“He’s burning out, Aurora. They just didn’t build him for these repeated wipes.”
I was swimming in a weightless darkness, floating above all that man had built and surveyed. Nothing could touch me; nothing was important.
“It’s been set for retirement already, Andrew. The hardware will last long enough for Elkins’ little project.”
I twirled in that darkness, and I was looking down upon a falling star, burning so bright. It was so close – so close – I could just reach out to it and hold it in my grasp.
“We’re going through him too fast, Aurora; if we don’t lay up-“
A soft, mechanical voice whispered in my ear. “Contact in five… four…”
I was falling, being pulled back to the Earth. The first gust of wind was a shock; it sent me tumbling, twisting.
“Three… two…”I could feel the fires as the heat began to grow, hotter and hotter, until it was eating away at my flesh.
The light of the plasma front was blinding. Everything was so bright, and I opened my mouth to scream.
My eyes flashed open and my senses began to return. I looked around, and everything seemed so familiar. The biobed I was sitting in, the other two on the other side of the room. The display tables taking up the center of the room. The almost cluttered feel of the place, a hodgepodge of spare parts and medical supplies stored in boxes on the floor. Everything seemed so familiar, yet so far away – especially including the two faces staring down at me from above.
I stared up into the woman’s dark brown eyes, feeling something tugging at me from deep, deep down inside. It was nothing I could put a finger upon, but it was lurking there, beneath the surface of my thoughts, and it wouldn’t go away.
I shifted my gaze to the man, who was frowning down at me – but the angle of his body, the minute microexpressions upon his face, or possibly something else entirely told me he was upset with the woman, not with me. Some shriveled up part of me reached out to this man, recognized him not quite as a friend or a kindred spirit, but somewhere in between.
My disorientation lasted a minute, possibly two – or maybe it was less? It’s hard to tell when you’re not in the right frame of mind. Things began to snap back together, my brain beginning to recover from the ordeal it had just been put through – and I sat up.
Andrew shifted his focus back to me. “It’s been three weeks. We’ve finished calibrating your new skin system, and while you were out you got a cat – something about bringing your work home.”
Dr. Michelson picked it up from there. “You’ll get all of that once we reactive your braincomp. You know the drill. Give me the alphabet from Z to A.”
I grunted an affirmative and began the odious process of proving to the neurologist that my mental faculties hadn’t been diminished by the memory-erasing procedure, sticking strictly to business. I tended to avoid long conversations with Dr. Michelson. I’d only worked with them – or, more accurately, had them work on me – for the scant few months since I transferred to Night City, but it had been immediately obvious where I fit into her life: nowhere. And yet there was some part of me that yearned to get closer to her; not a large part, and I didn’t know where it came from, but I tried to nip it in the bud by studiously denying it any handholds to grab on to.
For that matter, I wasn’t particularly chatty with Andrew, either – he was the opposite of Dr. Michelson, seeming to crave more attention than I was willing to give him. In many ways, they were a study in contrasts – both bright and successful in their own right, but with widely differing views of the world and their place in it.
An hour later, I was on the monorail headed home, pronounced fit and discharged for a week to ‘catch up with the world’. When working in Black Water – code for ‘really fucking secret’ in the Rossum lingo – Janissaries are routinely memory wiped once a month after three or four weeks of active service, then given a one-week ‘vacation’ of non-sensitive memories that they can keep and utilize to keep acclimatized to the rest of the world once they’re back to being ‘Dry’.
Black Water ops have become nothing new to me since I came to Night City; every other job seems to have been one of them, and I’ve spent more time ‘blacked out’ than I have ‘awake’. By their very nature, I don’t know what’s going on with them, but most of the time I don’t mind. It’s all part of the job, and a part of it I’ve had to deal with for years. But recently… my mind has been hovering over them, and I can almost feel some kind of annoyance at their interruptions of my life.
I sat back into the seat of the monorail, simply watching out the window as the maglev car zipped by and through the skyscrapers in the Core of Night City, Rossum Tower growing ever-distant behind us. We sped through the south side of the Core, and I looked out at Mornington below us as we stopped at the northern Pleasant Hills stop.
