there is true."
Despite objecting to the idea that all the cyborg handlers didn't "have many scruples", Jean was interested. Being a cyborg handler wasn't easy, and if this "James Spettro" was willing to use children in an operation, then he might be useful.
"Do you have any recommendations on handlers for the second generation cyborgs?" asked Lorenzo later, as the two sat across from each other in a staff lounge, discussing business over coffee.
"One, for now," said Jean, pulling out two file folders. "An American, James Spettro. Ex-CIA."
"Why is he 'ex' CIA?"
"Apparently, they had to fire him when an operation went bad in Southeast Asia," said Jean. "It was that or risk a public backlash."
"Careless of him."
"From what I've found, it wasn't that he was careless so much that he had bad luck," answered Jean, pulling out a news article on the mission in question. "From this article, it would seem that he was unlucky enough for his target to be found by a civilian and taken in for treatment."
"We find our girls in worse states and they survive long enough for us to rebuild them," said Jean. "He had no reason to believe that the target would live."
"You make a good point," conceded Lorenzo. "What about his record?"
"I contacted the CIA-" -Jean pulled another series of papers out of the folder- "-and what they've been willing to send me is extremely impressive. He's-"
"Spare me the details," said Lorenzo, checking his watch. "I trust your judgement on this, Jean. You're certain he's a good candidate?"
"As much as I can be in this profession," confirmed Jean.
"Then contact him and process the necessary paperwork," Lorenzo ordered, standing to leave. "I need to finish some things myself, so I'll talk to you later."
Jean eventually arranged to meet with James at a café in Rome. The sun shone brightly, sunglasses were necessary on days like this, in a clear blue sky as Jean stopped his car fifty meters from his destination to scope out his contact.
James was sitting in the middle of the café's outdoor seating while reading a newspaper, wearing a white polo shirt with thin navy-blue stripes that showed off the densely packed muscle of his upper body, despite his obviously greying, close-trimmed, hair. A pair of aviator sunglasses shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun off his newspaper. He seemed completely off his guard and unaware of his surroundings, engrossed in the latest in Italian news.
Jean subconsciously checked for his pistol before approaching James. Rico trailed behind, tightening her grip on her instrument case.
"Lieutenant Spettro," greeted Jean, making his way through the seats and sitting down across from James. Rico hung back, standing half a meter behind Jean's chair. "Welcome to Italy."
"Mr. Croce," said James, keeping his gaze on his newspaper. "How are you?"
"Better than yourself, I gather," said Jean with a trace of irony. James refrained from chuckling. "How have you been?"
"Oh, come good and some bad," said James ambiguously, smiling slightly as he continued reading. "I saw an interesting story on the TV a few months back."
"What was it about?" asked Jean blandly, settling back in his chair slightly, hooking a foot under a table leg to steady himself.
"Something about an operation in Bern, Switzerland," James answered, turning a page. "It was very interesting. Apparently, one of the hostages was surprisingly valiant and helped take down the terrorists turned bank robbers."
"That's always good news, isn't it?"
"Normally, yes. The question is, how did she get an SMG to do it?" asked Spettro, looking away from the words for the first time to smile slyly at Jean over the top of the newspaper.
"That wasn't in the news I heard," said Jean with an air of nonchalance, foot tightening against the table leg.
"Well, it's just that I happen to know a man who deals with a very colorful group," said Spettro with a sigh, returning to his paper. "I must have heard a little something that the news groups didn't."
"What's he like, this friend of yours?" asked Jean politely.
"Oh, you know how those types are," said Spettro. "Always talking about how this is classified and how that is need to know. I think he let the fact that Rainbow- oops."
Jean cocked his head very slightly. "Rainbow?"
"Nothing you need to worry about," said Spettro with a slight nervous tremor. "It's a counter-terror thing."
"But I've heard of them," said Jean. "Aren't they supposed to be rather important?"
"Just as much as you, I think," returned James. "But you know how it is with these people, always shutting the door in your face when you ask questions."
"Well you know how us types are," said Jean sarcastically, with a cocked eyebrow. "We don't like it much when others poke their noses where they don't belong."
"Very true. I almost got my own nose bit off in Rome once."
Jean blinked behind his sunglasses.
"Y'see, I was on my computer and was looking around for some information about this job opportunity you've offered me," continued James nonchalantly. "It was a little scary when my computer started crashing for some reason, but I managed to fix the problem."
"I see. Did you get a virus?"
