“We need to talk about some things before I get started,” Kyra said, slipping on her white lab coat. It had deep pockets and she used them to hold things when she did cyborg conversions or restorations.
“What haven’t we covered?” Will asked, tired of all the talking. More discussion wasn’t going to change anything, least of all his decision to have this done.
“Indulge me,” Kyra ordered. “I want to go over the risks one more time.”
Will snorted. “There’s only one risk that concerns me and it’s unavoidable. You’ve already told me my processor is disintegrating which is why I’m having all the leak-throughs. A total upgrade was in my future one way or another.”
“The chance of becoming a robotic vegetable is not something to take lightly. Your processor is unique, William. It was designed by someone whose skills rival mine. Nero and I couldn’t risk decoding it or copying it while it was installed in you.”
“Good to know you two have limits to your tinkering,” Will said, chuckling to try to put his worried cyber scientist at ease.
“The risks are no joke. Your processor has also been flashed with new code more times than any other I’ve ever seen. The safety limits on that sort of thing were exceeded in less than one year. If I damage your processor upon removal or it implodes and erases itself before I get it out, I won’t be able to restore you back. Your body and mind won’t die physically, but you won’t be yourself either.”
Will snorted. “I doubt anyone will see that as a problem except you and Peyton.”
Kyra refused to let Will’s melancholy stop her. “You also need to understand that my new processors won’t block any memories your organic brain has chosen to store over the years. They’re built expressly to allow your human memories and your human personality to rule your thoughts. In fact, I refuse to install any processor in any cyborg that doesn’t allow that. This means that whatever you’ve suffered and your human mind has chosen to remember will all come at you at once as you regain consciousness. Integration of that information is going to be an emotional clusterfuck.”
Laughing, Will laid his head back. “Clusterfuck? I can certainly tell who you’ve been keeping company with.”
“It’s okay. I get it, Doc. If I come unhinged over how much bad shit I’ve done, you may have to put me down cybernetically like you’d euthanize a rabid animal. It’s a risk I have no choice but to take. Right?”
Kyra pointed at Peyton and Marcus standing by. “They’re here for a good reason.”
Will glanced over at the two somber men leaning against a wall before turning back to Kyra. “I accept the logic of the precaution. I’m under no illusions about myself.”
Kyra grabbed Will’s arm and squeezed hard until he looked at her in surprise. “I disagree. I think you’ve accepted a lot of shit as truth that isn’t true about yourself. I just want you to know that while I’m taking every safety measure I can, mostly I’m relying on your human side to accept what they did to you is over and help you move on. Am I being clear, Captain Talon? You are to help me save your own ass, not let your mind get overwhelmed.”
“Clear,” Will said softly. He put a hand over hers. “However this works out, Kyra… thanks for trying to save all the cyborgs that the world thinks are unrecoverable. No one else would even bother. They’d destroy a broken cyborg like me and never lose a moment’s sleep over it.”
“Well, nothing like that’s going to happen today.” Kyra let go and motioned to Peyton to come to fasten the restraints.
She was fighting to stay calm about the procedure and hoped it didn’t show. The last thing she needed was to not restrain Captain William Talon properly. He was also the very dangerous cyborg registered as William 874. She’d seen most of what Will had done because Eric had found the recordings stored in Norton files. While Lucy’s violent side had been an enigma to them, Will’s programmers had been openly and boldly designing a killing machine. His progress had been a source of pride for them.
She cleared her throat to speak to Will one final time. “One person’s cybernetic villain is another’s cyborg hero. Just don’t plan on buying any superhero cape and trying to fly the moment this is all over. I’m going to have to get a little more creative with you than I’ve been with anyone else. You may need several days to assimilate all the changes.”
“Better you fucking me up than Creator X getting hold of me again,” Will said sincerely, closing his eyes. “I know that bastard’s responsible for what I’ve become. Now let’s get this over with, Doc.”
Kyra put a hand on Will’s shoulder and gave the shut-down command. His body arched painfully in the seat even though she’d long ago pulled every pain-causing device and wire out of him. The mind was a powerful tool. She wouldn’t put it past Creator X to have done some regular old brain manipulation on William Talon’s human side. Creator X had wanted Will to suffer in every way he could make him do so. He’d deliberately and systematically controlled Will with pain.
