“This is going to be extremely painful, Dr. Tulk.”
Josh stood next to a stove and spoke over his shoulder at the man strapped to the table. There were two empty frying pans on the gas burners giving off shimmering waves of heat. A trashcan full of bloodied bandages, abandoned wrappings from numerous first aid kits, and a few bits of discarded flesh squatted next to the table.
Blood seemed to cover everything in the filthy kitchen.
The one armed Tulk groaned, stuck somewhere between lucidity and the fevered dream world of extreme blood loss and pain. The gore-crusted belt that had served as a tourniquet was long removed and replaced with a barely held together mess of badly sewn sutures and spot-cauterized meat. It was the quality of surgical work performed by a butcher not normally accustomed to trying to put broken bodies back together.
Josh took one of the frying pans and turned towards the wounded technician. “I hope you’re out enough to not feel this, Doc. It’s going to hurt worse than having that arm ripped off in the first place.” Without hesitation Josh pressed the hot metal to the torn flesh, eliciting an anguished scream from Tulk’s throat. Prepared for this probability Josh stuffed a rag into the scientist’s open mouth, muffling the horrendous sound. The kitchen air filled with the sweetly disgusting stench of scorching tissue and hideous smoke drifted up to the ceiling. It didn’t take long for Tulk to pass out.
The pan cooled quickly and Josh grabbed the other one off the stove. The wounds associated with amputation by way of cyborg gorilla were mostly closed, but viscous fluid continued to dribble out of the torn arm. He pushed the pan against the charred flesh and finished the gruesome task of cauterization. As he worked his way across the stump he seemed to recall in the back of his mind that he’d done this before, but couldn’t dredge up any specific memories; like most K-Troopers he had few real memories from his past, and what he did have were more known facts than actual sensory images. There were no pictures, no sounds, or even smells that he could dredge up most of the time; just a bland enumeration of facts to inform him that he used to recall things. It was like remembering life through index cards.
After the business with Tulk’s stump was done Josh sank down in one of the kitchen chairs and studied his handiwork for any signs of leakage. When he was satisfied that there were none he began loosening the leather straps that held the scientist to the table. Leaving Tulk where he lay, Josh went into the small living room to check on his other patient.
Lori was stretched across the couch in a heroin stupor. Josh checked her pulse and breathing before sitting on the ratty coffee table with his head in his hands. It’d been a couple of days since he slept, and he knew he wasn’t going to be sleeping again anytime soon. The repeated use of Tactical and Phase Modes was starting to wear at him as well, and he could almost feel his own personal stability beginning to fray around the edges. He wanted to snap at Tulk a few times, and the thought of dragging himself out yet again for another operation was something he didn’t care to address. Nevertheless, he had to get the scientist some blood if he was going to have any chance of getting the man in good enough shape to deal with Libretta’s pump. As bad as Josh felt, he was certain that Libretta felt even worse, heroin and all. Once she was operational again they could start thinking about going after Eito Yoshida.
Yoshida. He was a man who refused to stay dead. Josh had never seen a real human clone, but he was beginning to suspect that Yoshida was an entire series of them. He wondered how many copies of him there really were. No matter, though; if there was only one Yoshida more, or thousands, Josh decided to kill every single one of them. Of course, if the enemy was not a clone, things could get dicey.
* * * *
The streets were damp from an early morning drizzle, and the air had a clammy feel to it that clung to the skin. Josh studied the blood bank he’d just robbed across the street. The borderline delirious engineer back at the safe house told Josh he needed type O negative blood, so the K-Trooper complied. He also provided a list of absolutely necessary drugs and materials which meant Josh had to now hit either a pharmacy or a hospital. The pharmacy would be easier, but a hospital would have some of the more esoteric items on Tulk’s list.
He pushed the cooler of blood and ice into the floor behind the passenger side front seat and started the car. He’d made up his mind to infiltrate a hospital in South Central LA. He hoped that they would be too busy to notice him passing through their midst, stealing equipment and drugs as he went.
Over a period of a couple of hours Josh managed to locate much of what appeared on Tulk’s shopping list. There were large bottles of antibiotics, needles of various gauges, bandages, cotton swabs, and an assortment of surgical implements, all stuffed into his backpack. He had to collect only a couple of more items and he would be set to leave.
Josh’s legs suddenly started to give way beneath him, and he quickly dropped himself into a chair against the wall in a corridor deep in the hospital. His thoughts blurred into a swirling mass of incoherence and he closed his eyes for a few minutes as he rested. The toll of recent events had caught up with him for a moment and he rested his swimming head in his hands.