"Yes, and a worm."
"Well hopefully you won't catch anything harmful while you're in Rome," said Jean, a hint of steel creeping into his voice. Behind him, Rico very slightly tensed.
"I appreciate your concern, but I have a strong immune system," replied James folding his newspaper and placing one hand on his arm rest and the resting his chin on the other. "And besides, I'm reasonably sure that I could at least kill off any virus with my golden bullet, if it came down to a battle between the interloping cells in my system."
"What do you mean?"
"I have a panacea I picked up in China that works pretty well," explained James, moving the hand on the armrest so that it was turned towards him. "Though I have to say, I'm not a bad shot with a gun."
"USMC Force Recon, right?" asked Jean rhetorically. "Must have been exciting. I only ever worked for the Military Police."
"Oh, it had its moments," replied James with a nod.
"You like excitement?"
"For a sensible cause, yes. Terrorism is exciting, after all, but it's more senseless violence than it is any sort of directed ideological action."
"That's good to hear," said Jean, letting his tone slide back into friendly territory. Rico relaxed again, allowing herself to sway back and forth slightly to an unheard tune. "I feel the same way, but some people disagree. Come, I believe I promised you a tour of our facility?"
"Ah, yes you did," laughed Spettro, putting his gun away discretely and laying a few euros on the table. "Do you have a car with you?"
"I do," replied Jean, standing to lead the way out of the café. "It's parked down the street."
"Well then, let's get going. Who's the kid?"
"This is Rico," said Jean, nodding over his shoulder at his charge as they walked. "I happened to be picking her up after class. As you can see, she's very well behaved, so I let her tag along."
"Isn't 'Rico' a boy's name?" asked James, hands in his pockets as he strode along.
"Ah, a nickname, you'll forgive me," Jean replied, opening the door to his car for James as Rico climbed into the back. "Her real name is Adriana. We call her 'Rico' because she prefers boyish clothing."
"Interesting," said James with a raised eyebrow, before getting into the vehicle. He waited until the car had started before continuing the conversation. "I suppose the real reason is because she's a cyborg?"
"You're not supposed to know that," said Jean coldly, keeping his eye on the road. "You got much deeper into our system than you said you did."
"Did I? Well I suppose you should reinforce your system then. Tell your girl to stand down, Jean Croce. I'm not a threat to the Agency."
Jean glanced into the rearview mirror and shook his head. Behind them, Rico nodded and decocked her pistol before holstering it again.
"So, a cyborg, eh?" James asked rhetorically. "Carbon fiber skeleton, electrorheological fluid infused artificial muscles? Pretty advanced stuff."
"You're info is old," Jean said with the same coldness as before. James figured he must always act like this. "We abandoned the electrorheological fluid infusion for the second generation models to improve the compatibility of the muscles with the nervous system."
"Second generation?" James asked in surprise. "Well well, your servers are more secure than we thought they were. I didn't find that."
"We wouldn't be a very good organization if you could hack into them that easily," said Jean, giving James a condescending glance. "You do know why I'm here."
"Of course," said James, rolling his eyes. "I may have been fired for a botched job, but it wasn't because I'm stupid. You want me to be a cyborg handler."
Jean nodded. "You'll be taking the lead for our second generation of cyborgs. We have a girl picked out for you already, as well as quarters and a cover identity."
"And what if I say no?"
"You won't," said Jean. "You're one of those people who can't leave the business without going crazy. You could go into information brokering or running heists, but you're not the type of person who would knowingly cause chaos. We could have hired you as a consultant, but your skills are more useful if they're applied by someone who isn't nearing fifty."
"Good reasoning," complimented James. "Doesn't explain what you'd do if I refused."
"We did have a plan."
"What was it?"
James blinked. "Ah. You'd have me assassinated then."
"You know too much," said Jean bluntly, not much caring how James reacted to his tone. "I hope you're not offended."
"Not at all," said James. "In fact, you've managed to convince me to accept. What do you have in mind for me?"
"There's a girl that we recently recovered from Germany and flew in," said Jean. "I'm taking you to her now."
"This is, as far as we can tell, Emily Cross," said Jean with clinical detachment, introducing James to his future cyborg as he looked at the medical data attached at the foot of her bed. "She was found in a ditch forty miles outside Berlin with barely a heartbeat remaining. The investigation is ongoing, but we know she's the victim of at least a dozen rapes and, of course, attempted murder."