She looked at her husband’s concerned expression. “It’s okay. I’m fine, Peyton. I was thinking of Creator X and the extreme damage he’s managed to do to soldiers like Lucy and Will. Neither of them will ever fully recover. No one can change that, especially me.”
Peyton lifted a hand to his wife’s face to cup her cheek. “Lots of things change a person. Not all of what changed Lucy was because she was a cyborg. She lost a husband to suicide because of the choices she made. And the war changed us all. You gave Lucy back as much of her life as you could, Kyra. I know you’ll do what you can for Will.”
“It’s Will’s humanity that worries me, Peyton. Can anyone ever give that completely back to him? Somewhere inside that man is a programmable killing machine. His cyborg side only made the killing easier. The only reason he’s not an assassin right now is that they built a failsafe program in to stifle the killing urge as suited their needs. I’m about to wipe away that failsafe. William will have to learn to control himself. I may be turning loose a secretively dangerous man on the world.”
Peyton studied the man in the chair. Not a muscle twitched anywhere—not even the involuntary ones. The rise and fall of his chest was the only outward sign of life. That level of unconsciousness was still eerie even though he’d witnessed it in cyborgs thousands of times.
“Will is a good man. We’ll just have to count on that good man winning the battle for his own soul.”
“I wish his wife hadn’t divorced him…” Kyra stopped and took a deep breath. “Doesn’t matter. I can’t change that either.”
Will’s wife wasn’t his wife anymore. If Kyra let herself go down that path, she’d get weepy over the former Cassandra Talon acting like she didn’t give a damn about a man she’d once loved. This was not the time to indulge the weepy side of herself. This was the time to focus on using all her science and all her skills to redefine William Talon.
“Alright, let’s get this over with,” Kyra said finally, echoing Will’s words.
He was trapped, restrained, and being tortured. When the pain became intolerable, Will opened his mouth to scream, but his ears heard no sound.
The face of his tormentor leaned over his chair. “I’m going to let you talk now. Pull the trigger and the pain will stop.”
“No,” Will said through clenched teeth. “He’s just a boy—a child.”
“He’s a trained killer for our enemy. He bombed one of our supply posts, Captain. Pull the damn trigger.”
“No. He was the water boy. We paid him to do his job… damn you. He’s a victim of this war.”
His tormentor lifted his hand which was clutching the gun tightly. “You hold this because I am making you hold this, and now I’m ordering you to pull the trigger, William 874. I’m sending the command to your hand to do so. You have no choice but to obey your cybernetic programming.”
“No. I won’t kill that child,” Will shouted.
But the gun fired despite his denial. The boy dropped out of sight. Will’s head was restrained in the cyber chair so all he could see were blood splatters covering the wall behind where the boy had been standing.
“You fucking bastard,” Will said with all the venom he could muster.
His tormentor rolled his eyes. “You’re programmed to be a killer, William 874. Killers kill—that’s what they do. If I had another processor like the one in your head, I would make you use the gun on yourself and start over. Since I don’t have that, nor any way of making another, I’m going to have to be creative in getting you to follow my killing orders. In the end, you will either do as I command or you will die. Those are your only two choices. I am your creator.”
His screams split the air as the pain was cranked to a level that traveled to every nerve ending Will had. If he hadn’t been a cyborg, he’d no doubt have pissed himself from the shock to his nervous system. The intensity was like trying to absorb a lightning bolt.
His tormentor was now only inches away from his face, but Will couldn’t lift a finger to kill the one person he wanted to.
“A normal human body can tolerate large amounts of pain before the mind shuts down, but a cyborg? There is virtually no tolerance limit for the pain you can endure, William 874. We will be successful.”
When the pain eased off, Will panted to get back his breath. “One day I’m going to kill you.”
“I don’t think so,” his tormentor said. “But you will kill anyone I tell you to kill. One day I’m going to send you after my wife. That will be a very, very good day.”
The pain hit again… and several more times after that. Finally, the blackness of not feeling anything returned to save him.
When his mind woke again, Will found himself standing in a room full of dead bodies. Will looked at his blood covered hands and then back at the people. There were men, women, teenagers, and even some small children. Had he killed all of them?
He put a hand on a nearby wall to steady himself. Then he bent over and wretched up the contents of his stomach which wasn’t much. Even with the cybernetic pulses, he was thin and obviously hadn’t been eating. After the bout of sickness passed, his ears suddenly tuned in to a discussion he soon realized was about him.