“Are you alright?”
Josh glanced up to see a doctor or nurse watching him with concerned eyes. Her hair was a jet black contrast to her white lab coat, and she watched him intently with piercing blue eyes. Pens and markers in a range of colors inhabited her breast pocket, and she was carrying a stack of folders and papers. To Josh’s semi-delirious brain she was positively angelic, complete with a fluorescent light halo just behind her head.
“No, I’m OK,” he muttered as he forced his mind to pull itself together through the haze. He stood back up and continued along the hall away from the questioning woman. At about four steps, however, something hit Josh in the back of the head with a strange sort of force. It was as though somebody shoved something hard and frozen into his skull, numbing his tormented brain. His knees buckled and Josh collapsed to the cool green tile floor, his still open eyes staring confusedly up at the hospital ceiling. As he drifted into emptiness her face swam into view, and Josh shuddered. The woman’s expression was less one of professional alertness, and more one of objective curiosity.
“Oh, my,” she said softly. “I wonder what you are…”
Josh was not reassured by her musing.
* * * *
When he awoke Josh found himself completely immobilized from head to toe. It felt like straps were holding him down, but even more terrifying was the fact that it looked like his head was being held in place by a metallic structure wrapped around his skull. It seemed as though it was immobilized at various points by screws, but that was only guesswork on his part. Fluorescent lights filled his view with bright white.
“What exactly is your name?” The woman’s voice came from an impossible to determine direction. “I can’t find it anywhere in there. That’s rare.”
Josh briefly considered flying through Alert and Tactical Modes straight into Phase mode, but something told him that that would be a bad idea. He decided instead to play along. “I’m Tiburon.”
The woman laughed at this. “No, that’s apparently what they call you, but it isn’t your real name. I asked you for your real name.”
Trapped, strapped down, and unsure of his current predicament, Josh forced himself to relax and tried to dig through his memories. After a few minutes of introspection, though, he gave up. Almost embarrassed, Josh closed his eyes and muttered, “I don’t know.”
There was a brief moment of silence. “That’s odd. There are no signs of actual amnesia, but there has been significant damage done on a large scale throughout your brain tissue; especially to both of your frontal lobes. That would explain what looks like massive memory loss. You have no birthdays, no images of any family… Not even a first sexual experience. Somebody did a serious number on you.”
This had entered dangerous ground for Josh. She was terrifyingly close to discovering the Ketamine Conspiracy, and Josh seriously thought about breaking free from his restraints.
“I wouldn’t try…” The woman spoke in an almost distracted tone and her warning trailed off into silence. “What is that?” she softly asked herself. Josh listened to her breathing deeply as she concentrated on whatever she was doing for a few minutes more.
Suddenly the frame holding him fast shifted and Josh tilted forward until he was staring at his own reflection in a wall mirror. He was strapped into a metal table, as he’d expected, with a steel halo hard fastened to his skull with numerous screws, also as he’d expected. What he had not anticipated was the fact that the top of his skull was missing and a handful of metal probes were poking into his exposed brain. A trickle of blood ran down the side of his face as horror gripped him tightly. “What are you doing to me?” he whispered hoarsely.
“Nothing irreversible.” She stepped into view behind the upright table and appeared to study his brain. “I did find something unusual while poking around in there, though. It looks like there are microscopic filaments running throughout your entire skull and down into the tissue itself. I’m not sure, but there might be thousands of them. You don’t see that every day.”
Things had gone well beyond the pale for Josh at this point. He was filled with the urge to trigger Phase Mode to slip free of his restraints, but this was instinctive. The rational part of his brain (what was left of it) calmed this overwhelming desire to escape, and he spoke in controlled and measured tones. “You need to release me now,” he said with warning thick in his voice.
The woman stared blankly at his reflection, undeterred by his menacing tone. “In good time. First tell me what these filaments are for? They appear to connect into your spinal column. This looks like some sort of cybernetic mechanism, but nothing like it exists anywhere. We’re not even close to this level of technology yet.”
Josh sealed his lips. He would tell her nothing about The Conspiracy.
“The Conspiracy?” Her voice maintained its even professionalism. She reached out let her hand hover just inches above Josh’s exposed brain for a couple of minutes, after which she pursed her lips and opened her eyes. “The Ketamine Conspiracy. I’ve never heard of it. Fascinating.”
The horror of what had just happened dawned on him; Josh briefly struggled against his restraints. “You’re a telepath.” His voice was restrained, but still held a degree of shocked anger.