"She's thirteen," said James, flipping through the clipboard. "Identified from a missing person's report filed in Poland... human trafficking victim?"
"Most likely. Probably a tourist, traveling with her parents before being abducted and sold to brothel of some kind, then used until she broke."
"Kill the broken toys, dump them somewhere discreet, then buy new ones," said James, nodding as he continued reading. "It's nothing new. What's the next step then?"
"You need to be by her when she wakes up," began Jean, "We'll transfer the girl to our facility in a few days and begin the conversion process, before telling the parents that she unfortunately died from exposure. You'll need to give her a name too."
"A name? Why not just call her by her old name?"
"Cyborgs get their past memories blocked with the conditioning process. You'll need to use her new one to cement the memory block."
"Crude, but effective," sighed Spettro. "Do these things come with a user manual?"
"I've written a few pointers for first-time handlers," said Jean, "and we have hardwired some skills into them, but otherwise we've left the conditioning and training fully to the discretion of the handlers. There are several different publications that give a general overview of the cyborgs, but that's it for reading material."
"Excellent. Can you send that to me?"
"No need, you're coming to the Agency today." said Jean. "All handlers live on campus for the first few months until their cyborgs are capable of operating on their own. After that, we leave the choice to stay or leave up to the handler."
"I understand. Let's get going then, I suppose I've got a lot of reading to do."
It, for it wasn't sure what it was really, swam through shadow, trying to piece out where It was and what was going on. It had a sense that perhaps it should be worried by this endless darkness and lack of self, but something else reassured it that this was normal and that everything would be alright. Swaying back and forth in space, it relaxed languidly into a warm embrace that gently whispered of duty, faithfulness, and devotion. With something resembling a metaphysical sigh, It felt the warmth slip away and be replaced by a refreshing chill the brought clarity and focus, sharpening It's consciousness into a coalesced and strengthened Being rather than a vague Idea.
It understood now that it was a she. A girl, specifically, and her name was Caterina. She had another sense that perhaps this wasn't the whole story, but this was tempered by the chilling focus, which told her to remember the Embrace's whispers. There was something a snap, like the click of a puzzle piece meeting its fellows, and a stream of thoughts entered her mind. Images of objects that she was told were guns, languages that she was told were English, German, and Italian, plans for attacking and defending locations of various kinds. Then another snap, and she felt like she was falling, thoughts swirling around like a nimbus before funneling into her Being before hitting something that burned and sank into her like a wave of bright, midsummer sunshine.
With a shuddering gasp, Caterina realized that she was a cyborg and could breathe, that she needed to breathe, and that she had a handler named James and needed to defend the government and people of Italy from terrorism. Aware, now, of the rising and falling of her chest, Caterina felt the tingle of the rest of her body coming online, sparkling in the darkness with sensation as her mind began to take over the body's functions. Curious, she delved further into the sensations she was receiving and found her various organs. First, her heart, which beat strongly like a drummer on the march. Then her lungs, which expanded and deflated with each breath. There were others, but a little voice told her that they were comparatively unimportant and Caterina lost interest. Experimentally, she turned her mind to her legs and arms, and found that with a little concentration she could make her fingers and toes twitch. For several moments, Caterina continually twitched her extremities back and forth, giggling to herself quietly at the novel sensation.
Then something new happened. Where before she had been wholly immersed in heat, Caterina rapidly became aware of a new tingle of cold on some part of her body. She found this distinctly unpleasant, and tried to figure out what she should do to make it go away. Hand and arms were supposed to be used to pick things up, weren't they? Pausing a moment to remember what it meant to pick something up, Caterina twitched her fingers again, then applied the feeling to her entire arm. She smiled to herself as she felt her arm stiffly lift itself off of whatever surface she was on, before falling back. Licking her metaphysical lips, Caterina tried again, and succeeded in moving her arm into the region of unpleasant cold. Bleh. With determination, Caterina flexed her other arm and flopped it into the region of cold. But now the parts on her that were cold were warm where her arms touched her body, and Caterina felt slightly better.
Time had no meaning to Caterina, and at some point she slid into the darkness from before, leaving her body and swirling about again within the ether. At some other point, she fell back into her body and set about familiarizing herself with it. Each time, she felt herself become better at controlling the many parts of her body, quickly becoming good at moving her arms and legs to get herself warm by pulling sheets of material over her. Soon, Caterina was fully in control of her body and could feel it and everything around it instinctively. At first, it was a wonderful feeling, being able to easily control something that was definitively hers. Yet as time passed, Caterina felt a growing sense of unease. It was an itchy feeling, scratching at the back of her mind with a constant feeling that something should be happening. With a start, Caterina realized that the feeling was boredom. Having finished one task, she now hungered for another but couldn't find one. Her mind needed stimulation, and the darkness that blanketed her senses didn't provide it.