“What happened here? One second he was a raging beast and the next he was a shocked human staring at the carnage. If there’d been anyone left alive in there, William 874 would never have finished them off.”
“William 874 is a cyborg, not an emotionless AI, Chancellor. Inside that cyborg is still a human man and I have to work with that limitation. My programmed cyborg killed for two straight hours before his humanity leaked through. I think we can both agree that he’s come a very long way in the two years I’ve been working with him. I deserve the money to continue my research. We both know it.”
Will glanced around the room and counted forty-one full humans. They were all malnourished, filthy, and now dead. His clothes were covered in assorted body fluids and what he guessed were the brains of his victims. If he had killed this many in a couple hours without any awareness of doing so, how many others had they made him kill in the last two years?
This couldn’t continue. He wouldn’t let it.
He reached up, grabbed his head, and was going to break his own neck to end the madness. Before he could carry out his decision, excruciating pain racked his body once more. It took away every thought save one. He turned and directed his focus at the two-way mirror. “I promise you—I’m going to kill you one day,” he said firmly.
“I think he means that,” Will heard the faceless man say on the other side of the one-way glass.
“Forget his ramblings, Chancellor. The pain makes his human side delusional. In every other way, William 874 is perfectly fine.” His programmer casually passed off the threat he’d made. “We have to completely reboot his processor after every kill and load in a fresh directive. The reboot causes William 874 to promptly forget what he’s done and we get to start all over. I discovered that little coding gem when we were ramping up the New World Companion program. It makes the women much more malleable and useful to be erased routinely. It works on killers too.”
The next round of pain passing through his body was that super level Will couldn’t fight. Like it always did, the excruciating pain sent Will falling. This time it was among the bloody, broken bodies of his own murder victims, but at least it brought back the blessed blackness.
Too bad it couldn’t last for forever.
Will eventually blinked his eyes open and met Peyton’s stare. “Guess seeing you means I’m still alive.”
“Barely,” Peyton said quietly. “We had trouble keeping you under. You broke one of your restraints and Kyra’s arm the second time you woke up. They left me to watch over you while Marcus took her to medical to get her arm repaired. She finished the work on you one-handed, but she was more pissed than I’ve seen her be in a while. You might want to avoid her for a bit.”
Will closed his eyes and swallowed. He felt a climbing rope wrapped tightly around one wrist. He must have struggled and broken the restraint. “I’m sorry I hurt her. I was… dreaming… or recalling what happened in the past. It’s hard to know the difference when your brain can’t sort it out.”
“Interesting. What did you recall?” Peyton asked. He pulled over a nearby stool and sat. “You were righteously scary every time you came around which is why you aren’t allowed to get up from the chair yet.”
“My brain is actually buzzing. What did Kyra do? Turn the inside of my head into a computer circuit board?”
“Hopefully that buzzing won’t make you crazier. Your new processor is wireless so it has some special capabilities. As soon as we can trust you again, we’ll tell you about them.”
Will nodded or tried to. His neck hurt too. His head was restrained but not tightly. “I can see why you and Kyra are together. Neither of you pulls any punches.”
“No. We’ve seen too much shit to be anything but direct,” Peyton said. “Tell me about your dreams.”
“You don’t really want to know.”
Peyton snorted. “Yeah, I do. Everything we learn helps everyone else.”
Will frowned as the memories returned once more. Apparently now there were two episodes he was never going to forget regardless of how many times his cybernetic storage got wiped.
“They programmed me to kill people, Peyton. I don’t know all the particulars of how they were able to get me to do what they wanted, but I know their process was far from perfect. I had episodes of coming around and realizing what I’d done.”
“Leak throughs?” Peyton asked. “All cyborgs have them. They always have.”
Will nodded. “That’s what I heard them call what happened to me. They seemed to think it was a flaw that I tried to kill myself to keep from letting them use me.”
“Balls,” Peyton said firmly. “I always knew you had balls. I would have done the same in your situation, except I’d have actually been successful at offing myself.”
“I call bullshit, Marine. They sent lightning bolts through my nervous system to stop me. I doubt even you could fight lightning bolts,” Will said, shaking his aching head a little.
Peyton grinned. “Yeah, doesn’t surprise you could handle lightning bolts and live to tell about them. You’re pretty shocking for an Army guy.”