The sun had set, and I could see my reflection in the glass. It was a stranger’s face looking back at me. A single broad strip of hair dotted my scalp, a simple short-trimmed Mohawk of hair approximating my native brown. My face was pinched, small and a little squirrely; my eyes were no better, a dull brown. If I were to take my clothes off, a half-sleeve of tattoos would be seen to dot my shoulder and chest. It was all an act, practice at utilizing my new cybernetic disguise system, but it felt wrong to be wearing this man’s skin but not his mind; the thief-tinker wasn’t in control this night, however. I was just borrowing his features for a while. I’d give them back eventually.
At last, the call for my stop rang out. I stepped out of the maglev car onto Pleasant Hills South Station, took a quick look around, and began the short walk to the apartment Rossum provided for me. Just two blocks from the maglev station, I lived on the top floor of one of the low-slung wings of the Zest building, a mini-arcology promising all the refinements of suburban living in a compact urban dwelling. The lobby floor was open to any and all, but I needed to send an RFID signal to the elevators control panel for it to unlock access to my floor.
I stepped out of the elevator once the chime sounded its tune and my floor lit up the old-fashioned LED display – 34, staring out at me in cold red numbers. Some of the more affluent businesses shared one half of the floor space on this wing – a clinic and the building’s administration and security section, for example; the rest was dedicated to an array of apartments like my own. I walked up to my door, pulling out the physical key that would bid me entrance – an extra security precaution provided by Rossum, the key was not only laser-etched and three-dimensional to fit the lock, but also had a tiny microcomputer that interfaced with my biometric signature and alerted Rossum’s computer network of my arrival. I placed the key in the lock and turned, home at last.
I was tired, exhausted from the ordeal of having my memory reset to the blank that had been recorded three weeks prior. I was stepping into my den, my place of sanctuary where I could finally relax and reflect on what had become of my life. I may have listened during my post-blackout debriefing, but I hadn’t truly digested it yet.
And that, perhaps, is why I wasn’t prepared for the lightning-fast grey blur that flew right at my face the moment I opened the door.
It was two hours later, and I was sitting on the bed in my little apartment, freshly showered and staring down at the little grey fur ball that I had apparently acquired during my blackout. The creature stared back up at me with these intense, glowing blue eyes – nothing natural about them, they were clearly cybernetic in origin. But why would I get a cybernetic kitty-cat? I had no desire to take care of some forlorn lifeform – and I didn’t even know the damned things name! It had a color, sure, but no nametag, just an RFID chip with a serial number and Rossum Universal Industries contact information.
I suppose it fit – two creatures, bound by the lack of a name to call their own, both only known by their serial number. Still, I couldn’t very well call this thing ‘X1706-F/LW’. I stared down at it as it yawned, baring its teeth at me, and frowned. “I’ll have to come up with something.”
I turned away from the cat and looked around my apartment. It was small, with only three real rooms – bedroom, living room/kitchen, and bathroom – plus a walk-in closet to hold my equipment and clothing, including my weapon safe. But it was mine, and it was clean – of both dirt and listening or monitoring devices. And it had a view, even if the smartglass was currently displaying a horde of pop-up ads.
I turned down the lights and laid back onto my bed – it was time for this day to come to an end. My eyes closed, my breathing became nice and shallow, and I began to drift off…
My eyes darted open and I frowned at the interruption – it was an urgent message for me, coming straight from the computer system infesting Rossum-Night City’s basement levels. I leaned up, tilting my head as I commed a quick reply to the page, letting the sender know I was available. “Acknowledge receipt, Mephisto.” A soft, smooth voice sounded in my ear. “Able-001, David Elkins has requested your presence at the office. An aircar has been sent to pick you up and will be arriving in twelve minutes.”
I frowned and got up, getting my clothing ready as my skin shifted back to the carefully neutral blend that was my normal guise. I should have known better than to relax – there’s never any rest on this job.