So she decided to open her eyes.
The first thing that Caterina realized upon opening her eyes was that it was very, very bright.
"Nnneh," she moaned, immediately shutting her eyes again, the light prodding her painfully in the eyes. But she smiled too, as she realized that she could hear herself speak. Opening her eyes very slightly, Caterina opened her mouth again and tried again to talk. "Water, please." Her voice sounded dry and raspy, par. Someone placed a thin tube in her mouth. Feeling around the object in her mouth with her tongue, Caterina thought for a moment and remembered how to use a straw. She sucked slowly and gently, making sure not to drink too much, because drinking to quickly would make her sick. She wasn't sure where she'd learned that, but she knew it was important.
Swallowing, Caterina let go of the straw. "Thank you," she said, her voice sounding immensely better. She smiled again as she listened to herself talk. She had a voice that didn't sound scratchy or high or reedy, which would be unpleasant to listen to and make her purpose more difficult to fulfill. Instead, her voice was smooth and gently rounded off at the ends, so that the words she said fit gently into the ear and were neither too big nor too small.
"Is it too bright?" a voice asked. It was low and quiet and reminded her of safety and comfort. It was a voice that she immediately wanted to make proud.
"A little," Caterina replied, eyes still squinted mostly shut.
Footsteps moved away from her, and there was a click before the light dimmed in intervals. The footsteps returned towards her as Caterina cautiously opened her eyes fully.
The first thing she saw was a ceiling made of white tiles and long fluorescent lights, turned off now, recessed into metal fittings. Around the edges of the room were smaller recessed lights that cast a slightly yellow glow down the white walls. Blinking, she levered herself upright, sitting up on a bed covered in white sheets. Looking down, she saw herself for the first time. Her skin was pale and smooth, with the thinnest of lines where her arms met her torso and where her chest met her abdomen. That must be from the surgery that replaced her body with cyborg parts. She held her fingers up to her eyes, the light dim enough for her to see properly now, and marveled as she commanded them to move and saw the commands get carried out.
"How're you feeling?" asked the low voice, coming from her left.
Caterina turned to see a man. He wore a white shirt and black tie under a black suit with dark gray pinstripes. His jaw bore the strong line of someone who could get things done, and his eyes were a shimmering shade of blue that seemed particularly luminescent in the dim lighting. His graying hair was neatly combed and his face was cleanly shaved. He was, in her mind, the very picture of the consummate professional.
"What's your name?" asked the Professional Man.
"Very good. What is your unit designation?"
"I am unit number 020100," replied Caterina automatically.
"And your serial registration number?"
"My serial registration number is IA0451RA7862."
"What is your purpose?"
"My purpose is to serve the Social Welfare Agency to combat terrorism directed against the current Italian government."
"Do you know who I am?"
"You... you must be Lieutenant James Spettro, my handler," answered Caterina, mouth suddenly going dry. "I'm sorry sir, I don't know why I didn't realize earlier."
"Don't get caught up on it," said James with a calming gesture. "You've only just got up. How're you feeling? Are you limbs working?"
"Yes sir," said Caterina, lifting an arm effortlessly and smiling in satisfaction. "It's taken a while, but I think I've got it down."
"Do you think you can walk?" asked James. Caterina nodded. "Good. Here are some clothes." He handed her a bundle of clothing. "You know how clothing works, right?"
"Good. Put them on. We need to go speak to the doctor to make sure you're all working."
"Alright," said Caterina, taking the clothes and swinging out of bed, James watching closely as she did so.
The swinging movement came easily to Caterina, her feet immediately orienting downward correctly and bracing for impact. Landing lightly on the balls of her feet, Caterina instinctively let her knees compress slightly, absorbing more of the force and allowing her to return to an upright position quickly and smoothly. James showed no signs of emotion as he handed Caterina first her underthings, then a simple t-shirt and running shorts. Caterina moved efficiently, no movement wasted as she slid on the simple clothing. She lacked the jerkiness and slight, unconscious insecurities of children her age, instead moving with a confidence more typical of those six or seven years older than her. Her landing had been instinctual and her movements now didn't seem forced or unnatural. Indeed, it seemed that from the very moment she woke up, Caterina was fully suited to the task of simply moving through space.