“Don’t worry—I won’t tell anyone you said that,” Will said softly. “The guy who programmed me re-flashed my processor after every killing task. That’s why it’s all vague. I recalled my first forced kill which was a kid and a mass one two years into my capture. I came out of the mass kill after it was over and got sick with revulsion when I saw what I’d done. That was the first time I tried to kill myself. I think they made double-damn sure I never got a chance to do it again.”
“You don’t remember being programmed to kill Seetha?”
Will shook his head. “No. I just remember trying it again in her lab. My processor was looping an imperative command to kill her that I couldn’t seem to refuse. Seetha said Rachel had to zap my ass to stop me. I wish she’d had power cranked to kill instead of stun. Kyra wouldn’t have a broken arm right now.”
“It’s not the first time Kyra’s tangled with a cyborg and ended up hurt,” Peyton said, thinking of the time he’d broken her wrist. “What we discovered after that day in the lab is that you were generating your own electric current when you shot Marcus. That bolt of electricity you shot into him came from a source inside you. The only reason Rachel was able to take you down was that Marcus had drained your internal power with his attack. Getting agitated for you is like flipping a switch to turn on a generator.”
“Is that shit still going to happen to me?”
Peyton shrugged. “We don’t know. When we picked you up at the work camp, our scan showed you didn’t have any onboard weaponry. We still don’t know how your cybernetics harness power and keep it ready for your use. We didn’t dig into that mystery today because Kyra didn’t want to turn off any potential defense mechanism. She’s banking on your human mind developing complete control over your use of any weapon you possess. She’s done that to every cyborg.”
“God help us all then because stopping myself hasn’t been real effective up to now,” Will said dryly. “I also heard my programmer say he was rebooting me after every kill because it had worked well in the New World Companions he’d been working on. Unless my twisted mind was making that shit up, Creator X was my programmer as well as theirs.”
“Bad cyber guys sure seem to get around. Did you find out any good news?” Peyton asked.
Will snorted. “Yeah—sort of. I think my processor was one of a kind. So there’s probably no more over-programmed, cold-blooded cyborg killers running loose.”
“Good. One of you is definitely enough,” Peyton said. He slid off the stool. “I’m making an executive decision. Access your processor. You should see several new links running off it. That’s your neural network. You should be able to access some of the equipment in this room with it.”
Will glanced at the workstation nearby. He sent the screen rolling as he searched for the unlock codes. Peyton stood by saying nothing. Will looked at him in surprise. “Not too shabby. I can get out of this room without touching the door.”
“You can also get out of your chair,” Peyton said, nodding at the seat. “Break the restraints.”
“Doc’s going to be pissed if I do that.”
Peyton shrugged. “Maybe… but I don’t think so. She increased your strength on purpose.”
Will had to put some real effort into it, but he managed to break most of them, including the head restraint. The wrapped climbing rope was going to take too long and too much energy, and for some reason, his cybernetics were urging him to conserve. Giving up Will set about untying his makeshift restraint.
He stopped his escape efforts to look at Peyton. The man now had a small cannon blaster pointed at him.
“What the fuck. Whose side are you on, Captain Elliot?”
Peyton waved the weapon as he smiled. “I made this extra-strength version for King. He’s nearly impossible to stop when he’s in full rage mode, but I found a way. Just wanted you to know it’s going to knock a lightweight like you flat on your pansy ass if you try anything I don’t like.”
“Noted,” Will said, finishing his work on the knots. “I heard you made weapons for a hobby. You’re a freaking prodigy with these knots too, aren’t you?”
Laughing at Will’s complaining, Peyton lifted his chin. “Marines travel on ships. Tying knots is part of the ticket for the ride. And for your information, Marcus did those.”
Will snorted. When his restraint was gone, he stood and flexed his limbs. He felt… stronger? No, that wasn’t quite right. He stared at the door and it opened with a decisive click. “That’s not a bad party trick.”
Peyton kept the weapon aimed while he laughed. Behind him, the door closed and locked back. “I’ve been able to do that since I got stabbed in the chest. I think the artificial heart I received allowed them to install some hidden programming in my second processor. They were covertly building a double-wired spy every time I got repaired or upgraded. Kyra restored me before they completed their work.”
Will glared at the door. “Is there no fucking end to what cyber scientists can do to us?”
Peyton lowered the weapon at last and shook his head. “None that I’ve found,” he said.