The woman returned Josh to his original position on his back. “I can lift pieces of information from your mind, yes. It’s a bit like searching through a computer system, though, and every brain is different; yours especially. It can take some time to fully explore your memories, so I’ve just been poking around in the most obvious places. Removing the bone helps, and yours…”
“You need to put it back.”
Josh spoke with such an authoritative voice that the woman paused. “OK, Tiburon, I will. This conversation isn’t over just yet, though.”
With those words the numbness overtook Josh’s brain again, and he dropped back into the abyss of unconsciousness.
* * * *
The harsh glare of artificial light washed over Josh, bringing him back to a state of wakefulness. He slowly sat up on a hospital bed, the nightmarish metal frame gone. He glanced around and realized that he was in a different room entirely. His hand shot up and felt around his head, but could find no sign that the top of his skull had ever been removed at all. There was no cut, no stitches, and no evidence of surgery. He also quickly realized that he’d been relieved of his two pistols.
There were no windows, and the door was locked tight as a drum. The realization that he was being held prisoner passed over him quickly, and he moved right into an escape frame of mind. He started to initiate the chain of mental commands that would initiate Phase Mode, but stopped immediately when he noticed a tiny camera in one of the corners. He wasn’t sure how much the telepath had ferreted out of his defenseless mind, but he certainly didn’t want to give away anything she didn’t already know.
“Phase Mode. That sounds interesting; almost as interesting as the Ketamine Conspiracy.”
Her voice seemed to come through a hidden speaker system, but Josh wasn’t too sure. She was a telepath, after all.
“Yes, there are hidden speakers in your room. I can only read I can’t put thoughts in your head. Keep thinking about the Conspiracy, please. I find the idea of such an organization a little hard to believe, but here you are.”
“I’m finding the idea of a psychic doctor a little hard to believe myself. But here you are.”
“True. Tell me about the pump.”
Josh froze, a chill shooting down his spine. “My pump..?”
“Yes. The technology could change everything in modern medicine.”
“No,” Josh said. “I’m not going to tell you anything about that.”
“I could always remove it from your system.”
Considering his position, Josh was having flashbacks back to his experience under Eito Yoshida’s brutal ministrations. He’d wanted Josh’s pump, too, and was more than willing to destroy every bit of tissue around it to get it.
“Yoshida. I see.” Her voice was distant, and almost pensive. “Very well, I won’t try to remove your pump. I am going to help you.”
Sitting on the bed, Josh shook his head distrustfully. “I don’t know. What’s in it for you?”
“That’s a fair question. I will help you get back to your safe-house, and we’ll take care of Tulk and Libretta. I’m a neurologist and a surgeon, so they will be in good hands. In return I will learn everything I can about the pumps.”
Josh considered this for a moment. He had no doubt she’d be useful, being both a neurologist and a mind-reader. If one were to accept the reality of telepathy, the combination seemed like a natural. “I don’t know if I can trust you.”
“I could always remove the pump during your autopsy.”
“True, but I doubt you have the technical background to do anything else with it. Pumps are extremely complex devices. Still, I think you could be very helpful.”
“Judging by the mess you made of the engineer’s arm, I would say that I’m exactly what you’re looking for.” Her voice maintained that same smug blankness, devoid of emotion both good and bad. Josh found it somehow both chilling and reassuring. This almost seemed just too perfect, and that always made him nervous. Nevertheless…
“OK, you’re in, and that’s the deal. You help us, and in return you gain knowledge of the pump. I do have one addendum to that, though.”
Still institutionally nervous about sharing any information on the chemical delivery system central to the K-Trooper’s abilities, Josh made his one demand. “You can’t utilize anything you learn from the pump system for five years. Period.”
There was a silence on her end for almost half a minute, and then, “Alright, I’ll play.” The door clicked as the lock mechanism released. “You will go back to your safe house for now; I’m giving you a package to take back with you. You’ll need the painkillers and antibiotics. Oh, and the blood. The engineer needs all of the blood I am sending back with you. Tomorrow afternoon I will be by to pick you up. You’re relocating.”
* * * *
She’d made good on her word. Josh watched from the open apartment door as she stepped out of the passenger side of an ambulance parked nearby while the driver unloaded a gurney from the back.
“Of course I’ve made good on my word. Conspiracy technology is amazing. I would be curious to find out the history of your organization.”
“Hmmm. We’ll see. First, though, what’s your name?”
The brunette reached out to shake Josh’s hand. “Dr. Wallace. Andrea Wallace. Now, let’s take care of your people.”