"Very interesting," James said to himself when Caterina was done dressing. "Here," he said out loud as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a long hair ribbon, "this is for you. It's traditional for handlers to give their charges a gift when they meet for the first time. Use it to tie back your hair."
Caterina looked down at the ribbon, then at her own long, dark brown hair. It wasn't messy, precisely, but it was loose and tended to scatter over her shoulders. But if there was a wind or if she was moving quickly, it would get in her field of vision. With a small smile, she silently took up the ribbon and pulled the strands of hair back, before tying it together with a simple bow at the base of her head.
"Good. Let's get going."
James opened the door and let Caterina out first, and watched as she immediately scanned left and right before stepping to the side.
"Where are we going, sir?" asked Caterina.
"Left first," said James, shutting the door to the dimly lit hallway and letting Caterina take the lead. "I'll tell you when to turn."
Caterina nodded and moved forward, James moving to stand just behind her. The girl tensed as he moved forward, and relaxed when James lagged slightly.
"Why are you tensing when I get near you?" asked James softly.
Caterina seemed surprised at the question. "Isn't the officer supposed to be in the back?" she asked. "Subordinates are supposed to take point."
"Do you know what that means?" asked James with a skeptical eyebrow.
"Er, no," said Caterina with embarrassment. "But, I know that I'm supposed to be your subordinate, right? So, I should be in front. That way, if there's an ambush, you'll be safe."
James crossed his arms and considered. "I can't fault your logic," he said after a moment. "But do you really think we'll be attacked on Agency Grounds?"
"You should always prepare for the unexpected," said Caterina instantly. "I don't remember where I learned that, but I know that it's true."
"What do you do if what you've prepared isn't enough?" asked James, nodding at Caterina to keep walking. "Turn right here, by the way."
"Then you shouldn't just give up," replied Caterina confidently, following James' directions. "You should improvise and make the best out of your situation."
"Even if you know you're going to die?"
"Then you should make sure that the mission objectives are fulfilled before you run out of blood," said Caterina with a grim smile. "After all, if you're going to die, it's better if your team can escape relatively unharmed and the mission is complete."
"I agree," said James with a smile. "But where did you learn that? Do you remember?"
"No," said Caterina again, turning to face James and walking backwards as she did so. "But it makes sense to me. I think that if I died, I wouldn't want it to be for no purpose."
"You're thinking rather grim thoughts for a kid."
"I'm a cyborg for the Social Welfare Agency," said Caterina easily, pivoting to face forwards with easy grace. "It's not like I'll live forever."
"How did you know that-?"
"I was a cyborg? Again, I'm not sure. Just another one of those things that I just knew."
"And your lifespan?"
"That was a guess. Was it correct?"
"Makes sense. The Agency isn't just a medical facility, it's a special operations division too, right? I'll probably be shot at some point."
"Another grim thought. I guess I really shouldn't be surprised."
Caterina laughed. "I guess not. I'm really a grim child, aren't I?"
"That you are, Caterina."
"Your girl is operating within standard bounds," said Dr. Bianchi to James after giving Caterina a fairly thorough check-up. The two men had stepped into Bianchi's office while Caterina was dressing in some clothes the Agency had for cyborgs after they'd just woken up and hadn't had a chance to get new clothes yet. "The calibrations you specified are more stringent than what we usually give our cyborgs, but the hardware can maintain that level of precision easily."
"That's good," said James with a nod. "We'll need it if she's to be an infiltrator."
"Is that what you're planning for you two?" asked Bianchi. "We never intended the Gen-ones to be infiltration units, but I suppose that with the calibrations you specified, it'd be easy enough."
"Kids can get into the tiniest places unnoticed," said James with an air of experience. "I once got a street urchin in Cairo to sneak into a warehouse I was watching and take notes on a meeting. There was no way I could have made it in myself, the only viable entrance was a loose window high up on the building. Paid the kid twenty dollars, and he came back with the most detailed transcription of a meeting I've ever seen."
"That sounds interesting. What happened to the child?"
"No idea. I paid him and he disappeared back into the crowd."
"Surely you saw where he went afterwards."
"No. In all seriousness, the child just completely vanished. I asked around for him after I took out the terrorist cell, but nobody could tell me where he went. Maybe the terrorists' friends offed him, maybe the other kids were trying to protect him, I dunno."
"Well, try to take better care of this one," said Bianchi with slight disapproval. "She costs more than twenty dollars."
"I'll keep that in mind," said James. "By the way, I wanted to ask you something. When we were walking over, Caterina was talking about some pretty grim topics."
"What do you mean?"
"We got onto the subject of what she should do if she were in a no-win scenario. She told me that she'd do her best to make sure the mission could be completed before dying. Is that normal?"
"It's not impossible," said Bianchi, turning picking up Caterina's dossier. "You did want us to condition her to be a quick thinker under pressure. That may have bled through to her personality."
"Should I be worried?"
"No, just treat her like you would normally," said Bianchi with a sigh. He put down the dossier and considered the page he'd opened to. It listed out Caterina's conditioning and its various intricacies. "The girls are unusual. We expect them to act in ways that we'd not expect children to behave..." Bianchi looked up and made eye contact with James "...but always remember that she's still a kid at heart."
"You don't have to worry about that," said James. "I know how to work with kids."
"I'm sure you do."
The following days passed without much event. Other than frequent checkups by the doctors to ensure that Caterina's muscles and nerves were all functioning, there was little disturbance in the isolation ward of the hospital, where Caterina was staying until she could transfer to the dorms. James visited often.
Caterina turned out to be a very intelligent girl, having a talent for deductive and inductive forms of reasoning. A part of this was the conditioning James had ordered, but Dr. Bianchi hypothesized that she'd been just as intelligent before being converted.
So James supplied Caterina with books. Lots and lots of books, covering math, science, history, sociology, and, most importantly, computer science and engineering.
"We live in a digital age," James had said as he brought in the first gigantic pile on a trolley, "so you'll need to know computers and digital technology inside and outside. Our mission profiles are infiltration, signals management, and signal interception. You're shooting will need to be good, but your mental faculties will need to be top notch. If I learned anything when I worked for the CIA, it was that an educated infiltrator is a living infiltrator."
So Caterina read and read and read. Then she practiced some of the math and science questions. Then she read some more, tying her hair up and away at James' suggestion so that it wouldn't interfere with her vision. It got a little boring sometimes, but Caterina didn't want to fail her handler. It helped James swung by as often as possible to help and give her something fun to do.
"What do you have for me today?" asked Caterina brightly one day as James walked in, putting aside a book on math and turning eagerly. The volume was quite substantial, but she'd worked her way through quickly and was already getting ready to start pre-calculus.
"I wanted to talk about the Caffrey Bond Heist," replied James with a smile. Caterina's attitude towards her studies was satisfyingly eager; much less troublesome than dealing with FNGs. "How's the math coming along?"
"I've been working on some of the problems and they all seem pretty simple," replied Caterina, placing a sheaf of paper on the table and spreading them out for James' inspection. "It's not horribly complicated, really. Just find the variables and plug them in."
"It'll be more complicated than that in real life, but it sounds like you're learning quickly. Good work."
"So about that bond heist," began James, hanging his suit jacket on a chair and sitting down across from Caterina, who immediately took up a pencil and paper to take notes.
"The Caffrey Bond Heist was Neal Caffrey's first big con. Evidence shows that before this, Caffrey's experience had been limited to primarily small time cons like Find The Lady and the Fiddle Game," said James, "The Bond Heist was fairly basic in execution, showing that-" James paused for Caterina to fill in the blank.
"-that the simpler the plan, the more likely it is to go well," finished Caterina promptly.
"Good. Now the tricky thing with bond heists is perfecting the forgery, which requires paper, ink, and a deft hand…." James walked Caterina through the heist, pausing now and again for her to infer or deduce a point and explaining it if she missed. James hadn't seen anything like it in his years of experience. If he'd had just a platoon of Caterinas to work with back in the Marines...
Caterina was released to the main dorms the next day. Dr. Bianchi gave James and Caterina a rundown on Caterina's specifications before they left.
"Now, Caterina, you are a Second Generation model," Bianchi began, placing a large stack of documents on the table as he spoke. "These are your full specifications. They detail your maximum theoretical pull strength, sensory upgrades, and organ replacements, among other things. The most important, however, is the 4G capable, six-way cellular and radio transmitter/receiver that's been implanted into your skull."
James and Caterina, who had her hair tied back, low on her head, with the ribbon James had given her, both raised an eyebrow in almost the exact same manner. Bianchi chuckled to himself. James was really rubbing off on his girl.
"Yes, yes, I know it's rather unusual, but it's important for your mission profile. The transmitter is broken up into two sections, one behind each ear, and operated synchronously. They transmit to a jawbone speaker system that transmits sound from your jaw directly into your inner ear, so you don't need a headset. You can easily synch a throat mike to your transmitters, making it possible to speak without making any audible noise. Note, however, that the transmitters had to be dispersed across your cranium, whereas they're normally packaged into a smaller device, thinning the bone in your skull. You're already weaker in that area than the Gen-ones, but this has made it worse. A standard shot to the head can actually kill you, so be careful."
"That's good to know," said James.
"Don't worry, I'll keep my head down," said Caterina.
"Moving along," continued Bianchi, "you may have noticed that there are ridges at the base of your ears. To open them, you have to push in and slide up. This will expose a USB port that you can use with a computer to transmit data to any system within range of a cellular tower. Each channel operates independently and can link to the combat radios we use in the field, and every transmission is scrambled with a five million character random number generator that rearranges the data stream to secure it."
"That kind of tickles," said Caterina, opening a port experimentally. "It's weird thinking about having this sort of hardware stuck into my head."
"You'll get used to it," said Bianchi with a shrug.
"Is there an operating system that comes with this?" asked James, peering at the USB port with curiosity.
"Sort of," said Bianchi. "There's some firmware and a small scale hacking suite loaded onto some SSDs at the back of the occipital bone. The data suite allows Caterina to monitor transmissions, listen in on phone or radio conversations, and perform other low to moderate level signals intelligence work, while the hacking suite should be enough to get into most consumer level security systems. It's not the best thing we could come up with, and more sophisticated work will need to be done with a laptop, but it should be enough for most of your work."
"How much disk space do I have?" asked Caterina, shutting the USB port as James sat back down.
"We managed to fit the better part of 40 gigabytes into your occipital bone," said Bianchi with a smug sort of grin. "Rather impressive work for the Science Division, if I do say so myself. Dr. Marino spent three straight all-nighters designing it."
"I'd buy you all a beer, but I think I'd be broke afterwards," said James with a grin.
"Thanks, but we already had an office party," said Bianchi, returning the grin. "Anyway. Do you have any other questions?"
"What's the power supply for these things?" asked James, sitting back down besides Caterina.
"Eh, I could tell you the details, but I think you'd get bored," said Bianchi with an apologetic smile. "It's rather complicated, but the end result is that there's a battery that creates a potential difference when it's heated. Then the current is drawn through normal use, and then recharges automatically when it's not being used."
"Oh yes. You Americans figured it out actually."
"Huh. I guess I must be a bit out of the loop."
"How long do I have before the battery runs out?" asked Caterina, bringing the adults back on topic.
"For just communications and transmissions, practically infinite," said Bianchi. "If you do anything more strenuous, like cracking a network's security, you have about five minutes of continuous use."
"That's... not a lot," said Caterina unhappily.
"It's the best we can do," said Bianchi with a shrug. "I know it's not much, but we compensated for that."
"These." Bianchi pulled a small, hard plastic case out from under his desk and opened it. Inside, lying in foam padding usually used to protect firearms, were a pair of black, yellow, and white-colored over-ear headphones.
"These are based off of the Ultrasone Edition 8 series of over-ear headphones," began Dr. Bianchi as James' eyebrows raised and Caterina blinked in surprise. "They're supposed to be wired, but we made it possible to use them wirelessly. However, we've replaced the head band with a series of high capacity lithium-polymer batteries on a flexible backing. If you're running near the end of your internal battery life, you can open one of your USB ports and connect your headphones with the touch of a button." Bianchi demonstrated, pulling out the headphones and pressing on a spot on the foam padding. A USB connector slid out from a small slot that was hidden from normal view.
"Very clever," said James.
"That's not all," continued Bianchi. "The headphones are noise canceling, but we've changed the external plating so that you can pop out the baffling and have full situational awareness." Again, Bianchi demonstrated, pressing on the aluminum outer shell of the headphones and rotating it slightly with two fingers. The cover slid out gently, leaving a thin gap for sound to come through. "The internal electronics are waterproofed and housed in a sealed container, but we've made it so that you can open it and repair the internals if they get damaged."
There was a moment of silence while James and Caterina stared at the gadget.
"Can I put them on?" asked Caterina, coming to grips with the fact that these were, in fact, hers.
Bianchi wordlessly handed them to Caterina. She made a few adjustments, before slipping them over her ears.
"These are marvelous," said Caterina after a moment, eyes sparkling with joy. "They're so comfortable! And so cool looking! I can't wait to try this on some music!"
"I've got some you can listen to in a moment," said James. "Can I get a try after you?"
"Right, then let's finish this up. Is there anything else we need to go over, Bianchi?"
"Nothing that you can't read later," said Dr. Bianchi with a chuckle. "The stack is indexed, so you only need consult the table of contents."
"I'll take that to my office later then," said James. "Caterina, do you have any questions?"
"Nope," said Caterina, bouncing in place impatiently. "As long as there's nothing that will effect my ability to perform on a mission, it's fine."
"Right then, let's get going."
The walk to the dorms, headphones securely on Caterina's ears, was uneventful in the extreme. As luck would have it, all the girls were either on a mission or doing a group exercise somewhere in the training grounds. The dorms were completely empty when James and Caterina went to drop off her Agency-issued clothes, the only other possessions she had at the moment. James went to get something while Caterina put the clothes away. He came back with a khaki messenger bag, with black strap and buckles, slung over his shoulder.
"What's in there?" asked Caterina, putting away the last of her blouses.
"This is yours," said James, putting the entire bag onto Caterina's table with a quiet thunk.
Caterina blinked. "Everything?"
"Everything in this bag, yes," said James.
"Can I open it?" asked Caterina. James nodded and stepped back as Caterina stepped forward.
Raising a hand, Caterina gently ran her hand down the front of the messenger bag. The bag was made of a tough canvas with ripstop woven ballistic nylon straps and fasteners. The top was held shut with a pair of black, plastic fasteners, which Caterina clicked open.
Inside were a variety of things. At the front was small notebook and a pencil case, with several pencils and a block eraser. There was also some sheet music, a set of computer screwdrivers with needle-nose pliers, several palette knives, and a set of lockpicks. In the next pocket was a seven by seven inch case that most likely held a gun and a sheathed combat knife.
But what Caterina honed in on was the laptop that lay in the last, foam lined, pocket. The ten by fouteen inch computer had an outer case made of brushed aluminium that had been dyed black, bore no company insignias, and had a large number and variety of ports lining the side. Taking a deep breath, then letting it out slowly, Caterina carefully removed the device from the bag and placed it on the table, taking time to slowly scan the exterior and drink in its appearance.
"You got me a laptop?" she asked, voice tiny and awed as she ran her fingers down the sides, not quite believe what she was seeing.
"Yup. It's basically a highly customized MacBook Pro," said James, placing his hands in his pockets and trying to look nonchalant. "I had the Science Division remove the logic board and the screen and put them in a slightly larger frame. We changed the the HDD into a solid state drive and used the extra space to integrate more RAM and a secondary processor board. There's also a wireless permalink to your implants, so that only you can use it. The battery and power supply have been upgraded to handle the load, and a heat management system is underneath the main hardware, in addition to a litany of other things that make sure the thing doesn't break."
"It's so much for one person to use," said Caterina quietly, her mind processing the information easily from her lessons during her isolation period. "Are you really sure this should be mine?"
"Caterina, the Generation One cyborgs are entrusted with a handgun from the moment they awaken," said James, removing his hands from his pockets and stepping forward to lean on the back of a chair. "Their purpose is to kill for this Agency, and so they are entrusted with deadly weapons immediately. Your purpose is to be this agency's ghost. To see and hear what is not meant to be seen and heard, then leave without a trace. This laptop will be the key for your role. I entrust this with you, then, with the belief that you will use it to the best of the your ability to serve the Social Welfare Agency in its fight against the enemies of the state. Do you understand?"
"Yes," said Caterina firmly, looking up to meet James' eyes. "I do. I promise that I will use this to the best of my ability to serve the Agency."
"Good," said James, reaching out to grasp Caterina's hands. "Then know that as long as you follow this promise, you can never fail me, Caterina. We are a fratello, and we will support each other."
"Yes sir," said Caterina, squeezing James' hands firmly with a serious expression.
"Call me James," said James. "Brothers and sisters should not be so formal to each other."
"Yes sir," said Caterina with a smile. "But I'll still call you sir, sir. Just because."
James smiled back. "Mischievous little girl. Come now, let's have a listen of some music with those headphones."